Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on March 24, 2004 · Page 1-22
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · Page 1-22

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Wednesday, March 24, 2004
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123456 22 CHICAGO TRIBUNESECTION1WEDNESDAYMARCH24,2004 S COTT C.S MITH , Publisher A NN M ARIE L IPINSKI , Editor R . B RUCE D OLD , Editorial Page Editor J AMES O’S HEA , Managing Editor N.D ON W YCLIFF , Public Editor G EORGEDE L AMA , Deputy Managing Editor,News J AMES W ARREN , Deputy Managing Editor,Features F OUNDED J UNE 10,1847 EDITORIALS I n early January, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill told “60 Minutes” viewers that George W. Bush, who fired him in 2002, had come into office spoiling to oust the dictator of Iraq. “From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,” said O’Neill. He had provided documents, accounts of meetings and his own views of the president to an author who had written a new book critical of Bush. The White House’s response to O’Neill essentially was to depict him as having been out of the loop when he worked for the administration, and disgruntled after he got the boot. O’Neill is now past tense, but another former official appeared on “60 Minutes” Sunday to voice similar accusations (and, not incidentally, promote his new book). Richard Clarke, a coun- terterrorism specialist whom Bush held over from the Clinton administration until February 2003, said during the broadcast that the president has “done a terrible job on the war against terrorism” by not capturing Osama bin Laden or focusing more singularly on Al Qaeda. In his book, Clarke says Bush told him and others on Sept. 12, 2001: “Go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this.” Clarke says he answered, “But Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this,” to which Bush is said to have responded, “I know, I know, but ... see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” The White House’s essential response is that Clarke was out of the loop, and disgruntled because he didn’t get a promotion. On Monday the White House press office issued eight pages of detailed denials to Clarke’s accusations. Two examples among many: To the assertion that Clarke wasn’t allowed to brief Bush before Sept. 11on the threat posed by Al Qaeda, the White House retorts: He never asked to. And to the assertion that Bush was obsessed by Iraq after Sept. 11, the White House says: “Given Iraq’s past support of terror, including an attempt by Iraqi intelligence to kill a former president, it would have been irresponsible not to ask if Iraq had any involvement in the attack.” In an essay, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice adds: “Once advised that there was no evidence that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11, the president told his National Security Council on Sept. 17 that Iraq was not on the agenda and that the initial U.S. response to Sept. 11would be to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.” That sentence hints at the case Bush’s aides should be making. It’s hard to see what they gain by playing point-counterpoint with critics such as O’Neill and Clarke. Here’s a better retort: After Bill Clinton’s eight years of inaction toward Al Qaeda, Bush had to react to a major terrorist attack within eight months of taking office. Don’t focus on what he said then, focus on what he did. In less than a month, and with the world’s approval, he and his national security team isolated Al Qaeda benefactors and began bombing Afghanistan. That campaign didn’t exactly become the quagmire critics predicted. Bush’s military and Afghan fighters rapidly accomplished what Russian soldiers never could: the ousting of Al Qaeda’s hosts, the Taliban. In the wake of Sept. 11, America was a nation unhinged. The roots of the attacks were a mystery, the citizenry gripped with fear. Regardless of whether they like or loathe Bush, fair-minded Americans know that in the darkest yet best moments of his presidency, he acted with caution and decisiveness in answering the assault. Debating Paul O’Neill or Richard Clarke point by point may seem necessary. But if Bush’s defenders make that their only tack, they’re squandering their man’s most remarkable success. Squandering a Bush success T o survive in politics you always have to keep in mind that it’s better to jump in front of a parade than to get trampled by it. That’s what seems to be going on right now as Mayor Richard Daley, Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan and others try to do something about property taxes. The last round of assessments by Houlihan’s office saw the median property value in Chicago rise by 32 percent in three years. That doesn’t mean the average tax bill will rise by 32 percent, but there will be some shocked homeowners when the next bills go out in the fall. So Houlihan, Daley and others are trying to get ahead of an anticipated tax revolt. At his State of the City address Feb. 10, Daley roared against the property tax system with impressive vigor: “I think it’s time to blow up the property tax assessment system and start over.” They’re calling for broad property tax reform, but they’re focusing on narrower legislation that would put a lid on how high residential assessments can rise. Lost in the political scramble is a sober evaluation of just why property taxes are going up. The first factor is how much local governments levy in property taxes. On that score, there has been a welcome moderation in recent years. The property tax levy for the City of Chicago has risen 6.4 percent in four years. The levy for Cook County government has risen 1.5 percent in that time. The city and county have turned to other revenue sources to pay for government. The Chicago Public Schools system, which has fewer tax options, has raised the property tax levy by 14 percent in four years. So if the local governments have eased the squeeze on property taxes, why are people afraid they’re going to get a double-digit tax hike? Blame it, in part, on good times. Even though the economy has been sluggish in recent years, property values in much of Chicago have soared. There has been impressive new building in many Chicago neighborhoods, including the long-neglected West and South Sides. The latest round of assessments reflects that. What has been driving up residential property tax bills is not so much quantum leaps in government spending as a substantial shift in the tax burden from commercial and business owners to homeowners. For starters, residential property values have been rising more quickly than commercial property values. That shifts the tax burden to the homeowners. But the economy alone isn’t to blame for this shift. Political leaders have made several moves in recent years to manipulate the tax burden. In 1995, the Illinois legislature allowed Cook County property owners the right to appeal their assessments to the state Property Tax Appeals Board. Property owners get as many as four chances to lower their assessments—by appeal to the assessor, to the Cook County Board of Review, the PTAB and the courts. Many of the county’s commercial and industrial property owners have taken advantage of those opportunities, winning millions of dollars in assessment reductions. Who represents them? Tax attorneys, including some of Chicago’s most powerful political leaders. Who picks up the difference? Other property owners. Yet a move in Springfield to abolish the PTAB failed last year. Other adjustments and tax breaks only continue shifting the tax burden. In 2002, the Cook County Board amended its tax classification system to decrease taxes on large apartment buildings from 33 percent to 26 percent of market value, supposedly to promote affordable housing. That tilted the tax load to small apartment buildings and single-family homes. Other tax breaks, such as the senior citizen homestead exemption and an assessment freeze for low-income seniors, also shift the tax burden on those who don’t qualify for the special breaks. So the burden has moved. According to the assessor’s office, in 1997 residential property owners in Chicago paid 35 percent of the property taxes and commercial property owners paid 42 percent. Next year, residential owners will pay 42 percent and commercial owners will pay 38 percent. Other types of property make up the rest. Yes, the property tax system has become hopelessly convoluted. So what do Daley, Houlihan and others want to do? Make it more convoluted. The Illinois House last month approved the Neighborhood Preservation Homeowner Exemption bill, which would cap the annual increase on residential assessments at 7 percent. That means if a homeowner was socked with a 50 percent increased in the assessed value of his property, the law would limit the increase to just 7 percent a year. Who would that help? Everybody who has the good fortune of owning a home that is rocketing up in value. But who would it hurt? Everybody who doesn’t have such good fortune. Taxes on business property would go up, increasing the lure of moving to the collar counties, where land often is cheaper. The tax bills on homes that haven’t seen sharp increases would go up. “Some of the shifts could be substantial and regressive,” state Revenue Director Brian Hamer said recently. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has expressed reservations about the unintended consequences of the legislation. The tax exemption bill would add one more contraption to a tax system that looks like Rube Goldberg’s finest work. The Illinois Senate should recognize that, and stop this bill. This page has supported a shift from property taxes onto the state income tax. But such a move has, naturally, drawn skepticism from many voters. Given the spending excesses in the Illinois legislature in the 1990s, it is difficult to support a move that would pour more money into state government without some assurance that it would be used wisely. That is the gist of Blagojevich’s opposition to an increase in the state income or sales tax. The best thing state government can do right now is keep putting money into education —the governor’s budget would hike spending on schools by $400 million—and find ways to reduce the operating cost of state and local governments. Eventually, a stronger case will be made for a shift from property taxes to the income tax. But that argument isn’t being made right now. Instead, we’re looking at a tax gimmick that is supposed to reverse all the other tax gimmicks. We’re not buying. Taxing politics VOICE OF THE PEOPLE Medical crisis The Illinois Hospital Association commends the Tribune for its in-depth look at how skyrocketing medical liability insurance premiums are driving doctors from Illinois and jeopardizing patient access to health care (“Doctors flee insurance costs, state,” Page 1, March 12). Solving this crisis will take an innovative and comprehensive approach—and, most important, a reasonable limit on the non-economic portion of medical liability awards – to restore predictability to the medical tort system and stabilize liability premiums. According to the journal Health Affairs, medical liability insurance premiums are 17 percent lower in states with caps on damage awards compared to states that do not have caps. The Illinois Hospital Association proposes large graduated caps, ranging from $500,000 to $2 million for hospital-based medical liability and $250,000 for medical liability involving physicians. Such graduated caps are fair and effective, allowing patients their full rights to seek compensation for medical negligence. In addition to caps, non- meritorious and frivolous claims should be eliminated from the liability system with reforms that encourage health providers to disclose and discuss health-care errors with patients and their families, protect hospitals from liability in cases where the hospital’s actions did not cause the harmand set expert witness standards. Reforms are also needed in the medical liability insurance market so that purchasers have better information about what coverage is available and what justifies certain premium rate increases. Physicians need to know what insurance options are available to them, and public hearings should be held on insurance rate increases that exceed certain amounts. The time for medical liability reform is now. The well- being of our state’s health care system and the health of Illinoisans depend on it. Kenneth C. Robbins President Illinois Hospital Association Naperville Why take ACT? In your editorial against requiring high school juniors to take the ACT two months earlier than they do now, you neglected to ask an important question: Why do they need to take it at all (“Don’t mess with the ACT,” March 7)? Standardized testing is the kudzu of education, overtaking and strangling the life out of any program that doesn’t allow for efficient and “measurable” results. Ignorant politicians claim that testing results can provide accountability for schools, but, as stories in the Tribune have shown, standardized testing has actually driven out substantive and interesting subjects like history, physics and dinosaurs in favor of sterile test prep courses. This isn’t just sad, it’s criminal. We are raising generations of children to think that being educated means filling in ovals and getting the right answers. We are forcing teachers to become assembly- line supervisors instead of creative inspirations for their students. And after all this we wonder why students grow bored and restless in school and why good teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Truly putting students first would mean assessing them in more meaningful and complex ways than standardized testing can provide. Willard M. Dix College counselor University of Chicago Laboratory High School Chicago Get a clue Should it have given the Illinois Gaming Board a clue when the Isle of Capri in the Kansas City area is referred to as the “Pile of Debris” (“Casino winner places big bet on Rosemont,” Page 1, March 17)? Krys Reese Independence, Mo. Dean Rohrer Phone cars I am in complete agreement with the editorial about segregating cell-phone users (“Give peace a chance,” March 18). But you had it wrong: They should have the designated car, not the rest of us. Dean Pritza Chicago Naptime needed The article about eliminating naptime in prekindergar- ten programs (“Nap time for kids getting a rest,” News, March 16) perpetuated misinformation about early-childhood education. Concentrating purely on academics before kindergarten is counterproductive to creating school success. Before children can succeed academically in school, they need early-childhood experiences that help them develop socially and emotionally as well as intellectually through hands-on interaction with other people and materials. A key element of healthy development in young children is getting enough rest to allow the brain to digest the wealth of information presented throughout the day. Early-childhood professionals facilitate developmentally appropriate learning that creates the foundation for personal and academic success. Their curriculum includes free play and naps because those things are essential in the healthy development of the whole child. Sharon Wegler Wheaton Costs of war In Iraq, the U.S. is using traditional methods of warfare against a non-traditional enemy. The staggering amount of U.S. money involved could have been used to encourage alliances around the world, enhance tracking of terrorists, employ more sophisticated espionage and increase homeland security. The attack on Iraq caused needless deaths and destruction and opened floodgates of anti-American sentiment, even though the U.S. was initially the victim on Sept. 11, 2001. Kayla Shonberg Highland Park Drivers hate tollway congestion. Consumers oppose toll-increase proposals and wasteful agency spending. Environmentalists have long differed with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority over its operating approaches and, especially, its plans to build two new billion-dollar toll roads in Lake County and Will County that will cause more sprawl and congestion and that are unaffordable. But let’s give credit where it is due. Following Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s mandate to “reform the Toll Highway Authority from the bottom up,” the agency is cleaning up its act and doing better. New Executive Director Jack Hartman and Board Chairman John Mitola have taken some reform steps in the right direction that merit attention. For example: Í Hiring a management team with public service experience and expertise, and providing better training for tollway employees to improve customer service. Í Expanding the number of I-PASS lanes and making transponders available for purchase at grocery stores and online. Í Revamping the old oas- es, which need upgrading and a broader range of services. Í Potentially making the agency, its employees and contractors more accountable by creating an office of inspector general. Í Making the agency more transparent by promising to provide public quarterly reports that will track and measure spending against the agency’s budget and by providing more annual budget information than in years past through public meetings. Í Pledging to prepare a 10- year capital plan, which will assess the condition of the toll roads, the cost of repairing them and, it is hoped, the financing realities. This new plan should be deeper and more thoughtful than the sketchy $5 billion capital plan that the agency unveiled two years ago. And it should lay out the realistic financial tradeoffs and toll-hike implications. The governor’s January 2003 inaugural speech pointed out the need for tollway reform. Given the agency’s long history of corruption, lack of planning and freewheeling spending at the public’s expense, there is plenty to re- form. Fortunately there is some progress. As the first year’s reforms take hold, the Toll Highway Authority’s next challenge will be to live within its financial means and avoid calling for a big toll increase by focusing on priorities that it can afford. The Toll Highway Authority should look to fix the existing toll roads first, rather than engage in costly expansions. According to engineering studies, needed repairs and maintenance have been deferred. Innovative revenue-neutral congestion pricing approaches, which have been used for toll roads, transit and bridges across the country, can also help to alleviate congestion by smoothing out traffic flow and save money by avoiding costly toll- road widenings. The Toll Highway Authority does have a ways to go in regaining the public’s confidence. Let’s recognize the good steps that it is taking in the right direction. Let’s hope that it stays on a reform track. Howard A. Learner Executive director Environmental Law and Policy Center Chicago Kudos to Toll Highway Authority on reform steps

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