Race, poverty and politics: Pension reform punted ... again; city pot ordinance moves to council vote; state prison closures

Gov. Quinn’s proposed pension reforms have hit a roadblock as legislators continue to argue over a proposed plan by Senate Democracts to shift pension costs from the state to suburban and downstate school districts. Republicans argue this would cause a rise in property taxes, something they are steadfastly against. Only days ago, a report by the Pew Center on the States found Illinois’ public pension was the worst funded in the country. Illinois is one of four states that doesn’t even have 55 percent of the funds needed to fulfill its long-term pension obligations. This gap has led to state budget cuts affecting, among others, Medicaid recipients, the Department of Child and Family Services, and families on food stamps.

Quinn also signed into law Thursday a bill that will require current and former state workers who receive free health insurance to begin paying premiums. The levels at which they pay will be based on their income. Currently, the annual cost to taxpayers is $800 million, and could top out at $1 billion if left unchecked. A union rep blasted Quinn for signing the bill, calling it “double talk”, and criticizing him for scaling back health insurance benefits while doling out corporate tax breaks.

On Thursday, a city council committeeadvanced an ordinance that would swap arrests and jail for fines for adults caught with less than 15 grams of marijuana. The ordinance was originally introduced last year by 25th Alderman Danny Solis, but it stalled and was brought to life again when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his support for it last week. Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was tepid about the proposal at first, but fully backed it at Thursday’s committee meeting.  The ordinance would fine adults in possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana $250-$500. The council voted 13-1 to send it to the full city council, although several African American aldermen voiced concerns about the fines being too high. Thirty-sixth Ward Ald. Nicholas Sposato was the only “nay” vote; he said he voted against it because he felt 15 grams is an excessive amount to just be ticketed for. The council could vote on the ordinance at its June 27th meeting.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday that he appointed 50 members to the newly created Office of New Americans Advisory Committee. The group was formed, Emanuel said, to make “Chicago the most immigrant friendly city” in the country. A press release from the mayor’s office says the board will be tasked with focusing on “economic opportunities, human capital, education, public safety, health, city services, civic engagement and ensuring that Chicago remains a place where diversity is welcomed and celebrated. They will identify immigrant challenges, strategies and potential solutions and will, together with the ONA, present the plan to the Mayor later this summer.”

Debates continue to rage over the closing of Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison in southern Illinois that activists have long derided as unsafe and overcrowded. Tamms is the state’s only supermax prison, and has been criticized for keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for years at a time. It’s also a strain on the state’s bottom line – keeping a prisoner at Tamms costs $62,000–about three times the statewide average per inmate. On the other side of the debate are residents of Tamms and other downstate towns for which the prison is a main employer. Gov. Quinn is also expected to try to close two more prisons: the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro and the Southern Illinois Adult Transition Center in Carbondale.

The Chicago Reporter was chosen by the Reader as “Best Example of Old Media Hanging in There.” We took it as a compliment. Here’s what they had to say about us: “The Chicago Reporter is 40 years old and still covering racial issues as well as anyone anywhere—which makes it more necessary than it’s ever been, since most other news shops in Chicago—one of the country’s most segregated cities—hardly touch race at all. As when it was launched in 1972, the journal avoids flash and fire in favor of facts.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced a major shake-up at the county morgue, on Tuesday. The two top officials–medical examiner Nancy Jones and chief administrator Kimberly Jackson–are both resigning at the end of July. Jackson will be replaced by Daryl Jackson, a former Illinois Public Health Department supervisor; a nationwide search is underway for Jones’ replacement. The shakeup follows revelations earlier this year that there was an excessive backup of bodies in morgue coolers–something officials in the medical examiner’s office blamed on funding shortages.

Also on Tuesday, the county board OK’d four new appointments Preckwinkle made to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. It also approved a map of redrawn district boundaries. The map kept five African American majority districts and added a third Latino district.

–Yana Kunichoff contributed to this post

© Community Renewal Society 2012



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