Monday, March 29, 2010

Illinois loses first leg of Race to the Top

By Rachel Wells

If Illinois wants money for education reform from the federal Race to the Top program, it’s going to have to reapply. State officials learned today that only Tennessee and Delaware secured grants in the first phase of the competition.

Illinois’ bid ranked fifth – behind Florida and Georgia – among 41 phase one applicants.

The $4.35 billion competitive grant program seeks to help states improve standards and assessments, develop student growth data systems, reward and retain quality teachers and improve low-performing schools.

“Obviously we’re disappointed, but we certainly intend to look at the feedback that we’ll receive,” said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Education. She said the department plans on reapplying by June 1 for phase two grants. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that $3.4 billion is still available.

Illinois originally requested $510 million, but a new rule for phase two applicants means the state can only ask for between $200 and $400 million. The limit is based on 2008 student population counts.

Referencing Illinois’ financial problems, a fragmented local district structure and “a catastrophic failure of the standards achievement test,” one of the educators who reviewed Illinois’ application said the state’s problems, “unless overcome, will severely hamper the applicant’s ability to sustain reforms.”

Reviewers also pointed to missing details in some aspects of Illinois’ reform plan.

“We looked at this process not just as a means to get federal funding but to draw a roadmap … for the next ten years, and we intend to continue with those efforts,” Fergus said.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Democrats name Simon as lt. gov candidate

By Jamey Dunn


The Democrats named Sheila Simon as their lieutenant governor candidate today.

Simon is a law professor from Carbondale who has served on the Carbondale City Council and Quinn's Illinois Reform Commission. She is the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who also served as lieutenant governor.

Simon's speech to the Democratic State Central Committee:

video

Central committee chairman House Speaker Mike Madigan reading off the vote totals:

video


Simon answering questions after accepting the nomination:

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Quinn and Simon:


video

Friday, March 26, 2010

Quinn wants Simon as running mate

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn confirmed Shelia Simon as his pick for the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate at a Chicago news conference this afternoon.

Simon, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, is a law professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and served on the Carbondale City Council, as well as Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission. She lost a 2007 race for mayor of the city to Brad Cole, who ran for and lost the Republican lieutenant governor nomination in the primary last month.

Quinn said Simon, a longtime friend, would bring geographic balance to the ticket. "I think it’s important to have downstate balance," Quinn said in Chicago today. "It's important to have a downstater."

While Quinn can make suggestions, he has no vote. The Democratic State Central Committee will choose the candidate tomorrow through a weighted voting system. The position has been open since primary winner Scott Lee Cohen stepped aside. Allegations of violence and steroid use in Cohen’s past led him to drop out as the candidate.

Chicago Rep. Art Turner, who came in second in the primary, told reporters today that the he is still in the game. House Democrats held a news conference yesterday in support of Turner, saying he should be the candidate because he was the voters’ next choice after Cohen. Turner has the support of many House members. Democratic Central Committee members Rep. Karen Yarbrough from Maywood and Rep. Constance Howard from Chicago backed Turner at yesterday’s conference.

The State Central Committee is scheduled to choose the candidate tomorrow morning in Springfield. Check back tomorrow for more information.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two 'pillars' taking shape

By Jamey Dunn

Two major components of the five “pillars of recovery” proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn in his budget plan are headed to his desk. One, pension reform, passed both chambers in a single day.

Quinn's small business tax credit aimed at job creation passed in the Senate today.

Pieces of Quinn’s proposal finding such traction fairly early in the legislative session has Statehouse watchers wondering whether approval of an income tax increase before November is as “dead in the water” as it was pronounced by many after the governor’s budget address.

Quinn only briefly referred to the proposal at a news conference he held today. He characterized the tax increase as a “surcharge” for education in his budget address, saying after the address that all revenue generated would go to schools. However, today he mentioned the proposal as a possible solution to State Police layoffs and headquarters closures.

“In order to get the resources we’re going to have to be very creative, and part of that is of course what I talked about in our budget. And we’ll keep talking about it as we come back after Easter,” Quinn said. “If we could get the surcharge revenue that could help us in a lot of ways.”

Quinn said that yesterday’s pension reform was prompted, in part, by feedback he has received from voters.

“It’s very very important for state government to show in a crystal clear manner that the state of Illinois is ready to cut cost and take on very difficult assignments when it comes to restructuring the government,” he said.

Some House Republicans and union leaders were critical of how quickly the bill passed yesterday. Union representatives accused Democrats of using strong-arm tactics to force the bill through quickly, so the public would not have time for input. Henry Bayer, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that the legislature should have taken more time to “study the implications” of a proposal that is going to affect the future of tens of thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of our children and our grandchildren.”

“This is not the way to conduct policy. This is not the way the legislative process is supposed to work. This is no what they teach kids in school about the way the legislative process is supposed to work,” he said.

Quinn said that pension reform has been on the table for the past year. He mentioned the dozen of so public hearings of a pension task force and said interested parties have had time to give input.

“Ultimately, you have to make decisions in democracy. You cannot have a situation where it’s just all talk. The people elect us to roll up our sleeves and take bold and important action for the common good and the public interest. And that’s what happened yesterday”

Republicans have often included pension reform on the list of things they want to see done before they would consider a tax increase. Quinn did not say whether he thinks yesterday’s bill would improve the chances of putting some Republican votes on a tax increase, but did call the changes to the pension system “epic reform.”

“Anyone who wants cuts in government, you got them yesterday.”

Quinn has not signed SB 1946 but said he plans to soon.

Lieutenant governor

With the Democrat State Central Committee scheduled to vote on a replacement lieutenant governor candidate Saturday, Quinn said he plans to name his choice tomorrow.

Many are speculating that Quinn will choose Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat. Garrett, who did not run for the office in the primary, acknowledged earlier this week that she has talked with representatives of Quinn’s administration. UPDATE: Chicago media outlets reported Thursday night that Quinn plans to announce today Shelia Simon, daughter of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon, is his choice for a running mate. Simon is a Democrat from Carbondale and, unlike Garrett, backs Quinn's proposed tax increase.

However, a group of House Democrats encouraged Quinn to support Chicago Democrat Rep. Art Turner, who came in second behind Scott Lee Cohen in the primary race. Cohen stepped down after allegations of violence in his past.

East Moline Rep. Mike Boland, who also ran for the office and is on the Democrats' current list of finalists, stepped aside and threw his support behind Turner.

“It’s almost an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who went out in that cold February day to vote in that primary to all of a sudden just say, ‘Oh, well, none of you who ran in that matter. Instead we’re going to just pick somebody out of the blue.’”

The committee has the final say on who becomes the candidate. Check back Saturday for coverage of the vote.

New hiring tax credit passes both chambers

By Rachel Wells

A bill heralded as a jobs creation measure heads to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk, following approval by the Senate this morning and the House on Wednesday.

The small business income tax credit, proposed by Quinn in his budget address, would give businesses with 50 or fewer employees a $2,500 credit for every new full-time job created in the next fiscal year. To be eligible, each new job would pay at least $13.75 per hour.

“Every new job that we create is the creation of a taxpayer, someone who is going to contribute to helping us balance our budget here in Illinois,” said bill sponsor Sen. Michael Noland, an Elgin Democrat. “Balancing our budget is the one thing we can do … to attract business to Illinois.”

While SB1578 passed through both chambers without any opposing votes, not everyone thinks the measure would create that many new jobs.

“It sounds like a great idea to do this, but I really don’t believe at the end of the day businesses are going to hire people in order to get a $2,500 tax credit,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican, said last night. “What they really need are customers, and they need the businesses to do it, they need lower taxes, they need workers’ comp reform.”

The bill would cap the total credits at $50 million, which works out to 20,000 new hires. Credits would be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Todd Maisch, Illinois Chamber of Commerce vice president of government affairs, said he’d be surprised if the number of tax credit applications neared the cap. “While we do appreciate the attention to small business, we believe the measure ... is simply not robust enough to make a big difference in the operation of small businesses.”

He added that the tax credit wouldn’t immediately help businesses. Under the measure, businesses couldn’t claim a credit until after the new job had been maintained for at least a year.

The National Federation of Independent Business in Illinois agreed that the bill, if signed by Quinn, might not do as much as lawmakers hope. “What our members tell us is that this type of tax credit is not going to cause them to hire people,” said NFIB in Illinois director Kim Clarke Maisch. “Now, if they’re already going to hire people, then it’s a nice benefit.” She said a $2,500 tax credit isn’t much compared with the costs of salary, Social Security and unemployment insurance that come with hiring a new employee.

“Only time will tell,” Noland said. “We’ll find out about a year from now after the qualifying period ends. So this is something that is going to be measured quantitatively moving forward.” He added that the bill is one of several jobs creation measures (Click the link at the bottom of the page for the list of Senate Democrats' bills) he hopes to see approved by the General Assembly and signed into law this spring.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pension reform passes both chambers

By Jamey Dunn

A pension reform bill to create a two-tiered benefits system for state retirement systems moved swiftly and successfully through both legislative chambers today with bipartisan support, propelled partly by a potential threat to Illinois' bond rating.

David Vaught, Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget director, said he was concerned that Illinois’ bond rating, which determines the interest rate the state will have to pay on borrowed money, could be downgraded again when the state seeks to borrow about $1 billion in April to fund the capital construction plan.

Vaught said pension reform could help Illinois avoid a slip in its rating because it would show investors that the state is taking steps to address its structural deficit and “the straitjacket of skyrocketing pension costs.” The state’s total pension liability is $126.5, billion, $77.8 billion of which is unfunded.

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the state’s bond rating in December to the second lowest in the nation, just above California.

The changes to the pension system would only apply to newly hired employees and would not affect the benefits of anyone currently working for state entities.

State employees hired after the bill takes effect would have to wait until age 67 to get full benefits. They could start receiving benefits at age 62 with a 6 percent reduction for each year they draw their pension before 67.

An alternative formula, which lets employees retire at 60 after working for 20 years, would be limited only to Department of Corrections security workers, Illinois state police officers and state firefighters.

Benefits would be determined by averaging the highest paid consecutive eight years in an employee’s career. They are currently determined by the highest consecutive four years of the last 10 years. The amount benefits can be based on would be capped at $106,800, the threshold for Social Security benefits.

Survivor benefits, which vary throughout the different systems, would be set at 66.7 percent of the employee’s annuities.

One part of the bill does apply to current and past employees. If they leave one state job and go to another, they would not be allowed to collect pension benefits while getting a paycheck from Illinois. They would be able to collect both pensions once they retire.

“The General Assembly tonight took an important and vital step toward rescuing Illinois from fiscal calamity by passing public pension reform. The legislation approved by the General Assembly will stabilize the public pension system, protect current state employees and provide attractive pension benefits to future state workers,” Quinn said in a written statement. The governor backed a two-tiered plan that stalled last session.

The bill also exempts Chicago Public Schools from “ramp-up” of payments for the next three years. House Speaker Mike Madigan, who sponsored the bill in the House, said the school district asked the legislators to allow it to make smaller payments into its own pension fund and will use the extra cash to plug holes in its operating budget.

House Republicans opposed that part of the measure. Danville Republican Bill Black said it would set the system up for an “Armageddon-type situation.”

“I would really like to vote for this bill, but there’s one thing that the pension task force made very clear, that the most important thing you can do in pension reform is, you have to make the payments,” Black said.

Will Lovett, a lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association, said that raising the retirement age could drive talented teachers to neighboring states.

Henry Bayer, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that shorting pension fund payments in the past to shift money to other areas of the budget has landed the state in a crisis.

“The problem of our pensions is not a problem of rich benefits. The problem of our pensions is that we have not funded them year in and year out,” he said. “The solution to the crisis is to come up with the revenue to pay the $80 billion we already owe.”

Senate President John Cullerton, the sponsor of the bill, agreed that underfunding of the pension system is a big part of the problem, but added, “We are where we are.”

The changes in the proposal would not apply to local firefighters and police officers. Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, and Sen. Pam Althoff, a McHenry Republican, are in negotiations with both groups.

“Hopefully, we will see step one of that when we return from break,” Althoff said.

The bill that passed today rolled in a measure, passed unanimously by the House last week, which makes changes to the retirement benefits of future Illinois judges and General Assembly members. The proposal also requires judges and lawmakers to wait until age 67 if they want to collect full benefits.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

State police expect layoffs and closures

By Jamey Dunn

Budget cuts proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn would close five state police district headquarters throughout the state and could leave many who need a state trooper’s assistance waiting for hours.

Acting Illinois State Police director Jonathon Monken, who started the job one year ago today but has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, laid out the impact of a proposed $32 million budget cut before a Senate budgeting committee this evening.

“[State troopers would] be more fireman than police officers … they would just go from crash to crash or incident to incident.”

The five districts slated for closure are District 14 in Macomb, District 16 in Pecatonica, District 18 in Litchfield, District 19 in Carmi and the Chicago District, which is actually located in Des Plains.

There are currently 22 districts in Illinois.

Troopers from nearby headquarters would cover the areas that are slated for closings.
“Response time could take two to three hours just to get to a crash scene because of the distance of travel that’s required. It could be 80 or 100 miles just to get to something.”

Monken said local population, crime rates and municipal police forces’ ability to pick up slack were all factors in closure decisions.

While some troopers will be transferred from closed headquarters, Monken said his organization also plans to lay off 464 officers and to not replace 100 whom he expects to retire this year. Thirty officers are also transferring to the Illinois Gaming Board to assist in the rollout of legalized video poker, a funding mechanism for the capital construction plan.

Monken said those actions would bring the number of troopers down to about 1,450, the lowest in more than 40 years.

No new cadets will be trained year, and no class is planned for next year. Union agreements forbid a cadet class from being held when layoffs occur. With the lack of new cadets and the number of officers eligible for retirement in the next year, Monken said it was possible that numbers could drop below 1,000 officers.

Specialty units would be hit hard by the cuts. The Statewide Terrorism Intelligence Center would lose more than half of its officers, and Monken said the State Police’s methamphetamine response team would be “all but eliminated.”

“Investigations will get hit pretty hard when we send people to the Illinois Gaming Board. Those are investigators that go over,” he said.

Monken said law enforcement layoffs on the county and city levels have led to increased demand for assistance with investigations. “They don’t have the resources to be able to dedicate a lot of people to investigations. … Investigations is going to get hurt, and you’re talking your most serious cases, homicide, sexual assaults big things like that.”

When asked if the scenario he described was exaggerated as an effort to pressure lawmakers for more funding or increased revenue, Monken said, “The cuts that we’ve outlined are the cuts that would be necessary if we don’t get that $32 million.”

Monken added it would take $22 million to avoid the layoffs and keep the districts open and an additional $3 million to start a new cadet class. The agency plans to start the steps necessary for closings and layoffs at the beginning of fiscal year 2011, on July 1.

Thomson sale
Department of Corrections director Michael Randle also testified before the committee. He said the department plans to close Thomson prison by April 1 in preparation for the planned sale of the facility to the federal government. President Obama’s administration planned to house former Guantanamo Bay detainees at Thomson but met strong congressional opposition. The administration since confirmed plans to buy the prison regardless of the outcome of the proposed Guantanamo closure.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Supreme Court keeps locks open

By Rachel Wells

The U.S. Supreme Court will not force immediate closure of two Chicago waterways locks.

Justices had denied a similar motion earlier this year, but Michigan renewed its request citing new evidence that Asian carp were nearing the Great Lakes. The invasive species has been moving up Illinois waterways for years, devastating other aquatic populations as it eats large quantities of plankton, the basis of the food chain.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said he expects the Supreme Court to consider taking up the remainder of the lawsuit – the issue of reopening a nearly 100-year-old case over Chicago’s diversion of Lake Michigan water – on April 16.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cuts could hurt Race to the Top application

By Rachel Wells

A day after state officials presented their case in Washington, D.C., the state superintendent of schools said cuts to education could harm Illinois’ chances to obtain the $510 million it seeks from the federal Race to the Top grant program.

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion education reform initiative with four key components: improving standards and assessments, developing student growth data systems, rewarding quality teachers and improving underachieving schools.

During yesterday’s interview, federal officials questioned Illinois’ capacity to provide services and its ability to sustain those services when Race to the Top funding ends, state Superintendent Chris Koch said.

“My understanding … is that all the states are being hit hard on [capacity and sustainability],” Koch said. “Keep in mind, some of the states that are hemorrhaging the worst – California, Michigan – aren’t even in the running for these funds. So I do think there could be an implication with reductions to our budget.”

Although the Illinois State Board of Education had sought nearly $1 billion of additional funding for Fiscal Year 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn last week proposed about $1.2 billion in education cuts. Quinn strongly suggested in his budget address that lawmakers approve a 1 percentage point income tax surcharge to benefit education. The proposed tax increase would provide an estimated $2.8 billion, according to Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught. The state cannot use Race to the Top funds to stabilize the budget, which is expected to show a deficit of more than $13 billion by the end of Fiscal Year 2010.

Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat who worked on Race to the Top legislation passed earlier this year, said she’s still optimistic, considering other states’ financial difficulties during the current recession. But she’s still concerned that Illinois could be tossed out of the pool and that Illinois students will lose out on educational opportunities if cuts aren’t shifted and structural budget reform is not achieved.

“I’m hoping we come to a resolve before our next deadline for Race to the Top. If we do, it’s left to be seen,” Chapa LaVia said. She added that she doesn’t expect the General Assembly to vote on Quinn’s proposed tax increase this spring. “It’s a possible chance that if we don’t get the [Race to the Top] money, this will be put on the back burner just like education [funding] reform has been for the last 20 years.”

Regardless of whether Illinois’ application succeeds, the state will continue to pursue some elements included in its Race to the Top application plans. Those elements include a longitudinal data plan and raising teacher requirements, two items already in motion, Koch said.

Before applying, Illinois passed legislation raising the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, tying student growth to teacher evaluations and expanding alternative teacher certification programs.

Other reforms – such as a learning and performance management database shared by all Illinois districts and kindergarten readiness assessment measures – likely won’t happen without the federal reform funds, Koch said.

“It’s one thing to say we want everyone to be accountable and move forward, but that doesn’t happen without funding, unfortunately,” Koch said.

The federal government will announce phase one grant recipients two weeks from today, on April 1. If not selected at that time, Illinois officials plan to reapply for phase two after receiving feedback from federal officials.

Nonprofit hospital not exempt from local tax

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling today that could affect nonprofit hospitals across the state and eventually lead to new legislation.

The court ruled that Provena Covenant Medical Center in Champaign County is not eligible for a local property tax exemption it applied for in 2002 based on the hospital’s status as charitable operation. Provena is exempt from paying federal income taxes under that status.

Provena’s request was previously rejected, and it appealed the decision. But the courts sided with the Illinois Department of Revenue, saying the hospital did not provide enough charity care.
The court ruled that Provena only offered charity care as a “last resort” and was critical of the health care provider for turning unpaid bills over to collection agencies.

“As a practical matter, there was little to distinguish the way in which Provena Hospitals dispensed its ‘charity’ from the way in which a for-profit institution would write off bad debt,” Republican Justice Lloyd Karmeier’s opinion said.

Provena contends that its treatment of Medicaid and Medicare payments constitutes charity because reimbursements do not cover the cost of care. The justices did not agree, saying that hospitals have a choice whether to treat patients on those programs. The opinion said that state and federal dollars also provide Provena with a steady revenue stream.

The court’s opinion does note: “Treatment was offered to all who requested it, and no one was turned away by [Provena Covenant Medical Center] based on their inability to demonstrate how the cost of their care would be covered."

Democratic Justices Anne Burke and Charles Freeman disagreed with part of the ruling, saying the court does not have the power to set the standards for defining a charity.

“This can only cause confusion, speculation, and uncertainty for everyone: institutions, taxing bodies, and the courts. Because the [Illinois Supreme Court] imposes such a standard, without the authority to do so, I cannot agree with it,” Burke wrote in her dissent.

It is the possibility of confusion and speculation that concerns some legislators.

“I have a concern now that we are going to see a rush of local governments trying to go after other health facilities. Thinking that this is a way to get some quick revenue from property taxes … the government may get a few extra dollars in property taxes, but then government is going to have to start providing all those services that those health care facilities used to provide,” said Rockford Republican Sen. Dave Syverson, the minority spokesperson of the Senate Public Health Committee.

“Some legislative response is probably going to have to be made to protect those health care facilities,” he added.

Chicago Democratic Sen. William Delgado, the chairman of the Senate committee, agrees that lawmakers may have to address the issue. “[The ruling] triggers a legislative opportunity, they are sending you a message. … That’s a direct way of saying we’d better look at that from our perspective again.”

Justice Thomas Kilbride, a Democrat, and Justice Rita Garman, a Republican, did not participate in the decision.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Primary date moved back

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill into law today that moves the state primary election back to the third Tuesday in March.

The General Assembly moved the date up to the first Tuesday in February before the 2008 primary, when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was running for president.

After low voter turnout in this year’s primary, a push began to move the election back to its original date. Quinn and Sen. Deanna Demuzio, a Carlinville Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said that county clerks and election official asked lawmakers to move the election back.

“I think it is back to the future. It’s much better to have a primary on the third Tuesday in March, and that’s what it’ll be in 2012, a presidential year,” Quinn said.

Supporters said voters will have more time to research candidates. Democrats may be hoping that giving constituents more time to vet candidates might prevent any repeats of a scandal such as the one that surrounded little-known pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen’s win in the lieutenant governor primary race. Cohen stepped aside after allegations of violence surfaced from his past. The Democrats plan to pick his replacement later this month.

The bill had bipartisan support. “It is important that we not have that election so close after the holidays,” Sen. Dale Risinger, a Peoria Republican said.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, said the date should never have been moved in the first place. Righter said the new law would correct “a mistake I think that was made three years ago and [get] us back on track.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Conversation starters

By Jamey Dunn

A group of female lawmakers and social services leaders called on legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn today to raise revenues and stop cuts to education and social services, and a think tank released a plan that its representatives say will balance the budget without a tax increase.

Kathy Ryg, president of Voices for Illinois Children, said cuts in state funding disproportionately affect women and children. “Women and children are the primary beneficiaries of these programs, which we know are proven to work.”

Her group supports the tax increase the Senate passed last session. Ryg said the organization would discourage support for Quinn’s recent budget proposal because it would not fully fund social services or education. However, she said the group does not intend to directly oppose the plan. “Our goal is not to say [HB 174] is the only answer.”

Ryg added that the group wants encourage a dialogue about the budget and equitable taxes and school funding.

“What we are sacrificing is the vulnerable people of our state who need those services to live. What we are sacrificing is the children of our state, and what we are sacrificing is the future of our state,” said Ann Ford, executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living.

The Illinois Policy Institute is also trying to jump into the budget conversation. The research group, “dedicated to free market principles” released an alternative to Quinn’s budget that its leaders say will eliminate the deficit without a tax increase.

The priorities of the group’s budget are to pay the state’s pension obligation and the backlog of overdue bills. The plan proposes its biggest cuts in education, health care and human services.

John Tillman, chief operating officer of the Illinois Policy Institute, called on local governments to post their budgets online and said he is skeptical that schools laying off teachers could not make cuts elsewhere instead.

"We put teachers before administrators, roads before expansive rail proposals and public safety before public art. These are not easy decisions, but they must be made," Tillman said.

He encouraged citizens to use a spreadsheet on the organization's Web page to create a budget based on $27 billion in spending to gain perspective on how difficult the choices for cuts are.

List of demands

By Jamey Dunn

Republicans have long been calling for cuts and reforms before they will consider a tax increase. House Republicans mapped out some of their ideas in a letter sent to Gov. Pat Quinn today. However, they are not going so far as committing support for a tax increase if these ideas are implemented.

Some of the suggestions to cut government operations include:

  • HB 5488 and HB 4800 would eliminate the state aircraft fleet.
  • HB 6625 would institute 12 furlough days for legislators.
  • HJRCA 36 would eliminate the lieutenant governor’s office.

Republicans also suggest the state:
  • Block legislative pay raises for fiscal year 2011.
  • Sell half the state automobile fleet.
  • Impose a hiring freeze and a freeze on state employees’ salaries.
  • Push for consolidation of K-12 schools.

Republicans propose cutting two programs that have been recent points of controversy:

A few other measures include:

Republicans also propose that Illinois create various grants and tax credits intended to encourage vocational training and hiring

What will probably be the most controversial suggestion from Republicans is the proposal to funnel $5 billion in funding for the capital construction plan into the operating budget.

Many of the ideas have been perennial suggestions to cut the budget and reform state government and have good deal of populist support. Many would also require changing laws, bargaining with unions and, in some cases, changing the state Constitution.

It is arguable how much they would do to solve a $13 billion dollar deficit. However, House Republicans do make the point that some of these proposals might improve public perception of state government. From the letter: “These measures would add up to hundreds of millions in savings and would demonstrate to the public that we are being responsible with their money.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Legislative scholarship reforms head to governor

By Rachel Wells

A plan to reform the General Assembly scholarship program — which some call a political perk — is on its way to the governor’s desk.

The Illinois House today approved Senate Bill 365, which would restrict to whom General Assembly members can give state university tuition waivers. The program recently came under fire for alleged instances of members using the waivers to leverage campaign contributions.

The reforms bans students from accepting a waiver if that student or his or her family members had donated to the awarding lawmaker’s campaign fund in the preceding five years. Recipients would also have to repay the university if discovered that they failed to honestly report pertinent contributions.

Some lawmakers say the waivers are an unfunded mandate on universities, which are never reimbursed for the approximately $12.5 million in annual lost tuition. A proposal to eliminate the waivers remains in committee.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quinn takes his budget to school

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is using his bully pulpit to try to get support for a tax increase that he says is needed to avoid deep cuts to education funding.

Quinn addressed students and teachers at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Springfield. He also visited James R. Lowell Elementary School in Chicago.

He called on voters to contact their legislators and ask them to support the 1 percentage point tax increase he proposed yesterday. “I think yesterday we made it pretty clear there’s a choice. There’s a fork in the road in Illinois. We’re going to take that particular road that leads to higher learning, better learning and children who succeed,” Quinn said at the Springfield school.

Quinn claims the new revenue is needed to replace about $1 billion in stimulus funds that will not be coming in next fiscal year.

“It was crystal clear that the votes are not there in the [U.S.] Congress to extend the federal stimulus for education. It’s not going to happen. … When I came back to Illinois [from Washington, D. C.], I told our budget people we can’t write that in. We will not have a billion dollars that was very helpful to us in the past fiscal year, the one we’re in now,” he said.

Quinn also called on Republican’s to support pension reforms that he claims will generate $300 million in savings next fiscal year. “We expect [House Minority] Leader [Tom] Cross to help us out there. He said he’s for it. Let’s put the votes on it.”

Quinn spokesperson, Robert Reed said that Quinn plans to fund education at the same levels as the current fiscal year if his proposed tax increase passes. If it doesn’t, he is proposing $1.3 billion in cuts to education. Some of the $2.8 billion that Quinn estimates the increase would produce would also go toward the approximately $850 million in bills the state owes schools, according to the State Board of Education. After education funding is restored and the bills paid off, about $650 million would be left over. Quinn is tight-lipped about where that money would go.

Yesterday Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, said that all the revenue from the proposed tax increase would go to education. But, some are speculating that at least part of it may be used to avoid the controversial $300 million reduction in funds to local governments that Quinn proposed yesterday.

When asked about this possibility, Quinn would not give a direct answer. “When you look at yesterday’s budget, every entity would have to make sacrifices,” he said.

While Quinn says he is optimistic that his tax proposal can pass, legislators and some providers waiting on late payments from the state are not so sure.

Don Moss, coordinator of the Human Services Coalition, said he is not expecting a tax increase until at least November, and he is not certain that it will come even after the general election. He said the governor's proposed cuts on top of the state’s slow payment cycle would be more than many social services providers could bear.

“They could probably deal with the cuts. But coupled with the late payments, it will probably do a lot of them in,” he said.

He said borrowing is the only solution for now. “If somebody has got to borrow, it should be the state not providers,” Moss said. “It’s 1 percent [interest rate] versus 5 percent or 6 percent and lets the state be responsible.”

Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, said schools have to start considering the possibility of cuts now. Teachers must be notified of layoffs 60 days before the end of this school year.

“If they’re going to reduce staff, they have to do it by the end of this month,” he said. Vanover added that teachers who have received layoff notices could be called back if the money is there for their jobs next school year.

Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the reality of possible education cuts will hit home for people once the layoff notices go out at the end of the month.

He said that he doesn't think Quinn's proposal is political gamesmanship, as many legislators have characterized it. He said that because education spending makes up such a large portion of the budget, Quinn doesn't have much option but to cut it. “It’s the largest chunk left that I think he could go after.”

He added that stimulus funds did protect schools from large cuts last year. "Really the stimulus money did fill that hole."

Comerford said that education cannot bear the proposed cuts without some serious consequences, such as overcrowded classrooms. “The problem isn’t where you can cut. We’ve cut as far as we can cut…We need new revenue,” he said. “Right now instead of talking about what we can improve, we are talking about trying to hold on to what we have.



Green Party candidate outlines budget plan

By Rachel Wells

Green Party candidate Rich Whitney today said that if elected governor, he would fix the state’s $13 billion budget problem by creating a new tax – a sort of sin tax on the profits of speculative trading – and by pushing a tax increase plan that stalled in the General Assembly last spring.

A financial transactions tax, which the state would levy on securities traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Options Exchange at what Whitney called a “minuscule” rate, “not pennies on the dollar but pennies on the $100,” could potentially bring in enough funds to wipe out Illinois' budget deficit, he said. He added that he would seek only a tax rate high enough to bring in $4.5 billion.

“We should start looking to the financial services sector, and the speculators, and the predatory lenders and the same people who are responsible for this crisis to start paying their fair share to repair the damage,” Whitney said. In his position paper, Whitney said the speculative trading he wants to tax is “another form of gambling, one that is every bit as harmful as the other sin taxes, and far more voluminous.”

Whitney said he would also call on legislators to pass the same “comprehensive” plan outlined in Senate Bill 750, a tax and education funding reform bill previously sponsored by Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat. The measure called for an income tax increase of 2 percentage points, an expansion of the sales tax base to include some services and property tax relief. Whitney said the income tax plan could generate more than $7.3 billion. A version of Meeks’ bill passed in the Senate last session but was never called in the House.

Whitney said he hasn’t yet read Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn’s March 10 budget proposal in detail, but he said it wasn’t straightforward enough in calling for a tax increase to reduce the impact on education.

Quinn on Wednesday announced a plan – criticized by Republicans as a game – for $1.3 billion in primary and secondary education cuts, assuming lawmakers would not pass a tax increase this spring. Last year, Quinn actively pursued an 1.5 percentage point income tax increase.

“I think part of the problem is that when Pat Quinn advocated it, he just talked about an income tax increase in a vacuum, not the kind of comprehensive package that we’ve had with [SB] 750,” Whitney said. “I think the people are ready for it, if it’s presented as a complete package.”

Whitney agrees with Quinn that about $2 billion in spending cuts are needed. But Whitney said his plan – akin to former Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Andrzejewski’s proposal – for a citizen-guided forensic audit would leave education and human services intact. He also wants to redirect proceeds from the capital construction bill, eliminating funding for any “pork” projects.

Whitney, who is alone in calling for an expanded public sector and more state jobs, also opposes Quinn’s call for a two-tiered pension system. Whitney said his own plan for the creation of a state bank would bring in enough revenue to pay down the pension debt at an accelerated pace. Whitney did not provide an estimate of how much revenue a state bank would provide.

“There is no magic wand, let’s be clear about that, for any of this. And I’m not claiming that I have one,” Whitney said. “But what I am saying is that this is a much better proposal that allows us to minimize the immediate pain and the horrible consequences of the budget proposals of the other two candidates.”

Whitney would also like to legalize and tax cannabis, as well as implement a greenhouse gas fee and dividend system under which fees imposed on high pollution energy producers would benefit consumers until more environmentally friendly energy sources become more prevalent and less pricey.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Education cuts or a tax increase

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn proposed to increase the state income tax by 1 percentage point during his budget address today, saying the money would be needed to stave off drastic cuts to education.

Quinn said federal stimulus funds protected education from serious cuts this fiscal year, but with the end of about $1 billion of stimulus funds to education, a proposed cut of $1.3 billion will be necessary. Quinn’s logic is that the state does not have the money to shift from some other area to replace the federal funds.

By proposing either drastic cuts or a tax increase, which he called a “surcharge for education,” Quinn appears to be trying to force legislators to make a politically difficult choice between higher taxes or deep cuts to schools.

“I am making this cut [to education] with the greatest of reluctance and only because our current fiscal emergency leaves me no choice. These cuts are unavoidable. They’re the consequence of a bipartisan refusal year after year to confront fiscal reality,” Quinn said.

According to Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, the increase would raise the personal income tax from 3 percent to 4 percent and the corporate from 4.8 percent to 5.8 percent. He said it would generate an estimated $2.8 billion, which Quinn intends to spend wholly on education. Vaught added it would defer cuts, as well as pay down overdue bills that Illinois owes to schools.

Last year, Quinn proposed an income tax increase that would have raised the rate to 4.5 percent for individuals and 7.2 percent for businesses.

This would be a smaller increase, and Quinn has given legislators some political cover: They could claim they were supporting education with a “yes” vote. However, this tax increase does not appear to be starting off with any more support than last year’s proposal.

Republicans said the differences between the governor’s budget this year and last year are not big enough.

“What’s disappointing is, he essentially proposes to do the same things as he did last year. Proposed cuts that we know he’s not going to make … record borrowing or a tax increase and no reform to the system … to the government that is fundamentally broken,” Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

Senate President John Cullerton said he would support Quinn’s tax increase, but because the Senate passed a tax increase last session, the effort would have to start in the House.

“The Republicans in the House … along with the Democrats have to take this issue up and lead the way, and the Senate will certainly follow. … It’s clearly now focused on education and avoiding draconian cuts to education,” he said.

Cullerton added he would support a temporary income tax increase, “so we can address this crisis that we have right now, the worst economic crisis in our lifetime.” But, he reiterated that the details would have to be mapped out in the House.

House Speaker Michael Madigan does not appear optimistic about the increase passing in his chamber. “[Quinn] called upon every member of the General Assembly to help him solve a severe budgetary problem. I sincerely hope that every member is prepared to cooperate; every member is prepared to do some heavy lifting. I have my doubts,” Madigan said today on the Illinois Lawmakers television program.

Cullerton said he plans to sponsor legislation to reform the state’s pension system, something that Republicans have been demanding before they would consider a tax increase. House Minority Leader Tom Cross said it will take more than that to get Republican votes on a tax increase.

Cross said he wants to see “fundamental reforms” to state government. He added that Republicans will have to invited to the bargaining table. He said they were cut out of the budget process last year.

“We’ve gone down this road with this guy before. A year ago, we were going to decimate the human services budget and the developmentally disabled community. It didn’t happen. Six months ago, we were going to take away and annihilate the map program for college kids. It didn’t happen,” Cross said. “This is a fellow and an individual and a politician that likes to hold people hostage. Last year, it was college kids and the developmentally disabled community. This year, it is K-12.”

Cross characterized Quinn’s proposal as purely political threats. “I would suggest to you at the end of the day this isn’t going to happen. … This is a scare tactic.”

Quinn’s Republican opponent for governor, Sen. Bill Brady, continues to stand by his plan to cut spending by 10 percent across the board. Brady, a Bloomington Republican, was critical of Quinn for proposing such a large cut to education. "It was ironic to me that Quinn didn't think 17 percent cuts to education were draconian," he said.

Brady added that his plan would more fairly spread cuts over all areas of government.

"I wouldn’t attack one area of state spending, like education. He attacked education, leaving other areas, in fact increasing Medicaid funding by over $500 million at the expense of our school children. I’ve said there has to be a shared responsibility in this solution.”

In his address, Quinn called across-the-board cuts, such as those Brady is proposing, “heartless and na├»ve.”

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"Don't count on that"

By Jamey Dunn

Budget numbers that Gov. Pat Quinn’s staff presented at a media briefing this evening do not assume an income tax increase.

“The General Assembly has not acted on a tax increase and has given symbols that they don’t want to act on a tax increase,” said Jerry Stermer, Quinn’s chief staff.

However, Quinn’s budget is based on the assumption that Congress will extend an elevated Medicaid match of 65 percent instead of the usual 50 percent that was part of the stimulus package and that the General Assembly will pass a controversial two-tiered pension system proposal.

The budget is built on five “pillars of recovery” to try to solve the state’s estimated $13 billion deficit. The pillars are cuts, job creation, federal assistance, “strategic” borrowing and revenue increases. However, the final pillar was conspicuously missing from the briefing, and Stermer acknowledged that the problem can’t be solved in the next fiscal year.

“No observer — no economist — assumes we’ll be able to solve this horrific puzzle in a single year,” Stermer said.

Cuts

Quinn is again proposing furlough days for state employees and reducing pension benefits for newly hired state workers. The total savings for next year is estimated at more than $500 million. The assumption is that money from a pension reform would come in the form of borrowing, since the savings would not be immediate.

Income tax revenues that are sent to local government would be cut from 10 percent to 7 percent, which would total $300 million.

Education funding would be cut by $1.3 billion from higher education and K-12, with the bulk coming from K-12.

Health care would be cut by $325 million, including slashing funding for a drug assistance program for seniors in half, and starting a Medicaid managed-care pilot program.

Human services would take a $276 million hit, which would come from in-home care for the elderly, childcare and community mental health services

Stermer said that Quinn’s administration sought cooperation from legislators to make more cuts that would require changes in the law and got nowhere. “Every meeting that we have with legislators, they say: ‘Oh we don’t think our members will vote for that. Don’t count on that. Don’t count on that. Don’t count on that,’” he said.

Job creation

A $2,500 tax credit would go to companies with fewer than 50 employees for each new job they create. This plan would be capped at a total of $50 million. Quinn estimates that would create 20,000 jobs.

Federal support

The budget is based on the hope that Congress will extend a 62 percent match on Medicaid funds, up from the regular 5o percent as part of the stimulus plan and due to expire at the end of December, through the next fiscal year.

Borrowing

Quinn’s plan calls for $4.7 billion in borrowing.

Quinn's budget director, David Vaught said borrowing makes people nervous because they compare it to their own borrowing on credit cards with double-digit interest. However, he said the last time the state borrowed money, it was at a rate of just over 1 percent. “Sovereign states don’t borrow on a credit card.”

Revenue increases

This evening’s presentation did not include any proposed revenue increase, and all the numbers presented, which Stermer said Quinn would present tomorrow, are based on no income tax increase.

“This budget that we are presenting shows the consequences of inaction last year. Had we raised taxes last year, as the governor called for, we wouldn’t be seeing deficits of this scope,” Vaught said.

As to whether Quinn would propose a specific revenue increase in his budget address, or divulge what he plans to do with the money that would come from one, no one in the room would answer that question.

“Quinn’s not included a tax increase in this budget, and that’s a conversation that has to happen,” Stermer said. When pressed on the issue, Stermer said, “The governor will talk about that tomorrow — noon sharp.”

So check back tomorrow for the details on Quinn’s budget address, set to take place before the General Assembly tomorrow — noon sharp.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Brady accepts Republican nomination

By Jamey Dunn


Sen. Bill Brady from Bloomington accepted the Republican nomination for governor today.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, conceded and endorsed Brady earlier today. “It was a hard-fought race, and it was close ...,” Dillard said in a news release. “But it is now clear to me that my friend and colleague Bill Brady has won the Illinois Republican primary for governor.”

The final totals certified today by the State Board of Elections showed Brady with a 193-vote victory. He received 20.6 percent of the GOP votes for governor, compared with 20.4 percent for Dillard.

Brady said he plans to make job creation a priority of his campaign. “You know you’re going to get tired of hearing me talk about what I’m going to talk about in this campaign because for me this campaign is about two things: jobs, jobs, jobs; and reform, reform, reform,” Brady said in the acceptance speech he delivered in Chicago.

Gov. Pat Quinn's campaign is already criticizing Brady's voting record in the Illinois Senate.
From the Quinn for Illinois reaction statement to Brady's nomination:
In his legislative career, Senator Bill Brady has voted against the Family Medical Leave Act, equal pay for men and women, and raising the minimum wage. He has also proposed repealing anti-discrimination laws, would ban all abortions -- even for victims of rape and incest -- and even voted against a bill funding mammograms and pap tests. … He may represent the extreme fringe of the right-wing, but he certainly does not represent the people of Illinois.

Brady wins Republican governor nomination

Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady beat out his opponent Sen. Kirk Dillard from Hinsdale by 193 votes for the Republican nomination for governor.

The State Board of Elections certified the votes this morning.

Dillard previously said he would not seek a recount unless the margin was less than 100 votes. He would have to pay for the preliminary recount. If those results indicated problems with the votes, then a statewide recount would be conducted with public funds.

Both candidates are holding news conferences later today. Check back for more details.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Illinois moves ahead in Race to the Top

By Rachel Wells

Illinois, along with 15 other states and the District of Columbia, is still in the running to secure $510 million in federal Race to the Top funding, the State Board of Education learned today.

“It’s dollars for reform when we would not be getting it from the state otherwise. This is still a competition. It doesn’t mean we get them, but it just means that we’re in the running, that we are going to have to go [to Washington, D.C.] and make a case for why we need the [dollars],” state Superintendent Christopher Koch said.

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion education reform program that aims to improve standards and assessments, develop student growth data systems, reward quality teachers and improve underachieving schools.

Illinois won’t know whether it will receive a Race to the Top grant until April 1, following the interviews with federal officials in Washington D.C. If Illinois is not chosen to receive a grant at that time, it can still apply by June 1 for consideration in a second phase of awards.

In preparation for the application process, the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn enacted measures for tying student growth to teacher evaluations, expanding alternative teacher certification programs, developing a data system to trace student performance and career or college success, and doubling the state’s limit on charter schools.

Considering cuts - Part 2

By Jamey Dunn and Rachel Wells


A Senate committee held its second round of hearings today on the impact of possible 10 percent cuts to the budget in the last four months of the current fiscal year.

Senate Democrats have been accused of using the hearings as a political stage to criticize budgets suggestions made by Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican candidate for governor from Bloomington, during the primary election campaign.

Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said he does get the sense that the hearings are motivated by politics. However, he said he is willing to work with Democrats on cutting the current budget. He echoed a statement that Democrat budget point man Sen. Donne Trotter made yesterday that 10 percent cuts are just a starting point and may not be necessary.

“We’re starting at 10 percent trying to solve this problem. We’ll see where we end up. If there’s a constructive effort at trying to minimize this [fiscal] year’s deficit to make next [fiscal] year’s budget process that much easier, we’re on board,” Murphy said.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch said in his testimony before the committee that he expects more than 13,000 layoffs in K-12 in the next fiscal year even without budget cuts. Those layoffs, he said, would include:

  • Tenured teachers 457
  • Non-tenured teachers 5,826
  • Administrators 505
  • Service employees, such as counselors and social workers 402
  • Non-certified employees 5,194

Koch said those numbers represent the about 75 percent of schools that the numbers could go higher.

He added that cuts at the state level during the current fiscal year will just “pass the burden” off onto local governments that will have to try to increase taxes or borrow to meet their obligations.

Schools have already entered into contracts with employees, so they cannot make any layoffs during this fiscal year. One way or another, they have to make payroll.

The same goes for the Department of Corrections, which employs about 11,000 people to watch over about 46,300 prisoners and 33,000 parolees. “Any time our department attempts to go through a layoff process, it is a long drawn out process that sometimes takes six months to accomplish,” Corrections Director Michael Randle said. “We would have to approach the legislature and tell them the reality of our situation as an agency and seek additional appropriations to cover payroll.”

Trotter, a Chicago Democrat, suggested borrowing as the only solution.

Randle said cuts to food, utilities and education programs would be needed to make payroll.

“What we would be looking at is strictly a lock-and-key operation,” Randle said.

Randle under fire

Brady called for Randle to step down today.

He made the demand at a news conference held to announce a measure he introduced that would create an Internet database with information on any prisoners that are released early. The Web page would include photos and descriptions of the prisoners. Brady’s bill passed through a Senate committee with unanimous support. Brady said he also plans to create a “strike” force to investigate Gov. Pat Quinn's controversial “Meritorious Good Time Push" early-release program.

Brady sputtered when questioned about what sort of early release scenarios he would support and had difficulty giving a concrete example of which prisoners the state would be required to include on the Web site. In the end, he said he does not support the early release of any prisoners.

When asked about the security of his job, Randle said, "I think we all serve at the pleasure of the governor. … We’ll continue to do our job."

Senate moves borrowing plan

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Senate sent a plan to Gov. Pat Quinn today that would allow the state to borrow to pay down some of the bills it owes medical providers.

The measure would allow the state to borrow $250 million to pay vendors and capture federal matching Medicaid dollars, which Quinn claims will total $600 million. The borrowed money will have to be paid back in a year.

Chicago Democrat Sen. Donne Trotter, the sponsor of the bill, said because the state is late making its payments, businesses are in danger of going bankrupt.

“We have a responsibility to pay our debts,” Trotter said.

Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said that the state has no plan for paying back the money next fiscal year. He asked that the vote be delayed until after the governor gives his budget address next week.

“This is how we got here. This fundamental lack of understanding of the fact that you can’t promise more than you produce,” Murphy said. While the bill did not have Republican support in the Senate, it did in the House including a “yes” vote from House Minority Leader Rep. Tom Cross.

Trotter said the issue “is something that’s been festering since January.” He added that had it been handled sooner, it would not be to the point of an emergency now.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Senate approves borrowing for universities

By Jamey Dunn

The Senate passed a measure today that would allow public universities to borrow money to keep their doors open and pay faculty and staff.

"If these universities cannot receive the cash flow they need to operate, they will close their doors,” said bill sponsor Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat.

The money would be borrowed in anticipation of payments from the state, which owes more than $900 million to the universities. Each school could borrow up to 75 percent of what the state owes it.

The bill puts the decision to borrow in the hands of the universities’ boards of trustees. State government will not be on the hook for the debt, which must be repaid within a year.

“[It’s] a stopgap measure, but by no means does it solve the financial crisis or the chronic under funding of our public universities,” Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard said.

Republican critics said there is no clear plan for repayment of the loans and that borrowing is just pushing the problem off to a later date. “We cannot continue to borrow,” said Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican.

Senate considers cuts to this year's budget

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Senate is weighing 10 percent budget cuts for the last quarter of the fiscal year.

A Senate committee is taking testimony from agencies about the possible impact of such cuts to their budgets during the remainder of this fiscal year.

“We know that we’re going into [fiscal year] 2011 with [a] $13 [billion] to some people’s estimate up to $14 billion [deficit], so we need to cut that down now, if we can. And this is what these committee meetings are for,” Sen. Donne Trotter

While Democrats say they are serious about the cuts, Republicans say they are playing political games.

Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican candidate for governor from Bloomington, put forth the idea of 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts during his primary campaign, and many say that Democrats are holding these hearings to take shots at his proposal. But Trotter insists the hearings are not just for political show.

“[The cuts] are real, but we may not be cutting it 10 percent - maybe it’s 5 percent … heaven forbid it’s 15 percent. But we don’t know until we have at least this dialogue with these agencies that will be impacted,” he said.

Committee chairman Sen. John Sullivan, a Democrat, said that no one Republican is being targeted, but the hearings are meant to display the impact of some Republican proposals, for better or worse.

“We’re not trying to put anybody on the hot seat,” Sullivan said. “Some individuals here in the General Assembly have said we need cuts — no new revenues — we need cuts. What we’re trying to do is let the public know and let members of the General Assembly know what the consequences of those cuts are.”

Sullivan said after the hearing that Brady would be welcome to testify before the committee. Brady said he might consider the offer but added that he had already laid out his budget plan.

“I am a candidate for governor. I am going to be the next governor of the state of Illinois. I welcome their test and their challenge. I am going to rise above it and provide the people of Illinois with a budget they can count on - provide the tax cuts they need to create business investment in our state,” he said.

University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard testified before the committee today on the possible impact of such cuts on higher education.

“There are many agencies that you will hear from that will be talking about the impact in terms of broken lives. … I think for higher education, it's better to think about it in terms of broken futures,” Ikenberry said.

Both said the proposed $76 million in cuts to Illinois public universities would mean mass layoffs in their university systems. “Such a drastic and immediate reduction in the current fiscal year would require the immediate layoff of 15 percent of our workforce for the remaining four months of the fiscal year. It is not practical prudent or possible to take such and action,” Poshard said.

Sen. Matt Murphy asked the two men if they would consider a deal that would guarantee their schools the money they are owed, with a 10 percent reduction.

“It is not acceptable for me to take a 10 percent deal right now and run with it,” Poshard said to Murphy. “You folks passed legislation that guaranteed us a certain amount of appropriation, upon which we built our budget. We depended upon that. We gave a promise to thousands of students based upon that promise to us from the state legislature and the governor.”

The committee is scheduled to take more testimony from agency representatives tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Check back for details.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Concealed carry advances

By Jamey Dunn

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to Chicago’s handgun ban, an Illinois House committee approved a bill that would let residents carry concealed firearms.

The committee passed House Bill 6249 today with only one member voting against it.

The sponsor of the measure Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, called today a “very important day for gun owners.”

Bradley said his proposal creates “stringent” requirements for a concealed carry license that would be regulated by the Illinois State Police. He reassured committee members that allowing citizens to carry guns would not turn Illinois into “the wild West.”

The bill requires those seeking a license to be 21 years old, attend training and pass an exam and a background check that would look for any criminal activities and history of mental illness or addiction.

The proposal makes exemptions for locations such as churches, schools and bars but would allow guns on college campuses.

Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat, cast the only opposition vote. She said the logic behind the exemptions - that it might be unsafe or inappropriate to carry firearms in such places - is how those opposed to the bill feel about people carrying guns on the streets of their communities.

“I am mystified by these exemptions. … To me they are in fact a major concession by the proponents that people who carry concealed guns, weapons, are inherently unsafe,” she said.

However, Hamos added that she thinks the U.S. Supreme Court’s eventual decision on the Chicago case may force some legislators to reevaluate hard-line stances on gun issues.

“[The National Rifle Association] lobbies us, so we say, ‘I am for it because the NRA is for it’ or ‘I am against it because the NRA is for it.’ That’s not going to be the future. The future is going to be to really think about what is reasonable.”

Supreme court considering Chicago gun ban

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in a case challenging Chicago’s handgun ban today.

The court struck down a similar ban in Washington, D.C., in 2008. Because the District of Columbia federal district is not a state, that ruling applied only to federal laws. The Chicago case will decide whether the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applies to state and local laws.

The ruling could affect local gun control laws, such as bans on carrying concealed weapons and requirements that guns be stored with trigger locks, throughout the country.