Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reform do-over

By Bethany Jaeger

In an unusual move, the Illinois legislative leaders asked the governor to veto a bill that Democratic members sent to his desk in May. Gov. Pat Quinn obliged, saying he would work with members of both political parties, as well as government reform advocates, to start from scratch — and get it done by October 14 — to tighten up the rules for the funding of political campaigns.

Quinn vetoed House Bill 7, which would have established contributions limits of $5,000 for individuals, $10,000 for businesses and labor unions and $90,000 for transfers from statewide political parties. Quinn said since he received the bill, he’s gotten a lot of feedback from individuals, reform advocates and newspaper editorials that the bill was flawed and could have unintended consequences, as well as risked turning voters away from a system that maintains the status quo. In turn, Illinois remains one of only a handful of states with no limits on the amount individuals, businesses or interest groups can donate to political candidates.

“I’d rather take more time to get it right and have public consensus behind it than hastily do something that might have happened in the spring,” Quinn said during a news conference with all four legislative leaders. They were joined by reform advocates from Change Illinois, a coalition of about 50 organizations seeking campaign contribution limits, among other things.

George Ranney, president and chief executive officer of Chicago Metropolis 2020, as well as a co-chair of the reform group Change Illinois, said the governor and the legislative leaders agreeing to work out a compromise before the General Assembly returns for its annual fall veto session was a “major step in the right direction.” Next, he said, “even more so, at this point, we think there is an opportunity to do the right thing for this state, to enact a bill that has strong limits, that has the right kind of committee structure and, importantly, has a real set of provisions for enforcement.”

It was "not perfect"
Quinn’s veto comes after he testified in favor of HB 7 in late May. Sitting next to House Speaker Michael Madigan, the governor said then that the bill was not perfect, but it was a “significant step forward” and that it was the “best we can do at this time.”

His testimony contradicted the recommendations of his own Illinois Reform Commission, which wanted more stringent contribution limits and other enforcement reforms.

Quinn said today that he seriously considered altering the bill or adding to it, which would have sent it back to the legislature. But he said it dawned on him that it was better to totally veto it and make a stronger bill. He added that he would seek the commission’s input on a new version. “Sometimes when you have to alter your course to make things better, you do that. I’d rather make it better than to not do it right.”

Senate President John Cullerton said in Quinn’s defense that a new negotiated bill wasn’t ready by the time Quinn had to act on HB 7 (he faced a Friday deadline). “We asked the governor to veto this bill. We asked him — the sponsors of the bill — asked him to veto it. Because if he signed it, there are people here who think it could be much better, and that would be interpreted as accepting something that had flaws. We didn’t want to do that,” Cullerton said. “He’s not flip- flopping. He’s doing what we’ve asked.”

Cullerton added that the general areas they intend to work on include the level of contribution limits and the ability of officials to enforce the new rules.

Cynthia Canary, who previously described HB 7 as “phony reform,” today defended Quinn. “We often slam our elected officials for not having a backbone, for not listening to us, for flip-flopping. What could be braver than listening to the people coming to the table and saying, ‘We hear you. We’re going to try to do things differently.’”

Republicans, who argued they were cut out of the negotiating process, deemed the bill “seriously flawed” and urged the governor to reject it in totality and start over. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno today commended Quinn for “courage” in not signing HB 7 just to have something on the books. “As desperate as our state is for reform, and that includes campaign finance reform, there was tremendous pressure on the governor to go ahead and enact a bill that really would have maintained the status quo or even made it worse.”

During the spring legislative session, Radogno sponsored multiple versions of campaign finance limits. One version matched recommendations by the Illinois Reform Commission and Change Illinois. It would have established contribution limits similar to those set at the federal level: $2,400 for individuals, $5,000 for political committees, businesses and unions, and $30,000 for legislative leadership. Her new bill eventually will appear in Senate Bill 2464 (the link won't be available for a while).

House Republicans also supported a Democratic-sponsored bill, HB 24, that would have mirrored federal limits.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said today that agreeing to start over on campaign finance was a good beginning, but there’s more on the agenda. He said Republicans also want to address the idea of moving back the primary election date (now held in early February), allowing voters to recall elected officials, instituting special elections to fill vacant seats and reforming the redistricting process.

House Bill 7, as approved
HB 7 as approved by the Illinois General Assembly would not have taken effect until January 2011, after the next general election.

One point of contention among reform groups and legislators is that the bill set a pseudo limit on statewide political party transfers. While the dollar amount of transfers would be limited, the Democratic Party of Illinois, for instance, could offer unlimited in-kind contributions. That could include anything from support for advertisements, yard signs, mailers to manpower to knock on doors.

Anther debated provision would create a new type of fund for legislators to pay for maintaining their offices and assisting people in their legislative districts. Contributions to those funds would be capped at $5,000. The money could not be used for campaigns. Critics said the new so-called “constituent services” funds could be used as a loophole for politicians to throw political events.

And contrary to the wishes of the governor’s reform commission, HB 7 as approved would have only required real-time disclosure during the month of May, when state budget negotiations tend to peak. Other than that, political campaigns would have to file financial reports four times a year. The Illinois Reform Commission wanted politicians to immediately report contributions throughout the entire year. They currently only have to file major disclosure reports twice a year. The bill does include a provision to allow the Illinois State Board of Elections to audit candidates and committees if they missed two consecutive reporting deadlines.

House and Senate Republicans issued the following list of “flaws,” in addition to the points made above:

  • “Limits are based on an annual cycle, not election cycles” — Annual cycles could benefit incumbents who could raise money year-round, while challengers would struggle to gain name recognition and financial support.
  • “Too many possibilities for candidate committees” — It could spur the creation of even more political finance committees because each official and candidate would be able to have up to three separate committees, all with different contribution limits. House Minority Leader Tom Cross said that would cause a “diffusion of contributions, not a limitation on them.”
  • “No comprehensive enforcement mechanism” — The Illinois State Board of Elections would gain little power and financial support to enforce the new rules, although it would be able to audit campaigns if they missed two consecutive reporting deadlines.
  • “Doesn’t take effect until 2011” — That’s after the next general elections, which House Speaker Michael Madigan has said would make it fairer because candidates who started fundraising under the old rules would have an advantage over those who started under the new ones.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Two UI trustees remain

By Bethany Jaeger
Two University of Illinois trustees who refuse to resign after the exposure of an admissions scandal will remain. Gov. Pat Quinn said today he wanted to avoid potentially lengthy litigation that would distract from the new board’s mission.

“Indeed, I feel that if we went down that road, that would become the main show, as opposed to what we really have to do,” Quinn said during a Chicago news conference. “Our main focus should be on repairing the damage that ‘s been caused to the university.”

The Chicago Tribune reported in early June that over five years, about 800 students received special treatment and were admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because they were sponsored by such politically connected officials as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, legislators and university donors and trustees.

Quinn sought the voluntary resignations of all nine appointed trustees, as recommended by a special panel led by former federal Judge Abner Mikva. Two board members resigned before the report came out. Five resigned after. Two did not step down. They are Democrats Carroll Frances and James Montgomery. Quinn said he met with Frances and Montgomery and reiterated his stance that they had a fiduciary responsibility and that “if something goes wrong on your watch, seriously wrong, then you should voluntarily file your resignation.”

However, he said, it’s their choice to serve the remainder of their terms. Frances’ term ends January 2011, while Montgomery’s term is supposed to end in 2013.

“I am not going to seek to remove them,” Quinn said. “I think the litigation that would ensue if I did that would totally distract us from our mission at hand, which is rebuilding the public confidence in the integrity of the University of Illinois. That would be a sideshow.

He later added, “I think it’s much better to just soldier on with good men and women that I appoint.”

As of today, Quinn has filled two vacancies and said he would fill the remaining five before the board’s next meeting September 10.

Today, he appointed Christopher Kennedy, president of Merchandise Mart Properties based in Chicago and son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy (as well as nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy). Chris Kennedy’s name was floated as a possible U.S. Senate candidate to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama and was mentioned as a potential candidate for governor. He opted not to run in either race.

“He’s a person of great accomplishment,” Quinn said. “He understands business, and he definitely believes in social service. He believes in education.”

Quinn also appointed Lawrence Oliver II of Orland Park. He has been a chief legal counsel for the Boeing Company since 2004. Previously, he was a private attorney and an assistant U.S. state’s attorney in Chicago, as well as a member of Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission and a vice chairman of the state’s Executive Ethics Commission.

“He is a person who understands the law, and he definitely understands ethics,” Quinn said.

They replace Democrat Niranjan Shah, whose term was set to expire in 2015, and Lawrence Eppley, who lists his political affiliation as "independent" and whose term was to expire in 2013.

Of the 10 voting members, no more than five can be from the same political party. The trustees are charged with governing the University of Illinois, including all three branches in Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Springfield.

Quinn, who is an ex officio member, said it’s up to the new trustees to decide how to reform the admissions process and whether to take action against the high-level administrators who were involved in the so-called Category I scandal.

Senate President John Cullerton is still encouraging the remaining trustees to step down, according to Rikeesha Phelon, his spokeswoman. “Since that is not likely to happen, he is reminding them that if Senate Bill 1333 passes the Senate, it will have the effect of removing the remaining trustees by law.”

The legislation was advanced as a way to force Quinn to “fumigate” state government from up to 750 employees or appointees put in place by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The measure stalled during the spring legislative session. Cullerton is expected to call that legislation for a vote when the General Assembly convenes for its fall “veto” session in October.

Comptroller Dan Hynes, who is a Democratic opponent against Quinn in the February primary election, sent a statement through his campaign that said Quinn mishandled the situation from the beginning. “Yesterday, Gov. Quinn said he would act on the University of Illinois trustees issue with ‘certainty and with dispatch.’ Today he did neither. Unfortunately there is little that is certain about the ultimate resolution of a scandal first revealed last May, and acting with dispatch would have resolved this matter well before the students returned to class.”

Hynes did not say whether he would have forced the resignation of the remaining two trustees. A call to his campaign was not immediately returned. UPDATED: I just missed the Hynes' campaign returning my call last night. Spokesman Matt McGrath said that Hynes' criticism is not about the handling of individual board members, but it is about how Quinn handled the case from the beginning without immediately determining his legal powers to clear the board or not. He said Hynes would have been more immediate in determining those legal powers and would have set a deadline and established a clear plan to meet that deadline.

Ann Lousin, a John Marshall Law School professor who helped draft the 1970 state Constitution and who is a former chair of the Illinois State Civil Service Commission, points to the constitutional provision spelling out the governor’s ability to remove appointees. It states that the governor can remove an appointee for “incompetence, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”

She said that provision — while arguable both ways — would not apply to gubernatorial appointees of the University of Illinois board of trustees. “Because then that would make the University of Illinois nothing more than a state agency under control of the governor and required to do his bidding.”

“If you want an independent board on the University of Illinois,” she added, “you do not allow the governor to get rid of them when they don’t part their hair right.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Home services grant to be cut October 1

By Bethany Jaeger
A short-term borrowing plan approved by the General Assembly to prevent drastic cuts to human services might not be enough to prevent layoffs of workers who advocate for people with disabilities throughout the state.

A network of about two-dozen Centers for Independent Living were told earlier this month that starting October 1, a state grant that pays for recruiting and training personal assistants for individuals with severe disabilities would be cut. The so-called Home Services grant is funded through the Illinois Department of Human Services. It also pays for training of the people with the disabilities so they understand their civil rights when working with caseworkers and so they learn ways to manage their personal assistants.

The 23 Centers for Independent Living that operate throughout the state run on shoestring budgets, said Ann Ford, executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living based in Springfield. They already anticipated a 10 percent reduction in funding as part of the fiscal year 2010 budget agreement, which is expected to result in furlough days and potential layoffs. Cutting the Home Services grant on top of that would affect between 2,500 and 3,000 individuals who are served under the program each year, according to Ford.

For Mark Karner, director of advocacy for Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park, that means he’s out of a job Thursday. Karner also has multiple disabilities and needs a machine to help him breathe and a home aide to help him get out of bed each morning, among other daily functions. He expects to be on a job hunt, or, if he couldn’t find a flexible employer, then he would have to file for unemployment or Social Security, which he has not had since before he started working at Progress Center 16 years ago.

Tom Green, spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said it all comes down to the budget. “It’s the toughest financial challenge that Illinois has ever had. Everyone has to make sacrifices. There’s a limited amount of revenue in the budget that was passed by the General Assembly, not enough to cover all the expenses. And DHS has made cuts in all budget areas.”

He added that cuts to community-based services would have been far deeper, as much as 50 percent, without a $3.4 billion borrowing plan approved by the General Assembly in July. About $2.2 billion of that was slated for community-based human services. But that same budget agreement also relies on Quinn reducing another $1 billion in spending. The General Assembly gave Quinn unprecedented discretion in where to cut.

Ford said she was “very disappointed” in that budget agreement.

“We continue to borrow. We don’t really act like adults and look at what do we need to do to have enough revenue in this state to support the programs that allow some people some dignity in their lives,” she said. “It’s a huge disappointment to me that that was the option that was chosen, and it’s a bigger disappointment to me that the General Assembly then went home and said to the governor, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’”

On July 31, Quinn said that he would spread the cuts out in a way that would maximize federal matching and stimulus funds. And he said he would fund health-related initiatives that focus on disease prevention and that reduce demand for more expensive services later.

Karner said zeroing out the Human Services grant would do the opposite. Mike Ervin, for instance, needs the personal assistants. But he’s lived in his own condominium in Chicago as a freelance writer, a playwright and a community activist, and he’s not enrolled in Medicaid. Losing the personal assistants grant program, Ervin said, would take the system back 30 years. “Not only does it keep me out of nursing homes, but I employ five people. And it keeps us paying whatever taxes we do. It’s just positive all the way around. It’s the wave of the future, it’s the way the future should be going. And cutting it just such a huge regression.”

Karner said a meeting for consumers affected by the Home Services grant is scheduled in Chicago Friday. “I guess there’s still some glimmer of hope that the governor will change his mind before October 1,” he said.

Rallies against the cuts also are scheduled next Monday in Springfield and Chicago. Ford said if the centers don’t know by mid-September whether the grant will be restored, more layoffs are expected.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Republican transition

By Bethany Jaeger
As a handful of Republicans toss their hats into the ring for Illinois governor, their party’s ringleader of sorts surprised top GOP officials by stepping down Thursday during a meeting in Springfield.

Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party since 2005, told state central committee members he was resigning to allow the party to transition before the February 2 primary elections, rather than waiting until his term was supposed to end. “I don’t to want distract you [during] the general election race,” he said.

The State Central Committee elected Pat Brady, a national committeeman, to fill out the rest of McKenna’s term. Members will elect a new chairperson after the primary election.

Countering some speculation, McKenna did not announce a bid for another race. He previously expressed interest in a bid for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President Barack Obama. His actions sparked controversy within the party, as Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a five-term representative from Hinsdale, has announced in that race and is considered the front runner in the four-way contest.

McKenna instead told state central committee members that he would focus on building resources and getting involved in primary contests as chair of a “victory fund,” which he created to support Illinois’ GOP candidates.

The timing of McKenna’s resignation surprised party leaders, but Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said: “There’s been speculation for a while that a change might be coming. I don’t think anyone knew it was going to happen today or in this particular venue.”

She added, however, that the timing did help to avoid a distraction leading up to November 2010. “I think that it’s important that we get this chapter closed and settled and we have a new person at the helm the minute the primary’s over so that we can focus on the Democrats and not on the internal politics.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Governor’s Day highlights 2010 primary

By Bethany Jaeger
Democrats got a preview Wednesday of what to expect leading up to the February 2 primary election: a partial-term governor who says an income tax increase is necessary to maintain essential state services versus a state comptroller who says citizens shouldn’t have a governor by default. They should have a choice.

Comptroller Dan Hynes stood a few feet away from Gov. Pat Quinn this morning when he said Illinois needs a governor who leads with “no sugarcoating, no short-cuts, no excuses.”

“We need a governor who can provide strong and steady leadership for smart budget policies that will put us on solid financial ground, and we will need a leader who will offer a clear, consistent and compelling vision for our future,” Hynes said. “That’s what this election is about.”

He spoke to a packed banquet hall during an annual breakfast of the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association in Springfield. Many Illinois elected officials typically attend the event before the annual State Fair rally day for Democrats.

Hynes continued to say that the Democratic Party has been through too much to take the path of least resistance. “The people of Illinois have been through too much to avoid asking tough questions and facing a public debate about which vision our party will embrace. I respect Pat Quinn. I find him to be a decent man, but this nomination must be earned, not bequeathed or signed or transferred. It must be earned.”

A few moments later, Quinn in his speech countered that on March 18, he proposed a budget that would raise the state income tax as a way to balance a severely out-of-whack budget and help recover from the aftermath of a nationwide recession. “Talk about courage. Talk about not sugarcoating our budget deficit. We have to tell the truth to the people of Illinois.”

Throughout his speech, Quinn thanked all statewide officers except Hynes. He even thanked local politicians, including Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. The governor later said he would defend his record against Hynes’ statements, particularly since the comptroller has not endorsed the idea of an income tax increase. “He can stand on the sidelines and throw bricks at the guy in the middle of the arena, but I think part of the job of governor is not to be a shrinking violet, to take positions and to defend those positions and tell the people what they need to know,” Quinn said.

Hynes chose not to attend a Democratic rally at the State Fairgrounds later in the day because, he said, Quinn deserved to host of the annual Governor’s Day, a State Fair tradition. I ran into Hynes after the rally, when he said his budget plan would start with spending cuts, then find new revenues. "We have to eliminate wasteful spending and show the people that we’re doing everything we can to sacrifice and streamline before we ask them to pay more. And that hasn’t yet happened. Gov. Quinn has really been unwilling to do those tough things.”

As part of the budget agreement with the state legislature, Quinn already has cut $1 billion in spending and is charged with reducing another $1 billion before the end of the fiscal year. Among many other spending decreases, Quinn seeks furlough days and layoffs for state employees. But some of those plans require negotiations with public employee unions, who strongly oppose both ideas and instead say an income tax increase is necessary.

Governor’s Day at the State Fair
The Democratic rally completely differed from the past six years. The absence of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as well as busloads of union supporters that Blagojevich’s campaign brought in, made a difference. For the first time, the House speaker, the Senate president and the governor sat next to each other. Even Attorney General Lisa Madigan joined the rally, which she has not attended in a few years.

There was little drama, other than jokes made about six of at least eight candidates for lieutenant governor sitting on the stage together and addressing the crowd one by one.

Democratic leaders acknowledged that their political party faces many challenges, particularly the ethical lapses and fiscal woes exposed within the last year, but they tried to frame Blagojevich’s impeachment as a result of their proactive steps.

“As we face a challenge of ethics and integrity, it was the Democrats in the Illinois House of Representatives that initiated the impeachment proceeding against their own Democratic governor,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan. “We’re not happy with what happened, but when the time came, we were more than capable to make a decision that one of our own had done wrong and must be removed from office.”

Republicans will try not to let them get away with that, however. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, whom I stood next to in the Statehouse basement during a tornado warning, countered the Democratic message. “They can try as hard as they want, but the people of this state are smarter than that. And the fact of the matter is, people need to remember, the Democrat legislature enabled Blagojevich from Day 1. So it’s difficult for them just to walk away now.” Madigan also co-chaired Blagojevich’s reelection campaign, she added.

Republicans will have their rally day at the State Fair on Thursday.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Revamped employee ethics rules enacted

By Bethany Jaeger
In a “week of reform,” Gov. Pat Quinn today signed Senate Bill 54, which addresses state employee ethics rules and lobbyist registration requirements. The governor enacted a revamped Freedom of Information Act yesterday.

Here’s the breakdown of SB 54 and some background, including why provisions to strengthen the role of inspectors general were needed (it relates to when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich formed the inspectors general but did not give them the ability to shine a light on ethics violations).

Employee ethics:
  • Reports written by inspectors general will be made public record if the inspectors find wrongdoing and either suspend or terminate a state employee. Some information could still be blacked out, or redacted, if its release would harm an ongoing investigation.
  • However, routine reports about the status of investigations will not be subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Inspectors will be able to open investigations based on anonymous tips.
  • The law clarifies the process for investigating potential ethics violations.
  • The Executive Ethics Commission will house new procurement officers to oversee the way state agencies buy goods and services.
  • Employees and candidates cannot promise compensated time off, benefits, raises, job promotions, favorable regulatory treatment or a state contract in exchange for a campaign contribution.
  • State employees have to take an online ethics exam within 30 days of starting their new jobs, rather than within six months, as currently required.

Updated revolving door ban:
  • Policymakers will not be able to resign and within a year accept a position with private companies that received significant state contracts from the agencies where the officials worked.
  • The state is expected to have an easier time tracking which employees will be subject to the revolving door ban because the legislation also requires agencies and executive offices to list those employees. Those lists will be filed with the agencies' respective ethics commissions.

New lobbying rules:
  • People who lobby state boards, commissions or retirement boards now will have to register as lobbyists.
  • All lobbyists will have to abide by stricter disclosure requirements, including listing all expenditures related to lobbying activities, their clients and the subject matter of lobbying activities. The reports will have to be filed with the secretary of state on a weekly basis when the legislature is in session and monthly during the off-season.
  • Many will have to pay a higher $1,000 fee, which is the way the state is expected to pay for more inspectors to monitor lobbying activities. House Speaker Michael Madigan previously said he would consider lowering the fee for smaller nonprofit groups in the future.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Quinn: "This will be a week of reform"

By Bethany Jaeger
The end of August marks a deadline for Gov. Pat Quinn, who has to act on legislation approved by the General Assembly before bills automatically become law. In Chicago today, Quinn deemed this week as a “week of reform,” starting with today’s enactment of the revamped laws to ensure public access to information. He could soon act on ethics legislation to limit the amount individuals and political organizations could donate to candidates.

Freedom of Information Act = Senate Bill 189
Quinn signed SB 189, which rewrites the Freedom of Information Act (background here). Starting in January 2010, the process of requesting public information is supposed to get faster and more accountable.

In addition to new training requirements and higher standards for denying access to information, the new FOIA will require public bodies to reply to requests for information within five business days, as opposed to the current seven days. And if a public body denies a request, individuals will have to take fewer steps and less time to appeal that denial.

“The main thing this new act does is enforce many of the good words that were already part of Illinois law that were ignored by public officials,” said Hanke Gratteau, a member of Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission and former investigative reporter and managing editor for the Chicago Tribune. “There is now recourse if that is avoided, and that’s why it’s good enough for me.”

Local and state governments still can deny access to information under a series of exemptions, and the legislature still can withhold internal documents such as staff analyses and final reports drafted by consultants.

But there are new penalties, something absent from the current FOIA. Under the new version, if a court finds that a public official intentionally violated the FOIA or Open Meetings Act, the official could be fined between $2,400 and $5,000 for each offense.

The new law also gives new powers to the Illinois attorney general's office, where members of the public, media or government can seek help from a specialized lawyer to settle disputes about whether information should be released. The so-called public access counselor will have new authority to issue binding opinions and to subpoena information.

“Today, we can say that Illinois will officially make it out of the Stone Age of transparency,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “We will end the culture of secrecy that surrounds our government, and we will have, I think, a better relationship and better trust with members of the public.”

The Illinois Municipal League, however, believes the new FOIA will place a heavy burden on local governments and won’t go as smoothly as lawmakers think in the next four and a half months, said Roger Huebner, the organization’s deputy executive director and general counsel. Every governmental body covered by the FOIA now has had its primary function fundamentally redefined to field information requests, regardless of whether their budgets have been slashed, he added. More background on the Municipal League’s statements are online.

Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff of policy and communications for the attorney general's office, said she disagrees and that the new law could lessen the burden on local governments because they will have a built-in resource with access to a public access counselor, as opposed to an outside legal counsel.

Heubner referred to commercial requests, in particular, as problematic because they tend to be broad, time-consuming requests. “That’s going to become a financial nightmare.” Local governments still can reject requests by deeming them unduly burdensome.

Heubner also said the new FOIA isn’t written for lay people and that information requests immediately will become legal matters if disputed. “This bill has gone from the hope to help the laymen to the lawyer’s dream.”

Smith said: "If the public body has denied a request and the citizen comes to us for help, then the public body will have to decide if they want to interact with us informally or if they have to get a lawyer. It's certainly not necessary." She added, "I recognize that the public bodies have not looked at this as a benefit to them, but I think that over time, they will see it as just that."

Quinn’s enactment of the new FOIA comes after the governor came under media scrutiny for reportedly using his personal cell phone rather than using a state-provided phone that is subject to public access laws. Quinn said in Chicago today that taxpayers do not pay for his private cell phone and that he doesn’t use it for official state business.

“I do not use this phone to make e-mails to government employees or conduct any kind of communication with government employees,” he said. “As the person of the attorney general’s office who oversees this law [determined], private phone calls that don’t come out of public funds are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”

Transparency = House Bill 35
The state also launched a new Web site where anyone with Internet access can look up state employee salaries, state contacts and state-issued licenses. It’s called the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal.

Individuals also can look up all board and commission members, as well as their terms and whether they get paid at a new site dedicated to executive appointments. It was created under Senate Bill 1602, which also establishes new ethics requirements for board and commission members.

Campaign finance reform = House Bill 7
Quinn indicated he also could act as soon as tomorrow on legislation that would limit the amount individuals and political organizations could donate to political campaigns. HB 7 won legislative approval but was not the version recommended by the governor’s own Illinois Reform Commission. (Background here.)

Quinn could use his amendatory veto power to change the legislation, although he said he uses that power judiciously. “I’m going to use that only where it’s needed and where it can advance the common good. I think that’s the way we have to do it. We don’t do it to kick the legislature in the shins. I don’t believe in that.”

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans, said Minority Leader Christine Radogno asked the governor to veto the bill in its entirety "because it’s been called worse than nothing. We believe there is ample opportunity to revisit this if everyone is committed to change,” Schuh said.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Overtime costs corrections

By Bethany Jaeger
Gov. Pat Quinn plans to lay off as many as 1,000 prison workers at the same time a lengthy state audit reveals that overtime costs within the Illinois Department of Corrections increased from $19.2 million to $37 million two years ago because of staffing shortages.

The review by Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland’s office only pertains to fiscal years 2007 and 2008, when the corrections department was managed by a former director and under the administration of a former governor. Former director Roger Walker was appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Walker was replaced in June by Gov. Pat Quinn’s appointee, Michael Randle.

Holland said the deficiencies, including everything from spending more than authorized by the General Assembly to failing to spend money earmarked for hiring new frontline staff, does not paint a “pretty picture.”

“This goes to the heart of the failure of the management of the department,” he said, adding that because there have not been dramatic changes in the management since the two years in the audit, the foundation going forward is weak. “I think the new director has got some real soul searching to do with his management team.”

One problem cited in the audit was that the department violated the legislature’s intent by not spending extra money dedicated to hire new frontline staff. The General Assembly authorized spending $11.7 million to hire 231 new staff in fiscal year 2007, but only 154 new staff were hired. The next year, the legislature allotted $12 million to hire 500 new employees, but only six were reported as being hired. Instead, according to the audit, the department used the money to pay for existing staff, which also included more expensive overtime costs.

At the same time, the department reported that it lost 324 employees in fiscal year 2007 and 455 employees in fiscal year ’08.

The audit also states that mandatory overtime costs from inadequate staffing levels cost more money — overtime costs increased from $19.2 million in FY07 to more than $37 million the following year. The audit identified 126 employees working at various correctional centers that had worked so many extra hours during FY08 that they earned more $100,000, when their normal salary rates ranged from $40,000 to $75,000 a year. At Stateville Correctional Center, alone, overtime costs topped $13.7 million in FY08.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents many prison workers, said the most recent tab for understaffing at all Illinois prisons was more than $60 million in fiscal year 2009, which just ended June 30. “That’s a five-fold increase over just a few years ago,” he said.

“On its face it may seem counter intuitive,” Lindall added, “but it’s simple math that hiring new staff at the lowest end of the salary scale and paying them straight time is far cheaper than paying time and a half to more senior employees.”

According to the audit, the Blagojevich administration ordered the department not to hire new front line staff in fiscal year ’08.

“There were clearly directions from the Blagojevich administration that certainly did not help the day-to-day operations of the department,” Holland said. However, he added, 19 of the findings were repeated from the last two-year audit. And 28 new findings were added.

“These were not immaterial findings,” Holland continued. “These were findings of great significance that related from the top to the bottom of financial management of the Department of Corrections. And clearly it demonstrated that there was a failure on the part of the management of the Illinois Department of Corrections.”

Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the corrections department, said in an e-mail that the department already is looking to reduce overtime costs while also preparing for potential layoffs planned by Quinn. “A cadet class graduated from the academy last week and will be on the job soon. As well, another cadet class will begin in mid-August. Those staff affected by layoffs may be eligible for vacancies at other facilities across the state.”

Smith added that other corrective action is challenged by current budget constraints. “IDOC has limited resources and is working with antiquated systems. It’s a challenge to keep up with increasing requirements and a decreasing staff.”

Thursday, August 06, 2009

UI admissions panel: The leadership failed

By Maureen Foertsch McKinney
A separate office of the inspector general should be established for CORRECTIONthe state's universities, Gov. Pat Quinn’s Admission Review Commission recommended Thursday. (We had it as the U of I only. So sorry for the mistake) As expected, the commission also recommended that Quinn seek the resignations of the entire board of trustees.

The new inspector general would act as an ombudsman and would review problems with the law or the university’s own policies.

Regarding resignations, Commission Chairman Abner Mikva, a former federal judge, said earlier this week: “Obviously, [the governor is] free to accept those he wants and reappoint or refuse the resignations of those he thinks are doing a good job or can continue to do a good job. It is clear, as an institution, the board of trustees has not been governing in a way that the university needs or [that it] has the kind of governance it should have.”

Both the chairman and immediate past chairman of the board of trustees — Niranjan Shah and Lawrence Eppley — resigned within the past 10 days as the commission wound down its deliberations.

The Chicago Tribune reported in early June that over five years, about 800 students were admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after receiving special treatment because they had obtained recommendations from clout wielders such as former board of trustees chairmen, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, legislators and university donors. The Tribune reported that the names of those students, including some applying for admission to the law school, were marked in red on so-called “Category I” lists and received special consideration.

Other recommendations the panel agreed to send to Quinn include:
  • A firewall be placed around the admissions process so that no one except a designated individual in the admissions office be allowed to influence admissions decisions.
  • Only a high school guidance counselor, individual student or parent should be allowed to check on the status of an admission.
  • The university should have a clearly stated policy on what information — such as testing scores, grade point average or class standing — would be used for consideration of admission.
  • The university should establish a clearly stated, transparent process for appeal of admission decisions.

Quinn’s panel interviewed more than 30 people over a six-week period.