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Feds should waive interest Illinois owes on unemployment insurance

Since September when the waiver ended, Illinois has racked up $20 million in interest fees owed to the federal government.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security office in Springfield.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security office in Springfield.
Associated Press

Many of you lost your jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. States had to pay out unprecedented unemployment insurance claims, and the federal government advanced money to cover those costs.

Most of us have been vaccinated, and life is inching back toward normal. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

In September, the interest waiver on those unemployment insurance advances ended. As a result, Illinois has racked up $20 million in interest fees owed to the federal government and could reach more than $100 million if the $4.5 billion the state owes is left unpaid for a year.

That is why I called on my fellow state financial officers to join me in signing a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen seeking the administration’s support for reinstating the interest waiver. Together, we represent Illinois, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Minnesota — eight states and more than 75 million residents. We believe the Sept. 6 deadline was chosen based on an earlier belief the worst of the pandemic would have passed by now.

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With patients crowding Illinois hospitals and infections swamping the state, that is clearly not the case.

States are having to pay interest on more than $39 billion of these federal advancements, which had once been offered interest-free. States need more time to address repayment without the meter running. Left unaddressed, these interest fees — at a rate of 2.27% — will ultimately fall on taxpayers.

Our state has made great progress with its finances, even in the face of the pandemic. We are paying our bills on time. This year we earned two credit upgrades for the first time in decades. And the bill backlog has shrunk by about 80% since its historic high of $16.7 billion during the 2015-’17 budget impasse. I hope the administration will hear our plea and further help us on the road to recovery.

Susana A. Mendoza, Illinois comptroller

CTA driver stands up for passenger safety

My wife and I were riding on a CTA bus on Dec. 23 when a woman boarded, her mask slung around her neck and under her chin. She leaned toward the driver to ask a question about the route.

He politely said, “Ma’am, please put on your mask.” The woman ignored him and repeated her question. The driver, respectfully, repeated himself, “Please, ma’am, your mask.” Clearly miffed, she snapped back at him, “Can’t you just answer my question?”

The driver raised his voice, and now everyone on the bus could hear him: “Put your mask on right now, or get off the bus!” The woman seemed shocked — but didn’t put her mask on.

Then the driver shouted, “I’m a frontline worker on this bus, and I don’t want to get COVID, and I don’t want anybody else on my bus to get COVID. Put on your mask! Put on your mask! Put on your mask!” And finally, she did. He answered her route question, and she walked to the back of the bus and sat down.

Most of the riders applauded. At the next stop, the driver apologized for his outburst, saying, “I just can’t stand it sometimes … I’m sorry … I’m really sorry for that.”

As riders (with the exception of the woman) exited the bus, each thanked the driver for his concern for everyone’s well-being and wished him Merry Christmas.

I spend most of my year working in New York City and return to Chicago for holidays. New York is a wonderful, beautiful and caring place. But I have never seen anything like this happen there. Thank you, CTA driver and CTA passengers, for this spontaneous demonstration of Chicagoans’ innate goodwill toward others.

Steven Doloff, Gold Coast

Expand school lunches

The food aid donations from Chicago and other U.S. cities for the 1947 Friendship Train began to arrive in Europe by the New Year. This gift allowed children in France and Italy to have school meals for many weeks. The school lunch programs were a big part of Europe’s recovery from World War II.

Today, we can feed more hungry children overseas by expanding the McGovern-Dole global school lunch program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The World Food Program (WFP), Catholic Relief Services, CARE, Save the Children and other charities distribute the meals.

The WFP is using McGovern-Dole funding to provide school meals in Ethiopia. School meals are desperately needed there because of severe hunger being caused by conflict. Catholic Relief Services is providing McGovern-Dole school meals in many countries, including Burkina Faso and Mali, which are both impacted by conflict.

We have an opportunity to build school lunch programs in every country, greatly advancing health, stability and economic progress worldwide. Congress should increase funding to at least $300 million a year. With food for every child, we can take a great step toward world peace in the New Year.

William Lambers, author