Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Waiting games

Gov. Rod Blagojevich got one step closer to enacting a recent campaign promise, but his administration still hasn't fulfilled two promises he made a year ago. Services for college students and veterans are waiting to be paid, as a result.

The Senate approved a $1 minimum wage increase 33 to 21 with 3 voting present. The measure would increase the minimum wage to $7.50, 25 cents more than a federal increase being debated in Congress. If approved by the Illinois House, the state minimum wage also would be to inflation from then on.

House approval is not a guarantee. House Speaker Michael Madigan said Tuesday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the bill, yet. “I’ve always supported increases in minimum wage. I’ve got a 35-year record of supporting those increases. I’m simply saying that we’re not certain what the proposal is.”

One sticky point in the Senate debate focused on whether businesses would still have the ability to pay part-time workers younger than 18 less than the minimum wage (50 cents less). Under Sen. Kimberly Lightford’s measure, all workers of all ages would be guaranteed $7.50.

While a minimum wage came closer to an increase, the governor’s first-term promises of giving college tuition grants and veterans health-care services are under scrutiny.

College tuition credits
Earlier Wednesday, a joint House committee heard from Michael Luke of the Illinois attorney general’s office about the sale of the state’s student loan portfolio. While the attorney general’s office was studying whether the Illinois Student Assistance Commission needed legislative approval to sell all of the nearly $4 billion asset, Luke said the commission’s staff and the governor’s legal staff were uncooperative in providing information.

That caused the attorney general’s office to issue an opinion based on limited information.

That drew criticism from some Republican committee members and raised questions about the governor’s new MAP Plus program. Last spring, the General Assembly designated $34.4 million to offer $250 a semester to students from middle-income families, but the commission does not yet have the money to pay for the new program and other initiatives contingent on the sale of the student loan portfolio. Commission chairman Donald McNeil said the process of selling, refinancing or partnering with private companies is two months behind, but the commission is confident the money will be there when it comes time to reimburse the 40 institutions that already credited the $250 credits to eligible students.

Veterans’ Cash
At the same time across the street, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs director received an earful about the delay of distributing $3 million made from a scratch-off lottery game. Programs for veterans, including $125,000 needed to open a shelter for homeless veterans, have been waiting. (I had to listen to a recording of the committee hearing because this was all happening simultaneously.)

The governor’s program to provide health care to some Illinois veterans is underused, so far. Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat and military veteran, said only 14 veterans were enrolled in the governor’s Veterans’ Care program. She also said the department has not yet defined how it would split up the $3 million generated by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn’s scratch-off lottery game, Veterans’ Cash. It’s supposed to help the state provide services for post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, long-term medical care and short-term medical care.

The Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Lombard, for example, is $90,000 short of the amount needed to open its doors, said Bob Adams, co-chair of the shelter’s board of directors. His co-chair, Dirk Enger, said, “The biggest problem is a lack of communication. Somewhere the ball has been dropped.”

Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Roy Dolgos said his staff has been working closely with the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules since August to draft rules for the governor's program and for distributing the money, but it’s taken so long because the process is new to the department and that they didn't want to mess it up.

More to come
The 94th General Assembly’s veto session has spread between downtown Springfield and the state Capitol a few blocks away because of renovations being done in the House and Senate chambers. Action will continue Thursday and then break for Thanksgiving before reconvening November 28. Still hanging out there are 1) a three-year freeze on electricity rates and 2) a pay raise for Illinois senators.

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