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Rethinking Criminal Justice

Thu, 2016-05-19 16:48
"For over forty years our criminal justice system has over-relied on punishment, policing, incarceration and detention. This has ushered in an age of mass incarceration. This era is marked by sentencing policies that lead to racially disproportionate incarceration rates and a variety of 'collateral consequences' that have harmed our communities and schools. . . ."

In this time when our self-inflicted troubles seem so obvious but the possibility of change -- that is to say, political transformation, through awareness, compassion and common sense -- feels more illusory than ever, something extraordinary, that is to say real, is on the brink of happening in Chicago.

The above quote isn't just another analysis from the margins, to be uttered and instantly ignored. It's part of a Vision and Action Plan, written by Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Colleen Sheehan, not simply proposing fundamental change in our punishment-based system of justice but describing change that is about to happen and, in fact, is already underway.

I've written a lot over the years about a concept called Restorative Justice, a healing-based, multifaceted approach to dealing with crime -- social harm -- that seeks first of all to repair the damage that has occurred and, profoundly, to restore the wholeness within a community that has been shattered. RJ, as it is known, seeks to create and expand trust between people, not just pass judgment on wrongdoers and shrug as neighborhoods go to hell.

Sheehan, as a Juvenile Court judge, saw firsthand the ineffectiveness of the current system -- the "collateral consequences" of America's prison-industrial complex and the utter vulnerability of the children caught up in the system.

"The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world."

And where has this gotten us? Low-income neighborhoods in America's major cities are being torn apart not just by crime but by "justice" -- by the fact that so many of their kids not only go to jail via the school-to-prison pipeline but wind up caught in a system that never lets them go. When they get a record, they are often consigned to second-class citizenship for the rest of their lives.

And the cost of their incarceration is astronomical -- some $1.4 million a day to warehouse 10,000 inmates in Cook County Jail, according to figures cited in the Vision and Action Plan. And meanwhile, there's no money for schools or social services.

Sheehan decided she couldn't just shrug helplessly at this situation. In collaboration with numerous RJ practitioners in the Chicago area, she began envisioning an alternative: a Restorative Justice Community Court. The idea was presented to Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy Evans, who saw its value -- and with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, a two-year pilot program for a new system of justice will begin in 2017 in Chicago's North Lawndale community, a community already committed to serious social change.

There's still an enormous amount of planning to be done. As Sheehan told me, "The concept is very simple: repair harm from crime. But how you do it is very complex."

Here are the basic logistics, according to the Cook County Circuit Court: "The Community Court will hear nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors committed by adults ages 18 through 26 who reside in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. . . . Defendants will enter the program voluntarily, and those who successfully complete the program may have the opportunity to have their charges dropped and arrest expunged."

Enter the program voluntarily? What kind of court system is that? Perhaps you can see the complexity emerge. Restorative Justice is a system based on trust, honesty and connectedness. It can't simply be imposed from above. Even the alleged offender's presence must be uncoerced because that's the only way RJ will work.

At the center of the RJ process is the peace circle. Everyone in the circle sits in what I call vibrant equality, a part of the whole. A talking piece is passed around. You only speak when you hold the talking piece; everyone gets a chance to speak; most of the time you listen; you wait your turn. When the purpose of the circle is to repair harm, all those affected -- including the victims of the crime, but also members of the community affected by the crime -- have a right to be included, and to speak their minds. Participants strive to reach an agreement about how to repair the damage that has been done.

"As a result," as the Vision and Action Plan states, "peace circles and restorative conferencing can help address the underlying causes of violence. Throughout the process, victims and offenders will be supported by RJ Court staff. Community service is one example of an activity the offender can participate in to better understand the impact of the offense, give back to the community, and repair the harm she, he, or they created.

"Now is time for innovation in our approach to punishment and the moment is right for a philosophical shift in the way we think about what is truly just in the justice system."

The current system acknowledges only the state's interest when a crime occurs, and that "interest" is a sheer, bureaucratic abstraction, a predetermined doling out of tit for tat. However, a community's interest is real and vital. In an impoverished neighborhood like North Lawndale, that interest is survival itself. The point of the Restorative Justice Community Court is to re-empower the community, to help it address the causes of its crime and rebuild itself.

As Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center and one of the new court's co-planners, told me, "This court needs a community, a home." Only in a state of collaboration with the community can the court hope to achieve its goal of healing and repair.

"There's a huge divide between the community and the justice system," Nellis said, noting how badly that relationship has been damaged over the years. "This is an opportunity for the system to make up for previous errors, to become worthy of the community's respect and trust."

- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at or visit his website at


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House GOP Is Determined To Make It Harder For Poor Kids To Get Free School Lunches

Wed, 2016-05-18 17:23

House Republicans appear determined to advance an aggressive rollback of a program credited with helping low-income children get free school lunches.

The Committee on Education and the Workforce on Wednesday advanced a child nutrition reauthorization bill introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) to the House floor. The committee approved the legislation along party lines, 20-14, with Rep. Dave Brad (R-Virginia) the only Republican to join Democrats opposing it.

The legislation, called the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, has been widely panned by nutrition and hunger groups, which say it would reverse 2010 improvements to the national school lunch program. A letter opposing the bill released this week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest was signed by more than 750 local, state and national groups.

Criticisms have centered on proposed changes to the community eligibility provision, which currently allows high-poverty school districts, with 40 percent or more of their student population from families receiving government assistance like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to offer free meals to all of their students.

The community eligibility provision, which began in the 2011-12 school year and expanded nationwide in 2014, has been considered a success. A U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluation of its first two years found that the program increased participation in the national school lunch program by 5.2 percent and in the school breakfast program by 9.4 percent.

The provision appears to be gaining popularity among school districts, too. According to a report co-authored by the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the anti-hunger advocacy group Food and Research Action Center, more than 18,000 schools in 3,000 districts participated in the community eligibility provision last year.

But that progress is at risk. Rokita’s legislation would raise the qualifications for school districts to participate in the community eligibility provision, requiring them to have at least 60 percent of students whose families receive government assistance. 

The changes to the community eligibility provision, if they become law, would mean that nearly 3.4 million students at more than 7,000 schools would need to return to the previous application process in order to receive free meals at school, according to a separate analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That process, advocates argue, causes many low-income children to miss out on meals, due to problems like communication and resistance to being stigmatized by peers.

Sara Gasiorowski, child nutrition director at the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, has seen how the community eligibility provision has affected her district’s students firsthand.

Since the district began the program at 11 of its 17 school sites, participation in the free lunch program has increased 6 percent, Gasiorowski said. If the GOP legislation becomes law, only four of the district’s schools would remain eligible, she said. Gasiorowski, whose school district lies just outside of Rokita’s congressional district, said that change would make a “huge impact” for the students and families.

“It’s hard to take something away once you’ve given that to people and your families have come to rely on that service,” Gasiorowski said. “I think it’s a terrible disservice to our families.”

Rokita, for his part, doesn’t see the problem.

In an op-ed provided to HuffPost ahead of Wednesday’s markup on his legislation, Rokita asserted that his proposal “in no way alters the eligibility requirements for students who receive free or reduced priced lunches.” He went on to describe the existing rules for the community eligibility provision as “perverse” and said savings would be used to increase reimbursement for the national breakfast program.

“Ensuring that students in actual need have these strong protections in place is how we the people should judge our success, not by how much paperwork an administrator has to do or how much money a school can make off of the entire school population,” Rokita wrote.

Robert Campbell, director of nutrition assistance and budget policy at hunger nonprofit Feeding America, pointed out that an identified student population of 40 percent or 60 percent from families receiving assistance doesn’t accurately count students who need free lunches.

A multiplier of 1.6 is applied to a district’s identified student population to arrive at a better estimate. That means more students would be affected by the change than a straightforward percentage might suggest.

“We want to make sure that any reauthorization that moves forward sticks to the principle of first doing no harm,” Campbell told HuffPost.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group, also opposes the bill. Karen Perry Stillerman, deputy director of the group's food and environment program, said the community eligibility provision was of deep concern.

“We know that children’s health is dependent on a healthy diet and that starts at school,” Perry Stillerman said. “School lunch programs and food programs are part of that equation of increasing kids’ access to healthy foods. What’s important to us is keeping the kids who are already in these programs in these programs.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act expired in September, but its reforms to the national school lunch program continue until Congress reauthorizes it -- which it is not required to do.

In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee advanced a child nutrition reauthorization bill in a unanimous, bipartisan vote. The Senate version of the bill did not contain a change to the community eligibility provision.

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Ben Rhodes and the 'Echo Chamber' of Facts On Iran

Wed, 2016-05-18 16:44
David Samuels in his May 5 New York Times Magazine article, paints a picture of the scene leading up to the successful implementation of the landmark agreement with Iran to end its quest for a nuclear weapon that left me shaking my head in wonder. I lived that period in an intimate way as one of the chief "whips" in the House encouraging my Democratic colleagues to vote for it. I found Samuels' storyline that portrays Ben Rhodes, the President's Deputy National Security Advisor, as the Manipulator in Chief to be a work of fiction and extremely condescending to members of Congress and all others who supported it.

In July of last year, anticipating a vote after the August recess, there were near daily meetings in Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's office to plan the campaign to approve the deal. The team that gathered was led by members who had lobbied our colleagues for a NO vote on the Iraq War plus about a dozen newer members.

Leader Pelosi, a brilliant strategist who didn't need Ben Rhodes or anyone else to tell her what to do or say, had a simple plan: provide members with all the information that they wanted and needed to make a fact-based decision that they felt comfortable enough to take to their constituents. "The only question I asked when calling people was 'do you have the information you need'." To that end, we made sure that they had access to the individuals most informed about the intricacies of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA.

Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, a nuclear scientist and one of the negotiators made himself available to groups and individual members. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama spoke to our caucus and called members who wanted to discuss particulars. Hillary Clinton gave us background on the multi-year build-up to the agreement which she had led. One of the most compelling briefings came from the Ambassadors of the P5+1 countries, our European allies plus Russia and China who all said unequivocally that, if the United States walked away from the deal, it would be dead. They were adamant in saying there was not a better deal to be had, and that Iran had no intention, nor did they, of returning to the negotiating table if Congress voted to disapprove it and ultimately killed it.

Ben Rhodes played an important role as well, answering sophisticated questions from skeptical House members in the White House situation room -- detailed questions about types of centrifuges, duration of each part of the agreement, facilities at Parchin and Arak, "snap-back" provisions for reinstating sanctions of Iran cheated, and every aspect of the inspection regime. Some were satisfied and a few were not, but Rhodes was always respectful and informative. The tough questioning actually helped shape the plan for the better, we were told. Republicans meanwhile were just saying "No."

And yes, members listened to experts -- prestigious individuals who Samuels suggests were all Rhodes recruits, "used" to tell a "story" to "actively mislead" the public about the Iran deal. Apparently this included Israeli security, intelligence and military officials, scientists and nuclear arms experts including Nobel Prize winners and one of the inventors of the H-bomb, hundreds of Rabbis and other faith community leaders, bi-partisan members of the U.S. military, security and intelligence establishment, former U.S. Ambassadors to many countries including Israel, and diplomats from around the world -- all of whom explained why they supported the agreement.

August 2015, the period when members are home in their districts, was anticipated to be dominated by the well-funded, well-organized opponents of the Iran deal. Tens of millions of dollars were, in fact, spent on highly negative ads. Scores of face-to-face meetings with constituents adamantly opposed to the deal, were held.

But at the end of the day when members returned from their recess, 162 out of 188 Democrats voted to support the JCPOA, and 151 wrote thoughtful public statements giving their reasons for doing so.

So what happened? For one, members read and studied the entire agreement. Secondly, they heard from tens of thousands of constituents who supported the deal and saw the polls indicating the wide support from the American people who wanted to give peace a chance.

Samuels spun quite a tale, and his narrative reflected his own, but never revealed in the article, history of outspoken opposition to the Iran deal. Samuels is quoted by Eric Lewis in his May 10 article in the New York Magazine as saying the Iran deal would lead to "the greatest surge in nuclear proliferation that we've seen since the Second World War." His bias showed through enough to ignite House and Senate Republicans to demand the appearance of Rhodes at a hearing and even call for his dismissal.

Samuels accuses the Obama Administration with using the Iran deal to "effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East." What the American people saw was the truth of the message that Ben Rhodes and an entire community of experts articulated, a "choice between peace and war" and an opportunity to "disengage" from the real possibility of yet another in the region, this time, nuclear war.

Ben Rhodes acknowledges that he did "create an echo chamber," but far from the fiction Samuels crafted, it was an echo chamber of facts.

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This Big Law Firm Just Stepped Into The 21st Century

Wed, 2016-05-18 16:37

The Chicago-based international law firm Winston & Strawn LLP announced Wednesday that it is creating a gender-neutral parental leave policy, as well as a broader policy intended to help lawyers with the often hectic process of taking parental leave and then returning to work.

The policy includes 20 weeks of paid parental leave for associates and of counsel attorneys. It applies to parents of any gender and in any country, and the leave time can be taken in either one or two separate chunks within the first year of a child's life. Parents also aren't required to designate a "primary caregiver."

This is a pretty big deal in the legal industry, even if it falls somewhat short of the policies offered in other professions, according to Vivia Chen, a senior columnist at The American Lawyer. "Law firms are a bit behind other industries, especially the financial and other professional service industries, when it comes to more innovative family measures," she said. 

Many tech firms, including Netflix, Facebook and Spotify, have introduced generous gender-neutral parental leave policies in recent months. Just a few weeks ago, the consulting firm EY announced a 16-week paid leave policy that will start in July. But Winston & Strawn is the first law firm to have a policy this expansive -- or at least the first to announce it publicly.

Getting women back to work after having kids -- and allowing men to take time off as well -- is a way for firms to help women ascend the career ladder. Currently, only 18 percent of equity partners in American law firms are women, even though women account for 47 percent of the country's J.D. degrees.

In addition to the 20 weeks of leave, the firm is also creating a few different ways to ease the transitions of taking leave and returning to work. There will be a "parental leave liaison" to assist people coming back to work, as well as career coaching services and lower billable-hour requirements for people who are just about to take leave or are just coming back to the firm.

"Traditionally for women, if you take a long leave, easing back in can be difficult. You might have hesitation about going back," Chen told The Huffington Post. Having someone act as a sort of coach, encouraging people to come back from leave, just might be the nudge new parents need to get back into the swing of things after having a baby. 

To be clear, Winston & Strawn isn't acting altruistically here: The firm's move is intended to attract and retain high-level attorneys. Practice attorneys, who are low-level attorneys usually brought on for specific projects and who are outside the traditional partner-track framework of the firm, won't get the same 20-week benefit. Neither will the firm's other staff members, such as paralegals and office assistants.

However, it's relatively common for benefits in big law firms to be stratified, according to Chen. Winston & Strawn says its U.S. employees in lower positions will get increased paid leave time and an extra two weeks of paid time off.

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12 Key Issues to Watch as Illinois General Assembly's Spring Session Nears End

Wed, 2016-05-18 12:31
With the Illinois General Assembly's spring session nearing its traditional May 31 end, this is a good time for a check on what happened, what didn't and what still might happen on issues that made headlines this year.

BUDGET File this one under both the "what didn't happen" and "what still might happen" categories. It's old news now that Illinois has had no state budget since July 1, 2015, and that automatic and court-ordered spending has put the state on pace to end FY 2016 with a debt of $10 billion. That's because we're still spending as if our income tax rate is 25 percent higher than it actually is.

As FY 2017 approaches, groups of rank-and-file lawmakers have tried to make progress on a budget that covers FY 2017 while the General Assembly has passed stopgap bills to prevent disaster for public universities and human services providers, who had received no state money for most of FY 2016. Though details of a possible budget deal from a working group of lawmakers surfaced last week, Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan remain deadlocked.

At a meeting Tuesday, some tentative progress was made, with Madigan saying he would appoint members to a new non-budget-issues working group the governor requested. The translation here seems to be that Madigan told Rauner and other leaders he was open to changes on workers' compensation, a property tax freeze and pension reform, as evidenced by the tweet below from the Chicago Tribune's Monique Garcia:

Republicans emerge from leaders meeting, say Speaker Madigan agreed to negotiate on property tax freeze, pension reform and workers comp.

— Monique Garcia (@moniquegarcia) May 17, 2016

Stay tuned. Until budget bills with the blessings of Rauner and Madigan appear, don't expect progress.

CHICAGO CASINO At an event in Wheeling Monday, Rauner continued to hold out hope for what he's calling a "grand bargain" or "grand compromise" and said he was open to signing legislation for a Chicago casino. Of course, gambling surfaces seemingly at the end of every session, but video gambling has been the only addition in many decades.

SCHOOL FUNDING The Illinois Senate on May 10 passed SB 231, a major overhaul of the way Illinois distributes state education funding. The bill is intended to funnel more state resources to school districts that can't raise sufficient funds through local property taxes. It's met resistance from lawmakers who represent districts that would lose state funding and from many Republicans who label it a bailout of Chicago Public Schools because it would send $175 million more to Chicago.

Its fate is uncertain in the House, where Madigan has convened his own task force on school funding reform.

Gov. Bruce Rauner says he wants school funding reform in which no districts lose money and he wants the General Assembly to send him an education budget based on the existing formula, as happened last year. But Senate Democrats could make their reform bill this year their do-or-die bargaining chip on the state budget.

HIGHER EDUCATION FUNDING An emergency stopgap funding bill on April 22 sent $600 million to public universities, community colleges and students who had been promised financial aid that never had been delivered. The emergency funding represented a 70 percent cut from FY 2015, when higher education received $1.95 billion. Rauner's budget proposal for FY 2017 calls for $1.75 billion.

How much, if any, of the missing funding from FY 2016 will be restored is one of the many questions surrounding budget talks.

SOCIAL SERVICES FUNDING Like higher education, social service providers received no state funding for most of FY 2016 even though they held contracts with the state for millions of dollars in work. The House and Senate on May 12 passed a bill to provide $700 million in emergency funding, but Rauner appears unlikely to sign it. He has said he wants a full budget rather than further stopgaps.

Meanwhile, a group of providers has filed suit against the state seeking $100 million in payments.

TAXES Though Rauner and Madigan consistently have said new tax revenue must be part of a budget solution, neither has advanced a plan to change the current income tax structure. In a City Club of Chicago speech in December, Madigan cryptically referred to a 5 percent personal income tax rate (the rate that was in effect from 2011-2015) as a possible starting point in budget talks: "You start there, you can go in whatever direction you want to go."

Rauner often says he'll work with Democrats on tax increases if they'll pass his reforms, but he hasn't tipped his hand on what the increases might be.

A plan sent to Rauner and the four legislative leaders last week suggested a 4.85 percent personal income tax rate. It also proposed applying the state sales tax to services (it now applies only to goods) and various other tax changes. As noted above, that plan means nothing until Rauner and Madigan sign off on it, which they have not done.

A House effort to pass a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive income tax with higher rates for higher incomes was not called for a vote and is not eligible for the ballot again until 2018.

Here are the other six key issues to watch as the General Assembly's spring legislative session winds down.

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Lessons From a Vexillonaire: Creativity, Simplicity, and the Carefully Constrained Life

Wed, 2016-05-18 09:49
The flag of Chicago is widely regarded as one of the best city flags in the United States, perhaps in the world. It is certainly one of the most popular. You'll find the flag of Chicago printed on t-shirts and mugs, tattooed on local musicians, and flying along streets, over rivers, and above doors throughout the city.

The flag has three white bars and two blue stripes. The white areas represent the three main sides of the city: North, West, and South. The blue stripes stand for the north and south branches of the Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan. In the center of the flag, there are four red stars symbolizing historical events in the city like the Great Chicago Fire.

Vexillology is the scientific study of flags. The flag of Chicago received stellar 9.03 out of 10 rating from the North American Vexillological Association and was ranked 2nd out of 150 city flags by flag experts known as vexillologists. (1: Go and brush your shoulders off, Chicagoans.)

Let's talk about why good flag design can teach us an important lesson about life.

The American flag and the flag of Chicago fly in front of a building in downtown Chicago.

How to Design a Beautiful Flag

"A 3×5 foot flag on a pole 100 feet away looks about the same size as a 1×1.5 inch rectangle seen about 15 inches from your eye. Try drawing your flag on a rectangle that is 1×1.5 inches. You'll be surprised at how compelling and simple the design can be when you hold yourself to that limitation."
-Ted Kaye, vexillonaire (2: A vexillonaire is a particularly passionate breed of vexillologist who actively goes out into the world and lobbies for better flag design. Go get 'em, vexies.)

If you wanted to design the best flag possible, then you would want to think creatively. Your first thought might be give yourself as many possibilities as possible. "Give me a blank slate. I want tons of colors and a huge poster board to design this on. I want space to be creative and let my imagination run wild."

What you actually need, however, is a 1×1.5 inch piece of paper. Placing this simple constraint on yourself actually makes your design better.

You see, flag designs that often look good on paper fail in the real world. A design that looks good in the pages of a report is often confusing and unrecognizable when it is flapping in the breeze 100 feet away.

What makes the flag of Chicago so compelling is its simplicity. If you were to draw the flag of Chicago on a 1×1.5 inch piece of paper, it would still look like a good design. The same principle can be applied to our everyday lives. We often assume that we need more resources when a carefully constructed constraint would deliver better results.

The Carefully Constrained Life

The power of well-chosen limitations extends far beyond flag design. Imposing simple constraints in our own lives can lead to well-designed and more effective lives as well.

Here are a few examples from my own experience:

As an entrepreneur, I saved up $10,000 before I started my first business. This money was my constraint. I had to learn how to create products, market my business, and live off of that money until I became profitable. This constraint forced me to start an online business, reduce overhead, and--after a few years of other projects--build this website.

As a traveler, I pack ultralight and often travel for 2 weeks with just a 19-liter backpack. This tiny bag is my constraint. It still amazes me how little I actually need when I'm on the road. Furthermore, my small backpack required me to find the most useful and effective items for my needs. It didn't just make my travel lighter, it made my travel better.

As a writer, I set a publishing schedule and this deadline is my constraint. Has it always gone smoothly? No way. Sometimes I don't feel like showing up, but I still do. And because I have religiously kept this publishing schedule, I have some very popular articles to show for it. Genius only reveals itself when you show up enough times to get the average ideas out of the way.

We usually assume that constraints are the things that hold us back from what we want, but well-placed limitations can make us better, not worse. (3: Thanks to Roman Mars and the rest of the 99 Percent Invisible staff for their episode on vexillonaires, which led to the idea for this article.)

James Clear writes at, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter

This article was originally published on

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A Transportation Infrastructure Plan for the 21st Century

Wed, 2016-05-18 09:08
For generations, this country's transportation infrastructure served as the backbone of our economic success. We dreamed big, we built bigger, and our economy flourished. But today, our crumbling infrastructure is slowing economic growth, and without serious long-term investments, we simply will not be able to compete in today's global economy.

Over the past 50 years, as a share of our economy, our investment in transportation has shrunk by half. China is outspending us four to one and Europe two to one on transportation infrastructure. We have over 100,000 bridges in this country old enough to qualify for Medicare. According to the latest USDOT rankings, 73 percent of Illinois' roads are in poor or mediocre condition. In Chicago, we have a century-old transit system that desperately needs updates to keep up with increased capacity. A recent report found that the current backlog in needed road, highway and bridge improvements nationwide is $740 billion. The need for investment could not be more obvious.

For too long, Congress funded transportation infrastructure through stop-gap funding measures that prevented states and localities from being able to plan for the future. Over the last six years, Congress passed 35 stop-gap funding bills to extend transportation funding. However, most transportation projects are not built in just one year. These are complex, multi-year projects. When states are working to plan and build these projects, they need the certainty of knowing that they have multi-year funding in place to do multi-year projects.

Thankfully in December of last year, Congress passed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act - the first federal law in over a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for transportation infrastructure planning and investment. The FAST Act authorized $305 billion over fiscal years 2016 through 2020 for roads, bridges, public transit, rail and much more. For Illinois, this means $7.5 billion in guaranteed funding for roads and $2.9 billion in guaranteed funding for public transit over the next five years; $199 million in support for commuter rail agencies, such as Metra, to install and test Positive Train Control safety technology; and possibly $750 million to $1 billion in work in and around Union Station through the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program. In short, this bill provides states, localities, and businesses with the funding certainty they need to plan ahead and make long-term transportation investments.

While the FAST Act is a significant bipartisan accomplishment that provides much-needed funding certainty, this modest increase in funding is hardly the bold, forward-thinking plan our country needs to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create a 21st-century transportation system. What America really needs is a long-term bill that makes significant investments in our transportation infrastructure and reforms the highway trust fund to ensure it remains solvent for years to come. This will require bold ideas and a bipartisan effort.

As President Reagan said, rebuilding our infrastructure is "an investment in tomorrow we must make today." I became an appropriator to help bring much-needed funding back to my city and my state, set our country's funding priorities and help plan for the future. This Infrastructure Week, it's time for Congress to go big and plan for the long-term projects that will modernize our infrastructure, spur economic growth and create jobs.

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Chicago Cop Who Killed Rekia Boyd Quits, Preserving His Cushy Retirement

Tue, 2016-05-17 19:30

A Chicago police detective who in 2012 fatally shot Rekia Boyd, an unarmed black woman, resigned on Tuesday, two days before a police board hearing where he faced the possibility of being fired.

Dante Servin's resignation means the department, per standard procedure, drops all disciplinary charges against him, preserving his ability to collect his pension and other retirement benefits that he would have lost if he were fired. 

The unceremonious end to Servin's police career caps his killing of a civilian in a case that has already seen a $4.5 million legal settlement, the first recent criminal charges in an off-duty officer's killing of a civilian and his acquittal in court. That he'll be allowed to keep the pension on his $97,044 annual salary was the least of the Boyd's family's concerns, said Rekia Boyd's brother, Martinez Sutton.

"Why are we even fighting? He should be in a cell, like every other criminal serving his time," Sutton said. "Even if I’m fighting to get this guy fired, he’s free to go about his life. He’s free to get another job."

Servin fired shots from his car into a group of Boyd's friends as they stood with their backs to him in a park on the city's West Side in March 2012. Servin, while off duty, had argued with the group over noise before firing over his shoulder, striking Boyd, 22, in the back of the head, authorities said.

Servin said he thought one of Boyd's friends had a gun, so he opened fire in fear for his life. Boyd's friend, whom Servin shot in the hand, was actually holding a cell phone. 

Boyd’s family was awarded $4.5 million in a wrongful death suit against the city -- years before Servin was arrested. Nearly two years after Boyd's death, Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter, making him the first officer in more than 15 years to face criminal charges in a fatal shooting.

A judge acquitted Servin in his 2015 trial before the defense had even presented any evidence, ruling that Servin had acted intentionally and not recklessly, so there was no way prosecutors could prove involuntary manslaughter. 

“Everybody knew it wasn’t going to go through," Sutton said of Servin's police board hearing this week. "It’s like making a movie: You know that movie is being made. You know how the ending will go. You just don’t know the release date." 

Sutton, his family and activists had pushed for Servin to be fired since his stunning acquittal. But Servin remained on the force, drawing his regular salary. 

In late December, then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy moved for Servin to be fired. Servin told the Chicago Tribune the chief was on a politically motivated "witch hunt" because of heightened scrutiny of the department since the police-involved shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. 

McCarthy was later fired. Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez, who made the bizarre decision to charge Servin with involuntary manslaughter rather than murder, was defeated in her bid for re-election -- a major victory for Chicago activists and those affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“For this campaign, we wanted to make sure people walked into the voting booths with Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd in their hearts,” activist Kelly Hayes said in March, after Alvarez conceded the race. 

Despite new leadership and pledges of reform by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Police Accountability Task Force, Sutton said he's skeptical.

“How many broken promises has Chicago made?" Sutton said. “If we keep on falling on these broken promises, someone is gonna get hurt."

Still, Sutton said he's heartened that so many people have joined the push for justice. He called it "mind-blowing" that people know the name Rekia Boyd now.

"You have all these folks coming together from all over the country -- and not just this country -- but overseas. It’s powerful," Sutton said. "It gives you hope again. It gives you hope in a sense because you know folks actually do care."

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9 Things to Do in Chicago for Free

Tue, 2016-05-17 15:15
You don't need money to have a good time in the windy city. If you love to explore on foot and you do you research, you'll find plenty of options for experiencing Chicago without spending a single dime. Here are ten fun things to do in Chicago for absolutely free!

Catch a Sunrise over the Chicago Skyline

Courtesy flippydave

Watching a beautiful sunrise is always worth waking up early for, and a great way to start a visit to a city with a stunning skyline. There is no shortage of great spots to view the sun's golden rays lighting up the world famous architecture of Chicago. If waking up early on vacation is not an option, catch a sunset instead and watch as the city's building stand in silhouettes in front of a blazing orange sky.

Take a tour

Start your visit at the Chicago Cultural Centre, a spectacular neo-classical granite and limestone building. Situated in the heart of the downtown the centre is the go-to place for all the information you'll need to plan your stay. Make sure to take advantage of the free customized walking tours. When booked at least seven days in advance, a Chicago resident will design and lead a free customized tour based on areas of interest that you specify.

Admire the architecture

Chicago's famed architecture makes it one of the most beautiful cities in the world. If a detailed itinerary is a not a necessity when you're on vacation, then ditch those tourism brochures and just take a walk around the city. Chicago proudly boasts some of the best architecture on the continent. If you're not already downtown, hop on any of the eight train lines and head to the loop. Here you'll come across astounding work of world-renowned architects including the famous Chicago theatre, the Michigan avenue bridge, the magnificent Wrigley building, Marshal Field's famous clock and the rustic Gothic inspired Tribune Tower.

Need a bit of guidance? Flip open the pamphlets you picked up at the Chicago Cultural Centre and follow one of the many self-guided walking tour routes to discover downtown Chicago at your own pace.

Admire Public Art

With over 700 works of public art sprinkled across the city, anyone could spend days exploring and still not see it all. Some of the famous public art installations can be seen at various public parks including the Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park, the interactive structures at the Children's Garden, some historic pieces at Hyde Park, and animal themed sculptures at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The most famous of them all is a 50-foot-tall sculpture created by none other than the legendary Pablo Picasso.

Relax in Millennium Park

If you need a little break from the hustle and bustle of the city, head over to Millennium Park. One of the most popular destinations in the city, the park is home to an array of public art, architecture and greenery. Take pictures in front of Cloud Gate, also known as "the bean" because it resembles a shiny silver kidney bean. Splash around in the Crown Fountain, a giant video screen that displays images of Chicagoans and spews water. Enjoy a show (or just your lunch) at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by world renowned post-modern architect, Frank Gehry. Or take a stroll through the Lurie Gardens where you can admire the flora and relax by a man-made stream.

Enjoy a street festival

When you're ready to get back into action, immerse yourself in one of the many street festivals that happen throughout the city all year long. Indulge in delicious food at the Taste of Chicago festival, enjoy rhythm and the blues at the Jazz Festival or test your skill at a new sport at the Chicago Sports Fest.

Go back in time

Take a walking tour through Chicago's historic Old Town neighbourhood and admire the city's Victorian-era buildings. Marvel at the unique architecture of West Burton place, built using materials from nearby demolished building. Visit St. Michael's Church, which features stained glass windows that were imported from Munich and one of only seven churches that survived the Great Chicago Fire. Or spend an afternoon at the Chicago History museum where admission is free every Monday.

Hit the Beach

When you're tired of walking around, head down to the Oak Street Beach. Just one of 26 beaches in Chicago, the Oak Street Beach is popular due to its close proximity to the city centre and its dramatic views of Chicago downtown. On any given day the beach is a popular place to skate, cycle, play volleyball or just sunbathe.

Visit a Museum

If you're a fan of art and culture, be sure to visit a museum in Chicago. On Tuesdays both the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) and the Museum of contemporary Art swing open their doors to the public for free visits. Take a spiritual journey as you experience art inspired by major world faiths at LUMA. Or take a step into the 20th century as you admire at the unique creations by modern and post-modern artist. If you're in the city on Thursday, take advantage of the free admission at the Art Institute of Chicago where the collection ranges from pieces by modern photographers to ancient artefacts to work by local artists.

Enjoy the windy waterfront at the Navy Pier

Said to be the most popular tourist attraction in the state of Illinois, the Navy Pier is a place where people of all ages gather to have fun. Discover why Chicago is known as the windy city as you take in the breezy waterfront. Admire the unique creations at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows and watch the mystical magic fountains at the Crystal Gardens. If you wish, for just a few dollars you can take a sky high ride on the gigantic Ferris Wheel. Or you can just sit back and relax on the docks and watch the sun dip into the horizon over Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.

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School Funding Could Be New 'Hostage' in Budget Standoff

Mon, 2016-05-16 10:49

For nearly a year, Democrats have accused Gov. Bruce Rauner of holding the state budget hostage and demanding his Turnaround Agenda as ransom.

As the Illinois budget standoff of FY 2016 threatens to become the Illinois budget standoff of FY 2017, it's been Rauner who is accusing Democrats of hostage-taking.

The kidnap victim this time is K-12 education funding, and the big question at the moment is whether Senate Democrats will make school funding reform in FY '17 what the Turnaround Agenda was to Rauner in FY '16.

It all sounds confusing, but it's not that complicated.

State funding for K-12 education is distributed in July to school districts throughout the state. It's important to school districts that the money arrive on time because most can't open for the fall semester if they don't have it.

Last June, Rauner vetoed every budget bill sent to him by Democrats in the Legislature except one. He signed the bill authorizing elementary and secondary school funding. That meant that schools statewide could open on time.

Had Rauner vetoed that school budget, he and lawmakers of both parties would have faced severe backlash from angry parents when schools didn't open on time. As it was though, the school budget and a court decision that allowed state employees to be paid without a budget allowed state government to function fairly normally even as state spending went on out of control.

Absent widespread public protest, Rauner and the Democrats could allow the budget standoff to continue indefinitely, with Rauner saying he wouldn't come to bargaining table until Democrats passed his reforms and Democrats insisting that negotiation on reforms was not part of the budget process. Large-scale protests over hardships to state universities and social service providers didn't come until early this year.

Here's the catch this year: The system by which state education funding is shared among local school districts is seen unanimously as unfair. It's a problem that has festered for years in Springfield.

School districts located in communities with high property values can devote generous resources to funding their school districts. What they don't get in state funding, they make up themselves in property taxes. These taxes often are very high, but residents get excellent schools in return.

School districts in low-income communities, however, rely far more heavily on state funding. They simply don't have the property tax resources to tap. The result is the state provides most of their operating budgets and per-student spending in these districts is a fraction of that of high-income school districts. That's why it's so often said that the quality of a child's education in Illinois depends more than anything on his or her zip code.

Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, for three years has been working on a formula that more fairly shares state dollars. The Senate this week passed a bill based on his formula. But some wealthier school districts eventually (following a four-year phase-in) will lose a portion of their state funding under Manar's plan, and Chicago Public Schools will see an initial increase of $175 million in state money.

Some Republicans have called this a bailout of Chicago schools at the expense of suburban schools. Even some Democrats from suburban districts have complained that their constituents will have to shoulder even higher property taxes to make up for state funds they lose.

Rauner has said he wants a change in the funding formula that does not take money away from any school district. He want the General Assembly to do as it did last year: Send him a K-12 funding bill using the current formula. He's been barnstorming the state to visit schools and urge Democrats to not "hold students hostage" to force adoption of a reformed funding system.

Of course, it can be argued that Rauner himself took college students hostage for nearly all of the current fiscal year when he vetoed the entire higher education budget, including money for financial aid through the Monetary Award Program.

So as the May 31 budget deadline approaches, the big question is whether Democrats will send Rauner the "clean" bill he wants or use a school funding reform plan as leverage in budget talks.

That's what we're talking about on this week's "Only in Illinois."

You can also listen to the podcast here or through iTunes:

NEXT ARTICLE: Illinois state workers are highest paid in the nation, says new Illinois Policy Institute report

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Are You Ready to Buy a Franchise? 8 Tips to Consider

Fri, 2016-05-13 10:43

If you own a business, you might think that expanding it with a franchise means surrendering your position as the boss. For several years, I operated my own successful water and fire damage restoration company in Chicago, but I knew that I was ready to move to the next level.

After careful research and planning, I partnered with a national franchise that demonstrated a proven track record. The business model has its challenges, but it's also been very rewarding for me and my growing family of employees.

Because my experiences have been positive, I'd like to share what I've learned over the years. If you're thinking about buying a business franchise, I offer these eight points for your consideration.

1. Research Your Options

As an independent, you handle the trial and error process of doing business by yourself every day. Think about how much you invest in self-reliance, and balance that against the potential to expand your success.

You never make a big decision without diligent research, so explore the options within your industry. I found that buying a franchise made my business part of a larger business that offers national brand recognition and an established customer base.

2. Know What to Look For

Franchise agreements vary from one industry to another, but they all outline company requirements and levels of support. Compare the details in different agreements, and weigh them against your expectations.

Once you narrow your options to two or three companies, look for a solid reputation, robust financial growth and a partner-friendly franchise agreement. The research takes time, but it's an investment in your future.

3. Know What to Look Out For

You can learn a lot about a franchise before visiting its website. There are a number of franchisee associations that network online and provide candid snapshots of organizations with questionable reputations.

The FTC requires that franchise businesses make a Franchise Disclosure Document available to prospective buyers. Visit a company's site, and download its FDD to learn about turnover and failure rate details.

4. Plan for a Financial Transition

While the idea of buying into a franchise seems expensive, it can cost less than financing a new business on your own. My company was already established, but I considered my franchise license as an investment, and it paid off well enough that I recently purchased a second license.

You also pay franchise royalties, but you receive a lot of support in return. Don't expect to make money the first week. Instead, work out financial plans that let you transition smoothly to your new business model.

5. Expect Plenty of Support

A successful franchise maintains its strong market position by making sure that you have the training and tools you need to deliver the best products or services. This support helps my cleaning and disaster restoration company stay up to date with the latest industry certification, techniques and equipment.

You should also expect a strong franchise network that provides cutting edge marketing and financial strategies through conferences and workshops. This kind of collaboration builds professional relationships, generates leads and increases your customer base.

6. Be Prepare to Meet Standards

I work closely with my business development manager to make sure that my operations meet franchise standards. I understand my responsibilities to deliver my best and maintain the company's reputation.

While there are a few restrictions on how and where I do business, they never compromise the professional commitments I have to my customers or the quality of my work. Most potential franchisees are surprised at the freedom that comes with a buy-in.

7. Know That You're the Boss

When you become part of a franchise, you're expected to uphold company standards and meet financial obligations, but you're still the boss. Hiring and firing are up to you, and you make all the day-to-day decisions.

As an independent operator, you do everything by yourself. You have to keep up with the latest industry trends while you handle marketing, juggle finances and expand business. As a franchisee, you do everything with the backup of a partner organization that wants you to succeed.

8. Be Ready for the Challenges

Because ServiceMaster is a nationally recognized brand, its big name implies that I make hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Sometimes, new customers think that I own the company. They're surprised to learn that I run a small, family-owned and operated business with my two franchise licenses.

When you operate a franchise, you go through the same hard times and face the same problems that affect independents. However, you're generating your own revenue and building your own success with a backup system that's there for as long as you're in business.

Solid Support Makes the Difference

Running a company isn't easy, but you can go further and achieve more when you have solid support. The level of security that comes from buying a franchise can make a big difference in your future.

I operate ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba for myself and my teams, but we're not by ourselves. Even my employees think of our franchise as an extension of our professional family. That tells me that this business model is working very well for my company, and I look forward to moving up to the next level of success.

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Top 20 Best-Run Public High Schools in Illinois, Ranked by Niche

Fri, 2016-05-13 10:14

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics and its own parent/student surveys, has released its updated ranking of the nation's best-run public high schools in 2016.

More than 9,500 public high schools were ranked based on the overall quality of its administration and policies. Of the 100 Illinois high schools included in Niche's ranking, 10 were among the Top 100 best in the nation.

The vast majority of schools ranked by Niche are located either in Chicago or the surrounding suburbs, where property tax wealth typically is the highest. And while a school's education-administration expense ratio and expenses per student are among the factors taken into consideration, Niche's parent/student surveys and "overall experience grade" were given the highest weight (you can read more about the methodology here).

But as with any school ranking, it's important to take these findings with a grain of a salt. For example, several high schools in Lincoln Way CHSD 210 made the cut, despite ongoing spending questions and financial difficulties within the district.

Following are 10 of the top 20 Illinois high schools that are perceived to have the best administrations and policies, according to Niche.

20. Lane Tech College Prep High School | Chicago

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 3.9/5 (246 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $14,246

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 14:1

19. Maine East High School | Park Ridge

  • Overall experience grade: A-

  • Parent/student surveys: 4/5 (40 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $23,000

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 14:1

18. Walter Payton College Prep | Chicago

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 3.8/5 (37 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $14,246

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 14:1

17. Lincoln-Way East High School | Frankfort

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 3.9/5 (41 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $14,238

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 20:1

16. North High School | Downers Grove

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 3.8/5 (34 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $20,168

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 20:1

15. Lincoln-Way North High School | Frankfort

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 3.8/5 (34 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $20,168

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 20:1

14. Grayslake Central High School | Grayslake

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 4.0/5 (41 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $17,161

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 17:1

13. Wheeling High School | Wheeling

  • Overall experience grade: A

  • Parent/student surveys: 4.0/5 (29 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $21,005

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 17:1

12. John Hersey High School | Arlington Heights

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 3.9/5 (32 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $21,005

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 17:1

11. Neuqua Valley High School | Naperville

  • Overall experience grade: A+

  • Parent/student surveys: 4.0/5 (110 respondents)

  • Expenses per student: $11,676

  • Education-admin. expense ratio: 14:1

You can see the state's Top 10 high schools, which are the 10 that ranked nationally, here.

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Lawsuit Filed to End Citizen Initiative for Illinois Redistricting Reform

Fri, 2016-05-13 09:55
A lawsuit filed Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court says the Independent Map Amendment redistricting reform plan is unconstitutional and should not be allowed on the November election ballot.

The suit also seeks an immediate halt to the Illinois State Board of Elections' verifying of petition signatures filed last week by Independent Map Amendment, citing the "waste of public funds" involved in the signature review.

The plaintiffs, members of the group People's Map, have opposed the citizen-led redistricting effort as a threat to minority representation in Springfield, though that aspect is not specified in the lawsuit. Independent Map Amendment has said its system will enhance protections for minority representation.

The suit comes six days after Independent Map Amendment filed 65,000 pages of petitions bearing more than 570,000 signatures from people who want to create an independent commission to re-draw state legislative district boundaries every 10 years following the U.S. Census. Proponents of redistricting reform say politicians too often have used their map-drawing power to enhance their own power and punish political rivals.

As the petitions were being filed on May 6, Independent Map Amendment CEO Dennis FitzSimons predicted there would be a lawsuit from "entrenched interests" who want to preserve the current system, in which receiving the power to draw the new legislative district map is viewed as the ultimate political prize.

FitzSimons reiterated that belief in a statement after the lawsuit was filed Thursday:

"Political insiders want to deny voters the chance to reform Illinois government. Independent polls show close to two-thirds of Illinois voters are ready to vote 'yes' on an independent, transparent and impartial process for drawing state legislative maps. Springfield insiders aren't willing to risk those odds and would rather cynically preempt at the courthouse what they cannot win at the ballot box.

"Plain and simple, this lawsuit is a struggle for power. It is Illinois politicians struggling to retain the power to manipulate elections versus citizens demanding reform. We knew this lawsuit would be the response to our submission of 570,000 petition signatures from Illinois voters, and we are ready to aggressively defend the constitutionality and fairness of the Independent Map Amendment."

Two years ago a lawsuit against a similar citizen ballot initiative called Yes for Independent Maps found that a provision of that effort -- a requirement that no member of a remap commission be elected to the Legislature or various other offices for 10 years after serving -- violated the constitution's rules for what citizen initiatives can change in the state constitution. (That decision is here with the violation explained on page 10.)

The 2014 effort failed on two fronts. First came the ruling from Judge Mary Mikva that found the 10-year service provision unconstitutional. Then the state board of elections ruled that Yes for Independent Maps had not gathered enough verifiable voter signatures to be certified for placement on the ballot. Having been ruled ineligible for the ballot, the group did not appeal Mikva's ruling.

This time, organizers took more care in gathering signatures and turned in nearly twice the required 290,000 on their petitions.

The new lawsuit asks the court to halt the board of elections' work on verifying signatures while bringing up old and new constitutional challenges.

Some, like whether redistricting is even allowable for change by citizen initiative, were rejected by Mikva in 2014. But the new suit also challenges aspects of having a redistricting commission that is overseen by the Illinois Supreme Court. This opens entirely new questions that have no precedent.

Regardless of the ruling in Cook County, appeals that carry the suit to the Illinois Supreme Court are all but certain.

The lead lawyer in the 2014 suit, Michael Kasper, also is part of the team in the new filing. Though Kasper is a longtime associate of House Speaker Michael Madigan and regarded as being among the top election law attorneys in the state, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Madigan is not involved.

"People want to make this look like a Madigan operation. I think there's some confusion there," Brown said.

Last week, Madigan voted for a redistricting proposal sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, that Franks said was a more powerful reform because lawmakers can make greater changes to the constitution than can citizen-led efforts. But that bill never was called for a vote in the Senate. Friday was the deadline for constitutional amendments to be approved for the Nov. 8 ballot.

"He supported Franks' bill because it was a clear plan that would meet the Voting Rights Act requirements," Brown said.

People's Map found a strong ally in Madigan, who handed out its press release opposing the Independent Map effort in February, a week after President Barack Obama had addressed the need for redistricting reform in a speech before the Illinois General Assembly:

The new lawsuit is here: Hooker et al v ISBE et all petition

The ruling that disallowed the 2014 redistricting plan is here: Redistricting opinion 2014

NEXT ARTICLE: Illinois budget proposal with multi-billion tax hikes, cuts sent to top officials

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Quiet War, Sleeping Nation

Thu, 2016-05-12 18:41
And the race goes on. So does the war, but you'd never know that the one had anything to do with the other.

Even when the mainstream media trouble themselves to acknowledge that the primary season remains open on the Democratic side, that Bernie Sanders -- and his millions of supporters -- are still in the race, the Bernie revolution is never portrayed as addressing foreign policy and the still-failing, still-catastrophic war on terror.

Yet the war is there, shredding the national economy as it shreds much of the Middle East and, indeed, the whole planet.

Noam Chomsky, in his new book Who Rules the World?, quoting terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, says the Iraq War "generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third."

Perhaps this is something to think about as we watch and read the "news": America's quiet, background war, having burned through a few trillion dollars so far and resulted in perhaps 2 million deaths, continues unchecked and unquestioned even as it perpetuates terror, the very thing it's purporting to eliminate. This war is not only wrecking lives well beyond the national zone of awareness, it's arguably contributing to, if not causing, the economic chaos roiling the political status quo in this election season.

Shhhh. Don't tell anyone.

Our news purveyors purport to analyze the mood and will of the electorate via polls and apparently secret access to conventional wisdom, which somehow links the collective public mind with the nation's political movers and shakers, e.g.:

"For Sanders," according to CNN, "West Virginia offers a chance to leap back into the political spotlight and confound hardening conventional wisdom that he is an afterthought in the race . . ."

But at least this tidbit of information keeps Hillary's challenger alive. Much of the election coverage has already moved well past what's left of the primary season to the general election, where Hillary Clinton's primary task is deciding whether to reach out blatantly to Republican voters who hate Donald Trump or continue doing her best to appease Bernie supporters so that they won't go Green or stay home.

Sanders' vow to stay in the race through the entire primary season and, even if he fails to win enough delegates to be nominated, to fight for the insertion of progressive values into the Democratic Party platform -- in the process, perhaps interfering with Clinton's efforts to woo Republicans -- at least establishes the point that elections are about values. Even a point this wan and miniscule represents progress compared to recent presidential races, though, alas, hardly sufficient to turn the Democrats into the party that eschews perpetual war or stands up to Big Money and the interests of the corporate elite.

This is the logical progression to cynicism, something that worries me as much as anything else about American democracy. So once again I quote Chomsky:

"Returning to the opening question 'Who rules the world?' we might also want to pose another question: 'What principles and values rule the world?' That question should be foremost in the minds of the citizens of the rich and powerful states, who enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom, privilege, and opportunity thanks to the struggles of those who came before them, and who now face fateful choices as to how to respond to challenges of great human import."

The point I'm struggling to make is that democracy isn't easy. Peace isn't easy. Those who wage peace have to do so independent of global political and economic structures, and independent of much of the mainstream media.

What principles and values rule the world?

This question is so easily belittled by those who are troubled by it, so easily dismissed from coverage and discussion of the presidential race. But something remarkable has indeed been happening this time around.

On one side of the aisle, so to speak, the Trump campaign surges forward with bombast and ego, led by a candidate who, with sheer irreverence for political correctness, ignites the hope of those who remember the scapegoats of the good old days and forges political unity out of the possibility of their return. The Republicrat status quo, having abandoned these voters in all but rhetoric for so long, is forced to confront its own breakdown. The media ogle the spectacle.

On the other side of the aisle, the Sanders campaign has forged a far different sort of unity, out of the question Chomsky asks: What principles and values rule the world? This is a unity that transcends obvious, ego-fixated self-interest and reaches beyond nationalism, corporatocracy and the inevitability of war.

Bernie has planted the question at the level of national politics. If he fails to gain the nomination, how do we keep this question politically alive? Let me know what you think.

- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at or visit his website at


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Fish Oil for Dogs and Cats: Six Benefits

Thu, 2016-05-12 14:58
Fish oil is one of the most popular dietary supplements purchased by pet owners for their pets. It has many health benefits but only if it's the right formulation, produced by a reputable company, and administered at the correct dose.

What is fish oil?

The two main ingredients in fish oil are eicosapentoaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) fatty acids. Both EPA and DHA are long chains of bonded carbon and hydrogen atoms with a carboxyl group on its end. These acids are also called Omega 3 fatty acids because the first double bond occurs after the third carbon atom.

In nature, EPA and DHA are bonded to a three- carbon backbone structure called glycerol. Together this molecule is called a triglyceride. Fish oil is a triglyceride.

The Six Benefits of fish oil:

1. Protects the heart.

Fish oil has been found to reduce the heart's vulnerability to developing an
irregular heart rhythm, called atrial fibrillation. Additionally, it can act as an
anti-coagulant and prevent blood clots from forming in cats with heart

2. Provides support for dry, flaky skin in allergy pets.

Giving fish oil to pets with allergies may reduce their itching by decreasing their body's production or release of potent stimulators of inflammation, called cytokines.

3. Helps slow down the progression of kidney disease.

In failing kidneys, fish oil may lower elevated blood pressure, decrease undesired protein loss in urine, and reduce the production of pro-inflammatory substances that aggravate kidneys.

In a study of 146 cats with kidney disease, cats fed diets supplemented with omega 3
fatty acids lived a median of 17 months compared to 7 months for those who were not

4. Aids arthritic joints.

Fish oil decreases the production of potent prostaglandins that stimulate inflammation in the joints. Arthritic dogs and cats given fish oil are more comfortable and agile than those not supplemented.

5. Improves neurologic development and cognitive function.

A Hill's Pet Nutrition 2012 study found supplementing puppies with DHA increased their ability to learn and retain certain skills when compared to those not receiving additional DHA.

Older pets suffering from cognitive dysfunction had improved recognition of
family members and other dogs when supplemented with fish oil.
Additionally, it decreased pattern-pacing behavior in these pets.

6. Lowers blood triglyceride levels.

Supplementing patients with fish oil may decrease harmful triglyceride levels in some patients. This is especially critical in pets suffering from heart disease, pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease.

What should I buy?

* Buy the triglyceride formulation.

There are two formulations of Omega 3 fatty acids. The natural formulation is the triglyceride formulation. In this product, three fatty acids are bonded to a glycerol backbone. The triglyceride form of Omega 3 fatty acids is the formulation you should buy and this information should be visible on the product label.

The manufactured formulation is the ethyl ester formula. In this product, one fatty acid is bound to one alcohol group. When compared to the triglyceride product, the ethyl ester product is usually less expensive but its health benefits are inferior: less stable, at least 40% lower in bioavailability to pets, and is less palatable. Frequently, my clients complain that their pet may be a bit "gassy" after taking the ethyl ester formulation. I believe this may be the result of the body cleaving the fatty acid from the alcohol group creating ethanol gas.

* Buy from a reputable company

Not all fish oils are created equal. They are not FDA regulated and fall under the poorly regulated category of nutritional supplements. In fact, in June of 2013 a study by Ritter, Budge, Jovica looked at 16 top selling fish oil supplements available for humans and found over half of the supplements did not meet their label claim for EPA and DHA, and a quarter exceeded recommended limits for peroxide value (meaning it was rancid!).

At Animal Medical Center of Chicago, we recommend the following three fish oil products - Omega Benefits by Veterinary Recommended Solutions (VRS), Wellactin by Nutramax and Omega by Nordic Naturals. These products have been independently analyzed for purity, accuracy and safety.

*Cod liver is not recommended.

Cod liver oil is a good source of fat-soluble Vitamin A and D. However, I do not recommend it as a supplement for EPA and DHA. I fear that I may exceed the daily-recommended dose of Vitamin A or D when using cod liver oil to meet the pet's EPA and DHA recommended dose.

I also do not recommend flaxseed, flax meal or flaxseed oil as a source of EPA or DHA in pets. Flaxseed products contain high concentrations of alpha linolenic acid, (ALA). Dogs have a very limited ability in converting ALA to DHA or EPA. Cats virtually have no ability in converting ALA to DHA or EPA.

We are just at the beginning of understanding the full benefits of supplementing pets' diets with fatty acid supplements. Its anti-inflammatory properties may soon be used for other medicinal purposes, like in pets with inflammatory bowel disease or cancer.

Please ask your veterinarian if fish oil is right for your pet. If yes, it is critical that you use the triglyceride formulation of this product and give the proper amount. For most of my patients, I recommend 40 mg of EPA for every kg of body weight and 25 mg of DHA for every kg of body weight once daily. For a
10 kg (or 22 lb) dog, I would recommend a daily dose of 400mg EPA and 250 mg DHA. If it's in the liquid form, don't forget to keep it refrigerated and be cognizant of its expiration date to achieve its full benefit.

Dr. Donna Solomon is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center of Chicago and invites you to email her your questions or future topic ideas to the

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How I Learned to Be Proud of Having Mexican Immigrant Parents

Wed, 2016-05-11 14:58
When I first applied to UCLA, I wrote in my personal essay that I didn't have any positive role models in my violent neighborhood.

Having grown up in East Los Angeles' Ramona Gardens housing project, I wrote that most of the adults represented gang members, drug dealers, thieves, tecatos (heroin addicts), alcoholics, felons and high school dropouts (or push-outs). I also wrote about my disdain for housing authority officials and government workers for behaving like prison wardens and guards toward us: project residents who depended on government aid or welfare.

Moreover, I decried the police abuse that I had witnessed and experienced, like the time when a cop pointed a gun at me. My crime: being a 15-year-old making a rolling stop while learning how to drive.

Lastly, as the product of low-performing public schools, I highlighted the low expectations most teachers and counselors had for their poor Chicano students. Fortunately for me, I excelled in mathematics.

While I was eventually accepted to UCLA, I should have been more truthful in my essay. In fact, I did have positive role models: my Mexican immigrant parents.

Salomón Chavez Huerta and Carmen Mejía Huerta. Mexico, 1954

But why didn't I give them credit? Did they represent drug dealers, criminals or rapists, as some buffoons want to us to believe? No. They never committed a crime or received a parking ticket. It's difficult to get a ticket when you can't afford a vehicle.

Did they migrate to this country to take jobs from American workers? No. My father, Salomón Chavez Huerta, first arrived in this country as a farmworker in the Bracero program -- a U.S.-Mexico guest worker program from 1942 to 1964. He also worked as a janitor and day laborer.

My mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta, worked for more than 40 years as a domestic worker, cleaning the homes and taking care of the children of white, middle-class families. Like millions of Mexican immigrants, my late parents took jobs that most American workers reject due to dismal pay, lack of upward mobility and low social status or stigma, i.e., immigrant jobs.

In retrospect, I should have written about their remarkable stories of hard work, sacrifice and resilience in a hostile society. It's amazing how two Spanish-speaking parents with only a couple of years of education in a small rancho raised eight children, sending four of them to elite universities. This includes raising the most accomplished Latino artist, Salomón Huerta, in the United States.

Instead of being proud of my Mexican parents, I was ashamed of their low social status.

Actually, since I grew up in segregated neighborhood where all of the residents received government aid, like most of my childhood friends, I never thought of myself as Mexican or poor. As a kid, I assumed that all parents spoke only Spanish and kids wore hand-me-downs. I also considered food stamps to be the common currency for all Americans when purchasing food.

It wasn't until being bused to a white-majority junior high school, Mt. Gleason Jr. High, in the suburbs that I first experienced overt racism and realized that I was poor. For the first time, I was different than most people. Not only was I different, but also labeled as inferior by my white classmates. It was the first time in my life that I was called a "wetback," "beaner" and "low-rider."

This idea of being different or inferior followed me to college. I will never forget my first summer class at UCLA, for instance, when the professor asked us to share about our parents. While we had other racialized minorities in the class, I was the only Chicano student from the mean streets of East Los Angeles.

"Both of my parents are UCLA alums, and they're both attorneys," an African American student said with pride.

"My mom is a doctor, and father is an engineer," a Latina student boasted.

"I'm a foreign exchange student from Latin America, and my father is a diplomat," another student said with delight.

I panicked. What should I say, I thought to myself? Should I say that my mother cleans homes and father sweeps floors in a factory?

Not being able to compete with my privileged classmates with their professionally accomplished parents, I uttered something general like, "My parents are workers in the U.S."

While I will never forgive myself for not giving my parents credit for motivating me to pursue higher education, growing up in a society where brown people are scapegoats for America's failures, it makes sense that I would feel embarrassed about my Mexican roots and working-class background.

While Mexicans in el norte have become convenient targets for American politicians like Donald Trump, there's a long tradition of Mexican-bashing in the United States. Since the military defeat of Mexico in 1848, American leaders and public figures have treated Mexicans in this country as second-class citizens and social burdens or threats.

For example, as an influential public figure, the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington famously argued in his 2009 article "The Hispanic Challenge" that Mexicans and other Latinos represented a threat to the U.S. Where was the public outcry over his racist thesis?


As the largest ethnic group, accounting for more than 55 million U.S. residents, Latinas and Latinos in this country deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

As a Chicano scholar with degrees from UCLA and UC Berkeley who, as a teen, internalized the pejorative narratives against brown people and the working class in this country, I have a clear message to Latinas and Latinos, especially young people: Don't allow a bully like Trump or other American leaders to make you feel inferior due to your ethnic heritage or ashamed of your social status.

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How Did Your Senator Vote On The School Funding Reform Bill?

Wed, 2016-05-11 10:55
The Illinois Senate on Tuesday passed a major overhaul of the formula by which Illinois school funding is distributed to local school districts.

For Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who sponsored the bill, it was the culmination of three years of work to construct a plan that would repair a system that virtually everyone in state government agrees unfairly deprives students in less affluent school districts the quality education they deserve.

But the future of school funding reform -- and, for that matter, school funding for the budget year that begins July 1 -- remains as unclear and contentious after the Senate vote as it was before.

The roll call above shows that Manar's bill split the Senate not just on party lines (which it did; only one Republican, Sam McCann of Plainview, voted for it) but on geographic lines as well. Three suburban Democrats voted no and two others voted present. The 31-21-3 vote was one more than the 30 votes needed to pass, but well under the 36 needed to override a veto should it reach Gov. Bruce Rauner's desk and be vetoed.

School funding is an especially touchy subject for lawmakers who represent districts that contain affluent school districts where property owners pay high property taxes to provide most of their school funding. Those districts already receive a lower portion of state aid and homeowners fear loss of state aid will be made up on their property tax bills.

Manar's bill contains a "hold harmless" provision to prevent any loss of funding in the first year, but it would be phased out over four years.

In addition to the fairness issue, the dismal condition of Chicago Public Schools also factored into the debate. Some Republicans argue that Manar's bill, which gives Chicago $175 million more than in the current fiscal year, amounts to a state bailout of a failing school district. Gov. Bruce Rauner had sought for state control of CPS and advocated for a bankruptcy filing to deal with its tremendous debt, though the Illinois State Board of Education said recently that a takeover is unwarranted.

The bill's fate in the House is unclear, as House Speaker Michael Madigan earlier this year formed his own task force on education reform. Rauner has not said what he would do should Manar's bill make it to his desk.

All this will need to be sorted out swiftly. The deadline for the General Assembly to pass a budget is May 31, and a school funding bill will be part of it. The question is whether all of those, including Rauner, who have long complained of the unfairness of the current system will do something about it.

Check the chart below to see how your senator voted. Then use our Sound Off tool to contact your lawmakers, Rauner, Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and the Republican leaders in the General Assembly to voice your opinion on fairly funding all Illinois school districts regardless of their zip codes.

NEXT ARTICLE: These 25 Illinois school districts spent the most and least per student in 2015

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Reboot Illinois' Doubek Wins Two Lisagor Journalism Awards

Wed, 2016-05-11 10:09

Reboot Illinois Publisher Madeleine Doubek won two prestigious Peter Lisagor awards in the 39th annual journalism contest sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club.

Doubek won the award for best individual blog post for her commentary about the killing of a 16-year-old Chicagoan, "Laquan McDonald's killing and the judgment for all of us." Doubek reflected on the killing of McDonald, shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, and how it is symptomatic of a pattern of corruption in our public institutions in Chicago and throughout the state.

She also won a Lisagor award for best continuing blog post for a series of posts dissecting divided government in Illinois, including "Dear Gov. Rauner, Let's talk about your turnaround for Illinois," "Quiet, please. Speaker Madigan is about to deliver his very important messages about Illinois spending," and "Rauner, Madigan and caucus leaders responsible for wrecking business foundation."

The Lisagor awards honor the best in Chicago and Illinois journalism across print, online, television, radio and independent media platforms. They are named for Peter Lisagor, who served as the Chicago Daily News Washington bureau chief from 1959 to 1976.

Doubek and the Reboot Illinois staff also will be honored at an annual benefit dinner hosted by the not-for-profit children's advocacy organization, Voices for Illinois Children to be held Thursday, June 2, in Chicago.

Voices for Illinois Children will honor Doubek, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Mark Brown and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio State Politics Reporter Tony Arnold for work covering state challenges that affect children and their families. The event will feature a panel discussion moderated by CBS Chicago Anchor Rob Johnson.

NEXT ARTICLE: Illinois Senate passes school funding reform measure

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