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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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Rauner seeking to impose last offer on state employees

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 8, 9 or 10

Gov. Bruce Rauner in recent weeks manipulated the months-long negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) by declaring an impasse and asking his own Illinois Labor Relations Board to rule that AFSCME committed an Unfair Labor Practice by not bargaining in good faith – letting him impose his terms on 38,000 state workers AFSCME represents.

The move seemed to fulfill a pledge Rauner made two years ago at a Lincoln Day speech he made in Cumberland County, where he said he might “take a strike and shut down the government” to get concessions from public employees.

“The Governor’s asking for an impasse to be declared by the Labor Board is disappointing,” said State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-46th Dist.). “If this is a step to force a last and best offer on state workers, it will add even more chaos to state government.”

There have been 24 formal bargaining sessions considering some 300 proposals over 67 days, said Rauner, who’s been seeking to freeze wages, cut overtime, and hike health-care costs. AFSCME’s last contract expired June 30.

“We reject the claim that the bargaining process is at an impasse,” said AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch. “The members of AFSCME’s rank-and-file-elected bargaining committee have consistently responded to the administration’s demands with fair counterproposals.”

It could be weeks before a decision by the state panel of five people – four of which he appointed, renewed or promoted since taking office last year: Rauner appointed John Samolis and Keith Snyder, reappointed Michael Coli, and promoted member John Hartnett to chair, according to state records.

After the Board rules, the union will have to accept Rauner’s imposed contract or strike.
Rauner’s claim that state workers are overpaid is wrong, according to University of Illinois professor Robert Bruno, whose research shows that Illinois state employees actually earn 13.5 percent less on average than private workers with similar education and experience.

Rauner says AFSCME hasn’t agreed to deals the governor reached with 17 other bargaining units. However, no settlements have been reached with six other unions representing more than 25,000 state employees, including state troopers and child- and home-health-care providers. Further, the accusation is misleading, Lynch said.

“It’s regrettable and damaging to the public interest that the governor has chosen a confrontational path,” she said. “Just as Gov. Rauner is holding the state budget hostage, his ‘my way or no way’ demands of state employees are the obstacle to a fair agreement. Rauner’s demands would force workers and their families [to] pay double to keep their health care. Instead of fairly compensating all workers, he wants to base bonuses on unknown criteria open to political favoritism. And the governor wants to wipe out protections against irresponsible privatization of public services. These are just some of more than 200 extreme demands the administration has made during this process.”

The agreements with other unions were different, she continued.

“The administration has never offered AFSCME the same terms as other unions,” she said. “Some unions received vastly better terms on health insurance than those offered to AFSCME. Many others did not agree to a four-year pay freeze. In any event, no union can be forced to accept the terms of other unions that have different circumstances and concerns.”

As to Rauner’s allegation that the union isn’t negotiating because it won’t agree with him, that’s unlikely, Bruno said.

“I rarely see a situation where the employer is more committed to bargaining than the union,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Unions want to use their collective bargaining process. They want the process to work; they don’t want something to short-circuit that.”

Lynch said it’s Rauner who’s refusing to bargain.

“Governor Rauner is wrong to walk away and try to end negotiations,” she said.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Distance and income leave some hungry for good food

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 4, 5 or 6

The need is chicken-or-egg.

And meat, and fruit…

Neighborhoods need full-service groceries for consumers to shop for healthy, fresh food, but businesses need customer bases before they can locate to areas.

“We look at geographic gaps, areas that are left un-served,” says John Elliott, Public Affairs Manager for Kroger’s division supervising Illinois stores.

“That has to balance,” he continues. “Each store is its own profit center [and] has to stand on its own. It’s a matter of a sufficient flow of customers. We want to do business, but we still won’t fill all the food-desert gaps.”

The “food-desert” gaps may seem odd to face in February – National Snack Food Month. However, it’s also Berry Fresh Month and AARP Hunger Awareness Month, and there’s no time like the present, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA says that 23.5 million Americans in 6,500 urban and rural areas are food deserts, areas where there’s limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food needed to maintain a good diet (areas often served by just fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.)

“These are generally areas where income is low,” said retail and consumer analyst Phil Lempert with SupermarketGuru.com. “Higher-calorie foods are more affordable.”

The consequences go beyond food choices, say people who connect the lack of balanced diets to poor health care, ranging from effects on growing strong bones and teeth and a greater incidence of high blood pressure, to diabetes, stress, and children’s attention spans.

Besides the need for fresh food, there’s concern about economic development. After losing retailers, food deserts can discourage investment in small towns and urban neighborhoods. Locating in such areas has risks, concedes Anne Palmer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health’s Food Communities and Public Health Program, because groceries have small profit margins and some well-meaning grocers may not have the experience or skills to operate outside traditional formats.

“One of the things I’ve come to appreciate is just how complicated this is,” she’s said. “Changing perceptions and attitudes is part of the equation of long-term behavior change [and] what works for some will not work for others.”

Targeting specific customers in neighborhoods and rural communities is the best way to compete, Kroger’s Elliott says.

“Our ‘loyalty cards’ help us tailor our stores to our customers,” Elliott says. “We know what to stock.”

Elsewhere, Kroger has different types of stores, such as its warehouse-style Ruler Foods (comparable to Aldi’s) in some Midwest markets, and its Food 4 Less outlets in Chicagoland.

Also in Chicago, the upscale Whole Foods chain is launching a store in the Englewood neighborhood, where the median income is $19,700, compared to $38,625 in Chicago and $ 54,124 in the state).

In Philadelphia, Jeff Brown/s Super Stores company has 11 ShopRite locations in low-income areas, and – after meeting with community leaders – they became profitable neighborhood hubs, with healthy foods plus features such as nutritionists, government-service referral desks, or health clinics. Brown’s said he’s considering opening a jazz club and beer garden in some stores.

Brown, who hires neighborhood residents for his union jobs, also has a non-profit spinoff, UpLiftsolutions.org, offering ideas to entrepreneurs looking at food deserts as opportunities, not problems.

Among various ideas is the role of elected officials, says Peoria City Councilwoman Denise Moore.
“City government can and must play a part,” she says. “Areas hardest hit by the economy and governmental neglect will need the support of the entire Peoria community. It will be the collaboration of free enterprise and the support of all citizens to direct city spending that will help turn the tide.”

[PICTURED: Cartoon by Rob Rogers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via spoonuniversity.com.]

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Remembering Susan B. Anthony

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 1, 2 or 3

Susan B. Anthony, born 196 years ago this month, certainly didn’t need others to speak for her. But she had a knack for making allies from throughout the progressive movements of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries. So when she spoke in downstate Illinois in 1870, it wasn’t unusual for an audience member to defend her when a conservative attacked her positions on women’s rights.

“At Peoria, the editor of the Democratic paper stated that the laws of Illinois were better for women than for men,” reported historian Ida Husted Harper in her two-volume “Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony.”

“Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, whom she never had seen, was in the audience, and sent a note to the president of the meeting, asking that Miss Anthony should not answer the editor but give him that privilege. He then took up the laws, one after another, and – illustrating by cases in his own [law] practice – showed in his eloquent manner how cruelly unjust they were to women and proved how necessary it was that women should have a voice in making them. He also offered the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted: ‘We pledge ourselves, irrespective of party, to use all honorable means to make the women of America the equals of men before the law’.”

Ingersoll, an Illinois military and political leader renowned worldwide as a “freethinker” and orator, was a prominent Republican when Republicans were the anti-slavery, relatively liberal party, and Democrats – like the editor challenging Anthony – were “state’s rights”-oriented and conservative. But more than a momentary meeting of the minds, the incident was typical of Anthony’s wide-ranging interests and impacts.

Indeed, February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, so it’s appropriate now to recall Anthony – born Feb. 15, 1820, in Massachusetts – because besides leading a decades-long crusade to extend voting rights to women, she was an ardent abolitionist before the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, working with the Underground Railroad and activists Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison.

Plus, besides women’s right to vote, Anthony advocated for women’s rights ranging from equal pay for equal work, to the rights to own property, to be joint guardians of children and to enter into contracts.

Co-publisher with advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton of The Revolution weekly (which had the motto “Men, Their Rights and Nothing More; Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less”), Anthony personified a devotion to progressive causes, featuring coverage not just about women’s issues but of politics and finance, educational reforms and the labor movement.

She had a brief alliance with the National Labor Union, but then concentrated on all-women’s trade unions, an idea that by 1903 evolved into the Women’s Trade Union League, the first all-women’s union to demand better working conditions.

Similarly, Anthony developed alliances with farmers groups such as the Grange, which supported women’s suffrage. In fact, her last public appearance, in 1903, was at the National Grange convention in Rochester, N.Y.

Also, born into a Quaker family, Anthony through the decades was described as an agnostic, like Ingersoll, but she also was quite active in the Unitarian Church and in her faith life seemed to enjoy an ecumenical appreciation of religion that mirrored her social-reform instincts. In fact, New York City’s large Cathedral of St. John the Divine has a sculpture honoring four “spiritual heroes of the 20th century”: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein and Susan B. Anthony.

Finally, Anthony’s contributions were ably summed up by the late Eleanor Flexner in her 1959 book “A Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States.” Flexner wrote, "If Lucretia Mott typified the moral force of the movement, if Lucy Stone was its most gifted orator, and Mrs. Stanton its most outstanding philosopher, Susan Anthony was its incomparable organizer, who gave it force and direction for half a century.”

[PICTURED: The Sculpture at St. John the Divine showing, left to right, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, and Mahatma Gandhi.]

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Is Rauner ‘shooting the Moon’?

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 28, 29 or 30

When Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner this week said he wants to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons and promised that he’ll fund the effort even as he demands the legislature cuts spending, it’s almost impossible to not be suspicious.

Is he planning to make room for imprisoning union members?

After all, this is the guy whose month has been so loony that he proposed taking over Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and claimed to support a Democratic pension-reform idea if lawmakers accepted an anti-union addition.

Indeed, would anyone be stunned by Rauner suddenly announcing his intention to claim the Moon for Illinois so the state could corner the market for green cheese, helping the dairy industry?
Can’t you just hear him?

“Since NASA isn’t launchin’ missions to the Moon, I’m expectin’ our state to start seizin’ this economic opportunity,” he could say. “Agriculture is growin’ and Illinois need to be gettin’ competitive.”

Back to what passes for reality in Illinois…

Last week, Rauner attacked teachers by proposing a CPS takeover, and the next day somehow made impeached ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Prison) look good by endorsing Senate President John Cullerton’s old pension-reform proposal idea while adding a “poison pill” he knew lawmakers would reject.

CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) have been negotiating for months, and the rank and file recently showed determination. Of 24,000 CTU members, 88 percent voted to authorize a strike.
In 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike, its first work stoppage in 25 years.

Echoing his anti-union “Turnaround Agenda,” Rauner would let his appointed State Board of Education replace the Chicago mayor's appointed school board until he considered CPS’s finances stable. The state would bargain a new teachers' contract or oversee labor relations if the district goes bankrupt. (Yes, the scheme also would let districts go bankrupt and void contracts. Current state law prohibits bankruptcies by schools or any local government.)

Before the measures were even introduced – House Republican Leader Jim Durkin is filing HB 4498 in the House, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno reportedly plans to enter SB 2275 – Democrats were flabbergasted and defiant.

“This is not going to happen,” Cullerton said. “It's mean-spirited and evidence of their total lack of knowledge of the real problems facing Chicago Public Schools.”

Indeed, the takeover seemed like a distraction from Rauner’s failure to participate, much less lead, in governing the fifth-most populous state in the country. After all, how could anybody think Rauner could run CPS when he’s done so poorly leading the state?

The next day, Rauner further stunned Illinoisans by proclaiming a pension deal – which didn’t exist.

Rauner said he’d agreed with Cullerton on pension reform (and condemned House Speaker Michael Madigan as "unreasonable”). But the Governor’s claim dissolved the same day.

Announcing a “breakthrough” to reform the state’s pension system, he added that he was changing it to eliminate wages as a bargaining subject for labor negotiations.

“The plan he outlined at his news conference isn’t what we talked about,” Cullerton said hours later. “It’s not my plan. It goes beyond what we discussed – and beyond what I support. I think collective bargaining should continue to exist, and the governor does not.”

Rauner later claimed he was misunderstood, intending only to prohibit unions from bargaining over different wages set when state employees decided between two new options to the pension status quo.

Ah. Sure. (There is a connection between “lunar” and “loon.”)

If Rauner’s make-believe compromise resulted in a failure to launch, or he takes over Chicago schools, who’ll take over the state?

Maybe the Man in the Moon.

[PICTURED: Photo of Gov. Rauner from thepetitionsite.com.]

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A ‘dirty dozen’ economic facts that can’t be overlooked

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Jan. 25, 26 or 27

Gas prices are down more than 20 percent from a year ago but oil producers worry about supply-and-demand factors at the core of the free market, and stock markets fret about China’s changing economy since that nation also holds considerable global investments.

Yes, as Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign adopted as its reminder to the candidate: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

So maybe the political rhetoric will start focusing on pocketbook issues instead of foolish bombast fueling fear and hate, After all, the economy hits most Americans far harder than immigration, terrorism and starting more wars, says Les Leopold, author of “Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice.”

“Instead of using government to create jobs, we use government to fund prisons,” says Leopold. “Instead of a War on Poverty we have declared war on the poor.”

His 320-page paperback, which has plenty of impartial sources and illustrative charts, outlines the most vital factors that everyday people face:

1. The rich are getting richer, the rest of us aren’t. There’s always been a gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country, but for decades that division was mitigated by government policies on labor, banking and taxation. That changed.

“After 1980, the incomes of the top 1% exploded while the wages of the bottom 90% stagnated,” Leopold says.

2. Greed on Wall Street and by CEOs. The income difference between corporate bosses and average workers worsened.

“The gap between the pay of the top CEOs and the average worker jumped from 45 to 1 in 1970 to 829 to 1 today,” he says. “The game is rigged.”

3. The biggest banks are getting bigger. The nation’s top four banks, complicit in the financial meltdown of 2008, have grown even larger since the Great Recession.

4. Students are crippled with debt. Americans convinced that education would help them prosper have been saddled with enormous debt tied to big banks’ burdensome loans.

5. Child poverty. The United State leads the developed world in this shameful category.

“Nothing more clearly reflects the values of a country than how it treats its children,” Leopold says. “The countries of northern Europe have nearly eradicated childhood poverty.”

6. An inadequate minimum wage. America is the only country in the developed world where you can work full time and still live in poverty.

“The real buying power of the minimum wage – after taking into account of inflation – has been on the decline since its peak in the 1960s,” Leopold says. “A minimum wage of $7 an hour is a starvation wage.”

7. The tax system favors the rich. The wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes because they shift money overseas or exploit a tax code written to benefit them, excusing it in the “trickle-down” theory that decreasing taxes on the rich helps everyone else.

“The poorer you are, the more you pay as a percent of your income,” Leopold writes.

8. The rich buy the political system. After the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, money is pouring into politics as never before.

9. “The American Dream” is fading. The idea that hard work pays off in upward mobility – has become elusive.

“We cherish the idea that our children will do as well or better than we have done,” he says, “but the odds of rising above your father’s economic position in the U.S. is about 50/50.

10. The United States has become the world’s largest police state. Economic inequality costs U.S. society freedom, Leopold argues.

“Because we refuse to use government to provide decent-paying work for those willing and able to work, we leave cities mired in poverty,” he says. “As a result, we now have more prisoners in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population than any country. The incarceration surge started with the onset of runway inequality.”

11. An obstructionist Congress hinders economic progress. From the time President Barack Obama was inaugurated, Republican leaders’ priority wasn’t improving the nation, but defeating Obama. Nevertheless, Obama has presided over more than 65 consecutive months of private-sector job growth, with almost 14 million new jobs added during his two terms in office.

12. Wage stagnation.
In the three decades following World War II, hourly compensation of most workers went up 91 percent, nearly the growth of productivity (97 percent). But from 1973 to 2013, hourly compensation of a typical worker rose just 9 percent while productivity increased 74 percent.

“Most of us haven’t had a real raise (after inflation) for more than a decade,” Leopold says.

[PICTURED: Les Leopold.]

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Working together may be in our genes - literally

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 21, 22 or 23

Maybe there’s a biological imperative to a philosophical ideal – and one mutation may confirm the human impulse to cooperate.

Mutations are evolutionary hiccups that happen all the time (apart from pop culture’s mutant X-Men), it’s been known for awhile. Now, however, new research not only shows a biological aberration 600 million years ago essentially opened up Earth to life beyond single-celled organisms, but it indirectly points to a direction for civilization (which we occasionally ignore).

In a paper published last week in the online journal eLife [www.elifesciences.org], scientists say they found what seems to be an evolutionary glitch that let ancient protozoa gradually change into multi-cellular organisms of complexity – and familiarity, form and function. Largely because of this mutation, cells became able to communicate and collaborate.

“This mutation is one small change that dramatically altered the protein’s function, allowing it to perform a completely different task,” said lead researcher Ken Prehoda of the University of Oregon’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “You could say that animals really like these proteins. There are now over 70 of them inside of us.

“Proteins are the workhorses of our cells, performing a wide variety of tasks such as metabolism,” he continued. “But how does a protein that performs one task evolve to perform another? And how do complex systems like those that allow cells to work together in an organized way, evolve the many different proteins they require? Our work suggests that new protein functions can evolve with a very small number of mutations. In this case, only one was required.”

The discovery was made thanks to choanoflagellates — tiny balloon-shaped organisms that are humans’ closest one-cell relatives that remain around — and a scheme called “ancestral protein reconstruction,” which let researchers from Oregon and the University of California- Berkeley uncover genomes of long-dead creatures based on the DNA of their contemporary descendants.

Choanoflagellates were appropriate for Prehoda’s study because the organisms are single-celled but sometimes cooperate by swimming as a group, helping themselves to “hunt” and eat. In such action, the group behaves as one multi-cellular organism.

Prehoda and colleagues discovered that, millennia ago, one mutation changed a protein to interact rather than act independently and individually, like enzymes. With the mutation, the protein became an “interaction domain” able to “communicate” and join together to organize for a common purpose. Hundreds of millions of years later, the protein domain is in all animal genomes.

Maybe our species – once we became self-aware – began to instinctively sense that connection, communication and collaboration work.

Culturally, there are all kinds of references to the concept.

In First Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, “The body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”

Some 1,800 years later, Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull said, “As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but all together we make a mighty fist.”

Somewhere in their heart of hearts, perhaps Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan – much less Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, or the Cubs’ Joe Maddon and Redbirds manager Michael Matheny, etc. – feel that common ground exists, that sociopolitical or cultural collaboration is the way to go.

Humans may not need to evolve.

Maybe we just need to heed our own intuition.

[PICTURED: Illustration from imarketsolutions.com.]

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Pension threat met with mix of panic, prayer and purpose

Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Jan. 18, 19 or 20

While much of the nation last Thursday spent the day chatting about a few Powerball winners, and that night watching Republican candidates squabble on the Fox Business Network, thousands of current and retired Teamsters hoped and prayed they’d be spared the catastrophe of pension cuts, and hundreds of them of attended a town hall meeting in Peoria to share their concern with Treasury official Kenneth Feinberg.

Everyday people stood at microphones and shared their fears and tears and rage and more.

“Unless you have a heart of stone, you cannot help but be affected,” Feinberg said.

The U.S. Treasury Dept. is soliciting public comments at such meetings in Columbus and Milwaukee, St. Louis and Detroit, Indianapolis and Minneapolis before Feinberg rules on a September application by the Central States Pension Fund to drastically cut promised pensions in a “rescue plan” under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 to restore solvency to the troubled fund.

Although beneficiaries are mostly Teamsters, the Fund isn’t controlled by the union. Four trustees are appointed by the Teamsters International but four are named by participating employers.

It used to be illegal to cut promised pension benefits. But in 2014, Congress – after heavy lobbying by Central States, with no public hearings and no debate – changed that within a must-pass spending bill. That law lets multi-employer pension plans – set up to be jointly run by unions and employers – to apply to temporarily or permanently cut benefits.

Retirees were notified of the cut sought, and many are almost 60 percent of what they’d been promised.

Feinberg – the attorney who supervised the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the program compensating families of 9/11 victims – told the downstate Illinois meeting that he’s heard three main responses from the public: Kill the proposal, the planned cuts are inequitable, and the procedure to permit participants to vote on the measure are unfair.

Under the law Congress passed, participants would have to vote online and a non-vote would count as a “Yes,” Feinberg said.

“We haven’t had many retirees who like the plan” he said. But “I’m obligated to follow the law.”
But the law isn’t just, all the retirees who spoke said.

Thomas Pilat objected to a lack of information to participants, the limited opportunity to comment and the Fund’s “unrealistic actuarial judgment.”

Judy Weeks said her family faces a 58.4 percent cut in a pension her household is counting on.
“Consider the impact of these cuts on local economies,” she told Feinberg.

Keith Gleason, president of Teamsters Local 627 in Peoria said though people are outraged about Congress’s action, the opposition isn’t political.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Gleason said. “If we asked for a show of hands in here, we’d probably have as many Republicans as Democrats. But Central States has the audacity to call these cuts a ‘rescue plan.’ This is going to be a disaster.”

Other comments were powerful: poignant and personal, angered and indomitable in a determination to stop the attack on their futures:

* “They’re changing the rules of the game after the game has already been played.”

* “Besides the retired workers, this is putting a lot of stress on whole families.”

* “If this goes through, my co-pay on insurance will eat up my whole pension.”

* “Their financial planning has been upside-down [and if it’s approved] my lifestyle is unsustainable.”

* “If this is OK’d, I’ll have to sell everything and live in a trailer, and I don’t mean a mobile home.”

* “There have been big bank bailouts. Throw us some scraps – bail out our pensions.”

* “Why is the little guy always paying? I’ve never begged in my life and I’m begging you: Stop this. This is a crisis.”

Under Central States’ proposed rescue plan, benefit reductions could become effective around July 1 if approved by Feinberg and plan participants, but Central States also noted “Treasury, by law, can override a negative participant vote and order the plan implemented and/or modified.”

Feinberg was not unsympathetic but stressed he is limited by the statute.

Asked how soon he may decide, he said, “No cuts can be made until I make my determination, so I’m in no hurry.”

Toward the end of the two-hour session, one man said he was praying for Feinberg’s compassion and another said, “You’re the last, best hope we’ve got.”

[PICTURED: Treasury's Feinberg at the meeting in Peoria last week. Photo by Bill Knight.]

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Repeal the Affordable Care Act? ‘Not this day!’

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Jan. 14, 15 or 16

President Obama is no infallible king. After all, progressives can be as disappointed in him as conservatives are infuriated. Liberals regret his first-term failure to support the Employee Free Choice Act when labor-law reform was possible – and could have prevented current attacks on unions, and are angered at his capitulation to corporate interests in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

But as his last State of the Union speech still echoes, Obama’s record in the last year shows he hasn’t been ineffective either. From leading a bipartisan effort to address infrastructure to a multinational coalition to dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and from thawing relations with Cuba and helping the world start to cope with climate change, he’s achieved much.

Recently, he was inspiring as he protected progress on health care for everyday Americans by vetoing Republicans’ 62nd (!) attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) despite its successes and people’s increasing participation. Passing the House 240-81 and the Senate (for the first time) 52-47, H.R. 3762 (the ill-named Reconciliation Act) was a stunt to show anti-government Republican voters in an election year that conservatives were still trying to defeat the man Americans elected to lead the country.

With ACA enrollment ending Jan. 31, more than 11 million people have signed up, the Department of Health and Human Services reported – almost 2 million more than last year. More uninsured Americans are on board, and more younger Americans are signed up – important because they typically are healthier, and low-risk customers help balance higher-risk policyholders, so marketplaces such as Illinois’ getcovered.illinois.gov are stabilized.

In a strong letter to the House of Representatives, Obama stood up to the GOP with facts – and resolve.

His veto message said, “This legislation would not only repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act, but would reverse the significant progress we have made in improving health care in America.

“It is working,” he said. “About 17.6 million Americans have gained health care coverage as the law’s coverage provisions have taken effect. The nation’s uninsured rate now stands at its lowest level ever, and demand for marketplace coverage during December was at an all-time high. Health-care costs are lower than expected when the law was passed, and health care quality is higher.”

If enacted, he continued, “The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the legislation would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 22 million after 2017. The Council of Economic Advisers estimates that this reduction in health care coverage could mean, each year, more than 900,000 fewer people getting all their needed care, more than 1.2 million additional people having trouble paying other bills due to higher medical costs, and potentially more than 10,000 additional deaths.”

If Republicans killed the ACA, he added, “about 150 million Americans with employer-based insurance would be at risk of higher premiums and lower wages. And it would cause the cost of health coverage for people buying it on their own to skyrocket.”

Further, “by eliminating federal Medicaid funding for a major provider of health care, H.R. 3762 would limit access to health care for men, women and families across the nation, and would disproportionately impact low-income individuals.

“Rather than refighting old political battles by once again voting to repeal basic protections that provide security for the middle class, members of Congress should be working together to grow the economy, strengthen middle-class families, and create new jobs. Because of the harm this bill would cause to the health and financial security of millions of Americans, it has earned my veto.”

Where’s this guy been? One can nearly hear Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings”:

“I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me!” he says in the final installment of filmmaker Peter Jackson’s trilogy. “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand!”

Maybe we should stand in the last year of Obama’s second term – especially when fear and hatred are promoted by too many Republican presidential candidates. As “Lord of the Ring’s” Theoden says in a conversation with Aragorn, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” In his later battle speech he adds, “Forth! And fear no darkness! Arise!”

[PICTURED: Illustration from deviantart.com.]