ARCHIVES


A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Labor goes to court on fees, Rauner counter-attacks

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 26, 27 or 28

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner last week ordered state agencies to violate contracts with state employees’ unions and withhold “fair share” fees from unions that represent non-members, too, until courts decide whether it’s legal. Rauner’s General Counsel, Jason Barclay, directed departments under Rauner’s control to create two sets of books, reported the Associated Press. One would move deductions from non-union members’ paychecks to the budgets of state agencies, not the unions that are contractually supposed to receive the fees to help pay for the costs of representation – which they’re legally obligated to do for their bargaining units, whether or not workers join the union.

Rauner’s latest attack against labor follows a legal respond by the Illinois AFL-CIO and 26 unions, which this month filed suit in state court in St. Clair County, where they asked a judge to undo Rauner’s executive order eliminating unions’ “fair-share” fees.

The lawsuit – from unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Fraternal Order of Police, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Nurses Association, the Service Employees International Union, and the Teamsters – says the first-term Republican acted beyond his constitutional authority, violated Illinois law, and broke unions’ contracts.

The suit asks a judge to issue an injunction preventing the order from being implemented.

“The order is patently illegal,” the lawsuit states. “It is outside the governor’s executive-order authority under the Illinois Constitution. And it violates each of the labor agreements that plaintiffs have with the state.”

Workers are not forced to join unions that represent them, but they are required to pay a lower fee to share costs of non-political activities such as bargaining and enforcing contracts through grievance and arbitration. The Republican governor’s administration estimated his edict would prevent Illinois unions from collecting about $3.75 million annually to cover their expenses in representing all workers where a majority voted for union representation.

Also on March 5, unions went to federal court to dismiss Rauner’s federal lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court challenging the legality of fair-share fees. Rauner wants a Chicago court – and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court – to declare fair-share fees unconstitutional, which could take years.

The unions’ motion argues the issue shouldn’t be heard in federal court because it’s a question of state law, not federal law.

Issued in February, Rauner’s order to divert fees established in labor contracts – going around the legislature – is one of the steps the multimillionaire businessman has taken against unions since taking office. He’s also seeking the authority for local governments to set up “Right To Work zones” prohibiting contracts signed by employers and unions to collect fair-share fees.

Rauner initially ordered the Comptroller’s office to withhold the money from the unions, but Comptroller Leslie Munger, a Republican who Rauner appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of Judy Baar Topkina, said she wasn’t legally couldn’t. Rauner then had to induce agencies under his control to do so.

His attacks have angered and united organized labor.

“The men and women who do the real work of state government are the first responders, nurses, caregivers and corrections officers,” Illinois AFL-CIO president Michael Carrigan said in a prepared statement. “They plow snow, protect children, care for veterans, and do many other tough, essential jobs that benefit all Illinois residents. Governor Rauner’s political obsession with stripping their rights and driving down wages demeans their service, hurts the middle class and is blatantly illegal.”

The unions contend Rauner’s order “purposefully attempts to weaken plaintiff unions.”

In the unions’ lawsuit, they say the money is needed to ensure they have adequate resources as they negotiate with the state. For instance, AFSCME’s current agreement expires June 30.

Rauner has said there are about 6,300 workers who pay fair-share fees averaging $577 a year. The plaintiff unions represent about 40,000 state workers.

[PICTURED: Glenn Schmidt photo via nhlabornews.com.]

Thursday, March 26, 2015

If Court kills health care, millions – and GOP - would lose

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., March 23, 24 or 25

If the polarized U.S. Supreme Court in June rules against the Affordable Care Act, they’ll kill subsidies for about 8 million Americans in 34 states that use the HealthCare.gov insurer marketplace – such as Illinois.

This has started to occur to Congress’ Tea Party-influenced Republicans, especially in the House, where Representatives run every two years.

Even from right-wingers who’ve tried to kill the ACA dozens of times in the last five years, you can almost hear some gears click into place and mumbled thoughts about millions of voters losing health insurance: “Uh, oh-oh.”

On the Senate side, a few GOP Senators reportedly have been brainstorming for months, but haven’t come up with an idea of helping millions of Americans – many of whom now have some protection from health calamities and exorbitant medical bills for the first time.

Secretary for Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell, has said, “We know of no administrative actions that could – and therefore we have no plans that would – undo the massive damage to our health care system that would be caused by an adverse decision.”

“Oops.”

The issue in “King v. Burwell” – the most serious threat to the law since 2012 – focuses on four words in the 906-page document. The law says that tax credits will be available through exchanges "established by the state." As it was drafted, supporters assumed most states would create exchanges. After it was signed in March 2010, many states instead decided to rely on the federal government to operate them, as the law allows.

Four words v. intent.

In 2012, the Internal Revenue Service OK’d rules making subsidies available in all states. ACA opponents said exchanges must be offered by individual states, not the federal government.

The marketplaces – operating for two years – let Americans who don't get health benefits at work to shop online among plans that must all offer basic benefits and can’t turn away customers, even if they have preexisting conditions. Americans making less than four times the federal poverty level, or about $94,000 for a family of four, qualify for subsidies to offset the cost of their premiums.

The law's challengers argue that a strict reading of the statute makes subsidies available only in states that set up marketplaces, rather than having the federal government operate marketplaces for them.

Four words.

Without subsidies, of course, insurance costs would skyrocket.

During arguments this month, Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested the law may be vague enough to give the IRS deference for its regulation allowing tax credits in federal health exchanges. But he added that giving the IRS authority would be a "drastic step," because billions of dollars are at stake.

In Illinois – which left about $270 million in federal funding untouched in December when the legislature didn't even vote on a bill to create Illinois’ health insurance exchange – more than three-fourths of consumers who signed up for 2015 insurance as of Jan. 30 qualified for an average subsidy of $210 per month.

Clearly, ACA challengers care less about language than the law – and President Obama. After 60-some attempts to repeal the ACA in the last six years, Republicans once more seem to be intent on “Doing Nothing,” but many are starting to realize the unintended consequence of booting millions off health insurance.

Some governors, including a few Republicans, have conceded they don't want to let thousands of their constituents lose coverage.

"If the court rules, and we find half a million Ohioans without insurance, it's something we're going to have to deal with,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said.

On March 4, the Supreme Court seemed divided, but comments like Kennedy’s gave the law’s defenders some hope. At least four justices appeared skeptical about the challenge that could create unmanageable insurance markets, rising premiums, and millions uninsured.

Conservative Justices such as Antonin Scalia seemed sympathetic to opponents of health coverage, but the four liberals, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seemed to side with defenders’ assertion that the whole law must be considered.

Even the conservative Independent Women’s Voice organization recently released a poll saying it would be important to “do something to restore the subsidies” if Scalia and conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito sway two others to kill it.

Perhaps swing votes by Kennedy or Chief Justice Roberts could note that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary’s definition of “state” is not only “a politically organized body of people usually occupying a definite territory; especially: one that is sovereign,” but also “ the operations or concerns of the government of a country.”

The federal government is a state, too.

And people matter as much as words.

[PICTURED: Rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court building. Photo from the National Education Association.]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

It’s ‘March Madness’ with Congress, Clinton and coverage

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 19, 20 or 21

March Madness isn’t confined to the IHSA or NCAA, as shown by actions of Democratic near-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Congressional Republicans or what passes for news on cable TV.

Personally, I don’t trust Hillary as far as I could throw a strong forward from a state championship team, but the media frenzy given to her improper, if not illegal, use of a private server and an email account outside government openness is akin to celebrating a free throw in a blowout

Across the aisle, the GOP is performing like the Washington Generals, that hapless squad touring with the Harlem Globetrotters. Following Republicans’ invitation for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress and the GOP’s mishandling of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, 47 GOP Senators committed a flagrant foul by trying to undercut bargaining with Iran about nuclear energy and weapons (at a critical point in those proceedings).

As to Hillary, every Sunday network yak-fest March 8 discussed her emails, but they added nothing newsworthy, commenting more than reporting. Clinton’s secretive stupidity didn’t violating the law (the National Law Journal said her tone-deaf action is getting attention but “any legal consequences are likely to prove negligible”), and the public may care more about filling out basketball brackets than Hillary’s tin-ear sensitivity to transparency (60 percent of Americans think it’s a “very serious problem,” according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll last week). Still, TV is treating it like it’s a criminal act instead of an arrogant conceit.

These “journalists” (really, entertainers who perform in TV newsrooms) just dribbled off their feet and pretended they hit a buzzer beater. It’s much different than how media have treated similar incidents. Eight years ago next month, these celebrities posing as journalists hardly yawned when the Bush White House announced that as many as five million emails sent over two years were inexplicably lost. The emails were requested by Congress pertaining to its investigation into the partisan firing of eight U.S. attorneys – emails sent via private accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee. But the press then sniffed at the millions of missing White House emails and mostly after a day or so dropped the story like a no-look pass from a hyperactive guard with bricks for hands – while we endure 24/7 coverage of Hillary-mails.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans are on a losing streak. After strong midterm-election results, the GOP-controlled Congress took power promising to work with the administration and to govern instead of once more using an obstructive defense so suffocating it was like a stall alternating with triple-teaming a three-point shooter.

Tufts University professor of international politics Daniel W. Drezner in the Washington Post wrote, “The GOP has squandered what was supposed to be a political and policy advantage.”

Indeed, House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t get his Republican team to run to the other end of the court, much less execute a fast break, to fund Homeland Security. Then – like a disoriented point guard scoring at his opponent’s basket – the GOP Senate sent that letter to Iran. Drafted by freshman Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, it basically claimed that any agreement negotiated with administration diplomats was worth about as much as a Technical Foul against your team in a close-game overtime.

The letter stunned and outraged foreign-policy veterans and everyday Americans alike.

In fact, more than 300,000 people have petitioned the White House to seek charges of treason against those 47 Republican Senators for violating the Logan Act, a federal law prohibiting U.S. citizens from negotiating on their own with foreign governments.

Even if we observers aren’t exactly fans of all this, the question is: “Why?”

Drezner offered three reasons. First, Congress feels disrespected – despite the fact “that both the Constitution and history have stacked the deck in favor of the executive branch.”

Next, Drezner writes, many Republican Senators, like Cotton, are new – na├»ve, untested or as clueless as a scorekeeper leading cheers. Finally, today’s Republicans are politically rewarded less for passing legislation (governing) than for raising Cain (and campaign funds).

Republicans and Democrats alike should think about Capitol Hill and Hillary Clinton based on what Charles C.W. Cooke in the conservative National Review commented about embattled Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock shortly before he quit: “There are 310 million people in the United States, 12.8 million of them in Illinois. In the House of Representatives, by contrast, there are just 435 — only 18 of whom have been sent from Schock’s state. Really, there is no good reason whatsoever that Aaron Schock needs to be among those 18; and, indeed, there are a host of good reasons that he should not be.”

Surely, Democrats and Republicans have someone on the bench who could be put into the game when their “stars” get a muscle cramp – the brain.)

The insanity can’t be ignored. “Time out!”

[PICTURED: Editorial cartoon by Pat Bagley/Salt Lake Tribune, via the Progressive Populist.]

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Let the sunshine in: Sunshine Week marks open government

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 16, 17 or 18


In the 1960s, Russell Baker, a Washington reporter for the New York Times, described his job covering government as sitting around waiting for officials "to come out and lie to me.”

Something seemed rotten.

But unlike that journalist’s doubt, journalism itself marks hope this week – Sunshine Week 2015. It’s a time to recognize and celebrate transparency in government, whether on Capitol Hill or area Townships, county seats or local fire districts.
Government openness is a critical pillar of Americans having a voice – of democracy itself – and that’s true on local and county levels as well as state and national.

Fortunately, an overwhelming number of local public officials are responsive to citizens and are appreciative of the accountability that’s part of their jobs. Almost all officials are honest and competent, and are willing to work at making at least their part of the planet a better place. Public records are made available. Corruption is so rare as to be nonexistent (especially compared to Springfield and Washington).

Of course, as with almost anything, there are ways government can be more open – better.

* Accessible officials. Officials should list phone numbers and email addresses so constituents can contact them. There’s sensible privacy, and there’s needless secrecy.

* Online presence. Boards, councils, etc. should maintain web sites – or at least Facebook pages, There, they can let the community know when and where they or their committees are meeting, issues planned for consideration, special events, forms to complete and other useful references.

* Public comment. If taxpayers want to address a board, it should be easy – even if there’s a time limit so regular business isn’t disrupted. Similarly, boards should welcome items from constituents to put on agendas for public discussion.

* Executive sessions. These secret sessions shouldn’t be used routinely, but just when appropriate, as specified – and limited – by law. Further, when a lively debate occurs behind closed doors, it should at least be summarized when the group resumes open deliberations. Otherwise, the public is kept in the dark about officials’ thoughts, opinions and points of view. Excluding individual members of the public from meetings also excludes the entire community, and it hides details that may be important for the public to know.

“When the flow of information about our elections, our government, and our democracy is curtailed, we’re nurturing a culture of mistrust and cynicism,” says Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Plus, it’s practical.

Very few folks who work and raise a family have the time to go to several public meetings every month to see what officials from counties, villages, townships, fire protection districts, school boards and other governments are doing.

Reporters try to connect What Goes On with Who Will Care. In that sense, journalists try to perform their trade as a public service, too, helping to equip everyday people with facts to make their own informed decisions.

Government officials don’t pursue public service to be popular. Sometimes difficult decisions are needed for the greater good, or actions may be popular with some voters but not all. Public employees, whether elected, appointed or hired, work in a climate requiring open government and accountability to the community.

Likewise, as the late Helen Thomas, UPI’s longtime White House reporter, once remarked, “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It’s our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

Even if things sometimes seem rotten, sunshine is the best disinfectant, as it’s been said.

[PICTURED: "Shady pols" cartoon by Ed Hall.]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Whole nation benefits from organized labor

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 12, 13 or 14

As Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner tours the state to promote his “something for nothing” concept of labor relations, research presented last month by the Economic Policy Institute shows that labor unions make a positive difference not just to the workers in those bargaining units, but to the whole country.

Rauner is touting “Right To Work zones,” where local governments could prohibit contracts signed by employers and unions from requiring employees benefiting from pay, hours and conditions achieved by the union a majority votes to negotiate for them from sharing in the non-political costs of settling and enforcing contracts.

But the union weakness that could result from convincing some people that they need not pay for what others gain for them would have an unintended consequences, according to EPI, which documents a clear correlation between the rise and fall of union influence and the distribution of wealth in the country, from a sharing of profits derived from worker productivity to a disconnect resulting in stark income inequality.

“The right to collective bargaining is a building block to good economics, shared prosperity, a strong middle class, and a country that believes in balanced democracy,” said United Autoworkers’ president Dennis Williams, who’s preparing to negotiate with the Big Three automakers. In bargaining the current contract in 2011, the UAW gave up the right to strike at Chrysler and GM to help the corporations recover from bankruptcy. But that pact expires Sept. 15; the work-stoppage option will be back.

Meanwhile, several causes are behind the falling number of union-represented workers and income inequality, but EPI shows that as membership declines, wages suffer – across the board, not just with unionized workers – and the wealthy benefit.

The EPI research outlines that the percent of public- and private-sector workers in unions has fallen to 11.1 percent, its lowest since the 1930s, and that the share of income going to the most prosperous Americans (the top 10 percent) reached an all-time high of 47.8 percent in the last couple of years.

Unions still immensely improve wages and working conditions, economic analyst and business journalist Doug Henwood recently reported, and U.S. workers – unionized and not – are starting to notice.

The labor movement is stirring, from west coast ports to Midwest oil refineries, seeking a restored balance from past sacrifices workers made to help employers and the U.S. economy. Also, union leaders may take advantage of a tightening labor market and an improving political climate, shown in Wal-Mart agreeing to raise wages for its work force and the subject of income inequality being addressed by the Federal Reserve and prominent Republicans as well as Democrats and progressive advocates.

Economic opportunity for all workers has become more meaningful for most Americans who feel left out as economic statistics show promise and Wall Street posts record highs. Indeed, income inequality is noticed by everyday working people, according to University of California-Berkeley labor professor Harley Shaiken, who told Bloomberg News, “Workers are seeing the high pay chipped away and they’re concerned about outsourcing. They gave up a lot to get there.”

Just since 2009, U.S. management compensation has gone up about 50 percent faster than union workers’ income. By comparison, real wages in the auto industry have fallen 24 percent since 2003, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

It’s beyond “enough is enough.” It’s become “too much is more than plenty,” and unions are starting to reaffirm their place in labor relations, and in the nation.

“Employers seem to think that they can push unions, the roots of the American working class, off a cliff,” said Dave Campbell, whose union local represents oil-terminal workers at the Port of Long Beach. “Well, these corporations have made a significant miscalculation in our ability to fight back.”

A challenge for labor leaders had been to fight the misconception that unionized workers are overpaid and protected despite performing badly. Income inequality shows common ground where all workers struggle, and a common foe: the greed of the richest of the rich. For the first time in decades, the interests of organized labor dovetail with the economic health of most Americans, even those not yet unionized. Most feel excluded.

“This is a political opportunity for organized labor,” said author and Harvard professor Bruce Western, also speaking to Bloomberg.

[PICTURED: Matt Damon poster from Unions 4 Workers; small sign from Union Proud/IBEW.]

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Movies, far more than TV, make us The People, Yes

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 9, 10 or 11

This year looks to be a box-office boom for movie theaters, and besides good news for cinema owners, that could actually help strengthen communities and democracy.

With “Fifty Shades of Grey” following hits such as “American Sniper,” films are attracted about 10 percent more people than last year, according to Rentrak, the Wall Street Journal reported.

As to the Republic, or sense of self, the trend could start reversing years of individualism over communal enjoyment of entertainment, which range from iPads, Kindles and smartphones to the biggest medium: TV.

The 1950s expansion of television and its eventual replacing movies as an entertainment activity is a metaphor for the country, the culture. There have been other factors and consequences, such as the accessibility and affordability of air conditioning, but TV is a huge cause of the fragmentation and disengagement of U.S. society.

Others have observed this, most notably Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam in his 1995 essay “Bowling Alone.” But civic involvement and membership in groups of mass constituencies lost in recent decades could undergo a revival if people begin to leave their homes and mingle with neighbors – and strangers. Movie audiences could be a start.

There, we’re strangers in the dark, but we all share an experience – laughter, wonder, dread. That compares much more favorably to the isolation of eating TV dinners off TV trays in TV rooms.

A movie theater is a gathering place, less than churches or taverns, but almost as busy as restaurants and what social groups like lodges or Legion halls once were. And once inside the cinemas – surrounded by dimness, settled into cushy seats, comforted by snacks and focused on a brilliant screen – people are brought together. Country-club types whisper next to workers; parents watch as well as kids; nerds and bullies and everyday people all laugh and cry as one.

Before television dominated, we congregated to watch soldiers and lovers, cowboys and crazies, adventures and romance, monster movies and slapstick, cartoons and musicals – all of which entertained us and shaped us – even if just for two hours – as the Audience.

The People.

As Illinois’ Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, biographer and poet Carl Sandburg wrote in his epic “The People, Yes,” –

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
"They buy me and sell me...it's a game...sometime I'll break loose."


A country of couch potatoes, we have too little interaction and experience too little feeling of community confined to a room or house. Plus, there’s “time-shifting,” where something is recorded to view later, so we don’t even watch something at the same time anymore (except for most sports and some breaking news), making conversations about some show from the night before impossible the next day.

Arguably, the nation is mired in division and denial. Americans are disconnected, miserable or morose; cynical or scared – sometimes for little reason except the fear-mongering on cable TV. Too many of us depend on TV channels that reinforce our suspicions rather than looking for a complete story or talking to others, which is like listening only to a trial’s prosecution or defense and expecting to reach a just conclusion.

As to fear, the reality is that the today is probably the most peaceful time in human history, according to Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Violent crime has dropped some 70 percent in the last 25 years, and – despite ISIS’ horrors – terrorism “is today only a shadow of what it was in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Paul Pillar in the conservative Cato Institute’s “A Dangerous World?”

So: Reject another night enslaved to TV. Go to the cinema, enjoy some popcorn and soda, some tears and fears.

Together.

Sandburg, again, wrote:

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:
Where to? What next?


[PICTURED: Carl Sandburg (second from left), is shown at the Chicago Daily News, where he worked from 1917 to 1932, including a stint as the newspaper's movie critic. Elmer Gertz photo from interactive-earth.com.]

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Illinois taxes hit most vulnerable the hardest

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 5, 6 or 7

Amid alarm about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed spending cuts affecting most Illinoisans, the idea of raising more revenues through tax reform has been almost lost. But a new study could help revive the notion that Illinois’ tax system is not only unfair but also hurts the state’s economic prospects.

Illinois has the fifth most regressive tax system in the country, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). That means low-income and middle-class people are hit the hardest.

“The problem with our state tax systems is that we are asking far more of those who can afford the least,” said Meg Wiehe, a state director for ITEP, which published “Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States.”

Illinois’ flat income tax, now 3.75 percent, costs the state money, as does the income inequality since such disparity curtails consumer spending, which reduces public revenues. In fact, a correlation between income inequality and slow growth is most noticeable where there are regressive taxes – like Illinois.

“Between rich and poor … Illinois is among the states with the most pronounced divide,” wrote journalist Marcia Frellick for Illinois Issues. “The richest 5 percent of households in Illinois have average incomes nearly 15 times as large as the bottom 20 percent of households; nearly five times that of the middle 20 percent.”

Illinois’ tax system makes things worse.

“Regressive state and local tax policies don’t just harm the poor — they end up harming entire economies,” said International Business Times senior writer David Sirota. “So if altruism doesn’t prompt you to care about unfair tax rates and economic inequality, then it seems self-interest should.”

Again, because of the way income is taxed in Illinois, working people and the middle class pay higher tax rates than the wealthy, ITEP shows. Considering state and local income, sales and property taxes together, the poorest 20 percent of Illinoisans pay 13.2 percent of their income; the middle 60 percent pay 10.9 percent; the top 1 percent pays just 4.6 percent.

Meanwhile, local governments – where Rauner wants to reduce state aid – already rely heavily on sales and property taxes, according to the General Assembly’s bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. In 2009 it issued a report saying, “Historically, local governments in Illinois have been more dependent on local property taxes than are local governments in other states. Illinois property taxes generated 36.3 percent of local government revenue, which exceeded the national average of 27.9 percent.”

Property taxes, whether paid by property owners or indirectly by tenants, are inefficient, too.

“Illinois’ property tax as a share of income is one of the highest in the country,” reported journalist Whet Moser in Chicago magazine. “Connecticut’s is higher on the very poor and the middle class; New York’s is higher on the very poor; Vermont is higher on the lower-middle and very-middle classes; and New Jersey’s are higher across the board. But all those states have progressive income taxes.”

Since Illinois’ flat income tax is in the state constitution, reform won’t be easy. Former State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Champaign) and 39 co-sponsors, including State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria), in the last two years pressed for a constitutional change allowing a progressive, graduated tax where people who make more money pay a higher tax rate. But since three-fifths of the members of both chambers of the legislature are needed for the measure to be on a ballot, it failed.

“A survey from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found a majority of people support a progressive income tax to raise sorely needed state revenue,” Jakobsson said in 2013. “A recent legislative analysis found that if households earning more than $250,000 a year were taxed at a national standard of 6 percent [rather than the current flat rate of 3.75 percent], the state would collect an additional $3 billion a year.”

The plan would have meant lower income tax bills for 83 percent of Illinoisans, she said.

“In recent years, multiple studies have revealed the growing chasm between the wealthy and everyone else,” said Matt Gardner, executive director of ITEP. “Upside-down state tax systems didn’t cause the growing income divide, but they certainly exacerbate the problem. State policymakers shouldn’t wring their hands or ignore the problem. They should thoroughly explore and enact tax reform policies that will make their tax systems fairer.”

[PICTURED: Photo from itsoureconomy.us.]

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Journalism vital, despite Williams and O’Reilly

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 2, 3 or 4

Some people have reacted to questionable assertions made by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and NBC’s Brian Williams and generalized all journalists to be like those two entertainers. Hogwash. Most journalists – whether news reporters or commentators, obituary writers or sports anchors, bloggers or art critics – are honest and hard-working local people, not celebrities.

And against attacks by frenzied talk radio and cable TV, journalists and newspapers must be defended as vital for a democratic society. Here are some reminders:

Colorado columnist Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard, said, “It's easy enough to join the masses in cursing mass media, to shove newspapers into that sack and shake it while chanting about negativity, bias, shallowness, tastelessness and more. It is less a crowd-pleaser to break out of that stereotype into an awareness of a broader truth about the extraordinary accomplishments of print journalism in our time and the meaning of this for our pluralistic, democratic society.

“We tend, I think, to take all this for granted,” Ambrose continued. “But pause to consider how much less you would know about the world you live in without newspapers. Your experience of your life would be less rich, less discerning, alert or aware. It would be as if someone were dimming the lights, and those of us who are now newspaper readers would be more prone to stumbling and to misunderstandings, more likely to miss opportunities and to march into danger.”

Former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson in “The Wit and Wisdom of Adlai Stevenson” added, “The sources of information are the springs from which democracy drinks. A free society means a society based on free competition, and there is no more important competition than competition in ideas, competition in opinion.”

Dean Baquet, former editor of the Los Angeles Times – who stood up to business interests that owned his paper – framed a defense of the press in the context of an expanded information universe, saying, “Government has grown. Business has grown. The instruments of public relations and of propaganda have grown. That is why, as a counterweight, we need strong journalistic institutions.”

Bill Walsh, former New Orleans' Times-Picayune Washington correspondent, speaking to the National Press Club, conceded that that universe includes a changing audience. He said, “We think of ourselves as watchdogs, integral parts of a healthy democracy, but we have become expendable. Why? If I don't report that a senator has introduced legislation to curry favor with an influential constituent, or that FEMA has decided not to give hurricane assistance to college students, or that Democrats are using racially tinged comments to demean a rising star in the Republican Party, who happens to be non-white, it's as if those things never happened. We literally don't know what we're missing. If we don't miss it, was it worth knowing?

“Of course it was,” he continued. “It's our job to tell people what they need to know about their government before they know they need it. People are too busy to sort out the machinations of Congress and the federal agencies. That's what we do.”

Award-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges helped define what newspapers really are, saying, “Newspapers, when well run, are a public trust. They provide, at their best, the means for citizens to examine themselves, to ferret out lies and the abuse of power by elected officials and corrupt businesses, to give a voice to those who would, without the press, have no voice, and to follow, in ways a private citizen cannot, the daily workings of local, state and federal government. Newspapers hire people to write about city hall, the state capital, political campaigns, sports, music, art and theater. They keep citizens engaged with their cultural, civic and political life.”

The lessening or loss of journalism is dangerous, according to broadcast journalist and lifetime Emmy Award-winner Bill Moyers, who said, “Across the media landscape, the health of our democracy is imperiled. Buffeted by gale force winds of technological, political and demographic forces, without a truly free and independent press, this 250-year-old experiment in self-government will not make it. As journalism goes, so goes democracy.”

Even Fox News’ Howard Kurtz once said, “Newspapers are really the last line of defense for serious and sustained reporting, especially at the local level.”

And in 1947, the report of the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, “A Free and Responsible Press,” maybe foreshadowed what’s necessary in 2015, stating “What is needed, first of all, is recognition by the American people of the vital importance of the press.”

[PICTURED: Saarah Coleman illustration for Columbia Journalism Review via New York Times' blog Dot Earth.]