How Illinois residents want to close the budget gap

A recent report sums up how Illinois residents between 2008 and 2016 want to address the state’s budget issues:

First, here’s how people want to address the budget deficit, according to the most recent polling.

Party Cuts Both Revenues Haven’t Thought Don’t Know/Other
Total 47% 33% 10% 4% 6%
Democrats 36% 36% 16% 5% 7%
Republicans 60% 32% 4% 3% 2%
Independents 50% 34% 9% 4% 3%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy…
So maybe we don’t want to cut our way to a balanced budget after all. Which makes sense, since it’s more or less impossible to do so without gutting programs that people support and use. That makes the next question all the more relevant: What new revenues do people favor?…
But there’s one thing that is relatively popular: soaking the rich. And the more closely targeted the policy is towards the rich, the more popular it is…
All in all, it’s a good measure of why we’re in such chaos. We claim we want to cut our way out of the problem, but only one type of cut (pensions) gets even close to an overall majority and is constitutionally prohibited. We’re actually in favor of higher taxes, but only in forms that are constitutionally prohibited, not that even an advisory referendum on a millionaire’s tax can make it onto the ballot. And one of the governor’s pet projects, extremely popular among the electorate and a potentially valuable piece of political leverage, would most likely do little to alleviate any of these problems.

Not a very hopeful analysis. In other words, voters and politicians have worked together to put together plans that significant portions of voters liked (i.e., pensions) but then neither want to enact certain changes (spending cuts and new taxes) that would help solve the past problems.

Is this good evidence for hitting a reset button on the entire state government? Bankruptcy to deal with existing debts? A completely new tax structure? More broadly, a new state constitution? Past actions in a bureaucracy tend to constrain certain future actions while enabling others…has Illinois simply run out of palatable options?

No money, no Illiana Expressway

According to Illinois officials, the Illiana Expressway project has been halted:

Illinois Department of Transportation officials decided “in light of the state’s current fiscal crisis and a lack of sufficient capital resources, the Illiana Expressway will not move forward at this time. Project costs exceed currently available resources,” a statement from the governor said.

The move is not surprising, given Acting IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn opposed the road when he was chief of the Chicago Metropolitan Area for Planning.

“We see no evidence the Illiana would lead to sustained job creation over the long term,” Blankenhorn said in 2013. “There is potential it would expose the state to significant financial risk.”…

Rauner is feuding with Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton over the Democrats’ budget and how to solve a massive deficit.

This has been quite the controversial project and there have always been questions about the initial funding and ongoing costs. New highways are costly and Illinois doesn’t have much money to spend. Yet, now we get to find out whether this is simply another bargaining chip in the ongoing budget battles in Springfield. While we’ve seen a lot about the Chicago area politics of this expressway, what does Madigan think about it? Will the claims that the highway would be a boon for economic development be resurrected at some point?

Three bold aspects of Emanuel’s $7 billion infrastructure plan for Chicago

A proposal for a $7 billion infrastructure plan in Chicago during a tough financial time for many municipalities catches the attention of the New York Times:

“There is tremendous interest in doing something different — people aren’t waiting for the federal government to raise the gasoline tax or pass the carbon tax and have money raining down,” [Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution] said. He cited successful campaigns in “can-do states” that include Colorado, Washington, Arizona and Virginia to finance economic development projects with public-private partnerships, and Los Angeles’ vote in support of a major transportation referendum in 2008…

In the speech, to be delivered at the Chicagoland Laborers’ Training and Apprentice Center, Mr. Emanuel will describe the financing for the sprawling plan. Some of it will come from the newly created Chicago Infrastructure Trust, an initiative announced this month by Mayor Emanuel and former President Bill Clinton, who has long had an interest in infrastructure and energy efficiency. The fund, a nonprofit corporation, pools outside investment and applies it to a wide range of possible projects.

Other funds will come from cost cutting, some from the savings in energy and water use from retrofitting buildings, and some from user fees, but “none of these funds will come from an increase in property or sales taxes,” according to the speech. A copy was provided to The New York Times through the mayor’s office. Depending on the project, some of the investment would be paid back through interest on loans, others through profit sharing.

Still, economic development efforts in the past have tended to disappoint, Mr. Puentes noted, because they tended to pay businesses to relocate or threw money into projects like stadiums. Some public-private partnership projects have been criticized as giveaways to the private businesses that take them over — including two prominent cases in Chicago itself, the privatized Chicago Skyway and the city’s parking meter system, which obligate the city to leases that span generations. Mr. Emanuel says that the city has learned an important lesson, and that “I am not leasing anything,” or selling off the city’s assets, he said in an interview. “I’m using private capital to improve a public entity that stays public.”

This sounds bold on several levels:

1. The high cost of the project. Chicago has some large budget issues (a projected deficit of $635 million for 2012) as do some other local taxing bodies like the Chicago Public Schools who have a projected $700 million shortfall for next year. The cost itself, however funded, will be a difficult sell to some.

2. Infrastructure itself can be difficult to sell to the public. However, this is a growing issue for many cities that are working with decades-old infrastructure yet wanting to be part of the 21st century. At some point, these problems will have to be fixed and a good case can be made that cities (and the country) should be more proactive rather than waiting for bigger issues to arise.

3. I think the key here is the idea of a public-private partnership to fund infrastructure. Can this truly work on a large scale? Will the public believe that they won’t end up being on the hook if the private funding doesn’t work out? Can the process be fairly transparent and not done in the shadows? This idea is a big part of Emanuel’s plans for Chicago; a recent plan for Chicago’s business future was heavily dependent on the World Business Chicago group. As I’ve suggested before, if Emanuel can leverage the business community in areas like successful infrastructure improvements, he will likely get a lot of accolades.

Sociologist: lower rates of poverty the result of “robust social policy”

A profile of sociologist David Brady summarizes his arguments about how a larger welfare state limits poverty:

Brady’s 2009 book Rich Democracies, Poor People: How Politics Explain Poverty, offers an analysis of social inequality that is counter to the prevailing notion that it is an inescapable outcome of individual failings – known as the “culture of poverty” – or the result of rising unemployment. It shows that among affluent western societies there are immense variations in poverty: from almost 20% of the population in the US at one end of a scale, followed by Canada, Australia, Spain and Italy, to less than 10% at the other end – where the Scandinavian countries sit – with the UK and Germany somewhere in between.

The reason for such stark differences lies not with the numbers of single mums or jobless people but with whether a country has made larger investments in the welfare state, argues Brady. For those countries that have spent proportionately more on pensions, healthcare, family assistance and unemployment compensation – what we in Britain call the welfare state and Brady refers to as “social policy” – poverty levels will be lower…

British attitude surveys have shown a marked decline in support for redistribution since the mid-1980s, and opinion polls suggest a majority of the British public believes that the government pays out too much in benefits and that welfare levels overall should be reduced…

He challenges poverty campaigns in the UK to address head-on politicians’ concerns around benefit dependency and the so-called something for nothing culture. “Spending on social policy is something for something,” he asserts. “[It is] a social investment in the next generation – on good schools and childcare – that manages against risk by preventing people from falling into poverty. And, above all, it is a citizen’s right.”

While this profile talks about how Brady’s work fits with current British politics and government cost-cutting, I imagine he would have some commentary about the current situation in the United States.

I would be interested to hear Brady discuss whether there are trade-offs for this kind of welfare state spending or whether it really is more good than not. For example, if you spend all of that money fighting poverty, does it limit a country’s abilities to spend in other important areas?

This gets more complicated when Brady introduces the ideas of rights. In America, we often have costs-benefits arguments about government spending – can we afford it or is it worth the money spent? If we spend money in one direction, say, promoting job creation, will we get money on the other end, say less paid out in unemployment? The idea of rights shifts the discussion away from just the finances and suggests it is more about values than money.

Maybe I should just track down the book…

Trying to hold a county fair in suburban DuPage County

DuPage County now has over 915,000 people and has little open land left for development. Amidst rapid suburbanization after World War II, there has always been a DuPage County Fair. Now, there is public debate about whether it makes sense to continue having this event:

The DuPage County Board should examine the long-term viability of its county fair and how distribution of state funding for the event is handled, a consultant has recommended.

And if the fair continues, the county should consider a new location, even if it means sharing a site with another county, the consultant recommends…

The fair, held each July on county-owned land in Wheaton east of DuPage’s government center, is run by a nonprofit association that relies heavily on funding that is funneled from the state Department of Agriculture through the Fair and Exposition Authority. Transferring that responsibility to the County Board would remove a layer of government by in effect eliminating the need for the seven-member fair authority, and that would “relieve the county of any associated risk,” the firm said.

Crowe Horwath pointed to decreased funding from the state and declining fair attendance as reasons why the county should consider whether the fair makes sense at all in the long run. The fair received an average of $300,000 a year in 2005-07. The figure in 2011 was about $198,000. The firm also noted that the fairgrounds are valuable property for which a better use might be found. The fair leases the land for $1,375 a year.

It is not surprising that this discussion has arisen in an era of fiscal issues at multiple levels of government.

The best argument I could imagine for the fair is that it is a reminder of what DuPage County once was. For the first 100 years of its history, DuPage County was primarily farmland and small towns that were within the orbit of Chicago. Produce from the farms could be shipped by rail or road to Chicago, destined for eastern markets through the Great Lakes, or to the southwest, eventually bound for the Mississippi River and points due south. One farm in the county even became the focus of a television show during the early 1950s:

In the spring of 1953, the Illinois Depart­ment of Agriculture began a search for a farm and a farm family who would become the stars of a new television show on the National Broadcasting Company. One of the thirty-five farms on the itinerary was the Harbecke Farm on Gary Avenue, rural Cloverdale in Bloom­ingdale Township, operated by Harbecke’s daughter and son-in-law, Bertha and Wilbert Landmeier. Tracing their roots to pioneer German farm families, the young couple had moved to the Harbecke Farm to operate a dairy farm. They had recently installed dairy equip­ment which carried the milk in refrigerated tubes from the milking machine to cooling tanks on the milk truck, which transported the commodity to an Addison dairy. The farm also had a hay drier which was another piece of modern machinery not found on every farm in  1953. These advantages, plus the fact that the location was considered one of the best be­tween Chicago and the Fox River for beaming the television waves, made the selection of the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm ideal for the show.

Thus, “Out on the Farm” began the first of a two-year run from the Harbecke-Landmeier Farm in the summer of 1953.  During the second season the first outdoor network colorcast originating from Chicago was the pickup from the Landmeier Farm. At the end of the 1954 season, the show was over, as Cloverdale and all of DuPage County were due for rapid change.

Here is a short description of the transformation from farmland to urban county:

The DuPage County Fair is the only county fair in Illinois located in a completely urban setting. Historical research showed that when the first DuPage County Fair was held in 1955, the county was 85% farmland. By 2000, the last farm vanished as DuPage County was absorbed into Chicago’s urban sprawl.

Today, the only farms DuPage County residents are likely to know about are Forest Preserve properties such as Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago or St. John’s Farm in Warrenville.

In the end, it sounds like it will be difficult to reserve valuable land for a week of nostalgia and history every year.

Sociologist: downgrade threat of terrorism in US to a “tiny” threat

Remember when terrorism was the number one concern in the United States? A new report features a sociologist arguing that terrorism is a “tiny” threat in the United States. Here is some of the evidence:

Kurzman’s report, “Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11,” said that compared to the 14,000 murders in the U.S. last year, the potential for Muslim Americans to take up terrorism is “tiny.”

In the 10 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 193 Muslim Americans have been indicted in terrorist plots, or fewer than 20 per year, Kurzman said.

Just one of those indicted last year was actually charged with carrying out an attack — Yonathan Melaku, who fired shots at military buildings in northern Virginia — compared to six Muslim Americans who carried out attacks in 2010, including Faizal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber.

“This number is not negligible — small numbers of Muslim Americans continue to radicalize each year and plot violence,” Kurzman wrote. “However, the rate of radicalization is far less than many feared in the aftermath of 9/11.”

This reminds me of the idea that the “war on terror” is more of a social construction than actual threat. Granted, the money and resources spent on fighting terrorism may just have contributed to the low number of terrorists but the large application of resources plus the political rhetoric (remember the days of terror alerts?) plus media accounts may have just blown this up into a bigger issue than it actually was.

It would be interesting to hear what Kurzman thinks should be done in response to this data. On one hand, perhaps we should spend less time and effort fighting terrorism, particularly in an era of a lot of other issues and fiscal shortfalls. On the other hand, who wants to be the politician or expert that says things are okay and some major incident occurs? Is just one incident of terrorism just too many to handle? This sounds like a very similar tradeoff to what the options are in dealing with (falling rates of) crime.

Innovative solution to homelessness: taxpayer funded stadiums in Florida have to host homeless

It sounds like this idea has a long way to go in the Florida legislature but it is an innovative attempt to deal with homelessness: insist that owners of taxpayer funded stadiums host homeless residents.

As reported by the Miami Herald, state legislators have unearthed an obscure law that has not been enforced since it was adopted in 1988. It states that any ballpark or stadium that receives taxpayer money shall serve as a homeless shelter on the dates that it is not in use.

Now, a new bill would punish owners of teams who play in publicly-funded stadiums if they don’t provide a haven for the homeless. Affected ballparks would include the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark in Miami’s Little Havana, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and several spring training facilities. It also includes the homes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Miami Heat, Jacksonville Jaguars and Florida Panthers.

The newspaper estimates that owners might have to return $30 million in benefits that were already bestowed if the bill passes and they can’t prove they were running homeless shelters (to the newspaper’s knowledge, no teams have been).

I think the overriding concern here based on one thing: governments (and others) are lacking money. This could be an innovative solution: use an existing structure that often sits empty which then cuts costs for building/renting other homeless shelters. Lawmakers have some leverage here because they helped secure funding for these stadiums. A growing body of research suggest that these taxpayer funded stadiums are not boons to the local community. Research suggests that taxpayer funded stadiums don’t help out communities as much as help line the pockets of owners. In other words, communities don’t get the money back that they put into stadiums in the form of taxes and team owners reap the benefits. Also, when teams leave, certain businesses may suffer but eventually residents spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere in the city so the city doesn’t lose out in the long run. Why shouldn’t stadium owners have to give back a little bit more?

I wouldn’t be surprised if more cities try to pursue similar ideas that attach more strings to accessing public funding.