Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Where's the beef?"

In a whirlwind session Wednesday, the Illinois House restored funding to prevent state parks and historic sites from closing and hundreds of public employees from losing their jobs. It also agreed to let the governor lease the Illinois Lottery as a way to fund a major capital construction program and negated changes that the governor made to unanimously approved ethics reform.

But none of it will happen immediately.

1) It all requires Senate approval — the ethics reform needs that approval within 15 days, or it dies. The Senate, so far, is not scheduled to return to Springfield until after the November elections, but political pressure on Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and his Democratic members is expected to build so that they restore some budget cuts and enact ethics legislation before then.

2) Even if the Senate approves the lottery deal to fund a statewide capital plan, the earliest construction crews could move dirt would be in about 10 months. House Democrats say they want to find out how much money the lottery lease would generate before they made a detailed list of how that money would be distributed.

Budget cuts
About 400 public employees would retain their jobs under a measure approved by most House members. The House would restore about $260 million, which Rep. Gary Hannig said would prevent layoffs in many state agencies and constitutional offices. It also would keep 11 state parks and about 13 historic sites open and restore massive budget cuts to human services. Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and point person on the budget for his caucus, proposed paying for it by skimming “excess” money from dedicated funds, with some exemptions. Such funds as the Asbestos Abatement Fund accumulate money by collecting licensing fees. The House would create a new fund, dubbed the “Budget Relief Fund,” so that the money could not be used for anything other than restoring the budget cuts.

The cuts are rooted in an unbalanced state budget, estimated by the governor’s office to fall short on revenue by $2 billion as approved by the General Assembly in May. So Gov. Rod Blagojevich cut $1.4 billion as he saw fit. So-called fund sweeps have been approved and used before under this administration and previous administrations.

A separate measure approved by the House, although by fewer members, would ensure that Medicaid providers would receive more timely reimbursements from the state, but the $371 million to do so would not be covered by the fund sweeps. Hannig said the House wants to work with the governor to find another funding source for the Medicaid payments. Most of the state dollars would capture federal matching funds.

Lottery for capital
The House approved legislation to let the governor lease the Illinois Lottery to private investors as a way to garner about $10 billion. About $7 billion collected in the first four years would pay for construction projects. The rest would be split among public education and, if profits exceeded $11 billion, help pay down compounding public employee pension debt, said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago. If bids for the lottery lease came in lower than $10 billion, she said, then the sale doesn’t happen. “The whole thing is predicated on the notion that if you don’t get $10 billion, you take your marbles and you go home.”

Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Collinsville Democrat and Blagojevich ally, said the measure does not constitute a capital bill that would create jobs because it lacks the spending portion. “The problem with this is, where’s the beef?” he said on the House floor.

Currie said approving the revenue side of the equation is a major first step and that there’s “no rush” to write the spending side. “I don’t think that it makes a lot of sense to establish a spending plan when you don’t know whether you’re going to have anything to spend. And if you do have something to spend, you’re not likely to see it for the next six or nine months.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the absence of a spending plan is a “political hoax” because it gives House Democrats the ability to distribute campaign literature claiming they approved a capital bill even though the package is incomplete.

Ethics reform
The House rejected Blagojevich’s changes to a unanimously approved ethics measure. As approved, it would ban the governor from accepting political campaign contributions from businesses holding state contracts worth more than $50,000. The governor had expanded the ban to statewide officeholders, individual legislators and state political parties. Read more about the governor’s changes here. Rep. John Fritchey, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the measure, said the governor’s ideas could have merit and deserve consideration, just not as they’re tacked on to an already approved bill without opportunity to revise them. Fritchey filed separate pieces of legislation that would do the same thing as the governor proposed. But by overriding Blagojevich’s changes to HB 824 by a vote of 110-3, the House sent a message that legislators want the so-called pay-to-play ban to take effect as is — and soon. The original legislation also received unanimous approval in the Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

If the Senate fails to agree with the House within 15 days, then the whole bill dies. If that happens, the Campaign for Political Reform could try Plans B and C, said Cindi Canary, director of the Chicago-based nonprofit group. As a last resort, she said, that could involve starting over with a new bill or inserting the language into the ethics portion of a lottery deal.

We’re still waiting to hear from Senate officials about whether that chamber could return to consider the House’s actions within 15 days.

Insurance mandates
The House also rejected the governor’s changes to a few insurance-related bills. If the Senate fails to agree with the House and override the governor’s changes, then the bills die. Two are listed here:

HB 1432:
Insurance coverage of sexual assault services
Originally passed 94-20-0 in the House and 56-0 in the Senate
The House overrode the changes, 77-36, on September 10, 2008

Original intent: It would require insurance companies to pay for treatment of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in addition to other mental health services they already cover.
Governor’s changes: The governor would add treatment and services for sexual abuse victims, as well as for their parents, children, spouses, siblings, domestic or same-sex partners if they die or commit suicide from the abuse.

HB 953:
Insurance coverage of autism services
Originally passed the House 100-7-0 and the Senate 48-4-3
The House overrode the changes, 84-29, September 10, 2008

Original intent: It would expand mandatory insurance coverage of mental health services to also cover marriage counseling or therapy.
Governor’s changes: It would require insurance companies to reimburse families for diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders for children younger than 21. The benefit would max out at $36,000 a year but would be annually adjusted for inflation. Families still would have to pay a co-payment and deductible as usual for their policies, but they could not be dropped from their policies simply because their children were diagnosed with a form of autism.

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