Thursday, June 30, 2011

Quinn uses veto pen to revisit his budget plan

By Jamey Dunn 

Gov. Pat Quinn released his changes to the state budget late this evening. His reductions reiterate components of his original budget plan that lawmakers did not approve.

Quinn proposes to reduce the general revenue budget approved by the legislature by $376 million. The largest reduction is a $276 million cut to Medicaid funding for hospitals. The legislature approved about $2.3 billion in such funding. Quinn Budget Director David Vaught said that the reduction is meant to bring hospitals to the table to negotiate cutting their rates. In his original proposal, Quinn called for cuts to Medicaid rates that he said would save the state an estimated $550 million in the first fiscal year.

Without a change to the rates, hospitals will continue to be paid the same amount, and Quinn’s reduction would mean that the money would run out before the end of the fiscal year. “We hope that it helps convince the interested parties on this, which would be hospitals, to come to the table,” Vaught said. “We have a rate system in Illinois that’s been in effect for many years. It’s not been changed for many years. …We’re dealing with a very fast-growing industry that is growing more quickly than we can afford.” He acknowledged that some hospitals and nursing homes felt they got the short end of the stick in recently approved nursing home legislation and a workers’ compensation reform package, and that may complicate negotiations.

During the budgeting process, hospital representatives said the industry would prefer waiting longer for payments than see a  drastic reduction in the rates they are paid. “They kind of like getting 1 percent interest a month on their money, too,” Vaught said. In prepared explanations that Quinn released with his reductions, he said he was concerned about the approved budget pushing $1.2 billion of Medicaid bills from Fiscal Year 2012 into FY 2013. “Neglecting our bills today only creates a bigger problem for tomorrow — an ill-advised strategy that, together with the poor fiscal discipline exercised by previous administrations, has created and will exacerbate the staggering backlog of unpaid bills we face today.”

Quinn also eliminated the funding for the salaries of regional superintendents. He proposed eliminating regional offices of education in his budget plan but met objections from school districts and legislators. Vaught reiterated the administration’s position that local school districts can cough up the money if they want their own regional superintendent. “This is not a proposal to say get rid of their regional superintendents,” he said.

Quinn also wants to reduce transportation funding back to FY 2011 levels, which would mean an $89 million reduction. Transportation funding was cut drastically in FY 2011 and Quinn proposed another big cut for FY 2012, but the legislature did not go along.

Vaught said Quinn would prefer to see such cuts so the state could increase general state aid to schools. He said that since general aid can be spent on anything, it would allow schools to use money at their own discretion. He called it “the best fairest way to distribute state aid for schools.” Since Quinn cannot restore any funding to the legislature’s budget, Vaught said he will be lobbying lawmakers to put money back into general state aid for schools, among other areas of spending. He said Quinn’s reduction and line item vetoes are just part of the governor’s long-term vision for the state budget. “Today is the reduction part.”

Quinn made other cuts that he said reduced bureaucratic costs and eliminated redundancies in the budget.

The legislature must approve all of Quinn’s budget reductions. Quinn has been scarcely involved in the budgeting process this year, and he is pushing some of the original pieces of his proposal that did not go over well with the legislature the first time around. “In spite of the fact that he’s going to be governor for four years that he was elected, he certainly has not been able to assert the power within the office and his role in the process,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. Time will tell if legislators will warm to budget policy they have already rejected and welcome a governor into the process who has been a less than active player so far.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Audit: DCFS falls short on response times but shows improvement

By Jamey Dunn

A recent audit found that  investigations of reported child abuse and reviews of death cases by the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services are not living up to state law, although the agency has made improvements in recent years.

Child Death Review Teams that fall under the department’s purview face a backlog of cases, Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland's office found. The teams are required to review the deaths of children who were wards of DCFS, subjects of open cases, subjects of abuse or neglect investigations in the year before their deaths, and children whose deaths are reported to the department as the result of abuse or neglect. Those reviews come after DCFS has conducted an initial investigation, and they are geared toward preventing future fatalities.

The teams were assigned 161 mandated cases in Fiscal Year 2009 and 164 mandated cases in FY 2010. The teams can also take on cases at their discretion. Teams are required to complete their reviews within 90 days after a DCFS investigation or, if there is no investigation, 90 days after they receive the necessary information. For FY 2010, the department did not complete 70 out of 95 death reviews within 90 days of the DCFS investigation. For cases that DCFS did not investigate, the teams fell short of the 90-day deadline on 51 out of 63 cases. According to DCFS documentation, six deaths from FY 2010 had not been reviewed at the time of the audit.

Kendall Marlowe, spokesperson for DCFS, said part of the holdup is the amount of time it takes county governments to send the death certificates to teams “because we live in a state with 102 counties, and those counties have different resources and different processes.” DCFS has set the goal of having all FY 2010 cases reviewed by July 30.

Besides working to help determine the cause of deaths, the team also makes recommendations for ways to prevent child deaths. Marlowe points to the example of childhood drowning, which is the leading cause for accidental death for children and the second leading cause of accidental death among teenagers. The panels made recommendations that led to May becoming childhood drowning prevention month in the state and a time when DCFS works to educate children and parents.

Auditors said the teams’ inability to meet requirements makes them less effective at such prevention efforts.

The department is also required to begin investigating all potential cases of abuse or neglect within 24 hours of a report. In FY 2010, the department did not begin an investigation within the required time frame for 97 of 67, 377 reports. This number is down from its highest point in the decade, which was 517 cases out of 59,241 in FY 2002. However it has increased from the lowest point in the decade, which was last year, when the department failed to start investigating 83 reports within 24 hours out of 68,732 total reports.

“Failure to respond to a report of abuse or neglect within 24 hours could result in further endangerment to the child and is a violation of the [ Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act,]” the audit said. However auditors noted that the department has shown continual improvement when it comes to responding to reports.

While the department has not reached the 100 percent compliance required by law, Marlowe said great strides have been made in recent years to ensure that it is responding appropriately to reports of abuse. “Reports that come in do not fit any pattern … so it will always be struggle to get to 100 percent compliance.” He noted that reports of abuse are prioritized base on the potential danger to children. “On the more serious cases, we do not hesitate at all. … An investigator is heading out immediately.”

Auditors spot-checked 57 foster care and family case files. Of those files, 37 were missing checklists for initial child placement as well as for long term planning. Ten were missing medical and dental consent forms, seven were missing pictures of children and 13 were missing children’s’ fingerprints. Administrators had failed to review five of the cases.

Auditors noted that DCFS needs more bilingual staff to comply with law and a court order. DCFS is required to have 194 bilingual front line staff members but only had 148 as of March 2010. Marlowe said budget constraints are a factor but the state’s growing Hispanic population has also put bilingual social workers in high demand.

“Spanish speaking populations are growing in parts of the state where they have not before,” Marlowe said. “It’s not a challenge that we will achieve in the very near future. … It has more to do with supply and demand in the social services work force.”

While auditors found 13 problem areas at the agency, the number is down from 15 in the previous audit, and auditors did cite progress in a number of areas. Marlow said federal requirements have pushed DCFS to track its performance on a regular basis. “This is an agency that over the last 10 years has become performance-driven. We measure and analyze our own performance on a continual basis and are not satisfied until we are serving every child and family in the most effective way possible.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Quinn signs workers' compensation reform,
but the issue isn't put to rest

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed workers’ compensation reform legislation today that supporters say will save the business community hundreds of millions of dollars, but it may not save him from facing workers' compensation as a campaign issue if he decides to run for governor again. 

Quinn toured the state on a victory lap today, stopping at businesses in Melrose Park, Rockford, Champaign and Marion.

“Today is such an important day. We’re going to be helping the employers of Illinois, the workers of Illinois — all of those who are committed to economic growth — by signing a law that will help our employers in Illinois reduce their premiums for workers’ compensation insurance by a huge amount,” Quinn said in Melrose Park.

Backers of the plan estimate that it will save businesses $500 million to $750 million. The bulk of that savings will come from a 30 percent cut to the rates doctors are paid for treating injured employees. Arbitrators, who decide cases will all be out of a job on July 1. They can reapply but will have to be appointed by Quinn and confirmed by the Senate for three-year terms. Arbitrators can only spend two years of their term working in the same location to prevent them from forming “cozy” relationships with workers. These provisions were spurred in part by an investigation by the Belleville News-Democrat that found Menard Correctional Center employees have been awarded more than $10 million in workers’ compensation benefits. The claims are being investigated by the state. The new law will also:
  • Require the use of American Medical Association standards when determining workers’ level of impairment from injuries.
  • Apply standards of judicial conduct to arbitrators that are the same as those used for as for the Illinois Supreme Court justices and require them to take additional training
  • Allow creation of a provider network of doctors. Injured employees could pick their doctors, but only from this predetermined pool. An injured worker would still be able to visit a doctor outside of the network but could not get a second opinion from a doctor of his or her choice.
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said the new law will improve a system that had become “dysfunctional” for both employers and employees. “Is it a perfect bill? Probably not. I think every single participant in this process would tell you there are a few other things they wished had been in this bill. And we will continue to monitor the progress of the workers’ comp system here in Illinois — first and foremost that our workers are protected, and secondly, that our workers’ comp premiums do not make us noncompetitive with other states.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan shed some light on the behind the scenes process, saying that Quinn was “intimately involved” in negotiations. “Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel of the city of Chicago played a very active and important role on this piece of legislation. It’s not usual for a mayor of a city to get involved with legislation like workers’ compensation before the General Assembly, but Mayor Emanuel chose to do that. He did it. He was very helpful,” Madigan said in Melrose Park.

“At any moment over the last six months this legislation could have been derailed. We could be talking about another missed opportunity for workers’ compensation. Instead bipartisanship showed up. Business and labor worked together. Lawmakers rolled up their sleeves and worked with committed business leaders for reform in our workers’ compensation laws,” said David Vite, president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

However, Republicans — both in support of and opposed to the plan — said that it did not spread sacrifice evenly. They complained when the bill passed that asking doctors to reduce their rates by 30 percent was an unfair hit to the medical community.

Others have called the savings estimates into question. “I think the actual cost savings are suspect, in part because the range is so great,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think anybody genuinely knows what the cost savings are going to work out to be.”

He said insurance companies will not start to drop employers’ workers’ compensation insurance premiums until they see that the plan cuts costs. “Realistically, those rate reductions probably will not begin to appear for the next two or three years. … That’s going to take some time to show up.”

Whitley said the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which remained neutral on the new law, plans to push the issue in the 2012 and 2014 elections. “We should not have to wait another five [or] six years to go back.” He said Illinois must continue to reform its system to be competitive with other states. “The political leadership has to appreciate, understand, recognize that workers’ compensation is not a static action. … Even if we make progress in Illinois, that doesn’t mean that other states didn’t do things similarly. There’s a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspect to this.”

Audits find mistakes in awarding lottery and video poker contracts

By Jamey Dunn

Two audits released today found problems with the way state government awarded contracts associated with two pivotal funding sources for the state's embattled capital construction plan.

An audit of the Illinois Department of Revenue took issue with the process used to choose Northstar Group as the new manager of the Illinois lottery. Northstar Group represents gaming vendors that have previously contracted with Illinois — Rhode-Island-based GTECH Corp. and New-York-based Scientific Games Inc., along with marketing partner Chicago-based Energy BBDO. Lawmakers approved a turnover of lottery management to a private firm as part of the capital bill with the hopes that a company could bring in greater profits for the state. The two other bidding finalists, Intralot S.A. and The Camelot Group, protested the state’s choice of Northstar, claiming the process was unfair. The state denied both protests.

Auditor General William Holland’s report found that some of the scores from members of the evaluation team were not certified by the department and some were not officially submitted until after the state had publicly announced its choice of Northstar as the manager.

However, Sue Hofer, spokesperson for the Department of Revenue, said the department had electronic copies of the evaluation team’s scores before a choice was made, and these copies were used to make a decision. “They provided their assessment twice, once electronically and once in a signed affidavit that said they had no conflict of interest,” she said. Hofer said the scores were valid whether submitted electronically or on paper, and the department provided Holland with the electronic copies of the scores.

But the auditor disagreed that the scores came in on time, whatever the delivery method. “The department’s response appears to want it both ways. They say auditors relied on the hard-copy evaluations, which we note were not timely. This is factual. Then the department wants us to utilize emails, which we also considered. However, as we note in the finding, these too showed the electronic submissions were not timely. The only constant was that all the discrepancies noted in the finding are from department documentation, whether hard copy or electronic,” the report said.

The audit also found that Oliver Wyman, a contracted consulting firm that helped the department with the bidding process, started work before it signed a contract with the state. Wyman sought and collected the names of firms interested on managing the lottery before the firm had a state contract. The audit also found that once Wyman was under contract, the firm failed to meet some of its deadlines, potentially shorting those considering bids time for a review process. “Failure to meet deliverable deadlines may have contributed to state evaluators having less than one week to evaluate the Request For Proposal responses in Step 1 of the process, a process that eventually would turn over a $2 billion state asset for private management,” the audit said.

“Those people were on a contract where they would get paid for product delivered. They were not getting paid by the hour,” Hofer said. “They started several days before the contract was officially signed, and that was at their own risk.”

Holland found that Kroll, a subcontractor hired by Wyman to provide investigative and consulting services as well as ensure that the bidding process was fair and open, had previous connections with Northstar. The report said two members of Scientific Games’ board of directors were previously Kroll board members and that a former incarnation of Scientific Games retained Kroll’s services in 2002. However the audit notes that the relationships ended three years prior to the work Kroll did on the lottery contract, so Wyman was not required to disclose them. The report also said Kroll was “very qualified” to do the work it was contracted for, and the auditor general’s office found no problems with reports submitted by Wyman and Kroll.

Overall, Holland’s report said: “The department should protect state interests and not allow vendors to work without an executed contract in place. Additionally, the department should enforce contract milestones or amend the contract to reflect updated priorities and time frames. Further, the department should ensure that all subcontractors disclose any relationships that may, even if only in appearance, impair the integrity of the procurement process.”

An audit of the Illinois Gaming Board also shed light on what went wrong with the bidding process for a central computer system needed to implement legalized video poker in bars and restaurants throughout the state. The revenue from video gaming is supposed to pay off borrowing for the state’s construction plan.

The board awarded the contract to Scientific Games, one of the companies in the Northstar Group, only to rescind the deal after it was found that the board had done its math wrong. “Lack of review for the scoring of pricing in the evaluation process of the Central Communications System (CCS) procurement resulted in the award to a vendor that was not the highest ranked,” the audit said. The report says only “one set of eyes” reviewed the pricing information that companies submitted with their bids. The audit also found that the board got different information from bidders, so it was not comparing apples to apples when it came to cost estimates, and it never followed up with the bidders to get like information. The board employee whose one set of eyes reviewed the cost estimates told auditors that the board was under pressure to make a choice, and any holdups would be “‘frowned upon.’”

Gene O’Shea, spokesperson for the gaming board, said that any pressure felt by the board or its employees is self-imposed. “There is no person or outside agency that is exerting any kind of pressure on the gaming board to get things done before they should be done.”

He added: “There’s just a lot of work to be done and few people to do it. … There’s people that are on the staff here that are working a tremendous amount of overtime to get the job done.”
The board has scrapped the original bid for the computer system and is in the process of a new bid.

The implementation of legal video poker in some bars and restaurants in the state has been put on hold until the Illinois Supreme Court rules on a constitutional challenge to the capital plan.  However,  state agencies are continuing work on the issue in anticipation of a positive verdict or the approval of a new plan by the legislature.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back-seat passengers will have to buckle up

By Jamey Dunn

Beginning January 1, passengers riding in the backseat of a vehicles in Illinois will be required to wear their safety belts.

Gov. Pat Quinn today signed House Bill 219, which makes Illinois the 26th state to require all passengers in a vehicle to buckle up. Illinois has previously required that front-sent passengers and any passengers under the age of 18 wear their seat belts.

The measure was sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton and former Barrington Republican Rep. Mark Beaubian, who died before seeing the bill signed into law. Quinn said today of Beaubian, “[He] believed in the public interest and helping other people and saving lives.”

According to the Illinois State Police, passengers who fail to wear their seat belts could be fined up to $60, which does not include any court costs that might be associated with the charge. Passengers in taxis and emergency vehicles will be exempt from the requirement.

“By the governor signing this bill today, I would anticipate we’ll save at least 25 to 30 lives next year,” Cullerton said. “This is the most important thing that we can do. … This one affects people’s lives. It’s literally going to save lives. There’s nothing more important than that."

Blagojevich verdicts may spark more reforms

By Jamey Dunn

Another of Illinois’ past governors faces potential years behind bars after being convicted on the majority of the corruption charges he was facing. But some Illinois officials warn it is not yet time to close the book on the state’s history of corruption.

A jury today convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich on 17 out of 20 counts. The jury found him not guilty on one count connected to an alleged plot to squeeze campaign money from road construction firms before he would sign a tollway plan that would benefit some builders. The jury did not come to a verdict on another charge related to that scheme and one tied to an alleged attempt to strong-arm U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, into arranging a Blagojevich fundraiser before the governor would release a grant to the Chicago Academy. The defense called Emanuel to testify in the former governor’s retrial. Prosecutors reportedly do not plan to retry Blagojevich on the two charges that they jury could not agree on.

The jury found Blagojevich guilty on charges related to his most well-known scheme, attempting to sell Barack Obama’s former Senate seat for personal or political gain. He was also convicted on charges relating to him trying to get representatives of the horse racing industry to trade campaign contributions for his signature on a bill that would benefit them, as well as holding up legislation related to funding in an attempt to extort campaign contributions from the chief operating officer of Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“There’s not much left to say other than we want to get home to our little girls,” Blagojevich told reporters as he left the federal courthouse today. He said he was “stunned” and wanted to go home to explain what happened to his two daughters and decide what to do next.

“I’m sure we’ll be seeing you guys again,” he quipped, alluding to a potential appeal. Blagojevich was allowed to go home today, but he is not allowed to travel out of the federal Northern District of Illinois without permission from Judge James Zagel, who has presided over both of Blagojevich’s trials.

In his first criminal trial, Blagojevich was convicted of one charge of lying to federal officers. That jury could not reach an agreement on 23 other counts. Blagojevich decided not to testify at that trial, but he spent days on the stand in his retrial. Sam Adam Jr., who represented Blagojevich in his first trial but not in the most recent one, said that he thinks the jury didn’t believe what the former governor said in his own defense. “It’s obvious that the jury wanted to make a statement, and they made a statement,” Adam told WLS-TV Chicago. “It just seems the jury in this particular case didn’t buy what he had to say.”

Adam said he thinks Blagojevich has grounds for an appeal based on the courts refusal to allow the defense to present some of the pieces of his recorded phone conservations. He added that Blagojevich was unable to “corroborate” his testimony with this barred evidence. “I think he’ll end up vindicated,’ Adam said. He said he would work on an appeal if tapped to do so.

Adam predicted that if an appeal is not successful, Blagojevich could be sentenced to between five and nine years for his convictions. “He’s looking at some serious time here.” Adam added that if Zagel determines that Blagojevich lied during his testimony, the sentence could be longer.

“I'm glad that the verdict is finally in on Rod Blagojevich. However, this closes only one chapter of Democrat corruption in Illinois. Illinois Democratic politicians who now try everything they can to hide their past support of Rod Blagojevich should look themselves in the mirror and remind themselves that little has changed since the day Blagojevich was arrested,” Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady said in a prepared statement. Republicans will likely try to make Illinois Democrats, including President Barack Obama and anyone else who said something positive in the past about the now-convicted felon, live down the legacy of Blagojevich in the next few election cycles.

However, many Democrats have been distancing themselves from the former governor for years, so time will tell whetherf Blagojevich’s conviction will become effective campaign fodder.

"Once again, the former governor's pattern of dishonesty has been confirmed. I thank the jury for its public service. Just as it was sad but necessary for the Senate to remove him from office, today is another sad event for Illinois. I would hope that this verdict would further allow us as a state to move on and ahead,” Senate President John Cullerton said in a written response to the verdict.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno called on Illinois lawmakers to approve more reforms. In the wake of Blagojevich’s arrest, the General Assembly approved a campaign finance reform law that for the first time in Illinois caps the contributions politicians can accept. Lawmakers also enacted new ethics rules for state employees, as well as a new process for the way the state enters into contracts with vendors. However, Republicans have pushed for laws to lower campaign contribution caps and limit party contributions, with no gains over the last few years.

“It was clear that Rod Blagojevich conspired to use the governor's office for personal gain. He inflicted real, permanent damage on the state during his six years in office. Unfortunately, future generations will be paying for his administration for years to come,” Radogno said in a prepared statement. “I am as anxious as everyone to now put this sordid chapter in our state’s history behind us. But some will want to use this verdict to close the door on reform. Instead, it is our job as elected officials to make sure the public has confidence in the integrity of their government. We all have a responsibility to send a clear signal that Illinoisans do not need to tolerate even the appearance of conflicts of interest by elected officials.”

Gov. Pat Quinn agreed. “This is a serious day for our state,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference. He said Blagojevich’s conviction, along with the previous conviction of former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges, “underlines … for every person in Illinois the importance of reforming our government on a daily basis from top to bottom.”

He called for lawmakers to revisit several additional ethics provisions. Quinn said legislators should consider allowing open primaries in the state, imposing a mandatory “conflict of interest” requirement on themselves and extending the recall power to all elected offices. Quinn pushed a constitutional amendment approved last November, which allows Illinois voters to recall governors. “I also think that looking at campaign finance again is something worth trying,” he said.

Quinn renewed a call to allow citizens to present ethics laws through a voter initiative system. He tried to tack such a provision onto a bill through an amendatory veto last year, but lawmakers did not take up the veto for a vote. Experts said that the plan would likely not fit into the narrow voter initiative requirements in the state’s Constitution. This time, Quinn is calling for a constitutional amendment. “There’s a lot to be done. I’m sure there are many people with many ideas,” he said.

Quinn said he did not feel the need to apologize for supporting his former running mate in the past, saying Blagojevich had “deceived” him and others. “I have nothing to apologize for because I know I do things in an honest way.”

He said it is regrettable that two of his predecessors, Blagojevich and Ryan, may soon be behind bars. “I’m very sorry that happened to [the Blagojevich] family, but you have to be accountable for your deeds.”

Friday, June 24, 2011

Quinn signs congressional map

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Democratic drawn map of congressional districts today as Republicans decried the process as a blatant attempt to erase the gains they made in last year’s election.

“The people of Illinois provided input at public hearings for both the congressional and state legislative maps. I have carefully reviewed the congressional redistricting map. This map is fair, maintains competitiveness within congressional districts, and protects the voting rights of minority communities,” Quinn said in a prepared statement.

Republicans gained  control over the state’s congressional delegation last November. But some of the newly elected Republican U.S. representatives may not keep their jobs for long. “Governor Quinn has lost all claims to the label reformer. This bill is a crass, partisan political move to silence the voices of Illinoisans, who last November made it very clear that they wanted to fire [former House Majority Leader] Nancy Pelosi by electing a majority Republican congressional delegation from the home state of President Obama,” Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady said in a prepared statement.

John Jackson, visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said it comes as no surprise that Republicans on the state and national level are loudly complaining about Illinois’ map because state Democrats were able to draw it with no input from the minority party. “Illinois’ one of the few states where the Democrats are totally in charge,” Jackson said. “As far as aim toward brand new Republicans [in Congress,] it is certainly that, and that is fairly clear and expected.”

Jackson said that despite the results of the last Illinois congressional elections, the state’s demographics lean Democratic. “It was driven by a very, very low turnout. A very, very different electorate [came to the polls last year than those] that voted in 2008 in an election with a much larger turnout.”

He added: “Illinois ought to be competitive but leaning somewhat toward the Democrats. … I don’t see a lot of grounds in getting bent out of shape that the Democrats might come out with a slight advantage when it’s all said and done.”

Chris Mooney, a political studies professor with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said Democrats used their power to draw the districts in a way that will benefit their party. However, both Jackson and Mooney agreed that the previous map, which was drawn to protect incumbents of both parties, had more sprawling and oddly shaped districts. “They did use the map to their advantage in some creative ways. But it’s actually less gerrymandered than the last one,” Mooney said.

Mooney said the redistricting process is highly partisan, and if one party is left out of the process because of the power balance of state government, it can be assumed that its members will complain and likely sue in an attempt to have the map tossed out by a court. “Yes, it is gerrymandered, but that’s just the way the game is played. … [Republicans are] basically just saying that in preparation for a lawsuit,” Mooney said. “They’ll sue, and that’s always what happens.”

And Republicans seem to have every intention of fighting the maps in court. “I hope that the courts will overturn these maps as an unfair representation of the citizens of Illinois,” Brady said.

Jackson and Mooney disagree over whether or not Illinois’ map could help turn the tide for Democrats in the U.S. House. Jackson said Republicans will likely hold onto the control they gained last year, in part because so many other state governments that have also recently drafted new congressional maps came under Republican control last year. The shifts of seats because of populations changes from the Midwest and Northeast to the West and South will also likely help Republicans. Illinois lost one of the 12 seats that will be reassigned based on new census data. “The Republicans have the clear advantage nationwide because they control so much more of the total process.” Jackson called elections that come before the once-every-10-years remap process “the one election that then echoes for a decade.”

Mooney said the House has bounced back and forth between parties in recent years, and the election is too far away to predict. “Because the balance has been so close … if they can win a couple more [seats] — boom.” Mooney added that the state of the economy next spring will probably be the biggest factor in the outcomes of the 2012 election.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

State says couples in civil unions
can't file joint Illinois tax returns

By Jamey Dunn

Less than a month after civil unions became available in Illinois, one state agency says it cannot allow for a benefit that lawmakers promised would come along with the partnerships.

The Illinois Department of Revenue says it will not allow couples in civil unions to file joint state income tax returns because Illinois residents must file the state return the same way they file their federal one, and the federal government does not recognize civil unions. Married couples who file separate federal returns must file their state taxes separately. However, married couples not required to file a federal return can file a joint Illinois return. An explanation of the policy on the department’s website cites the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which President Barack Obama’s administration has said it will no longer defend against legal challenges.

Chicago Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, who sponsored legislation that legalized civil unions in the state, said the Department of Revenue’s decision came as a surprise. He says lawmakers intended for couples entering into civil unions to be afforded all the same rights and obligations that the state gives to married people, including filing a tax return together. “On the face of it, it seems to contradict the intentions of the legislature. … The lawmakers in debates in discussion of this bill explicitly said it [would allow couples to file joint state tax returns,]” said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of the advocacy group Equality Illinois.

“I think they’re taking the easy way out,” said Jill Metz, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois' board of directors. “Other states have disagreed with their position that they have to stay in line with the federal tax policy.” Other states that have civil unions or domestic partnerships, such as California and New Jersey, do allow couples to file joint state returns. Metz said in such states, couples create a joint federal return that they do not file, but they use the joint income number calculation to plug into their state returns. The Illinois Department of Revenue maintains that there isn’t a monetary benefit to filing as a couple on the state level. “Illinois has flat tax, and so whether you are single or married, you will pay the same amount of tax,” said Sue Hofer, a department spokeswoman.

“I don’t know how the state of Illinois could possible know all the circumstances of people’s lives to know whether there is or isn’t a benefit to filing a joint state tax return,”Metz said. Anthony Madonia, an adjunct professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said there are some potential benefits to filing state taxes as a couple. “There’s no ladder to climb as far as rates go. … I guess the difference is, if one of the members of the civil union is not working, then their exemption is wasted.” He said if someone did not have income, they could apply their personal tax exemption, as well as other potential exemptions, to their partner’s income.

“Prior to this, we were planning on filing joint returns for clients who are in civil unions,” said Madonia, His Chicago-based firm, Anthony J. Madonia & Associates, focuses on tax and business law. “We thought that there would be a joint return. We just did.”

Metz said many people are willing to take an extra step to calculate their combined income as if they were filing a federal return, so they can put the number on their state forms and file as a couple, regardless of the benefits. “It’s about the recognition. It’s about the inclusiveness. It’s about the respect,” she said.

Harris said that the department’s argument illustrates the need to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act. He said until the federal government recognizes the unions of same-sex couples, legal disputes such as this one will continue to pop up across the country. “This just shows why we still have such a long way to go in terms of marriage equality in this country.”

Harris said he hopes the issue can be resolved, but he said it might take a lawsuit against the state from a couple in a civil union. “I look forward to somebody filing it.”

Cherkasov and Metz both say their organizations are looking into ways the department could allow couples to file together. Metz called on the department to rethink its policy to avoid lawsuits. “They could make the right decision and keep the promise that is in that civil unions bill. … I think somebody in the Illinois Department of Revenue needs to take a second look.”

Cherkasov said there is still time to ensure that couples in civil unions can file their first joint state tax returns next year. “It’s alarming that this is their opinion. … But at the same time, the 2011 tax returns for the state of Illinois have not been printed yet.”

 An analysis of the department's decision from John Marshall Law School assistant professor Anthony Niedwiecki is available here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Construction funds approved as lawmakers end one-day session

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers voted today to ensure that construction projects continue as planned throughout the state, but one legislative leader says budget work is not complete.

Senate Bill 2414, (House Amendment 2), which contains the construction spending, passed through both chambers in a matter of hours and was clearly the priority of the one-day summer session. Senate Democrats agreed to back off the $430 million of spending for education and human services that they tacked on to the capital funding, causing gridlock over its approval. But Senate President John Cullerton said that debate on the budget isn’t over.

“There’s a number of problems with the House budget that the House is aware of, that we’re aware of, where there are under-appropriations of things that need to be appropriated,” Cullerton said. He said the House approved less money in areas such as state aid for schools and Medicaid without making other needed tweaks such as rate changes. So the state will keep doling out the money as if the cuts have not been made, and the funds will not last all fiscal year, he believes. “What will happen is, they’ll get paid the same amount of money that they would normally get paid because the formula didn’t get changed. And then sometime late in the fiscal year … they would then run out of money,” Cullerton said.

He said the Senate would likely consider additional funding in the fall veto session, or more likely in January, when Democrats could approve it with a simple majority and no Republican votes. “We’ll have half a year of income, and we’ll see what the income is. And see how much of the old bills we’ve paid down to make an evaluation then as to what we should do.”

Gov. Pat Quinn called on lawmakers to approve the spending for construction without any additional operational funding. Quinn has said he supports more spending on education and human services but said that he did not want to jeopardize the job-creating capital construction bill. “The General Assembly took action today to keep the state’s biggest economic recovery program going, ensuring that thousands of workers stay on the job. Today’s session was about jobs and capital, and I thank the legislative leaders and members of the General Assembly for passing a 12-month capital appropriations bill, as I had asked of them,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “A capital construction program was one of the first priorities of my administration, and it is a key component of my plan to bring jobs and economic recovery to Illinois. The plan is Illinois’ first capital program in more than a decade, and it is expected to create more than 439,000 jobs over six years.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the House budget does not need fixing. “What I’ve heard about over the last few weeks is — from a variety of angles — that our budget in the House either didn’t spend enough, didn’t cut enough, cut too much [and] was not a good budget.”

He said a bipartisan effort in his chamber produced a budget that accounts for making the state’s pension payments, does not spend more than the state will bring in next fiscal year and will probably result in extra revenue that can be used to pay some of the state’s overdue bills. “It’s a pretty good budget. Is it a perfect budget? No. Is it a budget that could have had more reforms? Yes. Perhaps more cuts? Yes. But it’s a very good starting point,” Cross said on the House floor. “If we continue down this road in the years to come, we can climb out of this hole. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s going to continue to require us to work together.”

Cross took a swipe at his Republican counterparts in the Senate, many of whom have said the approved budget does not have enough cuts. He joined the chorus of Senate Democrats who have chided the Republicans in that chamber for refusing to draft their proposed cuts into legislation. “I would invite them to belly up to the bar and in real bill form put their cuts on the table. You can talk in theory all you want. You can make suggestions, you can have menus, but when it comes down to the real deal and sitting at the table and making cuts, this chamber did it. And it wasn’t easy.” He called on House members not to back away from their budget plan.

However, Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, a budget point man for his party in the Senate, disagrees. “The budget that they voted for and passed has issues. It isn’t a good budget. We had an alternative that we thought was a better budget, but that’s the budget that the majority chose to pass.”

Murphy said the House budget did not cut enough and that changes to areas such as the school funding formula needed to be made to avoid trouble down the road.

“If you’re serious about this tax increase being temporary, if you want to pay your bills without borrowing, you’re going to have to cut spending significantly. You’re going to have to reform programs like the Senate president’s talking about — from pensions to Medicaid, educational formulas all down the line — no sacred cows. There has been an insufficient willingness and appetite to do that. And until we do, you’re going to have budget problems,” Murphy said. He said one good that came of today’s session was a plan to divert money from the state’s “rainy day” fund to be used to make Medicaid payments and capture up to $100 million in federal matching funds. Once the money comes in from the feds, the “rainy day” dollars will go back into the fund.

“It didn’t involve the selling of any bonds or taking on more state and taxpayer debt,” Murphy said. “It confirms once again that we didn’t need to borrow nearly $9 billion to get the federal match.” Quinn had pitched several borrowing plans that would help the state get federal matching dollars. Murphy is referring to what Quinn calls a debt-restructuring plan to pay down all of the state’s backlog of overdue bills, not just Medicaid bills.

Then Senate also approved a plan today to extend reductions to the per diem payments lawmakers get for session days, as well as a cut to their travel reimbursement rates. If Quinn signs the bill, lawmakers would have to take 12 furlough days next fiscal year and forgo a cost-of-living salary increase.

The Senate did not take a vote on Senate Bill 1556, which would exclude from union membership state workers who are managers or who do work that primarily deals with policy issues. Cullerton said there was not enough support to pass the bill and that some members think that certain parts of it may need rewriting. The Senate also failed to act on the appointments of Gary Chico, former head of Chicago Public Schools and Quinn’s choice to chair the Illinois State Board of Education, and former Canton Democratic Rep. Michael Smith’s appointment to the Educational Labor Relations Board. Senate Republicans said they want Chico to appear before the appointments committee, and they voiced concern over whether Smith met all the legal requirements for the job.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lawmakers likely won't be back for long

By Jamey Dunn

As lawmakers return to the Statehouse tomorrow, approving funding for capital construction is the top priority but not the only issue up for consideration.

“The No. 1 thing that we have to do on Wednesday is make sure our building program in Illinois continues,” Gov. Pat Quinn told reporters this week.

Fiscal Year 2012 funding for the state’s capital construction plan became a bargaining chip after Senate Democrats attached about $430 million in spending to the bill in the closing days of the regular spring session in an attempt to push the House to tack more funding onto its approved budget. Once Senate Democrats realized they stood alone — after Quinn sided with Republicans in calling for a 12-month “clean” capital bill with no added appropriations — Senate President John Cullerton backed away from the added spending last week.

“We laid out what the realities are. We have to continue to build and construct important buildings and roads and bridges and water systems and rail systems in Illinois. … We can’t have any delays, and I think all the members of the legislature agree with that,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference. “I look forward to being there on Wednesday in Springfield, and we’ll get the final reauthorization of this public works plan that puts people to work.”

Cullerton warned that the budget has “structural deficiencies” that will become evident as the fiscal year, which begins July 1, unfolds. Quinn said that while lawmakers are back in session, they will review budget options that could be revisited in the fall veto session. But after calling for about $1 billion more in spending than the House’s budget plan, Quinn now says that spending cannot exceed the chamber’s self-imposed cap. “I think that the amount of money, $33.2 billion, which [is] lot of money, that’s the limit. That’s all that the budget’s going to permit in this fiscal year. What we can do within that limit though, is make sure that we invest in education and health care, public safety, these are the core priorities.”

However,  he has not said that he will sign off on the approved budget plan itself. He said that shifts in the budget might be needed to direct money toward priorities such as early childhood education and violence prevention programs.Quinn said he could use his line item or reduction veto to alter the budge,t but he would need the backing of three-fifths of the legislature to approve increased funding in any area. He added that any potential spending must be “within the limit.”
Quinn says all four legislative leaders have agreed to put votes on the construction spending tomorrow. Leadership in both chambers tentatively plan to hold session for one day. “We are confident that a capital bill will pass both chambers that will allow our state to continue with the historic construction bill we passed a couple of years ago. This action, with the governor’s signature, will keep tens of thousands of people working and at the same time improving our infrastructure,” Sara Wojcicki, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Tom Cross, said in a prepared statement.

“The capital bill’s the big issue [for Wednesday,]” said John Patterson, a spokesperson for Cullerton. Patterson said the Senate also plans to vote on a plan to forgo cost-of-living wage increases for legislators, as well continuing a previous reduction in the per diem costs they are paid for session days and travel costs. The House has already approved the bill, which also calls for lawmakers to take 12 furlough days next fiscal year.
The Senate Executive Appointments Committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow morning, and Quinn’s choice to chair the Illinois State Board of Education, Gary Chico, former head of Chicago Public Schools, is on the docket. Former Canton Democratic Rep. Michael Smith’s appointment to the Educational Labor Relations Board is also on the schedule.

Patterson said Senate Democrats would discuss Senate Bill 1556, which the House approved on the last day of regular scheduled session in May. The measure would bar state workers who primarily handle policy decisions or work as managers from joining a union.

Quinn’s administration is backing the controversial bill— a version of which passed in the House in January. The Senate did not vote on the legislation. “Our state has more [workers] belonging to a union than any other state in the union. I believe in the right to collectively bargain, but you also have to have some people in management,” Quinn said.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Budget deal reached to keep construction going

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers have reached a deal in an impasse over spending that threatened to stall construction projects throughout Illinois.

Last month, in the closing days of the legislative session, the Senate approved the House’s budget proposal, which was based on a revenue estimate for Fiscal Year 2012 that was about $1 billion less than the Senate’s projection. However, Senate Democrats tacked on additional spending, primarily for human services and education, to the FY 2012 spending bill for the capital plan. The House did not vote on the bill, and Gov. Pat Quinn warned that lawmakers must approve the construction spending or projects could begin to shut down as early as tomorrow. Lawmakers are scheduled to hold legislative session to take up the issue next Wednesday. FY 2012 begins July 1.

Senate Democrats have backed off the extra funding for now. "The state's construction program should continue uninterrupted. The Senate intends to return to the Capitol on Wednesday to fully fund the construction program for the full 12-month period,” Senate President John Cullerton said in a prepared statement. 

However, they maintain that the budget is incomplete and say something will have to be done down the road, presumable during the fall veto session. “There are still major structural deficiencies in the House budget that will become clear in the months ahead. I look forward to having the opportunity to address issues such as the underfunding of education and social service commitments,” Cullerton said.

While the $430 million in spending that some Senate Democrats want is not much when put up against the House’s overall $33.2 billion plan, those in human services and education say it would have gone a long way. Meanwhile, Republicans say no amount of money is worth tying up job-creating construction projects in a political battle and any more spending is irresponsible. “It’s unconscionable to put thousands of jobs and projects in jeopardy over a political issue,” said Patty Schuh, spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. Quinn also called for lawmakers to approve a “clean” capital spending bill with no additional appropriations.

“It’s a very delicate balance I think that we have to achieve. Just like people do at home and at work, when you make a decision about what are the most priority items to fund when you are looking at difficult times,” said Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, who sponsored the additional spending. Kotowski said the spending would have restored aid to some of the most vulnerable residents of the state. He said that some of the cuts in the House budget could open the state up for legal challenges because it is required by law to fund certain programs. Adding that some of the House cuts “not only present us with legal problems federally, [they’re] also morally unconscionable.”

Don Moss, coordinator for the Illinois Human Services Coalition, broke down what was at stake for human services:
  • $1.2 million for epilepsy programs.
  • $19.9 for state operated mental health facilities.
  • $2.9 in grants for community care for mental health patients.
  • $4.2 million for children’s mental health in-home care.
  • $1.5 for addiction treatment.
Additional funding would have gone to Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) grants for college students, home-delivered meals for the elderly and programs for children in foster care. “This isn’t an example of waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement. This is an example of basic needs,” Kotowski said of the spending. He added that letters have already gone out to college students promising their MAP grant funding.

The bulk of the restoration, $212 million, would have gone to fully fund general state aid to K-12 schools, which is paid on a per pupil basis. “[The cut in the House budget] will have the greatest impact on the least wealthy districts as far as property tax base and districts that have the highest concentration on low-income students,” Larry Joseph, director of budget and tax policy initiative for Voices for Illinois Children, said of the potential cut. “It won’t be an impact that is spread evenly across school districts and among students.” He said if the House's cut is approved by Quinn as is, general state aid would be the lowest it has been since 2007. Joseph said the general state aid reduction has gotten the most attention. “But it’s not the only thing, and it’s important to understand that.”

He said if Quinn signs the approved budget, grants for early childhood education will be slashed by $17 million, leaving 4,000 children without preschool. He added that the grants have been cut in recent years, leaving an estimated 8,000 children without preschool. He cited a recent study commissioned by child advocacy groups Voices for Illinois Children and The Ounce of Prevention Fund, from the research arm of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit health and human services organization. The report concluded that investments in early childhood education are cost-effective and save the state spending in other areas, such as corrections and social services. “At the very time that this comes out that the investment is well worth it … we’re making these cuts in preschool. It doesn’t make sense," he said. The day after regular session adjourned, Quinn chastised lawmakers for cutting early childhood programs as well as MAP grants.

Joseph said some smaller programs, such as a new teacher mentoring program that would be eliminated, will join other less costly programs, such as summer offerings for struggling students, that have been eliminated in recent years. “These are relative small programs, but obviously, it has a big impact if you eliminate it because whatever it is it was doing it is not doing at all anymore.”

Joseph said while the additional spending may not seem like much compared with the entire budget, “for education and human services both, there’s a lot at stake.”

Schuh said when it comes to the budget, Republicans are willing to negotiate, but the capital bill should not come into play. Republicans backed a $5 billion to $6 billion spending cut from Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget plan to ensure that the recent income tax increase remains temporary, as it is written. The House budget represents a less than $3 billion reduction from the governor’s proposal. Senate Democrats have argued that shifts could be made to accommodate their requests without increasing the total spending for FY 2012.

However, Schuh called such plans “smokescreen” and said any additional funds that are found should go to pay down the state’s billions of dollars in late bills. Republican votes will be needed to approve any new legislation for the rest of this calendar year. It appears that on this issue, Republicans used their newfound leverage to get what they wanted. Before the Senate Democrats conceded today, Schuh said: “It’s simply not in the cards. It’s irresponsible. … We are absolutely dug in. It’s not going to happen.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Plans for session, but no agreement

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers will return to the Statehouse next week in hopes of hashing out a plan to keep the state’s capital construction projects rolling. However, some Democrats still want to see additional spending added to the budget approved last month.

Senate Democrats tacked on to the House's budget $430 million in spending, which would go primarily to fund social services and education, by tying it to the funding for construction projects for the next fiscal year. The House did not take up the Senate’s changes to the bill, and Gov. Pat Quinn warned that projects could start grinding to a halt as early as Friday if the funding is not approved. 

Leaders of both legislative chambers agreed to call members back next Wednesday, so they say there will be no need to call a costlier special session. Lawmakers could also take up other legislation and would not be restricted by the special session requirement that they stick to the topic they were called back to address.

However, after a meeting today among the four legislative leaders and the governor, a compromise to address budget issues does not appear close at hand. “At this point [House] Speaker [Michael Madigan] remains willing and anxious to work cooperatively with the governor and the Senate,” said Steve Brown, Madigan's spokesman. “I don’t think there are any specifics from our side that have come out as a result of the meeting today.”

Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, who led one of the Senate’s two budgeting committees, said before today’s meeting that the leaders would discuss approving construction spending for six months with the understanding that other budget issues would be up for consideration when the capital spending ran out. Don Moss, coordinator for the Illinois Human Services Coalition, said he would support such a plan because he believes lawmakers will likely discover as they begin to see revenue come in next fiscal year that the House estimate the budget was based on was low. “My feeling is that the House underestimated the potential revenue for the new fiscal year,” Moss said. “Once these cuts go into place, it’s difficult to get them back, so whatever works.”

It appears that Senate President John Cullerton floated the idea, only to have it shot down. “The Senate president went into today's meeting with an alternative to address all the leaders' concerns and ensure that the construction program continues for the next six months. That option was rejected. He intends to consult with his members to find consensus on how Senate Democrats plan to proceed,” said John Patterson, a spokesman for Cullerton.

A Quinn spokeswoman told reporters after the meeting in Chicago that the governor wants lawmakers to approve a “clean” capital bill with no additonal spending. She said Quinn wants to address the budget again when lawmakers return for veto session in the fall. Quinn called the budget “incomplete” the day after lawmakers adjourned the spring session, saying education was not properly funded. A written statement issued by the governor’s office said: “In a meeting today with the legislative leaders, the governor pushed for a 12-month capital appropriations bill with no conditions. He emphasized that without agreement on a capital bill, we will lose 52,000 jobs and irreparably damage our economic recovery. The governor proposed to have a sincere conversation with the legislative leaders in the fall to discuss reallocation of funding within the $33.2 billion state budget, based on the Senate Democrats' priorities. The legislative leaders will present these proposals to their respective caucuses, and the governor has asked them to come to agreement before Friday.”

Kotowski said there are options to add in the $430 million in spending without breaking the House’s revenue estimates. One example he gave was Senate proposals, not yet approved by the House, that would cut government operations, such as the budgets for constitutional officers. He says the cuts would represent $74 million that could be spent elsewhere. “We could hit that number. … We could get the money that we need without increasing spending whatsoever,” Kotowski said. “I would hope to see more willingness on the House side to see more cuts … in order to fund these people who don’t have a voice in government.”
According to Larry Joseph, director of budget and tax policy initiative for Voices for Illinois Children, the budget implementation bill did not include $297 million in transfers from the General Revenue fund to other state funds that the House originally planned for. “That constitutes a spending cut,” he said.

Joseph added that the process of automatically transferring money to funds needs more transparency because some funds, such as the Local Government Distributive Fund — which will not see a reduction in the approved budget — do not have other revenue sources, but other funds get money elsewhere and may not need as much from the operating budget. “The whole area of statutory transfers is very murky,” Joseph said. “A lot of them are just never scrutinized. They’re on automatic pilot.”

Whatever lawmakers decide to do in the end, be it passing capital spending for six month or a year with no additional General Revenue Fund spending, restoring some amount of the proposed spending from Senate Democrats possibly by shifting around money to fund some of the costs, or another as-of yet-unforeseen solution, Republicans will have a seat at the table because the General Assembly has exceeded the May 31 deadline to pass the budget with a simple majority. Anything passed now will require a three-fifths majority and Republican votes in both chambers. Inquiries to both Republican leaders’ spokespersons for comment were not returned.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ag industry pushes for Quinn to sign gaming bill

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois agricultural groups are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to sign the massive gaming expansion plan approved by the General Assembly, but Quinn does not have the option to do anything with the bill yet.

“The provisions in Senate Bill 744 are going to go a long way in the future of agriculture in Illinois,” said Margaret Vaughn, government affairs director for the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs.

The measure calls for five new casinos in the state, including one owned by the city of Chicago. It would also allow horse-racing tracks, including the state fairgrounds in Springfield, to install slot machines and existing casinos to expand the number of gambling positions at their facilities. Opposition to the bill includes owners of existing casinos who say that gaming market is oversaturated in Illinois and, that expansion will take away their existing revenues, as well as groups who say that expansion will only drive up gambling addiction and social services costs to the state associated with gambling.

Vaughn said the plan would mean about $25 million in annual funding for agricultural, historic and conservation programs in the state, including:
  • $5 million for county fairs.
  • $10 million in dedicated funds for soil and water conservation districts. The money would replace general revenue funding for the districts.
  • $4 million for the University of Illinois Extension program.
  • $1 million for a forestry assistance program.
  • $2.5 million for historic sites.
  • $2.5 for the Parks and Conservation Fund.
  • $100,000 for equine research at state universities.
The money for county fairs is used to reimburse the fairs for prizes they give out for livestock and agricultural exhibits and contests. “Any of the money that the county fairs receives from the state … it’s not going to entertainment or concessions. It’s going right back into the community to encourage the youth to continue into agricultural careers,” Vaughn said.

The Extension program, which in the 1980s had an office in all of Illinois’ 102 counties, recently went through a cost-saving consolidation that closed down over half of it’s 76 offices. The program is best known for administering the 4-H youth agricultural club but also offers conservation, nutrition, gardening and life-skills education programs. Soil and water conservation districts saw more than a 40 percent cut in state funds for the current fiscal year.

Sheryl King, director of the Equine Sciences program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said that the horse racing industry in Illinois has suffered as other states have allowed slots at horse racing tracks. She said the money brought in by the slots has allowed races in other states to offer larger purses to winners, and Illinois just cannot compete.

“Part of this bill is going to reinvigorate the horse industry in the sate of Illinois,” King said referring to the provision that would allow slot machines at horse racing tacks. “Some of you may not know that Illinois used to be a pre-eminent racing state. It has lost that pre-eminence over the past decade.”

These representatives of the state’s agriculture community trying to encourage Quinn to approve the gaming bill as is, but the governor can’t do anything with the legislation yet. After the bill passed in his chamber, Senate President John Cullerton pulled a procedural move to stall sending the bill to Quinn’s desk.

John Patterson, a Cullerton spokesman, said that the Senate president made the move so that he can continue negations with Quinn about the bill, as well as better understand the governor’s intentions.

Quinn has not given a clear indication about what he will do once he gets the bill. He supports a casino in Chicago. But after SB 744 passed, he said, “I think any person with common sense looking at that bill would say it’s excessive.”

Quinn has also said he does not approve of allowing slots at the state fairgrounds, calling the fairgrounds a “family place.” Quinn could veto the bill outright, sign it as is or use an amendatory veto to try and cut out the parts he does not like.

Vaughn said of the fairgrounds: “It’s a big beautiful facility. And they’re not really utilized the other 50 weeks of the year. There are events going on but [not] compared to what they are capable of.”

Chris Boyster, Sangamon County Board member from Springfield, said slots at the fairgrounds would give the Springfield area an economic boost. He added that the fairgrounds need the money the slots could bring in for improvements. “We shouldn’t have to wait to a catastrophic electrical failure at the fairgrounds to fix the fairgrounds.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Quinn signs education reforms

By Jamey Dunn

Seniority will play less of a role in the hiring and firing practices of schools, and teachers will face new requirements to achieve tenure under education reform legislation signed into law today by Gov. Pat Quinn.

“It’s important that we have excellent teachers. That’s the key to getting excellent students. And so we must have education reforms that help us deliver education that’s second to none,” Quinn said at a Maywood press conference. “The most powerful force for equal opportunity for all the boys and girls of our state is a good education.”

Under the new law, teachers have to receive positive evaluations for three years to receive tenure. Teachers who earn “excellent” reviews in each of their first three years will also earn tenure. Teachers with tenure who receive two unsatisfactory reviews within a seven-year period could have their teaching licenses reviewed by the state superintendent and be required to complete professional development geared toward improving their performance or face having their licenses revoked. The measure also makes it easier for districts to fire underperforming teachers.

As part of Illinois’ failed bid for Race to The Top, a competitive federal education grant program, the General Assembly passed a law that requires school districts to revamp the evaluations they use to assess teachers’ work. Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student performance, under the new system that starts to kick in at different times for different schools based on size and student performance level. Most schools must switch to the new evaluations by 2016. Under the bill signed today, school districts and teachers' unions could agree to move up the implementation date of the new system to as early as 2013. The new tenure requirements, as well as the consequences for unsatisfactory performance ratings that are part of the education reform package will go into effect once schools switch to the new evaluation system. Other aspects of the reform go into effect immediately.

Layoffs will no longer be decided on a “last-in-first-out” basis, but instead be determined by qualifications and job performance. Seniority will only be used as a “tie-breaker.” Administrators will be free to hire any candidate for new positions instead of giving preference to teachers transferring within the district.

School board members elected after today will be required to receive training approved by the State Board of Education. Sponsor Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, said the law will have a direct impact on the 2 million children in the state’s public schools, as well as the more than 132,000 teachers working at those institutions statewide. “A whole lot's been said about Senate Bill 7. It’s been named landmark, historic, essential tools and a national model. I agree with all of those adjectives.”

New Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed for the passage of the bill. The legislation could allow him to extend the school day in Chicago, something he has called for in the past. "This legislation will help ensure that Chicago has the tools we need to give our children the education they deserve," Emanuel said in a written statement. "By giving students a longer school day and improving the performance standards for teachers, today we take a major step towards ensuring that every child, in every Chicago neighborhood, has access to a world-class education."

Monique Davis, who cast the lone vote against the legislation in the House said aspects of the bill that apply only to Chicago Public Schools, such as a greater threshold for striking that requires the support of a supermajority of voting union members, were discriminatory. “The intentions are good, but the results will not change a thing. I’m not going to be a union buster,” the former teacher and administrator said during floor debate. Unions outside of Chicago will need the support of half of union members to strike. The measure lengthens negotiations required before a strike and would force both sides to release their demands to the public if an impasse is reached.

Negotiations for the reform package started last year and brought together a multitude of interests, including administrators, teachers unions, business groups, parent organizations and reform groups. Out-of-state group Stand for Children emerged as a key player. The organization donated more than $500,000 to Illinois legislative candidates during the last election cycle, giving the majority of the money to Democrats. “There were rumors that this group came into Illinois—Stand for Children. And they’re very wealthy, and they have a lot of money, and they’re going to make us move. So unlike the truth. We were already in the midst of education reform,” said Lightford when the Senate approved a version of the bill, noting the recent reforms the legislature passed as part of the state’s bid for the federal Race to the Top grant program. Lightford said after the state’s loss in the competitive grant program, she decided to take on the goal of creating an education reform package by involving all stakeholders in a process that she called a “big comeback” for the state. “Education, a good education, is a basic civil right,” Lightford said at today’s bill signing.

Illinois’ new law, as well as the collaborative process that created it, has drawn some national attention. ”While some states are engaging in noisy and unproductive battles around education reform, Illinois is showing what can happen when adults work through their differences together,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a written statement. ”Through this very impressive collaboration of school management, teacher unions, education reform advocates, legislators and the governor, Illinois has created a powerful framework to strengthen the teaching profession and advance student learning in Illinois. This is an example that I hope states across the country will follow.”

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Public bodies spent millions lobbying state government

By Jamey Dunn

Public bodies paid contract lobbyists millions over the last fiscal year to try an ensure that their interests were represented at the Illinois Statehouse, according to a report released today by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The ICPR’s annual study found that between July1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, public bodies, including local governments, transit boards, school boards, state universities and community colleges, paid about $7.4 million to firms to lobby state policy makers. That total does not include in-house lobbying efforts conducted by employees of these entities.

“We found a slight increase in payments for contracts in effect the last two years, but a large increase in the overall number of contracts, so that total spending has climbed by over $850,000,” said David Morrison, deputy director of the ICPR. “The information gathered in this survey gives the public a better picture of how public dollars are used to monitor and lobby state government, but state lobbying regulations reveal next to nothing about much larger lobbying budgets of corporations, unions and others with lobbyists in Springfield."

Morrison said that the ICPR works to patch together a list of public bodies that hired lobbyists, using previous studies, lobbying information published by the secretary of state's office and news reports. The group then sends out Freedom of Information Act requests to all those entities, as well as to large municipalities and state universities and community colleges. He said there is a distinct possibility that some public bodies that hired lobbyists were left out of the requests. “There are 7,000 taxing bodies in the state,” Morrison said. “I think we got the big ones.” The group sent out about 300 FOIA requests in all and got about 141 responses.

The most money was spent by Chicago-area transportation agencies: the Regional Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra. Combined, they spent more than $1 million on outside lobbying — representing more than 13 percent of all spending, the report found. The Chicago Transit Authority was the biggest spender for the third year in a row, paying more than $370,000 to four lobbying firms during the last fiscal year.

Municipal governments made up more than half of respondents that hired lobbyists. The city of Metropolis spent the most at $143,7265. The village of University Park spent $135,000, the village of Bellwood spent $106,000, the city of Aurora spent $91,000 and the city of Cicero spent $88,000.

Peter Tsiolis, chief of staff for the village of Bellwood, said that municipality's spending was under a previous administration. He said a plan to create an underpass beneath a dangerous railroad intersection, which would decrease both traffic and rail congestion, and a project to combat flooding were likely the two biggest issues for which the village sought lobbying help.

However, he said the village government has shifted toward doing its own lobbying instead of hiring outside firms. “That [spending] number will be drastically decreased [in future reports],” Tsiolis said. He said he and Mayor Frank Pasquale have been doing some of the work, making trips to Springfield and phone calls to legislators. He said that in general terms, he thinks a call from a mayor can often be more effective than one from a contract lobbyists. “We’ve decided to take a more proactive internal approach to do this.”

Morrison said he hopes Illinoisans will take the information and, knowing their own community issues, use it to connect the dots and more fully understand what their local governments are doing.

Sen. Susan Garrett backed legislation during the spring session that would force public entities to disclose more of their business with lobbyists. Often, lobbyist are lawyers, as well. In some cases, public bodies refuse to release information about working with such lobbyists, citing attorney-client privilege. “My belief, and I think generally people would agree, that we should be able to see specifically how our taxpayer dollars are being spent on these lobbying efforts,” said Garrett, a Democrat from Lake Forest. She said the legislation grew out of an attempt she made to get lobbying information from Metra that was denied on such grounds. Morrison said the ICPR has had experiences similar to Garrett's when seeking information for its reports. He agreed that the loophole should be closed. “Lobbying is not lawyering.”

Garrett said citizens with whom she discusses the issue are upset, but she says there is little they can do about it. “If I fought it and couldn’t win no matter what I did, I don’t see how anyone could,” Garrett’s bill failed to gain traction this session, but she said she hopes to push it again with the backing of government watchdog groups.

Morrison said the overall point of the survey is not just to draw attention to public entities' lobbying habits but to point out all the lobbying for private entities, the details of which are not readily available to the public. “Our interest in this is getting a better sense of what lobbyists are doing, and we cannot do that for private entities.”

He said using the information from public entities, which can be attained through FOIA requests, sets up a framework for disclosure that could be required at the state level for private clients lobbying lawmakers. “It’s hard to prove a negative, but that’s kind of what we’re trying to do with this,” Morrison said. “We're trying to model what would happen if it worked, and here’s a demonstration project.”

Monday, June 06, 2011

Quinn calls for special session to keep projects rolling

By Jamey Dunn

Calling for a special legislative session, Gov. Pat Quinn said today that lawmakers must approve spending for capital projects or construction could begin to shut down as early as next week.

“[The capital bill] was the largest investment in the history of Illinois in our roads, our highways, our bridges, our schools, our water systems, our rail systems, our broadband deployment. It was a huge public works agenda and project, and it’s the law of Illinois,” Quinn said as a Chicago news conference today. “Unfortunately the legislature went home last week without passing legislation to fund this year — this coming [fiscal] year beginning July 1 — the money necessary to pay for these projects.”

Lawmakers adjourned the regular legislative session last week without passing a bill that would approve the spending for construction projects for the next fiscal year. Senate Democrats tried to force a vote on about $430 million in spending that they wanted to tack onto the House’s budget proposal. Instead of voting on the measure, House Speaker Michael Madigan called for the creation of a conference committee, a group of members from both chambers and both parties tasked to hash out differences when the Senate and House cannot agree on a piece of legislation. Senate President John Cullerton did not follow suit, and the Senate wrapped up regular the spring session without putting its own members on a conference committee.

Now Quinn says lawmakers failed to get the job done, and he plans to meet with the four legislative leaders to “promptly” schedule a specially session to avoid what he called a “job crisis.” Quinn said that if the funding is not approved, he would have to start the process of shutting down construction projects on June 17. “This is something that has to be done. This is not a matter that’s optional. This is mandatory. These men [working on construction projects], they have to work. And they don’t want to be told on the 17th of this month that Springfield didn’t work for them and, ‘You’re off the job.’”

According to the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, a full shutdown would put 31,000 people out of work and cost the state about $30 million initially and $3 million a day for as long as work is called off.

Some House members say there is no need for the construction projects to be shut down so quickly. They maintain that an extension of the state’s lapse period, the time the state has after the close of the fiscal year to continue paying off bills from that fiscal year, would allow ongoing construction projects to continue. “We’ve sold bonds and the money is there. … The bond proceeds are there. The projects will continue,” Spring Valley Democratic Rep. Frank Mautino, a House Democratic budgeting point man, said on the last day of regular session.

He added that the extension of the lapse period from August through December would allow contractors on existing projects to continue submitting bills past the end of this fiscal year, and the state can continue paying for ongoing work. “So now, all those projects that are ongoing can just continue without a re-appropriation. … So we don’t need to do that bill.”

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, echoed Mautino’s take on the issue. “The lapse period would allow the state to continue to pay bills and beyond that, we will continue to cooperate with the governor.” When asked if he thought lawmakers would return to the Statehouse next week, he repeated, “We’re cooperating with the governor.”

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that the House’s attempt to use lapse period spending to keep the capital projects going won’t fly. “You appropriate money for a certain period of time, and that’s the authorization to spend, and once that’s up that’s up. … You can’t engage in new spending after July 1 because it’s a new fiscal year, and you don’t have any statutory authority.”

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she has asked her legal counsel to review the issue and determine how long she can continue to pay bills for capital projects. “My office will continue to pay state contractors for as long as legally possible, but ultimately, this question must be addressed by the General Assembly and governor. If that means calling an immediate special session, so be it. One thing is certain: Our families and businesses are already struggling and paying more than ever before to state government; they deserve better than to be subjected to a high-priced game of legislative chicken over the capital bill,” Topinka said in a written statement.

None of the legislative leaders would give specifics on when they might return for a special session. “It is our understanding that there is a bill in the Senate that would give the governor the authority to continue the capital program for the next fiscal year. We encourage the senators to pass that bill as soon as possible. Unfortunately, at the end of session last week, Senate Democrats tried to tack on an extra $400 million of extra spending, which was unacceptable in the House. We are always willing to discuss our options, but the clearest one at this point is for the Senate to pass [House Bill] 2189, without additional spending amendments, to the governor. This bill appropriates funds for the FY12 capital and road programs immediately. This important jobs creation bill should not be held hostage by additional requests for more spending in the budget,” Sarah Wojcicki, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Tom Cross, said in a written statement.

But Quinn today continued to back the Senate Democrats’ call for additional spending. “I think the General Assembly gets an incomplete when it comes to their budget. I don’t think they properly invested in important things like schools and other things that matter to everyday people.”

Redfield said, “[The issue at hand ] is obviously not the capital bill. It’s about the Senate Democrats and the governor wanting to appropriate additional dollars for education and human services.”

But adding more spending seems even less likely in a special session, when Republican votes would be needed to pass the appropriations for the capital bill. “They’ve already taken the tough votes. They’ve already voted to cut this stuff,” Redfield said.

He predicts there may be minor concessions on both sides, but that the dispute will instead likely be pushed off into the fall veto session, when there will likely be a clearer picture of how much money lawmakers have to work with. “This is a lot easier to play out in the fall, where you know where you are on gaming, and you know where you are in revenue.”

Quinn has yet to act on a large gaming package passed in the last days of the session that could potentially bring in billions of dollars in new revenue. While he supports a casino in Chicago, he has said that he thinks the bill, which calls for five new casinos and slots at horse racing tracks, may be too large of an expansion.

Quinn also lost a large potential bargaining chip when he signed off on the new legislative districts for state lawmakers last Friday. When asked about the move today, he told reporters, “This isn’t a matter to bargain.”

Redfield said the short time frame Quinn is giving could make it very hard for lawmakers to do more than pass a bill that extends capital spending into the fall and possibly take up the issue later. He said Quinn’s oft-repeated tactic of threatening to cut off a popular state program or service to spur the legislature to action does not have a track record of success. “That’s just a recipe for disaster. Either because you’re always kind of wimping out, or you’re going to blow something up with horrendous consequences because this time you’re really serious and nobody thinks you are.”

He added, “We’ve got a mess that they are going to have to clean up somehow.”

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Quinn says budget work 'incomplete'

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn vowed to use his veto pen on at least one bill approved by lawmakers in the last days of their spring legislative session and said more work needs to be done on the budget.

“Overall, I think members of the General Assembly got a number of things done, important things. But part of my job as governor is to make sure that they keep on the job of keeping our economy moving forward in Illinois,” Quinn said today.

The spring legislative session ended Tuesday, and Quinn now has to make decisions about some large and controversial legislative packages that are headed to his desk. “The governor of Illinois has the supreme executive authority, and I intend to use it in a way that helps the people,” Quinn said.

The governor was adamant about rejecting Senate Bill 1652, which would allow Illinois' two largest utilities to raise rates to upgrade the state's electric grid.

“It wasn’t a good idea to give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren what they were asking for because they were asking for way too much from the people of Illinois, the families and businesses of Illinois,” he said. The sponsors say they plan to override a veto from the governor, but the measure did not pass in either chamber with the three-fifths majority that would be needed should the vote to override become necessary.

Quinn also was critical of a gaming expansion proposal that lawmakers approved yesterday.

“I told the legislature over and over again, the people of Illinois do not want an excessive gambling bill that’s top-heavy,” he said. “Once the General Assembly got this subject, House and Senate, it got more and more top-heavy.”

He added, “I think any person with common sense looking at that bill would say it’s excessive.”

Senate Bill 744 calls for five new casinos, including one owned by the city of Chicago, slots at hose racing tracks and increased numbers of gaming stations at existing casinos. Quinn has said he supports the Chicago casino but was not enthusiastic about other aspects of the plan. Quinn said he did not like the idea of slots at the State Fairgrounds in Springfield, saying it is a “family place.”

Quinn said he needed to review the bill and would not say whether he might veto it or attempt to change it through an amendatory veto. However, he did make reference to his veto power several times throughout the news conference, saying at one point that the governor has “robust power of veto, and sometimes you have to use it.”

Quinn said he does intend to sign the changes to the workers' compensation system approved in the House yesterday and praised lawmakers for approving comprehensive reform that he says will improve the business climate in the state.

Quinn faulted lawmakers for sending him a budget that includes cuts to early childhood education, K-12 education and Monetary Award Program grants for college students. He renewed his call to protect some of the biggest spending areas in the state budget. “I think it is important that we invest in health care and human services and public safety and education.”

He said the House should have approved the approximately $430 million in spending that Senate Democrats wanted to tack onto their budget. “I do think the job was incomplete.” He renewed his call to protect some of the biggest spending areas in the state budget. “I think it is important that we invest in health care and human services and public safety and education.”

Quinn would not say whether he would call a special legislative session, only saying he would “work” with legislators on the budget. “We plan to work with the members of the legislature and their leadership today, tomorrow and every day this summer.”

He added, “A budget, any time, is a day-to-day, week-to-week process.”