Thursday, April 28, 2011

House members call for opening union contracts

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn should ask public employee unions to open their contracts early and find ways to reduce the state’s personnel costs to avoid drastic cuts to human services, according to members of a House committee working to craft a human services budget.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Sarah Feigenholtz, who heads the House Human Services Appropriations Committee, called on Quinn today to ask the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) if it would be open to renegotiating state workers’ contracts now instead of when they expire on June 30, 2012. “It’s like asking someone on a date; you have to pick up the phone. …  Maybe there is an opportunity. You don’t know. Let’s try. Let’s try.”

House members voiced frustration that their hands are tied when it comes to personnel costs and resentment at being tasked with finding cuts to programs that would be both painful and unpopular.

Rep. Michelle Mussman, a Schaumburg Democrat, raised concerns that although that state cannot lay off any workers under a deal Quinn made with the unions last fall, it may have to make such deep cuts that the very programs they administer would be nonexistent. “This is an entire giant component that we have absolutely no control over. [Legislators] are asking to have a modicum of oversight of control. We would like be a player. … At this moment in time, we are supporting a network of employees, but we are cutting all of the tasks we are asking them to do. So we maintain a staff, but we have nothing for them to do if we cut all the programs that we are asking them to run.”

Feigenholtz said no area of spending is safe from cuts, and she would prefer to negotiate the unions than attempt to strong-arm them. “There will be shared sacrifice across the board. … I would much prefer that they be at the table, frankly. And I think a lot of members of this committee don’t want to just hack things off because that’s not how we should do things. We should get people to the table.”

Julie Hamos, director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said that because union contracts expire on June 30, 2012, legislators should jump in and become involved with negotiations. “Julie, there will be no programs left by June 2012. …We have to pass a budget by June 1, [2011], so, as Elvis said, ‘It’s now or never,’” Feigenholtz responded.

The Department of Human Services planned its budget around Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal, but under the House’s revenue estimate, which is about $1 billion less than Quinn’s estimate, Human Services Director Michelle Saddler said the department would have to cut 6.5 percent.

Saddler said the department cut its operating budget by 6 percent for the current fiscal year, and raises required by union contracts will cost the department about $47 million for Fiscal Year 2012. She said DHS cannot bear further cuts to overhead costs not related to union contracts.

Quinn’s budget calls for no state dollars to be spent on addiction treatment for patients not covered by Medicaid, and DHS eliminated all but “minimal” services to those who do not have Medicaid coverage. Under the governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year, the department says about 26,000 people with mental illnesses would no longer get help paying for their medications.

Some committee members said that while the state does all it can to bring in federal dollars through Medicaid matching funds, they disagree with cutting off those in need of services that the federal governments won’t help pay for. “We didn’t agree that especially in cases of substance abuse and mental health that people who are non-Medicid, that they should be left in the gutters, in the streets,” said Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican.

Rhetoric became heated when talk tuned to potential cuts deeper than the ones proposed in Quinn’s budget. In light of the additional cuts required by the House, the Department of Human Services may close the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, both located in Jacksonville.

Dr. Robert Kilbury, director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services at DHS, said the department had no choice but to consider the closures because of the House’s leaner budget plan. “We were asked to come up with approximately a $54 million cut in addition to the low level that the governor’s budget proposed,” Kilbury said. He added that in-home services would also see a cut that would kick 6,400 people out of the program. “If you’re wanting us to reduce the general revenue fund 6.5 percent from where the governor proposed it, those are the kind of proposals we’re going to be making.”

However, members repeated calls that the state should look to cutting the pay and benefits of union workers instead of closing facilities and cutting programs. “You must take me for a damn fool,” Greenville Republican Rep. Ron Stephens said to Kilbury. “I’m telling you to go back and look closer. Look at everything you can do. … I don’t know who is more vulnerable in Illinois. Tell them who they are. Bring in your AFSCME and have them stand before us and tell us that they are more vulnerable than the people at these [schools.]”

Anders Lindall, spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, said: “It's wrong for politicians to demand unequal sacrifice from disability caregivers, child protection workers, correctional officers and other state employees who provide health care, human services and public safety across Illinois. These AFSCME members already reopened their contract to defer pay increases and take unpaid furloughs, and they pay the same taxes as everyone else. … Irresponsible politicians caused the state’s budget problems, and working people shouldn’t be punished for them.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Budget expert: Tax increase shouldn't phase out

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois' recent income tax increase cannot be temporary, as is currently written in the law, if the state wants to avoid deep cuts to social services, according to one budget expert.

“I think it’s disingenuous for [lawmakers] to have claimed that this is a four-year tax increase that is set to expire. They did the right thing by raising revenue. They did the wrong thing by making it temporary,” said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a think tank focused on budget policy. “I think one of the most disingenuous pieces of public policy that has been perpetuated on voters and taxpayers for decades now is that they can have public services and never have to pay for them. At some point, you need adequate sustainable revenue raised in a responsible way.”

Martire joined several human services advocates today during a news conference to encourage lawmakers to make budget decisions that will not deeply cut their sector of state government. Their focus was on the differences between what each chamber estimates the state will have to spend for the next fiscal year. “The governor has proposed a budget for the coming fiscal year 2012 — $35.2 billion in spending — that’s short on revenue. But the big question is how short on revenue, because we have two different revenue estimates being utilized by the House and the Senate,” Martire said.

The House produced an estimate that is about $1 billion less than the Senate's prediction, which is based on numbers from the legislature’s bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Martire said COGFA has a solid history of accurate revenue projections, while he characterized the House’s estimate as part of a political deal between Democrats and Republicans aimed at cutting the budget. “This is Illinois. Any concern about being fiscally responsible is a good thing in this state. … The problem is, don’t let a political compromise stand in the way of reality. Especially when reality would mean significant cuts to your General [Revenue] Fund.”

Martire added, “$9 out of $10 in the General [Revenue] Fund go to just four things: education, health care, human services and public safety.”

House members and Senate Republicans, who also back the estimate, say that the state should be “conservative” when planning its spending in order to phase out the income tax increase as planned and get the state back in the black. House Speaker Michael Madigan said in March that if the legislative chambers cannot agree on some parts of the budget, House members and Senate Republicans might partner in a conference committee, which works to hash out the differences in bills passed by each chamber, to approve leaner spending that aligns with the House estimates.

Meanwhile, Senate President John Cullerton has called for about $1 billion in cuts from Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget, a plan that human service providers said after the governor’s budget speech would decimate treatment for many Illinoisans with mental health or substance abuse issues. Senate Republicans say the state has to cut $5 billion from Quinn’s proposal to avoid a $22 billion deficit in five years.

While lawmakers cannot agree about how much the state needs to cut for next fiscal year, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said Illinois will likely end the current fiscal year this June with about $8 billion in “unaddressed obligations.”

"After years of hand-wringing about the state's finances and deficit spending, here we are looking to end yet another fiscal year in the red," Topinka said in a written statement. "The prescription for our financial recovery is simple: Stop spending more than we bring in. But sadly, that still has not occurred."

Topinka said the state will owe about $4.5 billion in late payments to schools, vendors and social service providers. An additional $1 billion in bills is expected to come in during the lapse period that the state uses to catch up on costs from the previous fiscal year, and the state will owe $1.2 billion for state employee health insurance and $850 million owed to corporations for their tax refunds. Both Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross have said that any money that comes in beyond the House’s conservative revenue estimate would be spent paying off the state’s overdue obligations.

Martire pointed to other budget fixes, such as borrowing to pay off the bill backlog, that many lawmakers seem to have dismissed. “There are rational options available on the table to close this budget gap,” he said. Madigan said there is little enthusiasm in the House for Quinn’s $8.75 billion. However, Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat, is toying with ways to bring down that number by targeting payments to certain areas or bringing the bill cycle down a one- or two-month time frame instead of paying everything off at once.

Martire also advocates that the state begin taxing some services because Illinois has shifted in recent years to a more service-based economy. A recent COGFA report estimates that such a tax could bring in $8.5 billion in revenue if business-to-business services were included and $4 billion if they were not.

As for the cuts that could result from lawmakers using a lower revenue estimate, human services providers said they would be devastating. They point to other cuts to social services in recent years and say the area has taken disproportionate pain when compared with other parts of state government. They say cuts to social services are more expensive in the long run because those looking for a safety net must turn to emergency rooms or possibly end up in costly prisons or institutions.

“There might not be someone to answer that 2 a.m. emergency call to the hospital for a rape victim. There might not be a 24-hour hotline. And this would impact rape victims across the state,” said Sean Black, a spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Violence, which operates 33 rape crisis centers throughout the state. “When they call for help, there might not be the help. Or [they] might be on a waiting list that they would have to wait three, four, five, six weeks or months to get [help]. And the longer people wait for help, the more devastating the trauma is. And the more devastating not just for them but for those around them — their families, their communities, their workplaces their colleagues. The ripple effect is much more than just a single agency in a town. The ripple effect is the entire community.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hearing could be House's last on redistricting

By Jamey Dunn

Interest groups presented the House Redistricting Committee with their versions of new legislative maps today and called on lawmakers to make their own maps available for public feedback before voting on them.

In light of the growing Hispanic population in the state, The Latino Agenda, a coalition of several groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the Latino Policy Forum and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, presented a map that calls for 16 Illinois House districts and four state Senate districts where the Hispanic population would be large enough to be influential. (Click the links on their page to view the group's maps for the regions listed.) Most of those districts would have an Hispanic population of 50 percent or more. However, three would be so-called influence districts with Hispanic residents making up less than 50 percent of the population. The organization says there are 12 “Latino-elected” lawmakers currently serving in the General Assembly.

Elisa Alfonso, MALDEF’s Mdwestern district coordinator, said her organization is focusing on the south side of Chicago. She called for five Hispanic districts in the area and one coalition district, in which the Asian and Hispanic populations could join forces to wield political influence. “This area contains not only a large Latino population but also a growing Chinese-American population,” she said.

Representatives of Illinois’ Asian American community called on lawmakers to avoid breaking up Chicago’s Chinatown. The dissection of the neighborhood 10 years ago has been held up as an example of legislators breaking up a community with shared interests and values and diluting a population's political influence. They also asked that Asian-American populations in the northern Chicago, Des Plaines and Skokie areas not be diluted among several legislative districts. “Not only is there a high concentration of Asian-Americans in the areas … but there’s also a plethora of institutions that are vital to our community members including nonprofit organizations, social service providers, religious institutions, schools, ethnic media, retail and commercial outlets,” said Ami Gandhi, legal director of the Asian American Institute.

Representatives of other populations, including Arab-Americans and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and questioning (LGBT) community, took issue with the fact that they are not counted as members of their respective groups by they U.S. Census Bureau for the purposes of redistricting. They said not having official statistics to illustrate the locations and growth rates of their populations hinders their chances of receiving equal representation. Organizations in populations not counted in the census have begun to compile their own data and asked lawmakers to consider their communities when drawing legislative districts. “Unlike most minorities, the LGBT community must rely on our own resources [for data,]” said Lowell Jaffe, political and policy director for the Civil Rights Agenda.

While the Census Bureau does collect data on people with disabilities, Cheryl Jansen, a lobbyist for Equipped for Equality, said the numbers are not released in time to be considered in the redistricting process. “The problem really is that although this data is gathered … the Census Bureau does not generally release data pertaining to people with disabilities until the very end. It is a demographic group about which data is released as a last measure,” Jansen said.

All who testified during today’s hearing, the last one scheduled for the House committee, said lawmakers should make available to the public any maps they are considering and allow time for citizens to give input specific to the proposed maps. Most agreed that the process would take at least two weeks. “The proof is in the pudding. For this redistricting process to be truly meaningful, MALDEF respectfully asks that this committee hold additional hearings after a map is drawn and at least two weeks before it is approved,” Alfonso told the committee.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who heads the committee, said she would not commit to more hearings or a specific timeline because she wants to be realistic about the process. “I would be delighted if we can do that. I would be delighted. But I am not making any guarantees. I’m not making any commitments. We don’t have a timeline. We do know that people being people, often things take just about until the deadline before they actually happen. How many people file their tax returns on the last available date at the last available moment? It’s not because they didn’t want to get it done in a timely fashion, it’s just that human nature being human nature, we don’t always act expeditiously,” she said. Lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn have until June 30 to approve a map. If they do not, the task is then handed to a bipartisan commission.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Legislators look at local governments

By Lauren N. Johnson and Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers took up two bills recently that, if enacted, would have big consequences for local governments throughout Illinois

Senate Bill 2194, which would determine what location is the point of sale for businesses that have multiple offices in the state, passed the Senate last week, although not without a heated debate.

Illinois has a 6.5 percent state sales tax rate, although local governments such as cities, counties and township can collect their own sales taxes, which can vary widely among taxing bodies. Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat sponsoring the bill, said it is simply geared toward clearing up where businesses owe local sales tax and how much they must pay.

Sen. Sue Rezin, a Morris Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation, said a lawsuit filed in 2007 by Hartney Fuel Oil Co., a gasoline distributor based downstate, against the Illinois Department of Revenue, stirred up the discussion.

Hartney is headquartered in Cook County, but its sales office is in the low-taxed village of Mark in northern Putnam County. After the company funneled sales through the Mark office for four years, the department audited it and said it owed back sales taxes to Cook County because the sales actually were taking place there.

Hartney won the case after a Putnam County judge ruled that the Mark office was the point of sale.

SB 2194 would allow businesses to use the location where they process orders as their point of sale for taxing purposes.

“What I don’t like is any regulation that’s subjective. So only the person that’s coming in to audit you knows what that [sales tax rate] is, and you have to find out whether or not you’ve guessed right three years later,” said Hutchinson, saying that all businesses in the state need to be treated equally. “Clarity is always better than chaos,” she added.

But opponents of the bill say the change would allow Illinois businesses to ditch higher sales tax rates by setting up satellite offices in areas with little or no sales tax. Hutchinson said most of the pushback came from the local government with some of the highest sales tax rates in the state, Cook County.

Toni Preckwinkle, board president for Cook County, said the measure would lead to an additional drop in the tax base and lead to a loss of critical resources for public health and safety services. “This initiative would put at risk the work that this administration has already done to lower taxes for county businesses and residents.”

A Senate committee also approved a bill aimed at cutting down the number of taxing bodies in Illinois. At just less than 7,000, the state has more local governments collecting taxes than any other in the nation by more than 2,000. Those local units collect taxes to fund services such as park maintenance, fire fighting and mosquito abatement.

Under Senate Bill 173, a commission would be named by the four legislative leaders to create a list of taxing bodies to be eliminated or consolidated. Members of the General Assembly and representatives of local governments would be barred from serving on the commission. Lawmakers could vote to accept or reject the list, but could not change it in any way. They would have 60 days to act on the list or the recommendations would automatically be adopted.

The method is similar to that used by the federal government when making controversial military base closing decisions. “We’re not focusing [on] any particular units of local government. We’re looking at all 7,000 of them, and seeing if there is better ways of operating,” said Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, sponsor of the bill. “It think it would be a fair and positive way of trying to help the taxpayers of the state of Illinois.”

Opponents said there are already ways for local residents to decide if they want to eliminate a unit of local government such as a township through a referendum,  and it is unfair to remove the decisions from taxpayers. “The voters have absolutely no input. …We think it usurps your authority, your power. The voter’s authority and power and the ability of townships and other local governments to make our case before you as elected officials or the voters,” Tim Bramlet, a lobbyist for the Township Officials of Illinois, said when testifying before the Senate committee. The measure awaits a floor vote in the Senate.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quinn wants more time for appointees

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn sought to push back the effective date of a bill that would oust many of his appointees from office.

Senate Bill 1 would automatically clear out employees once their appointed terms have expired. Quinn could reappoint anyone he chose, but all appointments would have to go through the Senate for approval. “For too long too many officials and appointees have served in expired terms without undergoing the constitutionally required public review before the Senate,” Senate President John Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno wrote in a letter they sent to Quinn earlier this year urging him to sign the bill. According to a Senate review of appointees, almost 550 are serving beyond their appointed terms and nearly 100 of those collect a salary for their service. Paid employees currently serving beyond their terms would be immediately out of a job, while those serving in unpaid positions would be removed in 30 days.

Quinn returned the bill to the Senate with one tweak: he wants the effective dates bumped back. If Quinn had signed the bill, it would have taken effect immediately. Instead, if the legislature approves Quinn’s change, the law would kick in July 1 for those appointed to paying jobs and October 1 for those holding unpaid positions.

Quinn said in his amendatory veto message that he needs the time to seek candidates for the jobs that the legislation would make vacant. “I applaud the sponsors for working to make the executive appointments process even more transparent. My recommendations for change would honor the intent of the sponsors but would also give citizens ample time to apply for a vacant position and allow a reasonable amount of time for identifying and recruiting qualified candidates,” Quinn said in the message.

Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said the governor also wants to allow the public enough time to make nominations for any positions that may be vacated through a website the administration created to take input on the appointment process from Illinois residents.

“Finding people who are the perfect fit for a certain position is not a quick process. We would like to be able to take the amount of time necessary to find those candidates,” Thompson said.

The original bill had more than enough supporters in both chambers to potentially override the governor’s veto. It now returns to the Senate, where members could vote to accept the governor’s changes, override them or take no action and allow the bill to die. "At this point we're going to study the governor's action to see if it complies with the Constitution,” John Patterson, a spokesman for Cullerton, said in a written statement.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Treasurer calls for pension change

By Jamey Dunn

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford joined the list of Illinois politicians calling for changes to pension benefits for current state employees.

Rutherford, who left the Illinois Senate for the treasurer’s office, said he thinks the “biggest sticking points” in negotiations among lawmakers this session are workers’ compensation reform and whether they can cut back on retirement benefits for current employees.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Minority Leader Tom Cross agree that lawmakers could alter future benefits for state employees. as long as they left untouched ones earned up to the date of the change. Senate President John Cullerton said he thinks such a plan would be unconstitutional and released a detailed legal opinion from his top staff lawyer that backed up his case. However, he has said he would not block a bill that would changed the system from a Senate vote, saying the ultimate decision is up to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Rutherford said he thinks that if employees were given the choice to stay in a system that offers guaranteed benefits — savings would come from requiring that employees make larger contributions— a change would pass legal muster. He added that it is time to test the concept in the courts.“It should be litigated. For years and years, we’ve [said] ‘oh it’s unconstitutional.' Litigate it. Until we do it, nobody’s going to really know. “

While Rutherford, a Republican, said he does not support Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to borrow $8.75 billion to pay off the backlog of bills, he said he would consider short-term borrowing, especially if it would help the state capture federal funds.

“I’m not going to be a ‘no’ because I happen to be of a different party [than the governor.] I am going to be ‘let’s make this thing work.’ And if I don’t agree you, I’m going to be respectful, and we’re going to close the door, and we’re going to talk about it. And I feel very comfortable in my relationship right now with the governor and his budget people on what we can or cannot do as the state treasurer to help bring this around,” he said.

Quinn recently proposed $2 billion in borrowing, about half of which would be used to capture $750 million in Medicaid matching funds. Although Quinn has said such a plan would require legislative approval, Rutherford said he has been in talks with the governor’s budget office on alternative borrowing ideas to bring in the Medicaid funds.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cullerton to Republicans: Show us your cuts

By Jamey Dunn

More than $1 billion needs to be cut from Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to create a balanced budget, according to Senate President John Cullerton, and Senate Republicans say $5 billion has to be trimmed if the recent state income tax is truly temporary. 

“We believe that the governor’s budget is not balanced. He’s suggested that we spend more money than we have. So this is going to be a difficult process for us to go through and to cut from his proposed budget,” Cullerton said.

Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Quinn’s budget office, said the governor’s budget proposal relies on a borrowing plan to pay off the state’s late bills, as well as a change to the tax code that would bring in some revenue. Kraft said Quinn’s administration considers his proposal to be a balanced budget.

The Senate today approved Illinois’ required pension payment, as well as a payment on the state’s borrowing. The spending equals about S7.8 billion. “So we have $26.5 billion left to appropriate for state government in order to have a balanced budget,” Cullerton said.

In recent years, the state has underfunded the pension system for retired employees or borrowed to make its annual payment. “We have prioritized the pension payments. We’ve said it’s not negotiable. We’re not going to what we did the last two years, where we borrowed the pension payment, Cullerton said.

However, Senate Republicans say lawmakers need to cut about $5 billion from Quinn’s proposed budget to avoid massive future budget deficits and to guarantee that the income tax increase is fazed out as the legislation stipulates.

Cullerton called on Republicans to draft the ideas from their cuts plan into legislation for the Senate to consider when it is back in session next month. “We’re not going to have an omnibus, single up and down vote on a budget. We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it in the past, up until recent years. And this is in response to many, many legislators who objected to the fact…that [they] had a budget dumped on their desk the last night [with] not enough time to read it.”

Minority Leader Christine Radogno said she thinks legislation that has been negotiated between the two parties before it hits the Senate floor would be much more effective. She said that if Republicans draft all their proposals into bills, Democrats will likely vote them down in a committee, and they will never see a vote from the full chamber. “What are they willing to put 15 votes on?” Radogno asked. While Senate Republicans have not introduced much of their plan as legislation, they have vowed to put up at least half of the votes needed if any of their proposals were to come up for a floor vote.

Cullerton said he is “surprised and disappointed” that Radogno called for what he described as “behind-closed-doors” negations.

However, Radogno said that hammering out budget decisions in a smaller group, such as a committee, would bring more focus and be more productive. “It’s very difficult to negotiate with 59 people. I think a committee structure is a good place to have a discussion. I think that there’s a productive process going on over in the House,” Radogno said. So far, House Speaker Mike Madigan has said that the chamber’s budgeting committees will be directing the spending decisions. She added that she thinks the House is looking at deeper cuts than Senate Democrats, who are working with an estimate for next year’s revenue that is about $1 billion more than the House’s estimate. Culleton played down the difference in the estimates, saying that it could be sorted out during negations between the two chambers.

Cullerton also continued to advocate for a borrowing plan to pay down the state’s backlog of overdue bills. Quinn’s plan calls for the state to borrow $8.75 billion, but Cullerton said the number could likely be smaller, giving a ballpark figure of $6 billion.

Senate Republicans say if lawmakers cut about $5 billion, the state could pay off its bills within 18 months. Some say Illinois is already spending too much on borrowing and point to the amount of money the Senate approved today to spend on borrowing and pensions. “I think this is a cautionary tale going forward. Take a look at Fiscal Year 2012, [the revenue that] we don’t have because of this payment,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Republicans' workers' comp reforms fail

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Senate today shot down a workers’ compensation reform bill backed by Republicans and the business community.

“This workers' compensation bill is the first sign of hope that companies currently have in Illinois. Without this bill, and without real workers’ compensation reform, there is no good news or reason to keep your company in Illinois,” Rep. Dan Duffy, A Lake Barrington Republican, said of Senate Bill 1349 during debate on the House floor.

The legislation, sponsored by Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter, would have:
  • Cut the fees paid to doctors who treat workers’ compensation patients by 30 percent.
  • Created a “causation” provision, which could have required that an injury be at least 51 percent job-related to be eligible for workers’ compensation. (This issue is perhaps the most volatile subject of negotiations, with many in the business community viewing it as a deal breaker.)
  • Required that American Medical Association guidelines be used to determine impairment
  • Required that injured employees be treated by a doctor of the employer's choice for the first 60 days after the injury occurred
  • Created stricter penalties for fraudulent claims that involve seeking payment for a medical service that was not provided.
Democrats said it was premature to pass a bill while negotiations are still ongoing between the stakeholders. “Workers’ comp overhaul is clearly the single most important piece of legislation we can pass in this session to prove we’re serious about improving the business climate,” said Senate President John Cullerton. He added that if senators truly want to change the system, they must negotiate a bill that would pass in the House, and that Gov. Pat Quinn, who has his own package of proposed workers’ compensation reforms, would sign.

Republicans accused Democrats of being unable to stand up to labor unions and trial lawyers, traditionally their political allies, to make needed but potentially painful changes. “I don’t know what will finally happen with this. But if it isn’t strong enough to make a difference, forget it. We’re wasting our time if we can’t compete with our neighboring states,” said Sen. David Luechtefeld, a Republican from Okawville.

Legislative roundup: A win and loss for Rep. LaShawn Ford

By Lauren N. Johnson

Lawmakers took action on a number of bills as the deadline to pass legislation out of each chamber by Friday closes in.

Chicago Democratic Rep. LaShawn Ford said “compromise helped” to gain necessary votes for a bill he sponsored that today passed on the House floor. It would ban the use of trans fats in restaurants beginning in July 2013.

House Bill 1600 excludes schools from the ban, but it would bar public and private schools from selling foods containing trans fats items in vending machines.

Sen. Donnie Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Senate, has not yet gauged the support in the chamber but says there is a “good chance” that the measure will gain support because of a greater fiscal awareness and health consciousness in the legislature this year. “I think everyone understands how much is costs our state to deal with people with obesity, beginning with childhood obesity to adulthood diabetes. People are much more conscious of what the public cost is,” Trotter said. He said he foresees some problems of people refusing “to be told what to eat.”

Ford said his goal is to remove trans fat from school cafeterias by 2016. Schools contracts with food vendors are a roadblock to making the change sooner. “Many people used to believe that if you eliminate trans fats, then you can’t have French fries, you can’t have fried foods, and that’s not true.”

Currently, many cities and counties – with New York City being the first – have bans on food items containing trans fat, but Illinois would be the second state – after California – with such a ban.

Another bill, HB 94, also sponsored by Ford, to require inmates throughout the state to be counted as residents in their home towns rather than in areas where the prisons in which they are incarcerated are located, failed in the House this afternoon.

Ford said although he was sure of previously sought-after votes from his colleagues, it failed because a few members weren’t present in the chamber when the bill was called for a vote. Ford said if the bill had passed, it would have been too late for it to affect the redistricting process currently taking place in the legislature.

Education reform sails through the Senate

By Jamey Dunn

They way teachers across the state are granted tenure, laid off and fired would change under legislation passed in the Senate with no opposition today.

After months of negotiations, reform groups, teachers’ unions and administrators found common ground, and interest groups on all sides signed off on the bill.

“The reform groups, the education groups, the management groups, the legislators, we all agree that our children come first,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, sponsor of Senate Bill 630. “We all agree that the most important effort in our negotiations is, at the end of the day, what’s best for the child in the classroom.”

Under the bill, teachers would have to receive positive evaluations during the last three years of a four-year probationary period to be granted tenure. Teachers who earn “excellent” reviews in each of their first three years would also earn tenure. Teachers with tenure who receive two unsatisfactory reviews within a seven-year period could have their teaching licenses reviewed by the state superintendent and be required to complete professional development geared toward improving their performance or face having their licenses revoked. The measure also streamlines the process for firing tenured teachers. Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student performance under a new system that goes into effect in 2016. Under Lightford’s bill, school districts and teachers' unions could agree to move up the implementation date of the new system to as early as 2013.

“With this bill, we’re going to ensure that the better teachers stay and the lesser teachers go,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, who worked with Lightford on the negotiations.

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

The decision to strike would remain in the hands of unions—an issue that was a contentious part of negotiations between reform groups and unions. In Chicago, three-fourths of union members would have to agree to a strike. Teachers outside of the city could still strike if half of union members agreed. The measure would lengthen negotiations before a strike and would require both sides to release their demands to the public if an impasse is reached.

“I believe what we have here is historic education reform,” said Ken Swanson, Illinois Education Association President. “This is going to be both good for children, and it preserves in an appropriate way the voice of the professionals doing the work with students every day.”

The push for this legislation came to the forefront during the close of the last legislative session, and  out-of-state reform group Stand for Children emerged as a key player. The organization donated more than half a million dollars to Illinois legislative candidates during the last election cycle, giving the majority of the money to Democrats.

“There were rumors that this group came into Illinois--Stand for Children. And they’re very wealthy, and they have a lot of money, and they’re going to make us move. So unlike the truth. We were already in the midst of education reform,” Lightford said, citing recent reforms the legislature passed as part of the state’s bid for the federal Race to the Top grant program.

“Having a great teacher in the classroom is the most important school-based factor in affecting student outcomes. And this shift to making performance the driving factor in personnel decisions is ultimately a huge win for children,” said Jessica Handy, who left the Senate Democrats' staff to become Stand for Children’s Illinois policy director.

Players on all sides of the issue commended those involved for compromising on substantial changes and pointed to much more volatile situations involving teachers’ unions in other states, including the recent protests in Wisconsin over a measure that seeks to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. “What this shows is that to have meaningful reform that will work, you have to have the unions at the table. And here in Illinois, what we’ve shown is you do not need to have draconian unwarranted attacks on public employee rights [and] collective bargaining. You can do this through collective bargaining. You can do this through bringing the parties to the table. So Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, other states look to Illinois. We’ll show you how to do it the right way,” Swanson said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Catholic Charities may stop providing foster care

By Jamey Dunn

Some faith-based organizations that provide adoption and foster care services for the state say they may have to stop if they are forced to place children with same-sex couples.

Senate Bill 1123, which would allow religious organizations to deny placement of a child with a couple who has entered into a civil union, failed to gain the needed support to pass out of a Senate committee today. Under the measure, if an organization turned a couple away, it would have to provide them with information about an alternative adoption and foster care program, such as the Department of Child and Family Services.

The bill has an unlikely sponsor. Sen. David Koehler, who also sponsored the law that will allow both same-sex couples and heterosexual couples to enter into civil unions starting in June, is backing this measure. Koehler, a Peoria Democrat, said in supporting civil unions, he did not intend to start a religious battle that would take a toll on Illinois children.

“I guess amongst my many faults is that of being a pragmatist. I’m very proud to have been the sponsor of the civil unions bill and would like to see that work,” Koehler said. “Fighting on the fronts of what I would call religious wars in terms of who has to do what is really not where I would like to see our activity. I’d like to see our activity in terms of really embracing the rights of gays and lesbians in the state.”

Koehler noted that hospitals run by religious groups are allowed to decline non-emergency services that go against their parent organizations' religious doctrines.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference, said the six Illinois Catholic Charities  organizations and other religious-based groups are responsible for about 3,000 of the 16,000 children in foster care in Illinois. He said children needing foster care are assigned to Catholic Charities based mainly on their regional proximity to Catholic Charities versus other foster care providers.

Gilligan said that same-sex couples would still be able to be foster parents or adopt, and the legislation would simply allow religious groups to refer them to another program.

“I don’t think we can continue providing foster care and adoption services to the most poor and vulnerable in the state of Illinois if this legislation does not advance. I don’t see how we’re going to be able to do that,” Gilligan told the Senate committee. He added that if the church did stop contracting with the state for foster care, the greatest impact would be felt in central and southern Illinois.

Mary Dixon, legislative director for the ACLU, says the bill could keep children from being placed with gay family members or family members who have decided to opt for a civil union instead of a marriage, even though such a placement could be best for the child. “This legislation could in fact prevent a child from being with a loving lesbian aunt, grandmother or grandfather who would be unacceptable to a private agency because of [being] unmarried and in a civil union.”

Dixon cited studies that have found that gay and lesbian couples are equally effective parents as heterosexual couples. She said any policy that limits the pool of potential foster parents is harmful for children needing homes.

“When a private organization--even a private religiously affiliated organization--performs what is really quintessentially a government function, such as screening foster homes for licensure or caring for the wards of the state, it must abide by the laws that bind the government. If the religiously affiliated organization does not want to abide by these laws, it should exercise its choice not to accept those government duties,” Dixon said.

Dixon said while the ACLU traditionally advocates for the rights of religious groups to practice their beliefs without governmental interference, an organization that has contracted to provide a service for the state must treat everyone equally while providing that service. She says anything short of that would be “state sanctioned discrimination.”

Gilligan said after the committee vote that he did not know when Catholic Charities would decide whether it will continue providing foster care for the state.

This is one of the first major legal debates to emerge since the legislature approved civil unions last December.

“It’s never over until it’s over,” Gilligan said. The measure was one vote shy of passing in the committee and could come up for consideration again “We can’t put our guard down. The gay community [and] people who believe in fairness cannot put our guard down,” said Rick Garcia, former political director for Equality Illinois and longtime gay-rights activist.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

DHS director to lawmakers: No more human services cuts

By Lauren N. Johnson

Because the Illinois Senate and House do not agree on how much money the state has to spend, human services providers fear that cuts could be even deeper than those Gov. Pat Quinn called for in his budget proposal.

The Illinois Department of Human Services today asked a Senate budgeting committee for $3.27 billion in state general revenue funds for next year, the amount Quinn calls for in his budget plan. That request is nearly 11 percent less than the $3.66 billion allotted to human services for the current fiscal year.

However, the department may see an even larger reduction because of differing estimates from the House and Senate of how much money the state has to work with next year. The House is working off of the smallest revenue estimate of about $33.2 billion, while Quinn and the Senate are both using projections closer to $34 billion.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who chairs the House Human Services Appropriations Committee, said she thinks that if the House and Senate cannot agree on a number, a conference committee -- used to smooth out bills that differ in the two chambers -- would likely settle on a figure between the two spending proposals.

Michelle Saddler, secretary of the Department of Human Services, said she hopes an alternative can be found to cutting the budget beyond Quinn’s numbers. “We have some very difficult cuts in the budget as we’re all dealing with this issue of fiscal realities. We know that there’s not enough money. We know that the governor had to make very painful decisions, and we’re seeing that in the introduced budget.”Saddler said more than 13 programs have already been eliminated since the governor’s proposal in February.

In terms of the impact moving forward, she said the worst of the cuts under the governor’s budget are in the divisions of alcoholism and substance abuse, and in the areas of community health and disease prevention. She said those programs lessen future costs for the state and that the governor has expressed to her his openness to  alternatives other than the large cuts. “Those are areas where we have relatively small dollar investment but with large payback over time. These are areas where if you invest a dollar now, you prevent, say, $13 or $17 of expenses in the future,” Saddler said.

Under Quinn’s proposal, the state would not cover most addiction or mental health services for people who are not eligible for Medicaid. The money the state spends on these services for Medicaid patients is backed by a federal matching funds. Representatives of both communities said the move would be devastating to thousands of Illinois residents.

Frank Anselmo, chief executive officer of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, suggested to lawmakers that they prioritize spending to avoid what he called continued disproportionate cuts to community care. “The governor’s proposed budget for [addiction prevention and treatment programs and mental health programs] is a 43 percent cut within a two year cycle to community care. That’s not shared sacrifice, in fact I’d be happy to share the sacrifice,” Anselmo said,  “because we’ve slashed community services to a point where in some communities, we’re not going to have a system at all,”

Eric Foster, chief operating officer for the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, said such a move would eliminate addiction treatment for about 55,000 Illinois residents, and 230,000 youth would lose prevention programs."From 2008, we were just under $120 million in state non-Medicaid dollars. The FY 12 budget would reduce it to nothing. We have seen significant decreases between 2008 to today regarding state funding."

Saddler said her department is already facing bigger cuts under the governor’s budget than some other areas of government, and the legislature should not seek to make those reductions larger. “We should not be looking at any additional cuts to DHS. There’ve been difficult choices, and human services is being cut disproportionately to many other areas.”

Quinn's workers' comp plan not enough for business

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn, legislative leaders and the business community agree that legislators need to approve substantial workers’ compensation reforms by the end of the spring legislative session, but what a reform package would look like is still unclear.

“This is one of our No.1 issues in Illinois, this year. We’re going to get it done this year,” Quinn said as he presented the broad strokes of his reform proposal during an Illinois Chamber of Commerce event today. His plan calls for new standards for arbitrators who make decisions on workers’ compensation cases and “enhanced authority” to investigate fraud. Quinn also wants to limit arbitrators' terms to three years and subject them to performance evaluations. Under Quinn’s proposal, workers who are injured while intoxicated would not be eligible for benefits.

The plan Quinn described was short on details, but he did provide estimates for cost savings for businesses: “Our plan would save even more than $500 million.”

Quinn’s proposal calls for reducing fees doctors are paid by 30 percent, which he estimates would save $500 million alone. He also calls for returning compensation for partial permanent disabilities to levels paid out before 2005, a move he says would save $40 million. He also proposes to cap benefits for carpal tunnel syndrome, which he says would save about $19 million. Quinn has yet to introduce his plan introduced in legislation for lawmakers to consider.

However, Quinn’s plan did not address the issue of causation, which representatives of the business community say is their top priority. Businesses want employees who make a workers’ compensation claim to prove that their injuries are caused, at least in part, by their work.

“In Illinois, the threshold for a workers’ comp claim is extremely low. Somehow, we have got to raise that threshold,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, an employee who starts work tomorrow can file a worker’s comp claim for all previous experience that’s probably not job-related. We need to have workers’ comp be (for) a job-related injury.” Whitley said Quinn's plan had some positive changes, but without taking up causation, it's not enough.

However, Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who worked on a workers’ compensation reform legislation that stalled at the end of last session, said that for businesses to have the causation requirements they are seeking, cases would have to go back into the court system. He said if interest groups cannot agree on a compromise reform package, it would be better to just do away with the system completely

“If you’re not going to take the action to reform the system, then let’s do away with the system,” Bradley said during floor debate of House Bill 1032. “I’m saying that the comp act currently is not providing for the general well being of anybody.” CORRECTION: The House approved the removal of some procedural roadblocks to Bradley's bill, but has yet to vote on the bill itself. Bradley's workers' compensation bill is House Bill 1032. It was listed here as House Bill 3428, which instead repeals a variety of other provisions relating to farming and labor. 

Although the House approved Bradley’s bill, Whitley said he does not take the proposal seriously. “I think that’s more for show and drama than it is for reality.”

Bradley emerged frustrated from his attempts at negotiating changes to the workers’ compensation law, and most everyone involved agrees that hammering out a compromise between some of the biggest interest groups associated with Illinois government—business, the health care sector, unions and trial lawyers—will not be easy.

“I know that there are many interest groups that want to stand still. They don’t want to change. They kind of benefit from the status quo,” Quinn said. “There will be some pain, there will be some sacrifice, but nobody is going to get scalped in our reform. Maybe some folks would get a haircut, but nobody’s going to get scalped.”

Senate President John Cullerton said there is opposition to change on both sides of the aisle. He warned that any interest group digging in and making a given issue a “deal breaker” would be counter productive to negotiations. “We’ve really narrowed—I think—a lot of the issues. There’s still three of four left that are very important. Always in politics, you try to do things that save a little face for both sides, and that’s what we’re going to be trying to do. But it’s not easy.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

State finances still not on solid ground

By Jamey Dunn

Despite the passage of an income tax increase, Illinois lawmakers still have work to do to steer the state to stable financial footing.

The backlog of unpaid bills has remained “near or above record highs,” according to Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s report for the third quarter of the fiscal year—the first quarterly report she has issued since taking office. In fact, at $4.515 billion, the backlog is greater than it was at this time last year when the total of unpaid bills was $4.496 billion.

Topinka said if the trend continues, the state might not be able to pay off its late bills for this fiscal year before the August deadline. Legislators extended the deadline to pay off last year’s bills to last December, and Topinka predicts that such a move could happen again. “If the backlog of general funds bills at the end of the fiscal year is indeed similar to last year, the state will be unable to close the fiscal year 2011 lapse period by the traditional August end. In fact, Illinois was unable to pay off all of fiscal year 2010’s liabilities until December 31st last year, and could face similar challenges this year,” the report said.

Topinka said the ongoing backlog has caused her office to prioritize “critical payments,” such as general state aid to school districts and payments on the state’s borrowing. Illinois is also keeping up a 30-day payment cycle on certain Medicaid bills to capture temporarily elevated federal matching funds for the program. As long as the state pays providers within a month, the federal government will give Illinois 57 cents on the dollar instead of the standard 50-cent match. The higher reimbursement rates expires at the end of June. Although paying those bills brings in more federal money, Topinka said it also ties up cash flow.

On the revenue side, Topinka said money from the income tax increase is just starting to come into the state’s coffers. The state saw a revenue increase of 7 percent over the last quarter. Some of the money came from one-time sources, such as the tax amnesty program and the selling of bonds against money the state was awarded in a national settlement with tobacco companies. Sales tax revenues increased 8 percent, but $164 million out of the $414 million in sales tax revenues were brought in through the tax amnesty program. As stimulus funds dried up, federal revenues dropped $745 million, or 15 percent, over the third quarter. “While the state took action to increase its immediate cash flow, its fiscal standing remains precarious,” Topinka said.

Illinois has to pay off $1.3 in short-term borrowing over the next three months and faces a larger monthly debt service payments than it did this time last year. Topinka also notes that the state shifted $2 billion in Medicaid payments over to funds outside of the General Revenue Fund in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2010, a move the comptroller said the state couldn’t repeat this year.

Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat, has been calling on Topinka to release a current total for the backlog of overdue bills. He said now that the number is out, the state needs to delve deeper into who is owed and how long they have been waiting for their payments. “The next step is to say…how much of that is 60 days past due, how much is 90 days, how much is 120 days, and so on and so forth,” Sullivan said

Sullivan said borrowing the amount the state would need to trim the late payments down to a 30- or 60-day cycle could be an alternative to Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed $8.75 billion in borrowing to pay off all the state’s overdue obligations at once.

“Every bill does need to be paid,” Sullivan said. “But maybe we need to operate under a 30-to-60-day backlog. That’s certainly better than were we are now. It’s an improvement.” He added that the proposal would only be a temporary solution ,and the state should continue paying Medicaid bills in 30 days to bring in more federal money.

Sullivan said he hopes to help craft a compromise borrowing bill pay off some of the state’s overdue debts. Minority Leader Christine Radogno has said she supports “responsible” borrowing that is part of an overall plan to balance the budget. However, she has said there need to be more cuts to the budget for her to consider borrowing. She has also said that Quinn wants to borrow more than Republicans can support. Senate Republicans proposed about $5 billion in cuts from Quinn’s budget plan for next fiscal year. They say their plan would balance the budget and pay down the backlog without borrowing, although paying off the bills would happen over time. House Speaker Michael Madigan has said there is little support for Quinn’s plan in his chamber.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

IDOT unveils fix-it road plan

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Transportation’s six-year construction plan focuses on maintenance and repair of the state’s existing bridges and roads.

According to IDOT Secretary Gary Hannig, two-thirds of the $11.5 billion “fix-it” plan will be spent on maintaining the state’s existing roads and bridges. The other third will be spent on relieving traffic congestion and new projects. “We will deal with congestion. We will deal with safety concerns. We will also work to preserve and maintain the existing highway footprint,” Hannig said at a Chicago news conference.

The state plans to improve 3,248 miles between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2017 and revamp or replace 611 bridges. Almost 500 miles of road and more than 100 bridges will see construction in the next fiscal year. According to Hannig, Illinois has already worked on about 4,800 miles of road and about 500 bridges in the last two years.

Federal dollars will fund $7.2 billion of the plan, with Illinois putting up the rest of the money. Illinois' part willl include $2 billion from the state's embattled capital construction program, which was ruled unconstitutional by an appellate court. The state is moving ahead with construction while the Illinois Supreme Court considers the future of the program. Hannig said he was not concerned about the funding. “We’re moving forward with the program full speed ahead. It’s our belief that the court will rule in our favor.”

Hannig said IDOT took a conservative approach when estimating future federal funding levels by assuming that they would stay flat.

The plan will stick to the traditional spending levels of 45 percent going toward the Chicago area and 55 percent being spent downstate. A total of $8.3 billion will be spent on state highways, and $3.2 billion will be spent on local roads. “These major projects that have been on the drawing board, sometimes for years and years, we finally have a chance to get them done statewide—city, suburbs downstate, every part of Illinois,” Quinn said.

The road work is expected to create an estimated 155,000 construction jobs.

Quinn also said Illinois has received the “go ahead” to build an airport in the south suburb of Peotone, a project called for in the capital plan. He said the state has started buying land for the site.

IDOT has posted the six-year plan to its website, along with an interactive map.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Redistricting hearing comes to Springfield

By Jamey Dunn

Representatives of several regional, racial, ethnic and religious interest groups appealed to members of the Senate Redistricting committee today, asking that their communities not be split among several districts when the new legislative map is drawn. However, reform advocates questioned whether the public hearings will have much bearing on the map that will ultimately be approved.

The Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community has called on multiple occasions for Chinatown in Chicago to remain in one legislative district. The neighborhood was split into several districts under the current map approved 10 years ago, and as a result, Chinese community leaders feel that the community is underrepresented. “We are all by now familiar with the example of the greater Chinatown area in Chicago, a cohesive community that has experienced unfair fragmentation,” said Ami Gandhi, legal director for the Asian American Institute. However, Gandhi’s organization has identified concentrated Asian populations in northern Chicago, Des Plaines and near Skokie that they say should also not be split among districts.

However, lawmakers on the committee raised concerns that some of the areas the group has highlighted as having growing Asian communities have also seen a growth in Hispanic populations and said they would also have to consider the interests of those residents. Gandhi said that she agrees that the considerations of both groups are important to the process.

While the state’s Hispanic population grew by 32.5 percent and the Asian population increased by 38.6 percent, the African-American population decreased by 1 percent statewide and 17.2 percent in Chicago, according to U.S. Census data. With those shifts in population, the potential loss of at least one traditionally African-American legislative district looms.

“The right to vote is meaningless if one’s vote isn’t effective,” said Phyllis Logan, a representative of the Westside Branch of the NAACP of Chicago. “The 2001 map was a success from the standpoint of African-Americans and indeed from the standpoint of history. … Please do not tamper with this African-American success story, which is also an American success story. African-American voters and legislators are now ingrained in the fabric of the political legislative processes in Illinois.”

Logan argued that the demolition of low-income housing units in Chicago has forced some groupings of African-Americans to become disperse, and therefore lose some political power. “Respecting existing relationships [between voters and their representatives] also means being cognizant of the effect of political decisions of the past decade that have dispersed black populations that resided in large housing complexes [that] the city of Chicago chose to eliminate.”

Logan also called on lawmakers to count prison inmates in their home communities for census data instead of the location of the prison where they are incarcerated. Legislation that would make that change failed to receive the necessary votes in the House but was held by sponsor Chicago Democrat La Shawn Ford for a potential future vote.

“Certain commentators and media outlets have portrayed as a foregone conclusion that Illinois’ slower population growth and diversifying demographics means that black representation must be decreased,” Logan said. She said it is unfair that the media is focusing only on the shifts in African-American populations as a justification for eliminating representation in the black community. “Whites, not African-Americans, have experienced the greatest decrease as a proportion of the state's population. ... The most accurate characterization of the census data is that Illinois is less white.”

While most of the jockeying for districts will likely occur in the northern part of the state, some downstate representatives also appealed to the committee.

Dennis Fisher from Shelby County in central Illinois asked that the county not be split into multiple districts.
Fisher said the county of 20,000 people has four state representatives, three state senators and two U.S. congressmen. “I’m here today to seek less representation,” Fischer said. “Most of our people are confused [about] where to go [and] who their representative are."

Transparency advocates have called on the committee to present potential maps to the public for review.

Whitney Woodward, a policy associate for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, questioned whether information and testimony submitted at the public hearings would be used in the process. “Is that information submitted from the public going to be taken into consideration by the map drawers, and will their comments be incorporated into the new map? Or will the hours of testimony already taken by this committee, the additional hours yet to come and the public comments solicited by this committee's website be disregarded when the borders are finally constructed.”

Woodward said that if legislators are truly concerned with making the process open, they must make drafts of the maps they intend to vote on available to the public for at least two weeks before a vote. “It’s not only the quantity of the committee hearings but the quality of those hearings that matters.”

The Illinois House has scheduled 15 redistricting committee hearings. The Senate has five scheduled hearings and committee members say the group plans to schedule more in the future.

Friday, April 01, 2011

This week's CapitolView

Madigan and Cross playing nice? Budget issues, redistricting, repeal of part of the smoking ban and conceal carry are discussed in this week's program. Kevin McDermott (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Chris Wetterich (Springfield State Journal-Register) and Andrew Tomason (Illinois Statehouse News) join moderator Jamey Dunn (Illinois Issues Magazine). A production of WSEC-TV/PBS Springfield. On Facebook @CapitolViewPolitics

Quinn fires back on budget

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn said today that he supports a budgeting process driven by legislators; however, he said he would not sign off on big cuts to some of the largest areas of state spending.

After his budget proposal took a beating from lawmakers in Springfield this week, Quinn shared some of his opinions with reporters in Chicago today.

He responded to House Speaker Michael Madigan’s statement earlier this week that the governor had asked for the legislature to send him a lump sum budget, as they have the last two years, and allow him to make the tough choices. Madigan said he told Quinn that he didn’t think lawmakers would go for that plan again this year.

“I really didn’t ask for it,” Quinn said.

He said he asked Democratic legislative leaders if it was their “intention” to conduct the budgeting process that way again this year.

“I said, 'if you guys want to do that, that’s the will of the legislature — the members— then we’ll take it on and do it in the third year, the way we have in the first two.'  But I didn’t say they should do that. I actually like the fact that the legislators are line-item by line-item going through the budget. My first two years, I was told they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to make cuts,” he said.

Quinn said if lawmakers have budget proposals this year he would be “happy to look at those.” However, he seems to be a long way from getting on board with the House’s lean budget proposal , which calls for cuts to education and human services. “Severe radical cuts in education and in decent health care and in human services and public safety, I’m not going along with that. I think it’s very important that we maintain the core priorities of Illinois. And we’re not losing a generation of children and their education, and we’re not going to take away health care from people who have nothing at all. We have to make sure we have a decent society.”

Madigan shot down Quinn’s proposal to borrow $8.75 billion dollars to quickly pay off the state’s backlog of bills. The borrowing would be repaid over 14 years. The speaker said that lawmakers have little interest in passing the bill. Instead, the House plan currently calls for paying off overdue bills with any money that might come in that exceeds the chambers “conservative” revenue projection for fiscal year 2012.

Quinn did not waver from his plan. “The money is already owed. We already owe the money. It’s not like we’re borrowing new money," he said. "I haven’t given up on that. Ultimately, it’s got to happen. We cannot tolerate a situation where good businesses in Illinois are having to wait half a year, six months, to get paid on bills that they have provided services for. …We can’t just keep pushing forward $8 billion worth of debt.” Quinn’s estimate of the state’s unpaid bills also includes costs besides those owed to schools, socials service providers and vendors, such as late income tax refunds for corporations and money owed to the state’s employee health care system.

He called on lawmakers to quickly approve a smaller borrowing plan of about $2 billion, which he says would allow the state to capture about $200 million in federal funds under an elevated Medicaid matching rate that expires in June. Some of the money would also go to the employee health care system, which was under funded for the current fiscal year. “Everyone in Springfield, Democrats and Republicans, they can beat their breasts all they want about restructuring debt. The bottom line is: if we’re going to sacrifice and give up almost a quarter billion dollars, that’s foolhardy; that’s not the way to go. … At least [on] the [Medicaid], let’s get going and get the job done.”

Quinn said he plans to roll out a workers’ compensation reform package next week. He said he has been talking to legislative leaders and is trying to work out a proposal that would have bipartisan support in both chambers.
He said, "We're going to past this, this year."