Saturday, January 30, 2010

FutureGen gets new backer

By Jamey Dunn

FutureGen, a “clean” coal plant proposed for construction in Mattoon, got backing today from an Illinois utility company. Exelon, based in Chicago, has joined the group of investors, known as the FutureGen alliance, that support the project.

As originally proposed the plant would use a first-of-its kind combination of technology to capture carbon emissions created from burning coal and trap them underground. (For more information on clean coal and FutureGen see Illinois Issues May 2009.)

The project stalled in January 2008, when former President George Bush’s administration pulled support because of concerns about growing costs and increasing risks to taxpayers. A federal report by the Government Accountability Office, however, later indicated that accounting errors overestimated the cost by $500 million.

“People were upset. Upset that we went through five years of competition for this coal research project and they pulled the rug out from under us as soon as Illinois won,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said at a Chicago news conference.

The project awaits approval of more than $1 billion in stimulus funds from the U.S. Department of Energy. Including the cost of materials, recent estimates have said the total price could exceed $2 billion. The feds asked the alliance to find cost savings to reduce that price and more private investors to back the plan. Durbin said that is why support from Exelon helps the plant’s chances for moving forward.

Exelon — in joining the FutureGen alliance — not only brings more credibility to the project, more resources to the project, they bring their expertise to the project and move us closer to approval,” Durbin said.

Two investors, Electric Power Co. and Southern Co, dropped out of the project last year, citing concerns over rising costs. With Exelon on board, the alliance is up to 10 members.

The goal of the plant is to capture 90 percent of the carbon emissions by the third year of a five-year test period, according to the Department of Energy.

“We can’t ignore the scientific consensus that suggests that we have to find a way to control carbon emissions if we are to move forward in combating global warming and climate change,” said Doyle Beneby, senior vice president of Exelon Power. “It’s clear that we need to do everything we can as an industry to make sure that coal continues to become part of the energy mix here and part of the mix in a low carbon future.”

A decision from the DOE is expected in February. Check back for further details.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Illinois gets money for high-speed rail

By Rachel Wells

Illinois politicians will travel tomorrow by plane to Amtrak stations in Chicago, Alton and Bloomington to unveil a $1.2 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act award for Illinois high-speed rail improvements.

The funds -- part of a 31-state, $8 billion program -- will go toward rail improvements on the existing Chicago-St. Louis corridor. The improvements will allow trains to travel up to 110 miles per hour and will reduce travel time between the two cities to four hours, a one-hour decrease. The award will also help pay for an environmental impact study regarding the possible construction of a second track along the route and for the streamlining of train traffic near Chicago.

"The federal funding creates benefits for Springfield and the state of Illinois by creating thousands of jobs, increasing economic activity, boosting tourism and reducing travel time between Chicago and St. Louis by over an hour," Illinois Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig said in a news release.

Illinois requested $4.5 billion for rail improvements, more than half of the $8 billion appropriated for improvements throughout the country. President Barack Obama has proposed spending an additional $1 billion on high-speed rail for each of the next five years. The proposal requires congressional approval.
Here's how Illinois' $1.2 billion award breaks down:
• $1.1 billion for track construction and signal, station and rolling stock improvements. The work will allow for three to five daily round trips between Alton and Dwight to travel at up to 110 miles per hour.
• $1.25 million for a supplemental environmental impact statement concerning construction of a second track between Chicago and St. Louis capable of carrying trains traveling at up to 110 miles per hour.
• $133 million for construction of a multi-layered train intersection at Englewood. The project would eliminate delays by carrying commuter lines over tracks that now carry intercity passenger services and freight services.
Among the officials appearing on the tour will be Gov. Pat Quinn, Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. Although the route slated for improvement runs through Springfield, Durbin's hometown, officials will not be stopping in the capital city.

High-speed rail has been a topic of controversy in Springfield, where local leaders once threatened legal action if a second track was built on Third Street, where originally planned, but later agreed to an environmental impact study of an alternative track route. At one point the Illinois legislature got involved when House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, filed a bill that would have denied state funds for a second track along the Third Street route.

Durbin spokeswoman Christina Mulka said Springfield likely just didn't fit into the officials' schedules. "I wouldn't read anything into that," she said. "We're not trying to avoid the area; it's Sen. Durbin's hometown.

"He wants to see high-speed rail in Springfield, and he wants to see it done in a responsible way. ... He'll probably be in Springfield soon enough to talk about high-speed rail and a whole number of other issues."

Springfield city spokesman Ernie Slottag said he didn't connect the exclusion of Springfield to the controversy, nor did he expect a public protest had officials planned a stop in the city. He said the city is waiting to learn more specific details of the award.

Other Illinois towns have also expressed concern about how high-speed rail could change their communities. For more information about high-speed rail, see the November edition of Illinois Issues.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Congressmen seek Asian carp funds

By Rachel Wells

As a lawsuit seeking to close two Chicago navigational locks remains under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, Great Lakes leaders on Wednesday agreed to seek $20 million for an Asian carp management and control plan.

According to Christina Mulka, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, congressmen are seeking the money to study target specific poisons, advocate increased Asian carp commercial fishing and research pheromones and other technology that would lure the overbearing fish away from Lake Michigan.

Lawmakers have not proposed a specific source for the funding. The money could come from the $475 million in federal funds already appropriated for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a regional approach to invasive species and pollution, said Mulka.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' work in containing Asian carp includes the construction of underwater electric barriers. Since 1998, $41.2 million in federal funding has gone toward the barrier project. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has also spent $700,000 to kill Asian carp during barrier maintenance, according to news releases from Durbin's office.

"We're looking for a solution outside of the courtroom," Mulka said. With support from several other Great Lakes states, Michigan filed suit in December asking the Supreme Court to close two Chicago navigational locks to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.

U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert also hosted today's meeting of Great Lakes leaders. Phone calls placed to Michigan legislators, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, were not immediately returned. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox also could not be reached for comment.

Quinn makes deal with AFSCME to save jobs

By Jamey Dunn

Thousands of government employees whose jobs were threatened by budget cuts got a reprieve after the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 reached an agreement with Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration.

After a tax increase failed to pass last session, Quinn said that necessary cuts would force the state to lay off 2,600 workers. Almost 600 employees have already received layoff notices. Quinn originally proposed that workers take unpaid days off or a pass on yearly raises in order to cut back on the number of state employees who would lose their jobs. AFSCME did not agree to those terms and sued the state. A judge blocked the layoffs to allow more time for negotiations.

According to AFSCME, the deal that was reached will save about 400 jobs out of the 600. Quinn promised no more layoffs through June 2011, except those that would happen due to already planned facility closures. The agreement also calls for no new facility closures through 2011.

In return, the union will cut annual raises in half, from 2 percent to 1 percent, during the time period that Quinn guaranteed no new layoffs and will allow the administration to implement a voluntary furlough program. The state and the union plan to work together to trim $70 million out of the employee health care system by searching for efficiencies and changing purchasing practices.

According to the Quinn administration, the deal will save the state an estimated $200 million.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Republicans push for party spending limits

By Rachel Wells

House Republicans are pushing for continued campaign finance reform with new legislation that would limit the power of political parties and all four legislative leaders in general elections.

As proposed by House Minority Leader Tom Cross, HB 5008 would expand on campaign contribution limits that were passed along party lines during last fall's veto session. The campaign finance reform bill -- signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn exactly one year after then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges -- placed contribution limits on individuals, businesses, unions and political committees during both the general and primary election cycles but only limited legislative leaders and political parties during primary races.

Under the new bill, legislative leaders and political parties would be limited to giving $200,000 to statewide candidates, $125,000 to Senate candidates and $75,000 to House candidates during general elections, as they are now limited in the primaries.

Cross called the proposed legislation a solution to Illinois' "image issue" created in part by the consolidation of power in the hands of a few, the very same situation that could keep the bill from being heard at all.

"I think almost every member would tell you they're for this. The reform groups are for it, the public is for it, and it would be a shame to let two people (House Speaker Micheal Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton), in kind of evidence of the problem we're talking about, stop a piece of legislation like this. I would hope that it would get a vote and it would get a vote where people could actually vote their true feelings," Cross said.

Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat involved in last year's negotiations, said near unanimous approval of Cross' proposal is highly unlikely. "I can say with certainty that not all members would support that," Harmon said. "They believe the political parties exist for the purpose of electing members of their political party. That's their role, to elect Democrats or elect Republicans."

Madigan cited the same argument last fall in testimony against extending limits on parties to general elections.

Reform coalition Change Illinois supported the signing of last year's bill but says its members will continue to advocate for further contribution limits, like those proposed in HB 5008. "The contribution limits bill passed and signed last year was an historic step forward, and the next step should be enactment of limits on contributions from political parties and legislative caucus committees controlled by the four legislative leaders," the organization stated in a news release.

During the announcement, Cross was pressed concerning his endorsement of Republican gubernatorial candidate Andy McKenna, who was reprimanded by the Illinois Republican State Central Committee. As reported this morning by the State Journal-Register and described in the committee's ethics inquiry, then-chairman McKenna used party funds to commission a statewide poll measuring voter attitudes toward potential candidates. Although the poll included McKenna's name, he failed to disclose that fact at any point to the State Central Committee and failed to alert members of his potential for personal benefit in commissioning the poll.

Cross dismissed any connection between his endorsement of a candidate who violated party ethics codes and his call to weaken party power as a step toward reform. He said that critics of McKenna are using the controversy to score political points during an election year.

"People that are talking about this that don't want to talk about the fact that they're for tax increases and not talking about restraining spending and creating jobs. It's kind of a political 101 -- 'let's throw some dirt on an issue and not talk about the real issue,'" Cross said.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Public universities struggle to make payroll

By Jamey Dunn

Public universities in Illinois are considering different options to cope with the fact that the state owes them millions, and there is little sign of a light at the end of the tunnel.

The University of Illinois is considering a tuition increase, and Southern Illinois University is looking to borrow. In the meantime, smaller state universities are trying to find cost savings anywhere they can.

University of Illinois Interim President Stanley Ikenberry created a stir when he said at a board of trustees meeting in Chicago yesterday that a 9 percent tuition increase may be a best-case-scenario for the university system. Ikenberry said a decision about a possible tuition increase probably would not come until the summer. U of I has campuses in Urbana, Chicago and Springfield. The board also voted to increase student fees from $1,382 a semester to $1,421.

The U of I has already laid off some staff and instituted a hiring freeze and furlough days, unpaid days off that result in a salary cut for employees, as part of a plan to cut $82 million from its budget. The state owes the U of I more than $400 million. “Furloughs are the very painful and highly visible last resort,” university spokesman Thomas Hardy said. The U of I has created a task force to look for ways to save money in everyday operations.

Other cost reduction measures that state universities are taking include deferring maintenance projects, cutting department budgets and freezing their buying power for large purchases, cutting travel costs and slowing down payments to vendors. Those decisions impact surrounding communities as well as campuses.

David Gross, a spokesman for Southern Illinois University, said slowing down SIU’s payments to vendors has negative affects on local business in already economically depressed areas of southern Illinois. SIU has campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville. He said the uncertain fiscal environment -- the state owes SIU $125 million -- is damaging university morale. “There has been a lot of angst on campus.”

Hardy said cutting down on maintenance led to the U of I laying off some maintenance employees as projects for them to work on dwindled.

While the U of I is considering a tuition increase, Gross said that it might not be a viable option for SIU. “We think we are at the end of our ability to raise tuition rates much, if any at all.” SIU has not instituted any layoffs or furlough days, and Gross said the university has no plan to at this point. SIU has given its existing budgeting committees the task of seeking out savings.

SIU is considering asking the legislature for borrowing power in case it gets in a tight spot and cannot meet payroll. Universities do not currently have the power to borrow money for their operating budgets. The U of I is not seeking the ability to borrow.

Illinois State University, located in Normal, has not had to face furloughs or layoffs yet. University spokesperson Jay Groves said that ISU would likely not make any decisions about a tuition increase until May. The state owes that university more than $60 million.

Western Illinois University, with campuses in Macomb and the Quad Cities, is taking a hard look at everyday efficiencies. CORRECTION The state owes Western $21.6 million. Spokeswoman Darcie Shinberger said that the university is doing all it can to avoid layoffs. “We are stressing that whether it’s $5 or $25, really take a hard look.”

Shinberger said a tuition increase could be in the works, but that decision will not be made until June. “It is likely we will be looking at a modest all-costs increase.”

Eastern Illinois University also has not instituted layoffs. It is implementing a hiring freeze, putting off maintenance projects and reducing spending to try to keep it that way. The state owes the university $39 million.

Representatives from all universities contacted agree that cost-cutting measures and dwindling funding for higher education are not new issues. However, the state’s inability to pay its bills has made the current situation much more dire. Finding the money to pay faculty and staff is a serious concern across the board.

“This is a bigger example, or a more critical example, of what’s been going on for several years with the sluggish economy and lack of funding to higher education,” Groves said

Judy Erwin, executive director of the State Board of Higher Education, said Illinois’ economic woes are all the more reason for the state to invest in education to train a competitive workforce. “Unless the state steps up to the commitment to fund higher education, Illinois will not be able to rebuild the state’s economy.”

Irwin said she doesn’t understand why legislators have not done more to get institutions of higher education the money they are owed. “What is it going to take to convince legislators that there is a very serious crisis that cannot be ignored…Do we wait until some colleges have to be shut down?”

Representatives of Northeastern Illinois University, Governor’s State University and Northern Illinois University could not be reached for comment.

Schillerstrom drops out of governor's race

DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom announced today that he is dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

Schillerstrom threw his support behind former Attorney General Jim Ryan, a fellow DuPage country Republican.

“As Election Day nears, it is clear that we lack the financial resources necessary to communicate with voters statewide and win the February 2 primary. Given that reality, I have decided to end our campaign for governor,” Schillerstrom said in a news release. His withdrawal leaves six candidates in the running for the Republican nomination.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court denies lock closure request

By Rachel Wells

Two Chicago locks will remain open for the time being, the U.S. Supreme Court announced today in response to Michigan’s request for immediate action to keep the invasive species Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

The rest of the lawsuit, still unaddressed by the court, calls for the reopening of a nearly century-old lawsuit about Chicago’s diversion of water from Lake Michigan and permanent closure of the locks.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan argued in a brief sent to the court January 5 that Illinois is not the appropriate defendant in the case because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the locks. She said the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction over the dispute because lock closure is not a state versus state issue. Madigan added that the Asian carp situation has nothing to do with water diversion, the basis of the original lawsuit.

Robyn Ziegler, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the office is “pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision” not to immediately close the locks.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said he is “extremely disappointed” with today’s decision. Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Ontario are backing Michigan’s efforts. President Barack Obama’s administration opposes the lawsuit, calling it premature.

Cox said he is stunned by Obama’s “indifference,” which he plans to address through public pressure and congressional action.

"President Obama said he would not tolerate new threats to the Great Lakes, yet he has left the front door to Lake Michigan wide open," Cox said. "Billions in economic activity and 800,000 Michigan jobs connected with the health of the lakes are at risk.”

The court has yet to decide whether to take up the remainder of the case. February 19 is the deadline for interested parties to file positions on the case.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Quinn signs cemetery regulation

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today that will overhaul regulation of the cemetery industry.

HB 1188 came in response to the Burr Oak cemetery scandal in July. Investigators revealed that bodies buried in Burr Oak, a historic African-American cemetery in Alsip, were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an apparent scheme to resell individual grave sites. Four cemetery employees have been charged in connection with the scam.

“It harmed the loved ones, and it also harms our sense of reverence and dignity for those who have been buried.” Quinn said about the incident. The governor created a task force to propose changes to industry oversight, and the new legislation follows most of its recommendations.

The law will shift oversight of cemeteries from the state comptroller’s office to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Anyone managing a cemetery or handling customer service and sales will have to be licensed by the department. They will be required to submit to background checks and take tests to get the license. Other cemetery workers will have to submit work histories and will receive “cemetery worker” cards from the department.

Cemeteries will have to keep records of every burial and submit them to a statewide database managed by the department. The new law also sets a standardized process for the department to investigate complaints and enforce the new regulations.

“We would like to think that [Burr Oak] was an isolated incident. We don’t know because no one has been watching,” said Chicago Sen. Donne Trotter, the sponsor of the bill.

The law also contains a consumer bill of rights and protection for whistle blowers. It phases out the state’s current cemetery and crematory regulation, which will be repealed in 2021. Brent Adams, secretary of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional regulation, said his agency will begin issuing licenses in about nine months.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quinn signs new laws

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed three new bills into law that go into effect immediately.

The two bills Quinn signed today will assist Illinois in its pursuit of up to $500 million in competitive federal education grants.

SB 315 will make student performance the primary factor for evaluating teachers. Some school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, will implement the new standards in 2010, and the rest of the state will follow suit by 2016.

SB 616 allows nonprofit organizations, such as Teach for America, to offer alternative teacher certification programs independently of universities.

The sponsor of both bills, Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, said the new regulations will give the state a higher score on its application for the Race to the Top program, which is due Tuesday.

“[Race to the Top is] an opportunity for states to compete — for states to step up to the plate and say: ‘We want to turn around our struggling schools. We want highly qualified teachers to teach in underperforming schools. We want to close the achievement gap,’” said Maywood Democrat Sen. Kimberly Lightford, also a sponsor of both bills.

Quinn signed SB 1013 yesterday. That law puts into place the reforms to the Meritorious Good Time program that Quinn laid out earlier this month. Inmates now have to serve at least 60 days before they can receive any time off their sentences for good behavior.

The new law also requires the Department of Corrections to notify prosecutors 14 days before releasing an inmate early. These changes came in response to controversy over offenders, some of them violent, being released through the program after spending only weeks behind bars.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Legislative action

By Rachel Wells with Jamey Dunn contributing

Race to the Top

The legislature on Wednesday approved two measures that better position Illinois to receive up to $500 million for improving the performance of low-achieving schools through the federally funded "Race to the Top" program.

If signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, SB 315 would place student performance at the core of teacher, principal and superintendent evaluations. The evaluations would remain exempt from disclosure under Illinois' Freedom of Information Act, a point of contention in negotiations earlier this week.

Senate sponsor Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, responded to critics in the House who said the bill might not benefit downstate schools. “Even if they're a smaller school district, they benefit versus a larger school district. In fact it's easier for the smaller school districts to implement versus the larger school districts. The city of Chicago, for example, we have to do a phase-in period for them," she said.

Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, a Clare Republican, said he opposed the bill because the state currently has no plan in place for some of its requirements, such as state model teacher evaluations. "The devil's always in the details. The problem I have with this piece of legislation is exactly that," Burzynski said. He argued that the measure would leave much of the decision-making he felt the legislature should be responsible for up to the relatively few members of the state education board.

The second Race to the Top bill, SB 616, would allow for expanded alternative teacher certification for nonprofit programs such as "Teach for America." That bill passed both chambers without opposition.

In approving both bills, Illinois can more adequately fulfill Race to the Top application requirements. The application is due next week. Funding awards will be announced in April.

Cemetery regulation
The House also sent legislation to the governor's desk Wednesday. HB 1188, a response to the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13), calls for licensing and standardized record keeping in the industry.

Opponents took issue with part of the bill that requires cemetery owners to attempt to control traffic from funeral processions. Rep Bill Black, a Danville Republican, said it was not realistic to expect owners to orchestrate the traffic created by a large procession, especially if many vehicles were going into a small cemetery.

Black called the bill “reactionary” and said it would penalize small cemeteries for the acts of criminals who would have broken the law no matter what it was. “Evidently [the individuals involved in Burr Oak] didn’t care. The almighty dollar overruled any sense of common decency.”

Rep. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican and licensed funeral director, supported the bill. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a bill that did not paint all the cemeteries in Illinois with the same brush. And it has some real reforms, and it has reforms that I don’t believe are burdensome to those smaller cemeteries.”

"Meritorious Good Time”
Also in the governor's hands after today's legislative session is SB 1013, a measure calling for inmates to serve no fewer than 60 days before being given any time off for good behavior.

The bill is a response to the secret early release program "Meritorious Good Time Push" that let prisoners, some violent, free after spending only a few weeks in prison.

The legislature did not take up SB 1425, a plan to allow the state to borrow $250 million to pay Medicaid bills and leverage matching federal dollars, and a proposal to move Quinn’s budget address back from February to March. Lawmakers are expected to return to Springfield after the February 2 primary election.

State of the state

By Jamey Dunn with Rachel Wells contributing

Governor Pat Quinn gave his State of the State address in front of the General Assembly today. While the speech lasted over an hour and was laced with emotional moments, Quinn did not offer any new ideas or specific policy plans.

Quinn delivered his speech while referring to notes on yellow legal paper, and chose to focus primarily on the positive. He outlined some of what he counted as successes since he became governor, such as the reopening of state historic sites and parks. He also highlighted the passage of a capital construction plan, campaign finance reform, a ban on texting while driving and a recall amendment. Quinn said he would like to see an amendment next to recall on the ballot in November that would allow citizens to petition for ethics reforms through a referendum system. Quinn said that passing the two amendments this year would “complete the job” of ethics reform that was started last session.

Quinn addressed some of the recent controversies that his administrating has faced. He touted the planned sale of Thomson prison to the federal government to house Guantanamo Bay detainees as a patriotic move that would benefit both the state and the feds.

The governor also brought up the “Meritorious Good Time Push” prisoner early release program that landed him in hot water recently. He maintained that he did not know that violent offenders were being included in the plan and that Department of Corrections director Michael Randle made the decisions on whom to let go early. However, Quinn did say that as chief executive officer, the ultimate responsibility was his. He added that the state still needs to consider whether it is cost effective to imprison “low-level nonviolent offenders.”

“The No. 1 issue in Illinois today is getting our economy back on track," Quinn said. However, it was not really the focus of his speech. Quinn did emphasize the need to create jobs, especially in the “green” sector. He once again pledged to build a new veterans home in Chicago, an airport in Peotone and threw his support behind high-speed rail. He also called for a “fair” tax increase that would use exemptions and tax credits to “cut taxes on people who need help the most.”

Quinn ended his speech with a tearful call to action to elected officials, encouraging bipartisan efforts to fix the state’s woes. Quinn said that his late father had told him “to work hard, to treat other people with dignity, don’t call people names, be honest be trustworthy.” He added, “That, to me, is what Illinois is all about. ...We can accomplish great things if we work together.”

The governor’s critics said the speech lacked substance and ignored the state’s dire financial situation. Comptroller Dan Hynes, Quinn’s Democratic opponent for governor, said he thought Quinn’s speech was “heartfelt” but “ a disappointment in a lot of ways because it failed to address the most important issues facing our state — the growing budget crisis, job losses, mounting debt and the fact that our communities are less safe.”

Calling this year’s State of the State address a “feel good … campaign speech,” House Republican Leader Tom Cross said Quinn lacked the specifics on budget cuts and did nothing to assure him that Quinn could actually accomplish his goals.

Cross questioned Quinn’s sincerity when it comes to bipartisanship. He expressed frustration that Quinn failed to meet with the Republican caucus — whose votes are not needed to pass most measures in the House – before his State of the State speech. He likened Quinn to Blagojevich in failing to include the minority party in most discussions.

“(Quinn) is wholly entrenched in the system. The gadfly political outsider has become the ultimate insider working with the speaker of the House and president of the Senate to preserve his power, to preserve his office,” Cross said.

Todd Maisch of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce said the governor needed to be more direct about his plans to help rebuild the state’s economy. “There were no specifics…there was no sense of urgency … what he talked about today sounds fine … but frankly it’s nibbling around the edges of a huge problem,” He said. “When it comes to the central issues that are facing Illinoisans — job losses and a state government that’s bankrupt — there was no take away today.”

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who is also a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said Quinn is facing some big challenges. “It’s not dissimilar to the situation that President Obama faced when he took office,” said Giannoulias. “I think the one point that (Quinn) did hit on was that the next couple years will be some of the hardest years for state government that we’ve ever seen.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Session Day 1 roundup

By Jamey Dunn and Rachel Wells

Legislators returned today for the start of their spring session. They will remain in Springfield tomorrow to hear Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address. Session is expected to adjourn sometime tomorrow, and lawmakers do not plan to return to Springfield until after the primary election on February 2. They took action on several bills today, while ignoring other measures on the political radar.

Cemetery oversight
After stalling both in spring session and veto session, a cemetery regulation bill passed in the Senate today.

The measure is a response to the Burr Oak tragedy. Media reports exposed last July that bodies were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an alleged scheme to resell gravesites. (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13)

HB 1188 puts the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in charge of overseeing Illinois cemeteries.

It would require cemetery owners to maintain maps of their plots and create a statewide database that would document every burial and grave location. It would create a system for cemetery owners, managers and customer service employees to register with the state. It also contains a consumer bill of rights and protection for whistle blowers that report violators.

Family plots, cemeteries that have not had a burial in the last 10 years and ones that are less then two acres would be exempt from the new regulations. Religious cemeteries and municipal cemeteries that have fewer than 25 burials over the course of two years would be partially exempt.

Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Democrat, opposed the bill because he said that a partial exemption should be given to small private cemeteries as well. He said many of these operations do not have frequent burials, and they have no tax revenue to bolster their profits. Sullivan said he is concerned many small private cemeteries in his district could not afford to implement the new regulations.

Willie Carter, member of the governor’s cemetery task force and owner of Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, agreed that the new regulations could put an undue burden on operations such as his. “Small cemeteries like mine cannot afford some of the fees that are proposed in this bill,” he said.
Chicago Democratic Sen. Emil Jones III represents the district where Burr Oak is located. He said that some changes would be made later in a supplemental bill because it “addresses some concerns but not all of them.” Sullivan said he hopes to work with Jones and others to help protect small private cemeteries from facing bankruptcy.

Medicaid matching funds
The House passed a borrowing plan that is half of the plan Gov. Quinn proposed in December. Quinn needed Comptroller Dan Hynes and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias to sign on to that proposal. Hynes, who is challenging Quinn in the Democratic primary for governor, was not on board.

SB 1425 would allow the state to take out a $250 million loan to capture matching federal Medicaid funds and start paying some of its overdue bills to medical providers. The state would be able to get back $150 million in matching funds and could then leverage that money for $80 million from the feds. The bill does not include any money for social services providers. Quinn’s original plan had $250 million for social services. Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said that the move would free up general funds that Quinn could then use toward need-based MAP grants for college students if he so chooses.

Tax amnesty
A bill proposed as another possible funding source for MAP grants didn't make it to the floor for a vote on Tuesday. A legislative panel on Monday discussed a tax amnesty measure that would allow individuals and businesses to pay back taxes without penalties or interest.

HB 4622, proposed by Hinckley Republican Robert Pritchard, would be a way to immediately bring in an estimated $100 million. It was proposed to fund MAP grants, but representatives on both sides of the aisle suggested the funds should instead be used to help pay some of the state's health and human service providers.

Race to the Top
Two measures that would help the state’s bid for the competitive federal education grant program Race to the Top, passed through the House:

SB 616 Would broaden teaching certification requirements to include nonprofit programs such as Teach for America.

SB 315 Would base the way teachers are evaluated mainly on student performance. Both moves will help the state score higher on its application for the federal program. Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican opposed the change to teacher evaluations. He said he was concerned that downstate schools would invest more money in the changes than they would potentially get back from the federal grants.

"Meritorious Good Time” reforms
Legislation requiring inmates to serve at least 60 days in state prison before receiving time off of their sentences for good behavior passed in the House. Danville Republican Rep. Bill Black offered the only opposition. He said the minimum stay should exceed 60 days.

SB 1013 would also establish procedures for determining and recording reasons for giving good behavior time and provide notification to prosecutors at least 14 days in advance of a prisoners' early release. The measure is a reaction to December findings that the Illinois Department of Corrections was releasing freshly imprisoned offenders, some violent, after only a few weeks in prison under the secret "Meritorious Good Time Push" plan.

Budget address
Quinn may not get any extra time to craft his budget plan this year. Legislators took no action Tuesday on a bill that would move the budget address from the third Wednesday in February, as is currently required by law, to sometime in March. A similar measure proposed during the fall veto session was never called for a vote.

Friday, January 08, 2010

State gets some cash to pay late bills

The state got an infusion of cash from a borrowing deal that could soon go toward its backlog of unpaid bills.

In a move approved by the legislature in July, Illinois sold $3.4 billion in bonds Thursday to pay off the state’s pension obligation. The money will cover the state’s contribution for the rest of the fiscal year, so the payments the state has been making in anticipation of the loan will now be returned to its coffers.

$843 million will be used to pay down part of Illinois’ overdue bills, which Comptroller Dan Hynes said Wednesday total $5.1 billion. Hynes said an additional $1.4 billion in health care bills have not yet reached his desk.

David Vaught, director of Gov. Pat Quinn's Office of Management and Budget, said while Quinn can make suggestions about where the money goes, Hynes has the final authority to distribute it. When asked how soon the money might start going out, Vaught said, “I think it will be pretty immediate.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Illinois commission approves Thomson sale

By Rachel Wells

Nearly two weeks after a failed al-Qaeda attempt to bomb a plane bound for Detroit, an Illinois legislative commission voted Wednesday to support the sale of Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government to house suspected terrorists.

Thomson was opened in 2001 and has been virtually empty since.

While four Republicans opposed the non-binding decision, Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican, and commission co-chair Rep. Richard Myers, a Colchester Republican, joined Democratic members in support.

Syverson said it was not the commission's job to debate President Barack Obama's plan to move Guantanamo Bay prisoners -- a plan he does not support -- but to weigh the financial benefit of the sale for both the state of Illinois and residents of the Thomson area.

The commission chairman, Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, addressed concerns that Congress has not yet approved the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners.

"The Bureau of Prisons is now prepared to move ahead and purchase this facility and begin necessary preparations to alleviate its overcrowding in other federal prisons throughout the country," Schoenberg said. "When the issue of terrorists and detainees is addressed by Congress, they will then initiate a lease agreement with the Department of Defense."

Opponents argued that the move would result in Illinois becoming an al-Queda recruitment tool, just as Guantanamo did.

Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican gubernatorial candidate from Bloomington, led a failed attempt to stall the commission's vote until the legislature returned to Springfield next week.

Brady said Gov. Pat Quinn had not answered all his questions regarding the sale. “We have a problem with public safety,” he said, referring to recent controversy over two prisoner early release programs. “We are going to need to build a new prison if the governor sells this prison.”

According to Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the sale could create up to 3,800 jobs and generate more than $1 billion in economic activity.

“This is about doing what’s right for our troops, for our national security and for the people of Illinois," Quinn and Durbin said in a joint statement after the commission's decision. "We will continue doing everything we can to make this sale a reality and bring the jobs and other economic benefits to our state."

New oversight in DoC

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Michael McCotter, a veteran of the Chicago Police Department, to investigate two prisoner early release programs initiated by his administration.

Quinn made the announcement a day after he suspended a plan to let nearly 1,000 nonviolent offenders out of Illinois prisons early to save the state money. Quinn also ended an early release program last week known as “Meritorious Good Time Push,” which he characterized as “a big mistake.” Both programs started in September.

The Associated Press reported in December the Illinois Department of Corrections was awarding prisoners months of early release time for good behavior in the first few days of their sentences under the “MGT Push” program, thus returning some violent offenders to the streets after they spent just a few weeks behind bars.

Quinn said the Department of Corrections has gone back to using a policy that requires inmates to serve at least 61 days before becoming eligible for good behavior credit.

McCotter will be evaluating both the nonviolent offender early release plan and the state’s meritorious credit program.

Quinn spokesmen Bob Reed said the decision whether to reinstate the early release program will be based on McCotter’s recommendations.

The announcements come after a prisoner who was released early allegedly murdered a teenager in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported that Randall White, who served 2 1/2 years of a six-year sentence, is accused of killing Fred Couch Jr. in December.

According to the Department of Corrections, White was not released through either program.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lobbyist registration system shut down

By Jamey Dunn

Lobbyists are not currently being required to register with the state or report on their spending.

In the wake of a court ruling that barred the state from collecting increased lobbying fees that went into effect January 1, Secretary of State Jesse White’s office has pulled the lobbyist registration and reporting system from its Web site.

Both the ACLU and the Illinois Society of Association Executives sued White over the fee increase, claiming it was an unconstitutional tax on free speech.

Pamela Tolson, executive director of the Illinois Society of Association Executives, said she had already advised her members not to pay the increased fees after a court granted a temporary halt on collection. Now, she says lobbyists also may not be required to report their spending for the last six months by the deadline at the end of this month.

The increased fees were part of a bill aimed at creating more oversight into lobbyists’ activities. The new law requires them to file spending reports weekly while the General Assembly is in session and monthly when it is not. Under the previous law, reports are due twice a year.

Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, sponsored the bill. She said the increased fees are necessary to administer the reforms. However, she is concerned that some nonprofit advocacy groups may not be able to afford the higher fees. She said she hopes a compromise can be reached. “This never should have gotten this far,” Garrett said in response to the lawsuit.

The law is not specific on the details of executing many of the new requirements. It passes those decisions on to the secretary of state. Tolson said many of the associations she represents are concerned about the logistics of pulling off the ramped up reporting schedule, both on their end and the state’s.

It appears that White is washing his hands of the entire situation until the courts sort it out. If that doesn’t happen before next week, lobbyists will return to Springfield for the spring legislative session without having registered and unsure of what reporting requirements they face in the near future. (White’s website does say that after the court makes its final decision, lobbyists who register within two weeks will be retroactively registered from January 1.) So the result, for the time being, is that an attempt to create more transparency has led to having none.