Illinois Week in Review — Presidential politics, Cellini sentencing dominate news
SPRINGFIELD — Political news here this week largely was marked by the first of three presidential election debates, the November election and the sentencing of a former state government political insider.
Obama, Romney fail to address states’ debt during debate
The presidential debate Wednesday focused on domestic issues with one glaring exception — the skyrocketing pension debt crushing state governments nationwide.
“I do think it’s going to be an issue for whoever wins the presidential election, because I don’t see things getting better in Illinois or in California or in Connecticut,” said Steve Stanek, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a free-market research organization based in Chicago.
“There are a number of states that are in horrible shape, and they are major states. And I expect one of these days some of these governors are going to come knocking on the White House door saying, ‘My state needs a whole boatload of money.’
“And what are they going to do? What are the next president and Congress going to do? Are they going to say, ‘You guys messed up your state on your own, and you have to fix it on your own?’ Or are they going to funnel them a bunch of money?”
Illinois has $271.1 billion worth of debt, among the worst in nation, according to a report by research group State Budget Solutions released in late August. The debt includes unfunded pension liability, state retiree insurance benefits, budget gaps and outstanding bonds.
Coal counting on Romney to turn around the industry
When it comes to Illinois coal, a lot is riding on the outcome of the November presidential election.
To put it simply, if you’re for coal in Illinois, then you can’t be for Obama, said Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, which promotes the Illinois coal industry.
“Obama’s record to us is quite clear. He’s no friend of coal,” Gonet said, noting that Romney recently made a campaign stop at an Ohio coal mine, and his staff has talked to the National Mining Association. “We believe there will be a place for coal in energy policy in a Romney administration, so it’s real clear to us.”
Romney brought up coal during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, which focused on domestic policy, saying he supports the industry.
“By the way, I like coal. I’m going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal,” the former Massachusetts governor said, telling Obama, “People in the coal industry feel like it’s getting crushed by your policies.”
There’s a reason the coal industry feels that way, said Jack Darin, director of the environmental group Sierra Club Illinois chapter. Illinois already has begun moving in the direction of a clean-energy economy.
“I was surprised by how frank Mitt Romney was about his opposition to clean energy and his allegiance to fossil fuels and sources of the past,” Darin said. “I think that’s what his policy proposals suggest he would prioritize, but I did not expect him to be so blunt about it, because I don’t think that’s what most Americans want.”
The Sierra Club has endorsed Obama for another four years in the White House. During Wednesday night’s debate, Obama said he and Romney agree on the importance of increasing domestic energy production.
“But I also believe that we’ve got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels and make those investments,” Obama said.
Military, overseas ballot requests down
Absentee voting by military members overseas is expected to be dismal this year, as evidenced by the low number of requested ballots for the November election so far.
But one expert says he is fairly certain it’s not about the ongoing drawdown in U.S. troops overseas, or simple disinterest. It’s more about a systemic problem with voting access in the U.S. military.
“The Department of Defense does a lot of things incredibly well. They keep us safe, they protect our freedoms, they’ve done a tremendous job of protecting this country,” said Eric Eversole, founder and director of the nonpartisan Military Voter Protection Project, in a statement. “But when it comes to other issues, things that aren’t directly related to war-fighting, that’s when they don’t do a very good job often.”
The traditional avenues civilians have for registering to vote, such as signing up at the nearest driver’s services office and registration drives on college campuses, for the most part don’t exist for military members, who frequently move around and work at locations with restricted public access.
The military was dinged in a Department of Defense inspector general’s report a few weeks ago for failing to put enough effort into making sure service members have enough access to voting information and forms. The report noted too, though, that the military lacks the money to support the effort.
In Illinois, as of Sept. 22, the 45th day before the Nov. 6 election, the state’s board of elections had received 11,063 requests for absentee ballots for military and overseas voters. On the 45th day in 2010, the state had received 16,589 absentee ballot requests. That’s about a 25 percent drop, which, coincidentally, is about what Eversole expects to be the average drop nationwide this election.
Illinois elections officials don’t know what’s behind the decrease. In 2010, they received about 2,500 additional absentee ballot requests after the 45-day mark.
“Whether or not the number of people in the military in Illinois has gone down that are serving overseas this year compared to what it was to two years ago or four years ago, which all could be a factor, that could show a decline in the numbers,” said Rupert Borgsmiller, director of the Illinois State Board of Elections. “All we have is raw numbers. We can’t speculate on why the numbers are down.”
Poll: Voter ID law could prevent thousands from casting ballots
If Illinois had a voter ID law, 685,000 residents — or almost one out of every 10 voters — could not cast a ballot.
“This is a delicate issue,” David Yepsen, director of the nonpartisan institute, said in a statement. “We all want clean elections, yet no one should inadvertently disenfranchise voters either. This poll shows Illinois policy makers need to tread carefully if they want to pursue voter ID laws.”
The poll results are in line with other research that shows about 11 percent of voters nationwide lack a government-issued photo ID, according to figures compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
The research notes that the percentage is higher for senior citizens, minorities, people with disabilities, low-income voters and students, mainly because they lack access to their birth certificates, which are required to obtain the photo IDs and can be expensive or difficult to track down.
Backers of voter ID laws, meanwhile, say they are needed to curb voter fraud.
Cellini sentenced to a year in prison
Illinois political insider William Cellini was sentenced Thursday to a year in federal prison, making him the latest person in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s circle to be sentenced on federal corruption-related charges from the “Operation Board Games” probe.
Cellini, a powerful multimillionaire here known as the “King of Clout” and “the Pope,” was accused of trying to shake down Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg for campaign contributions for Blagojevich in exchange for state contracts to invest money for the Teachers Retirement System.
Federal prosecutors sought six and a half years to eight years in prison, while Cellini’s attorneys requested probation for their 77-year-old client, who has been in poor health. Hundreds of supporters wrote letters on Cellini’s behalf asking U.S. District Judge James Zagel for leniency.
Zagel in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Rockford sentenced Cellini to 366 days in prison and a $75,000 fine. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Cellini may serve only about 10 months in prison.
Cellini was caught on wiretaps in 2004, participating in a plot to get $1.5 million from Rosenberg, the Oscar-winning producer of the movie “Million Dollar Baby,” an investment firm owner and a friend of Cellini, in exchange for state contracts. Rosenberg refused and threatened to notify authorities.
Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges, including trying to sell or trade an appointment forObama’s former seat in the U.S. Senate. Obama is not accused of any wrongdoing.
In all, 15 men, including Stuart Levine, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, were indicted as part of the federal investigation. Kelly committed suicide in 2009. Rezko and Levin received prison sentences.
Virginia congressman criticizes federal purchase of Illinois prison
A Virginia congressman condemned the Obama administration Tuesday for going forward with plans to buy an empty Illinois prison with $165 million in taxpayers’ money.
The long-pending sale was seen by many as a win-win for the state and federal government, which would buy the former prison. Illinois needed to unload the prison, which was built for $140 million in 2001 but was never fully used because it didn’t have the money to house inmates or to staff it. The feds could take over the prison for a bargain price, create hundreds of jobs and house federal inmates there or even terrorist detainees, such as those at Guantanamo Bay, although that idea reportedly is off the table.
Wolf, however, sharply criticized the move, saying Obama’s directive to go forward with the purchase is “deeply troubling.” Wolf chairs a subcommittee that funds the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire,” Wolf said in a statement Tuesday.
State officials see the sale as a boon for jobs in a remote part of the state. Thomson, a town of almost 600 in Carroll County, sits on the Mississippi River about halfway between the Quad Cities and Illinois’ northern border.
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