Illinois Week in review — Judicial elections, constitutional amendment on ballot
SPRINGFIELD — Races and issues at all levels of government continue to dominate Illinois’ political news just more than a week out from the Nov. 6 election.
Voters encouraged to research and follow the money in judicial races
Among the races Illinois voters may find down ballot when they head to the polls Nov. 6 are a variety of judicial elections, which often are overlooked or ignored.
The message from election observers: judicial races matter. Judges touch people’s lives in a variety of ways – from handing down decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court to dishing out penalties for traffic offenses in local circuit courts.
“The power of the judicial branch cannot be underestimated, in my view,” said Travis Akin, director of the watchdog group Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. “I think people need to understand that judges carry a lot of weight, and we need to make sure the people serving are doing their job.”
According to IllinoisJudges.net, a project of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a group that works for fairness in the civil justice system, dozens of judicial seats throughout Illinois are on the ballot. That includes the Illinois Supreme Court and seats in appellate, circuit and subcircuit courts.
Some candidates are on the ballot for the first time, and others are seeking retention — a chance to serve an additional set number of years as a judge.
It’s important for voters to weigh in on judicial elections, said Eeva Moore, spokeswoman for Justice At Stake, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that focuses on maintaining fairness and impartiality in courts.
“The big challenge is that people have the question, Does this relate to their daily lives in any immediate sense,” she said. “However, the courts impact people’s lives on a daily basis. What’s happened is you have a vacuum of people not voting as much or dropping off when they reach the judicial section of the ballot. And in many states we see special interests step in to fill that void.”
Like all other political races, judge candidates may accept political donations and party backing. That means voters have to learn to follow the money.
“Generally, (the special interests) are folks from all sides of the political spectrum, and it varies from state to state. And generally where we see campaign contributions are from organizations that expect to appear before the court and they want to curry favor,” Moore said.
“That doesn’t mean judges always respond to that, by any stretch of the imagination. But that’s the environment it creates. And it’s a bipartisan issue.”
Constitutional amendment question creating unlikely pension-reform allies
Opposition to a proposed pension-related constitutional amendment that will go before Illinois voters Nov. 6 is creating strange bedfellows — from public employee unions to good-government groups that agree the question is not worthy of a change to the state’s constitution and does nothing to address the pension crisis.
Groups opposed to the amendment are numerous and come from all walks of life. It’s no surprise that public-employee unions from Chicago to Cairo are opposed to the amendment, which requires a three-fifths majority vote before any public body can approve a pension benefit increase.
Groups such as the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and the Illinois Policy Institute, also are against it. So are Protestants for the Common Good, the state’s League of Women Voters and the Illinois Green Party.
The groups usually don’t see eye-to-eye on how to achieve pension reform. But Constitutional Amendment 49 has turned adversaries into allies, each with an eye on a common goal — defeating the amendment.
“I wish I could say that it was because of shared principles that such diverse groups are coming together to oppose this,” Diane Cohen of the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center said of the unexpected alliances. “We certainly just view this as fake reform. It does nothing to address the pension crisis in the state. But worse than that, it sort of pulls the wool over the voters’ eyes to try to pretend that the legislators are actually doing something in the face of this crisis.”
Illinois has a pension-funding shortfall of at least $85 billion. New reporting requirements by investment groups put the liability in the neighborhood of $200 billion.
In April the Illinois House unanimously approved a measure put forth by Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, that would ask voters if approval of public-pension boosts in Illinois should require a supermajority vote of three-fifths (60 percent) instead of a simple majority vote. Madigan called it “tough medicine” for a state deep in debt.
The Illinois Senate also approved the measure, with only two lawmakers there voting against it.
Since then, critics have called the proposal “catastrophic,” “do-nothing,” “misguided,” “incomprehensible” and “diabolical and feckless.”
“The only people we’ve seen pushing this so far are the politicians themselves,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents thousands of state workers. “It really validates our view that this is a politician-protection amendment. This is not a pension amendment. It should be defeated.”
Click here for more about Constitutional Amendment 49 at Illinois Watchdog. http://watchdog.org/60007/il-proposed-constitutional-amendment-turning-pension-adversaries-into-allies/
TRS posts .76 percent investment return for FY12
A dismal return on investments in Illinois’ Teachers’ Retirement System last year is a signal it’s time for changes in how the system operates, one observer said Thursday.
The system’s investments earned a .76 percent rate of return in fiscal 2012, compared to a 23.6 percent rate of return the previous year, according to an update from TRS Thursday.
TRS officials played up the system’s long-term investment performance, as opposed to focusing on the latest return.
“We will always take a long-term view of investment returns because TRS has to be there for our members for decades to come,” said Dick Ingram, executive director of the system. “We didn’t do handsprings over 23.6 percent last year, and we aren’t crying over .76 percent this year.”
But the latest return should be cause for panic, said Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in Chicago. Furthermore, he said, it could contribute to TRS asking taxpayers to foot more of the bill for a system that is “woefully underfunded.”
“I think the bottom line is that the current arrangement we have is not an appropriate one for either the retirees who are counting on broken promises, or for the taxpayers who have to keep footing the bill when the pension system is underfunded,” Dabrowski said.
Illinois’ Teachers’ Retirement System is the 39th largest pension system in the country. It has 366,000 members and assets of $36.3 billion as of June 30.
Contact Jayette Bolinski at email@example.com.
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