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A bake sale for the Merc

Despite nearly $1 billion in profits last year, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is crying about the recent state tax hike — and community groups across the city feel their pain.

They want to help.  Really.

Community activists and teachers will be among those hosting a bake sale for CME Group Monday, June 13 at 10 a.m. at CME headquarters, 20 S. Wacker.  It’s sponsored by Grassroots Collaborative.

It seems clear that CME’s recent threat to move its headquarters is a publicity stunt.  The company’s revenues (and tax liabilities) are generated at its trading floors and at its huge, brand-new data center in Aurora, which would be much harder to move than its corporate offices.

Furthermore, three of the four states CME is said to be considering – Indiana, New York, and New Jersey—have higher corporate tax rates than Illinois, even after the recent tax hike here.*

(The fourth state is Texas, where a Tea Party legislature and a radically pro-business agenda of tax cuts and deregulation have transformed a widely-touted “economic miracle” – based largely on an explosion of minimum-wage jobs – into an economic basket case.)

It’s more likely, as the Tribune reports, that CME wants Governor Quinn to offer a tax break package, as he has to more than 130 companies in his two years in office – with deals this year alone totaling $230 million.  You can call it corporate welfare if you like; Greg Hinz calls it “piracy,” and David Greising points out that it’s not always a good investment.

It wouldn’t seem like a few million in tax breaks would make a huge difference to CME.  The company had $3 billion in revenue and $951 million in profit last year, with both figures up 15 percent over the previous year.

Perhaps they’re just feeling unloved, in which case Grassroots Collaborative’s action will certainly help.

Shareholders at the corporation’s annual meeting last week weren’t so concerned with taxes, David Roeder reports:  they’re more worried about skyrocketing executive compensation, while stock prices and dividend payouts lag.

They might consider joining a much larger action on Tuesday, when thousands of Chicagoans are expected to protest the Chicagoland CFO Executive Summit (4:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 14) at the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker.

It will be preceded by three smaller rallies at 3:45 – for education at Cityfront Plaza, jobs at Daley Plaza, and housing at the Thompson Center – each of which will march to the Hyatt.

According to Stand Up Chicago, the 80 corporations and banks represented at the summit made $200 billion in profits last year.  “Rather than investing in job creation, they spent the money on themselves, paying their CEOs $857 million and their CFOs $327 million.

“How many homes could be saved from foreclosure with that kind of money?  How many schools could stay open?  How many jobs could be created?”

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* Business groups like to include Illinois’s 2.5-percent personal property replacement tax in the coporate income tax, boosting the total over 9 percent.  But that tax was instituted when local taxing bodies in Illinois were barred from taxing corporate equipment and personal property in 1998, as localities in many other states still do.

Want to fix the state’s budget deficit?

While the legislature slashes human services and education, a new analysis shows that taxing the state’s wealthiest residents at the rate now borne by its poorest residents would eliminate state and local deficits, including pension shortfalls — and avoid the human and economic costs of drastic cuts.

The bottom 20 percent of Illinois households pays 13 percent of their income in combined income, property, and sales taxes, according to a new study by United for a Fair Economy and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.  That’s more than double the burden for the top 20 percent, which pays 6.2 percent – and over three times the 4.1 percent share paid by the top 1 percent.

Flip that regressive structure – rearrange it so the top earners pay 13 percent – and you would have an additional $32.5 billion each year, according to the study.  Taxes for the bottom 60 percent would stay the same or decrease.

“It’s just a matter of being more reasonable about how we tax people,” said Ron Baiman of CTBA.

“Trying to raise adequate revenue through a regressive tax structure — where a greater percent of income is demanded of the poor than the well-off — is like trying to squeeze water from a stone,” said Karen Kraut, coordinator of state tax policy at United for a Fair Economy and co-author of the report.

The study looks at all 50 states and finds that the “upside-down,” regressive nature of their tax structures “is a major reason that states are grappling with such significant budget shortfalls.”

Not only are revenues down because of overreliance on the low- and middle-income households that are hurt most by a downturn, but the tremendous income growth at top incomes in recent decades has not been tapped.

Illinois has one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation, with its poorest residents paying a higher share of income in taxes than those in 47 other states.

To achieve a more progressive structure, states need to move toward a graduated income tax and reduce reliance on regressive sales and property taxes, according to the report.

In the state budget just adopted by the General Assembly, Baiman is angry that a proposal to decouple the state from a federal business depreciation bonus wasn’t included.

That would have brought in an additional $600 million in revenue, he said; 27 other states have decoupled from the accelerated depreciation deduction.

“It’s absolutely inexcusable,” he said.  “Why would you forego $600 million in revenue at a time like this?”

Bank of America: ‘pay your taxes’

Community activists will deliver a message to Bank of America today, and another one to Senator Mark Kirk.

Members of ten community groups, under the umbrellas of the Chicago Housing Initiative and the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network, will march on Bank of America (135 S. LaSalle) at 4 p.m. today demanding that they stop evading taxes.

Then they’ll head to Kirk’s office (230 S. Dearborn) to call on him to stand against cuts to services for low-income families until major corporations pay their share of taxes.

Chicago Housing Initiative maintains that Bank of America evaded a $3.8 billion tax bill this year using “accounting tricks and offshore tax havens” – reducing the bank’s stated earnings and actually netting it a $666 million tax rebate.

“That $3.8 billion in lost revenue could single-handedly prevent all the cuts to Head Start, LIHEAP, community health centers, and housing for the elderly, people with disabilities, and homeless veterans under consideration in the Senate currently,” according to the group.

“Our message to Kirk is that until big banks and corporations start paying their share of taxes, cuts to services for low-income families shouldn’t be on the table,” said organizer Leah Levinger.  “It’s inhumane – and it doesn’t do anything significant to shore up the budget.”

Time for TIF reform?

Chicago teachers and community groups will call for an end to big business TIF giveaways which are draining the CPS budget at a rally tomorrow (Saturday, March 19, noon) at Jenner Elementary, 1119 N. Cleveland.

After the rally they’ll march to a number of businesses around the Gold Coast that have received TIF funding, said Jackson Potter of the Chicago Teachers Union.  TIF funds (including subsidies to developers) have benefited such corporations as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he said.

The TIF program diverts about $250 million a year from the CPS budget to “wealthy developers, well-connected businesses, and Wall Street bankers,” while 160 CPS schools have no library, teachers are being laid off, education programs are cut and class sizes are growing, he said. CPS is projecting a $700 million deficit for the coming year.

The protest’s slogan is “TIFs Are For Kids.”  It comes at a time when TIF reform seems to be under serious consideration in Springfield, and a new mayor-elect is saying he wants reform too.

It’s not yet clear what Rahm Emanuel means by “reform.”  He began his campaign calling for greater transparency on TIFs – for one thing, including them in the city budget – and also for skimming TIF funds to hire more police, a move many think is probably not legally feasible.

Since winning election Emanuel has said “we need to return [the TIF program] to its original purpose,” as “a tool for blighted communities” rather than “for high-rent areas.”

Corporate welfare

That echoes the long-standing criticism of community groups, who say TIF has diverted property tax revenues to politically-favored areas and businesses that don’t need it, and that open-ended rather than project-specific TIF plans have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars for Mayor Daley to use for his friends, at his whim.

Building on years of coverage at the Chicago Reader, recent reports have confirmed this view.  According to reporters from Chicago Talks, nearly half of the $1.2 billion in TIF money designated for private sector projects since 2000 went to some of the area’s most profitable corporations.

According to the Chicago Reporter, $1.2 billion in property tax dollars were siphoned from the city, county, schools, and parks to the development projects in the Loop and Near South Side – just two of Chicago’s 77 community areas getting 55 percent of all TIF money spent between 2004 and 2008.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that they have been abusing it,” said Carolina Gaete of Blocks Together.  “They’re starving the taxing bodies.  TIF has really been used as corporate welfare — and a tool for gentrification.”

If Emanuel is serious about returning TIF to its original purpose, the first thing he should do is sunset the LaSalle Central TIF, said one long-time observer.

Created in 2006, the LaSalle Central TIF has funneled millions of dollars to major corporations – United Airlines, Miller Coors, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group among others – in many cases to renovate corporate offices.

The LaSalle Central TIF has over $36 million in available funds this year.  It’s expected to collect $1.5 billion over its 23-year life – about half of which will come from property tax that would otherwise go to CPS – for use in an area that comprises some of the city’s most prime real estate.

“There should never have been a TIF in that area,” said David Merriman of UIC.

Movement in Springfield

Meanwhile, a number of measures reforming TIF have been introduced in Springfield, including proposals to return uncommitted TIF funds to taxing bodies annually, exempt CPS revenues from TIF diversions, and require audits of Chicago TIFs and stepped-up disclosure (Progress Illinois has a list).

These are likely to be combined with other proposals into a single consensus bill by a group of legislators and advocates convened by Rep. John Taylor (D – Marion).  And prospects for passage this session look good, said Jonathan Goldman of Parent PAC, a new group that advocates for public school parents, which includes veterans of campaigns against the diversion of school funds to TIFs.

Growing momentum for reform reflects growing popular awareness about TIFs — as well as the mounting financial challenges faced by CPS and Chicago, Goldman said.  “And part of it is that Daley is leaving; he won’t be there to defend it,” he said.  Previously “people were afraid to go there.”

Housing Action Illinois, which helped push through earlier TIF reforms a decade ago, has compiled a list of TIF reform principles and submitted it to Bradley’s working group, Bob Palmer said.

These include: tightening up the definition of “blight” used to qualify TIF plans; limiting the land area in a municipality that can be TIFed; requiring explicit goals and purposes, with a process for returning revenues to taxing bodies when goals are met; requiring governing boards of taxing bodies to approve participation in a TIF, allowing them to limit their participation, and limiting TIF diversions to property value increases above the rate of inflation; and setting a process for declaring a surplus and returning unused revenues to schools districts and other taxing bodies.

Similar points are made in a memo to the working group from the Better Government Association.

Another proposal backed by Housing Action, designed to facilitate the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, would allow TIF funding to cover 100 percent of the cost of construction of low-income housing.

More sunshine

In Chicago, reform could mean fuller implementation of the TIF Sunshine Ordinance approved in 2009.  Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), coauthor of the measure, described his disappointment with its implementation to Chicago Talks – including the city’s claim that documents that should have been posted couldn’t be located.

Community activists monitoring neighborhood TIFs say it’s still hard to get information.  Gaete, who works with the Chicago Central Park TIF advisory council, says it’s not clear how officials come up with financial projections and other numbers.

Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance, who holds an annual town hall meeting reporting on seven TIFs around North Lawndale, said its impossible to learn how many community residents have gotten jobs or what minority contracts have been awarded.

Special programs which are supposed to provide TIF support for residents – including home improvements, small business support and job training – use TIF money but aren’t listed in TIF budgets, making them impossible to track, she said.

Last gasp for RALs?

It could be the last gasp for tax refund anticipation loans: Jackson Hewitt is reported to be considering bankruptcy while its bank fights an FDIC order to cease and desist funding the loans, known as RALs.

“It looks like [RALs] are on the way out,” said Katie Buitrago of the Woodstock Institute.

Woodstock and other consumer advocates have long called on regulators to clamp down on RALs – and on banks to stop financing them – arguing they are high-cost credit products which drain wealth from low-income taxpayers and communities of color.

Woodstock estimates that RALs divert well over $100 million a year from Illinois taxpayers’ returns.  The product is marketed at recipients of the earned income tax credit, undercutting the effectiveness of this anti-poverty program.

The “continual push for stricter guidelines and policies regarding RALs” by consumer advocates and financial regulators “seems to have paid off,” commented Karen Harris at the Shriver Center’s blog.

A year of setbacks

The past year has seen a series of setbacks for RALs.

Last February, Newstips reported that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency was cracking down on deceptive marketing about RALs.

In April, JPMorgan Chase announced it would no longer offer RALs.

In August, the IRS announced it would no longer provide tax preparers with “debt indicator” information, which reveals whether a taxpayer has outstanding tax liabilities that could reduce an expected refund.  Consumer advocates had pushed for the change, arguing that the only use of the debt indicator was to facilitate the sale of RALs.

In October, HSBC announced it would stop financing RALs for H&R Block, and H&R sued the bank.  But in December the OCC ordered HSBC to get out of the RAL business, and H&R followed by dropping the product.

In December, Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax Service entered agreements with Republic Bank and Trust, based in Louisville, the last major bank financing RALs. But in February, the FDIC began an administrative proceeding aimed at ordering Republic out of the business.  The agency said the product is too risky and that it “is of no value to the end user.”  Republic is fighting the proceeding in court.

Jackson-Hewlitt’s financial difficulties are linked to the clampdown on RALs, which are the company’s most profitable product, according to Reuters.

Market factors are also undercutting the attractiveness of RALs.  Electronic filing and direct deposit makes tax refunds available in a week or two, about the same timeframe as RALs offer.

Republic is charging about $62 for a RAL on a $1,500 refund – an APR of 149 percent, according to the National Consumer Law Center.  Tax preparation fees can boost costs to well over $100.

A free alternative

Meanwhile, volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) services continue to provide free tax preparation for low-income families.  The challenge is getting the word out, said Rolando Palacio of the Center for Economic Progress.

With nearly 1,000 volunteers at almost 30 locations in communities around Chicago and Illinois, CEP provides free assistance to help taxpayers claim the EITC and other tax benefits. (Locations and other information is available at 888‐827‐8511.)

The group celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.  Since 1990 CEP has served 270,000 families and brought $400 million in refunds to Illinois taxpayers.

CEP has partnered with banks to provide low-cost accounts for filers, helping them get direct deposit of refunds as well as access to banking services and a head start on saving.  The Treasury Department is now piloting a similar program, Palacio said.

The City of Chicago and the Illinois Department of Human Services have helped publicize the program with inserts in mailings, Palacio said.  But more could be done.

In the 2007 tax year, more than half of 6.3 million filers in Illinois used professional tax preparers; 110,000 used VITA and other free services, he said.

Increased federal funding is one thing that would help, Palacio said.  An $8 million demonstration program providing federal funding for VITA programs was increased to $12 million last year, but the need is far greater, according to the National Community Tax Coalition, a coalition of VITA services spearheaded by CEP.  The coalition calls for increased federal funding to VITA services on a permanent basis.

Where the money is: a lesson from CTU’s founders

This week Dirt Diggers Digest highlights the legacy of Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin, two Chicago teachers who founded a federation in the 1890s which grew into the first teachers union in the nation and ultimately the Chicago Teachers Union.

When the board of education used a purported fiscal crisis to demand reductions in teachers’ salaries, Haley and Goggins “launched an intensive investigation of tax dodging by some of the largest corporations in the city, finding that property tax underpayments amounted to some $4 million a year.” That was a lot of money in 1890.

Today in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is demanding that teachers and other public employees surrender not just pay and benefits, but their right to collective bargaining.  This would allow Walker and other officials to dictate terms of employment.

He says this is needed to meet a budget gap projected at $3.6 billion over the next few years.  But his recent enactment of $140 million in business tax breaks give credence to charges that his real agenda is destroying public employee unions.

This turns out to be a pattern around the nation — in states with Republican governors, as Michael Winship points out at Huffington Post. In Michigan, Rick Snyder has demanded $180 million in concessions from public workers and a billion dollars in cuts to schools, universities and local governments; he’s also pushing $1.8 billion in corporate tax cuts.

In Arizona, Jan Brewer passed $535 billion in corporate tax cuts, and now plans to kick a quarter of a million people off Medicaid.  In Florida Rick Scott is cutting essential services to pay for $4 billion in corporate and property tax cuts.

Closing deficits is not these folks’ top priority.

Last week we cited HuffPost’s report that two-thirds of corporations in Wisconsin pay no taxes, and the corporate share of tax revenue has fallen in half since 1981, according to the state’s revenue bureau.

Addressing the rhetoric of “shared sacrifice” coming from Walker, Real News Network’s Paul Jay points out that Wisconsin’s billionaires have seen their wealth continue to grow while everyone else suffers.  He says that restoring the state’s estate tax – which has brought in nothing for two years – to 2008 levels would raise $158 million a year.  Restoring it to its 2001 level, and throwing in a million-dollar exemption, would solve the state’s budget problems neatly.

Corporate tax avoidance is the target of US Uncut, a new group modeled on a movement in Great Britain.  They protested this weekend at Bank of America, which paid zero taxes [in 2009] and made over $10 billion in profits last year.

According to the Guardian, a GAO report found that 83 of the top 100 publicly-traded corporations in the U.S. use corporate tax havens to minimize their tax bills.  US Uncut says that big corporations dodge up to $100 billion in US taxes every year.

That’s a lot of money, even in 2011.  By coincidence, it’s the same amount that Republicans in Congress promised to cut from the federal budget.

In Chicago, CPS faces huge deficits, more school closings are promised, and state legislation backed by the mayor and his successor would take away teachers’ collective bargaining rights.  Meanwhile a new analysis shows that half of TIF subsidies have gone to the city’s most profitable corporations, with much of the rest going to developers of high-cost housing.  Expect that program to come under increasing scrutiny.

A financial trading tax for Chicago?

A special City Council meeting, Monday at 2:30 p.m., will consider placing three referendums on the February ballot, including a proposal to adopt a financial transfer tax.

The idea of such a tax, as propounded by the Chicago Political Economy Group (among many others), was discussed here last week.  It has a long history and widespread support, said Bill Barclay, author of CEPG’s working paper on the subject.

And while it would work better on a national scale, applying a transfer tax in Chicago is “certainly feasible,” he said.  Now retired, Barclay worked for more than two decades at Chicago’s financial exchanges and is adjunct professor in business administration at UIC.

The U.S. had a stock transfer tax in various forms for most of the period from the Civil War to the 1960s.  Such a tax is still in place in New York State, though in recent decades it’s been rebated, Barclay said.

“If it wasn’t rebated, New York State would have a much smaller budget deficit today,” he said.

New versions have been backed by Nobel economists James Tobin and Paul Krugman and by presidential adviser Larry Summers, and legislation establishing a federal financial transaction tax was proposed in the current Congress by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Representative Peter DeFazio (D- Oregon).

Perhaps most relevant to Chicago, the United Kingdom has long had a 0.5 percent stamp tax on stock trades, which raises $4 billion or more a year.

“That hasn’t prevented Britain, which has the sixth largest economy in the world, from having the second largest equity market in the world,” Barclay said.  The London Stock Exchange is the world’s second largest.

“It’s a little trickier” to apply the tax in Chicago, Barclay said.  Besides technical issues, “you’d have to make the tax small enough so it doesn’t chase people away and large enough to raise some money for the city,” he said.

He points out that Standard and Poors and Dow Jones both level licensing fees of 10 or 12 cents on every contract traded – more than any transaction tax that’s been proposed – and “charging that fee doesn’t deter people from trading [financial] products.”

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, and Chicago Board of Equity Options have huge real estate stakes in their current locations, he points out.

After its $11 billion acquisition of CBOT in 2007, CME now stands to reap $15 million in TIF assistance to renovate the Board of Trade building.  That’s on top of a $17 million property tax break a few years ago, according to the Reader.

Financial transactions in Chicago amount to hundreds of trillions of dollars a year, Barclay said.  CME is the largest futures exchange in the U.S., with “more than $250 trillion changing hands [every] year,” according to a recent study.

In the 1970s, Tobin proposed a tax aimed at curbing currency speculation, but proposals since the financial crash of 2008 have dual goals:  reducing reckless financial speculation (including computer-generated trading) and encouraging long-term investment – and recapturing a portion of the huge economic costs in jobs, housing equity, and public spending caused by the financial sector’s crash.

“The financial industry got us into this mess, and maybe they can generate a little money to help us get out,” Barclay said.

The Sun Times reports that aldermen are working to get a quorum of 26 to attend Monday’s meeting, which will consider placing three referendums on the ballot.  In addition to the financial transaction tax, referendums have been proposed calling for renegotiating the city’s parking meter lease deal and hiring the full complement of police authorized in the budget.

Twenty-five aldermen have signed on to the call to consider a referendum on a financial transaction tax.

Deficit plan: alternatives to austerity

President Obama’s deficit commission, headed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, appears to have failed.

Its mission was to arrive at consensus on a plan to balance the budget by 2015, agreeable to 14 of its 18 members, and to do it by December 1.  The commission’s chairs have already blown the deadline, pushing back a final vote to Friday, and it seems unlikely they’ll succeed in rounding up the required votes.

Some reports have focused on those shortfalls – an AP report leads with “divisions remain” – but others have glossed them over.  An LA Times report inaccurately says “the bipartisan debt commission issued its final report on Wednesday.”  The Wall Street Journal says “the commission’s vote is largely symbolic.”

A CNN report posted at Chicago Breaking News is a little confused, saying the commission “released its final report” today and “plans to vote on Friday.”

Huffington Post emphasizes the tax cuts for the wealthy contained in the Simpson-Bowles report – the top income tax rate would be reduced from 35 percent (scheduled to rise to 39.6 percent next year) to  as low as 23 percent, and corporate tax rates would be reduced as much as 9 percent.  A deficit reduction plan that cuts taxes?

Cuts to Social Security

Isaiah Poole of the Campaign for America’s Future points out the the report recommends cuts in Social Security benefits for young people entering the workforce today that will range from 17 to 34 percent, and that raising the retirement age would constitute another 13 percent cut – and an additional hardship to low-income workers and those in physically demanding jobs.

Some 53 million retirees, survivors, and disabled currently receive an average annual Social Security benefit of $14,000.  Many near-retirees seen their savings swallowed up in the current crisis.  In addition, Social Security’s trust fund is not part of the federal budget.

Senator Dick Durbin and U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky are members of the commission.  Schakowsky issued her own proposal which cut defense spending, cut health costs with a public option, raised corporate taxes and equalized investment and earned income tax rates. (Durbin hasn’t taken a public position on the co-chair’s proposal, according to CAF, though NPR reports he voiced support for raising the retirement age.)

Yesterday Schakowsky told Poole that the commission chairs were “moving the goal posts” (his words) by shopping their plan around looking for at least ten votes — a majority, if not the margin mandated by Obama’s executive order.  So far they are falling short of that goal too.

Alternatives

At Working In These Times, David Moberg reports on two alternative deficit plans put forward by Institute for America’s Future (pdf) and by a group including the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute (pdf).

The IAF plan is endorsed by over 300 economists and scores of labor and community leaders.  Its endorsers include Lynda DeLaforgue of Citizen Action Illinois as well as economists Ron Baiman of the Center for Tax and Budget AccountabilityJoe Persky of UIC, and other members of the Chicago Political Economy Group.

That plan emphasizes “the grave danger that the still-fragile economic recovery will be undercut by austerity economics.”  It distinguishes short-term deficits caused by the recession (on top of wars and tax cuts) and long-term issues due not to an “entitlement crisis” but to an unsustainable health care system.

Pointing to previous periods of prosperity and balanced budgets, the plan calls for reducing short-term deficits by growing the economy and creating jobs, in part by addressing a huge “public investment deficit.”

Financial transaction tax

One big revenue proposal in both alternative plans is a financial transactions tax, an idea CPEG has promoted (see their working paper and their fact sheet on the concept).  According to CPEG, such a tax – similar to the long-standing stamp tax on stock trades in Britain – could generate $500 billion a year or more with no impact on productive economic activity. (The two new plans project smaller revenues from the tax.)

A securities transfer tax was backed by 61 percent of participants at the America Speaks series of town hall meetings in June focused on the deficit, but was apparently not considered by Simpson and Bowles.

The alternative plans “demonstrate how it is possible to balance the budget with rising government investment, faster growth, more jobs, and create the basis of a new, more sustainable economy,” Moberg writes.



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