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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.

 

 

RahmEmanuel ChuyGarcia 600x450

 

Rahm Emanuel & Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. Photos provided by the respective campaigns.  

We should know, an hour or two after the polls close on April 7, if Chicago’s getting a new mayor, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, or re-hiring the current one, Rahm Emanuel, for another four years.  

Election night may be short, but the next four years could feel like eternity for the winner.
 
Chicago, as you’ve heard repeatedly, is facing daunting challenges, topped by a serious financial crisis, and that means eligible voters should be assessing the candidates—their backgrounds, track records, plans for solving the big problems, and leadership skills—so they can make informed decisions about who’s best equipped to keep the city from going over the fiscal cliff.
 
Emanuel and Garcia addressed the big issues in the Better Government Association’s first 2015 Mayoral Questionnaire before the Feb. 24 election—you can read their responses here—but we thought it was important to draft another version with a slightly different format and a couple new topics in advance of the winner-take-all runoff. 
 
So we invited them to share their governing philosophies, including views on privatizing city assets and services, the scope and authority of an inspector general, and compliance with FOIA— the state’s open records law.
 
We also asked about public safety, campaign spending, the use of public land, citizen input on major projects and, of course, municipal finance. 
 
Emanuel refers to his track record, and promises to "build upon the reforms of this first term." 
 
He supports privatization in some cases, and backs two big projects—the Lucas Museum on the lakefront and the Obama Library on the South Side—while challenger Garcia criticizes the mayor’s overall performance, expresses skepticism about privatization, and argues for a new City Hall agenda that begins by "organizing a working committee to examine the full range of existing and potential revenue options."
 
Neither candidate has a specific revenue plan—they dance around the toxic issue of raising property taxes—and both allude to options that require legislative approval in Springfield.
 
"I have long argued for more balanced revenue sources…such as a progressive income tax," says Garcia, adding he’ll confront the city’s financial burden by delivering services more efficiently, transparently, accountably and collaboratively.
 
Emanuel puts it this way:
 
"We have made real progress in righting the financial ship, cutting the structural deficit in half without raising property taxes, sales, or gas taxes, and implementing pension reform by partnering with labor. 
 
"Our biggest remaining financial challenge is to provide retirement security for our workers without sacrificing our future as a city of opportunity."
 
 
And if you’re feeling really wonky, watch my recent "Candid Conversations" with the candidates at bettergov.org.
 
The final weeks of the campaign will also feature two more televised debates, so tune in to hear not just what Emanuel and Garcia have to say, but how they say it, because it’s helpful to see them side-by-side answering questions and interacting.
 
You’ll also be bombarded with a final round of political commercials, mostly from Emanuel’s campaign because he’s raised so much more money. 
 
Keep in mind that candidates use paid media to burnish their own accomplishments and exaggerate their opponent’s shortcomings, so view the spots with a healthy dose of skepticism.
 
And most importantly—big picture—remember what’s at stake here: The future of our city.
 
So please: Pay attention, then do your civic duty and vote.
 
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org. Find him on twitter @andyshawbga
 

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U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock's Washington office / the Chicago Sun-Times

Schock Waves. Schock Jock. Sticker Schock. Schock and Awe.

Pundits and wordsmiths are having a field day with Peoria Congressman Aaron Schock, whose cavalier and apparently improper use of tax dollars and campaign cash for personal travel, entertainment and a laughable Capitol Hill office makeover has made him a poster child for a disease that infects a lot of tone-deaf politicians:

Chronic hubris, caused by excessive exposure to fawning aides and constituents; loose rules and lax oversight; a grandiose sense of entitlement, and unrealistic feelings of invincibility.

The Rx? Multiple investigations and a suddenly uncertain political future for one of the Republican Party’s rising stars.

Sadly, the problem goes well beyond Schock’s use of public and political funds for helicopter rides and private plane trips to football games, concerts and staff weekends; pricey meals and hotel rooms; and a D.C. office remodeled to resemble Downton Abbey.

He got caught, thanks to the dogged digging of Washington reporters, including the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet.

But legions of public officials bend the rules without being detected or held accountable because there aren’t enough watchdogs shining a light on their alleged chicanery.

The Better Government Association’s reported on some of the flagrant examples, including:

There’s no indication Illinois election officials followed up on our findings, and the overall paucity of penalties for questionable expenditures suggests most alleged transgressions are ignored.

Even the periodic enforcement is pretty lame — small fines or gentle slaps on the wrist that don’t scare anyone.

Election boards blame a lack of resources, but there’s also an apparent lack of will, and vague or poorly written laws filled with loopholes and escape hatches.

So we’re left with toothless tigers unable to cope with herds of gallivanting wildebeests.

And even the strongest recent case against local politicians who misused campaign cash — it led to prison sentences for ex-Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife Sandi, the former alderman — is laced with irony:

The feds discovered the Jacksons’ misdeeds, almost as an aside, during an investigation that began with the ex-congressman’s interest in the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama was vacating and former Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to barter after Obama was elected President in '08.

In other words, if Blago didn’t have "this thing that’s f-in golden" — appointment power — the ambitious Jacksons might not have attracted the scrutiny of the FBI.

So let’s watch "L’affaire Schock" play out to its logical conclusion, with the congressman held appropriately accountable by authorities and constituents.

And at the same time, let’s push for tougher and less ambiguous campaign finance laws, and election boards with enough money, manpower and motivation to enforce the stronger laws.

If that happens, it truly will be "shock and awe" for reformers and watchdogs.

And, of course, satisfaction that we’ve taken another important step toward the better government we’re entitled to.

 

 

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached atashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

Cash-poor yet clout heavy?

AMC’s hit show "The Walking Dead" is back and once again pulling in sky-high ratings. In case you haven’t seen it, the show follows a team of people fighting to survive in a world filled with undead, bloodthirsty zombies.

Life at the Better Government Association sometimes feels a bit like that, but instead of zombies we’re confronted with bad government programs that never seem to die.

Case in point: Years of embarrassing disclosures finally created enough pressure to kill the state’s scandalized Legislative Scholarship Program, which expired in 2012 with a stroke of former Gov. Pat Quinn’s pen.

The move came after numerous media stories, including these BGA investigations with the Sun-Times:

  • The daughter of state Rep. Dan Burke’s former Springfield secretary getting free tuition, even though she didn’t live in Burke’s Southwest Side legislative district — the program’s only requirement.
  • Chicago Ald. Anthony Beale’s daughter receiving a scholarship from state Rep. Bob Rita, a political ally who employed a member of Beale’s family.
  • State Rep. Monique Davis handing out scholarships to at least ten students who didn’t live in her South Side district.
  •  
  • Even President Barack Obama, while serving in the Illinois Senate, may have bent the rules by awarding two scholarships to students who weren’t in his district.

Those examples, and many others, finally convinced lawmakers to terminate a $13 million program that was designed to help needy and deserving students, but wound up benefiting too many sons and daughters of politically connected insiders.

Despite that, state Rep. Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City) not only wants to bring the program back from the dead, he wants to expand it.

Under Jones’ plan, lawmakers would be able to annually award four one-year scholarships, and two four-year free rides to public colleges and universities in Illinois.

That’s four more scholarship years than the old program.

Jones argues the scholarships benefited a lot of students with the brains, but not the bucks, to attend college, and says it should have been reformed, not dismantled.

He also claims the new legislation includes enough built-in controls to eliminate the scams that permeated the earlier version.

"This was a program that didn’t need to be dismantled totally," Jones told the BGA.

That reminds me of something I said at the bill signing that ended the program in 2012: "This is not about depriving needy students of educational opportunities — this is about depriving greedy lawmakers of unethical patronage opportunities."

It’s still true today. College is expensive, and needy Illinois students can certainly use a break.

So helping them is a noble cause — but it’s a job for educators, not politicians, especially lawmakers who regrettably demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, they can’t handle it.

There’s also a cost issue: Jones’ plan doesn’t provide funding for the scholarships; it would be up to colleges and universities already facing tight budgets and the prospect of massive new cuts in state aid to absorb the added expense.

"We can’t just keep demanding that universities keep providing more and more things," said state Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Sycamore).

It’s unclear if Jones’ bill has enough support to pass. The offices of Gov. Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan are both noncommittal.

But if it does show signs of life, the BGA and many other "zombie-hunting" watchdogs will try once again to kill it.

Because, let’s face it: Some things are just better off dead.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached atashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.

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