Friday, March 26, 2010

A House (and Senate) of Brats

"As Speaker, I want every citizen of Illinois to know this is a people's Legislature -- we are here to serve the public, openly, honestly and with the highest standards. I am accountable only to you." Mike Madigan

“We’ve known for years that state pension systems and local pension systems are severely underfunded.” Mike Madigan

We are governed by petulant children. 

In the span of just a few hours this past Wednesday, significant legislation concerning the pension system of most state workers was introduced and passed by both houses of the IL legislature. 

 This was done, as the Chicago Tribune reports, in order to bypass the objections of state employee unions. Mind you, the bill in question is 39 pages, and the language was first seen by the Legislature the morning it was passed. Which doesn't really allow for careful consideration by those voting. In fact, every public reading of the bill required by the IL constitution, save for the last, happened last year and with text that was completely stripped from the final bill. And still it passed (remarkable given the polarization down in the Capitol) by 92-17 in the House, and 48-6 in the Senate. 

Why is this in any way thought of as acceptable behavior? Why can't our state government operate in anything resembling adult fashion? 

Speaker Madigan acknowledged the historical and systemic underfunding of state pensions in the quote above. As arguably the most influential person in state politics for the past 25 years, that funding situation happened on his watch, with budgets that he helped to pass. To let that slide for years, develop a half-assed job of "fixing" it, and then railroad it's passage within the span of a single working day shows considerable chutzpah. It's rather unfortunate that he doesn't use that political muscle in a more representative manner.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

HCR, A Look Back

This is what gets me, more than anything else, about the year-long debate surrounding the Health Care (Insurance) Reform Bill. The cost of health care in this nation is rising at an unsustainable rate. There is an ever-increasing number of people going uninsured due to this cost increase. These trends will continue unabated unless government steps in. All parties involved know this. And yet, as seen above, the GOP followed a strategy that was designed more toward winning elections than representing the needs of their constituents.

It is, by definition, impossible to work in a bipartisan manner when one side is not negotiating in good faith. Despite this, the Democrats essentially negotiated with themselves in shaping the final bill into a reasonable compromise, one that a less-cynical GOP would likely have gone along with. They behaved in an adult manner, and the bill and the country are better off for it. 

Scorched-earth politics is disgusting, but especially so when our country's in a significantly troubled state. It's long past time for our politicians to suck it up and return to the art of compromise. Cause there's plenty of shit that still needs to get done.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Photo Friday

Expect a more wordy post, or perhaps a few, coming soon. In the meantime, here's a couple photos taken on what felt remarkably like a spring day earlier this week. Whee!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Photo Friday

It's Friday, and there's photos to be had. 

The Tragedy that is Illinois Politics (an ongoing saga)

"Now I've made some difficult and painful choices in this budget." IL Gov. Pat Quinn, 3/10/2010

I call bullshit. I'm not a chump, but Pat Quinn has joined the chorus of IL state legislators that acts as though I am. 

Last year, Quinn wanted a 50% increase in the state income tax rate, from 3% to 4.5%. In the middle of the deepest recession since the era of soup lines and the Dust Bowl, he wanted to dig his hands a fair bit deeper into our collective pockets. And honestly, I'm glad he had the stones to give it a try. But it didn't go anywhere, because in Springfield it's always easier to kick the can down the road than to face reality.

Illinois has been mortgaging its assets and living on borrowed cash for far too long. Blagojevich ran up the bills on his watch, and when he couldn't lease the lottery, tax businesses to death, or sell off the Thompson Center, he simply stopped paying into pension requirements or giving constitutionally-mandated cost-of-living increases to judges. Not exactly shining examples of long-term fiscal responsibility. And now with the economy in shambles and IL unemployment at 11.3%, we aren't generating the necessary income tax revenue to balance the budget, much less cover the deferred payments and debt that we've racked up over the years. 

So here we are in 2010, and another budget needs passing. In his address Wednesday, Gov. Quinn tells us that we need to borrow to save money (that actually makes a bit of sense), and that his best solution for a budget with no tax increases is to cut heavily. As such, he tells us the only way we can avoid the loss of 17,000 teachers is to enact a 33% increase in income tax to fund the education deficit. 

But this is simply a shell game, and a particularly dishonest one at that. The State Board of Education budget was shored up with approximately $1.8 Billion of federal funds from the Stimulus over FY2009-2010. These funds were designed to prevent a catastrophic drop-off in educational funding due to the recession, but were always known to be temporary. From :
Invest one-time ARRA funds thoughtfully to minimize the "funding cliff." ARRA represents a historic infusion of funds that is expected to be temporary. Depending on the program, these funds are available for only two to three years. These funds should be invested in ways that do not result in unsustainable continuing commitments after the funding expires.
And now we hear from Gov. Quinn:
"In the current fiscal year, the one we’re in, the federal stimulus program provided One Billion dollars in emergency funding for education in Illinois. Those federal dollars made it possible to protect our education system from severe cuts in the current budget. But those federal stimulus funds for education will end on July 1, 2010 --this year -- and right now, we do not have the revenues to replace those federal dollars."

Fact is, 89.4% of the General Fund budget cuts from FY2010 to FY2011 are coming from Education. Governor's Agencies, which make up over 63% of the General Fund Appropriations, only see a cut of 1.4% of their General Fund Allocation. And when looking at FY2010 Expenditures vs. FY 2011 Appropriations, Governor's Agencies is the only budget category that sees an increase, and that increase is 225% of the total cuts of all other budget categories combined.

We do need to make some difficult choices to bring our state's fiscal situation back into order. But this budget proposal is simply a scare tactic to develop constituent support for an otherwise disagreeable tax increase. It assumes the people of Illinois are a bunch of reactionary sheep, and we deserve better leadership than that.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Get Off My Lawn, #1

(An occasional feature, when I put on my cranky old guy hat and bemoan the little travesties of modern life)
Why is it that cigarette butts are still a socially acceptable form of litter? 

I'm walking to the library yesterday, and a guy who's walking into a bar flicks the remaining third of his Satan Stick into the street before getting to the door. Understandable in one way, since our fair city has banned the enjoyment of smoking in public establishments, for better or worse. But he was literally walking past a butt can as he flung the cigarette away. No second thought, just let's it fly. 

I can't imagine this would be so common if there was a significant social stigma attached to the behavior. You know, like littering?

*Shakes his fist from his perch on the front porch*

Monday, March 1, 2010

Expectations, or Why I Bought A Hybrid

A few years ago, due to an accident that thankfully crumpled only steel and not any people, I found myself in the market for a new car. Well actually for a used car, cause that's how I roll. I had been thinking along the lines of a sporty small wagon or hatchback, something like a Mazda3, but I wasn't too thrilled with the prices. Seems as though vehicles of this type are for some reason popular in heavily urban areas, and they hold their value well. Grrr.

So I was on Craigslist for a week or so, and an ad came along for a 2000 Honda Insight for a very attractive price. My fiancée was enamored with this car when it first came out, and I had said for a long time that I'd buy a hybrid when they became reasonably priced in the used market. Though to be honest, I was hoping for a few more years of personal internal combustion fun before taking the eco-plunge. Regardless, I wanted to use the opportunity to at least get a test drive of this techno-marvel, so I contacted the owner and set one up.

I was not expecting much, as this was (and really, still is) the economy car of economy cars. I really rather enjoy driving, and I'd never owned a vehicle that wasn't well regarded in the "fun-to-drive" metric. So I fully anticipated hating the Insight, and then having to do battle with my eco-conscience when justifying why I wouldn't be buying it. And then I drove the damn thing.

Calling it sporty would be a stretch. But that first drive was eye opening. One, it drove like a real car. Sounds pedantic, but I came into it assuming that it was more like a fragile toy, perhaps a slightly upsized Power Wheels, and I didn't get a bit of that while taking it around. Two, it's dynamics were actually fun. Steering was linear, well weighted, and reasonably precise, it felt spunky off the line, I got to row my own gears, and its low weight was felt. Three, the experience was a blast. The dash was a carnival midway of lights and gauges, all of it giving direct feedback on how my driving was affecting the car's efficiency.  I drove away in my finacée's Miata (a car I am in love with), wondering if I could make this tinny little two seater work in my life.

I took the plunge, and I can say now that it was the right call. After driving it for nearly 3 years and 25,000 miles it soldiers on like a champ, and I can still get well over 500 miles on a 10 gallon tank. With the stares and comments I get, I feel like I'm driving an exotic car, and I guess in many ways that's accurate. It's constructed from aluminum and composites, took its shape from a wind tunnel, it has a ground-breaking propulsion unit spinning the wheels, and only 16,000 were ever built. But even more than that, it's evident that it was designed and built with a singular focus on performance. Just not one of the performance categories most people associate with exotics.

Only a few driving experiences have made me laugh with joy; first power-on oversteer in a light weight RWD car, first time perfectly shifting on entrance and exit from a fast corner, any chance to take the Miata through some twisties on an Autumn day with the heat on and the top down, and the first time my Insight went into Idle Stop and I silently cruised to a halt at a light. Good times.