On Enacting False Economies

Claiming to protect the public’s purse is always great politics, at least in some quarters. Actually doing so requires considerable thought and homework, but grandstanding is cheap and makes for great sound bites in an election season. And thus, it is often silly season not only in Congress, but in many of America’s state legislatures.

I say this because a legislative alert from the Illinois chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), of which I have been a member for decades, turned my attention to an attempt in three pending bills to prohibit (HB4246) the use of local government funds “for expenses connected with attendance by an employee or contractor of the unit of local government at a convention or gathering of personnel.” HB4247 disallows spending on “access to physical space for booths, hospitality suites, or other physical space” at such events. All three bills, HB4246, 4247, and 4248, create the Local Government Convention Expense Control Act, sponsored by Rep. David McSweeney, a Republican conservative from the collar counties north of Chicago. A quick check on McSweeney in Wikipedia illustrates a history of such initiatives, some of which may make sense, but this one is clearly a case of tossing out the baby with the bath water. That said, he has a number of co-sponsors including some Democrats.

I have no problem with appropriate limits on the ways in which public funds are used for conventions and conferences. Public money clearly should be used for sensible and responsible purposes at such events. But I have attended and presented at dozens of professional conferences involving local and state government professionals all across the United States, and I have yet to see anything highly or even mildly inappropriate. When such outrages do occur, they tend to find their way into mass media coverage that goes viral, and heads roll, but such incidents are extremely rare, which raises the question of the necessity of the proposed legislation.

There is a reason for professional conferences that involves an intelligent use of public money. If we can at least accept the notion that we want our professional public servants—planners, financial officers, civil engineers, transit officials, and others—to be well informed and up to date on best practices in their fields—then there is a solid argument for affording them the opportunity to attend professional conferences at which they can attend sessions and workshops and learn. What they bring back to their jobs enhances the service they provide on their jobs.

In my own role, I was usually speaking or attending as an employee of a national nonprofit professional association, APA, most of whose members work in the public sector. Many of the rest are consultants, professors, or land-use attorneys, but there are numerous special niches in which people find useful employment. I did not attend state or regional conferences for urban planners, floodplain mangers, and other professional groups for the social opportunities. I can think of much better forums for enhancing that aspect of my life. I was typically either trying to learn something that would make me a better manager for the research and training projects I was leading, or because I was presenting information in a session or as a keynote speaker. Urban planning, for example, is a rapidly evolving field of practice. Being denied access to the networking and learning opportunities afforded by such gatherings is a blow to the professionalism of the dedicated public servants who work for local government. The alternative—to say that they must spend their own money to attend, which some do anyway—is to drive the best of them away from the public sector to firms that offer such opportunities as a means of maintaining a top-flight staff. It is as much a question in job interviews as compensation or prospects for advancement.

Let me offer a couple of minor examples to make my point. Just three years ago, I attended the Illinois APA conference to present findings from a national study APA’s Hazards Planning Center had completed with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on planning for post-disaster recovery. Sharing the podium for the session was Jon Oliphant, the planning director of Washington, Illinois, a Peoria suburb, which was struck by an EF-4 tornado in November 2013. He complimented my presentation with real-life details of the rebuilding experience in Washington since that event. For the people in that room, many of whom had not experienced a similar disaster in their own communities, but worried about the day they might, it would be hard to replicate the value of being able to hear all this first-hand and to “kick the tires” by asking questions of the panel. The modest expense of attending that two-day conference, within driving distance for many registrants, must be weighed against the considerable value of the knowledge and insights they gained from not only that session but many others they undoubtedly attended while there. The same could largely be said whether the topic is stormwater drainage, public finance, or economic development. If many people later exchanged business cards over drinks and snacks at a reception (typically sponsored by exhibitors), so what? In most cases, in my experience, it was an opportunity to chew over and compare impressions of what they had heard and discussed throughout the day.

In another example, Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, and I tag-teamed an opening keynote for the Illinois Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management. Our topic was a forthcoming report, also supported by FEMA, on subdivision design and flood hazard areas. How do we better design and review new developments to minimize or avoid damage from floods? The annual losses from poor handling of this issue can easily exceed any costs associated with anyone’s attendance at that event. It is important that our planners, engineers, and floodplain managers be aware of current best practices in this field. Impoverishing access of such public employees to professional education simply weakens the expertise and knowledge base of the people a city employees.

Simply put, if we are going to insist that public employees do their jobs well, we need to do two things. One, which is the diametrical opposite of what bills like these would achieve (and such proposed legislation is hardly limited to Illinois), is to ensure that our public servants have meaningful opportunities to improve their skills, to say nothing of meeting continuing education requirements for professional certification in their fields. The other is to insist that legislators do their own jobs by making an honest effort to determine whether their proposed legislation helps enrich the quality of service these employees can offer or is a simplistic smoke screen for being too intellectually lazy to undertake an honest evaluation of the true impact of their proposals. I repeat: This is yet another case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. It offers false economies that undermine the value of public service. Taxpayers do not gain; they lose.

Jim Schwab

On Taxes and Public Trust

A very curious op-ed article appeared Monday (July 6) in the Chicago Tribune. Tom Geoghegan, best known as a liberal lawyer who represents labor unions, made a plea for more taxes. Not just any taxes for any reason, but “Tax me, please, so Illinois can compete.” Let me set the stage for this commentary.

First, we have a mayor who has been adhering religiously to maintaining property taxes at a relatively low level, compared to many suburbs, while struggling to make the city’s books balance amid pressure to keep the city’s pension funds solvent. Pension funds for both city and Chicago Public Schools retirees promise reasonably generous benefits that include a three percent cost-of-living yearly increase, which certainly beats Social Security in most years because its increases vary with the Consumer Price Index. (For the record, my wife is a Chicago Public Schools retiree.) These agreements have been in place for many years, but for many years the city and the school system have not met their obligations to fund these pensions adequately. The city is also making its perennial argument in Springfield that Chicago residents pay twice for pensions because their own teacher pension fund relies on local property taxes while all other systems in the state rely on state income taxes, which, of course, Chicagoans also pay. Suburban and downstate legislators counter that Chicago gets more of other types of state support because of higher numbers of families in poverty, an argument that strikes me as lame because Chicago is hardly the only city in the state with poor people.

Welcome to the twisted logic of politics in Illinois. We also have a constitutional provision that cements flat-rate income taxes in place. We could only enact a progressive state income tax by first amending the state constitution to allow such a thing. Meanwhile, Illinois is undergoing a bruising battle between a conservative rookie Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and a legislature with large Democratic majorities in both houses. It is now July, and they have not agreed on a budget, and a judge has ruled that, without statutory authority in the form of an enacted budget, the state cannot pay its workers more than the federal minimum wage until this gets sorted out.

It is not apparent to me, or many others, that either the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago lack considerable wealth or the ability to pay their bills if we sort out our priorities and match spending with revenue. Rauner refuses to budge on the revenue until the legislature adopts at least some of his pro-business, anti-union agenda—he basically wants to make Illinois a right-to-work state—and the legislature is busy enacting budgets that necessarily entail large deficits, so Rauner vetoed their most recent attempt. A standoff is throwing Illinois into turmoil.

To be brutally honest, I could never hope in this short blog post to do justice to all the intricacies of this situation. I am providing only a broad outline of the conflict as background to the Geoghegan commentary. Basically, his perspective is that school closings driven by budget cuts drive middle-class residents to the suburbs for better schools for their children, which they pay higher taxes to achieve. In short, lower taxes make the city less competitive in attracting talent, resulting in a less competitive business climate. He bolsters his argument by pointing out that other big cities facing many of the same macroeconomic challenges have survived the recession and are thriving in ways that Chicago is not. And in ways that Illinois also is not. People in those other states pay higher, progressive income taxes that support public services that make their states and cities more competitive. In short, he says “blue states that collect higher taxes thrive and red states with lower taxes do not.” I am sure one can find some exceptions to his general rule, but he has a point. Taxes alone do not make a state less competitive, especially if used wisely to create better public education and amenities and infrastructure. All these things matter. Then comes Geoghegan’s clincher:

“Illinois is a blue state that tries to govern like a red state. And that’s why the state and its crown jewel, Chicago, are about to go belly up.”

So far, so good. Geoghegan concludes with his plea to “tax me, please,” to achieve better public solvency and make the state and city more competitive. But his article fails to answer or address the question of why a blue state would try to “govern like a red state.” There is an understandable, though also cowardly, fear among legislators and aldermen about raising taxes because there is public resistance. Some public resistance to higher taxes is always to be expected, but in many places it can be overcome with a solid explanation of how that money will be used or invested. It is when it is repeatedly misused or poorly invested that public suspicion becomes a cancer that afflicts the trust people must feel before they are willing to open their wallets to the state and city.

That is where a new book by Thomas J. Gradel and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson becomes important. Simpson, now teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was an independent who was once a thorn in the side of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Democratic party boss, subject of the famous Mike Royko book, Boss, whose son Richard M. later ascended to the same office. Richard M. Daley retired before the 2011 mayoral election, when Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor. Corrupt Illinois is a no-holds-barred attack on the pervasive culture of corruption not only in the city but the entire state of Illinois, now famous for having sent two recent governors to prison, Republican George Ryan and his immediate successor, Rod Blagojevich, who ironically had promised to clean up the mess Ryan left behind. Instead, he created his own mess, including the attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

There is not room here to review the hundreds of cases of corruption the two authors discuss, stretching from the city of Chicago to numerous suburbs, including the notorious case of Cicero, to downstate communities where clerks and mayors have stolen public funds, to the state capitol, where matters now speak for themselves. What Gradel and Simpson document is the high, very high, cost of public corruption in the erosion of public trust. Taxpayers like to know that, when they fork over more money that is supposed to build roads and bridges or support schools or social services, that money will not end up illicitly in the back pocket of some operator tolerated by politicians who look the other way, or worse, pocket some of it themselves or find other ways to violate the public trust.

Moreover, this is not a partisan issue, as some would like to contend. Both parties have participated in the skullduggery in their own ways. The book supports an observation I have long shared in talking about other states with similar issues, like Louisiana: Once a culture of corruption takes hold, it becomes a bipartisan enterprise. The same can usually be said of the virtuous cycle of comparative honesty in states where such practices meet with immediate public condemnation. I have long encountered people who have difficulty believing me when I tell them that, when I once ran for city council in Iowa City while a graduate student at the University of Iowa, by city ordinance the limit on contributions by any individual to a candidate for a specific election was $50. There are no missing zeroes. It was 1983, but even allowing for inflation, that limit comes nowhere near the inflated sums that float around in Illinois elections. Public tolerance makes a huge difference.

Rauner attempts in his ham-handed fashion, driven by the personal certitude of a hedge fund millionaire, to pose as the enemy of the political class in Illinois. What he does not understand is that his pose might sell far better if he did not also make himself the implacable foe of organized labor and the minimum wage, and if he did not have such a tin ear about the damage his policies are doing to badly needed services for the poor, disabled, and mentally ill. That undermines any public sympathy he might otherwise muster for a legitimate campaign to root out public corruption, which seems at best to be only a secondary target.

If you do nothing else to understand the hole that Illinois has dug for itself, read this book. At times, Corrupt Illinois may seem repetitive, even slightly monotonous, unless you develop a perverse fascination with just how corrupt a state can become. That is because the authors have so much raw material to work with that it is a wonder they fit it all into just 200 pages. They try mightily to be concise and to the point, but the point they make is unavoidable. Until Illinois voters insist on cleaning up this mess, and their political leaders finally grow a conscience and respond, there is no way out of our current impasse.

 

Jim Schwab

Close Enough to Get Your Attention

 

This was a day that got me thinking about how we react to disasters. I’ve certainly had the opportunity to work on other people’s disasters, not so much in the direct sense of being involved daily for months on end, but at least in supplying training on recovery, advice on plans, and the other types of bits and pieces of aid that a researcher or consultant is often able to provide. And I’ve studied other people’s disasters in great detail in order to distill the selective wisdom that finds its way into reports and articles and presentations that share the knowledge thus accrued. But there is always some sense of distance, even when one knows personally some people who live and work in the communities affected, or who were directly affected themselves.

 

I cannot say that what happened in northern Illinois today brought things all the way home to an intense personal experience with disaster. Not even close. The worst that happened to me is that I will fly to Washington, D.C., tomorrow after United Airlines canceled my flight this afternoon at the height of the storm. But there was the threat for a while. High winds and drenching rain dominated the skies outside, but I was always safely inside—except for the brief moment when I went outside to induce my wife and one daughter and her four-year-old son to come inside after they parked on the street in the rain. Our neurotic Springer Spaniel ran out after me when our grandson failed to hold on to him, then jumped inside the car onto the front seat to accompany my wife to the garage. He has panics in storms that make him do things like that, things that seem counterintuitive considering that he is afraid of storms. Inside the house, he shakes in fear and nestles alongside you for reassurance. Dogs are as strange and as irrational at times as people, which may be why they bond with us so well.

 

But for two hours—roughly the period during which the Bears/Ravens game was suspended on Chicago’s Channel 2 (CBS) because of the storm—I found myself watching the storm watch to get the latest. There was a tornado spotted in Wilmington, headed northeast at 55 miles per hour, and estimated times were posted for when it would possibly arrive in Chicago and Evanston if it continued its track. It never did. But later it was reported that there may have been as many as 10 tornadoes, though some sightings may have been multiple touchdowns of the same tornado. I still don’t know six or seven hours later how many there really were. I suppose I will find out in tomorrow morning’s newspaper, or some other way. But by 8 a.m., I shall be headed to O’Hare International Airport to catch the flight I did not catch today. In the midst of the commotion, my cell phone rang, and United told me in its automated way that my flight had been canceled. I called back to rebook to find the robot voice asking if I was calling about my Monday flight. That made me wonder whether they had automatically rebooked me, so I checked my e-mail. I had been checking the flight status online, repeatedly finding that everything was on time—until it no longer was. Now United e-mailed me to say that I was on a flight for 11:05 a.m., replacing my 4:05 p.m. today. I hung up and decided to leave well enough alone. I e-mailed two people from the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington, D.C., to indicate that I would not arrive on time for the Monday workshop to which I had been invited. The workshop was to explore the leveraging of federal post-disaster money to support climate change initiatives. Here we were, being attacked in the Chicago metropolitan area by tornadoes in November. Irony? Perhaps. At any rate, I indicated, “there is no arguing with Mother Nature.” I would not be at the workshop bright and early Monday morning, but would arrive in mid-afternoon, participating only at the tail end. There was nothing I could do about it.

 

But as the day wore on, I realized that those horrific scenes of devastation I had associated with more faraway places like Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri, were now just a drive down the highway in towns like Pekin, Washington, Frankfort, and Coal City, all somewhere in northern Illinois, some relatively close to Chicago. That no tornado, so far as I know, found its way into Chicago itself seems now more dumb luck than anything else. The storm path could easily have brought them here.

 

Still, it is close but not really at my doorstep. I see it on television, the houses burst into splinters, the trucks overturned, cars mangled, and whole neighborhoods denuded of tree cover. But outside my door, what I see is merely a very wet lawn. Maybe there are lots of loose tree branches I can no longer see in the dark. But if I want to assess storm damage personally, I will have to drive down the road about an hour or so. Not far away but far enough. And I won’t be able to do that, if I decide it is the least bit helpful anyway, until I get back from my trip to Washington, foreshortened from three days to two. In the meantime, the emergency managers, whose job is much more immediate in such circumstances than that of planners addressing long-term recovery, will be out there doing what they are trained to do. They will find bodies, if there are any, get medical aid for the injured, get the streets cleared, and assess the damages, with the help of building officials.

 

Still, I expect that we will have a lot to ponder in this region. Some people may be ennobled by the experience in ways they never expected. Three years ago, I read the excellent book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, about the ways in which neighbors often rise to the occasion to build camaraderie where it is least expected. And just this past week, while traveling to St. Louis, to speak at the Sustainable Disaster Recovery Conference sponsored by St. Louis University, I was reading a book by Rabbi Niles Goldstein, God at the Edge, in which he makes the argument that we tend to find the divine presence in moments of crisis, not when sitting on a mountaintop under blue skies. It would be nice if that happened for the towns I mentioned above. They will need all the help they can get, even when it comes from people who never knew before that they had the qualities of leadership. It has happened before. Just ask the folks in Greensburg or Joplin. I had the chance to do exactly that during the conference in St. Louis. And I am sure they are busy right now praying for people in various towns in Illinois. After all, they already know what comes next in restoring life to a blown-out town.

Jim Schwab