Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Judge blocks lobbyist fee increase for nonprofits

By Jamey Dunn

Nonprofit organizations have been temporarily spared from paying thousands of dollars in fees to lobby Illinois lawmakers.

A law aimed at cleaning up unethical practices in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment would also nearly triple the fees that lobbyist must pay (pg 131) each year to register with the state.

The new law goes into effect January 1 and would require organizations to pay $1,000 to register and an additional $1,000 per lobbyist.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Illinois Society of Association Executives are suing Secretary of State Jesse White on the basis that the increased fees infringe on the First Amendment rights of lobbyists by requiring them to pay an unreasonable amount to discuss legislation and policy with elected officials. White is named in the suit because his office administers the registration program.

A judge ruled today to temporarily block the state from collecting the increased fees from nonprofit groups. All other lobbyists will have to pay the higher fees.

Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel for the ACLU, said other than Illinois, no state has registration fees higher than $365, and 42 states have a fee of $150 or lower.

Schwartz said nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU, would feel that pain if such a large increase were allowed to go into effect. “We are talking about nonprofit organizations that are not showing up with buckets of money,” he said. “We are concerned that there are some groups that will be squeezed out of the process.”

White spokesman Henry Haupt declined to comment on the case.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Attorney general says Thomson sale would be legal

Attorney General Lisa Madigan gave Gov. Pat Quinn the green light today to sell Thomson prison to the federal government without a vote from the General Assembly.

President Barack Obama’s administration plans to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Thomson as part of the president’s plan to close the controversial prison that houses terror suspects in Cuba.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross had challenged the legality of Quinn making the deal without legislative approval and requested a legal opinion from Madigan.

“Rep. Cross still strongly believes that a transaction of this magnitude needs to go through the General Assembly,” Cross spokeswoman Sarah Wojcicki said. “We need to have a full discussion.”

Human services providers seek cash flow

By Jamey Dunn

With five months in unpaid bills and some agencies predicting they will be unable to make payroll January 1, social service providers are asking the state to take out another loan.

Earlier this month, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed borrowing $500 million to help catch up on the state’s back bills and keep human service organizations afloat. $250 million would go toward Medicaid payments, which Quinn claims will result in $600 million in matching federal funds.

Organization directors say they have exhausted the money Illinois pays them to administer programs under contract, such as caring for the elderly, homeless and developmentally disabled. Many are now running on credit and paying interest that they say is actually the state’s responsibility.

“Just from a strictly business perspective, it is a cash flow issue. We have bills. We have people on payroll, we have light bills, we have insurance payments, we have pension payments, we have every sort of expenditure anybody in the business world would understand,” said Steve Roach, executive director for Catholic Charities in Springfield. “If you don’t have revenue coming in, sooner of later you’re not going to be able to pay those bills.”

As the debate over borrowing unfolded, Moody’s Investors Services downgraded Illinois’ bond rating to the second lowest in the country, just above California. That means that interest rates on potential loans would probably not be ideal. Illinois already borrowed $2.25 billion, due at the end of the fiscal year in June, to keep the budget limping along in lieu of finding a new revenue source.. If the state borrowed the $500 million, it would be tacked onto that bill.

The fate of Quinn’s proposal cannot be removed from the context of an election year. For the plan to go ahead, the governor, comptroller and treasurer, all of whom are currently running for office, have to sign off.

Comptroller Dan Hynes, Quinn’s opponent in the Democratic primary, has refused to approve the plan. Hynes spokeswoman Carol Knowles said the comptroller is opposed to the idea because the state is already so deep in debt. She said Quinn has been vague and noncommittal on the details of the plan since he announced it and has not provided any details on how to distribute the remaining $250 million that would not go to Medicaid.

Knowles denied that politics played a part in Hynes’ decision. “The comptroller has been made out to be the bad guy … but he honestly thinks this is a bad idea,” she said.

Human service providers accused the comptroller’s office of bending to media and political influences when doling out checks. “There are priorities for picking and choosing for paying, and those priorities are … based on media attention or legislative muscle,” said Don Moss, coordinator of the Illinois Human Services Coalition. “This is not a way to run the system. We need everybody to get paid on time.”

The comptroller’s office denies any special favors are being given. “I’d like to see them provide an example of that. The fact of the matter is that we reach out and work with providers all across the state everyday — all day long,” Knowles said.

Knowles added that many of the groups crying foul are getting some of their money, just not all of it. “Entities such as these receive more $50 million every month and have been consistently since the beginning of the fiscal year through an expedited payment program,” she said. “Their claims about special treatment are not valid, but their concerns about not being paid are valid.”

The comptroller’s office gets several thousand calls a week about unpaid bills to providers, but Knowles said they only deal directly with the organizations or the agencies that contracted them. “Do legislators call us and ask for payments to be expedited? Yes, they do. Do we expedite them? No, we don’t.”

Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, has refused to take a side in the issue. Spokesman Scott Burnham said that the treasurer is open to discussing a short-term borrowing plan, but since Hynes is opposed, it is a “moot point.”

Meanwhile, social service providers are hoping to find some sort of relief and fast. They are worried they will not be able to offer shelter to those in need as the weather outside turns colder. They also are concerned for their employees who, according to Moss, “face hard work every day knowing that their payroll might not be there in two weeks.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Feds to buy Thomson prison

By Jamey Dunn

The federal government agreed to purchase Thomson prison today amid ongoing controversies over moving suspected terrorists into the United States and the early release of Illinois inmates.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn announced in Washington, D.C., this afternoon that President Barack Obama’s administration has decided to buy Thomson prison in northwest Illinois with the intent of transferring some detainees there from Guantanamo Bay.

Top members of Obama’s administration sent a letter to Quinn earlier today detailing the plan. According to the letter, the prison would be run as two separate facilities, so federal inmates and terror suspects would never interact. The prisoners from Guantanamo would not be allowed visitors other than their lawyers. The feds also plan to beef up security to a level that they claim will exceed the safeguards of a federal “supermax” prison.

Obama called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, which holds more than 200 detainees, including suspected terrorists, soon after his inauguration. Finding a place to house some of these prisoners in the United States has proved to be one of the main hitches in the president’s plan.

Durbin and Quinn touted the arrangement as a boon for the local economy and a way to repurpose a state facility that has been sitting relatively unused for several years. According to Quinn the federal purchase of the prison could result in more than 3,000 jobs for the area.

Republican gubernatorial candidates followed the lead of their fellow party members on the national scene by criticizing Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo facility.“We’ve got an investment in Guantanamo Bay, and that’s where international terrorists ought to be held, tried and kept.” Sen. Bill Brady, Republican gubernatorial candidate from Bloomington said. “If the Obama administration can’t figure out how to run it, then they ought to get out of the business and let someone else do it.”

The announcement that an Illinois prison may soon be sold comes days after the Associated Press reported the Illinois Department of Corrections has been awarding prisoners months of early release time for good behavior in the first few days of their sentences, thus returning some violent offenders to the streets after they spent just a few weeks behind bars.

Quinn has since put a stop to the program, known as “meritorious good time,” and called for an investigation of the policy. It was not part of the plan Quinn announced in September to release nonviolent offenders early to save the state money.

His Democratic challenger, Comptroller Dan Hynes, supports the plan to sell Thomson. However, he questioned Quinn’s involvement in the release of Illinois prisoners who only served weeks of their sentences. “The governor is asking the people of Illinois to trust him on this difficult [Thomson] issue, which understandably causes some unease. It turns out his administration is secretly releasing criminals, some violent, from prison early.”

Quinn’s Republican opponents say that Thomson, which has never been filled to capacity, should stay under the control of the state and be opened to alleviate overcrowding in Illinois’ prison system. “How bad is it in Illinois? Our economic development program consists of relocating terrorists, and we have to argue about whether or not we should release violent criminals early,” Dan Proft, Chicago Republican gubernatorial candidate, said. “These are not complicated matters.”

Republicans on the state and federal level accused both Quinn and Obama of forcing the deal through without transparency, legislative approval or voter support. Jim Ryan, Republican candidate for governor, said that Quinn should slow down and get feedback from citizens. He proposed that a series of hearings be held in January after the distraction of the holiday season has passed.

Durbin countered such criticisms by claiming the plan has support from residents of the area surrounding Thomson. “We have looked at it carefully and closely, and we have done it with the understanding that, time and again, the people of our state of Illinois have risen to the challenge to serve this nation,” he said.

Officials may have been feeling the pressure of the January 2010 deadline that Obama set for closing Guantanamo Bay. However, he has since acknowledged that deadline will not be met.

For more information on the state of Illinois’ prison system read Bethany Jaeger’s September column.

Jamey Dunn returns to Illinois Issues

Please welcome back to our staff Jamey Dunn, who began work this week as our visiting Statehouse bureau chief.
Jamey was an intern for Illinois Issues during last spring's legislative session. As bureau chief, she will be responsible for Statehouse coverage, maintaining this blog and writing features and other items for the magazine. She also will supervise this year's PAR intern, Rachel Wells, who will begin after the first of the year.

Jamey holds a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield and a bachelor's in speech communication from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

We are thrilled to have her return to the magazine staff and look forward to continuing to provide you with in-depth state government news coverage and analysis.

-- Dana Heupel, executive editor

Monday, November 09, 2009

Candidates line up in primary races for governor

By Nicole Harbour

The close of the filing period for the February 2 primary last Monday left a large pool of candidates for governor, including seven Republicans, four Democrats and two Green Party candidates. They are:

  • Adam Andrzejewski, Hinsdale — Formerly employed by the publishing business he and his brother started, Andrzewjewski sold his share of the company in 2007 and founded the ForTheGoodOfIllinois organization, which is committed to bringing transparency, accountability, efficient service and frugality to Illinois government.
  • Sen. Bill Brady, Bloomington — Brady, of the 44th Senate District, has served in the Illinois General Assembly for 16 years. A GOP candidate for governor in the 2006 primary, he lost to then-state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Insurance Committee and is a member of the Revenue, Pensions and Investments, Energy, and Environment committees.
  • Sen. Kirk Dillard, Hinsdale — Dillard has served as a state senator for the 24th District since 1993. He formerly was a judge in the Illinois Court of Claims, director of legislative affairs for former Gov. James R. Thompson and chief of staff for former Gov. Jim Edgar.
  • Andy McKenna, Chicago — The former Illinois Republican Party chairman, McKenna led the state Republican Party for four years before stepping down this summer. He most recently left his post as president of Schwartz Supply Co. in Morton Grove to join the campaign.
  • Dan Proft, Chicago — Proft, a Chicago political consultant and pundit, has run several campaigns and served in various leadership capacities in state and municipal government since 1994.
  • Jim Ryan, Chicago — A former Illinois attorney general, Ryan left politics in 2002 after losing a bid for governor to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Ryan is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Benedictine University in Lisle, lecturing in the area of law and government.
  • Bob Schillerstrom, NapervilleSchillerstrom has been DuPage County Board chairman since 1998.


  • Comptroller Dan Hynes, Chicago — Hynes is in his third term as Illinois comptroller.
  • Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago — Former lieutenant governor for Rod Blagojevich, Quinn became governor on Jan. 29, when Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office. He is running for his first full term as governor. He also is a former state treasurer.
    Ed Scanlan, Oak Park — An attorney in the Chicago area, Scanlan has been practicing law for 32 years.
  • William “Dock” Walls III, Chicago — A politician, community activist and former aide to the late Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Walls has been involved in politics since the 1980s.

Green Party

  • Richard Mayers, Chicago — Mayers has been a candidate in many Illinois primaries since the 1990s. In 2007, he was removed from the Green Party ballot after filing for the U.S. House in the Third Congressional District.
  • Rich Whitney, Carbondale — Whitney, an attorney and partner in the Carbondale law firm of Speir and Whitney, practices in the areas of employment law, civil rights and criminal defense. He ran for governor on the Green Party ticket in 2006 and received 10 percent of the vote.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Veto session wrap-up and goodbye

By Bethany Jaeger
This will be my last post as Illinois Issues Statehouse bureau chief. I am moving on to the private sector to be a management consultant with a Springfield-based firm. Thank you for reading and and for sharing a string of unbelievable experiences with me during the past four years.

That said, the legislature completed its annual fall veto session and won't be back until January 12. After that week, it's not scheduled to be back until early February. Read a summary of substantive measures below.

Campaign finance
SB 1466 Individuals, businesses, unions, associations and political committees would be limited in the amount of money they could donate to candidates each election cycle, under a measure approved by both chambers along partisan lines. Legislative leaders and political parties, however, are only limited in the amount they can contribute to candidates in primary elections, not general elections. While reform advocates considered the limits on top political party officials as a compromise and a starting point, Republicans denounced the bill as “business as usual” by consolidating political power in the hands of the few.

In addition to contribution limits, which would be applied on a graduated scale depending on the entity donating and on the candidate’s race, the reform package also aims to improve transparency and enforcement. Candidates would have to report contributions and expenditures four times a year, as opposed to the current twice a year. Donations of $1,000 or more would have to be reported within two to five business days year round. The Illinois State Board of Elections would gain new ability to conduct random audits and investigate potential violations. A task force would study the effectiveness of the implementation of the new law, as well as the feasibility of public funding of political campaigns. Read more details in last night's post.

Recall amendment
HJRCA 31 As part of the fallout from the impeachment of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, voters will be asked on the November ballot whether to change the state Constitution to give them the power to remove a sitting governor. Placing the referendum on the ballot required legislative approval, which was received in August. At least 60 percent of voters in the 2010 general election would have to vote “yes” to amend the Constitution. If approved, then individuals seeking to remove a governor in the future would have to gather a certain number of signatures (15 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election) before voters could be asked whether to remove the sitting governor. Also, 20 House members and 10 Senate members from both political parties would have to sign off on a recall proposal from citizens.

MAP grant funding
SB 1180 Gov. Pat Quinn restored $205 million to Monetary Award Program, which offers financial aid to nearly 138,000 low-income college students. As part of more than $2 billion in budget cuts this fiscal year, Quinn initially did not fully fund the so-called MAP grants to cover an entire school year. The administration authorized spending for only one semester, creating panic among higher education students who relied on the grants. Quinn toured the state to pressure the legislature to approve restoring the funding, and the General Assembly complied in October. However, neither the governor nor the legislature approved a way to pay for the $205 million needed. Quinn said he would seek new revenue sources after January, when fewer votes would be necessary for approval. The move comes on the heels of an updated projection that the state will collect nearly $900 million less than anticipated.

Legislative pay raises
SB 2090 Legislators last spring approved a measure that would change the way legislators get pay raises and would require them to take four unpaid furlough days, as well as forfeit their annual cost-of-living raises this fiscal year. Quinn changed the measure to permanently end automatic cost-of-living raises. The Senate overrode the governor’s change. If the House does the same, the original changes would take effect. If the House does not agree to override the governor’s changes, the entire bill would die so that none of the changes would take effect.

Cemetery oversight
SB 1471 All cemetery owners, managers and employees, including those who are hired to trim trees or maintain cemetery grounds, would have to register with the state and carry identification cards to prove their clearance to work on site. Owners, managers and all employees who had direct contact with customers also would have to go a step further by becoming licensed by the state and subjecting themselves to criminal background checks. The bill is in response to regulatory gaps exposed during in the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal last summer (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13). Bodies buried in the historic African-American cemetery in Alsip were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an alleged scheme to resell gravesites. The bill would consolidate all regulatory oversight to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and require cemetery maps, plats and burial records to be maintained and publicly available. Family burial grounds, inactive cemeteries and cemeteries smaller than 2 acres would be exempt to the new rules.

Cook County governance
HB 4625 Cook County Board members would need fewer votes to override a board president’s veto. If signed into law by the governor, overriding the Cook County Board president would require a three-fifths majority rather than a four-fifths majority, or 11 out of 17 votes rather than 14 votes. It would be effective immediately, contrary to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s wishes that it would be effective after his current term ends in December 2010.

HB 4624 An effort to repeal Cook County’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase failed during veto session. Board President Todd Stroger enacted the sales tax hike from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent in February 2008. Estimated to generate about $400 million for county coffers, the tax has been criticized for making Chicago’s total sales tax rate one of the highest in the nation. County board members have repeatedly tried to repeal the tax increase over Stroger’s veto but have failed to meet the four-fifths majority required.

Free rides for seniors
SB 941 All senior citizens, regardless of income, will continue to receive free ridees on mass transit systems throughout the state. An attempt to roll back the program started by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, failed to advance in the Senate. The bill would have ended the free rides for seniors age 65 and older other than for those who are low-income and qualify for the state’s Circuit Breaker program, and it would have reportedly saved $37 million for cash-strapped transit agencies in the Chicago area.

Governor’s budget address
HB 1409 Legislators denied the governor from moving his annual budget address to March, which he requested to give more time for his new budget director, David Vaught, to assess the state’s fiscal status. The governor must propose a budget in February, unless the legislature changes the date.

GOP leadership
SB 600 The Illinois Republican Party will not have to change the way it elects its State Central Committee members, which are internally elected. A measure to change the system to allowing the public to elect committee members failed to gain the supermajority of votes needed in the House. Fewer votes would be needed if the issue came up again after this month.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

One more step in campaign finance reform

By Bethany Jaeger
The Illinois General Assembly has been here before. Lawmakers are on the verge of making history by approving legislation aimed at limiting the amount of money flowing into political campaigns and reducing outside influence on the lawmaking process.

They approved a previous version of so-called campaign finance limits in House Bill 7, but in a rare event, the governor and all four legislative leaders agreed to veto the measure and start over.

The difference this time around is that reform advocates are on board. Unfortunately for Republicans, that leaves them without leverage in demanding stricter limits on the amount legislative leaders and statewide political parties can give to their chosen candidates.

Change Illinois, a broad coalition of 50 organizations of all stripes, believes Senate Bill 1466 represents “a significant step forward on the long road to reform,” said George Ranney, co-chair of Change Illinois and president and chief executive officer of Chicago Metropolis 2020.

Negotiations, particularly in the past week, have been “hard-fought, frank and full,” according to Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and Change Illinois negotiator. The group wanted more. “I don’t think it is any secret that we had hoped to apply [limits on legislative leaders] in both the general and in the primary,” she said. “However, that was not the result of our negotiations.” She later added: “We tried as hard as we possibly could. We have been through some very thorough, very loud, very long negotiations. We could not bring them to this point.”

Capping contributions from political parties and legislative leaders in primary elections would still represent meaningful reform, according to Canary, because that’s where the election cycle starts, where independent newcomers have a chance to enter the process. And candidates would have to report more frequently the amount of money raised and spent. That could allow the public to better “follow the money,” or detect quid pro quo if large campaign donations flowed to politicians just as they were about to act on major legislation. The State Board of Elections also would gain new power to track, audit and penalize campaign finance violations.

Canary said the reform group intends to continue in the next legislative session to try to push for further reforms that include limits on political parties and legislative leaders in general elections.

Republicans disagreed that limiting the amounts legislative leaders and political parties in the primaries would be enough.

“Nothing changes — nothing — when it comes to money, except one thing: Everybody that’s not a leader is limited,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. “The power, the money and control stays vested in four people,” he added, citing the top four legislative leaders of each political party.

The GOP Caucus cited numbers to suggest the limits on party leaders during primary elections are largely symbolic, given that parties tend to spend much less in primaries than they do in general elections. In the 2008 election cycle, for instance, the GOP said the State Republican Party gave $410,000 to candidates in the primary but $2.7 million in the general election. Democrats contributed $108,000 in the primary and $4.1 million in the general.

“Sadly, Change Illinois was either worn down or bought out, but their acceptance of the bill that gives even more power to the most powerful man in Illinois politics today is at the very least unfortunate,” Rep. Suzanne Bassi, a Palatine Republican, said during floor debate.

“There’s one person that can stop this now,” Cross said, citing Gov. Pat Quinn.

During the debate on SB 1466, the governor’s office said this in an e-mail: “We think it’s moving in a good direction.”

Approved by the House 66-49 late Thursday night, the bill is slated for Senate debate Friday, the last day of the legislature’s fall veto session. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Springfield until January.

If approved by the Senate and enacted by the governor, the new rules would:
  • Require candidates to report contributions and expenditures four times a year, as opposed to the current twice a year. Donations of $1,000 or more would have to be reported within two business days throughout the entire year.
  • Allow the Illinois State Board of Elections to conduct random audits, to investigate alleged violations of contribution limits or reporting requirements and to waive fees if the mistakes were found to be inadvertent.
  • Form a task force to study the effectiveness of the implementation of the new law, as well as the public funding of political campaigns.

Per election cycle limits
Individuals can give up to:
  • $5,000 to any candidate
  • $10,000 to any political party or legislative caucus committee
  • $10,000 to any political action committee

Businesses, unions and associations can give up to:
  • $10,000 to any candidate
  • $20,000 to any political party or legislative caucus committee
  • $20,000 to any political action committee

Candidates can give up to:
  • $50,000 to any candidate
  • $50,000 to any political action committee
  • Unlimited contributions to any political party or legislative caucus committee, except a $50,000 limit to a committee participating in primary elections

Political party and legislative caucus committees during primary elections:
The aggregate amount between state, county, township and city political committees cannot exceed:
  • $200,000 to statewide candidates
  • $125,000 to any state Senate candidate
  • $75,000 to any state House candidate
  • Between $50,000 - $125,000 to candidates for local and judicial offices
  • $20,000 to political action committees
  • Unlimited contributions to candidates during general elections

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cemetery bill aims to end hodge-podge regulations

By Bethany Jaeger

All cemetery owners, managers and employees, including those hired to trim trees or maintain cemetery grounds, would have to register with the state and carry identification cards to prove their clearance to work on site, according to newly proposed legislation. In an attempt to clarify the hodge-podge regulation exposed in the Burr Oak cemetery scandal last summer, owners, managers and all employees who had direct contact with customers would have to go a step further by becoming licensed by the state and subjecting themselves to criminal background checks.

Senate Bill 1471, sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, follows recommendations of the Cemetery Oversight Task Force commissioned by Gov. Pat Quinn after media reports exposed a scandal in the historic African-American cemetery in Alsip. Bodies were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an alleged scheme to resell gravesites (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13).

While there’s widespread agreement that the state needs to respond to the Burr Oak tragedy with new regulations, some officials of nonprofit, religious, municipal and fraternal cemeteries argue that they should be exempt from the new licensing and registration rules. They currently are exempt.

Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was appointed by the court to oversee Burr Oak Cemetery after the scandal broke. “I think this bill is overkill,” he said to an Illinois House Committee Wednesday morning. He added that the licensing and registration rules would pass costs on to consumers and would be cumbersome with inadequate time to comply. He added that a new cemetery database would risk the misuse of information about the deceased and their burial plots.

Szabelski and Robert Gilligan of the Catholic Conference of Illinois indicated they could sign on to regulatory reforms if nonprofit cemeteries were made “partially exempt,” meaning they would not have to become licensed by the state but would have to submit to investigations if someone filed a complaint against them.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin added after the committee hearing that the bill as written could limit municipalities in providing sewer services, community service workers and maintenance crews, which sometimes use inmates from the corrections department, given the added registration costs and background checks. He described the bill as “killing a gnat with a nuclear bomb.”

Madigan indicated during the committee hearing that he would be open to discussing concerns about whether certain cemeteries would be exempt from the new licensing and registration rules. The bill would exempt family burial grounds, inactive cemeteries and cemeteries smaller than 2 acres.

All regulatory oversight would be consolidated under the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Some oversight, including over the pre-need funeral trust industry, now is under the state comptroller’s purview, but a discrepancy has arisen about whether that office has the regulatory teeth needed to address negligent cemetery owners and whether Comptroller Dan Hynes could have done anything to prevent the Burr Oak tragedy.

Here are some other highlights of the legislation:

  • Owners would have to maintain cemetery maps and burial records, including information about the deceased and required parcel identification numbers, which would be open to public inspection.
  • The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation would have to create a burial database; within 72 hours of a burial, a cemetery manager must send the burial record to the state database.
  • The department would be able to investigate all cemetery-related activity, audit financial records and penalize noncompliance.
  • Family burial grounds, inactive cemeteries that haven’t performed burials within the past decade and cemeteries smaller than 2 acres would be exempt from the new rules. Cemeteries that performed fewer than 25 burials in the past two years wouldn’t have to register, but they would have to submit to investigation if someone filed a complaint with the state.
  • The Illinois Department of Natural Resources would be able to develop a program to clean up abandoned or neglected cemeteries.
  • Relatives of the deceased whose bodies were dismembered or whose remains were desecrated would be compensated for reburial costs and “psychological care.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Back to borrowing

By Bethany Jaeger
Gov. Pat Quinn could propose borrowing roughly $1 billion for the third time since May to keep the state operating through the winter. Tax revenues have slowed, while spending pressures have not. Those pressures include unpaid bills, employee health insurance and financial aid grants for low-income college students.

While short-term borrowing is relatively normal to help the state get through the slow revenue season, the state already borrowed $1 billion in May and an additional $1.25 billion in August. That money, as well as any new short-term borrowing, needs to be repaid by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2010.

That’s on top of a $3.7 billion backlog of unpaid bills, according to the state comptroller’s office.

The legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability recently projected that state tax revenues could come in $900 million less than anticipated.

Although Quinn has had to cut more than $2 billion in spending this fiscal year, he and the legislature recently restored $200 million to fund second semester grants of the Monetary Award Program for low-income college students. But they did not identify a way to pay for the additional spending.

After meeting with legislative leaders behind closed doors in the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Quinn said he could propose borrowing $900 million to ease the cash-flow problem. “We have to have that just to have liquidity for the months of November and December, January and February,” he said. “That’s historically been a time when state government’s finances — the cash that’s in the till — is the lowest.”

Of the $900 million, some $250 million would potentially be dedicated to pay Medicaid bills and to ensure Illinois continues to qualify for an enhanced federal Medicaid reimbursement rate offered through the federal stimulus program.

The state treasurer and comptroller have to sign off on short-term borrowing plans. It does not need legislative approval. According to Carol Knowles, Comptroller Dan Hynes’ spokeswoman, the comptroller’s office has not received a borrowing proposal from the governor's office.

Hynes, who is running against Quinn in the Democratic primary for governor next February, said in his latest quarterly report that the state carried over a record $3.8 billion in overdue bills from the previous fiscal year at the same time tax revenues took a nosedive. He described the fiscal situation as “grim, and getting worse.”

Democrats have proposed various versions of an income tax increase in the past few months, but they have failed to win approval without Republican support. Fewer votes, a simple majority, would be needed once the legislature convenes its spring session in January.

After meeting with other legislative leaders and the governor, Senate President John Cullerton said: “Nobody wants to vote for tax increases. All you can do is borrow.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan also said there’s close to “no other choice” and that it would push the underlying problem down the road. “This has been done year after year after year,” he said of the short-term borrowing, but he added, “This is a higher amount of money.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the problem has evolved for a number of years. "There’s a real strain on our budget that I’m not sure is going to be able to be met next year,” he said. His spokeswoman, Sara Wojcicki, said Cross also sought clarification about the governor’s priorities. “All this borrowing is something that needs to be carefully scrutinized,” she said. “We want to know how exactly it’s going to be spent, what bills are going to be paid down, why, in that order.”

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno added, “I do think there’s a good faith effort to manage, but the overall message here is we still need to look at the spending side of things. And it seems to be more focused on the borrowing.”

The leaders’ meeting kicks off the last week of the legislature’s annual fall veto session. While they and the governor previously vowed to work together to propose new campaign finance reforms during this veto session, they said they did not discuss campaign finance during the closed-door meeting. Democratic leaders met separately with reform advocates, again, behind closed doors.

Wojcicki said Republicans have been kept out of the loop since the end of September. “It seems sort of like an oxymoron: Landmark reform and closed-door meetings without us.”

We’ll keep you posted on new versions of campaign finance legislation throughout the week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quinn seeks a full term as governor in 2010

By Bethany Jaeger
At this time last year, Rod Blagojevich was governor and battling with the state legislature to restore funding to human services and to state parks and historic sites. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors continued to indict members of Blagojevich’s inner circle in an ongoing investigation into political corruption, which foreshadowed his impeachment and removal from office. At the same time, Pat Quinn was lieutenant governor, urging voters to approve a referendum to call another constitutional convention to rewrite the state charter.

It’s been nine months since Quinn replaced Blagojevich in the executive office. In that time, he’s had to lead Illinois through a bruised public confidence in government, a nationwide recession and a state budget deficit that once was projected at $12.4 billion.

Last spring, he urged legislators to approve a two-year flat income tax increase from 3 percent to 4.5 percent for all income levels, minus a personal exemption for low-income families, to stave off deeper cuts to state programs.

But while stopping in Springfield today as part of a nine-city tour officially launching his bid for a full term as governor in 2010, Quinn did not mention the need for an income tax increase. He, instead, laid out a platform of reviving the economy by creating jobs through public works projects, investing in “green” jobs by developing alternative energy sources, increasing investments in education, leveraging state assets to help small businesses access capital and promoting Illinois trade and tourism.

He did not offer specifics, such as whether the initiatives would be funded through existing programs or through new spending programs.

When asked by reporters at Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport whether he had or would change his tax hike proposal, Quinn said: “The time to do that, I think, will be next year after the primary because there’s not going to be a General Assembly session until then, unless there’s an emergency. And I don’t think the votes are there today for that, so we just have to keep working on it.”

His opponent in the Democratic primary is three-term state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who announced his bid in September. Hynes issued a statement today criticizing Quinn’s “passing remark” on the state’s budget deficit.

“I, too, support jobs and better education, but until we have a plan to pay our bills, balance our budget and emerge from the fiscal hole that is threatening the future of Illinois, these campaign promises ring hollow,” Hynes said in the statement.

Hynes has proposed that after a series of cost-saving initiatives in his first year in office, he would pursue a graduated income tax increase. According to his campaign, the increased rate would primarily affect taxpayers earning more than $200,000 a year. Changing the income tax structure from a flat rate to a graduated rate, however, would require changing the state Constitution. That would require the state legislature to approve placing the question on the general election ballot in November 2010 for the constitutional amendment to take effect in 2011.

Neither Quinn’s nor Hynes’ income tax proposal would take effect and generate revenue soon enough to save the next fiscal year’s budget.

Quinn said in Springfield today: “I didn’t create the deficit. I inherited it. But I think I’m the person to repair the damage, working with people. ... I think I’ve shown over the time I’ve been governor that we’ve been able to stabilize the government, restore the honor and integrity to the office of governor. You have to have a governor that people trust and know is an honest person, and I think I am.”

He pointed to his involvement in enacting a $31 billion capital construction program, revamping the state’s public access laws, reforming the state’s procurement and contracting rules and state ethics laws for lobbyists and passing a referendum to allow voters to recall sitting governors to the 2010 ballot.

While he said it’s an honor to be the governor of Illinois, he added that it’s also a public trust. “And I want to assure the people of Illinois that my heart is ever at your service.

For more background on Quinn, read Illinois Issues February issue.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Operation Board Games gets another witness

By Bethany Jaeger
Alonzo “Lon” Monk is cooperating in the ongoing investigation into extensive political corruption in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office and political campaign. Monk pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to one count of wire fraud.

That’s just one of 19 counts leveled on participants in “Blagojevich Enterprise," which the feds allege primarily existed to “exercise and preserve power over Illinois government for the financial and political benefit of Blagojevich,” as well as his family members and friends. According to Monk’s plea, he received about seven to nine payments of $10,000 from Tony Rezko as “a gift, not a loan.” Monk joins list of witnesses in the governor’s June 2010 trial, so far including:
  • John Harris, another former chief of staff who in July pleaded guilty to tax fraud.
  • Rezko, who pleaded guilty in June 2008 and already is serving a prison sentence.
  • **The late Christopher Kelly, who would have been a key witness, apparently committed suicide days after pleading guilty to other charges in September.
Monk’s plea agreement is here.

Monk, of Park Ridge, was Blagojevich’s former law school roommate, his general counsel when in Congress, his first chief of staff when he became governor in 2003, his campaign manager in his 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial bids and, most recently, a lobbyist. One of Monk's clients included a horse racetrack owner, reportedly John Johnston.

Monk’s guilty plea pertains to a scheme in November to December 2008 to pressure Johnston to raise $100,000 for Blagojevich’s political campaign (see Count 11 of the April indictment).

Part of the scheme allegedly was caught on secret FBI recordings. One brief conversation, according to the federal transcripts, was between Monk and Johnston about supporting Blagojevich’s campaign in return for the governor’s signature on a bill to subsidize the horse racing industry. The recording was played during Blagojevich’s impeachment trial in the Senate last January.

Monk, who was a lobbyist at the time of the recordings, was heard in another cell phone conversation with Blagojevich, telling the governor to call Johnston directly. “It’s better if you do it just from a pressure point of view,” Monk was heard saying to Blagojevich.

The scheme allegedly was under time constraints, as Blagojevich wanted the money before the end of the year, when a new state law — the so-called pay-to-play ban — would ban him from collecting political donations from contractors who do significant amounts of business with the state.

Monk’s plea also confirms conversations and actions taken to enrich themselves and Blagojevich’s campaign fund. For instance, before Blagojevich became governor in 2002, the plea says, Monk planned with Blagojevich, Rezko and Kelly to use the governor’s office and Monk’s chief of staff office for financial gain, dividing the proceeds among them. One scheme allegedly included a 2003 pension deal that refinanced $10 billion in pension obligation bonds, issuing all $10 billion at once so a particular investment firm would benefit and donate more money to the governor’s campaign. It also allegedly included pressuring engineering firms to contribute to Blagojevich’s campaign in return for state capital projects and pressuring Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a contribution in exchange for a state grant, according to the plea.

The feds also say that once convicted felon Stuart Levine had been confronted by the FBI in 2004 for rigging various state boards, the focus shifted to making money through Rezko’s real estate development, involving Blagojevich’s wife, Patricia, in marketing efforts.

One count of wire fraud carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a fine of $250,000, although Monk’s plea agreement recommends a sentence between two and four years.

Blagojevich’s trial is scheduled to start June 2, 2010.

UIUC chancellor Herman resigns

By Bethany Jaeger
Fallout from the University of Illinois’ clout-heavy admissions process has reached another administrator. Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Richard Herman today announced his resignation, effective October 26.

His resignation comes about a month after the Faculty/Student Senate voted 98-55 to urge the board to replace Herman and President B. Joseph White. White already submitted his resignation, which takes effect December 31.

According to a university news release, Herman will serve as special assistant to the interim president of the university until June 30, 2010. He will remain on faculty as a mathematics professor and continue to work with the campus’ Illinois Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Initiative, which he created to increase the number of math, science, technology and engineering teachers and bolster student recruitment in those subjects.

After one year of sabbatical leave to prepare for teaching again, he’ll move to the College of Education and hold an appointment as a visiting professor at the Chicago campus.

He’s worked in higher education for 40 years. Before joining the University of Illinois, he was dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Maryland and chair of the Mathematics Department at Pennsylvania State University. Upon arriving in Urbana in 1998, he became provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. He was named interim chancellor in June 2004 and chancellor in May 2005.

In a letter to the university’s board of trustees, he wrote, “I have enjoyed every minute, in fact, every nanosecond.”

An interim chancellor will not be named because the board of trustees continues to search for a university president to replace White. Former university President Stanley Ikenberry was selected by the revamped board of trustees to serve as interim president until a search committee finds a permanent replacement. Ikenberry already is working with the university to help ease the transition.

White will remain a professor of business administration at the Urbana campus.

The Chicago Tribune in June exposed the board of trustees’ meddling in the university’s admissions process, favoring about 800 clout-heavy students — known as “Category I” — sponsored by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, lawmakers, university donors and trustees.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

MAP grant funding up in the air

By Bethany Jaeger
Antonio Boyzo is one semester away from graduating from the University of Illinois Chicago. Having worked his way up from earning a general equivalency diploma and transferring from a community college to UIC, as well as earning U.S. citizenship in August, he feared Thursday morning that it would all disappear. He feared he would be one of about 137,000 low-income college students in Illinois who wouldn’t be able to afford tuition for the rest of the school year because state funding for the Monetary Award Program had been cut in half.

By midday, the legislature approved Senate Bill 1180 to restore $205 million to fund the second semester of the grant program; however, it did not approve a way to pay for it. The move comes on the heels of an updated — but ominous — projection that the state’s revenues will fall nearly $900 million less than anticipated.

To help pay for the second semester of MAP grants, Gov. Pat Quinn said he proposed to legislative leaders the idea of borrowing from dedicated state funds and repaying the money when revenue flowed back into the state, something called inter-fund borrowing. “It allows [states] to do more fiscal management during an extremely tough time, and that’s what we want to do,” he said outside his Statehouse office Thursday.

The push for major sources of new revenue, he said, will restart after January, when revenue proposals would need only a simple majority of votes rather than the three-fifths supermajority needed now.

The legislature returns Friday for the third day of the six-day fall veto session.

Power to recall governors "up to the people"

By Bethany Jaeger
When voters head to the polls November 2, 2010, they’ll vote on who they want to represent them in the General Assembly, who they want as governor and constitutional officers and whether they want the ability to recall a governor.

The ability to recall a sitting governor would require changing the state Constitution, which would require at least 60 percent of voters in the 2010 general election to vote “yes.”

The version approved Thursday by the Illinois Senate 56-1, House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 31, would only apply to governors. Previous versions proposed much broader powers to recall all elected officials, including county board chairs and judges. That proposal passed the House last spring but stalled in the Senate.

Gov. Pat Quinn said he has supported recall proposals for 33 years and described Thursday’s version as “the ultimate ethics measure.”

“The very best way to ensure the governor does the right thing all the time is to have in our Constitution the power of recall with respect to the office of governor,” he said.

Some legislators warned, however, that the fear of being recalled by unhappy voters or by organizations with narrow interests would make governors only do what is popular at the time, not what is in the best interest of the state in the long-run.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said the recall provision is going down a dangerous path. “I often believe we do things or fail to do things because we are afraid of the shadow of our next election,” he said to his peers during floor debate. “But when you do this, when you put something like this in [the Constitution], that shadow is upon you at all times.” However, he ended up voting in favor of putting the question before voters.

Quinn said allowing voters to decide what is in their Constitution is a fundamental part of democracy, and he intends to support the referendum. “If the conduct of the chief executive betrays the public trust, they don’t carry out the will of the people in a very significant way, voters should not be subjected to having to wait years and years until the next election to review their performance.”

Here is some more background about the proposal from a previous blog post:
  • A governor must be in office for 6 months before the recall process is started.
  • 20 House members and 10 Senate members from both parties would have to sign off on an initial recall proposal from citizens.
  • Once legislators approved the measure to put the question on the ballot, individuals seeking to remove the governor would have 150 days to round up the signatures to put the question of whether to remove the governor before voters. They would need a number of signatures equal to 15 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. For instance, Rep. Jack Franks said the number of signatures currently needed would be 750,000 based off of the 2006 election.
  • There must be at least 25 different counties with 100 signatures each.
  • This version of the bill would only apply to the governor’s position, and it contains new safeguards intended to prevent abuse of the power. These new aspects came under fire from House Republicans.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Campaign finance "redo" in limbo

By Bethany Jaeger
Two months ago, Democratic and Republican legislators stood next to Gov. Pat Quinn and agreed to start over on drafting a bill that would — for the first time in Illinois — limit the amount of money individuals and political organizations could donate to political campaigns. They vowed to present a new version during this month's legislative veto session. But the bill introduced by House Speaker Michael Madigan on Wednesday has been called a step backward by reform advocates.

Madigan's bill, Senate Bill 1466 (amendment 2), was still “under review” at the end of Wednesday’s legislative session, the first of six days scheduled over the next two weeks. SB 1466 still would limit donations to $5,000 from individuals, $10,000 from corporations, labor organizations and associations, and $50,000 from political action committees or other candidates. The limits also would apply to the election cycle rather than the calendar year, one change from last spring’s House Bill 7 (background here).

Reform advocates oppose Madigan’s version primarily for one reason: It would continue to allow unlimited financial support to candidates from statewide political parties and legislative caucuses.

“Not having a limit on the party caucus and the legislative leaders is not a consistent with meaningful reform,” said Peter Bensinger, co-chairman of the Change Illinois reform coalition. “It restricts everybody else but the leaders. We don’t think it’s going to restore public trust.”

Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert with the University of Illinois at Springfield and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, echoed statements by Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein. He said Madigan’s version goes backward from last spring’s version in HB 7. According to Redfield, Madigan last year gave $1.6 million to the Democratic Party of Illinois, of which he also chairs. Under HB 7, the speaker would only have been able to give $90,000 to the Democratic Party of Illinois. The current bill would allow unlimited transfers. “We’re going back to the way it is,” Redfield said.

Bensinger added that it also could discourage individuals from challenging existing officeholders (his testimony is here). While all candidates would be able to collect limited amounts from individuals and organizations, newcomers would be at a disadvantage, compared with incumbents who had unlimited financial support from party leaders. “The balance of power becomes more entrenched in Springfield in the hands of the few rather than getting the control of the electorate in the districts,” he said.

When testifying to a House committee Wednesday morning, Madigan said the intent was to “limit money flowing into the campaign system and reduce influence of outside groups and lobbyists.” And he defended the role of political parties by saying they’re not a special interest promoting a cause.

“The entire basis for existence for a political party is to promote candidates running under its banner. Their fate in an election is inherently intertwined with that of their candidate. Thus, there is really no meaningful distinction between a party spending on behalf of its candidates and expenditures made by the candidates themselves.”

The speaker added that his version “would place Illinois squarely in the mainstream of campaign finance reform” because 25 states allow political parties to make unlimited contributions to their candidates in general elections. And two of those states have some limits during primary elections. “One half of America provides unlimited contributions in the general election,” he said. See a National Conference of State Legislatures chart here.

The bill is currently on hold, with some technical errors that could create a loophole for reporting requirements, said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The bill also is in limbo because it lacks Republican support, which is necessary to satisfy the three-fifths supermajority of votes needed during the veto session (because, as currently written, part of the bill would take effect in 2010, while other parts would take effect in 2011).

“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of support,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross said after a lengthy meeting behind closed doors with the governor and all four legislative leaders. “I think people see it for what it is: It’s not a bill that regulates us. You’ve got a lot of power invested in the leaders of the four caucuses, including ours. And we just don’t see any movement in that area. That’s disappointing.”

Fewer votes will be needed once the legislature’s spring session starts in January.

Rather than accept the bill now and work on limiting contributions from party leaders later, Bensinger said: “That’s the question: Will someone ever come back to the piece later? I don’t think Illinois should take halfway step measures. This is like a house without a roof.”

Like HB 7, Madigan’s version still would:
  • Require candidates to report contributions and expenditures four times a year, as opposed to the current twice a year. Donations of $1,000 or more would have to be reported within two business days throughout the entire year.
  • Allow the Illinois State Board of Elections to conduct random audits, to investigate alleged violations of contribution limits or reporting requirements and to waive fees if the mistakes were found to be inadvertent.
  • Form a task force to study and make recommendations on a public financing system for judicial elections.

Friday, October 02, 2009

No Games for Chicago

By Bethany Jaeger
Chicago’s quest to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games is over. The Windy City was eliminated in the first round of voting of the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen this morning. Other cities in the running were Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo. Tokyo was eliminated in the second round of voting. Rio won the final vote.

Read about the positives and negatives of a Chicago Olympics in Illinois Issues magazine’s “Going for the gold.” Some saw a lucrative opportunity, while others saw long-term fiscal and social costs. The activist group No Games Chicago said tax dollars would be better spent on affordable housing, school construction and mass transit in underserved areas of the city. The Chicago Fraternal Order of Police expressed concerns about public safety after the city’s long string of gun violence.

Chicago’s bid has been led by Mayor Richard Daley and Patrick Ryan, Chicago 2016 chairman and chief executive officer and a former Fortune 500 insurance executive. They were joined in Copenhagen for a last-minute pitch by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as Oprah Winfrey and Olympic athletes.

The loss means a state law enacted in April won’t be needed. It would have offered a $250 million guarantee if the Games’ budget went overboard.

October issue: Jerry Stermer, "Voice for the man"

Get a glimpse of who helps shape Gov. Pat Quinn's agenda and style in the October edition of Illinois Issues magazine. Maureen McKinney profiles Jerry Stermer in the "Voice for the man."

Read the third and final installment of a three-part series on the plight of nonprofits in Illinois. Crystal Yednak writes, "Joining forces: To prepare for an uncertain future, nonprofits collaborate rather than compete."

And if you want to read about the anticipated effects of this year's state budget banking on delaying payments to certain Medicaid providers, read my feature, "Pay delay."

As always, our columnist Charlie Wheeler gives valuable context and analysis about what legislators and the governor have done by booting the tough choices into next year.

I also provide analysis about how "small budget cuts hit home in a big way." Case in point: grant-funded programs for people with disabilities and college students are in limbo.

And executive editor Dana Heupel gives the national context to Illinois' budget woes in his monthly column.

Our print readers also can read two guest essays: the first by Brent Never, who adds to the picture of how nonprofits are at the mercy of the state; the second by Jack Van Der Slik, who analyzes why politicians shrink from raising taxes as long as they can. Also available in print-only are more articles about campaign finance, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, a lawsuit over Chicago's parking meters, the closure of Howe Developmental Center, the attack of the waterhemp weed and other Illinois issues.

Monday, September 28, 2009

AFSCME layoffs stopped for now

By Bethany Jaeger
About 500 state employees who anticipated losing their jobs Wednesday are on hold. A southern Illinois judge this morning ordered the administration to refrain from laying off employees pending more negotiations with the state’s largest public employee union.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s office said it plans to appeal the ruling, leaving one segment of his deficit-reducing plan — and the 2,600 employees who would be laid off — in limbo.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 filed suit in Johnson County, where Vienna Correctional Center would lose positions. It argued that the job cuts would jeopardize public safety and cause harm to its workers if layoffs took place before the administration settled a dispute over the union’s concerns.

Judge Todd Lambert of the First Judicial Circuit Court in Johnson County ruled that AFSCME met its burden of proof. He wrote in his order, “The risk of employees targeted for layoff or laid off far outweighs any damages or other harm the state may suffer by having to delay the layoffs pending arbitration of the pending grievances.”

Lambert also wrote that the union’s grievances “are not frivolous and reflect a genuine dispute between the parties.”

AFSCME argues layoffs would cause irreparable harm if they took effect without completing negotiations about how the process of layoffs would trickle down. The complex process allows senior workers to bump less-experienced workers out of their jobs, starting a domino effect of workers who have options to take other positions or accept reduced pay, for instance. Anders Lindall, AFSCME Council 31 spokesman, said union members would be forced to make life-altering decisions without knowing all of their options.

“You can’t unscramble the eggs,” Lindall said. “Once employees make these choices, if we subsequently prevailed on our grievance, the state could not easily or at all just go back and restore the status quo.”

AFSCME’s grievances also protest the state’s contracts with private firms that do work that the union says state employees could perform. Lindall cited a $14.5 million contract with a private company that provides temporary clerical workers. Meanwhile, the state plans to lay off state-employed clerical workers in six agencies. “That $14 million contract should be reduced or eliminated and state employees kept on the job," Lindall said.

Quinn’s administration originally proposed that AFSCME members take unpaid days off or forego annual raises to help prevent the need for more layoffs. The union would not agree to concessions, leading Quinn to say he had no choice but to lay off 2,600 employees.

The court order specifically applies to AFSCME members, many of whom work in the Department of Corrections, as well as in the departments of Revenue, Human Services, Healthcare and Family Services and Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

More layoffs were scheduled to take effect October 31 from the Illinois Arts Council and the departments of Natural Resources and Aging, according to Central Management Services, the personnel and procurement agency.

The governor’s office said in a statement that it “carefully followed every step required in the AFSCME contract” and had no choice. “Illinois is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis, and budget reductions must be made, including cuts to the state’s administrative and personnel costs. Our plan includes responsible layoffs that do not jeopardize public safety.”

The administration still is in negotiations with other public employee unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Teamsters and the Laborers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The elusive standard of charitable care

By Bethany Jaeger
The Illinois Supreme Court has to decide which standard to use when considering a highly anticipated case about what not-for-profit hospitals have to do to qualify for local property tax exemptions. While the case specifically deals with Provena Covenant Medical Center in Champaign County, the court decision has potential to affect about 160 nonprofit hospitals throughout Illinois.

We previewed the six-year-old case in the September edition of Illinois Issues magazine. Provena filed for a property tax exemption in 2002 based on its status as a charitable organization, but the Illinois Department of Revenue denied the charitable exemption two years later. The hospital later applied for an exemption based on its status as a religious institution. (See a timeline of the case here.)

Both sides presented oral arguments before the Illinois Supreme Court this morning with drastically different beliefs about what should count when considering charitable exemptions and what evidence the court should consider in deference when determining whether Provena qualifies for that property tax exemption.

On one hand, Provena’s lawyer, Patrick Coffey with Locke, Lord, Bissell & Liddell in Chicago, argued that the justices should undertake a brand new review of whether the denial of the hospital’s charitable exemption violates the state Constitution. The state charter gives the General Assembly authority to exempt “property of the state, units of local government and school districts and property used exclusively for agricultural and horticultural societies, and for school, religious, cemetery and charitable purposes.”

On the other hand, the Illinois Department of Revenue, represented by Assistant Attorney General Evan Siegel, argued that the justices should give deference to the lower administrative orders issued by department director Brian Hamer and affirmed by the 4th District Court of Appeals. The thinking is that the Department of Revenue has expertise in property tax matters and was the authoritative body reviewing evidence provided by 15 witnesses and two experts during administrative hearings, so the court should give a high level of respect to the administrative findings when reviewing the case.

Which standard the court chooses affects how it would consider a 2004 recommendation of an administrative law judge. After the administrative hearings, the administrative law judge found that the hospital met the standard for charitable exemption. Hamer, however, disagreed. He had the final administrative opinion to reject the tax exemption. He deemed some of the evidence irrelevant and decided that Provena didn’t qualify for a tax exemption because it dedicated only 0.7 percent of its revenue that year to providing so-called charity care to 302 patients out of 110,000 patients admitted. “I find that the property does not qualify for the charitable institution tax exemption because the evidence is clear that this property is not used exclusively for charitable purposes,” he wrote.

The two sides further disagree about whether a certain percentage of charitable care should be a deciding factor in its tax-exempt status. Coffey argued that the standard for whether not-for-profit hospitals qualify for property tax exemptions should not be whether the hospitals designate a certain percentage of their income to providing free care to needy patients.

“That has never been the requirement, and it shouldn’t be the requirement,” he said to five of seven justices. Justices Thomas Kilbride of Rock Island and Rita Garman of Danville recused themselves and did not participate in the oral arguments.

Instead, Coffey said the determination should be on a case-by-case basis and should count the hospital’s total contribution to the community. “It’s not out of bounds to consider how much free care was given, but they have also gone beyond.” For instance, Provena operates Crisis Nursery, a 24/7 child abuse prevention and support service and provided more than $13.5 million on such “community benefits” in 2002, according to the hospital’s Supreme Court filing.

Siegel, however, argued that the dominant factor when deciding charitable exemptions is the primary use of the property. He refers to a six-point test established by a 1968 Illinois Supreme Court case Methodist Old Peoples Home v. Bernard Korzen. (Read the six criteria for nonprofit institutions in our September issue.)

“It doesn’t matter whether an organization itself … is a charitable organization,” Siegel said. “What matters on that analysis is whether it is using the property for a charitable purpose.” He added that tax exemptions are granted on an annual basis. “Just because you have it for one year doesn’t mean you have it for every year.”

Justice Robert Thomas asked whether the state expected the court to set a minimum requirement of a certain percentage of charitable care. Siegel said no, that the court already determined in 1907 that a hospital must provide a “substantial amount” of free care. “All the court need do in this case on this critical factor is decide that 0.7 percent revenues in a year that only 302 people out of 110,000 admissions obtained free and discounted care is not substantial.”

In addition to the charitable exemption, the two sides differed about whether the religious exemption should be part of the court’s consideration because of a discrepancy in the record.

Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald questioned several times how Hamer could have ruled that Provena did not qualify for a charitable exemption based on its religious affiliation when the administrative law judge never addressed that question. “I’m still puzzled at how the director based his finding upon a statement that wasn’t there.”

“Well, it was mistaken, absolutely,” Siegel responded. “But I believe that he read the [administrative law judge’s] opinion as not giving much weight to the religious exemption.”

Coffey argued that the administrative law judge did not address the religious exemption because she already found that an exemption was warranted as a charitable organization, and Hamer rejected the religious exemption without explanation.

In addition to differing over other details, the two sides predominantly argued that their opponents were trying to change the standard of determining whether hospitals qualify for property tax exemptions.

“Provena [provided] free and reduced care to just 302 patients,” Siegel said. “That’s not a large proportion. The primary use of the property is treatment of patients with insurance. By arguing that 0.7 percent is sufficient, Provena is trying to alter the constitutional standard. And it is for this court, not the legislature, to determine what constitutes a constitutional charitable use.”

Coffey countered that the state is the one trying to base a decision on a standard that has never been used by the court, referring to the use of a certain percentage needed to qualify for a tax exemption. He said a proposal to set a minimum percentage of charitable care should go through the legislative process, not the court system.

It is up to the court to decide which standard to use. Although Justices Kilbride and Garman recused themselves and are not required to disclose their reasons, a majority opinion still requires four justices, according to Joseph Tybor, Illinois Supreme Court spokesman.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Plan to release 1,000 prisoners unveiled

By Bethany Jaeger
About 1,000 prisoners who committed non-violent crimes will start being released from the Illinois Department of Corrections “within a couple of weeks” as a way to ease overcrowding and budget constraints, according to a plan announced today by department director Michael Randle.

The announcement came with a $4 million boost from the governor’s office. About $2 million of that is slated for so-called mandatory supervised electronic detention, or releasing non-violent drug offenders early from prison and giving them ankle bracelets and parole officers.

Reducing the average daily population by 1,000 could save the agency about $5 million a year, according to Januari Smith, spokeswoman for the corrections department. At one time, it was rumored that the state could release between 5,000 to 10,000 prisoners, which would have included more categories of prisoners than Randle intends to make eligible.

Randle plans to be stricter than state statute by excluding sex offenders, parole violators, inmates with active protective orders and inmates with a history of domestic violence from being eligible for early release. Since 1993, state law has allowed certain nonviolent offenders to be released within 90 days of their parole dates as long as they served home detention, including wearing electronic monitoring devices.

The concept of early release is supported by the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison reform group, as well as Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities. In a statement, president of TASC, Pamela Rodriguez, said: “In our extensive history working with the justice system, we have found that alternatives to incarceration are far more effective ways to reduce crime for the vast majority of non-violent, short-term drug-involved offenders.”

Bill Ryan, a prison reform activist since 1994 and publisher of the prisoner-written newspaper Stateville Speaks, said for my September column for Illinois Issues that he is “definitely in favor” of early release. However, he added, “my concern is that many of the people leaving prison on electronic monitoring will require some sort of supportive services, more than just having an ankle bracelet and a parole officer.”

Dubbed the Illinois Crime Reduction Act of 2009, the other part of the package will dedicate an additional $2 million to community-based services in an attempt to help non-violent drug offenders stay out of jail.

According to the department, the prison population has increased from 18,000 in fiscal year 1986 to nearly 46,000 in fiscal year 2009, much of it attributed to the higher rate of imprisonment for non-violent drug offenders.

Friday’s announcement did not mention layoffs of prison staff, but Smith said 419 prison workers already have received their notices and will be terminated September 30. Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration has said it will have to lay off as many as 1,000 corrections employees because it could not strike an agreement with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to take furlough days or forgo their annual raises. Some prison workers could be eligible to fill vacancies in other prisons.

The amount of overtime hours worked, however, has been increasing and cost the department $37 million two years ago, according to a recent audit. In 2005, the department employed 13,670 people, according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority. In August, Smith said the department employed 10,951.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Super-max prison reforms proposed

By Bethany Jaeger
One of the state’s maximum-security prisons designed to hold the most disruptive and violent offenders has a new set of rules that are intended to give inmates incentives to improve their behavior so they can return to less restrictive facilities.

The new Illinois Department of Corrections director, Michael Randle, issued a 10-step plan for reforming Tamms Correctional Center, which is at the very southwestern tip of the state. It houses an average of 432 men, costing an average of $67,000 each, according to the department. Male prisoners arrive at Tamms if they pose a threat to other inmates, themselves or prison staff. It’s one of six maximum-security prisons in Illinois and is intended for short-term placement until inmates are stable and able to return to the general prison population.

The “supermax” prison has been under scrutiny from human rights advocates and a volunteer group known as Tamms Year Ten for what it deems as prolonged solitary confinement and poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

Appointed by Quinn in May to replace former director Roger Walker, Randle was born in Chicago but worked 19 years in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, most recently as assistant director. His first assignment in Illinois was to review Tamms.

His 10-step plan announced today in Chicago includes a full mental health evaluation of all Tamms prisoners within 30 days of their arrival. Clinical staff also will make weekly rounds of all areas throughout the prison, not just the mental health unit, to detect whether inmates’ conditions worsen or if they become suicidal.

Another significant change is the new process for reviewing prisoners who are to be transferred from a lower security prison to Tamms. Hearings will be conducted to allow inmates to rebut information that led them to be placed in Tamms, and they would be able to appeal their placement there. All hearings would be recorded.

Other changes include:
  • Inform each inmate of an estimated time they’ll stay at Tamms and how they can earn privileges and eventually transfer out to a less restrictive prison.
  • Enhance incentives for good behavior, including earning the right to use the telephone or spend more time out of their cells.
  • Begin offering General Educational Development testing.
  • Implement congregate religious services for inmates.
  • Rescind some of the restrictions on printed materials.
  • Develop a plan to allow inmates access to a “step down” program, which would help at-risk inmates transition from Tamms to the general prison population.
  • Plan a media, legislative and public outreach program that includes a visit to Tamms.
  • Reexamine the population of inmates having served extensive time at Tamms to see whether they are eligible to transfer out. Some have been at Tamms since it opened in 1998.

Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of the Tamms Year Ten grass-roots campaign, says Randle’s reforms move in the right direction. The establishment of a transfer review hearing, for instance, is significant, she said. “Over half the prisoners who are there were not actually convicted of a crime in an Illinois prison, and many of them did not know the reasons for their placement. So this is a welcome reform.”

But she added that the reforms in general don’t go as far as desired in House Bill 2633, sponsored by Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat. (Hamos put the bill on hold in May because Randle recently took over, and she wanted to see what changes he would make.)

Hamos’ bill, as well as Tamms Year Ten, Amnesty International and other mental health advocates in Illinois, have sought an independent monitoring of mental health diagnosis and treatment of the prisoners.

“Our concern is that there are a lot of mentally ill prisoners there who have not been properly diagnosed or treated, and there’s nothing in the plan that would provide a safeguard for those prisoners,” Reynolds said.

According to Randle, who said he hasn’t considered an independent monitor, all staff are trained in recognizing the symptoms of mental illness or other psychological needs on an as-needed basis. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think it’s necessary for us to do that,” he said.

Reynolds said she also hoped to see clear criteria outlining reasons for transferring inmates to Tamms, rather than using the current case-by-case approach. She said she continues to work with other advocates and legislators to consider whether legislation should codify the changes so they remain permanent regardless of whether the administration changes.

Randle said he doesn’t know whether legislation would be needed because the changes are happening now and are intended to be permanent. However, he added: “I think it’s important to point out that a lot of this is contingent on the offenders’ behavior. … If the guys behave appropriately and do the right things, certainly these things will continue. If we begin to have issues that come up as a result of this, then certainly we need to be in a position to take a look at these.”

Reynolds said Quinn did a great thing by appointing Randle. “I feel like he is committed to long-term reforms and to changes, which are beneficial to both public safety and to prisoners and to lowering recidivism,” she said. On the other hand, she added, “this list of 10 things could end up being really superficial or they could end up being profound, depending on how they’re implemented. So we can only look forward to dialogue as we go forward.”