Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Brady unveils recovery plan

By Jamey Dunn

State Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican candidate for governor, laid out his plan for economic recovery today. He and Gov. Pat Quinn agree that job creation is the biggest issue of the campaign and even back some similar proposals. But their disagreements center on what may be the second biggest issue of the race: taxes.

Brady’s plan has four goals. The first is to create a “stable tax environment.”

As he has said before, he wants to repeal the sales tax on gasoline and the estate tax. He also wants to make permanent a research and development tax credit that the General Assembly extended this year.

He estimates that cutting the sales and estate taxes would cost the state $650 million to $1 billion. He says the economic growth those two cuts would spur means they would pay for themselves in a “year or two.” In the meantime, he would have to cut that amount if he wants to uphold his pledge of presenting a plan for a balanced budget to legislators next year.

Brady said discussion of an income tax increase, such as Quinn’s proposed 1-percentage-point hike, creates uncertainty for businesses and may encourage them to leave the state.

Besides pledging not to raise taxes, he wants to offer business a tax credit for hiring new workers. Quinn pitched a similar plan for small businesses, which is currently in effect. Any business with fewer than 50 employees that hires a new employee between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011 is eligible for a $2,500 tax credit. The total number of credits that can be doled out is capped at $50 million, enough for 20,000 new jobs.

Brady would offer $3,750 tax credit to all businesses for each new hire; $2,500 in the first year and $1,250 in the second year.

He would also create several panels to help him “engage in long-term strategic planning.” This second part of Brady’s plan includes naming a council of economic advisers and a task force to investigate the economic challenges facing communities on the state’s borders, which would be headed by Jason Plummer, Brady’s running mate.

Brady’s third goal is to make Illinois more competitive with other states. He says he wants to do that by making “significant changes” to the worker’s compensation system in Illinois and capping damages awarded for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases at $500,000. Although the Illinois Supreme Court has struck down similar caps three times, Brady said he doesn’t think Democrats made a “sincere effort” to draft a bill that would hold up to a constitutional challenge. However, he could not describe what aspects of former bills he would change.

Finally, Brady says he wants to bring “transparency and accountability” to the budgeting process. He has said he cannot provide a detailed budget until after he is governor and can audit the state’s finances. Brady blamed his absence of details on a lack of transparency from the Quinn administration. He said he would appoint a jobs ombudsman to help businesses navigate state regulations. He also wants to prohibit new spending or programs without dedicated funding sources and “measurable” outcomes.

But Quinn said later that there is no money for Brady’s cuts. He said that businesses looking to set up shop in Illinois are most concerned with the quality of the state’s infrastructure and workforce. “I think he’s not being honest with the people running around the state saying he’s going to cut all these taxes. Well, how’s he going to pay for education, health care, public safety and helping our veterans?” Quinn has proposed property tax cuts if his plan for an income tax increases is approved.

Brady said that as a small business owner, he knows what businesses are looking for in Illinois. “I understand the importance of education. I understand the importance of infrastructure. I understand the importance of deregulation.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Illinois' race for education funds spurred reforms

By Jamey Dunn

Losing both rounds in the Race to the Top federal grant competition was a frustrating experience, but Illinois is better for having tried, according to state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch.

In the first round of the competition, the U.S. Department of Education doled out $4.35 billion to two states. Illinois placed fifth with a score of 423.8 out of 500. In phase two, 10 states got $3.4 billion, and Illinois was 15th with a score of 426.6.

Koch said the Illinois State Board of Education worked hard to get more school districts and unions to sign on for phase two. The state’s participation levels were criticized in the first phase. (For more on this effort, see Illinois Issues, September 2010, page 13.)

He said some local officials were concerned about allowing the federal government to have too much control over education. Expanding programs based on federal grants that expire was also an issue. Schools were concerned about where the money would come from when the grants ran out.

Koch added it is difficult for Illinois to compete with states that have fewer districts. In some of the winning states, each county is a school district. By comparison, Illinois has 102 counties and 869 school districts. Two of the winners, the District of Columbia and Hawaii, each have just one district. “We have to just sell it to local boards and local school districts and local unions again and again and again. It just requires an awful lot of selling.”

Koch said the schools participating represent 82 percent of students in Illinois.

ISBE officials focused on the areas that lost points on the first round while doing little to change parts of the application that scored well. However, a completely new panel scored the second round. Koch said some of the areas of the application that impressed the judges in the first round failed to do so in the second. “It makes it hard because we were responding to the first application.” He added that because the judges do not compare the states and not all the same judges scored every state, some states had lower participation levels than Illinois but scored higher on that section of the application. “My take on this is that it depends on the team [of judges] you’ve got. … It sort if makes it more like a Race to the Top lottery.”

While the loss was disappointing, Koch said, competing in Race to the Top did spur important reforms that he said would have not happened as quickly on their own, such legislation that requires higher standards for principal certification. “I think that overall, that we are better for having gone through this process. … These are the right reforms.”

Funding for education jobs

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin announced in Chicago today that the federal government has released $415 million to help save education jobs in Illinois. Officials can begin allocating the money today. Koch called for the General Assembly to appropriate the funds in a special session, but Gov. Pat Quinn has said a special session is unnecessary, so it likely will not happen. Durbin estimates it will save 5,700 education jobs in the state.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tax cuts don't add up

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn has incorporated a new component to his proposal for the state budget: property tax relief.

Quinn’s original budget proposal included a 1-percentage-point income tax increase, which he said would go wholly to fund education. At the time, the governor was proposing a $1.3 billion cut to education as the only alternative to the tax, which he said would be necessary to replace federal stimulus funds that will not be coming this fiscal year. Quinn’s budget office estimated the tax increase would bring in $2.8 billion. Some of the money was also meant to go toward paying down the millions in overdue bills the state owes schools.

Quinn has been bringing up the point for months that cutting school funding could lead to higher property taxes. “If you don’t have the state fully supporting education the way it should, local property taxes go up. That’s a[n] iron law. That happens. If the state doesn’t pay for schools, then local property taxes end up paying for schools,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference.

When pressed by reporters on the issue yesterday, Quinn said he would require local school districts to cut property taxes if his so-called “surcharge for education” income tax increase passed.

Today, Quinn emphasized a concept that is not new. “I think, from my viewpoint, we’ve got to reduce reliance on property taxes to fund education in Illinois. That is an imperative if we want to have a stronger economy and have better education. The state of Illinois, according to our Constitution, has the primary responsibility for funding schools.”

The idea that education should be funded predominately by state dollars and not local property taxes has long been a topic of debate. It was the thrust of the Senate Bill 750 plan, which the tax increase that passed in the Senate last year was based upon. However, that plan, which stalled in the House, includes a 2-percentage-point income tax increase and broadening sales tax to include some services.

Here is how Quinn explains his plan: “What I would envision is, the amount of money that the school districts get, additional new money from the state, a portion of that would be abated in property tax abatements — reductions — to the families and businesses and farmers of Illinois. … If you get additional new money from Springfield, from the state government, then I think part of the bargain has to be that the local school districts at least roll back a portion of their property taxes. … They end up getting more money. … They’ll get more money for education, and the taxpayers will get lower property taxes.”

But Quinn’s plan is scaled back on the revenue side. Promising more funding for education and a cut in taxes during an unprecedented budget deficit while facing a huge stack of unpaid bills may be unrealistic. Quinn’s proposed income tax increase would barely make a dent in the estimated $13 billion budget deficit.

Quinn’s Republican opponent in the governor’s race, Sen. Bill Brady, has claimed that he can balance the budget in one year, while avoiding mass teacher layoffs and property tax hikes. His plan also includes a billion dollars in tax cuts.

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, doubts that large tax reductions will come if Brady is elected. “We’re not going to have a huge tax cut because we will have a Democratic Senate. And we can’t afford it anyway.”

Requests to Quinn’s budget office for more specifics on his proposal were met with referral back to tape of the news conference that Quinn held in Chicago earlier today, where he took questions on the plan but did not get into the numbers.

While proposals to cut taxes may play well on the campaign trails for both candidates, it appears that the money for such plans is just not there — even with an income tax increase. The state’s budget gap is just too big.

Blagojevich retrial expected in January

Gov. Rod Blagojevich will not face a retrial on corruption charges until January. His brother, Robert Blagojevich, will not face another trial at all.

Federal prosecutors dropped the four corruption counts against Robert that stemmed from four months he spent heading up his brother’s fundraising efforts in 2008.

Robert testified during the first trial, but the former governor did not. The jury was unable to reach agreement on any of the counts against Robert. Members of the jury have since told reporters they think he got caught up in an ongoing scheme and may not have intended to break the law.

Judge James Zagel said he plans to set a trial date for the former governor to begin no earlier than January 4. Blagojevich was convicted on one count of lying to federal agents, but the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on 23 other charges.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Illinois loses out on Race to the Top funds

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois has lost its bid for a potential $400 million in federal education funding.

The U.S. Department of Education announced the 10 winners in the final round of the competitive grant program Race to the Top, and Illinois was not on the list. The District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island will split $3.4 billion.

Illinois went on to compete in the second round of the program after failing to win any funding in the first phase. In that round, Illinois ranked fifth out of 41 applicants, but only the top two states, Tennessee and Delaware, received grants.

State Superintendent Chris Koch said that Illinois made improvements to its application for phase two based on the phase one review process. He said one of the biggest hurdles the state faced was getting districts and teachers' unions to sign on. “It is hard for Illinois, given the number of districts that we have.” (For more on the phase two application process, see the upcoming September issue of Illinois Issues.)

Koch said the competition did spur some important changes in Illinois, such as legislation to increase the number of charter schools in the state, revamp teacher assessments and update administrator training programs. “We do feel the state of Illinois is better for having gone though this process,” he said.

When the Department of Education releases Illinois' reviewed application tomorrow, the State Board of Education will get a better idea of why its bid did not win.

Koch said the state education budget was not planned around getting the grant, and he still hopes to implement many of the ideas included in the state’s Race to the Top application. But some programs may be scaled back and will take much longer to roll out, since there are few education dollars to go around.

However, there is hope for Illinois that another phase of federal grants could be on the horizon.

"We had many more competitive applications than money to fund them in this round,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a written release. “We're very hopeful there will be a Phase Three of Race to the Top and have requested $1.35 billion in next year's budget. In the meantime, we will partner with each and every state that applied to help them find ways to carry out the bold reforms they've proposed in their applications.”

Quinn names new chief of staff

By Jamey Dunn

Amid continuing controversy over the circumstances surrounding the resignation of his former top aide, Gov. Pat Quinn named a new chief of staff today.

Quinn tapped Michelle Saddler, who has been secretary of the Department of Human Services since last October. Prior to then, she served as director of policy for Quinn. Grace Hou, who was the Department of Human Services assistant secretary for programs, now serves as the agency’s acting secretary. UPDATE: Hou declined the appointment for "personal reasons" according to a written statement from the agency. She remains assistant secretary for programs. Quinn has since named Grace Hong Duffin, former DHS chief of staff, as acting secretary.

Quinn's former chief of staff Jerry Stermer resigned unexpectedly on Sunday. He said he was stepping down after the Chicago Sun-Times reported on an internal probe into campaign-related emails sent from Stermer's state account. Stermer sent three such emails and later reported himself to Quinn’s inspector general, James Wright. Wright issued a report recommending that Attorney General Lisa Madigan file a complaint against Stermer before the state Executive Ethics Commission. A member of Quinn’s staff notified Wright that he was being replaced on the same day he turned in his report.

At the Chicago news conference held to announce Saddler’s appointment, Quinn adamantly denied allegations that there was a connection between the report and the decision to replace Wright. “It is false. It has not a shred of truth.” He said Wright was given notice in the morning on August 13, and that he was not aware that Wright’s report had been issued until that evening.

Quinn said his office had been looking for a new inspector general since March and had interviewed Wright’s replacement, Ricardo Meza, in late June.

“I don’t think [Wright] labored under any assumption that I was going to reappoint him. I, for more than a year, was looking for a replacement,” Quinn said. Wright told the Sun-Times that he did not know Quinn’s reasons for replacing him.

Quinn said he does not interfere with his inspector general’s work and had only met Wright once. “I keep total distance from that office. … I do not interfere in any way shape or form with the office of inspector general. Never have. Never will.”

Stermer likely faced a suspension for his relatively minor ethics violations, according to Quinn. But instead, he opted to resign after the report was leaked to the press. “I feel very badly for Jerry because he is an exemplary public servant. He made a couple of mistakes. … He was willing to take whatever discipline would be administered.”

Quinn called Saddler a “committed idealistic person” who is “hard working” and “honest.”

“I am me,” said Saddler, who also worked for Quinn when he was state treasurer. “I bring all the strengths and shortcomings that a person might have, but I work hard. I believe in honesty all the way. And I believe in partnership. So I look forward to a continued partnership with our legislators, our employees, our providers and our advocacy groups. And of course with all our state agencies and Gov. Quinn.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quinn takes hits on exit of top staff member

By Jamey Dunn

State Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican candidate for governor, took a shot today at Gov. Pat Quinn over the exit of one of his top staff members.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Quinn’s chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, resigned after the newspaper posed questions about Stermer sending campaign related emails from his government email account. UPDATE: Quinn is scheduled to name a new chief of staff tomorrow afternoon.

It is illegal for public employees in Illinois to handle political tasks on the job or use state resources for campaigning.

Stermer, the former president of the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children, said in a written statement: “Last year, I inadvertently used my state email account to send three emails that the Office of Executive Inspector General (OEIG) later found to be prohibited under the state's Ethics Act. While my intention was not to do anything wrong, I recognized that a mistake was made and quickly disclosed this information to the Governor's Ethics Officer -- a former Assistant U.S. Attorney -- who recommended that I provide the information to the OEIG for appropriate investigation. I voluntarily provided the information to the OEIG for investigation, and made it clear that I was prepared to accept the consequences for my mistakes.”

According to the Sun-Times, the governor removed Inspector General James Wright on August 13, the same day he was briefed on a report from Wright recommending that Attorney General Lisa Madigan file a complaint against Stermer before the state Executive Ethics Commission.

Brady responded with a statement today. “This is yet another stunning report involving the administration of Governor Pat Quinn. Today’s revelation suggests that on the very day Pat Quinn was confronted with evidence by the Inspector General of an ethics violation, Pat Quinn put his political interests before citizens yet again and fired the Inspector General himself.

But the Quinn administration claims the report and the replacement of Wright, who was appointed by Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, were not linked. “Ricardo Meza was appointed by Governor Quinn to head the Office of the Executive Inspector General on August 15, 2010 after a lengthy search process, which began in the Summer of 2009. Ricardo Meza replaced an Inspector General appointed by the previous administration whose term expired in 2008. The replacement was not in response to this or any other specific OEIG report, and these events are in no way connected,” a statement from the governor’s office said.

Kent Redfield,an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said it would be more useful to Brady’s campaign to frame it as an issue with Quinn’s managerial skills than his ethics. “It’s much easier to make the case that Quinn is incompetent [than corrupt.] … That Quinn’s a nice person but he isn’t up to the job is an easier sell.”

Redfield said Stermer’s offense seemed “minor,” and he was surprised that Quinn thought they warranted a resignation. However, he said: “In this day in age, because everybody believes that everybody is corrupt, you have to bend over backwards not to create this situation.”

Stermer’s departure, along with the losses of other key staff members, might make voters consider whether Quinn’s employees have confidence in their boss’ ability to win the general election, Redfield said. “It certainly is curious, and it is just one more thing that the governor doesn’t need at this point. … At some point, people are going to ask whether this is a rats-deserting-the-sinking-ship sort of thing.”

Friday, August 20, 2010

Delving deeper into budget cuts: part 2

By Jamey Dunn

Because the State Fair, which celebrates agriculture in Illinois, is in full swing this week, I thought I would delve into Gov. Pat Quinn’s $6.5 million in proposed cuts for the Department of Agriculture (Italics are pulled directly from Quinn’s proposal):

($1.1M) Operations Lump Sum
Additional management efficiencies

Jeff Squibb, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said these funds would come from leaving vacant staff positions open and working to bring in more federal money. “We have been working for the past several years to wean the agency off of [state general revenue funds,]” he said.

Squibb said the department would attempt to find such efficiencies as keeping vacant positions open and monitoring office supplies. He says administrators will reassess the budget every month and may eventually have to make cuts to programs and services.

($5.4M) Grants Lump Sum
County Extension Programs
Soil and Water Conservation Districts reduced 42 percent in
administration costs to create efficiencies, while maintaining
capital projects to help control erosion and other conservation
projects in Illinois
State Fair Premiums reduced, resulting in smaller purses for
various contests

Richard Nichols, executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said the 42 percent reduction is from fiscal year 2010 funding levels. The organization could not, he said, maintain the two-person team, one administrative worker and one technical expert, that each district is meant to have as its staff.

“It’s going to be devastating,” he said of the proposed budget reduction. Some districts bring in money from handling permit reviews for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, but he  said the money is not coming in like it used to because development has shrunk as a result of the bad economy. He added that some districts receive county funds, but those are being cut, as well, because counties also face budget gaps. “Most on the soil and water conservation districts rely solely on state funding.”

Nichols said that because the districts are units of state government they cannot be consolidated or closed without referendums. So the end result may be that some districts continue to exist but not have employees to help bring in federal funds and advise on conservation projects.
“Some of them are going to go until they run out of money.”

He added that districts bring in “a lot of conservation funding. And, of course, those funds go to pay land-improvement contractors for what they do. So those are jobs we’re losing out on.”

Nichols said that some residents may not realize what their soil and water conservation districts do to prevent erosion, water contamination and flooding. “If they do their job correctly, nobody knows they’re out there. If they do their job correctly, all you see is grass and clean water.”

The University of Illinois Extension program has already undertaken a restructuring plan that will consolidate its 76 administrative units down to 30, each serving between three and five counties.

Robert Hoeft, interim associate dean of the Extension and outreach, said the Extension, which is best known for administering 4-H youth agricultural programs, is looking at program cuts. “In the past, we’ve tried to do anything everybody wanted. And we’ve just got ourselves spread so thin. So now we are going to target our programs to high-impact areas. So the things that are nice but don’t really make an impact in the state of Illinois — we are going to eliminate those things.”

Squibb said Extension officials did a good job of preparing residents for the changes. “They held hearings throughout the state; they were very proactive when it came to these budget cuts. …They recognized that in order to maintain some level of service, they were going to have to reduce their own spending.”

Squibb said overall he has not heard complaints at the fair where many in the agriculture community have gathered to compete and showcase farming. He said most people are aware that times are hard for the state and are prepared to see some tough cuts. “I am not saying they are happy. …We’re at a point now where we are cutting worthwhile programs. It is not an instance where we are eliminating — if you’ll pardon the phrase — pork.”

(For information on cuts to the Department of Children and Family services, see the first installment of Delving deeper into the budget cuts.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Quinn and Brady vague on the budget

By Jamey Dunn

Both Gov. Pat Quinn and his Republican opponent, state Sen. Bill Brady, have yet to publicly spell out all the details of their plans for the state budget.

Quinn claims he has made about $3 billion in cuts during his time in office, and Brady said he plans to cut a “dime on every dollar of government spending.

“We’ve cut the budget this fiscal year by $1.4 billion. We have laid out the exact blueprint,” Quinn said.

Republicans have called on Quinn
in the past to produce a list of his cuts, but he has not obliged. When Quinn laid out agency cuts at the beginning of the 2011 fiscal year, he said the budget was a moving target. He issued new budget numbers for agencies this month.

David Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, describes Quinn’s plan as “built on quicksand.” He says Quinn must do more to reassure school superintendents that the $415 million that Illinois is set to receive from the federal government to help save education jobs will be spent to bring back teachers who got pink slips in the spring.

Quinn said of the federal funding: “Primarily it is for our K-12. However our education budget in Illinois, it’s somewhat seamless. … In a lot of ways, when we get help from Washington [D.C.] for our grammar schools and high schools, that does help us in other parts of our education budget.”

Comerford said there is still uncertainty surrounding the governor’s budget, and administrators will not know what their budgets will look like until Quinn makes his intentions clear. “We’d like to see people hired back. That’s why this was passed. Certainly a comment like that doesn’t help that situation,” he said in response to Quinn’s statement.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch says a special legislative session will be needed to dole out the money, but Quinn disagrees.

“I think people have a choice. They have a governor who tells the truth before the election. ... The other guy just wants to tell a bunch of fairy tales and raise your taxes, especially your property taxes after the election.”

Meanwhile, Brady has done next to nothing to inform voters of his specific intentions for the budget. He said he can’t build his plan unless he is in the governor’s office with the access to fiscal information and staff that the position entails. “I know we’re going to cut a dime on every dollar. … I don’t have the professionals in place to fully analyze the highest priorities.”

Brady said Quinn has limited access to budget information. “The lack of transparency from this insider government is creating an environment that — you can’t give specifics to those details.”
He has claimed to be able to balance the budget in a year without a tax increase while avoiding massive layoffs in education. That task could prove difficult, since education costs make up about a quarter of all state spending. He said he would consider cutting entire programs and that every state program is on the table for such cuts. “I will demand of every agency to come back with a budget of 90 percent. Show us what your priorities are within that 90 percent,” he said.

While neither candidate has presented a specific plan, that doesn’t stop them from taking jabs at each other's stance on the budget.

Brady said Quinn’s proposal to increase the state income tax from 3 percent to 4 percent would seriously damage the state’s economy and that the governor’s policies have chased jobs and tax revenues out of the state. “The Quinn government has been spending money we don’t have. We need a fiscal conservative to step into state government and live within our means.”

Quinn said failing to pass an income tax increase and making the kind of cuts to education that he says would be necessary under Brady’s plan would result in increased property taxes on the local level. “He doesn’t want to tell people what his budget plan is. We know what it is. It’s to wreck education, wreck health care, wreck public safety and harm the people of Illinois.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

As Blagojevich celebrates, prosecutors plan

By Jamey Dunn

While Rod Blagojevich and his legal team seemed to celebrate a victory almost akin to an acquittal, federal prosecutors did not hesitate in getting the ball rolling on another corruption trial for the former governor. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said a hearing to set a new trial date is scheduled for Aug. 26.

The jury did find Blagojevich guilty on the charge of lying to federal agents. The count alleges he made a false statement to FBI agents in 2005 ,when he told them that he kept his role as governor and his fundraising enterprises completely separate, saying he kept a “firewall” between the two.

However, jurors did not come to a conclusion on the 23 other counts, including those connected to Blagojevich allegedly attempting to sell Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, hold up funding for a children's hospital and a school to extort campaign money and fundraising help, and use his elected office for personal gain.

Jurors also couldn’t agree on the four corruption charges that Blagojevich’s brother, Robert, faced stemming from his time heading the former governor’s fundraising efforts.

I didn’t let you down. The jury has shown that the government couldn’t prove that I did anything wrong,” Rod Blagojevich said at a courthouse news conference. Blagojevich accused the prosecution of persecuting him since his arrest last December and called the felony charge he was convicted on “nebulous.” He said he plans to appeal the convictions.

Blagojevich’s father-and-son legal team, Sam Adam and Sam Adam Jr., both took personal responsibility for the single conviction ,saying it was a result of their showings as lawyers, not Blagojevich’s guilt.

Sam Adam Jr. said that the verdict proved a claim he had made early in the trial. “You are going to find out that he is a fundamentally non-corrupt individual. He is not corruptible.”

Adam went on to say that a retrial would be a waste of taxpayers' money and that prosecutors should instead give “the money that [they] would spend on a retrial … back to the people of Illinois.”

Republicans — who will likely revisit the trial and verdict throughout their campaigns for the November general election — were quick to respond by issuing a flurry of statements.

“While we hoped this decision would mark the end of an unfortunate chapter and put this embarrassing episode behind us, today’s conviction of Rod Blagojevich for lying to federal law enforcement officials will likely result in further action in the pursuit of justice. But one thing is clear: The people of Illinois are rightly frustrated about the unchecked power of politicians like Rod Blagojevich who put the special interests before taxpayers. This important election in November marks the single best opportunity in our lifetime to finally clean house in Springfield,” Sen. Bill Brady, Republican candidate for governor said in a written statement.

However, Gov. Pat Quinn was a little slower to give his thoughts. After canceling two public events at the Illinois State Fair, he held a news conference late in the evening and called for unity.

“Whatever your party, whatever you region, whatever your beliefs, we are Illinoisans and we are all Americans.”

Quinn added: “Clearly today is a sad day for our state. Another former governor was convicted of a felony by a jury of 12 men and women, good and true.”

He declined to discuss the other counts against Blagojevich, saying they still had to be decided by a jury. After giving his statement, Quinn started to walk toward his office as reporters shouted questions. He then seemed to reconsider and returned to the lectern.

When asked if he had any culpability in Blagojevich’s alleged corruption because he ran for reelection with Blagojevich after rumors of wrongdoing had surfaced, Quinn said: “When I saw something that wasn’t right, I decided to go for the power of recall. … I think that is the best way to deal with an issue that we saw in government. If there is a situation where the voters feel an incumbent is not keeping true to the public, then there ought to be a way for the public to act.”

Political scientists and Statehouse watchers took a long view, saying Blagojevich should not be treating the verdict as a victory and that the system worked — at least to some degree.

“It is serious. It’s a felony. … He’ll probably lose his law license. He’s going to jail,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Charlie Wheeler, longtime Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and current director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said until the jury talks to the media, it is too early to speculate on what the outcome may mean or on the odds of conviction in a retrial. “The only thing on which there is any clarity is the fact that 12 people decided that he did lie to federal agents. … It’s only a [Blagojevich] victory in the sense that [he hasn’t] lost yet.”

(Note: Juror's reportedly left the courthouse today without making statements. For some insight on the jurors' deliberation, see the Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times' Blago Blog, which are reporting on jurors' early statements. )

Monday, August 16, 2010

Quinn approves tax amnesty

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 377, which creates a so-called tax amnesty period (at the bottom of the linked post) from October 1 to November 8. Anyone owing the state back taxes from 2002 to 2009 can pay them during that period without penalties or interest.

Quinn came around to the plan after voicing some reservations during the early days of spring legislative session.

State agencies would also be allowed to enter into deferred payment agreements to settle debts at no less than 80 percent of the amount due and use private debt collection agencies to obtain owed money. The plan could bring in an estimated $250 million.

"MGT Push" report may spur legislation

By Jamey Dunn

After a scathing report from a panel he appointed to look into the controversial “Meritorious Good Time Push (MGT Push) program,” Gov. Pat Quinn faces renewed prompting to clean up early prison release initiatives.

The Associated Press reported in December that the Illinois Department of Corrections (DoC) was applying “good time” credit to prisoners’ sentences as soon as they began serving them, allowing some to walk free after as few as 11 days. The department previously had a longstanding policy that required prisoners to serve at least 61 days before they could receive discretionary early release credit.

Once the escalated version of the program made news, Quinn put an end to it and asked Judge David Erickson to work with his staff to present recommendations for reform. Quinn said he would not reinstate the longstanding Meritorious Good Time program, with its 61-day waiting period, until changes are put in place. “I have suspended all of the meritorious good time until everything is corrected along the lines of what the judge has recommended,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference.

The panel’s report, which charges the DoC with taking a flawed program and making it worse, will likely affect the governor’s race, as well as spur legislation during the General Assembly's November veto session. “These problems at the Department of Corrections are systemic, they’re longstanding, there’s lots of flaws, they need to be corrected. And I’m going to do that,” Quinn said.

The report first lays out all the factors that should be considered in an early release program:

Statutory early-release programs — such as the Illinois program that awards good conduct
credit for meritorious service — represent an effort on the part of the legislative and executive branches to balance a multitude of objectives, including: (1) ensuring that offenders are adequately punished for their offenses; (2) effectively deterring offenders and would-be offenders from committing offenses; (3) respecting the rights of crime victims; (4) incentivizing incarcerated offenders toward good conduct in prison and rehabilitation; and (5) enabling prison officials to manage inmate populations by addressing legal, operational, and financial concerns associated with prison overcrowding.

It then goes on to describe how the “MGT Push” plan was only geared toward saving money and failed to address some of the most important considerations associated with early release. “The MGT Push program was a mistake. Although focused on reducing costs during a fiscal crisis, it failed to accomplish the overriding goals of the State’s Code of Corrections: protecting the public’s safety and restoring inmates to useful citizenship.”

“MGT Push” resulted in 1,745 inmates being released before the usual 61 days. On average, they served 36 fewer days than they would have under 61-day policy. The DoC estimated that “MGT Push” could save $3.4 million annually.

The report made several recommendations:
  • The legislature should give the DoC the power to revoke “Meritorious Good Time” credit, so it would become a stronger incentive for good behavior. If a prisoner caused problems, the DoC could reduce or take away his or her early release time.
  • The legislature should further restrict which offenses make a prisoner ineligible for good time credit.
  • Prisoners should have more access to education and rehabilitation programs that “facilitate their reentry into society and restore them to useful citizenship.”
  • The DoC should create a consistent method to award good prisoners credit for their sentences and determine what education and reentry help they need.
  • The DoC should release an annual report on the program and streamline communication with local law enforcement jurisdictions to more easily notify them of early releases and get information about prisoners.
  • The DoC should update its computer and database system.
Upgrading the computer system and Quinn’s backing of DoC Director Michael Randle have become points of contention in the governor's race between the Democrat Quinn, who is seeking election to a full term, and state Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican nominee.

Quinn said he wants to direct capital funding to a new DoC computer system and accuses Brady of blocking such efforts. Quinn blamed the aging computer system when the Associated Press uncovered documents showing the state had lost track of more than 50 parolees who were let out of prison early under “MGT Push.”

Brady spokesperson Patty Schuh said Quinn has the power to fund such a project without legislative approval. “He has more money in discretionary (capital) funding than any governor in the history of the state of Illinois and has more (budgeting) power than any governor in the history of Illinois.” Schuh said it was irresponsible of Quinn to release inmates early if he knew the computer system was out of date.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican, released a statement saying that Quinn never proposed upgrades to the DoC computers during negotiations with legislative leaders over a capital spending bill. "To suggest that legislators of either party have somehow prevented him from upgrading the prisoner tracking system at the Department of Corrections is just not true.”

Brady has also renewed calls for Quinn to fire Randle, who Quinn said released violent offenders early without his knowledge.

Quinn acknowledged that he considered letting Randle go but has decided that he is the best choice to spearhead the new reforms. “The man made a mistake. He is a nationally recognized expert, and he’s done a number of good things with respect to running our prisons. This is not any easy job.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Blagojevich jury deadlocked

Federal jurors in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial have reached an impasse and sent a note to Judge James Zagel asking for instruction. The jury reportedly cannot come to a unanimous conclusion on some or all counts. Zagel instructed them to determine if they can reach a decision on any of the counts. The judge said the jury has left for the evening and will not respond to his instruction until tomorrow.

Mattoon drops out of FutureGen 2.0

By Jamey Dunn

Mattoon has dropped out of the revamped FutureGen 2.0 carbon capture project, which is intended to trap greenhouse gases from coal-fired electrical generation underground to slow global warming.

Mattoon was chosen in 2007 as the site for a first-of-it-kind “clean coal" power plant, which would sequester its carbon emissions underground and theoretically become a proving ground for a relatively untested technology. But politics and rising construction costs stalled the project, and many in the area had grown skeptical about whether the plant would ever be built.

Their skepticism was confirmed last Thursday, when U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin unveiled a new plan, dubbed FutureGen 2.0, which does not include the plant. Instead, the plan calls for an out-of-commission Ameren plant in Meredosia to be retrofitted for a new technology known as “oxy-burn,” which involves burning coal in pure oxygen. Carbon emissions from that plant would have been pumped through a subterranean pipeline and stored underground in Mattoon.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated about $1 billion for coal research, which many assumed would go toward construction of the Mattoon plant. However, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated the construction costs could be as high as $2.3 billion.

Durbin said that during the time the plan has been on hold, private industry has started to test the technology that would have been studied there. So, he said there was no longer a strong enough justification for a new plant with such a high pricetag.

Durbin added, “So we had to find another way to create this opportunity for Coles County and Illinois, … one that fit into the existing budget.”

The new plan would have constructed a training center on or near the site where the Mattoon plant would have been built. Workers there would learn how to retrofit power plants for “oxy-burn” and build pipelines to transport carbon.

Angela Griffin, president of Coles Together — a county economic development group that has worked closely on the project —said that she first heard of the new plan when Durbin announced it on Thursday. She said an outpouring of public sentiment against the town’s potential involvement in the plan came soon after. The DOE gave Mattoon until Friday as the deadline for a decision.

Griffin sent a letter to Durbin today to inform him that the town would not be a part of the new plan. From the letter:

While I have nothing but the highest level of regard for the time and effort that you and the FutureGen Alliance expended to make this project viable, our challenges with FutureGen 2.0, as proposed by the Department of Energy, are too big to overcome.

I want to emphasize that the concept of carbon capture and sequestration has nothing whatsoever to do with the reasons we have chosen not to pursue what is known as FutureGen 2.0. As a citizenry, we embraced that technology and believe it to be a safe and practical approach to removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The simple fact remains that we agreed to host what was presented as the world’s first near-zero emissions research and demonstration facility – the latest in power generation technology paired with underground storage for the facility’s greenhouse gas emissions. Hosting the original FutureGen was something this community embraced with great pride. Ours would be a distinct and honorable mission in an emerging scientific field. Mattoon was to be a focal point for smart, forward-looking solutions in a carbon constrained world.

Unfortunately, our role in FutureGen 2.0 does not support that effort. If FutureGen 2.0 moves ahead with the revised structure described today, it must be without Coles County.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, said that the people of the area have been disappointed by developments in the project before, so they are suspicious of the new proposal. “What [the DOE and Durbin] underestimated is that the local officials and their constituents, they have a memory.”

Righter said that promises of potential benefits to the area, such as job creation and the construction of training facility, seemed to be shaky, and residents were concerned that they would not pan out.

He said he would have preferred to have a public hearing on the issue, but the accelerated timeline and lack on a detailed plan made it difficult to bring the issue directly to the people of the area. “A public hearing means that you present what you know, and then you get the public’s input on it. It was tough to know what is real and what was fiction.”

However, Griffin said that no matter how much explanation was given, the town would not have signed on. “Not in this format. Time would not have changed the decision here. This project is not right for this community. … There is a feeling of betrayal, I think, from the residents. They had sacrificed a lot to partner on this project, and we felt we weren’t being taken seriously as a partner.”

Durbin said in a written statement that the plan will move ahead without Mattoon: “This week, I will ask the Department of Energy to solicit other Illinois communities to take on the role envisioned for Mattoon. Both my office and the Department of Energy have heard from a number of communities throughout the state expressing their interest. I wish cost overruns, project delays and rapid advances in science in other parts of the country had not necessitated a change in the FutureGen project. But we must face reality.”

Tuscola officials have voiced interest in taking Mattoon's place in the project. Tuscola was a runner-up for the original FutureGen plant.

Federal funds may require special session

By Jamey Dunn

As Gov. Pat Quinn tries to piece together a budget with billions in unpaid bills piling up, the federal government will be chipping in to help cover Medicaid and education costs. This new revelation could mean the General Assembly will have to hold a special session to dole out the education funds.

President Barack Obama signed a $26.1 billion spending package intended to preserve public sector and education jobs. The measure also extends an elevated Medicaid match — which works out to 62 cents on the dollar for Illinois instead of the usual 50 cents — that was set to expire at the end of the year. Illinois would likely get about $400 million for education and $550 million for Medicaid.

Officials at the Illinois State Board of Education believe that the General Assembly will have to return to Springfield to appropriate the federal dollars for education. From a newsletter written by State Superintendent Christopher Koch:

Illinois stands to receive an additional $400 million in federal education funding. We believe that if the spending measure becomes law, the Illinois General Assembly would have to come back to Springfield to pass a supplemental appropriation, and these funds would likely be distributed through General State Aid.

Quinn’s Office of Management and Budget and the legislative leaders are all reviewing the bill to determine if a special session is needed. Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for the governor’s budget office, said a decision could come by next week.

ISBE spokesperson Mary Fergus said the federal government estimated the money could save up to 5,600 education jobs in Illinois. She added that applications for the funds should be available to states in about a week.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Most employers cannot check credit scores

By Jamey Dunn

Those who have been having trouble making ends meet and are looking for work in the down economy may have one obstacle cleared from their paths.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today that prevents employers from looking at credit histories when deciding whom to hire, promote or fire. The law makes exceptions for certain jobs and industries.

At a Chicago news conference, Quinn acknowledged that the recent economic collapse has caused many people to fall behind on their bills. “We cannot allow folks who are doing their level best to be discriminated against with respect to getting a job or keeping a job. And unfortunately, some employers are using the credit score of an individual person to decide whether someone gets hired or someone gets retained on a job or someone gets a promotion on that job. And I don’t think that’s fair.”

Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, a sponsor of House Bill 4658, said that if employers use credit histories when making hiring choices, people who are down on their luck face a much tougher climb to get their finances back in order. “If you lose your job and your credit is damaged as a result, and if employers use your credit to prevent you from getting a job, this is a vicious cycle that folks will never get out of. … At the same time, it provides to employers that have a legitimate need to look at an applicants credit history the ability to do so.”

Karen Kent, executive vice president of the hospitality industry union UNITE HERE Local 1, said that credit history is not relevant to job performance for most jobs. “Bad credit is often the result of life circumstances not poor character. … We don’t believe that a bartender that has been through a divorce is less likely to serve a good cocktail or that a hotel housekeeper who has medical bills is less likely to present a clean room to the guests.”

Kent said the bill would especially help out minorities who have been disproportionately impacted by foreclosure, unemployment and predatory lending. Harmon said he hopes the bill would stop some employers from “using credit scores as a convenient way to discriminate against applicants.”

The bill exempts entire industries, such as banks and insurance providers, which Harmon said “traditionally and almost universally deal with people’s confidential financial information.” The bill also makes exemptions for specific positions that might require an applicant to handle cash or have access to credit information.

Mary Lynn Fayuomi, president and chief executive officer of The Management Association of Illinois, said the legislation would not change much. “For a lot of employers, there won’t be any major changes because they were only using credit reports for people who had access to cash or where financial decisions where being made. She said her organization only recommends credit checks in such cases, and those are exempted by the bill.

Lisa Callaway, vice president and general counsel for The Management Association of Illinois, said some employers that are not included in the exceptions may have run credit checks when they found a “red flag” in a potential employee’s resume, work history or interview. However, she said that practice was not the norm.

Laura Minzer, director of policy for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, agrees. She said that businesses are not regularly pulling credit reports on potential employees who do not handle large amounts of money or sensitive information. Minzer said many states are considering similar laws during the recession, hoping to people find jobs, but she doubts the move will make much of a difference. “I don’t think that this law speaks to that. In all fairness, it is probably not going to get more jobs on the table.”

The law takes effect January 1.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Delving deeper into the budget cuts

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn released a new round of budget cuts last week with no fanfare and little detail. The plan, displayed on a website dedicated to the budget, gives a one-page-per-agency description of which areas will be cut. It lists some grants and contains some rather cryptic descriptions. That is perhaps due in part to the fact that cuts to education and social services are unpopular, and details are still being worked out. The last thing Quinn’s administration wants to do is get people up in arms about specifics, only to see them change during the negotiation process.

However, the fiscal year is already a month old, and elections are only a few months away. School districts, local governments, social service providers, universities, community colleges and voters need to know the potential impacts of reductions to plan their own budgets and, in the case of voters, help them decide whom they want to represent them in the years to come as Illinois tries to climb out of this financial crisis.

In this spirit, I decided to take each breakdown of agency cuts and try to get more details on what the targeted areas are, such as what certain grants are used for or who benefits from certain programs. I will post my findings in the coming weeks. I expect to hit some dead ends because interested parties are often hesitant to talk about details for fear of throwing off negotiations. If I can’t get the details, I will at least let you know my process. And things will likely change as negotiations proceed and new developments come in, such as the possibility of more federal funding. If you have comments or suggestions, I would love to hear them.

First up: the Department of Child and Family Services, which faced a $6 million reduction in the first round of cuts Quinn proposed last month. That number jumped up to $34.5 million in the new plan released last week.


Proposed drastic cuts to the Department of Child and Family Services budget last year landed the state in a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union, and it could happen again this year.

The $34.5 million in cuts that Quinn proposed last week are not nearly as deep as the $460 million reduction he suggested as part of last year's “doomsday” budget, which was never enacted. However, it is unclear whether the new funding levels would cause the agency to break a court order.

Last year’s lawsuit was based on a settlement the state reached with the American Civil Liberties Union after a 1988 lawsuit that ushered in sweeping reforms to the way the agency does business. “Many of the standards that are in that consent decree are due to the cooperation between the plaintiff and the agency itself. … Many of those standards are above the national norms,” said Kendall Marlowe, a DCFS spokesperson.

The consent decree sets standards of care, such as on staffing levels, child-to-caseworker ratios and required programs. The ACLU is now the court-ordered watchdog in charge of making sure DCFS lives up to the settlement. While the decree contains no required funding level, DCFS is supposed to run its budget by the ACLU, so that organization can determine whether the funding is enough to meet the requirements.

Marlowe said the state would be able to meet its commitments in the consent decree with the new budget cuts.

However, ACLU associate legal director Benjamin Wolf is not sure. He said his organization approved the original $6 million in cuts after determining that the agency would be able to live up to the consent decree after the reduction. But it has not figured out whether DCFS will be able to make the grade under the new proposal, which the agency had yet to discuss with the ACLU as of last Thursday.

Wolf added that some time is still available for the two groups to get together to try to sort things out, since DCFS plans to avoid cutting staff who deal directly with children. “There is nothing in that plan which would endanger the health and safety of children next week,” he said.

Here’s the breakdown of Quinn's proposed cuts, according to Marlowe (Italics are pulled directly from Quinn’s proposal):

($4.3M) - Operations Lump Sum
Maintains budgeted headcount by filling vacant positions over a longer period of time and moving some operations funding from the General Revenue Fund to the agency’s Children’s Services Fund.

Cuts to operations costs will be realized by holding off on filling 139 positions. The department plans to hire for no more than a quarter of the jobs this year and fill the rest next year. Marlowe says these are office positions, such as administrative assistants and clerical workers, not “front line staff, ” such as caseworkers, who work directly with children and families.

The Children Service’s Fund has money in it from federal matching programs, so spending would be shifted away from state resources.

($30.2M) - Grants Lump Sum
Reestimate of Institution & Group Home demand
Reduces indirect contracts
Increases revenue opportunities & improves Federal claiming

Marlowe said DCFS makes projections for how many children may need to spend time in institutions or group homes, and those assessments can be trimmed back. “There is no way to know that in certain for advance, so you have to do projections.”

He added that DCFS has been working on a shift to community-based treatment and away from institutionalization, so reducing the number of kids going into such homes is in step with the current treatment philosophy.

Wolfe said that is one of the aspects of the cuts that he is most concerned about. However, Marlowe said children would not be turned away. “If the kid needs help and the kid needs to be placed in a group home, we’re going to place him in the group home.”

According to Marlowe, reducing indirect contracts would mean cutting down on consultants, such as hiring a child psychologist not employed by DCFS to help with a specific case. He said it would not include any reduction in payments to foster families, residential services providers or group homes.

The cuts would also mean a cut to funding for research the agency uses to pinpoint the best methods to help the kids it serves, as well as assess the effectiveness of its own efforts.

Marlowe says prolonged cuts to research could damage the agency in the long run. “Part of why we have gotten better at delivering service to children is because we have developed this research base. … Some of the background work we are doing now could benefits kids five [or] 10 years down the road.”

He added that the agency has made great strides to capture as much federal funding as possible through what he says are often complicated reimbursement programs.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

FutureGen moves on without Mattoon plant

By Jamey Dunn

A drastically revamped version of the FutureGen project is moving forward without construction of a planned "clean-coal" power plant in central Illinois.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin announced today the U.S. Department of Energy will go ahead with a plan he called “FutureGen 2.0.” Instead of building a new plant to research a technology called gasification in Mattoon, an existing shuttered Ameren plant in Meredosia would be retrofitted to use a different so-called clean-coal technology referred to as oxy-combustion or “oxy-burn.”

Carbon dioxide emissions from the plant in western Illinois would be pumped through a 175-mile subterranean pipeline through Decatur and then down to Mattoon, where they would be sequestered deep underground in the same basin that the original FutureGen plant would have used to store emissions. Durbin said there is a chance that carbon emissions created by the Archer Daniels Midland plant in Decatur would also be pumped to Mattoon. He added that other carbon producers, such as power plants and oil refineries, might sequester their carbon at the Coles County site in the future.

The original FutureGen project was awarded to Mattoon in December 2007. The Bush administration stalled the project almost immediately after the announcement. As time passed, estimated costs for the plant grew. As of last year, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu pegged the cost to build the plant at more than $2.3 billion. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act included $1 billion funding for the project, but the feds continued to hold out on a final decision, and some financial backers dropped out.

Durbin says that during this time, the need for testing the technology that the Mattoon plant was planned to demonstrate has diminished. He says while the feds dragged their feet, private industry has made strides in testing the clean-coal technology that, at the time of the plant’s announcement, was billed as the first-of-its-kind.

“It became [a method] that was being proved out on a commercial basis,” Durbin said.

Durbin added: “So we had to find another way to create this opportunity for Coles County and Illinois. … One that fit into the existing budget” He called the “oxy-burn” process, where pure oxygen instead of air is used to burn coal, “the future.”

"The technology for repowering and retrofitting plants derived from FutureGen 2.0 will lead to a decade-long project of repowering and retrofitting the 52 coal-fired power plants in Illinois," a written statement released by Durbin said.

The federal government plans to sink $1.2 billion into retrofitting the power plant at Meredosia in Morgan County, as well as building the pipeline and the carbon dioxide storage facility. Federal officials are counting on support from the FutureGen alliance, a group of investors who backed the original project. Durbin says they responded favorably to the proposal. A representative of the alliance did not respond and had not returned a telephone call as of press time.

He says that the project is scheduled to start next year, but he does not have an estimate on a completion date. Durbin estimates it will create 1,000 construction jobs and 1,000 other jobs with business and suppliers serving the project. Meredosia would gain 47 to 50 full-time permanent positions when its plant reopens.

Durbin said there are also plans to build a training center on or near the site where the Mattoon plant would have been built, where workers would learn how to retrofit power plants for “oxy-burn” and build pipelines to transport carbon. Although money for the center has not been appropriated, he says it would come from funds funneled through the Department of Labor for “green” energy training programs.

Durbin acknowledged that the announcement might be disappointing to Coles County residents but said that many had already given up on the long-embattled project. He said that economically, the new plan could actually do more to benefit the area. “Ultimately, the number of jobs we are going to create — permanent jobs — is going to be more.”

Angela Griffin, president of Coles Together — a county economic development group that has worked closely on the project — declined to comment on the announcement. She said she just learned of the changes to the plan today. “We need to digest what we have heard.”

U.S. Senate approves funding for states

Illinois may get some help from the federal government in dealing with its budget woes.

The U.S. Senate voted today to approve a $26.1 billion aid package for states geared at maintaining education and public sector jobs and helping states meet their Medicaid obligations.

A total of $16.1 billion would go toward Medicaid, and $10 billion would be spent to cut down on teacher layoffs.

According to Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois would receive at least $500 million in Medicaid dollars and $400 million in education funding. While many Illinois officials would likely breathe sighs of relief at any additional funds to help plug budget holes, $500 million is shy of the $750 million in Medicaid matching funds that Quinn built into his original budget.

“I salute the U.S. Senate for extending crucial Medicaid funding and for helping keep teachers in classrooms across Illinois and the nation. … I am confident that the U.S. House of Representatives will act quickly to pass this vital legislation that keeps so many people working in Illinois and across the country,” Quinn said in a written statement.

A U.S. House vote is expected on the measure next week, possibly as early as Tuesday. President Obama supports the measure and is expected to sign the bill if it passes in the House.

Other programs would be cut to pay for the bill, including a $12 billion reduction in funding for food stamps and a $1.5 billion cut to a fund for renewable energy projects.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Quinn rolls out more budget cuts

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn has made more budget cuts that he claims will get the state to the $1.4 billion reduction goal he laid out in July.

This time around, there was no news conference or public question-and-answer period. Instead, the new $891 million in planned reductions were posted to the administration’s budget website. (Note: The cuts listed here reflect the reductions made from the budget the General Assembly sent Quinn, not the plan Quinn presented in July.)

“These plans illustrate the $1.4 billion in cost reductions from [fiscal year 2010] that will be achieved in [FY 2011]. During the July news conference, the $1.4 billion in reductions was announced, but the Governor mentioned that many of those details would still be forthcoming,” Kelly Kraft, spokeswoman for Quinn’s Office of Management and Budget, said in a written statement.

Here are the differences in some of the numbers released for agencies in July and the new cuts:
  • K-12 education would take a $311 million cut, as opposed to the $241 million previously announced. The total budget would be $6.99 billion. The plan includes $146 million in cuts to transportation grants, up from an $84 million reduction, and a $3 million cut in the State Board of Education’s operating budget, up from $2.1 million.
  • Higher education would see a $105 million hit instead of the $100 million presented in July. Universities would be cut $85 million, community colleges would see a $14 million reduction and $9 million would come from from Illinois Student Assistance Commission grants other than Monetary Assistance Program grants.
  • The Department of Children and Family Services saw budget cuts jump up from a $6 million to $34.5 million. The description accompanying the new cuts on its website says, “The budget allows the Department of Children and Family Services to meet court-mandated service levels.”
  • The Department of Human Services would take a $576 million cut instead of the previous $312.6 million. The new reductions would mean a $60.3 million cut from operations, which would affect state psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers. Quinn pitched a $49.8 million reduction in July. Grants for non-Medicaid mental health and developmental disability programs would see a $515.7 million reduction, up sharply from the $262.8 million in cuts rolled out last month.
  • The Department on Aging would see a $28.4 million cut, instead of the $17.4 million proposed last month.
  • Healthcare and Family Services was the only agency that would have seen an increase in the plan Quinn presented at the beginning of the fiscal year: $162 million geared toward keeping some Medicaid providers on a 30-day cycle. The new numbers show a $216 million cut.
  • The Department of Veterans' Affairs would nearly maintain an $8 million increase proposed in July. Under the new plan, $8.2 million would go to operations, mostly to increase staffing levels at veterans’ homes, and $400,000 would be cut from grants.
Kraft left the door open to future budget tweaks, saying Quinn would work with agencies throughout the fiscal year to implement the budget and find efficiencies.