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