Blogger at the border

By John Ruberry

Illinois isn’t at the crossroads. It’s on a collision course after driving off a cliff. It’s that bad here.

The Land of Lincoln faces what is likely its most pivotal two weeks in its 199-year history.

Last week Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican who never ran for political office before, called for a special session to pass an annual budget, which is something that the Illinois General Assembly hasn’t done in over two years. And it’ll be tougher to do so now, as a supermajority will be required to pass a budget because the 2017 session of the legislature ended on May 31. Getting a budget on the governor’s desk theoretically should be easy, thanks to the gerrymandering skills of state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), as there is a supermajority in the state Senate and a near-supermajority in the House. Madigan, who has held his job for 32 of the last 34 years and is also the chairman of the state Democratic Party, enjoyed a supermajority in the lower chamber for the first two years of Rauner’s term.

The Senate passed a budget bill this spring, one that was way out of balance, but Madigan’s House didn’t even consider it. And while Illinois’ constitution has a balanced budget requirement, none of its budgets have met that standard since 2001.

So why no budget?

I view Madigan’s strategy as an early manifestation of the national Democratic Party’s “Resist” strategy regarding Donald Trump, even though the political boss is a soulless creature who has no manifesto other than maintaining power for himself. And Madigan doesn’t want, at least yet, to have Democrats in the House vote “Yes” on a big tax hike. Yeah, they did so in a lame-duck session in 2011, but there was a Democratic governor in Springfield then to help shoulder the blame.

Rauner offered an extensive “turnaround agenda” as a candidate and he demanded it be included in any tax hike bill once he took office. He’s scaled back on that agenda since then, but the rump of it is still anathema to Madigan and his campaign contributors. Rauner is asking for pension reform, education funding changes, more business-friendly workers’ compensation laws, and a five-year property tax freeze.

So how bad is it in Illinois?

Here are some headlines from just the past week:

That last one is the most ominous news as Illinois’ comptroller, Democrat Susanna Mendoza, is warning that Illinois, because of court orders, will soon have to pay out more each month than it receives in revenue. “The magic tricks run out after a while,” says Mendoza, “and that’s where we’re at.”

Illinois has $15 billion in unpaid bills, which is over 40 percent what the state collects in revenue annually. It has over $100 billion in unfunded public worker pension obligations. Its bonds have the lowest rating of any state ever. It is one of only a few states, and the only one in the Midwest, that is losing population.

Pretty horrible. So much so that a “grand bargain” between Rauner and Madigan might end up being too little or too late to prevent the Land of Lincoln from collapse.

The end of Illinois as we know it will arrive by the end of this month. If no deal is reached it’s hard to imagine the Prairie State not ending up in a quasi-bankruptcy situation, even though Congress will need to get involved first. An austerity budget will likely hasten the population exodus, as will a massive tax hike without any reforms.

Another Illinois-style temporary fix will only delay judgement day. And that judgement will only be harsher when it comes.

As Ben Affleck’s character in Argo phrased it, “There are only bad options, it’s about finding the best one.”

John Ruberry, a fifth-generation Illinois resident, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Illinois Policy Institute caricature of Michael Madigan

By John Ruberry

“I can’t stop the revolution, but until it comes, let’s have some fun.” Prince Felix Yusupov to Rasputin in the film Nicholas and Alexandra.

And with the revolution of course came the collapse of Czarist Russia.

The beleaguered state of Illinois set a couple of futility records last week. It became the first state since at least the Great Depression to go two straight years without passing a budget. In response, Standard & Poors and Moody’s dropped Illinois’ bond rating to one level above junk–the lowest ever recorded for a state. And both agencies alluded that a junk rating may be coming very soon.

The 2017 Illinois General Assembly session ended on Wednesday. It can still pass a budget, but it will require a three-fifths majority to do so. To be fair, the state Senate, which has a supermajority of Democrats, did pass a budget that included a huge income tax release–with no Republican votes. But the real legislative power in Illinois lies with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who has held that job for an unprecedented 32 of the last 34 years. Madigan is also the chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party–and if you are a Democrat in office in the Prairie State you almost certainly owe multiple favors to Madigan, who is also a prodigious fundraiser and jobs provider, and of course those jobs include seats on the General Assembly and the state attorney general’s office, which his daughter holds. Madigan, an adept gerrymanderer, draws Illinois’ legislative districts, which is why Democrats have that supermajority in the state Senate and until this year had one in the House.

Nothing gets passed, heck, nothing even gets onto the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives without Madigan’s approval. And if a bill can’t make it out of the House it can’t move on to the Senate, let alone to the governor’s desk.

Illinois’ governor is Bruce Rauner, a Republican who is a first-time public office holder. Rauner is willing to sign a budget bill that includes an income tax increase, but only as part of a grand bargain that also contains reforms such as term limits, a property tax freeze, workers compensation law changes, and tort laws that are more business-friendly. Is Rauner completely blameless? Of course not. Perhaps he should bolster his negotiating chops or remove an item or two from his Bring Back Illinois agenda. But Rauner, who three years ago became the first Illinois governor to win a majority of the vote since 2002, was dispatched to Springfield to battle the status quo of failure.

Madigan of course has the votes to pass a budget in the House. But he is only interested in maintaining his speakership and of course his power–even though Illinois is circling the drain. It currently has over $14 billion in unpaid bills and at least $130 billion in unfunded pension obligations. The Boss doesn’t want his minions in the House to face voters next year after voting for a tax increase. Madigan would rather rule a collapsing Illinois than share power in a prosperous one, which is the same governing philosophy Russia’s last Czar used.

That’s not to say that the General Assembly hasn’t accomplished anything this year. It passed a $15 minimum wage bill that is seen as a jobs killer by businesses. Why do I say that? Because Cook County, where I live, recently passed a $13 minimum wage bill that suburb after suburb–and it’s important to note that suburban Cook is heavily Democratic–is opting out of because of fierce opposition from small business owners. Rauner is expected to the veto minimum wage bill. The GA also passed a bill allowing for an elected Chicago school board. While I normally support more direct democracy, an elected Chicago board of education will quickly, if not immediately, become beholden to the well-organized and hyper-leftist Chicago Teachers Union, which refuses to compromise on issues such as having teachers pay more into their woefully underfunded pension funds. And the General Assembly passed legislation that will make it easier for Illinoisans to change their birth certificate gender if they have not undergone gender re-assignment surgery.

Meanwhile the 800-pound gorilla in the room–Illinois’ dire financial situation–is growing bigger and becoming more malodorous every day.

Illinois has become 1916 Russia. The collapse is coming. Perhaps it has arrived.

John Ruberry, a fifth-generation Illinois resident, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

IDOT facility, Northfield, IL

By John Ruberry

You’ve heard of “Deep State,” right? If you haven’t, it’s the powerful yet anonymous cadre of senior bureaucrats within the federal government who are toiling to undermine President Donald J. Trump. They are “the swamp” Trump wants to drain.

In Illinois, where I live, we have Deep Corruption.

Last week in my own blog I reported on Deep Corruption when former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett received a 4 ½ year prison sentence for wire fraud for her role in a bribery scheme with a former employer, a contractor. Her old boss there likely engineered her hiring as the boss of CPS.

In 2014 as Illinois’ financial situation was clearly dire–it has gotten worse since then–a political hiring scandal broke at the Illinois Department of Transportation. Over 200 unqualified people were hired as “staff assistants.” The title sounds innocent enough, but staff assistants in Illinois government are supposed to be policy-making posts, which makes those positions exempt from anti-patronage rules. Most of these so-called policy makers were hired during the six-year term of so-called reformer Pat Quinn, then the Democratic governor of Illinois. But candidates with backgrounds such as managing an ice cream store, laying bricks, and working for the Democratic Party were hired as staff assistants at IDOT. Well, these hires were diverse that’s for sure. Once on the state payroll, naturally these unqualified employees were given duties that matched their modest skill set. Many of them now hold new titles and are exempt from being discharged–except for extreme indiscretions–because of union rules.

Meanwhile, Illinois has the worst credit rating and the worst-funded public pension system of the fifty states. It currently has $11 billion in unpaid bills.

But under Quinn money was available to place political cronies on the state payroll.

Last week a court-ordered monitor issued her report on the political hiring scandal, or what should be called the Hack Pol Job Fair. The unqualified candidates of course had one thing in common: connections, often family ties, to a Democratic politician.

Rauner: Shake Up Springfield, Bring Back Illinois

Fed up Illinois voters threw Quinn, out of office in 2014, replacing him with Republican Bruce Rauner, who eliminated the staff assistant job classification but has been largely stymied in his attempt to “Bring Back Illinois” and “Shake Up Springfield” by state House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.

Seven staff assistants with Madigan ties were hired by IDOT.

Chicago talk radio host and onetime gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft likes to say “Illinois isn’t broken–it’s fixed.” True, very true.

Quinn’s office was the clearing house for the IDOT job scandal and this episode should finally destroy his undeserved reputation as a reformer. In 1996 a prominent Illinois Democratic politician accused Quinn of being a ghost payroller for the Dan Walker administration. You probably never heard of Walker, but he’s one of those Illinois governors who later served time in federal prison. Public pensioner Quinn now says he’s working on ending gerrymandering in Illinois, yet he approved the current disgraceful gerrymandered map that created supermajorities for the Democrats in the General Assembly.

Who was that politician who called Quinn a ghost-payroller? It was US Sen. Dick Durbin. And the senior senator from Illinois’ office tried to get “Candidate 5” a job “with various state agencies.” And after pressure from Durbin’s office, “Staff Assistant 47” was hired at IDOT.

There is some good news in regards to this scandal, besides its exposure. Honest Illinois state employees alerted authorities of these abuses.

John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

And those were illegal abuses, I’d like to add. Who will be indicted for these crimes?

On personal note, my mother passed away three weeks ago. As is natural for someone going through a parental loss, my thoughts have veered to the past of late. Years ago my mother told me about a conversation she had with my father–he’s gone now too. My dad declared to my mom that his goal was to enter politics, which of course meant Illinois politics as they lived in Chicago. “That will never work out,” she explained to him. “You’re honest.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Abandoned plant in Harvey

By John Ruberry

Contained in my inbox this morning was an email from Crain’s Chicago Business touting an article by Dennis Rodkin, “Can Chicago’s Southland Be Rebuilt?” In short, “probably” is his answer. Mine is “no.”

Chicago’s Southland covers the city’s South Side and its southern suburbs, some definitions include the Southwest Side and the southwest suburbs. I grew up in Palos Heights, a southwest suburb, after spending my early childhood on Chicago’s Far South Side.

After several readings–I want to make sure I’m right before pointing fingers–I was surprised, but not shocked, to learn that three words were missing from Rodkin’s piece: Corruption, cronyism, and graft. While Illinois is a very dishonest state, and Chicago and Cook County are the epicenter of  its dishonesty, Chicago’s Southland is the rottenest apple in this foul orchard. Five of the last six sitting or former Chicago aldermen convicted of crimes were South Siders. The two most recent Chicago City Council indictments are for Ald. Willie Cochran, whose predecessor went to prison for bribery, and former alderman Edward Vrdolyak, who has already served time in the House with Many Doors. Do you want to guess what part of the city they are from?

Vacant Far South Side home

South of Chicago is Harvey. While surprisingly light on convictions, Harvey is considered the most corrupt town in Illinois, which is saying a lot. For years the Daily Southtown, among its front web page tabs such as “Weather” and “Sports,” there was another, “Harvey.” Next to Harvey is Markham. Earlier this month voters foolishly elected a convicted felon as its mayor. The Cook County state’s attorney office is suing to prevent the mayor-elect from taking office. Nearby is Dolton. Four years ago its village president told CBS Chicago, “Over the past few weeks we’ve heard reports of ghost payrolling, vehicles being purchased without authorization, unauthorized overtime and the unauthorized use of village gas.”

Cochran was indicted last year

Illinois’ second congressional district covers much of the Southland. In 1995 its representative, Mel Reynolds, was found guilty of crimes centered around a sexual relationship with an underage campaign volunteer. He was later convicted of a slew of financial crimes. His successor was Jesse Jackson Jr, who, along with his wife, a South Side Chicago alderman, went to prison for spending campaign cash on personal items.

The most notorious Chicago Southlander is Michael Madigan of the Southwest Side. Illinois’ financial situation has descended to the point that it is functionally bankrupt. Because of generous public-sector pension commitments, which were never properly funded, Illinois is over $200 billion in debt, despite a balanced budget requirement in the state constitution.

Yes, Chicago’s Southland is majority black. Which means African Americans are being robbed the most by these so-called public servants who see government not as a higher calling, but as an opportunity to dishonestly enrich themselves and their cronies.

Much of the Southland is blighted. But there is still plenty of money to be made there, but for the most part, only if you are a crook and if you know the right people. Or if you pay off the right people. Or if you hire that politician’s brother-in-law to remodel your office so you can get that zoning variance passed.

Rodkin does touch on the soaring property tax rates in the south suburbs. But he misses the point. As people leave the Southland–and yes, they are leaving–there are fewer people left to pay the bar bill for these corrupt-and-drunk-with-power politicians in Illinois’ Corruption Corridor.

Public graft is expensive.

Oh, 600 words or so into this piece, and I didn’t even, until now, mention the region’s problems with rampant violence.

Every politician I mentioned so far is a Democrat, except for Vrdolyak, is once was chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Blogger in Harvey

In related news, last week the 14 year corruption sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who is not from Chicago’s Southland, was upheld by a US Appeals Court. That’s bad news for course for Blago, but good news for law-abiding Illinoisans–yes, we do exist. If Chicago’s Southland–and the rest of the state–has any hope of receiving honest government, long sentences such as the one Blagojevich was given just might be the cure. Fear of a long stay in a federal prison might scare some scoundrels straight–or better yet, frighten dishonest people away from a career in government.

But at least in the short term, I predict things will get even worse in Chicago’s Southland–and in the rest of Illinois.

John Ruberry, a lifelong Illinoisan, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

John “Lee” Ruberry of Da Tech Guy’s Magnificent Seven.

By John Ruberry

Last week President Trump released his proposed fiscal 2018 budget. Not included in it was funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The left, which dominates the arts, responded predictably, acting as if art itself was being attacked.

Sit down and breathe deeply. Close your eyes. Now relax. If the NEA and the NEH disappear–there will still be art. Even after eight years of economic dormancy under Barack Obama, the United States is still a fabulously wealthy nation with plenty of disposable income, some of which will of course be spent on the arts.

Do you feel better now? Good. I knew you would.

Art is everywhere. In fact it’s right in front of you now–my post at Da Tech Guy and all of the others here are artistic endeavors, albeit not funded by the federal government.

Yes, the NEA and the NEH, as far as I know, no longer funds exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs showing genitalia of pre-pubescent girls or a display of Piss Christ, but this Great Society mutation of royal patronage of the arts–didn’t we fight a revolution against a king?–makes little cultural or economic sense, as George Will explains.

David Marcus, artistic director of a Brooklyn-based theater project and senior contributor to The Federalist, says the NEA produces “perverse market incentives” that explain why many arts institutions “are failing badly at reaching new audiences, and losing ground.”

“Many theater companies, even the country’s most ‘successful,’ get barely 50 percent of their revenue from ticket sales. Much of the rest comes from tax-deductible donations and direct government grants. This means that the real way to succeed as an arts organization is not to create a product that attracts new audiences, but to create a product that pleases those who dole out the free cash. The industry received more free money than it did a decade ago, and has fewer attendees.”

The arts community is incestuous, especially within its foundations and boardrooms. You scratch my Cubist back and I’ll massage your western yodeling feet. You’ve heard of crony capitalism. There is also crony arts.

As usual, I don’t have to look beyond my own grossly mismanaged state of Illinois–when we had budgets they made about as much sense as a Jackson Pollock painting–to find an example of cronyism in practice. The Illinois Arts Council Agency, which as you can tell by its name, is a state agency and it is a recipient of National Endowment for the Arts cash. It was founded in 1965, which not coincidentally, was when the NEA began. The chair of the Illinois Arts Council Agency is Shirley Madigan, the wife of state House Speaker and Illinois Democratic Party Boss Michael Madigan. Their daughter is Lisa Madigan, Illinois’ attorney general.

The Illinois Arts Council Agency boasts that nearly 100 percent of the state’s legislative districts receives some IACA funding. It’s all about spreading the wealth around. As for those legislative districts, the geographic contortion created by Michael Madigan’s gerrymandering just might be worthy enough to be put on display at the Art Institute of Chicago adjacent to those Pollock-esque state budgets, but that’s another matter.

The NEA and the NEH also operates under the same spread-the-favors-around–I mean wealth, mindset–which is why defenders of these groups cite federal funding for events such as the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada and the Hip Hop Initiative in North Carolina as justification for these agencies.

Blogger on a self-funded trip to the Vicksburg battlefield

The NEH provided funding for Ken Burns’ acclaimed 1990 Civil War documentary that was broadcast on PBS, which is another success boasted by supporters of the NEH. Oh, Trump’s budget wants to eliminate for that network as well as NPR. Have you seen Burns’ Civil War? It’s fabulous. But what of the money for sales of Ken Burns’ Civil War book, or the Civil War DVDs and CDs? Or Civil War digital downloads? How much does the federal government get from those sales?

How much does Ken Burns collect?

Sure, NEA and NEH funding is a very small piece of federal spending–$148 million is the expenditure for this year. But proper budgeting means saying “No” a lot. America is wealthy–but not infinitely so.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

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By John Ruberry

The Democratic gubernatorial primary in Illinois is more than a year away but the field of candidates to challenge Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner is taking shape. On Thursday Christopher G. Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy, announced on YouTube that he’ll be running for the Democratic nomination for governor of America’s fifth-most populous state, after several abandoned flirtations with running for public office.

Kennedy is by no means a carpet-bagger, he’s lived in the Chicago area for three decades; he moved to Illinois to work at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, which was once the jewel in the crown of the Kennedy family empire. The Mart was sold in 1998, but Kennedy still was the president of Merchandise Mart Properties from 2000-2012. He also served as chairman of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees; in the latter post Kennedy famously and correctly prevented Barack Obama’s terrorist pal, Bill Ayers, from receiving emeritus professor status after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago. A book by Ayers’ Weather Underground group was dedicated to a slew of creeps they described as political prisoners, including Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of RFK.

As for the YouTube announcement, such a move on the surface appears to establish Kennedy’s credentials as a 21st-century candidate, but that tactic betrays his biggest flaw as a politician. He’s not a people person. I can’t remember who said it, but a wiser scribe than me said something along these lines about Hillary Clinton, “Some chefs can’t cook in front of an audience. And Hillary can’t do politics in front of people.”

And that’s Kennedy too.

Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times alone of mainstream media mouthpieces noted the significance of the YouTube announcement. Kennedy prefers the safer climes of one-on-one and telephone interviews. And controlled environments such as YouTube.

At a gathering of Illinois delegates during the Democratic National Convention last year Kennedy gave a speech, after meeting with Illinois House speaker and Democratic boss Michael Madigan of Chicago, where he strongly criticized Rauner. The Republican reformer’s “turnaround agenda,” which includes such needed items as term limits, a ban on gerrymandering, and tort reform, has been blocked by Madigan, who until last month, enjoyed supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

After their DNC meeting, Madigan said that Kennedy would make “a very good candidate” for governor.

In his speech, Kennedy bemoaned the changing media landscape. “With the decline of daily newspapers and other media,” he said, “there is [sic] simply fewer reporters than there used to be to tell the rest of us the truth.”

As you’ll see here, a deer-in-the headlights Kennedy refused to answer questions from some of those remaining reporters, including a basic one from Fox 32 Chicago’s Mike Flannery, “Are you running for governor or not?”

Kennedy’s reply to that reporter? “Please, I don’t need to address you,” concluding with, “What have you become?” All he had to say was that he was still considering his options for the future.

Illinoisans–meet your snowflake candidate for governor, Generation X-er Chris Kennedy.

Since last week’s announcement Kennedy has been asked about Madigan–and in his replies he has either dodged the queries or countered with criticisms of Rauner, who three years ago became the first candidate for governor to win a majority of the vote since 2002.

Madigan is a one-man advertisement for term limits. He’s been a member of the General Assembly for 46 years and he’s been speaker of the state House since 1983, except for the two years in the 1990s when the Illinois Republican Party rode Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America campaign into power. Later this year Madigan will become the longest-serving state House speaker in American history. He’s also chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. Members of the House or the state Senate who cross Madigan will find that campaign funding from the party will evaporate and they’ll be removed from meaningful committee assignments. If those rebels somehow survive, their political careers will be gerrymandered out of existence. Yes, Madigan controls redistricting.

And now for the exclamation point: Madigan’s daughter has been Illinois’ attorney general since 2003.

Illinois Policy Institute caricature of Madigan

Let’s put things another way. Imagine Illinois as a hockey game–with Mike Madigan as the puck and the goaltender on both ends of the rink. And in Madigan’s Illinois, which is not a fantasy version of the state, the players don’t move the puck around, the puck moves the players around. Watching the matchup is a declining base of fans–Illinois is one of the few states that is losing residents. With Madigan–the most powerful politician in Illinois even when there is a Democratic governor–in charge of the state, Illinois has the worst-funded public-public pension system and the lowest credit rating of the fifty states. And it has accumulated $11 billion in unpaid bills, despite the state constitutional requirements that all Illinois budgets be balanced.

But as Kennedy likes to remind people, Illinois hasn’t had a budget passed in two years–which he blames solely on Rauner—Kennedy just can’t find a way to criticize Madigan or even comment on him. In one of those telephone interviews, this one was a Quad Cities NPR affiliate, when he was asked about Madigan, Kennedy replied, “I have a good relationship with much of the leadership in the state–and I think it’s important to be able to work with others.”

Blogger outside of the Merchandise Mart a few years ago.

Snowflake Kennedy offers no solid answers as to how he’ll balance Illinois’ budget, fix the pension bomb, or stem the state’s population exodus.

But he’s a Kennedy. And he thinks it’s important to be able work with others.

Why is Chris Kennedy running for governor?

John Ruberry, a fifth-generation Illinoisan, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit. Both of his parents voted for John F. Kennedy for president in 1960.