Race, poverty and politics: Springfield passes some bills at deadline, skips some; gun violence on the rise; where's the NATO money?

The folks over at the Chicago Reader have been dutifully following the money around May's NATO summit in a case they have dubbed "the nebulous NATO grant funds." When the summit plans were first announced, a chunk of the money to pay for it was expected to come from federal grant money (and the rest from private donations). The cost of the summit was a big point of contention when the idea was first introduced because it was coming at a time when the city was cutting public services. The Reader article speculates that maybe the reason that the expected $19 million in federal grants to cover security expenses has yet to appear is because the city has not applied for the full amount. In short, says Mick Dumke, "they’ve only applied for $7.5 million so far, none of it’s been awarded yet, and receiving anything beyond that depends on budget politics in Congress."

State lawmakers passed legislation Thursday that removes caps on campaign contributions from political action committees once certain thresholds are breached. The limits are removed after PACs contribute more than $250,000 in statewide races, or above $100,000 in local races. The legislation--SB3722--has incensed campaign finance reform groups like the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Its executive director Brian Gladstein called on Gov. Pat Quinn to veto the bill, citing corrupt fundraising techniques employed by jailed ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich as a reason to do so. Ironically, the bill started as somewhat of a reform measure aimed at disclosing the identities of donors who give to PACs through corporations or unions.

Illinois legislators were not able to come to an agreement on pension reform, though.  The stalemate followed disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over whether to ask local taxpayers to pay teacher pensions to ease the burden on the state. That plan was originally pitched by House Speaker Michael Madigan, which prompted downstate state rep Mike Bost to bust into a tirade that ended up going viral on the Internet. (See below.) Republican House Minority Leader Tom Cross was asked to sponsor a tweaked version of the bill, at the request of Gov. Pat Quinn. A vote was not called, though.  Legislators will be called back for a special session to take up pension reform.

A bill designed to revamp an early prisoner release program also passed on Thursday. Read The Chicago Reporter's coverage of the legislation.

This week, Illinois lawmakers also sent Gov. Pat Quinn a budget for the coming fiscal year that stays within the projected $33.7 billion in state revenue. And pols also passed Medicaid legislation with some aimed at plugging part of a $2.7 billion funding hole. A central component of the legislation includes an additional $1 per-pack state cigarette tax.

The Memorial Day weekend saw a spike in gun violence in Chicago, with 10 people killed and 41 injured in shootings over the three days. This, unfortunately, is following a pattern of increased violence that saw a 60 percent jump in murders in the first three months of the year compared to the same 2011 period. In response, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has zeroed in on gang violence as the main cause of the violence, and called for more police on the streets in response.

Hospital workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are on a three-day strike, starting Wednesday, to demand a contract from their employers. The workers haven't had a contract since 2010. The two sides have met more than 30 times, but have not been able to come to an agreement. About 350 employees, represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 73, were on strike. Striking workers at a Caterpillar plant in Joliet rejected the latest offer from the company, voting 504-116 against, with one saying: "“I would rather be unemployed than Caterpillar slave labor.” According to a striker interview in the Sun-Times, the employees are upset that the contract they were offered didn't include a raise. "I’ve been working for this company for 18 years, I think I deserve 25 cents an hour as an increase,” said Mike Pesek.

Congressman Joe Walsh drew criticism this week after he said the Democrats' "game" was to make Latinos reliant on government subsidies, "just like they got African Americans dependent on government". That comment, made at a small town hall rally, was followed by this doozy: Rev. Jesse Jackson "would be out of work if blacks weren't so dependent on government." Walsh, a Tea Party flamethrower is in a tough re-election race in the northern suburbs, and is running against Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth called his statements "irresponsible", and Jackson told the Associated Press that Walsh's aim was to "incite and polarize."

--Nick Moroni contributed to this post.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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