Taxes, Pensions, Gerrymandering, and Endless Corruption: 4 Things That Worry Us about Illinois’ Future with Mike Madigan

 

Though Illinois is a great state, our government’s corruption and abuses of power are no secret.

Illinois’ future is bright, but for the state to reach its true potential as a center for economic growth, technology, job creation, and home ownership, it is imperative that we remove barriers to growth—such as Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, the longest-serving member of any state or federal legislative group in the nation’s history.

Madigan has served in the state’s capital since 1971, and Illinois residents have seen the long-term benefits—and notable issues—caused by his policies.

Now, we ask for something new.

We must elevate our discussion above party lines to transcend infighting and lead to positive action. Abraham Lincoln said it best: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

For true reform, we first must look to the issues—and legislators—that threaten to stifle change: rising property taxes, redistricting, pension debt, and deep corruption.

If we can empower leaders to courageously confront these challenges, we know Illinois will have a brighter tomorrow.

 
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Rising Property Taxes, Shrouded in Mystery

For months, reporters from ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune have been investigating and analyzing the “error-ridden” property assessment system overseen by Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, as well as Berrios’ corrupt relationships with law firms and political allies who benefit from his inaccurate assessments.

The reporting has revealed Berrios’ assessments not only unfairly punish property owners, but reward a corrupt appeals process which lines the pockets of politicians and property tax lawyers—most notably Madigan & Getzendanner, the firm owned by long-time Speaker of the House Mike Madigan.

From the story:

“A Berrios ally, Madigan is a founding partner in the six-member firm that has filed appeals on nearly $8.6 billion in assessed value since Berrios took office in December 2010, the most of any firm, according to the appeals analysis.

From 2011 to 2016, Madigan & Getzendanner won reductions of 20 percent from the initial values of their clients’ properties, totaling nearly $1.7 billion, the analysis found.”

Why does this matter? Because “[t]he close connections in the system leave many property owners feeling like they are forced to play along in a game set up to benefit certain players,” according to the report.

In the meantime, homeowners, and those wishing to become homeowners, are migrating out of Illinois at a faster rate than any other state.

According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Illinois lost 33,703 residents between July 2016 and July 2017—many because the property tax rate is the highest in the nation.

While wages and home values in the state have largely remained stagnant, property owners continue to see their tax rates rising.

The Daily Journal, a local news source based in Kankakee, reported in December that “homeowners in Lake County in northern Illinois would need to add 20 percent to their homes' values just to break even. Yet, they pay an average of $7,300 in property taxes, per 2015 IRS statistics.”

Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for real estate listing site Trulia, told The Daily Journal that surrounding areas, like Northwestern Indiana, have seen huge booms in population because of the enticingly low real estate tax, while still being close to Chicago.

"Households there can take advantage of the jobs and amenities that Chicago has but not have to pay the high property tax," he said.

Many local governments throughout the state have announced more property tax increases for 2018, with some laying the blame on the state’s growing pension debt—another issue linked to Madigan, who is expected to “hit the pension lottery” once he retires, according to The Daily Southtown.

And after the latest round of assessments, people are pushing back.

A group of public interest lawyers recently filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court that alleges Berrios violated “state and federal civil rights and housing laws by knowingly producing inaccurate assessments that punished poor and minority homeowners across the county,” ProPublica reported.

Among the lawsuit’s allegations is that Berrios’ “residential property tax scheme is neither accurate nor uniform,” and that the county’s real estate tax system is “perpetuating institutional racism” by disproportionately affecting poor and minority neighborhoods.

The lawsuit also spells out what many Illinois homeowners already know: the non-transparent system is riddled with secrecy that obscures the connections between tax hikes, unfair assessments, appeals, and the politicians who benefit from the reckless system.

Secrecy is antithetical to democratic accountability and undermines public trust and confidence in the residential property tax system
 

“Secrecy is antithetical to democratic accountability and undermines public trust and confidence in the residential property tax system,” the suit contends.

 
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Lopsided District Drawing that Favors Incumbents

Every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, political districts throughout Illinois are redrawn. The way these districts reflect their residents is crucial to upholding the state’s democracy because it also largely determines who is voted into power—or, more often, remains in power— come election time.

Unsurprisingly, those who wish to stay in office abuse this system through a practice called gerrymandering—or drawing lines that skew and dilute votes in favor of a certain group.

So who has the power to draw these lines in Illinois, and has used them to “[punch] his ticket to the partisan hall of fame,” according to Politico? Mike Madigan.

The most powerful Democrat in Illinois, and the nation’s most infamous Speaker of the House, Madigan has used his authority and influence to sway the state’s House by drawing district maps that benefit Democrats, and to resist the public’s calls for redistricting reform.

In 2016, hundreds of thousands of Illinois voters, as well as dozens of businesses and consumer groups, signed a petition to include a question on the November ballot calling for a new way to draw district maps: an independent commission.

The issue was taken up by the Illinois Supreme Court, and Madigan’s Democratic Party counsel, Mike Kasper, was brought on to fight against voters’ wishes for reform as the plaintiff's attorney.

Despite the overwhelming voter support, in a 4-3 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court voted against the reforms. In a win for “state power brokers like House Speaker Michael Madigan,” Madigan would remain in control of drawing district maps, which usually favored Democrats, WTTW reported.

It wasn’t the first blow to redistricting reforms the state had suffered.

In a May 2017 Tribune editorial titled “Gerrymandering heads to the U.S. Supreme Court. Will Madigan map-making survive?”, following a similar case headed for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, the author explains:

“In 2011, a panel of federal judges called Illinois' newly drawn map "a blatant political move to increase the number of Democratic congressional seats" — and upheld it anyway.

That masterful gerrymander prompted Politico to declare that House Speaker Michael Madigan, the state's top Democrat, had "punched his ticket to the partisan hall of fame." It flipped the balance of the state's congressional delegation from 11 Republicans and eight Democrats in 2011 to 12 Democrats and six Republicans in 2013. (Illinois lost one seat because of declining population.)

Courts have acknowledged that extreme partisan mapmaking isn't consistent with democratic principles — one man, one vote, remember? — but they've also recognized that redistricting is inherently political. The majority party can always be counted on to manipulate the maps in its favor. When does it cross the line?”

So why would a state fight off highly-sought-after reforms for fairness? Because a failure to reform emboldens the status quo—meaning races largely favor incumbents, like Madigan himself, who has been in the state’s House since 1971.

"The problem is, we're not looking at maps drawn to represent neighborhoods or communities but to protect incumbents and still be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act," Cynthia Canary, the former executive director of Change Illinois, which pushed for the redistricting reform question on the November 2016 ballot, told the Better Government Association. "Protecting incumbency has been the dominant imperative."

 
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Barriers to Reform an Abused Pension System

It’s no secret Illinois’ pension system is in crisis.

And a common thread is visible throughout the explosive growth of the state’s pension liabilities: Madigan.

In 1989, the Speaker supported the passage of a bill that would clear the way for state lawmakers to gain a three-percent boost to their pensions after 20 years of service or turning 55, according to The Daily Southtown.

He also allowed the passage of other disastrous pension bills that added fuel to the growing fire.

Under Gov. George Ryan, who spent over five years in federal prison on corruption charges, Madigan supported a law that allowed state workers to retire early—and under Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was removed from office and is currently imprisoned on corruption charges, Madigan supported the passage of a bill that let the state skip pension payments completely, according to the Northwest Herald.

In 1994, as the payments the state owed to pensions continued building up, Madigan backed a pension reform bill to fund pension liabilities by 2045.

At the time, Illinois’ pension debt was $15 billion.

Today, 24 years later, it’s nearly 17 times that: a whopping $251 billion (with a 25 percent spike in 2016 alone) according to Moody’s Investors Service, which downgraded the state’s credit rating in June 2017 because of Illinois’ “intensifying pressure from pension liabilities.”

While there have been some efforts to pass reform bills—including one signed into law in 2013 that included pension caps for high-earners, decreased cost-of-living adjustments for state employees, and a raised retirement age for some workers—those changes were later rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court.

In the meantime, pension problems continue to run rampant.

Some public workers also abuse the pension system through “double-dipping”—retiring to collect a pension, only to return to public service and collect another, thus racking up multiple state-funded retirement accounts. In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill to stop at least some public employees from seizing the opportunity to garner more than one pension.

Still, the man who helped build the infrastructure of the country’s worst pension crisis, Madigan, has no incentive to pass actual reforms—he and his fellow lawmakers who wrote and voted for the very bills which have caused the crisis will benefit the most financially.

Or, as The Daily Southtown put it, “Madigan...will hit the pension lottery.”

Here’s how it breaks down:

“The speaker has been in the Illinois House since 1971 and is now 75 years old. That means he's stacked up 3 percent boosts for 20 years. If he retires tomorrow, his annual pension payment will be spiked by a whopping 60 percent after one year, plus another 3 percent cost-of-living increase.

Madigan makes about $95,000 per year from his base salary and leadership bonus. That means his first-year pension will be more than $81,000.

But then the spikes kick in.

After just one year of retirement, Madigan's annual pension will shoot up to more than $130,000. And it will continue to grow by 3 percent each year. This is unconscionable. Most Illinoisans would say as much.”

Meanwhile, everyday Illinois residents are suffering, crippled by unfulfilled pension promises while others, like Madigan and other lawmakers, await explosive payouts.

I shouldn’t have to go live with my kids. I’ve done everything right to be independent, but now I can’t be independent...
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"I shouldn't have to go live with my kids. I've done everything right to be independent, but now I can't be independent," Teresa Fiorante, a retired former secretary for the state’s Central States Pension Fund told the Southtown. "My property taxes have doubled, and it's going to force me out of my home. It's like they have a gun to your head: Pay this bill or leave the state."

 
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Continuing Decades of Deep Corruption

To build a better Illinois, we first need a better Springfield.

Together, by standing up to corruption, we can ensure a future for Illinois where every citizen can put down roots and truly thrive. We must rise above political infighting and rigid party lines to devise real solutions and create the bright future we know is possible. As women, this is our strength.

For those who call Illinois home, we know it’s a great place to raise a family and to explore the outdoors, culture, and art. Many of our public servants care deeply about the state, but we cannot forget the decades of corruption, or the resulting burdens many Illinoisans have borne.

Now, it’s time for something new. If we have the courage to fight the status quo, Illinois can—and will—be better.

So what can we do?

We can empower our local representatives to stand up for what’s right—and hold accountable those who don’t. We can have discussions in our living rooms that lead to action, and organize with other women who also eschew today’s muddled party lines to get straight to the heart of practical solutions.

Join us—and we’ll make Illinois happen.

 
 
 
Jennifer Maine