Friday, September 30, 2011

State losing ground on poverty goals

By Jamey Dunn

A government commission seeking to cut extreme poverty in half in the state by 2015 says Illinois is moving in the opposite direction of that goal.

A report released by the Commission on the Elimination of Poverty found that more than 800,000 people are living in extreme poverty in the state. That number increased by more than 200,000 since the General Assembly created the commission in 2008. Extreme poverty is defined as an income that is less than half of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that would mean $11,175 a year. Making up 10 percent of those who are extremely poor, children are the most represented age group. More than12 percent of people living below the extreme poverty line have a disability that hinders their ability to work.

The recession that has pushed more residents into poverty and made things harder for those already below the poverty line has also strangled state revenues. With fewer tax dollars rolling in and much of the money from the recent tax increase going toward the state’s deficit, lawmakers made cuts to balance the budget. “The implications of substantial service cuts for those experiencing extreme poverty — many of whom rely on state-funded services in their communities to meet their basic needs — will be nothing short of devastating,” the report said. The commission’s report focused on several of the group’s recommendations from its 2010 plan. All but two of the legislative recommendations the group made last year and revisited in the report were defined as either “losing ground” or at a standstill.

Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat and sponsor of a measure that would bar the state from asking most job applicants about nonviolent criminal records, said he has hope for his legislation. House Bill 1210 failed to emerge from committee during the spring legislative session. He said that The Illinois Department of Central Management Systems, which manages the state's workforce, is concerned about implementation costs, such as printing new applications. But Ford said he is working with CMS and hopes to revisit the issue during the fall veto session, scheduled for the end of October.

Ford said the plan would allow those who have paid their debt to society a chance to get back on their feet through work. “In fact, it would save the state a lot of money. The fact that we have so much recidivism — one of the reasons is that people can’t go back to work.” Ford said that jobs with specific legal requirements barring those with criminal records would be exempt from the bill. “The bill is pretty simple. The bill is safe. It eliminates employers or jobs in the state that the law automatically disqualifies. … You can’t apply for a job with law enforcement if you have a [criminal] background. The law disqualifies you. You can’t apply for a job dealing with money. The law disqualifies you.” Ford said if the state leads by example, private businesses might follow suit and stop asking about nonviolent criminal offenses. He added that the state could also offer incentives to employers that hire people with records. “It’s about time that taxpayers stopped footing the bill for individuals that are not able to go to work and pay taxes. We have to foot the bill by continuing to pay for their health care, pay for their incarceration or pay for them through social services.”

Some business leaders say components of the commission’s recommendations would potentially put more people out of work. David Vite, president of the Retail Merchants Association, said proposals such as raising the state minimum wage and requiring employers to give their work force paid sick leave would increase costs to business and deter hiring. He said in some cases, it might lead to layoffs, and some businesses would not be able to remain afloat under such demands. “It certainly would have reduced employment in the state and probably put some people out of business.”

Vite had a lukewarm reaction to one of the recommendations that did become law, House Bill 2927, and said it could help to spur hiring. The new law will offer subsidies to be spent on wages to employers who hire new workers. The companies and nonprofits that take the subsidies must agree to keep new workers even after the state stops helping to pay their wages. The subsidies are to be distributed throughout the state based on unemployment rates. “It’s not exactly what we would like, but anytime you give an opportunity to reduce the cost of labor in the state, it can give a positive effect,” Vite said.

Maywood Democratic Rep. Karen Yarbrough, who sponsored the legislation that created the commission, said the report was upsetting but not a total surprise. “It’s very distressing. I didn’t expect it to be so dire. But it is, and I understand why it is. Because working in our district offices, I mean, you see it up front and personal. This summer has been extremely distressing. People who have lost their homes, lost their jobs and probably the most important thing is that in some cases — lost hope.”

She acknowledged it is difficult to find support for proposals that would increase costs to the state or to businesses in the midst of a budget crisis and after the passage of an income tax increase. “We have an obligation. However we get it done, we have an obligation to the least of them. … We have a moral obligation to figure this out,” she said. “I understand the reality. It’s tough. But it’s our job. We signed up for it as legislators.”

The report said that the goal of eliminating poverty did not come out on top when weighed by legislators with other concerns and limited money to spend. Along with passing few of the group’s recommendations, lawmakers also shifted money away from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, slashed programs for the homeless and transitional housing and eliminated two income assistance programs. “Faced with difficult decisions about state budget cuts and policy priorities, policymakers failed to prioritize funding for programs and services and substantive bills that would meet the needs of the most vulnerable. Only by refocusing and reprioritizing in the coming year will our state be able to decrease the number of individuals and families living in extreme poverty.”

Kimberly Drew — a policy associate for the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, which provides assistance to the commission — said that group considered the state’s budget shortfall when making its recommendations. “There was much discussion around the current state of the Illinois budget and really what could gain traction around the budget climate.” She said administrative changes, such as Ford’s proposal and streamlining the application process for assistance programs so those who are eligible for multiply programs could cut down on the number of applications they submit, are low cost solutions. However, she said the commission will also lobby lawmakers to restore funding to the eliminated income assistance programs and programs for the homeless, among other cuts. “We want to raise up some of the cuts that have had particularly devastating impacts on people who are in extreme poverty. … The cuts to housing programs have been particularly hard felt.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Union asks state to slow down on closures

By Jamey Dunn

A union representing public employees is asking lawmakers to slow down on their timeline to consider the closure of several state facilities.

According to Gov. Pat Quinn, the budget passed by lawmakers falls $313.5 million short of paying for state operations through the end of the current fiscal year. The governor’s proposed solution includes closing seven state facilities and laying off about 1,900 employees, which he said will save the state about $54.8 million.

But Henry Bayer, executive director of the Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the schedule for hearings before the legislature's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which will make recommendations on the proposed closures, would discourage input from the public. “[T]he administration is intent on implementing these closures as quickly as possible with as little public scrutiny as possible. Unfortunately, it appears that COGFA is prepared to collaborate in this effort to stifle public review and input rather than seeking to provide an independent review based on the broadest possible public examination of the facts — as is the clear intent of the law,” Bayer stated in a letter sent to COGFA members.

A statement from AFSCME says that scheduling a hearing on the Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford for next Wednesday — giving the public a week of notice — as  well as scheduling another hearing on the Murphysboro Youth Center in Carbondale on a weekday morning makes it difficult for concerned citizens from the community and employees of the facilities to attend. AFSCME also complained that COGFA does not plan to conduct a hearing on the Tinley Park Mental Health Center because the commission already voted in support of closing the institution in 2009.

AFSCME is asking that hearings be held on nights or weekends, that two weeks notice is given before any hearings and that the hearings be held in the same municipality as the facilities  being considered for closure.

Hinsdale Republican Rep. Patricia Bellock, a COGFA co-chair, said scheduling decisions are based solely on the logistics of trying to get as many COGFA members to a hearing as possible. She adds that the legally required timeline for a facility closure forces COGFA to act quickly when making recommendations. “We certainly want to give transparency. The whole reason we are having theses hearings is so that people can have public comments.”

Bellock, who voted to close the Tinley Park center in 2009, said she understands that things have changed since then, but she said she does not know if COGFA will reverse its decision about holding a new hearing. “We did have the hearing. We had a long hearing on it.”

Bellock said that no matter how soon COGFA makes its recommendations, the closure of any of the state faculties will take time if it is to be done right.  “It took us over two years to transition people out of Howe [Developmental Center in Tinley Park.] …. So the governor, I know he feels financial pressures, but at the same time these are people’s lives and these are people’s jobs and these are people’s communities.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lawmakers weighing health care concerns

By Jamey Dunn

During down time between the spring legislative session and the fall veto session, Illinois lawmakers are meeting to address looming health care issues.

A working group led by Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who heads the House Human Services Budgeting Committee, is looking for ways to cut Medicaid costs. The budget approved by the committee, which went on to be approved by the legislature, pushes millions in Medicaid costs into Fiscal Year 2013. According to Feigenholtz, the overall Medicaid budget — which is spread out over several state agencies — is slated to lose $765 million in federal stimulus funding in FY 2012. “In FY 13, when we come look at our Medicaid numbers, we’re all going to faint. We’re all going to faint,” she said when her committee was crafting the human services budget this spring.

The working group is considering is the budgets for the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, both located in Jacksonville, as potential areas of savings. Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration warned last April that the cuts to the human services budget that the House was pushing could close the schools. That threat met passionate opposition from legislators. Members of Quinn’s administration now say they are looking for ways to capture education dollars to fund some of the schools’ operations, and they also will reevaluate what methods are best for educating the state’s deaf and blind students. “The schools for the deaf and visually impaired in Jacksonville are one option in continuum. … Not the only option, not necessarily the best option for every family, but for many families it is,”Ryan Croke, Quinn’s deputy chief of staff, said at a Chicago hearing.

Department of Human Services Secretary Michelle Saddler said that housing the schools in her department places hiring and procurement restrictions not faced by other schools on the institutions. “The state agencies have quite a lot of process that we go through in procuring goods, commodities services, etc. And that makes it difficult for a school that needs timely procurement for school supplies.” She said the administration is weighing whether the schools should remain under her administration or be moved to another agency, such as the State Board of Education. “The school for the deaf and the school for the visually impaired are hybrid programs. … They are hybrid programs in that they’re located within the Department of Human Services, and yet they are schools. So they are education institutions with wrap-around human services, and they’re residential institutions.” Saddler added that DHS is looking for ways to direct education dollars to the schools. “In an environment of decreasing resources, and particularly decreasing resources for human services, how can we stretch human services dollars to serve all the many people, the 2 million people, that DHS serves every day? How can we stretch those while accessing education dollars that may be available both at the state and federal level?”

The schools charged a task force with determining which agency was best to oversee them, and that task force recommended in 2010 that they stay a part of DHS. The parent and alumni associations favor a plan that would make the institutions into lab schools. The group is looking to two lab schools run by public universities in the state as models. Margaret Vaughn, who lobbies on behalf of the parents of students at the schools, as well as the alumni, said the plan would allow the schools to receive general state aid funding that is doled out per student. She said that in total, the schools would receive about $2 million in education dollars if they were converted to so-called lab schools. “It would be at least a dent. At least it would be something. And $2 million is a lot of money, especially with the financial crisis that everyone is going through now.” However, representatives from the State Board of Education said such a plan would require changes to the law.

Saddler reassured parents and advocates that Quinn is not seeking to shut down the schools. ‘It’s not about closure, it’s about governance and how to access education funding.”

Another group of House members has been working through the summer to prepare for the creation of Illinois’ insurance exchange, which the state must have in place by 2014 under the new federal health care reform law. Insurance exchanges will allow customers to browse several insurance plans to find the one that is right for them. The added competition and new regulations are intended to drive down the cost, and those who cannot afford a plan on their own may be eligible for government subsidies.

The Illinois Department of Insurance is pushing lawmakers to pass legislation needed to create the exchange during their veto session, scheduled for the end of October. The group heard testimony from Wakely Consulting, a firm that specializes in implementation of the new federal reforms. Representatives from the firm told lawmakers that the exchange, which is funded in part by the federal government, would carry a price tag of about $92 million to get up and running. Most of the money would go toward technology costs.

Illinois Department of Insurance reports released this week project that the exchange will cut the number of uninsured residents by almost half. The report predicts that the percentage of uninsured Illinoisans will go from 12 percent in 2011 to 7 percent in 2012. The department estimates that 1.4 million Illinoisans will purchase insurance plans through the exchange. Phil Lackman, Illinois vice president of government relations for the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, said once the exchange is up and running, it may be similar to travel sites such as Travelocity, where customers can, for example, search ticket prices from multiple airlines to find the best deal or the option that suits their needs. But Lackman warns that many people would still need the professional advice of an insurance agent certified by the state. “Health insurance is not an airline ticket; it is complicated, expensive, personal, critical to one’s health and financial security.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Economic downturn may help keep space open at landfills

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois landfills have an average of 23 years of capacity left if they continue to accept trash at current rates, which the state’s economic slump may be helping to keep down.

In 2010, 43 Illinois landfills took in about 14 million tons of waste, about 11 percent of which came from other states. According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s landfill capacity report, 22 Illinois landfills accepted a total of more than 1.5 million tons of trash from other states including California, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky and Wisconsin. The overall capacity of the state’s landfills, which is currently more than 303 million tons, decreased by 18.2 million tons or 5.4 percent in 2010. The measurements are based on waste before it is compacted for storage.

Landfills in  northwestern Illinois and the Chicago metropolitan area have the least amount of projected capacity. If landfills in that region continue accepting trash at their current rates, they will run out of room in 14 years. Of the seven regions the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency designates for solid waste management, five saw a shrinking capacity for trash in 2010 when compared with 2009 capacity levels.

Both the IEPA and those in the solid waste disposal industry say the state is in no immediate danger of running out of room for its trash. However, one industry expert said the recent dip in waste production could be an indicator of the state’s economic woes. “I think for the time being, we’re fine. The economy has not been booming, so we haven’t seen a big increase in waste production,” said David Hartke, president of the Illinois Counties Solid Waste Management Association. Hartke noted that the amount of waste going into landfills has dropped every year since 2006, and he said it is directly related to residents’ levels of consumption. Landfills saw a small increase —.5 percent — of the amount of trash they took in 2010.

Hartke, senior waste analyst for the Will County Land Use Department, said waste haulers in some northern areas of the state, where construction was booming in recent years, are now reporting up to 15 percent less trash as the building of homes and businesses has died off. “It is just interesting to see the amount of waste received as compared to our latest slump in the economy,” he said.

Overview of the state’s landfill capacity by region:
  • Region One is the Northwestern Region, which includes the counties of Boone, Bureau, Carroll, DeKalb, JoDaviess, LaSalle, Lee, Ogle, Putnam, Stephenson, Whiteside and Winnebago. Landfills in the region would be able to take in trash for another 14 years at current rates. 
  • Region Two is the Chicago Metropolitan Region, which includes the counties of Cook, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will. Landfills in the region would be able to take in trash for another 14 years at current rates. 
  • Region Three is the Peoria/Quad Cities Region, which includes the counties of Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Henry, Knox, Marshall, McDonough, Mercer, Peoria, Rock Island, Stark, Tazewell, Warren and Woodford counties. Landfills in the region would be able to take in trash for another 56 years at current rates. 
  • Region Four is the East Central Illinois Region, which includes the counties of Champaign, Clark, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeWitt, Douglas, Edgar, Effingham, Ford, Iroquois, Jasper, Livingston, Macon, McLean, Moultrie, Piatt, Shelby and Vermilion. Landfills in the region would be able to take in trash for another 26 years at current rates. 
  • Region Five is the West Central Illinois Region, which includes the counties of Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Christian, Greene, Jersey, Logan, Macoupin, Mason, Menard, Montgomery, Morgan, Pike, Sangamon, Schuyler and Scott. Landfills in the region would be able to take in trash for another 26 years at current rates. 
  • Region Six is the St. Louis Metropolitan East Region, which includes the counties of Bond, Clinton, Fayette, Madison, Marion, Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair, and Washington. Landfills in the region would be able to take in trash for another 18 years at current rates. 
  • Region Seven is the Southern Illinois Region, which includes the counties of Alexander, Clay, Edwards, Franklin, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Lawrence, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Richland, Saline, Union, Wabash, Wayne, White and Williamson. Landfills in the region will be able to take in trash for another 47 years at current rates. 

Maggie Carson, a spokesperson for the IEPA, said that the trend in Illinois is toward larger landfills that have the potential to grow. “The bigger picture is that the larger [landfills], and typically those managed by the large waste management companies, continued to get bigger,” Carson said. “They saw they way things were going was that smaller landfills were unable to meet the environmental requirements. They have space to continue to develop for the foreseeable future.”

Hartke said of smaller landfills: “They can’t afford to continue their operations. They can’t afford the meet regulatory requirements.” He said some requirements are confusing and difficult to implement. He pointed to a new law that will bar many electronics, such as computers and televisions, from being placed in landfills as of 2012. “It’s definitely going to be difficult for waste haulers and landfills to pull those items out, compared to tires, which are banned. It’s a lot more obvious to see a tire or landscaping waste, [which is also banned.]” Hartke said an exemption for businesses makes the law even more difficult to enforce in practice. “When you see a [computer] out there, how do you know if it was in a business or a house?” he asked. Hartke said several waste management operations are working on drafting a standard that all facilities in the state can live by.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Some advocates say state doesn't need all of its juvenile facilities

By Jamey Dunn

Juvenile justice advocates say that if Gov. Pat Quinn plans to close state facilities, he should consider shuttering some of the state’s juvenile prisons, which they say are far below capacity.

“The numbers do not justify running eight separate facilities for what is essentially [the population of] a high school,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. According to an analysis of state records by the Juvenile Justice Initiative the average daily population for such youth institutions in the state was 1,113 in fiscal year 2011, down from 1,603 in fiscal year 2005 and 1,192 in fiscal year 2011. The same analysis estimates operation costs for the facilities as $92,257 per bed for fiscal year 2011.

Quinn proposed closing the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro as part of a plan to shut down seven state facilities and lay off more than 1,900 in state employees. Quinn said that the estimated $54.8 million in savings the plan would produce are needed to fund “core” services through the rest of the fiscal year. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that Murphysboro is the one to close,” Clarke said. She said the state needs conduct a review of all the facilities to determine which would make sense to shut down. Clarke said other states, such as California, Texas, Ohio and New York are doing just that. “Eventually, states around the country have decided that this isn’t sustainable,” she said. “This really is a time for the state to take a comprehensive look at the juvenile detention system and shift those resources, as other states are doing, into community based alternatives. … They’re shifting some of the savings to local communities to come up with their own approach that is based on local values.”

Clarke said some money from the closures would need to be filtered into community based alternatives to deal with youth offenders, but she said such closures would result in savings for the state. “There’s no value added by spending $90,000 a year on a kid versus $4,000 to $5,000 to $6,000 [needed for community programs].”Clarke said the argument really comes down to what gives the most bang for the buck. “The outcomes [of incarceration] are terrible. We know that half the kids will be back in juvenile prisons in three years.” Advocates say that the public perception that all kids who are incarcerated are violent offenders is inaccurate. They say multiple parole violations often cause judges to throw up their hands and send kids away. “A series of probation violations, no matter how frustrating, is not the kind of violent act that alone could arguably justify this kind of intense incarceration and this kind of expense,” Clarke said.

However, union officials say the proposed closures are unnecessary and would hurt those in need of services, as well as harming the communities where they are located. Anders Lindall, spokesperson for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said state agencies may not have been given enough authority to spend to get them though the fiscal year, but that is different from the state just not having the money. “It’s not a matter of agencies running out of money, and it’s not a matter of anything looming imminently.” He said lawmakers could pass supplemental appropriations, giving agencies the power to spend more and fully fund their work through Fiscal Year 2012. “It is very common for such a supplemental appropriations to be passed. It’s a very run-of-the mill budget management tool, and it can save these jobs and services.”

Lindall said advocates who are rallying around the potential closure of state facilities — such as some from the community that supports developmentally disabled residents — are “extremists” jumping at a chance to fulfill long held political goals. “It’s really unfortunate that a special interest can try to use a budget crisis for their ideological ends,” he said. He said many so-called community care facilities and programs are overwhelmed, pay low wages to workers, see high workforce turnover rates and simply cannot meet the virtually round-the-clock needs of some individuals currently in state institutions. Lindall said of Quinn’s plan: “It poses a dire threat to services for some of the most vulnerable people in Illinois, individuals with profound mental health crises, and the safety of the state’s prisons, in addition to 2,000 jobs.”

Clarke acknowledged that many communities do not want to give up the jobs that state institutions bring. She said expanded community programs will create jobs, and some facilities should be retrofitted and repurposed. The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, suggests transferring the Murphysboro facility to the Department of Corrections as a means to ease overcrowding of adult prisons.

Clarke said ultimately, economic concerns are not a good reason to keep youth prisons — which she said are wasting tax dollars on inefficient treatment methods — in business. “Funding for juvenile justice is a limited amount of money, and we want to use it in the best way possible,” Clarke said. “Your jobs should not be built on the back of human misery. That should not be our job development plan.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Advocates support closures if handled with care

By Jamey Dunn

While some see Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close several state facilities as tinged with partisan politics or as a headline grabbing strategy to put the screws to state legislators over the budget, some advocates see it as an opportunity.

After Quinn announced the potential closure of seven facilities throughout the state as well as the layoffs of more than 1,900 state employees, some Republicans fired back. “Is this political payback and an attempt to ratchet up political pressure? Is that really the first place you need to go to save less than 1 percent of the budget?” Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy asked of Quinn’s proposal.

The facilities Quinn said he plans to close are Tinley Park Mental Health Center, Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford, Jacksonville Developmental Center, Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon, Logan Correction Center in Lincoln and Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. Quinn said the budget lawmakers sent him would not fund state agencies through the end of the fiscal year. He claims a shortfall of $313.5 million and said the closures would save about $54.8 million. Quinn said he is open to working with lawmakers in the fall veto session to close the budget gap, and potentially avoid some of the closures.

But advocates for the developmentally disabled say that the closure of state mental hospitals and developmental centers — if handled properly — would be a step in the right direction. In recent years, a movement has emerged to urge the state to move away from the model of large institutions and into so-called community care providers. For many individuals, that would mean moving into group homes that have far fewer residents and that could be closer to family and loved ones than state institutions. “We see this as a wonderful opportunity. When times are tough, there are some positives that can come out of it,” said Don Moss, coordinator for the Illinois Human Services Coalition. Moss said the state must take three steps to turn such closures into a positive for the developmentally disabled community. First, Moss said any residents of the facilities that may close who want to stay in an institutional setting should have an option to transfer to another facility. “We would hope that the great majority of the individuals would chose to move into the community, and we have to gut feeling that they will.”

Moss said that caring for institutionalized individuals can cost more than $150,000 a year. He said that currently, the state spends about $50,000 annually per person receiving care in a group home. He said, while shifting people to community care will result in savings, the funding level should increase to $75,000 per person.

Moss said that getting more funding for community care could be politically difficult, given the state’s budget woes, next year’s election looming in lawmakers’ minds and the power of the unions that represent the workers facing potential layoffs. “With an election next year and [the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees] being all-powerful, there may be pressure from legislators who want to keep the jobs in their district.” But Moss said “the needs of the individuals should be prioritized over jobs for state employees and over political consideration.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees can be expected to fight the closures and lobby lawmakers to do all they can to stop Quinn. “This course of action would be in direct violation of negotiated agreements with our union," Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a prepared statement. "Moreover, it would have a dire impact on the maintenance of public safety and the delivery of services of vital importance to the people of Illinois." Bayer said that tough economic times have led to increased demands for state services, and the proposed closures and layoffs would “plunge state government into chaos.”

Moss said Quinn’s plan would also have to be undertaken gradually. “That would mean not dumping people into community programs that aren’t suitable for them or [placing residents in homes] they’re not ready for.” Moss said he thinks the state could meet Quinn’s goal of starting closures at the beginning of next year “if they begin now and plan carefully.” He said if the state rushes and floods the community care infrastructure with new clients, it would create the potential for mistakes that would set the movement back. “If there’s a series of catastrophes in the community [care] it’s going to slow down and potentially halt such movement into the community,” Moss warned. “It has to be done well or not done at all.”

Rep. Patricia Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, agreed that Quinn’s plan could be an opportunity for those who would like to see the state’s mental health hospitals and developmental centers closed. “That is what people want. That is what the disabled community wants.” Bellock, the top Republican on the House’s Human Services Committee, said patients should be able to choose where they will go, and state funding should follow them in that choice. Bellock said that when the state closed the Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park last year, about two thirds of patients were transferred to other institutions, while one third went elsewhere, including community care facilities. Bellock does not agree with advocates such as Moss who say that all the state’s large facilities should be closed. “I feel that there probably needs to be a couple.”

Moss said members of his community hope that Quinn’s plan is genuine and not just an attempt to twist arms over budget decisions. Social services providers, as well as those needing treatment for mental illness and developmental disabilities, have been on a roller coaster ride during much of Quinn’s administration as he has threatened substantial cuts during difficult budget negotiations, only to later roll back proposed reductions. “We have to grab hold of this situation and hope to maintain the momentum,” He said of Quinn’s latest plan.

Check back tomorrow for perspectives on Quinn's plan from the juvenile justice community.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Quinn vetoes smart grid bill

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn today followed though on his vow to veto a bill that he says asks too much of energy consumers in the name of progress.

Quinn shot down Senate Bill 1652, legislation that would allow the state’s two largest utility companies, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, to increase customers’ rates by up to 2.5 percent annually as part of a plan to upgrade the state’s electric grid. The companies would be required to invest $3.2 billion in the grid over 10 years by making basic upgrades, as well as adding so-called smart technologies that would allow consumers to track their energy usage and possibly save money. The measure would also require ComEd to create 2,000 new jobs through the plan and Ameren to create 450 jobs.

Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, consumer advocates AARP and others have vocally opposed the legislation since its inception. “This bill would have been devastating for Illinois consumers,” Madigan said at a Chicago news conference today. “It’s hardly something that we should have shoved down our throats and taken out of our wallets here in the state of Illinois.”

They say the bill would allow companies to defer all the risk of new investments to consumers by ensuring that utilities see all-but-guaranteed profit increases. Madigan said the bill would “gut” the state regulatory system that requires utilities to make their cases for rate increases to the Illinois Commerce Commission. Doug Scott, director if the ICC, said the legislation allows utilities to charge customers for much more than grid upgrades, including lawyers' fees and charitable contributions. “This isn’t just about smart grid, and it isn’t just about infrastructure,” Scott said.

Sen. Mike Jacobs, a sponsor of the bill, said Madigan and others are grandstanding and blocking a bill that would bring economic growth and new jobs to the state, as well as improved service for utility customers. “When you move away from the politics, where everybody wants to make their two cents on their press releases, and look at the bill, it’s an upgrade,” said Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat.

Supporters and opponents of the legislation both point to summer storms that led to mass blackouts in the northern Chicago suburbs as a way to make their case.

“In particular, this bill grants unprecedented advantages to Illinois utilities that have a less than stellar record for providing reliable service. Recent storms in the Chicago area exposed significant service shortcomings, and more than 1.5 million people suffered through lengthy and widespread outages. Local businesses and consumers who depend on regular, predictable electricity suffered enormously. These interruptions impose a profound hardship on the state’s economy and are simply unacceptable,” Quinn wrote in the message that accompanied his veto. “More troubling is that while customers suffer service interruptions and higher rates, these same utilities have been in Springfield advocating for a bill that erodes meaningful consumer protections. These utilities have been trying to dramatically change the rules to guarantee annual rate increases, while eliminating accountability for, literally, leaving people in the dark.’

But Jacobs said that smart-grid technologies could have prevented some of the blackouts and helped to turn the lights back on more quickly for those who lost power.“You can’t buy champagne on a beer budget. … The fact is that Illinois is a leader in energy, and it’s time for the governor to lead,” Jacobs said. He said it is “disingenuous” of Quinn to support energy conservation and earth-friendly policy but oppose SB 1652, which could allow for more power generated by renewable sources.

Some environmental advocates did jump on in support of the plan after a rewrite emerged at the end of the spring legislative session. Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said the bill that legislators passed would allow more companies, such as big box stores, to generate their own power through wind, solar and other means. “We could see every large rooftop in the state potentially being a clean renewable energy power plant, whether it’s a big box store, parking garage or office space,” Darin said. He said his organization backs the bill strictly on its environmental merits, but he said lawmakers should also recognize the concerns of consumer advocates.

Quinn is pushing his own piece of legislation that he says would help to improve the grid while protecting consumers. However, Jacobs and the House sponsor, Orland Park Democrat Rep. Kevin McCarthy, said they are confident that they will be able to find the votes needed to override Quinn’s veto.

Quinn said that business owners came to plead with him to veto the bill and that the majority of Illinoisans do not support the plan. “We’ll, I think, show them… that the people of Illinois are mightier than Commonwealth Edison.”

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang said ComEd needs to step up its customer service efforts if the company wants lawmakers who did not support the bill last time to change their votes. He said his constituents who lost power over the summer were less upset about the lapse in service and more worked up about the way the company treated them when they called to report that their power was out. “The people that called my office irate did not call here just because they had a power outage,” Lang said.

For more on what defines smart grid technology and its potential public policy implications for the state, see Illinois Issues July/August 2011.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Quinn: "Something has to give"

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn said his hands are tied by the budget approved by lawmakers as he announced a plan today to close seven state facilities and projected future cuts he says are needed to keep the state’s “core services” afloat.

“It’s time for a rendezvous with reality,” Quinn said in comments directed at lawmakers today. “If you vote for something in the spring, don’t run away from it in the fall.” The governor said legislators approved a budget that would cause some state agencies to run out of money before the end of the year. He says his plan to close state facilities would result in more than 1,900 layoffs and about $54.8 million in savings. “Something has to give, and what has to give is we have to close down some of those facilities,” Quinn said today at a Chicago news conference.

The facilities Quinn wants to close are:
  • Tinley Park Mental Health Center. The facility has a capacity of 75, a staff of 195 and an annual operating budget of about $20.1 million.
  • Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford. The facility has a capacity of 76, a staff of 150 and an annual operating budget of about $13.6 million.
  • Chester Mental Health Center. The facility has a capacity of 243, a staff of 464 and an annual operating budget of approximately $34.7 million.
  • Jacksonville Developmental Center. The facility has 196 residents, a staff of 420 and an annual operating budget of about $27.9 million
  • Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon. The facility has 91 residents, a staff of 163 and an annual operating budget of about $10.7 million.
  • Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. The facility has a population of 1,980, a staff of 357 and an annual operating budget of approximately $30.5 million.
  • Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. The facility has a population of 59, a staff of 101 and an annual operating budget of about $8.6 million.
Additional layoffs in the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Illinois Commerce Commission the attorney general’s office and the Civil Service Commission would bring the total number to 1,938. Some money and staff will presumably be shifted as patients and prisoners are moved to other facilities. Quinn did not outline any specifics on how the closures would actually take place, saying only that facilities would not be closed until around January. “This is not an overnight process. There’s a legal process, an orderly process, that allows us to present what we intend to do.”

Quinn’s administration has submitted its intent to close the facilities to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA). The group will weigh the plan and submit recommendations. COGFA member Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican, said the commission should hold hearings throughout the state so the public — especially in the areas of the proposed closures — can provide input. He questioned why Quinn did not go through the process of public hearings before making today’s announcement. “If the governor was serous about wanting to do this, he should want public buy-in and make the case to the public ahead of time,” he said.

Singer Mental Health Center was in Syverson's district until the recent legislative remap. He said his community, which consistently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, would feel the loss of more than 100 jobs. He added that closing Singer would put a burden on local law enforcement and hospitals. Syverson said if Quinn makes a strong case that the closure of any facility is a financially sound decision, he would support it. “I am certainly open to that, and I’m certainly willing to take that tough vote. I think that many people on COGFA are willing to take that vote.”

The layoffs of state workers would come on the heels of Quinn’s refusal to give out pay raises included in union contracts. A federal court today tossed out a challenge to Quinn’s move, which effected about 30,000 workers and would save the state an estimated $76 million. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees plans an appeal. Unions officials say the plan to close facilities is unnecessary. “The governor is apparently concerned that there is not sufficient appropriations authority to maintain services at their current level until the fiscal year ends next June. We agree that a supplemental appropriation is needed. But there is certainly not a funding crisis at this point in time. There is merely a crisis of will,” Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a written statement.

Quinn said the skipped raises and layoffs are parts one and two of a three-part plan to make up what he says is a $313.5 million budget shortfall. After both actions, Quinn says about $182.8 million will still be needed to keep basic state services running through the end of the fiscal year. He says the third part of the plan is dependent on what actions the legislature takes during veto session, scheduled in October. Quinn urged lawmakers to approve his budget vetoes to free up funds to spend elsewhere. “So we have a little extra flexibility within the spending plan.”

Quinn may find support from Senate Democrats, who launched a failed attempt to push for more funding in the closing days of the spring session. "The senate president already stated his intent to revisit the shortcomings of the budget that was passed this spring. In days and weeks ahead, we will study the governor's plans to determine what legislative action may be needed,” Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton said in a written statement.

Quinn said while he wants to work with lawmakers to try and find a different outcome, he cannot count on them tweaking the budget in a way that would allow him to avoid closing facilities. He said he has to get the ball rolling on closures to ensure that they can come in time to save money during the current fiscal year. “I can’t be waiting for members of the General Assembly to come to a different conclusion. We’ve got to act now because it’s going to take several months.”

He added, “Nobody’s laid off tomorrow. No facilities are closed tomorrow. … It’s painful, but necessary for the good of the people.”

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Quinn: "I’m prepared to do what has to be done"

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn says he may have to make drastic cuts and violate an agreement made with public unions to stretch the state budget through the end of the current fiscal year.

The Chicago Tribune reported today that Quinn plans to lay off thousands of state workers and close several sate facilities. Potentially on the list for closure are prisons, juvenile detention centers and mental health hospitals, according to the Tribune. Quinn would not say which facilities would be slated for closure or how many state workers would be out of a job, only saying that his plan would be carried out in an “orderly way according to the law.” Quinn told reporters in Chicago today that he plans to give more details about the layoffs later this week. “It’s very clear that as we went through this fiscal year, we’re going to come up short in a lot of departments. So we have to act now so we don’t come up short,” he said.

Quinn argues that the budget sent to him by lawmakers will not fully fund state agencies through the year. “There’s no question that their decisions will result in a situation where our state won’t have enough money to get through the fiscal year, so we have to make reductions. I’m prepared to do what has to be done,” Quinn said. The governor refused to give union members raises that are included in their contracts because he says lawmakers did not include the money for pay increases in the budget. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has sued the state over the raises.

If he lays off state workers, the governor will violate an agreement he made with unions shortly before his election last year. Quinn says that such agreement, as well as bargained contracts, are subject to the spending authority given by lawmakers. “The law of Illinois is crystal clear. Everybody knows what it is. … If the General Assembly appropriates less money, then everyone has to adjust to that.”

Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said Quinn has not notified his organization about any plans to close facilities or layoff workers. “This course of action would be in direct violation of negotiated agreements with our union. Moreover, it would have a dire impact on the maintenance of public safety and the delivery of services of vital importance to the people of Illinois,” Bayer said in a written statement.

Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican, speculated that Quinn may be threatening closures to put pressure on the legislature to make budget changes. “This is a governor who just flips and flops and backs out on every promise he made,” Brady told WJBC. “The games he plays are costly.” He said the deal Quinn made with public employee unions would have been impossible to honor, given the state’s dire fiscal situation. “It was a simple political solution for him at the time.” Quinn’s narrow victory over Brady in the gubernatorial race came in part because of union driven get-out-the-vote efforts. Quinn did not seem concerned today about losing the backing of organized labor, a long-time Democratic ally in the state. “I have many many friends in labor. I have enjoyed their support, and I will continue to enjoy their support, and I look forward to working with members of labor on all kinds of battles ahead."

Brady said he thinks any facility closures will be politically motivated and concentrated in Republican lawmakers’ legislative districts.

Quinn says he is willing to work with lawmakers to tweak the budget in other ways. “We can come together, the legislature and the governor. And if they want to make adjustments on their decisions of the spring, I am willing to negotiate and have a dialogue with them.” Quinn has a history of threatening budget reductions that make splashy headlines and outrage groups that are willing and able to raise a fuss publicly and put pressure on lawmakers, only to later roll back the cuts. However, several other statesincluding many of Illinois’ Midwestern neighbors—are targeting unions for cost savings since the financial collapse and ensuing recession.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Quinn, lawmakers and advocates push back on immigration policy

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn, lawmakers, law enforcement officials and immigrants rights groups are pushing back after the federal government said the state could not opt out of an immigration program.

Quinn sent a letter to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in May that said Illinois was pulling out of the Secure Communities program. Under Secure Communities, local law enforcement agencies share fingerprints of arrestees so the feds can check their immigration status. The program was billed as a way to deport hardened criminals who are here illegally. Quinn wants to pull Illinois from the program because he says the ICE is using the information to deport petty offenders and people who have never been convicted of a crime. He froze enrollment in the program in November, but 26 counties signed up before the freeze.

However, the ICE told Quinn and 37 other governors earlier this month that the agency does not need an agreement from the states to administer Secure Communities. The ICE plans to implement Secure Communities nationwide by 2013. The letter sent to states said the program has undergone changes and now focuses 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.

Quinn responded by asking ICE to contact law enforcement in each of the 26 counties and confirm their continued desire to participate in Secure Communities. The letter written by John Schomberg, Quinn’s general counsel, to John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the program has the opposite effect of its stated goal. “Rather than making our communities safer, the program’s flawed implementation divides communities and families and makes the people of Illinois less inclined to reach out to law enforcement. A program that was supposed to be targeted toward individuals convicted of serious crimes … instead frequently targets individuals who have been convicted of no crimes at all — the mother on her way to work; the father dropping his kids off at school,” the letter said. Schomberg also voiced concern about the agency’s plans to expand Secure Communities. He writes, “[The] ICE’s solution to a troubled program is to make in mandatory and nationwide.”

Brie Callahan, a Quinn spokesperson, said that ICE has an obligation to inform counties about “what the program is, was and has become.” She said some counties requested that the state pull out of Secure Communities. Callahan said the state has no immediate plans to take the feds to court over the issue.

A group of state legislators, U.S. representatives, Chicago aldermen, religious figures, law enforcement officials and immigration reform advocates also wrote to Morton denouncing ICE’s decision to override states that wanted to drop out. Many of the public officials named in the letter are Democrats. However, Republican Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran signed on in support. The group says that the agency jumped the gun by issuing an edict before a Department of Homeland Security task force could make recommendations. “We call upon you immediately to halt the Secure Communities program and work to reshape enforcement policy so that they respect local law enforcement, immigrant families and the will of our governor and our people,” the letter said.

While Illinois may not plan to sue over the program, the Heartland Alliances National Immigration Justice Center has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security challenging the constitutionality of aspects of Secure Communities. “Once detained, immigrants face monumental challenges to remain in the United States. Unlike individuals incarcerated in the criminal justice system, immigrants in deportation proceedings — a majority of whom have never been convicted of a serious crime — are not provided court appointed lawyers. They are detained in isolated jails and prisons without access to attorneys and family because phones at facilities seldom work, and U.S. mail is delayed indefinitely. The immigration detention system fueled by the Secure Communities program erodes immigrants’ fundamental procedural protections,” Mony Ruiz-Velasco, director of legal services for the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, said while testifying at a recent Chicago hearing on the program.

For more on conflicts between states and the federal government over immigration policy see Illinois Issues June 2011