Friday, August 31, 2007

Health nut

The governor unveiled the first of five health care initiatives that are replacing his gigantic proposal to extend state-sponsored health care to all uninsured adults in the state, which failed to win any legislative support. The newer scaled-back version doesn’t have legislative approval, either, but the governor’s assuming some parts of the new plan won’t even need approval from the rulemaking body, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Still, the five different initiatives will need a funding source some day.

The first portion, announced Thursday, expands the governor’s first-term claim to fame, All Kids, to young adults age 19 to 21. The state won’t insure them directly. It’s actually a program offered through Blue Cross and Blue Shield Illinois that covers those young adults who have “pre-existing” major illnesses, which would make them unlikely to get other private insurance plans otherwise. The administration estimates it would help about 7,000 people at a cost of $15 million to the state. This part does not need approval from the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, according to the administration.

Neither will the state rebate program for families who have private health insurance but who have a hard time paying the monthly premiums. These families make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $61,950 for a family of four. The rebate would amount to 20 percent of their premium costs, maxing out at $1,000 a year.

Another portion would provide breast and cervical cancer screenings and treatment to all uninsured women, potentially up to 261,000 people at a cost of $50 million to the state.

Two portions that could need JCAR approval are the expansion of the state-run program FamilyCare, which the governor wants to apply to families up to 400 percent of the poverty level. That’s up from the current 150 percent threshold and would include a family of four making $82,600 a year. The last part aims to help very low-income adults who don’t qualify for Medicaid because they don’t have any dependants in the household. The single adults would get help with primary care, medications and hospital visits.

Krista Donahue, chief of policy at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, calmed one fear that the governor would ram this through JCAR to enact the plans a.s.a.p. She said the governor will not file emergency rules, which means the portions requiring JCAR approval will have 45 days for public review. She also said there has been no decision to guarantee the state would reimburse participating doctors in a certain amount of time. “The rumor out there that we are going to pay providers who participate in these programs faster is just false,” she said.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The governor sues the speaker

The already strained relationship between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his fellow Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan took another hit Monday. The governor officially filed a lawsuit against the speaker alleging Madigan “blatantly disregarded constitutional proclamations issued by the governor.”

The governor’s complaint, filed in Sangamon County Court August 24, says Madigan devised a “scheme” that constituted “unauthorized and escalating acts aimed at eradicating the governor’s constitutional and statutory powers.” In one instance, Madigan called a special session earlier than the governor proclaimed so representatives could go home that Saturday and come back Sunday night. The compliant also says he didn’t require his members to attend another special session, failing to convene a quorum and preventing the chamber from conducting business as the record overtime session continued.

“These unlawful acts by Madigan were all taken while the state of Illinois was facing the very real prospect of a government shutdown caused by the lack of a budget,” the complaint says.

Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said the speaker’s office will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in the next couple of weeks. “[The governor] made a farce of the special session process, and this is just a continuation of that,” he said, adding the speaker recognizes the governor’s power to proclaim special sessions and complies each time.

We’ll see whether anything changes if and when the governor calls another special session, as indicated by the complaint: “The governor intends to call additional special sessions in the near future to address significant issues facing the state, including issues pertaining to the Illinois transportation systems which impact more than 2 million commuters per day.”

Friday, August 24, 2007

You scratch my back ...

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” might not work in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s budget game. If his budget vetoes announced Thursday are a political ploy to try to buy support from friends and to punish enemies, then he might lose in the long run.

“He seems to operate on the kind of strategy that it’s all about bringing pressure on the legislature from the outside,” said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. And by the next election cycle, he said the governor’s key Democratic base, especially the African American population around the Chicago area, might grow wary if projects in their neighborhoods don’t get funded as promised. “I think that over time, he’s wearing out his act. I think that with people reacting to individual projects and the questions being raised about whether he’s actually producing in terms of health care, over time that really hurts his popular support.”

Blagojevich is determined to get his health care plan, which his office says would open the doors for all uninsured women to receive breast and cervical cancer screenings and expand other state-sponsored health insurance to low- and middle-income adults. As noted in Thursday’s press release, the governor’s plan has to go in front of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to change state regulations so he can implement and expand the programs even after the legislature denied him his original health plan. It still has a long way to go.

Another question being raised by state government insiders is why he cut a little more than $4 million in total from the budget of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. An AG spokeswoman, Cara Smith, said some of the cuts are significant. Most disappointing to the office is the reduction in money for her inspector general, who is an independent lawyer responsible for investigating complaints of ethical violations. Each constitutional officer has one. Lisa Madigan’s was docked $50,000. But Smith said Lisa Madigan doesn’t have anything to do with her inspector general’s budget. “That budget is [not] controlled by the attorney general. It’s completely controlled by the inspector general. And it’s very disappointing that it would be touched at all. That work is the furthest thing from ‘pork.’”

Spokesman Justin DeJong of the governor’s budget office said all constitutional offices were funded at last year’s levels, but he has to get back to me about the inspector general line item in the attorney general's office.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I'm back in time for budget cuts

I'm nice and refreshed from our honeymoon in Germany and expect to blog as regularly as possible again. Thanks for understanding while I took a break from state budget reporting. Now, back to work.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday signed a state budget, allowing $340 million in school aid payments to immediately be issued. At the same time, the governor cut $463 million out of the state budget that was approved by both chambers earlier this month. The amount wasn’t surprising — he chopped about 1.7 percent of the $59 billion plan sent to him — but some of the cuts seem to contradict the governor’s numerous press releases about his priorities: health care and services for low- and middle-income families. For instance, he eliminated or reduced some cost-of-living raises for social service providers, cut money for community-based mental health services and decreased the amount allotted to expand broadband Internet services to rural areas. All cuts will become law if Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who’s been a Blagojevich ally most of the session, follows through on his promise not to let his chamber override the governor’s vetoes.

Along with the cuts is the governor’s never-ending push for health care. “While I’m pleased that we’re making a record investment in education, families across the state are still being priced out of health coverage and don’t have a way to see a doctor when they need to,” he wrote in a press release. “That’s why I’m removing almost $500 million in special pet projects and other spending that we simply can’t afford. And at the same time, we’re preparing new rules and administrative changes that will give half-a-million Illinoisans access to health care.” The details are still unknown, but his plan so far is designed to expand eligibility of existing state-sponsored health programs such as All Kids and Family Care.

The first-year cost of the health initiative is the exact amount Blagojevich cut from the budget: $463 million. That gives the impression he’s not spending money that he doesn’t have authority to spend, but it’s not that easy. The money doesn’t simply transfer from the line item cuts to his expanded health care programs. More on that another day.

As for the budget cuts, many are for state agency payroll and contracting services. “These are places where we thought we could achieve efficiencies while not impacting services,” wrote Justin DeJong, spokesman for the governor’s budget office, in an e-mail. Another common reduction in agency budgets was the state contributions to the employees’ retirement systems.

While he cut $75,000 here, $100,000 there, he made a lot of other reductions or total vetoes that might make some waves:
• Chunks of $3 million, $5 million or $7 million at a time for such education-related programs as reimbursements for transportation services, school safety block grants and supplemental payments to fast-growing school districts
• $6.62 million eliminated for cost-of-living adjustments for community-based substance abuse providers; and a $10 million reduction (from $29.3 million to $18.3 million) in cost-of-living adjustments for developmentally disabled providers that the governor’s office says was over-estimated in last year’s budget
• $6.25 million eliminated for a satellite campus of Lincoln’s Challenge, a military academy focusing on early intervention of high-school dropouts
• A $2.5 million reduction (from $3 million to $500,000) for the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which will join other states in planning a celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009
• About $26 million reduced from the Department of Human Services’ programs for home health care, autism diagnosis and other mental health services
• Nearly $5 million cut from the Illinois Arts Council, chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan’s wife, Shirley Madigan
• $6.25 million eliminated for the statewide program Operation CeaseFire, a violence prevention program in 15 communities around Chicago, Rockford, Decatur and St. Louis.

Rep. Bob Flider, a Mount Zion Democrat, said he was particularly disappointed in the Operation CeaseFire cut because he says it sends a message to the former prison inmates who are now helping others get jobs that their mission isn’t important. Last year, the governor announced $3.9 million for the project. You can read more about it in our upcoming September issue.

DeJong had this to say: "While CeaseFire and other initiatives may serve a purpose for a particular community or organization, we can't afford to spend taxpayer dollars on them right now. With the changes the governor made, the budget better reflects the needs of the state."

Flider also said projects in his district, including money for a food pantry and a homeless shelter, are among the $141 million cut of so-called pork projects, or legislative initiatives slipped into the budget so members can “bring home the bacon” to their constituents. Most of the pork projects cut by Blagojevich are in Democratic districts. Flider said those services are hit in political crossfire. “The governor has declared war on House Democrats, but it’s the people in my district who suffer,” he said. Why would the governor target projects in his district? Flider said that's because he's responding to what the majority of his constituents want: a priority of making timely payments to current Medicaid providers before expanding or creating new health care programs. “The governor wants his health care plan, and he’ll do anything to get it,” Flider said.