Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Catholic Charities continues fight for state contracts

By Jamey Dunn

Catholic Charities organizations are appealing a court ruling that said the state has the right to end contracts with the organization for foster care and adoption services.

Kendall Marlowe, spokesperson for the Department of Children and Family Services, said the state did not renew contracts with the group because representatives of Catholic Charities voiced the organization’s intention not to comply with the state’s new civil unions law. The organization planned to refer couples in civil unions seeking to be foster or adoptive parents to another provider. The contracts are renewed on an annual basis. “We were unable to enter into contracts with them for Fiscal Year 2012,” Marlowe said.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois pushed for a bill during the spring legislative session that would have allowed them to refer couples in civil unions to other providers, but the measure was shot down in a Senate committee. When the state informed the organization that it would not renew the contracts, the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal organization, launched a lawsuit against Illinois. Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled that the organization was not entitled to a renewed contract. “No citizen has a recognized legal right to contract with the government,” the opinion said.

The Thomas More Society today asked the court to stay the ruling and plans to file an appeal based on the fact that the ruling did not touch on the religious rights of Catholic Charities. “Catholic Charities is one of the lead providers of foster care services in the state. They have been valued partners for decades. Clearly the intent of the civil union law was not to force the state to end these contracts and force the transfer of thousands of children’s cases,” Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria said in a written statement.

Human rights organizations say Schmidt made the right decision. “The court correctly concluded on procedural grounds that the state could decline to renew its contracts with four dioceses of Catholic Charities. The state chose not to renew their contracts because they insisted on violating state and federal law by refusing to place children in the homes of couples in civil unions. Illinois correctly determined that this practice was bad for kids, could deny many of them their best opportunity for a better life, and that the state's obligation was to make the transition to other providers as seamless as possible,” Camilla Taylor, director of Lambda Legal’s Marriage Project, said in a written statement.

DCFS has been working on a plan to shift all of the approximately 2,000 foster care and adoption cases administered by Catholic Charities to other social services providers. The department already moved 300 children to a new agency in June after Catholic Charities of Rockford announced it would no longer handle the cases. Marlowe said that ideally, children and families aren’t even aware of the shift because caseworkers move to a new agency as well. “The only change that the child and foster family may perceive is a different logo at the top of the letterhead. All that has to change is the agency supervising the case.” Marlowe said that the department is moving forward with its work and plans to have all cases moved to new agencies by the fall “We would obviously respect any court orders that come down. But in the meantime, our orderly process goes forward.”

Friday, August 26, 2011

Superintendents consider appeal

Regional superintendents are mulling an appeal to a ruling today denying their request for pay.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt issued an order today saying that he did not have the power to force Gov. Pat Quinn to pay the superintendents. Quinn had vetoed the funding for the administrators' salaries, and they have not been paid since the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1. "The association is reviewing the results of the court's ruling and its legal options, including an appeal. We will thoughtfully consider our next steps and make the appropriate decision at the right time, understanding the time frame allotted to us under court rules," Bob Daiber, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said in a written statement. The group would have to file for an immediate appeal by early next week or would have up to 30 days to file a traditional appeal.

Daiber said the association will also turn to lobbying lawmakers for pay checks. Legislators could override Quinn's veto and restore the funding or approve legislation being crafted by Quinn that would shift the cost to local governments.

Court rules against regional superintendents

By Jamey Dunn

A circuit judge ruled today that he does not have the power to force Gov. Pat Quinn to pay regional school administrators who have not seen a paycheck since the start of the fiscal year. UPDATE: Quinn says regional superintendents will have to wait for pay until veto session.“There’s a policy issue that has to be decided," Quinn told reporters in Chicago today. “It will be resolved when the General Assembly comes back into session in late October.”

Quinn vetoed the pay for regional superintendents and their assistants in June, saying they should be paid from local revenues. As a result the elected administrators have not been paid since the fiscal year began on July 1. The group was working with the governor on a plan that could appear before the legislature in the fall veto session, scheduled for October. They were also lobbying lawmakers to override the governor’s veto if the plan fell through. In the meantime, they took the state to court asking to be paid until a solution can be found.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt sympathized with the superintendents in a hearing yesterday, saying he knew the lack of pay was causing them hardship, but he voiced concerns that ordering Quinn to pay would blur the separation of powers between the branches of government. He ruled today that he does not have the authority to essentially override the governor’s veto and force the state to cut the checks. “The Illinois Constitution states very plainly that the governor may veto an item of appropriation. To hold otherwise would thrust the court into the appropriation process. Such would be contrary to the Illinois Constitution.”

One of the superintendents’ lawyers, Charles Schmadeke, argued at the hearing yesterday that the group was asking Schmidt to enforce the statute that creates their positions and sets requirements for their pay. “While we respect Judge Schmidt and the difficultly of this decision, we are clearly disappointed in the ruling,” Raylene DeWitte Grischow, another lawyer working on the case, said in a prepared statement. “If the judiciary cannot compel the executive branch to follow the law, the result is that there are 80 Illinois families who are doing the state's important and critical work in education without payment and struggling each day to make ends meet. It is our view that the state is making the superintendents fund the operations of their offices out of their own pockets,”

Bob Daiber, president Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said the group plans to meet this afternoon to sort out what it plans to do next. “We respect the court's decision but are disappointed that the judge did not agree with us,” Daiber said in a prepared statement. “State law clearly calls for us to be paid for the good work we continue to do, but our fight continues. Today's outcome doesn't change that we believe this situation is totally unfair and against what this state stands for. We continue to work hard for the students, parents, educators and taxpayers of Illinois. And we will find a way through discussions with state lawmakers for a long-term funding solution. Clearly, the pain continues for many superintendents and their families during this very difficult time, and hardships are growing every day. They will have to make difficult decisions as this crisis continues, as we work through the inconsiderate decision to end our funding with no other plan in place to pay us for doing our jobs,” 

Quinn says he wants to continue working with superintendents and lawmakers on his plan to pay the administrators with local funds. “I think the judge made the right ruling, and we move on from there. We want to work with everybody. But I think the best way to work together would be to support the legislation that would have this particular group of educational bureaucrats paid for from local funds not from state funds.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Separation of powers at play in regional superintendents' court case

By Jamey Dunn

Regional superintendents will have to wait at least one more day to find out if they can expect pay checks in the near future.

In June, Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto pen to slash the funding for their salaries from the budget lawmakers sent him, saying he believes the administrators should be paid at the local level. As a result, the superintendents have yet to receive a pay check since the new fiscal year started on July 1. Quinn’s administration is working on legislation to draw the salaries from a local tax, and lawmakers could vote to override the veto. But neither of those things would likely take place until the legislature's veto session, scheduled for October. The superintendents have asked a Sangamon County judge to force the state to pay them until a solution can be found. They are not seeking back pay through their request.

“They provide a very important cog in the machine of public education,” Charles Schmadeke, who is representing the superintendents, argued in court today. He said that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) could pay the administrators from a fund used to pay board personnel, which he said is described in the law as money to ”pay the people who do the job for the Illinois State Board of Education, and that’s what these [superintendents] are doing.”

He acknowledged that it was Quinn’s right as governor to veto the funding for the salaries. “We are not suggesting that the governor doesn’t have the power he engaged here; he clearly does.” However, he said, because the General Assembly created the positions and wrote the regional supeintendents'  pay scale into law, Quinn's action of taking away the funds does not mean he can simply not pay them. Schmadeke said that the law allows the state to pay them, even from the original funds that Quinn vetoed, regardless of the governor’s budget action. He said a change to the law would be needed to stop paying the administrators with state dollars.

Assistant Attorney General Terence Corrigan said that while lawmakers may have wanted the superintendents to be paid through state funds, the governor used his veto pen to remove the line item. He argued that without an appropriation, there is simple no authority to spend the money. “The fact that the legislature intended that they be paid doesn’t mean that the court can pay them with no appropriation.” Corrigan said that using personnel funds from ISBE would throw the agency into chaos because it could potentially run out of money to pay its staff. “In 60 days, the state board would basically cease to function.” Schmadeke countered that going to ISBE would only be a temporary fix and would not sink ISBE’s staffing budget. “Let’s have a hearing on the merits, but get these people paid in the meantime.”

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt said he is concerned that his ruling could have a profound impact on the separation of the powers among the branches of government. He questioned whether the state’s argument could lead to a scenario where “basically the governor could do away with a statutorily created office” by vetoing the pay for the job. However, he questioned whether he had the authority to order the executive branch to spend funds. “There are no easy answers here,” Schmidt said. He said he was “aghast” that the state downplayed the hardship faced by the superintendents, who have gone months without pay. But he questioned what he could do to force Quinn to pay the administrators if he ruled in their favor and Quinn refused to comply. “I don’t issue orders I can’t enforce.” Schmidt said. “The lack of hardship is not my holdup here.”

He said he expects to issue an order by noon tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quinn wants gaming bill on his desk

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn has grown impatient with efforts to work out a compromise over the massive gaming expansion passed in the closing days of the spring legislative session. Today, he called on lawmakers to send him the bill.

Senate President John Cullerton said last week that lawmakers are working on a follow-up bill that would tighten regulation on Senate Bill 744, which calls for creating five new casinos as well as allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks. Quinn has said that he supports a casino owned by the city of Chicago but called the bill top-heavy. He has complained this summer that the plan does not do enough to regulate the proposed expansion. “There are parts of that bill that are very important when it comes to ethics in government and ethics in business,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago today. “There are bad guys out there criminal elements — organized crime — that want to infiltrate. And we’re not going to let them do it.”

Knowing Quinn was not happy with the legislation as is, Cullerton put a parliamentary hold on the bill in the hopes of working out a deal. He said last week that he did not intend to release the bill until another measure was passed to tweak it. “That way, we have both bills on the governor’s desk at the same time. … We expect to do this all by the [end of] the [October] veto session.”

But today, Quinn said lawmakers should release the bill and let him take action. “I think they ought to send the bill to the governor the way it should be done all the time. They’ve had plenty of time, all summer long … to look at their handy work. When they send me the bill, they’ll get a prompt response. OK. And that’s how it works.”

When asked if the “prompt response” would be a veto, Quinn said: “I’ve had to veto bad bills, and sometimes in the veto message I lay out how they can improve their bill.”

However, the governor would not make a definitive statement on his plans for the legislation. “It’s a little hard to sign a bill when it’s not there.”

Quinn said that lawmakers’ reluctance to follow the standard legislative procedure and send him the bill for executive action might be an indication of its flaws. “If they think so little of the handiwork they did on May 31 that they don’t want to send it to the governor, shouldn’t that alert everyone that maybe there are some defects in that bill that need to be looked at?”

John Patterson, a spokesperson for Cullerton, said legislative leaders are still open to suggestions from Quinn. “The Senate president has met with the governor to explain the legislation and listen to his concerns. He’s all ears.”

Prosecutors: Blagojevich verdict reached after fair trial

By Jamey Dunn

Prosecutors say former Gov. Rod Blagojevich has no grounds to fight his conviction on corruption charges.

A federal jury convicted Blagojevich on 17 out of 20 counts in June. Blagojevich’s lawyers filed a complaint earlier this month seeking to have the convictions tossed out based on several claims, including judicial bias and a tainted jury pool. The complaint said U.S. District Judge James Zagel favored the prosecution, and some members of the jury had heard of Blagojevich’s case and said they thought he might be guilty. The motion also reiterated the defense's longstanding complaint that not all the audio recordings the government had of the former governor’s telephone calls were played during the trial.

The prosecution countered that Blagojevich was convicted after a fair trial, and the defense’s claims do not meet the “high burden” set for overturning a jury’s ruling. “In making these arguments [the] defendant disregards what the evidence at trial established and what the jury concluded — that the defendant knowingly engaged in a scheme to abuse his power as governor in exchange for personal  financial gain. In reality, there was no bias, manipulation or unfairness on the part of the prosecution judge or jury. [The] defendant was fairly convicted by a jury of his peers based on overwhelming evidence, and his post-trial motion therefore should be denied,” said the prosecution’s response, which was filed today.

Blagojevich’s lawyers argued that jurors should have been allowed to hear all of the former governor’s telephone calls from the time period when the government was gathering evidence against him. The complaint accuses prosecutors of “cherry picking” conversations. However, the response said the other calls were irrelevant and some of the calls the defense wanted to submit were never recorded. “This court properly rejected the defendant’s request for discovery of evidence that either did not exist or that was completely irrelevant to any issue in the case,” the response stated.

As for the claims that Blagojevich faced a tainted jury, the prosecution said the former governor dragged his own case into the limelight with the intent of reaching possible jurors. The response said that jurors who knew about the case said they could put their opinions aside to give Blagojevich a fair shake. “[The] defendant engaged in an unprecedented national media campaign executed with the help of [a] retained public relations firm for the purpose of influencing public opinion, and that campaign was bound to have some impact, even if it was not the impact [the] defendant had hoped for.” However, the defense complained that a news conference held on the day of Blagojevich’s arrest — where U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the former governor’s behavior "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave” — also colored public opinion.

Zagel has yet to rule on the defense's request for a new trial. The former governor’s sentencing date is scheduled for October 6. Blagojevich also faces sentencing for a previous conviction of lying to federal officers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Quinn sticks to his guns after superintendents sue

By Jamey Dunn

Education administrators who have not been compensated for three months are suing the state for their pay checks, but Gov. Pat Quinn says the issue can be resolved outside of court.

Quinn used his veto pen to cut the more than $11 million that was set aside for the salaries for regional superintendents and their assistants in the budget lawmakers sent to him. Many superintendents stayed on the job for free. Bob Daiber, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said schools across the state would have had difficulties opening if the administrators had left work.

Diaber, who is a regional superintendent in Madison County, said regional superintendents inspect buildings and license newly constructed facilities for occupancy. He added that he gave out six such permits on one day in early August in Madison County. Without those licenses, he said any new schools or additions could not house students. “Without those occupancy permits, those schools cannot have children in those new addition and wings, legally.” He said regional superintendents also provided training to bus drivers in the weeks leading up to the new school year. “Schools are opening, their kids are getting on buses. … It is only happening because the regional superintendent continued to work without pay.”

Before the lawsuit was filed, Daiber said that the association was working “in good faith” with the governor’s office, as well as pursuing the possibility of a legislative override of the veto. “We have been working on an override. That’s a natural course of action that we have been encouraged to take by some legislators,” he said earlier this month. However, Daiber noted that administrators were willing to go to court if a clear plan to pay them did not surface. “It can be resolved by the legislative branch, the executive branch and if can’t be resolved then, it could go to the judicial branch. … That’s why we have three branches of government, right?”

The association now says the 44 superintendents across the state can wait no longer for compensation. "The injunction our members filed [on Friday] in Sangamon County Circuit Court seeking to immediately restore our pay is something we do not do lightly, but we simply had no other choice. We have exhausted all options in working with the governor's office to this date, and we have no other recourse. We have asked legislators for help in resolving this matter immediately. They cannot resolve the issue until they're back for the fall veto session,” said a written statement from Daiber about the complaint. The suit alleges that the state is bound by law to pay the superintendents’ salaries. The complaint says that by cutting off their pay, the governor is acting in “excess” of his power.

Despite the lawsuit, Quinn seems optimistic that a solution can be reached. “I think we can work this out,” the governor told reporters in Chicago today. Quinn also reiterated his opinion that the state funding, which has been used to pay the superintendents, instead be spent in schools. “We want to put the money for education in the classroom for students and teachers, not for bureaucrat.” Quinn is working on a plan to pay the superintendents through the local Personal Property Replacement Tax, which he says he hopes to pass during the veto session, scheduled in October. Such a plan would meet opposition from many local governments, as well as the Illinois Municipal League.

Quinn budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said the superintendents, who oversee Regional Offices of Education, would get paid “soon.” She did not elaborate on a timeline or any plan to pay the administrators before legislation that would be needed to shift the cost to local governments could potentially be called for a vote. “We are continuing to work with representatives of the [Regional Offices of Education] to examine mechanisms to provide payment as quickly as possible. In addition to providing payment soon, we have developed draft legislation to restore the payroll appropriation [for Regional Offices of Education], and shift the obligation to Personal Property Replacement Tax. [The tax] funds local elected official stipends, and we feel [Regional Offices of Education], which are locally elected, should be funded in the same manner to relieve pressure from the general revenue fund,” Kraft said in a written statement.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Judge: State can end contracts with Catholic Charities

By Jamey Dunn

A court ruled today that Illinois does not have to continue contracts with Catholic Charities organizations across the state because the group said it would not place children with couples in civil unions.

The state ended contracts with Catholic Charities in Springfield, Peoria, Joliet and Belleville after the organization said it would not provide adoption or foster care services to couples in civil unions. The organization, which is paid by the state to provide social services, said it would instead refer such couples to other providers. Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled today that the state was within its rights to break a contract with a provider that is not abiding by the law. “No citizen has a recognized legal right to contract with the government,” the opinion said.

“Today, Illinois Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt ruled against Illinois Catholic Charities in their pursuit to continue their 100 years of service to Illinois families and children with foster care and adoption services,” said a prepared statement from the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal organization that was representing Catholic Charities in the lawsuit. “The ruling does not address Catholic Charities' contention that the state of Illinois cannot refuse to contract with someone based on that person’s exercise of religion. Thomas More Society attorneys are reviewing the ruling and considering next actions with the charities.”

Those who advocated for civil unions, which went into effect in June, can take some solace in the fact that the new law survived its first legal challenge, though most felt the issue was clear from the start of the dispute. “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,” said Mary Dixon, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Republicans say their time is coming in Illinois

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford takes the podium at the fair.
By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Republicans are optimistic about their party’s chances in the 2012 elections, if they can get their message across to voters.

“I think that America’s going to be looking at who is going to help lead us during an economically stressful time. Who’s going to help us with regards to jobs?” state Treasurer Dan Rutherford said at today’s Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair. He said Illinois Republicans need to reach outside of their traditional voting base and cannot count solely on the wave of popularity the Tea Party has found in other parts of the country. “The Tea Party brings a portion of the electorate, and more power to them in doing that. I just say that there is much more to wining a race in Illinois than just one specific segment. The traditional base of hard-core Republicans is not as large as the traditional base of hard-core Democrats. And for that reason, a candidate like me, who wins statewide races, has to understand that you need to reach into the independents and, to be very blunt with you, into the Democrats.”

Rutherford would not say if he plans to run for governor in the future. “I’m going to be a good state treasurer for the next few years, and we’ll make a decision later.”

Republicans believe their message of reduced spending and smaller government resonates in the down economy. “Incrementally, we continue to be the voice of reason,” said Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican. Brady said Illinois voters need to get to know some Republican candidates better. “I think the people of Illinois are on a learning curve.” He says that “learning curve” is what made the difference in his failed run for governor last year. “At the end of the day, the undecideds didn’t get to know me as well as they felt they knew Gov. [Pat] Quinn, a career politician,” he said. Brady, who has served in the General Assembly for more than for 15 years, would not say whether he plans a third shot at the governor’s office.

The message Republicans were pushing today was opposition to borrowing. Quinn has renewed his call for the state to borrow to pay some or all of the estimated $4 billion backlog of overdue bills that Illinois owes to schools, social services providers, local governments and others. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said the state has a stack of more than 190,000 bills, the oldest of which dates April 19, 2011.

“I’m just thrilled to death that we’re paying bills from 2011. We finally got out of 2010. We don’t have the money to pay it. It’s just that simple,” she said. Topinka joined Rutherford and the Republican legislative leaders to oppose borrowing to pay late bills, which they say will only dig the state into a deeper hole. Republicans also warn that with the recent Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the country’s credit rating and a specific warning to Illinois from the bond rating agency Moody’s, the cost of borrowing for the state may soon increase. “We actually do have a plan. … It’s not rocket science,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “It simply says you spend less money than you have coming in, and you start paying more bills down.” The Senate Republicans' plan called for $5 billion to $6 billion in budget cuts. Radogno said the plan would result in a budget surplus in five years.

Democrats criticized Republicans for not drafting their plan into legislation, saying such massive cuts to the state’s major spending areas of education, health care and human services are not so simple. They say some of the Republican plan would violate court orders and cause the state to miss out on substantial amounts of federal funding. “If there was an easy way out of this, we’d have figured it out a long time ago,” said Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat. Sullivan sponsored several proposals to borrow to pay down the state’s backlog. He only called one of the bills, a proposal to borrow about $6.2 billion, for a vote, and it received a meager 19 “yes” votes. Sullivan said he is trying to sell lawmakers as well as voters on the idea, and he plans to push some version of the plan again. “I’m just trying to build a case,” he said.

Party chair Pat Brady address the crowd.
Both Sullivan and Quinn said the borrowing would actually be a restructuring of a debt the state already owes to those it has not paid for their services. Sullivan said he worries that businesses that work with the state may go under while Illinois fails to act quickly on the backlog. “I don’t even know how they're keeping the doors open in some instances.” He argues that the plan could help the state’s recovery. “Just imagine what putting $5 billion into the Illinois economy is going to do.”

In this year before the presidency and every seat in the General Assembly comes up for grabs, Illinois Republicans are working to raise the profile of their party and their message of fiscal responsibility. Republican Party Chair Pat Brady announced an Illinois straw poll — similar to the famous Iowa straw poll conducted last weekend — on Republican presidential candidates on November 5, one year before the election. Brady said the party plans to have polling locations in every county in the state. Brady put a positive spin on the spotty attendance at the Republican rally at the fair today, while noting that Democratic Party Chair and House Speaker Michael Madigan did not attend yesterday’s Democratic events. “This is a substantially better crowd than we had in the last off-]election] year, and we don’t bus people in because we gave them jobs. These are all people who came because they want to support the party.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

State workers and horsemen look to Quinn

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn was met with demands from all sides as he hosted Governor’s Day at the Illinois state fair.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gathered at the entrances to the fair today greeting visitors with signs and rallying passing drivers to honk their horns in support of the union. The group was protesting Quinn’s move to block a 2 percent pay raise for state employees in July. Quinn said lawmakers did not include money for raises in the budget they approved in May. The pay increase would have applied to 30,000 employees and cost the state approximately $75 million. An arbitrator ruled that the state must pay the raises, which are included in employees’ contracts. However, the state challenged the arbitrator's decision, and AFSCME filed a lawsuit, so the matter will likely be fought out in court.

Rachel Clarke, who retired after working 38 years for a state mental health facility, said she came out today to support her fellow AFSCME workers. “I’m hoping and praying that they don’t cut back on our benefits and our cost of living raises. … I hope and pray that the governor will see that our benefits are restored.”

But Quinn says his hands are tied by the budget numbers. “Well, you can’t give money that isn’t there. You can’t give out pay raises, which the General Assembly didn’t appropriate the money for. So that’s the long and the short of it. We want to get through this fiscal year with enough money to pay the salaries of the workers who carry out the public service duties.”

Clarke said the governor’s move to deny a provision of a contract reached through collective bargaining makes her worry about other benefits, such as pensions and health care. “I’m 69. I hope to still have 10 or 20 more years to live. And I know I’m going to need that money to get by, as well as my health care benefits. I can’t afford to have it cut, none of the employees can — especially us rank-and-file members that are at the lower end of the pay scale.”

Protesters seemed in good spirits, handing out balloons and calling out to passing motorists. “Does your horn on that thing work?” one protester chided a man driving a motorcycle stopped near the fair entrance.  Clarke said that protesting union members did not want to disrupt the fair. “We’re simply fighting for what we think we deserve because we’ve earned it. We’ve been promised it. … We don’t want to be a negative influence. We want people to see us as positive because we’re good hard workers, and some of us do a very tough job.”
Representatives of the state’s horse racing industry also turned out at the fair today to lobby Quinn to sign a massive gaming expansion bill, Senate Bill 744that passed in the final days of the spring legislative session.

Quinn has voiced concern that the bill, which calls for creating five new casinos as well as allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks, is too large of an expansion. Quinn supports a casino in Chicago, but he will not say if he could stomach other casinos and slots at racetracks to get one. “I don’t think we can have what’s called cannibalization of gaming in Illinois, where so many different places [have] gambling that it ends up hurting the overall products. So I think we have to do this in a prudent way.”

Quinn is particularly unhappy with a provision of the bill that would allow slots at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. “I was never excited about that, “ he said today.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who lobbied Quinn to sign the bill on behalf of the state’s horse racing and breeding industry, said removing pieces of the plan could be tricky. “You can’t wait until the bill’s passed, then come up with all these changes. … I’m not sure if you take anything out of there, there’s the votes to approve this. This barely passed, and it’s not like [Quinn] can persuade many legislators to go his way.”

Edgar, who was hanging out by the harness racing stables at the fair, said racing jobs are leaving Illinois, and money from slots would allow tracks to offer larger purses to winners and compete with other states. “For the horse racing industry, I think it’s critical. As I told him, he can either save the industry or let the industry disappear on this bill,” Edgar said. “In harness [racing], we’ve lost a lot of our good drivers, who’ve moved out of state, and a lot of the horseman have moved out of the state. Thoroughbreds — we’re just not competitive either, compared to Indiana and some other states.”

The former governor estimated that the legislation would save 30,000 racing jobs that he says are in jeopardy. He added that the state, with billions of dollars in unpaid bills piling up, needs the new revenue the expansion would provide. “The reality is that you may not get another chance at this. If you try to do a lot of changes, you could kill the whole thing, and then you have nothing. … We just need leadership. We need people making tough decisions.”

Senate President John Cullerton said he is confident that a deal can be reached in the fall veto session. “The governor’s not against the bill. We’ve been talking to the governor. He wants to make some changes. That’s what we’re going to be doing.”

Cullerton said lawmakers are open to tightening regulation in the bill and giving the Illinois Gaming Board more oversight power. “He wants to maybe make it a little smaller; we’d be happy to do that, as well.”

However, Cullerton said of allowing slots at racetracks, “I think that’s kind of an important part of the bill.” He said that lawmakers are working with the governor on a follow-up bill that would make changes to SB 744, allowing Quinn to sign the original legislation along with some changes.  Cullerton, who put a procedural hold on SB 744, said that he will not release the legislation until a trailer bill is approved. “That way, we have both bills on the governor’s desk at the same time. … We expect to do this all by the [end of] the veto session.”

Meanwhile, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White announced today that he would seek another term in 2014. White had announced before last year’s general election that he would not run again.
“I want you to know that I’m going to run for reelection. I said the last time I was here that this would be my last tour of duty. Well, you know I’m a former military man, and I believe that when there’s a mission before you, you see it from its beginning to its conclusion. … You never jump out of an airplane and stop half way. It’s all the way,” said White, who has served in his current office for 13 years.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Legislative maps face another legal challenge

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois' new Congressional and state legislative district maps face yet another lawsuit.

The League of Women Voters of Illinois sued to have both maps tossed out, claiming they violate the First Amendment rights of voters by trying to control their political voices. “By considering the partisan composition of the districts and the political competitiveness of election campaigns in such districts, the General Assembly is unlawfully attempting to control or influence the kinds of views, opinions and speech that residents placed in those districts are likely to express or hear and receive,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit says that trying to make districts politically competitive — something that would require voting history and information on party affiliations — is a valid goal. But it says that Democratic mapmakers were more concerned with maximizing political benefits than ensuring that races would be competitive. “ By use of methods to control or influence the kind of views that residents are likely to hear and receive, without safeguards ensuring such action is narrowly tailored to serve legitimate state interests, there is a significant risk that the General Assembly and Congressional delegation will become less accountable and responsive to changes in public opinion and less under popular control,” the complaint said.

“The problem is the usual gerrymandering. It doesn’t matter who is in office. They just do it,” said Jan Dorner, president of the League of Women Voters of Illinois. “It isn’t specifically about these maps. … our hope is to change it from now on.”

Republican state legislative leaders and a Republican-backed group have already challenged the state and congressional maps in federal court. Their challenges allege the maps dilute the political power of Hispanic population of the state, among other complaints. Dorner said by focusing on First Amendment rights, the league is scrutinizing legislative maps in a way they have not been challenged before. “Filing under the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution — we think is a new legal claim.”

Dorner said new maps should be drawn by an independent commission without taking political data into account. The group backed an effort in early 2010 for an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would have put the once-a-decade redistricting process into the hands of a commission. The Fair Map Group was unable to collect the needed number of signatures to get the amendment on the ballot. A Republican attempt to pass the amendment through the legislature also fell short. Democrats criticized the league for working closely with their political opponents and a playing a large role in what was, in part, an effort financially backed by Republican state legislative leaders. “Three years ago, we were being called Democrats by the Republicans,” Dorner said. “Just recently we have apparently become Republicans. Bottom line is, we believe in what’s right. And I don’t care if it's Democratic or Republican or Green or Libertarian.”

Gov. Pat Quinn today voiced his support for the maps he signed into law. “The process for redistricting both the congressional districts and state legislative districts was the most open process Illinois has ever had. There was ample public participation and opportunity to participate. I looked at both maps in a very careful way and made a decision that they were fair — done through an open process. So, we’re happy to defend that work in any court in the land.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

'No Child Left Behind' waivers are a product of congressional gridlock

By Jamey Dunn
 President Barack Obama called for a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act before the beginning of the school year, but gridlock in Congress has led his administration to pursue a stopgap measure to keep thousands of schools from failing under the law's standards.

The act, passed under former President George W. Bush, requires that all students reach math and reading proficiency goals by 2014. As the requirements ramp up, schools nationwide that are making improvements are still failing under the act. Once a school fails to meet the goals for three years in a row, it can face drastic corrective measures, such as mass firings or even closing.

The Obama administration has been pushing for a change for more than a year, warning that up to 80 percent of schools will be labeled as failures in the near future. Obama rolled out his plan for a rewrite in March 2010. “The stakes are high. As it currently exists, NCLB is creating a slow-motion educational train wreck for children, parents and teachers. Under the law, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be labeled as 'failing,' eventually triggering impractical and ineffective sanctions,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in an opinion peace he penned in July urging Congress to rewrite the law.

In a Congress that is falling into venomous partisan struggles over authorizing more federal borrowing and approving funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, two things that have been generally routine actions, changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the current version of the complicated and controversial Elementary and Secondary Education Act, have little chance of being approved quickly. “The law, NCLB, as it currently stands is four years overdue for being rewritten. It is far too punitive; it is far too prescriptive. It led to a dumbing down of the standards, led to a narrowing of the curriculum,” Duncan said at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

Instead of a rewrite, the administration is going around Congress for the time being and plans to offer states waivers so they do not have to meet the ever-increasing goals of the act. But the feds say they will not just give states a free pass. “Where there’s a high bar, where folks are really doing the right thing for children, we want to give them a lot more flexibility,” Duncan said.

The Department of Education plans to announce the requirements for waivers in September. From a prepared statement by the department: “The administration's proposal for fixing NCLB calls for college- and career-ready standards, more great teachers and principals, robust use of data and a more flexible and targeted accountability system based on measuring annual student growth.” The statement said the requirements will reflect “similar goals.”

“The standards will be high. The bar will be high. States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is necessary to move our education system forward,” Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said at a Washington, D.C,. news conference. “Any state that isn’t able to comply with those kinds or reforms, that isn’t able to embrace reform, will have to comply with No Child Left Behind as we move forward.”

In essence, waivers could leave state officials choosing between making the reforms the department requires, or watching hundreds of schools fail and possibly become subject to some drastic consequences. Given all of Illinois’ recent education reforms — some of which were touted by Duncan, and others that were done as an attempt to win grants from the Federal Race to the Top Program — it would be reasonable to assume the state could be in good standing with much of what the department will seek for waivers. But only time will tell. Mary Fergus, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the board does not want to commit to seeking a waiver until the full plan is unveiled in June. Fergus said the board plans to “seek some feedback from the field” on what teachers and administrators would like to see as part of a plan to give schools more flexibility under the act.

Members of Congress working on a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act say Duncan is jumping the gun and may be overstepping his authority. U.S. Rep. John Cline, a Republican from Minnesota and chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, and U. S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, sent a letter to Duncan voicing concerns over the waivers.

“The committee is optimistic a bipartisan consensus is possible on commonsense reforms that reduce the federal footprint in education and allow states and school districts the flexibility to meet the needs of their unique communities. However, as we continue working to attain this goal, we must ensure temporary measures do not undermine our efforts,” the letter said. They also questioned whether Duncan can impose requirements on states. “While flexibility in our education system is urgently needed, the department’s proposal is cause for concern. Issuing new demands in exchange for relief could result in greater regulation and confusion for schools and less transparency for parents. Additionally, the proposal raises questions about the department’s legal authority to grant conditional waivers in exchange for reforms not Authorized by Congress.”

But members of the administration say Congress has dragged its feet too long. “We would have loved to see Congress act. No question that it should have happened. We hope it happens some point down the road. But it hasn’t, and we can’t afford to wait,” Barnes said.

Illinois Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, said the waivers could result in a national “patchwork” of education policy because some states likely will not get them. “I think that if you’re going to try and fix this, and you’re going to have a consistent policy, we need to go ahead and go in there and change the federal act.” He said that they are areas of agreement about a revamp of the act, but political infighting is holding up the process. “Let’s agree on what we can agree on. … Right now at the federal level, gridlock is the dynamic.”

Eddy, who also is a school superintendent in Hutsonville, said missing out on a waiver is not as much of a concern for Illinois because he predicts that the requirements will “mirror” Senate Bill 7, a landmark education reform bill passed during the spring legislative session. He agrees that Illinois schools need some kind of relief from the rigid requirements of No Child Left Behind. “I think those first few years while the goals were attainable schools did improve,” Eddy said. He said now, as schools that are still improving begin to fail under the tightening requirements, a feeling of apathy has set in. “It’s not going to get any easier because the ramp just gets steeper. … Many are saying, ‘Well, who cares if we make it or not because it has become impossible.’”

For more on the No Child Left Behind rewrite, see Illinois Issues, June 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Quinn to lawmakers: Eliminate 'perk' scholarships

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto pen today to urge lawmakers to end the legislative scholarship program for the second time in as many years.

The governor rejected a bill last year that would have put a ban on lawmakers awarding the scholarships to campaign contributors or their families. In the veto message, he called on the legislature to instead approve an abolition of the program. Lawmakers never tried to override the veto, so the underlying bill died.

This time around, Quinn made the changes to the legislation himself. He used his amendatory power to tweak House Bill 1353, a bill that in its original form would bar lawmakers from giving the scholarship to family members. If the General Assembly approves his changes, the program would be eliminated on June 1, 2012.

“For the second consecutive year, I am compelled to return a measure to the General Assembly that fails to comprehensively reform the way legislative tuition waivers are awarded,” Quinn said in the message accompanying the veto.

Quinn signaled today that he would not accept any reform to the program sent to him by lawmakers. “You can’t put perfume on a skunk. This system has had too many problems for too many years, and it’s time to abolish the legislative scholarship program and go forward with a better program.”

In the wake of a federal investigation looking into former Rep. Robert Molaro awarding scholarships to the children of campaign donors, at least one sponsor of wholeheartedly backs Quinn. “I thought I had the perfect bill, and the governor possessed the perfect parliamentary tool to once and for all kill this controversial program,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. Dillard, who has voluntarily stopped awarding scholarships, wants to push for a vote to approve the change in the legislature's veto session, scheduled for October. “Literally in one day, the legislature in the fall veto session can abolish these scholarships,” he said.

Rep.Robert Pritchard, a sponsor of the bill in the House, said he agrees with Quinn and Dillard that the program should be ended. However, he said he thinks the Quinn should have communicated with him and tried to go about it in a less “backhanded way.”

“I am just disappointed the governor’s office didn’t reach out and let me know that’s what they were going to do with the bill,” said Pritchard, a Republican from Hinckley, said. He said he passed a reform bill because an all-out abolition lacked the support needed for approval. “My bill is a small step because that’s all I could get to move.”

Pritchard still awards the scholarship. He said he does not want his constituents to miss out on the opportunity as long as it exists. “I know they definitely help a lot of students.”

He said he will test the political waters to see if there are enough votes to approve Quinn’s changes before he decides to call the bill. However, he said an amendatory veto might be a way to address the issue quicker and more easily. “This certainly becomes a better solution to that overall problem if legislators cannot award the scholarships in an ethical way.”

Quinn alluded to the scholarships becoming a political lightning rod when every seat in the House and Senate is up for grabs next year. “This will be a time for everybody to say, before filing for election, where they stand on legislative scholarships.”

Dillard said  he thinks there will be more important issues in campaign season, but he did say that lawmakers’ votes would give an indication of where they stand when it comes to legislative perks and government spending. “The General Assembly scholarship is not the most important issue, but it is an important issue. It is a litmus test as to where you fall on the reform scale.” Legislative leaders could choose not to call the bill, and if that happens, Quinn’s changes and the underlying legislation would die.

Quinn wants any money saved by ending the program funneled into the Monetary Awards Program (MAP) for needy students. According to Quinn, 147,210 students received MAP grants in Fiscal Year 2011, but 151,367 were turned away due to a lack of funds. The legislative scholarship program is set up differently. Lawmakers give students tuition waivers, and universities foot the bill. “It’s time now to have a real debate on this. Let’s have a vote, where the legislature hopefully votes to end a perk that they have and instead go forward with a program that helps the common good,” Quinn said.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Feds to Quinn: We don't need your permission on immigration policy

By Jamey Dunn

The federal government says it does not need the state’s permission to continue an immigration enforcement program that Gov. Pat Quinn opted out of in May.

Quinn wanted to pull Illinois out of the Secure Communities program, which calls upon participating jurisdictions to submit fingerprints of arrestees to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to be reviewed for immigration violations. Quinn argued that the program was sold as a way to remove hardened criminals from the country but was instead deporting people who were not guilty of any serious crimes and sometimes not guilty of any crime at all. He told the feds that the state was quitting the program through a termination clause in the contract the state signed.

However, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency notified Quinn, along with 37 other governors, that the state does not need permission to continue the program and has eliminated all the agreements it had previously made with states. “This change will have no affect on the operation of Secure Communities in your state. ICE will continue to operate Secure Communities for jurisdictions where it is already deployed and will continue to activate the program for new jurisdictions. Of course, we will notify your office prior to the activation of any new jurisdictions for your state,” said a letter sent to governors from John Morton, director of ICE. Before Quinn froze enrollment in the program last November, 26 Illinois counties had signed on. ICE plans for national participation by 2013.

The letter went on to say that ICE has shifted the focus of its “limited resources” to those individuals who “pose a threat to public safety or who have flagrantly violated the nation’s immigrations laws.” It also says the Department of Homeland Security plans to consider changing the way the program “addresses” people arrested for minor violations, such as traffic offenses.

But Quinn said such assurances are not enough.  “It is disappointing that the Department of Homeland Security has decided to push forward with Secure Communities without demonstrating real improvements to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s flawed implementation of the program,” a prepared statement from Quinn said. “Illinois was the first state to call attention to the problems with Secure Communities, and to terminate our participation in the program. Illinois remains concerned that the program can have the opposite effect of its stated purpose. Instead of making our communities safer, the program’s flawed implementation may divide communities, families and may make people less inclined to reach out to law enforcement.”

After Illinois tried to drop out of the program, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Reuters news service that she thinks states are overstepping their power on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to immigration policy. “Where immigration is concerned, the federal government fundamentally sets the policy. Just as states can’t on their own have [a strident immigration law like Arizona’s] — this is kind of the flipside of that — nor can they exclude themselves from an enforcement tool that we are using.” A federal court blocked some components of Arizonia’s law after the U.S. Justice Department sued to have them tossed out.

Immigration advocates in Illinois say ICE led states and local jurisdictions to believe that the program was voluntary and they could opt out at any time. They say the feds are trying to strong-arm state and local governments now that there are rumblings of participants quitting.  “Once again [the Department of Homeland Security] is trying to rule by fiat,” Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said in a prepared statement. “This is not Libya, where security agencies make up the rules as they go along.”

For more on the program and other state and federal conflicts over immigration policy, see the State of the State column in June 2011 Illinois Issues.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Regional superintendents may continue waiting for pay

By Jamey Dunn

Regional superintendents say it will be difficult for them to stay on the job if they miss another paycheck, but  no clear plan has emerged to pay them soon.

“At this point I don’t believe we have the legal authority to pay them. We’re going to continue to explore that possibility,” said Matt Vanover, a spokesperson for the Illinois Board of Education (ISBE).

Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto pen in June to remove money for the administrators’ salaries, and they have been going without pay since. Quinn has been in talks with regional superintendents and is reportedly working on legislation that would allow them to be paid out of local tax revenues. However, any such plan would not come before the legislature until lawmakers return for their fall veto session scheduled in October — meaning paychecks probably would not go out until November. Bob Daiber, Madison County regional superintendent and president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said that if a deal is not worked out to find funding by August 11 — the latest date necessary to get checks out on the August 16 payday — he is concerned many superintendents simply won’t be able to continue working without pay.

Daiber said if superintendents go without on the next payday, it would be the third pay period that they have not received compensation. He said, for many, the bills are piling up. “We have people that have property taxes due this month." The superintendents' association is pushing for ISBE to pay its members from another area of its budget, with the understanding that the money will be replaced when a permanent solution is found.

Vanover said if the legislature had passed a lump-sum budget, as it did the last two fiscal years, it would be much easier to shift the money. But since lawmakers passed an itemized budget for the current fiscal year, moving money around to pay the superintendents is easier said than done. “We can’t just say we’re going to take money out of general state aid and provide it to the regional superintendents. … I’m not saying [ISBE paying them] can’t happen, but at this point we haven’t found a way that we can do that.”

As for how ISBE would handle a mass walkout of regional superintendents, Vanover said it had only had to address a few vacant positions at a time in the past. “We have been able to work around some of these issues but that was in a very limited context.” Asked whether ISBE could take on the regional superintendents' duties — which range from school inspection and teacher certification to operating alternative schools — if many of them seek other employment, Vanover responded, “Absolutely not.” He said ISBE does not have the manpower and changes to statutes would be needed.

Quinn’s long term plan is to pay the superintendents out of the Personal Property Replacement Tax so they are not supported by state funds. “We really feel that that’s a function that should be financed at the local level. There is a fund that goes to the local school districts and local government. … Other local government officials have been paid locally, and I think it’s time that we addressed this issue,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago.

Joe McCoy, legislative director for the Illinois Municipal League, said $2.6 million in Personal Property Replacement Tax revenue was held back from local governments to pay stipends for county officials. However, he said municipalities, many of which face their own budget troubles, cannot afford to give up enough of those revenues to pay regional superintendents. McCoy said the largest beneficiary from the replacement tax is schools, which get about 60 percent of the revenue. He says 20 percent goes to local governments and the rest to other expenses. “We think the plan that’s floating out there would take money away from some of our municipalities, and we would oppose it,” he said. Lawmakers could also vote to override Quinn’s veto and reinstate the funding for superintendents in the state budget.

If Quinn has a plan to pay the superintendents soon, he is not commenting on it. When asked if the administration is trying to find a way to pay them this month, Kelly Kraft, a budget spokesperson, responded in a written statement, “We continue to examine mechanisms to provide payments as quickly as possible.”

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Quinn working with regional superintendents on reinstating pay

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois regional superintendents could start seeing paychecks in November if the legislature approves a deal they are working on with Gov. Pat Quinn.

 Quinn used his veto pen to take money for the administrators’ salaries out of the budget approved by lawmakers. Since then, regional superintendents, who are locally elected and run Regional Offices of Education (ROEs), have been going without pay. ROEs are responsible for school safety inspections, teacher certification, background checks and fingerprinting potential employees, as well as running alternative schools and other duties. Quinn included cutting funding for the superintendents' pay in his original budget plan but met push back from educators and lawmakers.

Superintendents have been meeting with Quinn to sort out a solution, and they say legislation is in the works. “Regional superintendents met as scheduled on Wednesday, Aug. 3, with the governor's office and also with the State Board of Education to resolve this salary crisis. There is legislation being drafted by the governor's office to help resolve the matter, and that legislation will be presented to the regional superintendents in the next week. It will address ways in which we can be paid starting in November or December,’ said a written statement from the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS).

Bob Daiber, Madison County regional superintendent and president of IARSS, said that if a deal is not worked out by August 11 — the date funding would have to be found to get checks out on the August 16 payday — many superintendents may leave. The group is urging the Illinois State Board of Education to pay them on the understanding that the board will get the money back once legislation is approved.

“We have people facing a third straight pay period without compensation,” Daiber said. His colleagues are facing mounting bills, such as mortgage payments, tuition bills and care payments, he said. “Missing a paycheck, everybody can do it right? Missing three gets to be difficult.”

Quinn is hoping to tap into local tax dollars to pay the superintendents. “We are working to get them paid as quickly as possible. We had a meeting with the ROEs yesterday, and have another meeting scheduled for next Wednesday to offer an update on the progress made toward providing payment as quickly as possible. In addition to working to provide payment soon, we have developed draft legislation to restore the payroll appropriation for ROEs and shift the obligation to Personal Property Replacement Tax. [The tax] funds local elected official stipends, and we feel ROEs, which are locally elected, should be funded in the same manner to relieve pressure from the general revenue fund,” Quinn budget spokesperson Kelly Kraft said in a written statement. Lawmakers could also opt to override Quinn's veto when they return for fall session, scheduled in October.

When asked if he created an emergency situation by cutting regional superintendents without a backup plan in place to cover their duties, Quinn said: “No. Not at all. No. They knew from our budget this year what our proposal was.” Quinn told reporters in Chicago, “I made a decision, and we’re going to stick by it.”

If superintendents start leaving the job, Daiber said schools my run into problems because the law requires that ROEs carry out many of the functions schools need to operate. “The unintended consequence are going to affect children’s and families’ lives. They’re going to affect teachers.” He said two superintendents resigned in July, and many more could follow suit. “Why would someone continue to work for two months day after day without compensation?”

FAA deal would put some back to work in Illinois

By Jamey Dunn

An agreement on funding for the Federal Aviation Administration would bring some Illinoisans back to work, but if the U.S. Senate cannot reach a deal, continued deadlock could delay construction projects throughout the state.

Congress left for its summer break without approving an extension of funding for the FAA, resulting in the furlough of 4,000 employees and the shutdown of about 200 construction projects across the country. The U.S. House passed a bill containing the money, but the Senate did not vote on it. Senate Democrats took issue with a provision in the House bill that would cut subsidies for rural airports. Democrats also oppose Republican demands that union rights rollbacks be tied to any future long-term funding for the FAA. The last long-term funding for the administration expired in 2007, and Congress has been passing short-term extensions while it tries to work out a new plan.

In Illinois, 145 employees are off the job without pay until the money is approved. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, most of them are engineering and technical support staff. “The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) is disappointed Congress has not passed a new FAA authorization or an extension, which is costing the federal government $30 million a day while directly impacting airport projects that are critical to our nation’s aviation system,” Rosemarie Andolino, Chicago Department of Aviation commissioner, said in a prepared statement. “Here in Chicago, the FAA has stated that 145 FAA employees have been furloughed, directly impacting their livelihoods and that of their families.”

No capital projects have been halted in the state, but there is concern that if the Senate does not pass the funding, future projects could be held up. Without congressional approval, the FAA is unable to administer $2.5 billion in funds for construction projects nationwide.

“It is possible … that airport projects scheduled to start this year will be delayed, along with the ongoing review of projects for 2012 and beyond if FAA funding is not approved,” Guy Tridgell, a spokesperson for IDOT, said in a prepared statement. IDOT provided a list of projects scheduled to begin this year:
  • Chicago Executive in Wheeling - partial taxiway construction.
  • St. Louis Downtown in Cahokia - runway rehabilitation.
  • Lake in the Hills - ramp construction, grading and drainage.
  • MidAmerica in Belleville - cargo ramp expansion.
  • Peoria International - rehabilitate pavements.
  • Quad City International - convert runway to taxiway.
  • Chicago Rockford International - rehabilitate runways 1-19 (phase 1).
  • Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport Springfield - “Gulf” aircraft ramp construction (phase 1).
  • Central Illinois Regional in Bloomington - perimeter fence construction.
According to IDOT the shutdown will not “have an immediate effect on the public’s ability to fly.” However, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the shutdown erodes the agency’s ability to do its work. “Every day this goes on, we fall further behind. We need our 4,000 FAA employees and tens of thousands of construction workers back on the job so we can get critical projects moving again while it's still construction season.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this afternoon  that a deal has been reached and the House bill could be approved as early as tomorrow. Senators who have already left Washington, D.C., may not have to return. The Senate has not yet adjourned. If Democrats and Republicans can agree, a bill can be passed by unanimous consent, and only one senator would have to be on the floor.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Quinn signs Illinois DREAM Act

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today known as the Illinois DREAM Act, which will provide undocumented students opportunities for financial support for their college education.

“We want to leave no talent behind. We want to make sure that everyone who has the ability to do college work gets that opportunity,” Gov. Pat Quinn said at today’s bill signing in Chicago. “I think that we’re showing the whole country that our state, Illinois, the most diverse state in the whole union — we’re the best reflection of the population of America. Of the entire country’s population, we reflect it best right here in the middle of the country in the state of Illinois.”

The Illinois Dream Act will allow undocumented students to invest money into the state’s prepaid tuition program. It also calls for the creation of a privately supported tuition fund, called the DREAM fund, administered by a board of volunteers. “Until this moment, a large segment of our society has been cut off from the opportunity for accurate information on attending colleges. They have been denied the opportunity to take part in programs that help save for higher education, and denied the opportunity to apply for scholarships to [further] their education. These denials were all permitted because these students are undocumented,” said Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago Democrat.

Backers say the new law was created and supported through the legislative process by grassroots efforts. Undocumented high school seniors provided input on what should be included in the bill. On such student, Arianna Salgado, said “We used our voices to express what we believed in and make sure that we were heard.” Salgado said that she struggled to find information about continuing her education when she was in her junior and senior years of high school. She said a guidance counselor told her she would never be able to attend college because she did not qualify for financial aid. She said the law “sends the message that education is valid and that every single student should be able to strive regardless of their immigration status.”

Senate President John Cullerton, a sponsor of the bill, said it could have done more to help young immigrants, who were often brought to this country without a say in the matter. “It’s not everything that we wanted, but it’s a very very good start. And this bill is going to really mean a difference for young people, who could be the valedictorian of a high school and not have the same rights as other kids when they try to go to college.”

The Illinois DREAM Act passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly. However, Republican supporters in the Senate met some backlash for their “yes” votes from a suburban Tea Party organization. “The Illinois Republican Senators who voted 'Yes' to DREAM Act SB 2185 are part of the problem in Illinois. Instead of focusing on issues like jobs, taxes and our economy, they are more interested in getting votes. It is clear our current elected officials are much more concerned with their reelection than what matters for the citizens of Illinois,” said a news release sent out by the Palatine Tea Party after the vote. The group accused them of “spend[ing] like drunken sailors.” However, Acevedo reiterated at today’s event that the measure will create “no cost to the taxpayers.”

When asked if applying for DREAM scholarships could make undocumented students vulnerable to deportation, Quinn said he did not think so. “Individual people can make up their own minds on this, but I think that having this scholarship fund is going to make a difference for years to come in Illinois." He voiced support for the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students as well as young people who choose to serve in the U.S. military. The DREAM Act—sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat — failed in the Senate last December. “I think we need to keep pushing hard for everyone to be included in our democracy,” Quinn said.

Acevedo called education a “civil right” that should be extended to all who are seeking to improve themselves. “If you live here, if you came here for a better life, if you dedicate yourself to the American dream, you are American.”