Friday, October 29, 2010

Republicans: Quinn misleads with early release ad

By Jamey Dunn

Republicans are crying foul over the early release of some prisoners after Gov. Pat Quinn said he suspended the controversial Meritorious Good Time program. However, a report issued yesterday says their claims are unfounded.

Quinn drew heat after the Department of Correction’s “Meritorious Good Time Push [MGT Push]” program made news. The plan suspended a longstanding policy that required prisoners to wait 60 days before they received any “good time” credits that would shorten their sentences. The new policy, applied to the statutory Meritorious Good Time program, allowed some prisoners to be released after only serving weeks of their sentences.

Once the policy became a public scandal, Quinn terminated the practice of waiving the waiting period, which was referred to as the “push,” and suspended the Meritorious Good Time Program. Since that time more than 2,000 prisoners have been released with “good time” credits, and Republicans say Quinn’s claims that the programs have stopped are misleading.

However, a report issued yesterday by the Northwestern University School of Law says Quinn followed the law by releasing those prisoners, who received their credits before the program was stopped. The report calls the Republicans claims “trumped up allegations.” From the report:

Governor Quinn was accused of lying for not having attempted the impossible: retroactively revoking “good time” credits from all prisoners to whom they had been awarded prior to January 15, 2010.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale, said the real problem is that Quinn is not being up front with the public by running a campaign ad claiming he stopped the program “cold,” which Dillard said “lets people think that early release is no longer taking place in any fashion.”

Dillard added: “Gov. Quinn misleads the public in his ad. And he has released thousands of additional early releases. … We still have thousands of people pouring out on the streets.”

Sharyn Elman, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the Republicans are the ones warping public perception by implying the “MGT Push” program is still active. She said the state has to honor credits awarded under the standard “good time” program before its suspension and calls the Republican complaints “fear mongering.”

Quinn and Brady's last duel

By Jamey Dunn

In their last televised face-off before the election, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Bill Brady, tore into each other but failed to cover much new ground.

Last night’s event,
which was broadcast by WTTW Chicago Public Media, was a more loosely structured forum, as opposed to a formal debate. The candidates did not face time limits or make opening statements. The more lax format resulted in Brady and Quinn arguing, interrupting each other and sometimes outright sniping while trying to get in the last word before moderator Carol Marin cut them off.

The two candidates bickered over the possibility of borrowing $4 billion to make the state’s required pension payment for the current fiscal year. The Senate plans to return to Springfield on November 4 to vote on a borrowing bill, which the House narrowly approved last May.

Brady said Quinn should look for other ways to make the payment and is borrowing because “he’s not willing to face up to the tough decisions that a governor must make.” Brady added that he would do “everything [he] can” to oppose the borrowing. Quinn accused him of working behind the scenes in block the bill last spring.

Quinn said the state must make the pension payment, and — given the dire financial straits he inherited — borrowing is the way to go. “Our problems did not begin the day I lifted my hand off the Bible when I got sworn in.” He called Brady’s budget plans “irresponsible,” “reckless” and “wrong.” Meanwhile, Brady criticized Quinn for borrowing money without a dedicated funding source to pay it back.

Brady addressed recent media reports that his campaign failed to pay for airtime for its ads. He says the campaign made a “tactical” change and there was a “glitch” in payment, which has since been corrected. Quinn said the failure to pay spoke to Brady’s management skills.

When the conversation turned to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, Brady said he had no intentions of creating a “hostile” environment for the LGBT community. However, he stuck by his stance that the law should define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Quinn went after him on social issues saying: “The governor should be tolerant. …You haven’t been tolerant.”

When asked if he had any regrets, Quinn said he had been disappointed with the political climate after he was sworn into office. He said he “thought Illinois would have a bipartisan moment to really do hard things.”

Brady said he regretted sponsoring a bill early in his run that would allow for the mass euthanasia of cats and dogs, after Marin directly asked him about the legislation. He has taken political fire over the measure and quickly removed his name from the bill after it made news.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Report: 'MGT Push' got a bad rap

By Jamey Dunn

A report released today claims the media and politicians wrongly vilified the now infamous “Meritorious Good Time Release Push [MGT Push]” program and exaggerated the program’s affect on public safety.

The report, issued by the Northwestern University School of Law, claims the program — which awarded prisoners “good time” credit at the beginning of their sentences, causing some to spend only weeks in jail — was in line with previous steps taken by the General Assembly to combat overcrowding and rehabilitate criminals through community-based programs when possible.

From the report:

Even before [Corrections Director Michael] Randle’s arrival in June 2009, Illinois policymakers had been considering ways to reduce the number of short-term prisoners. The Illinois legislature expressly endorsed the concept of keeping a significant portion of this group out of prison altogether by passing the Crime Reduction Act of 2009.

The report was written by Malcolm Young, director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies with the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law. He says the media and politicians mischaracterized the program by dwelling on the more sensational aspects and characterizing it as secret.

But he concedes that the complexity of the sentencing process and criminal justice system make it difficult to give a program like MGT Push context when explaining it to the public. “There’s two difficulties for the media on criminal justice issues. One, its very emotional for people. It produces a gut reaction. … The second is, it’s difficult to understand and explain.”

From the report:

While “MGT Push” was hardly secret, it also was not announced with a press conference. The Department treated “MGT Push” as what it was: an administrative change in a practice that was unsupported by law, the result of which was to credit prisoners with ‘good time’ to which they were entitled without an arbitrary 60-day delay and to reduce the cost of putting the Department through an expensive classification process, the outcome of which was irrelevant for prisoners soon to be released in any event.

Young — who is a member of the Quinn Administration's Illinois Adult Corrections Advisory Board but says he is not paid for his service and has never met the governor — said those aware of the program should have seen the controversy coming and done more to explain the need for early release to the public. “Those of us who heard [of MGT Push] or knew about it or talked about it, we’re guilty, too — of not really anticipating what the emotional trigger was or how it could be exploited.” The report accuses Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration of “bad public relations” during the public scandal that ensued.

Young said he is disappointed that the backlash has resulted in early-release programs being shut down in Illinois instead of creating a debate on the best way to fix the correction system with the goal of rehabilitating criminals and reducing crime rates.

Republicans question the results of the Northwestern report, citing a scathing report issued by Judge David Erickson and members of Quinn’s own administration.

“[Those who wrote the] Erickson report had inside and in-depth knowledge of the Department of Corrections,” said Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican candidate for governor. “The bottom line is, what [Erickson] found was 1,700 inmates were secretly released — many after only serving days in prison. That is a problem. That is a public safety risk.”

Young’s report is critical of Erickson's findings. It also alleges that cutting early release programs may actually harm public safety because criminals whose sentences are reduced spend the time they would have spent behind bars under supervision back in society. The logic is that criminals who serve their full sentences would have to fend for themselves on the outside sooner after release and would be more likely to resort to crime.

Young said that MGT Push set the state back in terms of trying to address overcrowded prisons and rehabilitate felons through community-based programs when appropriate “In retrospect, it wasn’t worth it. It cost a huge amount. But the problem is not that someone tried to implement something as modest as MGT Push. The episode shows us that at any point in time, it would be very difficult to put in place any reform in Illinois that visibly shortens or reduces prison sentences.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Judge upholds Blagojevich conviction

By Jamey Dunn

Federal Judge James Zagel denied former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s bid to have the single conviction from his corruption trial tossed out.

Blagojevich was convicted in August on one charge of lying to federal agents — stemming from a 2005 discussion when he told FBI agents he kept a “firewall” between campaign fundraising and his job as governor.

Blagojevich asked Zagel to nullify the conviction based alleged misconduct by the prosecution.

Zagel did not agree that the prosecution took any inappropriate actions. "The arguments made here are weak in themselves. Defendant's motion is founded in substantial part on the well-known principle that if a lawyer cannot attack the law or the facts in a criminal prosecution, the only recourse is to attack the prosecutor,” Zagel said in a written opinion.

The jury was unable to reach a verdict on 23 other corruption charges, including allegations that Blagojevich tried to sell President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. The former governor faces a retrial in April 2011. Zagel gave Blagojevich’s trimmed-down defense team more time to prepare after his earlier outspoken father-son lawyer team, Sam Adam and Sam Adam Jr., bowed out of having an active role in the retrial.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Safeguard in recall amendment could be its downfall

By Jamey Dunn

A provision to require statewide voter support to unseat a governor, which legislators viewed as a safeguard in a proposed recall amendment to the Illinois Constitution, has raised questions of constitutionality days before voters will consider it.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois claims that requiring any effort to recall the governor from office to get at least 100 signatures from 20 different counties violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by running counter to the “one person, one vote” principle.

Harvey Grossman, ACLU of Illinois’ legal director, said the requirement gives individual voters in smaller counties more power. In a large county, such as Cook, it would theoretically be easier to find 100 voters to sign a petition, while in a much smaller county it might be more difficult. Grossman said this would mean signatures from voters in smaller counties would be in greater demand, and the voice of a voter in larger county would be diluted.

Grossman said one alternative that would ensure statewide support would be to require signatures from a certain number of legislative districts, which are drawn up to contain the same number of voters. He said such a plan would prevent the problem that using counties, with varying populations, presents.

Rep. Jack Franks, a sponsor of the amendment, said legislators, working with Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, tried to ease the fears of those who were concerned that a governor could be recalled too easily or that recall power could be used as a political cudgel to threaten a sitting governor and sway his or her decisions. The requirement that a recall campaign collect signatures from multiple counties was meant to prevent a more populous county from single-handedly initiating a process, which would affect residents throughout the state.

Those seeking to recall a sitting governor would have to collect signatures from citizens equal to 15 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. A bipartisan group of 20 House members and 10 Senate members also have to sign off on a recall effort.

Franks, a lawyer, said he does not know if the ACLU’s argument would hold up in court, but he said the organization should have raised concerns earlier in the process instead of days before the election. He is encouraging voters to approve the amendment, saying that if it is struck down, previous voter support would make it easier to pass a new version through the legislature.

Grossman, who wrote an opinion piece on the topic for the Chicago Tribune, said that his organization was responding to recent complaints from voters. “We felt we had a duty, once it was brought to our attention, to inform the voters.”

While the ACLU does not take a stance on recall, the organization is encouraging voters to reject the amendment because it is unconstitutional. He said the ACLU does not have any immediate plans to stage a legal challenge of the amendment if it receives the required support from 60 percent of individuals who vote in the general election next Tuesday. However, he thinks if it does pass, “the most likely result would be a court would strike down recall altogether.” He said the legislature should "go back to the drawing board" and create an amendment that would not face such legal challenges.

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, described finding the right balance of safeguards against abuse while still making a recall process feasible for voters as a “three bears kind of problem.” He added the Quinn and the legislature could have taken more time if they wanted to get the amendment just right. “I don’t know that there as a lot of thought about these issues. … They could have found better mechanisms to protect against the things they wanted to protect against. … Could we have spent six months and got a better provision that would have been on the ballot two years from now? Sure.”

Redfield said although Quinn has historically supported recall, the impeachment and removal from office of his predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, added political pressure to get an amendment on the ballot this November. “The governor wanted that skin up on the wall as he was running for election.”

Redfield said he is not convinced by the ACLU’s case against the amendment. “I think the argument is a stretch, and I think it’s one of the reasons [they] didn’t raise it sooner.” He thinks it will do little to sway voters one way or another. “If you’re for recall, you’re for recall. If you’re against it, then you’re against it.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Quinn and Brady touch on budget ideas: Part 2

By Jamey Dunn

During recent debates, Gov. Pat Quinn has mentioned the “Budgeting for Results” provision — a plan to reform the state budgeting process — included in a budget bill approved last spring. (Scroll almost to the end of the bill. Section 50-25 is the bulk of it.)

However, Quinn has done little to describe the new law that seeks to make drastic changes in the way money is doled out to agencies and programs by next fiscal year.

The changes require the governor to work with legislative budgeteers and lay out priorities and goals for each agency in the budget. Executive officers will be required to set goals for their offices, as well. Budgeting for the next fiscal year will be based in part on the agencies’ abilities to meet their goals, and the governor’s office is required to report to the public on the results, compared with the original goals.

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski , who sponsored the bill that originally contained the reforms, said the measures represent a “paradigm change in Springfield.”

Kotowski said measuring effectiveness would give lawmakers the ability to “make decisions to cut, fund, eliminate and reform programs” based on data. He added that funding choices are now often made based on how much money a program got in the previous year and which programs have the most vocal backers. He said there is a mentality of “You have to support this because we’ve always supported it.”

Kotowski, who is from Park Ridge, said having measurable outcomes could make difficult cuts more tolerable for politicians and constituents, but they will also make it easier to justify funding for programs that work. “Here’s our budget, and it’s not just numbers, and it’s not just dollars being spent. It’s outcomes.”

In the end, he thinks such reforms could make voters more open to a possible tax increase. “When people see that government is making a difference in their lives, they are more likely to support revenue for those programs.” Kotowski made a down-to-the-wire decision to back the income tax increase approved by the Senate last year.

This new process would, in theory, mean no more budgeting in the way the legislature has for the last two fiscal years — approving lump sums and letting the governor make the cuts. “We wanted to turn a bad situation into a good one,” Kotowski said. He added that the reforms are intended to “make sure that we never, never do budgets like this again in the state of Illinois.”

Kotowski said he has been working with Quinn on the plan for the last year. If Brady wins the governor’s race, the senator said he could work with him on the reforms. However, he is worried about Brady’s proposal to cut the budget by 10 percent. “My concern is that he doesn’t understand the concept of funding: what works and cutting what doesn’t.”

Calls to Brady’s campaign on the subject were not returned. Brady voted against the bill, but since the reforms were contained in the “Emergency Budget Act,” which broadly expanded Quinn’s budgeting powers, little can be determined from the vote in relation to these measures. A section of Brady’s recovery plan does sound similar to some aspects of the new law:

No new spending initiative or program expansion will be allowed without a linked

funding source and measurable outcomes. … Further, when an agency seeks budget authority, it makes a contract with the people that it will meet its performance expectations, or it will be discontinued.

However, Brady’s plan puts more emphasis on balancing the budget and programs being linked to specific funding sources.

Kotowski admitted that the changes he sought have been met with some skepticism but added that he has been working with stakeholders on the plan for some time. He also pointed out that the requirements have been signed into law and will apply to the budget for fiscal year 2012. “If they don’t follow the law, we’ll file an injunction with the attorney general.”

Calls to Quinn’s budget office to inquire about the “Budgeting for Results” plan were not returned.

Kirk and Giannoulias spar in debate

By Jamey Dunn

During last night’s debate, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias spoke about events from their pasts that have become fodder for the negative campaign ads that are characterizing their race for the U.S. Senate. They also weighed in on some national issues.

Both candidates acknowledged that the race has gotten personal. “This has been a tough and at times very negative campaign,” Giannoulias said at the Chicago debate. Kirk agreed that the focus has often been on the two candidates’ backgrounds but added that voters will be more concerned with the economy when they cast their votes.

Kirk — who has taken flack for exaggerating his military record as well as some personal stories about his life — said he has taken responsibility for his mistakes. Kurt has apologized for making false claims about his military service. “I misstated a part of my military record. It’s a painful process. I learned a big lesson from that. … It’s made me a better congressman.”

When asked about accusations that he was involved in loans his family bank made to alleged mobsters and criminals, Giannoulias said he should have done a better job of explaining the loan approval process when he ran for state treasurer.

“It’s easy to cherry-pick a few individuals out of thousand — out of thousands — and make a nasty political ad. But any business owner will tell you that running a business is not a straight line. Of course, mistakes are made. And inevitably, unfortunately, there are people you wish you would have never done business with.”

Kirk said he could have supported a different version of the federal stimulus program if it were “a much smaller bill with a much larger amount of money for infrastructure.” He said too much money was spent on social programs, and the package was ultimately a failure because it did not keep unemployment below President Barack Obama’s goal of 8 percent.

He also railed against deficit spending, saying the “legacy” of Obama’s recovery bill will be the debt “leveled on the financial future of our kids.” He added, “Our country used to number our debts in billions; now it’s in trillions.”

Giannoulias accused Kirk of recently becoming a deficit hawk after backing former President George W. Bush’s budgets, which put the country trillions of dollars into the red. He said the stimulus bill wasn’t perfect, but it kept the country out of another “Great Depression.”

Kirk said the bill excluded valid stimulus opportunities, such as an overhaul of O’Hare International Airport, because it excluded projects that were not “shovel-ready.”

Giannoulias said he supports the repeal of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which prevents gays and lesbians from openly serving in the U.S. military. A federal judge recently deemed the policy unconstitutional, and military recruiters have been ordered to begin accepting gay and lesbian recruits.

Kirk said he voted to keep the policy in place and thinks mixed messages coming from Obama’s administration, which sought to block the judge’s order, are bad for the military. Obama has said he supports the repeal of “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.”

“I think we ought to listen to the men and women who run the U.S. military. It is one of the most complicated organizations on Earth,” Kirk said.

Giannoulias also supports the “Dream Act,” which would create a path to citizenship for immigrants who go to college in America or serve in the military. Kirk said he doesn’t think the time is right for the bill. He said it should not be debated until officials “restore the trust of the American people in the ability to administer our own border.”

Kirk said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. However, he added: “I also don’t think we should have a federal takeover of all marriage law in the United States. I think the federal government is already trying to take over too much.”

Giannoulias said he supports same-sex marriage rights. “We’re going to look back in 20 or 30 years and be embarrassed that we didn’t move sooner on this." (For more on the race for U.S. Senate see the current (October) Illinois Issues, Page 24.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Brady and Quinn touch on budget ideas during debates

By Jamey Dunn

Both Gov. Pat Quinn and his Republican opponent for governor, Sen. Bill Brady, have avoided sharing many specific details of their budget plans during the recent debates. However, they each briefly mentioned some compelling ideas for tackling the state’s broken finances.

When asked about the possibility of borrowing up to $50 billion to help pay down the state’s unfunded pension liability, Brady touched on a borrowing plan to pay off Illinois’ growing stack of past due bills.

“Once we solve the pension crisis, there are some who have suggested that the marketplace may make it more affordable to pay back the backlog of unpaid bills that Gov. Quinn and Gov. Blagojevich have racked up,” Brady said at the recent debate in Elmhurst. “The crisis is so bad we have to consider all options.”

Brady has not ruled out the $50 billion in pension borrowing, which he has said would go toward the unfunded liability not the annual payments. Brady has also characterized the idea as one of many possible plans floating in the ether.

Patty Schuh, a Brady spokeswoman, said borrowing to pay down the deficit or fund the operating budget is out of the question. She said Brady “will not borrow to fill the structural debt.”

However, she added that Brady would not rule out borrowing against a “dedicated revenue stream” as part of a payment plan to address the backlog of unpaid bills.

Brady does not support $4 billion in borrowing, which the Senate plans to take up shortly after the election, to make this fiscal year’s pension payment “I’m opposed to that. Because [Quinn] does not have a plan to pay it back. You cannot borrow for structural operating deficits,” he said.

Quinn — who at the Elmhurst debate referred to his role in the budget crisis as the “cleanup man” — scoffed at Brady’s take on borrowing. “The state of Illinois is not going to borrow $50 billion. That is the most ridiculous thing you could possibly do.”

A statement Brady made to reporters after the debate implied solving the state’s deficit would take priority over the backlog. “We have to eliminate the structural deficit year one and then pay back the backlog of unpaid bills.”

However, Schuh said today that Brady plans to tackle both issues “in tandem” adding “those unpaid bills are out there” and cannot be ignored.

Meanwhile, Quinn has been touting the “Budgeting for Results” provision, which was rolled into the approved budget bill last spring, in recent debates. Check out tomorrow’s blog for a closer look at what it is and what role it could play in the budgeting process for next fiscal year.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Voters oppose major cuts and tax increases

By Jamey Dunn

New poll numbers from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute show Illinois voters generally don’t support tax increases or substantial cuts to the state budget.

More than half of those surveyed in the poll of 1,000 registered voters said the state should cut the budget, and more than a quarter said cuts and new revenue are needed. Only 9 percent said a tax increase was the answer to balancing the budget.

When asked about sources for more revenue, an income tax increase had 40 percent support, with 56 percent opposed. Support on the issue has grown by 9 percentage points from a poll by the institute last year.

Only 24 percent were in favor of increasing the state sales tax, while 45 percent supported extending the sales tax to services. Increased gambling in the state had 49.9 percent support.

While no revenue increase could garner majority support, participants were even less likely to support cuts to major areas of state spending. More than 80 percent were against cuts to services for residents with developmental or physical disabilities and K-12 education. More than 70 percent opposed cuts to police forces or corrections, and more than 60 percent did not back cuts to services for low-income residents. More than 50 percent of participants opposed cuts to higher education and spending on natural resources and conservation.

Public pension benefits garnered the lowest support, with only 47.3 percent opposed to cuts. However, cuts to pension benefits were not backed by a majority either — 45.5 percent were in favor, and 7.2 percent were undecided.

John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said the results, coupled with studies such as a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, show that voters do not understand the budget, which leads to unrealistic expectations. He added politicians have not done enough to educate voters about budget realities. “People have been fed this line that there is ‘waste and fraud out there’ and that it will painlessly solve the problem,” he said.

Jackson said that both nationally and on the state level, politicians have listened to voters’ distaste for tax increases and cuts, and that has contributed to some dire budget troubles. “I think they’ve done what people want so long that we have wound up in this incredible morass that we’re in.”

He said voters dwell on cuts that may get them fired up but fail to do much to help the budget. He used the example of some voters arguing the legislature should cut its staff. “You could fire them all, and all the rest of us that work for the state, and the sum total would be about $3 billion.” Then Illinois would still be facing a $10 billion deficit with no state government left to sort it out.

However, Jackson said some symbolic “high profile sacrificial lamb” cuts, such as politicians’ salary and travel expenses, shouldn’t be ignored because they can help voters have more trust in their leaders. But he said voters need to know that “painless” cuts will not be enough.

Jackson said Quinn has claimed substantial budget cuts, but he needs to do more to illustrate the specifics. “It’s pretty muddy, even though he’s announced $3 billion [in cuts].”

Jackson is not singling out Quinn. He said no candidate running for state office has done a good job explaining the current budget crisis and laying out his or her plan for reform. “I think we’ve missed a good opportunity to have an enlightened conversation.”

Both Quinn and Brady out of step with voters on some social issues

By Jamey Dunn

Both Sen. Bill Brady and Gov. Pat Quinn hold positions on major social issues that do not align with the opinions of Illinois voters, according to one poll.

During last night’s debate at Elmhurst College, Brady said that as governor, he would lift the moratorium on the death penalty, which former Gov. George Ryan put in place in 2006 after DNA evidence exonerated prisoners on death row.

According to a recent poll of 1,000 registered voters by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Illinois residents agree with Brady. More than half of respondents, 56 percent, said Illinois should reinstate the death penalty. However, 36 percent said the moratorium should remain in place. The poll has a 3 percent margin of error.

“The people of Illinois have spoken, and they have said that this is the law of the land,” Brady said at the debate. He added that Illinois has the “utmost obligation to make sure that innocent people aren’t put to death.” But when Brady was asked how he would avoid such errors, he did not give any specifics.

Meanwhile Quinn — who does not want to abolish the death penalty but does want to keep the hold in place — said at the debate that he has Illinoisans' backing. “I think the people of Illinois really do support the moratorium and support me.”

He said more time is needed to see whether reforms that have been put in place are effective before the state starts using capital punishment again. “I think we should take a pause and make sure the reforms are working, so not one human being is wrongfully executed.”

“If you contrast the two governor candidates, Brady is on the side of public opinion on that one, and Quinn is on the side of public opinion when it comes to gay marriage and civil unions,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor with the public policy institute.

Brady’s stance on civil unions does not match up with poll numbers. Almost 68 percent of participants in the public policy institute poll supported some form of legal recognition from same-sex unions — with 33.6 percent supporting marriage, and 33.9 percent backing civil unions. About a quarter of respondents said there should be no legal recognition for same-sex couples.

But Brady said during the debate that he did not think he was out of step with Illinoisans when he backed a constitutional ban on civil unions. “My beliefs are what they are, and I believe a lot of people in Illinois respect those beliefs.” Brady then changed the subject to economic issues.

Jackson said Brady has “skillfully” avoided making social issues a substantial part of the campaign. “I agree that the budget is by far the bigger thing right now,” Jackson said. However, he said Brady has been “very, very vague” on his intentions regarding social issues if he is elected governor.

Respondents to the poll also weighed in on a national issue that has made recent news. More than 70 percent favored openly gay and lesbian soldiers serving in the U.S. military, while 19 percent were opposed. Last week, a federal judge ruled the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy on gay and lesbians serving in the military unconstitutional and ordered that it should no longer be enforced.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Debate includes third-party candidate

By Jamey Dunn

During last night’s gubernatorial debate, Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican candidate for governor Sen. Bill Brady took shots at each other, while Green Party candidate Rich Whitney advocated for free higher education.

Much of what Quinn and Brady focused on was a rehash of their talking points from previous debates and campaign events.

Quinn criticized Brady for wanting to eliminate the Put Illinois to Work program. Meanwhile, Quinn said that he has “taken on the crisis of state government with a heart.”

Brady, who was leading the race in a recent poll, called the program a cynical election ploy and characterized the work it has created for residents as “temporary tax jobs.” He said as governor, he would grow the public sector by being “business friendly” and create more permanent jobs.

Whitney took a swipe at Brady’s economic plan calling it “warmed over Reaganomics.” He added: “It didn’t work then. It doesn’t work now.”

Whitney's plan for recovery involved free public higher education for all. Whitney said it would create jobs at universities, which are, “well-distributed geographically around the state.” Whitney said the money students and parents would save by not paying tuition could provide economic stimulus and not having to take out loans to get an education would help residents avoid debt.

Brady took the opportunity to again slam Quinn’s deal with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which guarantees no layoffs until 2012 in exchange for $50 million in savings. The union endorsed Quinn shortly before the deal was signed, and Brady accused Quinn of making a trade to get the organization’s support. “Gov. Quinn has an endorsement. The union has a deal that will tie the hands of the next governor.”

However Quinn played up the fact that the union plans to make cutbacks under a contract that has already been negotiated. “I’ve been able to get concession from the unions … under the existing union contracts.” He also touted cost-saving pension reforms that he signed last spring.

Quinn and Brady both focused on the economic state of the state. Quinn highlighted manufacturing jobs that are new to Illinois in recent months. However, Brady said Illinois’ unfriendly business policies are running jobs out of the state. “Gov. Quinn’s the job governor all right, but it just happens to be for Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and other states.”

Whitney said that until state government can pay its bills and “perform its most basic functions,” Illinois does not look like a good bet to the business sector. “What business wants to come to or stay in a state whose public sector is falling apart, whose schools are falling apart — the cost of higher education going through the roof. … Where the infrastructure is falling apart where health care vendors aren’t being paid on time. Where people dependent on social services aren’t being paid on time. Social services are crumbling. What business wants to stay in a state like that?”

The debate, held on Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus, was Whitney’s chance for exposure before three upcoming debates in which he will likely not participate. Sponsors in those debates did not extend an invitation to the Green Party candidate, citing his low numbers in recent polls.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Senate to vote on pension borrowing in early November

By Jamey Dunn

Leaders in the Illinois Senate plan to return to Springfield a few days after the election to consider $4 billion in borrowing to make the state's required pension payment for the current fiscal year.

The Senate plans to hold session on November 4 to address the borrowing plan, which passed by a narrow margin in the House after contentious debate last May.

John Patterson, a spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton, confirmed the announcement that Gov. Pat Quinn made about the vote last July. He said Quinn asked Senate leaders during the summer to take up the issue as soon as possible. He added that the November 4 date was the earliest Senate members could accommodate the governor's request.

Steve Brown, spokesperson for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the House will be sticking to it's planned veto session schedule, which has them returning on November 16.

Poll: Recall amendment likely to pass

By Jamey Dunn

A constitutional amendment that would allow voters the power to recall a sitting governor seems to be the only sure thing on the statewide ballot for the upcoming general election, according to one poll.

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute’s recent poll of more than 700 likely voters found 65 percent of participants favored recall power that would be applied to governors. Only 27 percent were opposed to recall. While the amendment in front of voters in November is limited to the governor’s office, 66 percent of respondents in the poll approved voters having the power to recall other statewide elected officials.

John Jackson, a visiting professor at the public policy institute, said the convictions of former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges and the impeachment and corruption trials of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich contributed to the public’s support of recall. “I think [recall] is a sure thing. ... [It’s] the scandal from the last two governors that drives this idea. [Recall is] a recourse that the voters could take,” he said.

Voters were in favor of open primaries, an issue the General Assembly will take up in its veto session. Almost three quarters of respondents would prefer not being required to declare a party affiliation to vote in primary elections. Gov. Pat Quinn used his amendatory veto power to tack an open primaries provision onto an elections bill. Jackson said he hears an “endless stream of complaint” from voters about having to publicly identify with a party to cast their votes.

More than 75 percent of respondents also disapproved of the state’s current redistricting plan.

More than 80 percent of participants backed term limits for legislators, as well as limiting the time an individual can be speaker of the House or Senate president. They also favored limits on the campaign money given by leaders to rank-and-file members. More than half of those surveyed supported public financing for judicial races.

Jackson said he thinks legislators may take notice of the strong public backing on some of these reform issues — especially the open primary amendatory veto — that will be before them in the near future. However, he said that does not mean any action on those issues is in the works. “When will the tide turn in Illinois? And what will make it turn? … That’s the bigger question, and the far the more important question.”

Jackson said the next installment of poll results, which comes out Monday, will address the public’s perception of the state budget.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Agency unveils plan to see Chicago through the next 30 years

By Jamey Dunn

A plan that is intended to guide the growth and development of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs through 2040 was launched today.

The GOTO 2040 plan has been compared to the well-known, so-called Burnham Plan — the 1909 Plan of Chicago created by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett.

Tom Garritano, a spokesman for the Chicago Metropolitan Association for Planning (CMAP), said the comparison helped to grow interest an participation for the planning stage of GOTO 2040. “One of the great things of the timing of the 2040 plans was that it was in the last year of development during the Burnham centennial.”

He added the two plans address very different issues and challenges. “There’s 100 years in between. It is a very different region. The world is a very different place.”

GOTO 2040 cites an estimated population growth in the region of 25 percent, from 8,600,000 today to 11,000,000 residents in 2040.

The plan applies to Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. It focuses on communities collaborating to make development decisions that work together, instead of building in a disconnected and haphazard way to meet immediate needs. “Most of our region's near-term challenges are the direct result of choices made — or too often deferred — in the past. Urgent challenges have often been an excuse to avoid planning, but they actually reinforce the need to plan more effectively. We need to act now, before today's opportunities become tomorrow's crises.”

GOTO 2040 emphasizes sustainability, maintaining public transit and infrastructure, and cutting down on suburban sprawl.

Garritano acknowledged that one of the most important aspects of implementation will be participation from all the communities GOTO 2040 involves. However, he said the involvement of many stakeholders in the three-year development of the plan is an encouraging indicator of their willingness to participate. “They’ve helped write their marching orders,” he said. “I wouldn’t take [their participation] for granted, but it’s a good sign.”

The authors of GOTO 2040 emphasized the need for responsibility and communication across Chicago-area communities. “The cumulative choices of 284 municipalities and seven counties determine quality of life and economic prosperity across our region. With local autonomy over land use comes the responsibility to consider how those decisions shape a community’s livability, including how they affect neighboring communities and the region as a whole. “

From more on GOTO 2040 see the current (October) Illinois Issues, page 31.

Whitney demands debate invitations

By Jamey Dunn

With only a few weeks before the general election, Rich Whitney, the Green Party candidate for governor, has launched a campaign to be included in public debates.

Whitney is pushing to be invited to three planned gubernatorial debates, which now only include Republican candidate Sen. Bill Brady and Democrat Gov. Pat Quinn.

The debates, scheduled for later this month, are sponsored by Elmhurst College, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and the City Club of Chicago.

Whitney said all candidates should be invited to debate, but he thinks he has the strongest appeal for inclusion because he won more than 10 percent of the vote in the 2006 governor’s race. He added that he is the only candidate who has detailed a specific plan to address the state's current budget crisis.

Whitney said that candidates who collect enough signatures to get on the ballot should not then face a polling requirement to be included in debates. “We shouldn’t be relying on the polling numbers. What is the purpose of a civic organization? It’s to allow the citizens to choose,” Whitney said.” It’s to inform the voting public so that they have an opportunity to decide who the best candidate is. Then you will see the polling numbers change.”

Jan Czarnik, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said the purpose of a debate held shortly before the election is to give voters a chance to find out more about the candidates who are likely to bring in votes. “It’s not our job to build support for candidates that the public doesn’t seem to be very interested in.”

According to the organization’s written policy, the league requires that candidates get at least 10 percent support in “one or more statewide non partisan public poll not more than 30 days prior to the election and at least five days prior to the debate.”

Czarnik said representatives of Whitney’s campaign and the Green Party were involved in debate planning sessions and agreed to those terms last July.

Whitney said his representatives may have “acknowledged” the league's terms but never agreed to them. He said there could have been a "miscommunication" between his staff and the league, but his view on debate participation has not changed. “In any event, I think it’s still wrong.”

Whitney has created an advertisement advocating his inclusion in the debates. He said he is raising money to buy television airtime for the advertisement. He is encouraging supporters to contact the debate sponsors and said he will be organizing protests outside any “illegitimate” debates that do not include him.

Whitney plans to participate in a debate with Brady and Quinn on the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus tomorrow night.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Poll shows Brady gaining in governor's race

By Jamey Dunn

A poll released today by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute shows Republican candidate for governor, Sen. Bill Brady, with a greater lead than other recent polls.

Today’s poll of more than 700 likely Illinois voters — conducted between September 30 and October 10 — shows Brady with 38.4 percent of the vote and Gov. Pat Quinn with 29.8 percent. Independent candidate Scott Lee Cohen got 5.9 percent, and Green Party candidate Rich Whitney had 2.2 percent. Libertarian candidate Lex Green had 1.5 percent, and 22.1 percent of respondents were undecided or said they preferred another candidate. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Two polls released at the end of September showed a much closer race for the governor’s seat. A Chicago Tribune poll had Quinn in the lead at 39 to Brady’s 38, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

A CNN/Time poll had Brady with 40 percent of the vote and Quinn 38 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percent. All three polls show the race for U.S. Senate as a toss up. The Public Policy Institute Poll had Republican candidate U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk with 37.3 and Democratic Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias with 36.8 percent. Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones had 3.3 percent. Libertarian Mike Labno had 1.8 percent, and 20.7 percent were undecided or preferred another candidate.

Just as those polls caused a stir earlier this month — many polls earlier in the race showed Brady leading by about 10 points — today’s Public Policy Institute poll has people taking notice. However, Charles Leonard, a visiting professor with the institute who oversaw the poll, said many factors come into play when looking at such public opinion surveys.

One is the margin of error. Leonard pointed out that the margin of error in his organization’s poll and the Tribune’s poll is very close to the difference in numbers. “When we do a survey, it’s not like sticking a thermometer in the water.”

Leonard added that all the polls paint a picture of a two tight races and — with the high level of undecided respondents — a group of candidates that voters are not very enthusiastic about. “It is a volatile, fluid race. It doesn’t look like people are very firmly committed,” he said.

He said some pollsters will push undecided voters to say which candidates they may be leaning toward, but that was not the case in the Public Policy Institute’s poll. “It’s a weird year, and other surveys don’t have as many undecideds as we do. … We didn’t poke the undecideds.”

Participants were also asked about their approval of President Barack Obama. Half of respondents approve of the president’s performance; a recent Gallup found 46 percent of voters approved nationwide.

However, well over half, 62 percent, of the respondents in the Public Policy Institute survey thought the country is headed in the wrong direction, and 81 percent thought the state was going down the wrong path.

While more respondents — 41 percent — said they agree with the ideals of the so-called Tea Party movement than those who disagreed — 36 percent. More — 45 percent — said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate affiliated with the Tea Party than the 33 percent who said they would be more likely to support a candidate tied to the movement.

Leonard said it is still fairly early for observers to latch onto poll numbers. “They should take every poll with a grain of salt until we get into the last couple days. … People either overstate what polls can do, or they ignore them and say they are all bogus. The truth is obviously somewhere in between.”

The institute plans to release more results from the poll tomorrow. Check back for more details.UPDATE: Additional poll results on ethics issues will not be released until tomorrow.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Payments to nonprofits worst in nation, study finds

Illinois ranks worst in the nation in delaying payments to human services providers, according to a study released by the Urban Institute.

Seventy-two percent of Illinois’ nonprofit organizations face delays in state payments for services, compared with 41 percent nationally, the study found. As a result, 54 percent have reduced their staff, and 65 percent have cut or frozen employee salaries.

“Illinois is failing its residents just at the time when they need high-quality services the most,” Laurel O’Sullivan, a vice president for the Donors Forum, said in a written statement. The Chicago-based organization represents philanthropic interests and nonprofits statewide.

“Illinois residents and communities are hurting. … This is just further evidence that Illinois’ system for human services is broken and needs to be fixed,” O’Sullivan said. She pointed to Donors Forum recommendations that include incentives for nonprofits to perform more efficiently and a published system for late and delayed payments to nonprofits.

The Urban Institute also reported that Illinois was the third worst in the nation in changing the terms of existing contracts with nonprofit providers, and third worst in issuing payments that don’t cover the full cost of services. Other problems for human service providers include complex and time-consuming application and reporting requirements, the report noted.

For its study, the institute surveyed 9,000 human services organizations nationwide that have more than $100,000 in expenses.

Website offers info on new adoption law

By Jamey Dunn

People seeking information on a new adoption law that will allow adult adoptees greater access to their birth certificates can find it at a new website.

House Bill 5428, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law last May, allows people adopted before 1946 access to their birth certificate. The new website is part of a yearlong education campaign, after which adults older than 21 who were born after January 1, 1946, will be able to request their birth certificates.

Parents who have placed children up for adoption have the option to remain anonymous if they submit paperwork to the state, and new mothers will be asked what level of disclosure they would prefer. Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, said parents always have the option to add or remove their names at a later date. She added that only 18 parents have requested anonymity so far.

Other education efforts will include public service announcements and a blurb on the envelope of the mailer the state sends out to remind residents to renew their vehicle registrations.

Feigenholtz said visitors to the website can walk through the changes in the law. “The site itself is kind of a primer and an explanation of the new law, and it has a direct link to the forms at [the Illinois Department of Public Health.]”

She said, as the largest state to pass such a measure, Illinois has become an example for other states considering similar laws. Feigenholtz is an adoptee and plans to apply for her own birth certificate when she is eligible in November 2011. “I am just ticking off the days,” she said.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Public wants officials to act on budget crises

By Jamey Dunn

A study of five states facing dire budget and economic problems found that most residents would tolerate a tax increase to fund certain services, but in many cases, their expectations and understanding of states' budgets were unrealistic.

The Pew Center on the States and the Public Policy Institute of California asked residents in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois and New York about their states’ budgets. Each state had at least 1,000 respondents to the survey. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

The study found some common themes across all states. People are beginning to feel a sense of urgency and would like to see their state governments change they way they craft budgets — Illinois more so than any other state. Eighty-six percent of Illinois respondents felt change is needed immediately.

From the report: “Majorities in all locations believe major changes are needed in their state’s budget process — and they overwhelmingly think their elected leaders should take action now, rather than wait until the economy improves.” Respondents were more concerned with the effectiveness and efficiency of government than its size.

While taxes were not the preferred means to close budget gaps, the majority of those surveyed said they would tolerate a tax increase to protect K-12 education, health care and human services from cuts. However, they would prefer targeted tax increases instead of an across-the-board income tax hike. People favored increased taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, corporations and the incomes of the wealthy.

Participants in all five states were averse to borrowing, seeing it as pushing problems further into the future. They also expressed distrust in government and a desire to see a better return on their tax dollars.

Some of the results were contradictory: “By hefty margins, respondents across the five states say they are very or somewhat concerned about the effects of state spending reductions on government services. Yet they also name spending cuts as their first choice to balance state budgets. Solid majorities believe that a good portion of their state’s budget squeeze can be solved relatively painlessly by reducing waste and inefficiency in government without affecting services.”

Those who said "relatively painless" cuts could be made believed they could amount to 10 to 20 percent reductions in overall spending.

However the authors of the study said states may not be able to bear such cuts without services taking a hit:

“It is a strikingly consistent view, but experts who work closely with state budgets say it may not be realistic, especially given the steep spending reductions many states already have made since the recession started — both fiscal years 2009 and 2010—the first decline in general fund spending for two consecutive years on record. Forty states decreased their general fund expenditures in fiscal year 2010.” The study sites a 6.8 percent decrease in state spending nationwide during fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

According to the study, such contradictions are evident in Illinois: “One of the difficulties for Illinois lawmakers who want to follow public sentiment — such as avoiding debt — is that the public sends mixed signals.

Almost 90 percent of Illinoisans who participated in the survey are concerned about the effect cuts could have on state services. Yet more than 70 percent said their first choice for balancing the budget would be cuts. Almost 20 percent would raise taxes and fees, while only 6 percent would borrow.

However, 70 percent said they would support a tax increase to avoid cuts in K-12 and higher education. Nearly 60 percent would support a tax increase for health care and human services.

More than 60 percent of Illinoisans would support an increase in alcohol, cigarette taxes and corporate taxes, and more than 50 percent would support gambling expansions. Only 26 percent — the highest numbers out of all five states surveyed — said they would support an income tax increase.

The authors of the study point out that those revenue options may not be enough to maintain the services respondents say they value. “These are not major sources of revenue for the state, so even if they were increased, they would not bridge the gap. And there are other obstacles to these options: For instance, increasing income taxes on businesses is complicated.”

Part of the issue may be that respondents did not fully understand the major sources of revenue and spending in the budget. Nearly one fifth of those surveyed thought that transportation makes up the largest area of spending in the state budget, when in reality the three areas they most want to protect — education, health care and human services — are by far the biggest demands on the general revenue fund.

Transportation was the category respondents were least inclined to protect from cuts, perhaps mistakenly believing cuts to that area could lead to large general revenue fund savings.

Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute of California, said respondents might be too quick to discount borrowing because it is a valuable tool for states when economic conditions take an unexpected turn. “Borrowing is a very common part of the way state and local governments operate,” he said. He added that states need to take care not to rack up so much debt during the current crisis that debt service payments eat up large portions of future budgets. Baldassare cited Illinois’ $9.4 billion in borrowing for fiscal year 2010.

The public opposition to borrowing my be due, in part, to participants from all five states wanting to see their elected officials take action and respond to the economic crisis. “[They are saying:] ‘We shouldn’t be waiting for the economy to get better. We should be taking action now,’” Baldassare said.

He added that respondents seem open to being part of the solution when it comes to budget shortfalls. “I think it also shows that people are willing to do their part. … The public would rather not have tax increases, but for the right thing — in this case, education and human services — they are willing to pay and out of their own pockets.”

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

N.J. governor stumps for Brady

By Jamey Dunn

New Jersey and Illinois have a lot in common: massively underfunded pension systems, widespread teacher layoffs and gaping budget holes.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems to be a role model of sorts for state Sen. Bill Brady, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who mentions Christie often when pressured on how he will make his budget plans a reality. Christie came to Illinois today to stump for Brady on a statewide tour, and he talked about the harsh similarities the two states share.

“With New Jersey facing many of the same challenges that Illinois is facing — unemployment high taxes and overspending — Gov. Christie has proven that you can balance the budget without raising taxes,” Brady said as he introduced the governor.

Christie, who took office facing an $11 billion deficit, defended the lack of specifics in Brady’s budget plan, saying he did not detail specific cuts “as if I’m a CPA putting together a ledger” when he was running for office. He said people want more general information.

“The same things were being hurled at me a year ago right now. Democrats, some members of the press, were saying I wasn’t being specific enough,” Christie said. “What the people of Illinois need to know is what direction is the governor going to take them in. … Telling people that you’re going to cut the size of government, cut taxes, and I know he’s laid out specifically which ones he wants to cut — I think that’s a pretty good idea for voters to make a decision on.”

Christie added that if he had made specific statements, he would have gone back on them once he got into office and discovered the full scope of the state’s budget problems.

Brady has suggested that one way to save money in local school districts without layoffs would be to ask teachers to forgo raises that are built into their pay scales. He has mentioned New Jersey as a model for such a plan. However, Christie said negotiations with teacher’s unions in his state fell through and resulted in layoffs.

“It’s a pretty sad example of a public sector union who simply doesn’t get it,” Christie said. “I would hope, after watching what’s happened in New Jersey, the teachers union in Illinois would step up to the plate and say, ‘Hey we’re going to be part of the shared sacrifice.’”

Christie also said that reducing pension benefits for current state employees should be on the table in Illinois. Most observers agree that any changes to current employee benefits would require a constitutional amendment.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign fired back at Brady's and Christie’s claims that Brady is proposing the right things to address the deficit in his state.

“If you want to get a picture of Bill Brady’s Illinois, you need look no further than New Jersey. Chris Christie laid off nearly 10 percent of the state’s teachers, eliminated property tax relief for the middle class, cut public transit funding and skipped $3.1 billion in pension payments — hurting working families and costing taxpayers billions in the long term to pay for his own budget shortcuts. At the same time, he granted billions in tax breaks to corporations,” Mica Matsoff, a Quinn campaign spokesperson, said in a written statement.

Christie said Brady can live up to his claim of balancing the budget in a year if he is willing to make difficult decisions.

“We cut every department of state budget — every one of them. … Real spending was cut 9 percent year over year. This is serious medicine that has to be given when you want to close that kind of hole.”

Brady also brushed aside several recent polls that say Quinn has narrowed Brady’s lead to single digits. “We’re confident in our strategy and the fact the we are building momentum. We care deeply about one poll, and that’s the poll on November 2,” he said.

Brady said internal campaign polls show his support is growing. “I will tell you that we’d just as soon our supporters thought this was a dead heat and make sure that we get our supporters out. And make sure the voters get out, so we don’t take anything for granted.”

Delving deeper into budget cuts: Part 4

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services — which administers Medicaid, one of the biggest demands on the state funds — is trimming $216 million according to Gov. Quinn’s budget plan.

According to Quinn’s proposal, the department will be able to maintain the federal requirements for the state to get matching funds for the program. The following is a breakdown of Quinn’s proposals for the agency. (Italics are pulled directly from Quinn’s budget.)

Unified budgeting allows state agencies to work together to meet the long-term care needs of Illinois residents on Medicaid in the most appropriate, community-integrated setting and maximize federal matching funds.

Unified budgeting involves a multi-agency approach to long-term care, instead of each agency trying to tackle the issue independently. “The goal of this unified budgeting approach is to allow a more systemic view of available resources and planned expenditures, specifically as they relate to supporting the transition of individuals currently residing in nursing facilities or other institutional settings to the community.

The budget supports a pilot managed care program that will save the state $200 million over five years by providing 40,000 older adults and people with disabilities in Medicaid with care from integrated delivery systems.

The department chose managed care groups Aetna and Centene-IlliniCare to begin providing services in 2011 for seniors and people with disabilities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kankakee, Lake and Will counties. Participants sign on for the program, and some services will be phased in over several years.

Critics of the managed care pilot program have voiced concerns about making cost savings the priority over the care of two vulnerable populations. However, DHFS officials say improved communication among patients’ various health care providers will lead to better care. “The system will link primary, specialty and institutional services and will improve care for Illinois’ most vulnerable residents while saving taxpayer dollars,” Stacey Solano, a spokesperson for DHFS said in a written statement.

The budget allows implementation of recently passed, landmark reforms to
ensure the safety of every nursing home resident in the state.

DHFS is working to determine appropriate reimbursement rates, so the money the state gives nursing homes for services would ensure that they provide adequate care and meet new staffing requirements.

The department is strengthening documentation requirements to ensure that only eligible individuals receive Medicaid benefits.

Solano said the department is doing a “full top-to-bottom review of eligibility and enrollment procedures.” The process is still in a preliminary stage, and no cost saving projections have been made.

• $207.8 million decrease in Medicaid lines and Group Insurance. The department plans to enact various quality and efficiency initiatives.

Solano said medical programs and group health insurance will get less money from the revenue fund, but there are no plans to cut programs or eligibility.

A total of $70 million in savings comes from renegotiating a deal with AFSCME on health benefits for state workers.

The state is participating in federal Early Retirement Reinsurance Program, which is part of the health care reform package passed in March. Employers that continue to cover early retirees under their insurance programs will be eligible for subsidies, and Illinois businesses could get between $42 million and $112 million. Solano said the program would help cushion the blow of some of the state cuts.

The department is also emphasizing preventative care to help people avoid serious and costly health problems. “Healthier people, mean fewer re-hospitalizations and services needed, which translates into cost savings for the state,” Solano said.

• $8.0 million in operations reductions

DHFS plans to reduce travel spending by 13 percent, equipment spending by 23 percent and telecommunications costs by 7 percent. With respect to equipment purchases, Solano said, “Purchases will be limited to only replacing equipment necessary for purposes of life safety, client service and continued agency operations.” The agency is not planning any layoffs, but 71 positions that are currently open will not be filled.

Solano added that because Quinn was counting on Congress extending the elevated Medicaid match that was set to expire in December, enough money was set aside to keep up the 30-day payment cycle the federal government requires on certain services for more matching funds.

(For information on cuts to the Department of Children and Family Services, Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources, see the first, second and third installments of "Delving deeper into the budget cuts" in earlier blog items.)

Monday, October 04, 2010

Budget deficit could reach $15 billion

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois could be facing an even larger stack of unpaid bills next fiscal year, as well as a $15 billion deficit, according to the quarterly report on the state’s finances by Comptroller Dan Hynes.

The state rolled an unprecedented $6.4 billion in unpaid bills over from fiscal year 2010 to the new fiscal year, which started in July. Legislators extended the cut off for paying those bills from August to December, and Gov. Pat Quinn has vowed to have the backlog paid down by the new deadline.

According to Hynes, 23 percent of FY 2011 revenues will be needed to pay off obligations from last year. A short-term loan the state took out in July for $1.3 billion, which will come due next spring, already went toward payments to vendors and service providers.

Hynes said in order for Illinois to pay down the backlog by December, the estimated $1.2 billion would have to come in from the plan to sell bonds against money the state received in a tobacco settlement. The state would have to shift $1 billion from other funds into the general revenue fund, and the tax amnesty plan would have to successfully bring in revenues. While the report does not specify how much the state has to bring in during the tax amnesty period — which started on October 1 and ends November 8 — Hynes says the plan is not likely to bring in the original estimate of $200 million.

However, Kelly Kraft, a spokesperson for Quinn’s Office of Management and Budget, said an analysis by the legislature estimated the amnesty would bring in $250 million. She said in a written statement that it is too soon to predict the exact number, but added: “The hundreds of millions of dollars in expected revenue will be significant to help the state pay its bills and keep people employed.”

Hynes estimates that $8 billion in overdue payments could carry over from the current fiscal year to FY 2012 because so much of this year’s money will be needed to pay down last year’s bills. A total of $3.5 billion in unpaid bills from this fiscal year have already piled up. From the report: “Absent any other changes, payment delays will be extended from the historic levels seen recently. This will lead to more providers facing financial hardship and further threaten both the level and quality of services provided to Illinois citizens.”

While income tax revenues saw a small increase, sales taxes where down. According to the report, Illinois cannot count on an economic rebound to bail out the budget in the near future.

Hynes’ report says all this bleak budget news — along with the loss of federal stimulus money and the state’s low credit rating leading to larger interest payments on borrowing — could culminate in deficit of at least $15 billion by the time lawmakers are hammering out a new budget early next year. If that happens, the state’s debt would represent more than half of the money currently in the general revenue fund.

Friday, October 01, 2010

New data on domestic violence in Illinois

By Jamey Dunn

An advocacy group for survivors of abuse released studies on the scope of domestic violence and the needs of victims today, as Gov. Pat Quinn declared October Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“We must end the silence about the domestic violence. … We — all of us, men and women, young and old — have a duty to each other to help protect the victims of domestic violence,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference.

According to the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. There are approximately 115,000 to 125,000 domestic violence cases annually in Illinois, and 300,000 women and children will experience violent abuse — either as a victim or a witness — each year. Members of the coalition provide services to 44,000 survivors and 8,000 children each year.

The coalition tracked homicides related to domestic abuse from June 2009 to May 2010. The study found 59 acts of domestic violence that resulted in 76 homicides. The majority of the victims were women who were married to or had been married to their killers. However, the study also included children, friends and family of domestic violence victims who were also murdered. The group plans to track murders next year for comparison with this year’s data. The next study will have a stronger focus on prevention by looking at orders of protection mental state of perpetrators.

The group also surveyed more than 900 survivors as part of a three-year assessment of the needs of domestic violence victims in Illinois and recommended ways government and communities can help.

Respondents consistently cited four challenges that were the biggest obstacles to overcome while seeking independence from their abusers:

  • Finding safe affordable housing. The coalition called on landlords to offer flexible leases, and payment plans for rental deposits. The report also suggested allowing those fleeing abuse to pay utilities as part of the price of rent, so there is less paperwork connecting them to their location.
  • Becoming financially independent. The group asked job training programs, child care providers and credit counselors to partner with it to help victims get back on their feet.
  • Negotiating the legal system. The study recommended increasing fines that are a part of the legal punishment for abuse because the money funds victims' services. It also called for requiring counseling for those convicted of domestic violence instead of offering it as an option in plea deals.
  • Gaining access to health care, including mental health treatment. The association is calling for increased access to low-cost or free health care, as well as training health care professionals to handle the specific needs of abuse victims.
According to the report: “Some of those reasons are directly related to the dynamics of power and the control a batterer has over the victim. Other reasons are directly related to the gaps in services available to survivors in Illinois and barriers discovered when they ask for help.”

Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said one of the biggest obstacles is changing people’s opinions on domestic violence and getting them to stop blaming victims for staying with their abusers.

“Illinois has some of the best laws in the country on the books. We don’t need more legislation. We need all of our communities to step up and stop putting all of our excuses on the backs of survivors,” she said.

The survey also included data from organizations that provide services to abuse victims. Smith says budget cuts in recent years have meant turning away women and children looking for help escaping violence in their homes. According to the group’s survey, service providers turned away more than 15,000 survivors and children seeking shelter in fiscal year 2009, which was a 24 percent increase over the last three years. Service providers reported multiple reasons for turning away those seeking help, the two most common being lack of staff and lack of available beds or money for alternatives, such as hotels.

The report says the economic downturn that has hit state revenues, causing cuts, has also increased the need for services relating to domestic violence. “The current economic crisis exacerbates factors that affect domestic violence — increasing unemployment and poverty. As a result, survivors are experiencing an increase in the frequency and severity of abuse due to the effects of these conditions.”