Illinois is the New California (May 27, 2010)

blagojevich-sucks-photo3

Despite what appears to be the inevitable ascent of the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cup Glory (!), those of us in the Prairie State don’t get a win that often. In sports, we are a long suffering people. The Bears have not won anything since 1985, the 1990s glory days of the Chicago Bulls are long gone, The White Sox brought it home in 2005 (but honestly, say what you want, the Sox have never been “Chicago’s Team”), and the Cubs? Well, let’s not go there.

We are the State that brought you the bootlegging empire of Al Capone, as well the long reign of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and “outfit” politics. We are the land of unionized crime, and the entity that has sent two of its last three Governors to Federal prison (once the legal formalities of Blago are complete). Last Fall, we also suffered an embarrassing first round exit from the IOC’s final decision making process to determine the host City of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Ah yes, we have much to be proud of. No wonder we are also known for our drunkeness.

If it appears that I am guilty of conflating Chicago with the State as a whole, that is by design. Downstaters can howl all they want about Illinois being more than just the Windy City, but facts are facts. Chicagoland (City and suburbs) represents more than 75% of Illinois’ population, and roughly the same percentage of its economy. Take Chi-town out of the equation, and we’re left with just another agriculturally centered Red-leaning state.

However, it is not our legacy of losing, corruption, crime and other forms ignominy that I wish to write about today. As a career advocate for human services in Illinois, I would like to call attention to the sorry, pathetic state of lawmaking, and the attempts by the legislature to pass a fiscal year 2011 budget that make the more publicized financial problems of California and New York appear tame.

The Illinois State Senate is preparing to vote on a package, likely by the end of the day, that does nothing at all to address a badly needed increase of revenues. A 1% income tax hike, responsibly proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, has been shot down over and again, not because lawmakers feel the funds are not needed, but instead because it is considered politically disadvantageous to stand up and do the right thing. The solution, according to these officials, is to attempt to balance the budget, and catch up on backlogged bills, by placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of the social services community – providers who care for children, the aged, the mentally ill, the abused, the homeless and substance abuse addicts. Yes, kick the weak and overworked while they are down. Brilliant!

Under this budget providers will be forced to operate where contracts and funding levels can be changed or cut at any moment. Key points include:

• An Emergency Budget Act that makes funding even more uncertain by giving the Governor unprecedented power (until January 2011) to make additional cuts.

• No human service organization will know about contracts to take affect July 1 for several more weeks, thereby dumping the costs of a quick shut down on the community, clients and staff.

• The Governor will be able to cut budgets at any time.

• There is no solution to late payments; they are simply kicked further down the road.

• There is no comprehensive solution to inadequate human services funding, or the larger issue of the State’s slow descent into insolvency.

If we slice through the political jargon here, what this basically means is that a budget will pass, but no one will know know anything about it until the Governor decides how the money will be allocated. Huh? Last time I checked, the State was not a monarchy. Unacceptable. Don’t we have a right to know where our tax money is going and how it is being use?. Isn’t the point of a budget process to sort all that out upfront? Nope, instead, weak and scared lawmakers are passing the buck right back to Quinn and telling agencies to lobby him for some of those lump sum dollars. What did we hire these people for?

Let’s not wait for the November elections to tell these turkeys how we feel. Call you legislator TODAY and demand better. If you don’t know who your district reps. are, you may access the following website to figure it out:

http://www.elections.state.il.us/DistrictLocator/DistrictOfficialSearchByAddress.aspx

In our cynical age, activism is often derided as both nerdy and pointless. That’s what they want you to believe because if you stay quiet, the status quo can continue unmolested. Let’s demand better Illinois! Let’s show the rest of the nation that we may produce a lot of silly headlines, but we have some backbone too.

It’s Awful, But I Love It (April 17, 2010)

Illinois Partners

There are no office supplies to speak of at Illinois Partners. The coalition manager, my boss Judith, and I use leftover utensils from the basement of the United Way’s main Chicago headquarters. They are the same generous souls who donate us cube space, computer and phone with which to conduct our business, but we cannot have access to their network, since we’re not technically employees.

On my very first day, I sat through four straight hours of meetings, including one with the powerful Executive Committee, which includes philanthropic bigwigs like United Way, the National Shriver Center of Poverty Law and the Chicago Community Trust. When I wasn’t busy being awestruck by their political connections and knowledge of Illinois legislature mechanisms, I was furiously writing notes so I could later prepare and circulate the minutes.

During my very first week I was handed control of the website, FaceBook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. I have wanted to learn how to mobilize social media in a political setting for a long time, and now I have my chance, but it is daunting because I am so new and the stakes are so high.

On Thursday, Judith and I conducted a meeting while parked in her car for 30 minutes on Jefferson Street.

I worked overtime twice.

And yet everyday, tired as I am (the work of organizing 480 members of a human service coalition is left to two employees – Judith and I), I feel more whole, more engaged, and more satisfied in the workplace than I ever have. How many citizens of Illinois use or require one or more of the following social services: drug counseling, mental illness assistance, housing, child care, senior services, adoption help, child and teen programs, domestic violence shelter and more? I don’t think there’s anyone in the State who doesn’t love someone who desperately needs these programs, if they are not themselves a direct consumer.

But Illinois, right behind California and New York is spiraling toward bankruptcy, and I don’t think I have to tell you folks that the Land of Lincoln suffers from more than a bad economy. We have a full blown crsis of leadership on our hands. Michael Madigan is apparently the most powerul man in the State, I have come to learn this week. He doesn’t want to raise taxes and he’s in no mood to take from the unions, whose organizing power social services hasn’t had to this point. Program are going to be cut Draconian-style, and the human services sector are particularly positioned to to take it on the chin. It is both the blessing and the curse of social workers everywhere that they are always willing to do more with less. Government, especially in a fiscal crisis, and a political climate of complete inertia, counts on that.

So I am doing work that interests me, and building my writing skills in new ways, while doing work that directly matters. I can feel it, see it, hear it. This is a tangible that was always missing in my former corporate incarnations, and it kept me from staying interested once I had mastered my job.

No two days will be the same at Illinois Partners. Flush with idealism as I am, there will be moments of tremendous sorrow, as people who need nonprofit assistance will be less and likely to get it with each budget cycle. But I am willing to stay here in the trenches and keep fighting.

Illinois Primaries (February 2, 2010)

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It’s Election Day in Illinois. Or rather, today we vote in the Democratic, Republican or Green party primaries to choose candidates for the November races. In 2010, the citizens of this State have to choose replacements for some very important positions: Governor, Senator and Cook County Board President, among others. The State and County are facing a profound fiscal crisis, due in part to the incompetence of our elected leaders for the last couple decades.

I woke up early to vote for change before work this morning, and I hope my fellow citizens follow suit, even if, admittedly, the current candidates are not exactly an exciting lot. Need it be said that I went for the Democratic ballot?

I definitely felt underwhelmed as I exited my polling place, even if proud to have done my civic duty. Be that as it may, the following results should come by day’s end: Pat Quinn a lame duck Governor (I struggled mightily with this, but ultimately went with Hynes, the current Comptroller), Stroger out (anybody will do – KK and Rosebud for Cook County Board President!), and a Democratic replacement candidate will be selected for the mercifully retirning Roland Burris.

I don’t love it, but I went with Alexi Giannoulias on the last one. I voted for inexperience here, somewhat deliberately. I have had my fill of Illinois “machine” politicians, and will gladly give someone outside the establishment a chance. How could they make things worse, I argue to myself? Definitely no future Obamas in this lot.

Oscar nominations were released today, though I have yet to peruse them. A busy news day all around. Enjoy it!

Four Studying Days Left (January 7, 2010)

I received an early morning text message yesterday from my good friend Timbo. It read: “So who are you voting for?” I felt that familiar old panic.

Because you see, good citizens of Illinois, I somehow fell asleep at the wheel again and neglected to realize the 2010 primaries were upon us. Timbo remembered that I had taken a vow in late 2008, after the whole Blago/Roland Burris dustup, never to cast an ignorant local vote again. For I must sadly own, my friends, I voted for deposed Governor Blagojevich, not once, but TWICE. I pay lavish attention to national elections, for years sometimes prior to the first vote being cast. But when it comes to my own backyard, I fall behind on who is in play and what they stand for. Why? Is this because Illinois elections are not covered on CNN or in the pages of the New York Times?

Be that as it may, there is no excuse for my lack of attention. There are so many critical issues and bureaucratic messes confronting the City, County and State. But it is not too late! With a little over four days left to cram and make decisions on who to throw support behind, I have found this handy tool an asset:

http://www.uselections.com/il/il.htm

It gives a pretty great summary of each open office, with links for additional information on the individual candidates. How did I not know we were operating without a Lieutenant Governor? For shame.

About the only vote I am sure of right now is that of the Democratic primary for Governor. I am likely to give Pat Quinn another chance. He has done the best he can with a very bad economic and PR situation post-Blago, and has managed to keep his nose reasonably clean in the process. After that I am not too sure. But I put you on notice Timbo: I will not go the ballot box unprepared this coming Tuesday.

Have you decided who should take the State of Illinois into the next decade?

Interesting… (December 16, 2009)

Illinois to take Gitmo detainees – U.S. to buy state prison in Thomson, source says

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-tue-tab-thomson-15dec15,0,5054354.story

I know we have a tendency to adopt a “Not in My Backyard” attitude (or “NIMBY” as the late, great George Carlin once called it) when it comes to bringing criminals and other hazardous materials into our environment, but I have never been a big proponent of passing the buck. We need to close Guantanamo, and with the Thomson State prison sitting virtually empty, this seems like a good solution.

It will resolve an international PR debacle, create jobs in the State, and really, with our last two Governors either in the clink, or on their way shortly, it seems disingenuous for the citizens of Illinois to scream about wanting to protect ourselves from “felons.”

I know nothing is finalized yet and plans may yet changed, but as locals of our fair Midwestern State, I’d like to know what you think of the plan?