Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New legislative map contributes to high-dollar races

By Jamey Dunn

At least one race for the Illinois General Assembly is on target to break an all-time spending record, and another race has seen contribution limits tossed thanks to a new law.

More than $2 million has been spent in the state Senate race between Democrat Andy Manar and Republican Mike McElroy. The spending total in the 48th District will likely break the 2010 record of more than $2.7 million spent on a Senate race. That record was set when Republican Sam McCann unseated Democratic incumbent Deanna Demuzio. McCann is running unopposed in the general election this year.

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that part of the reason the race is so expensive is the district itself. It includes parts of Springfield and Decatur and stretches diagonally down to the southwest portion of the state, stopping short of the Metro East area. The size of the district leaves candidates with the need to buy airtime for ads in several areas. “You’ve got to buy time at both ends,” he said.

Morrison said the same factor could be driving fundraising in what will likely prove to be the most expensive appellate court race this year. Of the $1.45 million raised by candidates for judge across the state, more than a third was raised in the race for an opening on the appellate bench in Illinois’ Fifth Judicial District. Democrat Judy Cates has raised almost $410,000, while her Republican opponent, Stephen McGlynn, raised almost $140,000. “It’s the far southernmost part of the state; it’s the least populated of the five judicial districts,” Morrison said. “If you’re going to go on TV  you’re talking St. Louis, Paducah, Springfield, Decatur a bunch of different markets to cover the whole area.” He added, “In most of those markets, you’re paying for viewers who can’t vote for you” because only a small potion of the viewership in each market lives within the district.

A new Illinois law that tosses out campaign contribution limits if an outside group spends more than $100,000 in a state legislative race has been triggered in one instance so far this general election. Personal PAC, a pro-choice political action committee, has spent more than $150,000 opposing Republican candidate Joe Neal in the 31st Illinois Senate District. Neal and his opponent, Democrat Melinda Bush, do not have to abide my donation caps when accepting money form supporters. This is the first time the provision has gone into practice since Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law in July.

The new law is based on a stipulation in previous campaign finance reforms that allows the limits to be tossed when candidates put more than $100,000 of their own money into their own campaigns. In the 52nd Illinois House District, both independent Dee Beaubien and Republican David McSweeney have injected more than $100,000 of their private funds into their campaigns. The total spending for their race tops $1.5 million. Six competitive Illinois House races have surpassed the $1 million mark for total spending, and at least one more is edging close to becoming a $1 million race.

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said it is unlikely that the $2 million all-time House spending record will be broken. That record was set in 2010 by Democrat Jay Hoffman and Republican Dwight Kay. Redfield said that Hoffman, an incumbent who lost the race, drove up the spending by infusing his campaign with large sums of his own money. Redfield also says the new legislative maps play a role in the high dollar races. He said that Democrats, who drew the map, are playing offense in the suburbs and spending while trying to pick up more seats. However, they were unable to draw truly safe districts for many downstate incumbents because downstate Illinois has begun to lean more to Republicans. So, those incumbents are spending big bucks to try to hang onto their jobs, while Republicans are willing to spend more on challenges that may give them a shot at unseating Democrats.

So far, the five most expensive Senate races after the 48th District involve incumbent Democrats fighting for their political lives. Redfield says this trend too is driven by geography and demographics. Southern Illinois has seen a drop in population, so districts must be larger to contain enough residents. This means that the Democratic strongholds that do exist downstate, which are often population centers, can become diluted in large districts that also contain rural voters, who are more typically Republican. “The Democrats were able to protect House districts downstate better than they were able to protect the Senate districts just because of how large the Senate districts have to be.” But Redfield said that despite the tough races, it is unlikely that Democrats would lose their majority control in either chamber. “I would still be surprised if the Democrats were in trouble overall in either the House or the Senate.”

While this is the first election under an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that allows political action committees (PACs) to raise and spend unlimited funds on their own, Redfield said he is uncertain on whether the change has brought an influx of new political money into this campaign season. “I don’t know how much of it is new money versus old money and how much of it is [candidates and parties] getting around limits [by filtering money through PACs].” He said it will take some time to unravel where money came from, especially money from national organizations and non-profit groups with certain tax designations that do not have to specifically disclose each donation. Redfield notes that the current totals aren’t the whole story. “A lot of the money hasn’t been spent, but some of it hasn’t been reported. They may spend some more at the tail end here.”

Morrison said that everyone watching how campaigns are funded is adjusting to the new reality of the so-called super PACs and the rise of unlimited spending that is done independently of campaigns. “I think we’re still at the early stage in the learning curve of independent expenditures. It’s a new way for money to flow. Reporters and the public alike are not really sure how to keep track of it.”

The ICPR launched a new online tool this week to track spending in the most expensive state races. The site is based on numbers from the Illinois State Board of Elections website, which is updated in real time when candidates electronically file their disclosures. The ICPR site takes about an hour to update after candidates file. However, it is a simple way to compare all the top-spending races at a glance, including independent spending by outside groups.

Future of state prisons is likely up to the courts

By Jamey Dunn

The future of Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close several state corrections facilities will likely be determined by the outcomes of dueling court challenges.

Gov. Pat Quinn scored a victory when an arbitrator ruled that his plan to shutter a super-maximum security prison near Tamms, a women’s prison in Dwight, adult transition centers in Decatur, Carbondale and Chicago and youth prisons in Joliet and Murphysboro would not endanger workers.

Arbitrator Steven Bierig said in his rulings that the best course of action would be to keep the prisons open. However, he said that Quinn’s administration had taken steps to ensure that the plan would be safe and not present a danger to prison workers.

Abdon Pallasch, a Quinn budget spokesman, said the administration would not resume the closures until getting the green light from a court. Quinn’s administration has asked a Cook County court to sign off on the ruling and also asked that a court in Alexander County remove a hold that was placed on the plan.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers, has asked the judge to keep the block in place. In a rare move, the union is also asking the court to nullify the arbitrator’s ruling. “AFSCME has only once before challenged an arbitrator’s decision in court,” AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer said in a written statement. “Since we believe this decision clearly violates the state’s public policy that requires the employer to provide a safe work environment, we have asked the judge to vacate the arbitrator’s award and submit the case back to the arbitrator to correct his mistakes with regard to the interpretation of the state’s health and safety law.”

The Quinn administration has also asked the Illinois Supreme Court to step in, but Pallasch said that so far, the higher court has not responded to the request. He said that because the courts operate at their own paces, the administration has not set a new timeline for closing the prisons and other facilities. Quinn had planned to close the facilities by the end of August, but legal battles with AFSCME delayed the closure. “The courts can do whatever they want,” he said. “Obviously, we would love it as soon as possible. It’s costing us an extra $7 million a month, so the sooner the better.”

Monday, October 29, 2012

TRS board tries to nudge lawmakers toward larger annual contributions

By Jamey Dunn

The board of directors for the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System plans to urge legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn to consider making larger annual payments into the system.

Last week, the board set the state’s annual contribution to retirement costs for teachers outside of the city of Chicago at $3.4 billion for next fiscal year. However, the group says that the payment is more than $900 million short of what would be needed to adequately fund the system according the standard accounting practices. “Over the last several years, state government has taken its responsibilities to TRS very seriously, has paid its legal obligation in full and should be congratulated for that,” TRS Executive Director Dick Ingram said in a written statement. “However, the legal state contribution for FY 2014, and for the last several years, has not been enough to improve the system’s long-term finances. The contribution is set artificially by state law. It’s not an actuarial calculation.”

This week, the board plans to push the issue by sending a letter to Quinn and legislators urging action to stabilize the system. From now on, when it approves the annual state contribution, the group also plans to include the amount of money that would be needed to properly fund retirement costs based on standard actuarial calculations. “The board feels very strongly that the amount of money that the state is being asked to contribute is an extension of past bad practices by the legislature,” said TRS spokesman Dave Urbanek.

 The letter is a reiteration of a resolution the board approved in the spring. In the resolution, the board did not back any specific proposal but instead laid out provisions that should be included in any pension reform approved by the legislature. The resolution called for:
  • The use of standard accounting practices to determine the state’s annual contribution.
  •  A statutory guarantee that the annual payment will be made. 
  • A provision that corrects the “existing inequities and funding flaws” in the Tier II pensions system that was created for any workers hired after January 2011. Critics of the new plan say its benefits do not meet the legal requirements for retirees, such as teachers, who will not receive Social Security Benefits. 
 “The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Retirement System reiterates and reaffirms its resolution of March 30, 2012 (as amended on April 30, 2012) declaring that present legislative action is paramount to ensure the continued solvency and viability of the plan, by providing for fairness and equity in benefits, adequate funding and adherence to generally accepted actuarial principles and standards. Additionally, the Board of Trustees underscores its unalterable position that any changes to the Pension Code must adhere to the Pension Protection Clause, Article 13, Section 5, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970,” said a statement released today by the board of trustees.

There are varying opinions among legislators as to which changes would be constitutional. Some say that reducing the cost-of-living increases given to retirees would pass muster. Others argue that as long as retirees get a choice or something in return for a benefits cut, there is no constitutional violation. Some say that any reduction to benefits would violate the Constitution. If a proposal passes in the General Assembly and is signed by the governor, the ultimate decision will almost certainly rest with the courts.

Teachers unions balked at the resolution when it was approved by the board in the spring and have accused the board and Ingram of inserting themselves into a political debate and not looking out for the best interests of retirees and future retirees. The Illinois Federation of Teachers called for Ingram’s resignation after he commented on pension reform to Crain’s Chicago business publication. Ingram told Crain’s that lawmakers “have to take action” on pension reform soon. While he did not advocate for a reduction to cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for retirees, he pointed to them as the most expensive component of the system. “Without question, the single biggest cost factor is the cost-of-living adjustment. That is why when you look at other states, you see that that’s where they focused their changes. ...When the question is, ‘What drives the cost,’ the direct answer is the cost-of-living adjustment.” Recent pensions reform proposals have included reducing COLAs or asking workers to choose between the current 3 percent annual COLA and their retiree health care coverage.

IFT fired back in a written statement: “The Teachers Retirement System must work for its members, not the politicians, corporate executives or newspapers its leaders may be bullied by. When the fox is guarding the hen house, it is the fox that must go. Mr. Ingram has lost the trust of those he is employed to protect. He should resign from his position as TRS executive director.” Ingram did not step down.

Urbanek said that by emphasizing the need for a larger contribution from the state, the board is also placing the responsibility for the underfunded system where it belongs: at the feet of lawmakers and governors. “We’ve seen polls that [say that] the majority of people blame the political classes for creating [the unfunded liability].” He said the board wants to ensure that the blame is not shifted to teachers, who have made their required payments into the pension system.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Campaign contribution limits will stay in place through general election

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois’ campaign contribution caps will stand through the general election, but a group that is suing to have them tossed out is not giving up on its fight.

 The Liberty Justice Center — which was founded by the Illinois Policy Institute, a self-described “free market” think tank — mounted a constitutional challenge against the state’s contribution limits for individuals, unions and corporations. The center filed suit on behalf of Illinois Liberty PAC, a political action committee that supports candidates who back "free market, liberty-based public policy."

The campaign finance reform law, passed in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal from office, set a $5,000 limit on contributions from individuals, $10,000 from unions or corporations and a $50,000 limit on political action committees.

The center argues that the law restricts freedom of speech and because the caps do not apply to political parties, it does not offer all groups equal protection under the law. “Liberty PAC is limited in the amount of money that they can give to a candidate in a general election. So is everybody else, except for political parties. Political parties can give as much money as they wan,t and all we want in politics is a level playing field,” said Patrick Hughes, president of the Liberty Justice Center. “Under this law, we limit some people’s speech while we let the parties speak as much as they want. And that’s not fair.”

The group asked for an injunction to block implementation of the caps, but it was denied by a federal judge earlier this month. This week, a panel of judges shot down the center’s appeal. Hughes said that the standards for the type of injunction the group was seeking are high, and the group was unable to meet them. However, he said the center plans to continue pursuing the case. “What we’re looking to now is just ensuring that people here in Illinois get to exercise their constitutional rights, have freedom of speech and get ... equal protection,” he said. “We’re disappointed. But we’re going to continue to fight on.”

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that the caps are needed to prevention corruption, such as the pay-to-play schemes that landed Blagojevich in a federal prison. “The caps are designed to solve a particular problem, what we might think of as the Blagojevich problem.” He said that Blagojevich handed out benefits, such as government jobs or favorable regulatory rulings, for large contributions. “Most of those donors got something tangible within days or weeks of making [those] contribution[s].” Morrison noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for contribution limits when there is a compelling risk of corruption.

Hughes said that the prevention of corruption is a pretext and that the caps instead serve to strengthen party leaders because parties are not subject to limits. Good-government groups, such as the ICPR, advocated for caps on party contributions when the law was being debated in the legislature. Even though they did not win out on the issue, Morrison said it is no reason to toss out the entire law. He said the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and ensuing state court rulings that allow political action committees to raise and spend unlimited funds if they do not communicate with campaigns have changed the playing field. He said the new law is being tested this year, during the first election cycle that it has been in place, and lawmakers should consider making tweaks afterward. “It’s not as airtight as it used to be. What I think we need to do is see how the system works.”

But the Liberty Justice Center hopes that the caps will not survive to the next campaign season. “Our hope and plan is that this will be resolved long before the next election in 2014.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lawsuit claims Illinois' juvenile parole system is unconstitutional

By Jamey Dunn

A civil rights advocacy group filed a class action lawsuit against the state this week claiming that the parole process for juvenile offenders violates their civil rights.

According to the suit, juvenile offenders who are accused of parole violations are often persuaded to waive their rights to a preliminary hearing. “Class members sign the form believing that it will allow them to return home sooner. In reality, the signature allows the [Prisoner Review Board] to avoid conducting a preliminary hearing and ensures that the youth will remain incarcerated until the final revocation hearing, regardless of the validity of the alleged parole violation charge,” said the complaint, which was filed by the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School on behalf of all youth currently on parole. The center estimates the number of youth on parole as more than 1,000.

According to a recent report from Juvenile Justice Commission, 85 percent of juveniles who faced losing their parole and returning to a detention center between December 2009 and May 2010 waived their right to a preliminary hearing. Such hearings are so infrequent that commission members were unable to attend one when researching their report. Alexa Van Brunt, clinical assistant professor of law and attorney for the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, said that many children do not understand the choice they are making and are led to believe that waiving the hearing may let them get out of incarceration sooner. However, she said that some could be released immediately if it were found in the preliminary hearing that there were no grounds to lock them up again.

Van Brunt says once juveniles make it to their final hearing before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, most have had no legal representation, ability to gather evidence or opportunity to respond to their accusers. “Youth just totally lack the ability to adequately represent themselves,” she said. “They have no way to find evidence on their own behalf. They have no subpoena power. They have no way to track down evidence.” She said the process is treated more like an administrative decision than a legal proceeding. According to the commission report, parole officers who recommend revoking a youth’s parole often do not attend the final hearings. Instead, the review board makes a ruling based on a written statement from officers, which does not allow the youth any chance to question the accusers before the board. The commission found that there was inadequate oversight for board decisions and no system for juveniles to appeal if their paroles are  revoked.

The suit claims that the process is unconstitutional and calls for an overhaul that would allow juveniles due process and legal representation. Van Brunt said that the state’s lack of action after the commission’s scathing report is part of the reason her organization proceeding with a lawsuit. The report claimed that the juvenile justice system was “failing” youth because for seven of the last eight years, more than half of incarcerated juveniles were locked up over parole violations, such as truancy or curfew offenses. “There didn’t seem to be any reaction to that report, which was very empirically based and well founded,” she said. “I think it’s just that there hasn’t been the motivation on the state’s part to implement large scale changes, which is clearly what needs to happen.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice did not take issue with the findings of the commission's report when they were published, and officials said they planned to address some of the problems highlighted in the study. Gov. Pat Quinn’s office today declined to comment on the lawsuit because the state has yet to be served the suit.

Van Brunt said the suit seeks a freeze on any juvenile justice parole revocation hearings under the current system. The group hopes to be able to work out a plan with the state to revamp the system. One of the major overhauls being sought is allowing juveniles accused of parole violations a right to a lawyer from the beginning of the process. Van Brunt said that any agreement would also have to enable youth to gather evidence and face their accusers. “[The suit is] not seeking damage, but it is seeking a change in the way things are done.” But she said if a deal that adequately protects juvenile’s rights cannot be reached with the  state, “we’re going to go through with the litigation as planned.”

New study drills down on state budget problems

By Jamey Dunn

A study released today takes a comprehensive look at Illinois’ fiscal situation and the events that led to the state’s current budget mess.

The study, which comes from the State Budget Crisis Task Force, is a follow-up to a report put out by the task force in July. The summer report focused on the budgets of California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia. Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor of New York, and Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, co-chair the task force, which seeks to parse state’s budget concerns in the wake of the national recession.

The report points to the usual suspects as cost drivers for the Illinois budget: growing pension and Medicaid costs. It also cites stagnant revenues, borrowing and shoddy accounting tactics as culprits in the state’s recent budget crisis. The report says that that tactic of selling bonds to cover pension costs — 2003, 2010 and 2011 — has been the primary contributor to Illinois having one of the highest debt rates per capita of any state.

The study says that the 2008 economic collapse was part of a perfect storm that sunk the state budget. Revenues tanked as demand for services spiked. “But unlike other states, Illinois was effectively insolvent. Illinois had no reserves and had used fiscal gimmicks and borrowing to balance the budget for the previous six or seven years.”

The authors attribute the problems leading up to 2008 to expansions of state programs and services without corresponding revenue increases under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The study said that the governor’s refusal to increase the state income tax and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s unwillingness to work with Blagojevich on alternative revenue sources left the state spending more than it could afford. “During Blagojevich’s two terms as governor, new programs were created and expanded, including health insurance coverage and preschool for Illinois children and free public transportation and prescription drugs for Illinois seniors. But with an existing structural deficit, and without new sources of revenue, the state did not have sufficient resources to meet all of its obligations,” the report said. “And while the recession took a toll on the state’s resources, Illinois’ government became essentially dysfunctional with the federal investigation of Governor Blagojevich and his removal from office.” The authors described the state’s budgeting tactics leading into the recession as such: “Illinois did all this without any sort of long-term financial plan to restore balance and without reserves. Illinois has been doing back flips on a high wire, without a net.”

Illinois economic growth has also stalled when compared with the rest of the country. “By FY 2010, Illinois’ total personal income fell 2 percent more and employment fell 1 percent more than in the U.S. as a whole. The impact of the recession on Illinois’ tax collections was much, much larger. In FY 2010, total state taxes in the U.S. were 93 percent of the amount in FY 2007, but Illinois’ tax revenues had fallen to 85 percent of the FY 2007 amount,” said the study. Illinois is recovering from the recession, but it is doing it more slowly than it recovered from the last three recessions.

The report notes that progress has been made to get the state back on secure footing. An income tax increase brought in new revenues, and lawmakers agreed on spending caps, cuts and sweeping Medicaid reforms. The authors note that such cuts are not painless and could have long-term effects on the state’s priorities, such as education and infrastructure. “There is, of course, nothing ‘encouraging’ about cuts in education, medical care and human services from the point of view of recipients or advocates. One of the most controversial budget appropriations was $6.5 billion for K-12 education, which was a cut of 3 percent from FY 2012,” said the study. Despite cuts and new revenues, the authors say the state cannot continue on its current budget trajectory. “Illinois’ budget is not fiscally sustainable. Despite recent progress and difficult choices, it is still in a deep hole. It cannot simultaneously continue current services, keep taxes at current levels, provide all promised [public employee] benefits, and make needed investments in education and infrastructure.”

Gov. Pat Quinn’s new budget spokesperson, Abdon Pallasch, echoed the idea that the current budget is unsustainable when he spoke to the Daily Herald’s editorial board yesterday. Quinn is pushing for concessions from the state’s largest public employee union and pension reform as at least a partial solution. “The alternative is we, you know, close a few prisons or universities, I guess,” Pallasch told the Daily Herald. “I’m not threatening to close prisons or universities,” he said. “I’m just saying, let your imagination run wild with what we’d have to do.” Officials with the American Federation for State County and Municipal Employees say Quinn and lawmakers should repeal tax breaks given to corporate interests, such as a recent tax deal given the Sears and the CME group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade.

The study also looked to potential future concerns for Illinois, including cuts to federal funding as deficit reduction efforts continue, the need to invest in infrastructure upgrades and the state’s aging residents. “Illinois’ demographics show an aging population with a trend toward fewer workers and more retirees, which will pose daunting fiscal challenges in the years ahead.”

Monday, October 22, 2012

Early voting in Illinois starts today

President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will likely try to sway the electorate in their final televised debate this evening, but some Illinois voters will have already cast their votes hours before the two duke it out on the national stage.

Registered voters can begin casting their ballots for the general election today at early voting locations across the state. Voters do not have to provide a reason for casting their vote before the November 6 general election. Early voting centers must be open on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Most centers also offer weekend hours. Early voting will be available until November 3. To locate an early voting center in your area and check their hours, see the State Board of Elections’ website. 

According to the State Board of Elections, almost 1 million voters—or 16 percent of Illinois voters who participated in the 2008 presidential election—cast their votes early in 2008. “Voting early by personal appearance, without having to give a reason, has proven to be a popular option for Illinois voters,” Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said in a written statement. “Voters appreciate the convenience of going to the polls on their own schedule.”

Voters who are away from home can cast an absentee ballot in person or by mail until November 5. The deadline to register for the November general election has passed. However, voters who have not yet registered can participate in grace period voting until November 3. For more information about grace period voting, including locations in your area where you can participate, contact your local election authority.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Council set to tackle rural issues

Jamey Dunn

After polling Illinois residents and conducting a listening tour of the state, a council headed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has adopted a plan for rural development in Illinois.

The Rural Affairs Council — made up of state administrators, academics, business leaders, representatives of the agriculture industry and citizen members — conducted a poll of more than 1,000 residents to find out how rural Illinoisans gauged their quality of life and what issues and services are priorities for them. The group also toured the state, stopping in six cities to hear feedback. The resulting plan, called Vision for Rural Illinois, focuses on the concerns and needs of rural communities.

One of the biggest issues the group hopes to address is access to emergency care for rural residents. “People in rural areas are concerned about the fragile nature of rural [emergency medical services],” said Karen Poncin assistant director of Western Illinois University’s Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. “They are concerned that some day, they will call an ambulance and there won’t be anyone to come to help them.”

The council plans to work with an Illinois House committee that is also looking into the issue and hopes to propose legislation in the coming spring session. “It’s a long-running problem about how we fund emergency medical services in rural areas. In a small geographic area with a high population, the ambulance rides are short — back and forth — and they can do many in a day. In rural areas, the rides can be quite long and take a lot of staff just to be available to do that transportation part,” Simon said. She said that ambulance services in more remote areas of the state require flexibility and may have different needs in terms of training and communication technology. “So we’re looking at training standards. We’re looking at staffing standards and how we can make sure that people in every part of Illinois, including remote and rural parts of Illinois, are served by ambulance services.”

Another one of the council’s goals is to inform rural residents and businesses of services that already exist. Simon said that while on the listening tour, the council often heard about needs that current programs might be able to address. “We’re talking about services that help small businesses grow or services that help small businesses start,” she said. “Frequently the comment comes up from people who are in business who look back and say, ‘Oh, now that I know about some of these programs, I wish I would have known about that before, when I was just starting.’ So it tells me that we have more people that we can be reaching in terms of letting them know what’s available in the state of Illinois, particularly to develop the economy.”

Those surveyed by the council said that access to high speed Internet was also a priority. Simon said that federal grants have helped to bring more access to remote parts of the state, but there areas without fast reliable service. “More and more digital service is getting out to rural Illinois, but there’s still plenty of last miles to go before we have that service available across the state,” Simon said. “When we talked about infrastructure issues, access to the Internet was brought up as one of those infrastructure [issues]. It’s viewed as highways are viewed by folks now, and particularly, in terms of economic development. In order to build our businesses, we need to have access to the Internet.”

Simon, who calls Carbondale home, said she considers herself a rural resident of the state and that the council hopes to make urban residents more aware of rural issues. She said that rural and urban areas also share many common concerns, such as education funding. The lieutenant governor said she is realistic about what the council can achieve with limited funds. “I certainly have been very aware in this whole process of the limits of the state budget and have been very careful to not promise more than we can deliver. So my focus has been on within the scope of the state budget that we have within the challenges that we know, how can we make sure that we’re doing the best job for rural Illinois?”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

DCFS gamble on more funding could result in broader layoffs

By Jamey Dunn 

By delaying layoffs, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is betting that lawmakers will restore some of the department’s funding when they return in November for their veto session. But if the money is not approved, personnel cuts could be even deeper.

DCFS announced last week that it would not move ahead with 375 layoffs that the department had previously said were necessary because of budget cuts. Instead DCFS plans to try its luck at getting legislators to restore some of the money during the veto session. In the meantime, those workers will be getting paid out of a budget that does not include the money to cover their wages. If lawmakers do not approve a supplemental appropriation when they return for the veto session, DCFS could face a major budget shortfall at the end of the calendar year. “In terms of the potential risk, having not laid off people at this point and if there is no supplemental, I will have spent $19,646,000 that I was not appropriated as of the end of this year. So that the position that I’ll be in is having to lay off in addition [to the previously announced layoffs] another 380 people because that’s a half a year [they worked], and I need to double their salaries in order to be able to make that up. ... That’s the reality that I’m faced with,” DCFS Director Richard Calica told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this month when asked about the potential risk of delaying layoffs.

The department announced in August that it would lay off hundreds of employees after the legislature slashed the DCFS budget. Gov. Pat Quinn had proposed a funding cut to the agency in his budget plan, but lawmakers tacked on more reductions, leaving DCFS with more than $85 million less than last fiscal year. The bulk of layoffs would have come from a preventative program known as intact family services. (For more on the cuts and layoffs, see this Illinois Issues blog post.) DCFS walked back the layoffs last week and is instead opting to continue with a restructuring plan that the Quinn administration proposed earlier this year. The plan would shift some management employees to front-line positions and is geared toward lowering the caseload volumes of front-line workers and investigators. The plan “still cuts the DCFS staff by 6 percent, compared to last year, and still reduces the budget of the agency by tens of million of dollars,” said DCFS spokesman Dave Clarkin.

But the department's actions are contingent on lawmakers voting to restore funding, as well as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees agreeing to waive some consideration for employee seniority. Clarkin said DCFS would need about $45 million to enact the restructuring and avoid the layoffs. “Both the director and the union-represented employees and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle understand that the state of Illinois has a primary purpose, both legal and moral to protect children.”

However, the supplemental appropriation seems to be far from a done deal. Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who chairs the human services budgeting committee in the House, said her committee expects DCFS to justify every cent of what it is asking for. “I think the days of asking for round number budget increases or restorations are really done,” she said. The deep cuts to the agency’s budget came out of Feigenholtz's committee. “We want to make sure that when we restore money, that we are actually solving some looking problems that have not been resolved.”

“We’ve been working to build support for a supplemental appropriation since essentially the day the budget was passed. We knew that the cut to DCFS was unacceptable even before the budget was passed,” said Anders Lindall, spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31. Lindall said it is too soon to comment on whether the union would agree to the changes the agency is seeking in seniority policies. He said union members are relieved that DCFS did not move forward with the layoffs, and AFSCME is specifically pushing for restorations that would keep people in their jobs.

“We want to know exactly where those bodies are going and what they’re going to be doing. ... We want this money to make it to the street. We want those phones answered, and we want those children taken care of,” Feigenholtz said. She added that a clear source for the money would also have to emerge by the veto session. Quinn has proposed using money from shuttering prisons, but a judge has blocked the prison closures. Lindall suggested using money from the sale of Thomson prison to the federal government or the possibility that state revenues may be larger than previously expected. The union opposes using money from state facility closures to fund DCFS. “Forcing Illinois residents to choose between safe kids and safe prisons is wrong, and it’s not necessary.”

House Republicans have accused Quinn of dragging his feet on cost saving Medicaid reforms, and may be less than cooperative when it comes to putting “yes” votes on any supplemental appropriations bills during the veto session. “Until the Quinn administration gets serious about implementing our Medicaid reform laws, House Republicans will oppose attempts by the governor to spend additional money,” said a written statement from House Minority Leader Tom Cross’ office.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who chairs one of two Senate budget committees, said she favors approving more funding for DCFS during the veto session. However, she voiced concerns over the gamble the department would be making by holding off on layoffs. “I would like to see us being able to re-sort dollars here,” Steans said. “There’s no guarantee [a] supplemental gets passed. I’m just me. I don’t know where the House is on this. I certainly don’t know where the Republicans are on it. So it think there’s a big risk potentially on how you go forward if we don’t get a supplemental passed. There’s a big risk to the department by not taking action now because there’s no guarantee that we’re going to get the supplemental.”

Clarkin declined to discuss the potential for more layoffs if the money does not come through, or whether the department has a plan B. “I think everybody is going to keep working together to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Teachers' union calls for pension system director's resignation

By Jamey Dunn

A statewide teachers’ union is calling for the resignation of the director of the state Teachers’ Retirement System after he commented publicly on proposed pension reforms.

Earlier this month, Richard Ingram, the executive director of the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS), told Crain’s Chicago Business that lawmakers “have to take action” to address the state’s billions in unfunded pension liability. “The time for conversation and debate is, I think, drawing to a close,” Ingram said. Ingram noted that the protection for public pension benefits in the Illinois Constitution has limited what lawmakers can do in terms of scaling back benefits. “Unfortunately, Illinois is in an unusual box compared to some states because of the constitutional language, and that has quite frankly constricted the problem-solving to date. And that’s not to talk down the Constitution. It’s just a practical reality.”

Ingram said that if lawmakers put the required pension contribution into the system each year, the system would remain solvent. However, he said as the required payment grows, the chances of the General Assembly appropriating the full amount each year goes down. “There’s a reasonable expectation that they will not be able to make that full amount.” TRS recently lowered its estimated return on investments from 8.5 percent to 8 percent. The change means that an additional $290 million will be needed next year to make the required pension payment. With the change, the payment for next fiscal year is estimated to be $3.36 billion.

He pointed to cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) as the most expensive component of the system. “Without question, the single biggest cost factor is the cost-of-living adjustment. That is why when you look at other states, you see that that’s where they focused their changes. ...When the question is, ‘What drives the cost,’ the direct answer is the cost-of-living adjustment.” Recent pensions reform proposals have included reducing COLAs or asking workers to choose between the current 3 percent annual COLA and their retiree health care coverage.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) accused Ingram of getting involved in the political fight over pension reforms and asked him to resign his post. “Since 1939, the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS) has done a tremendous public service in stewarding and safeguarding the life savings of the state’s teachers. The state benefits from a system where teachers -- who do not collect Social Security -- can avoid poverty in retirement. But once again, the current executive director of TRS, Dick Ingram, has announced his personal views about diminishing key benefits for existing workers and retirees,” said a statement issued today by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 100,000 teachers and public employees across the state.

This is not the first time Ingram has come under fire for public comments about pension reform. In March, the TRS board of trustees approved a resolution, which according to the TRS’ website, “acknowledges that due to changing circumstances that call into question the General Assembly’s ability to meet the existing plan to fund TRS, drastic changes are needed to maintain the long-term viability of TRS and the other state pension systems.” Ingram faced backlash after the resolution. “All of us at TRS are working to educate our members and the general public about a ‘new reality’ in state government that throws the long-term financial viability of the system into serious doubt. It is not our role at TRS to suggest a solution to this problem,” Ingram wrote in an April letter about the resolution published in the Springfield State-Journal Register.

The Illinois Education Association, which represents about 130,000 teachers, education professionals and college students studying to become teachers, asked Ingram to explain the comments he made to Crain’s. “Members and leaders of the Illinois Education Association were disappointed and angered by the comments executive director Ingram made to Crain's Chicago Business regarding TRS pensions in an interview published last week. There was no advance notice that Mr. Ingram had agreed to the interview and no inkling of what Ingram had said until the article was published,” IEA spokesman Charlie McBarron said in a written statement. “IEA and the other members of the Illinois labor coalition oppose all current proposals for reducing the COLAs for any TRS participant. Coalition members also agree that there should be no changes made to the pensions of those who are already retired.”

“Everything I said to Crain’s is factual and relevant to a discussion about the realities that surround us. I did not advocate for a change in the COLA. I did not propose a change in the COLA. I did respond to questions about a change in the COLA that legislators have been talking about for more than a year and explain why it is part of the proposed legislation.” Ingram said in an email to the IEA. He noted that new revenue is also an option to address the liability. However, he wrote: “The fact remains that right now, there are no legislative proposals for more revenue under active consideration, and there are multiple claims on any incremental revenue that would be generated if there were.”

The IFT was not swayed by his statement. “Mr. Ingram would like the public and other unions to believe his comments are merely an intellectual exercise and are not meant to promote his own preferred solutions to the pension crisis. To this we say, 'We will not be fooled.' The Teachers Retirement System must work for its members, not the politicians, corporate executives or newspapers its leaders may be bullied by. When the fox is guarding the hen house, it is the fox that must go. Mr. Ingram has lost the trust of those he is employed to protect. He should resign from his position as TRS executive director,” the IFT’s statement said.

The IEA did not join the IFT in its call for Ingram to resign. “Regardless of Mr. Ingram's intentions, his comments have created another storm of controversy. IEA members are understandably frustrated by this situation. This is a TRS personnel issue, which will be addressed through the established channels within the TRS board.”

According to a statement from TRS, Ingram does not intend to step down. “Director Ingram has no plans to resign. The TRS Board of Trustees meets on October 26 and will have an opportunity to consider the IFT’s statement,” TRS spokesman Dave Urbanek said in a written statement. “Director Ingram understands full well that questions about the long-term financial health of TRS leads to anxiety and concern among our members. These issues unavoidably create difficult questions about the future and hard discussions about solutions. For the sake of our members, we cannot shy away from these discussions.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

$2 million in fraudulent unemployment benefits paid to prisoners

By Jamey Dunn

After three months of searching for inmates illegally collecting unemployment benefits, the Illinois Department of Employment Security had found nearly $2 million in fraud.

The IDES began comparing lists of individuals collecting unemployment insurance benefits with lists of inmates in Illinois county jails and state prisons. To be eligible for benefits, one must be able to work. So prisoners are generally not eligible for benefits.

The program is part of an overall effort by IDES to cut down on fraud both by benefit recipients and businesses trying to pay less into the unemployment insurance trust fund, which provides the money for benefits. The department has also stepped up its legal department with help from Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office and created a new-hire directory to keep track of employment to ensure that it can quickly cut off benefits to recipients who find work.

IDES spokesman Greg Rivara said the state cuts off benefit if recipients showed up on the inmate list. The department checks to make sure the person does not have a legitimate reason for being on both lists. “A valid reason for example would be someone who is on work release or someone who had a really bad weekend,” he said. To get benefits, recipients must check in with the department every two weeks, either by phone or through a website and answer questions about their ability to work and whether they are looking for a job. So, Rivara said, those receiving benefits while they are in prison and unable to work would have to misrepresent their situation to keep getting checks. He said it is possible that in certain cases, someone besides the inmate was calling in pretending to be him or her, possibly even without the inmate’s knowledge.

The largest single case of fraud was $43,000, which was collected on behalf of an inmate in Cook County. Almost 300 Cook County inmates were linked to more than $700,000 in wrongful payments. Other counties with high levels of such fraud were Will, where IDES found more than $85,000 in wrongful payments, and Peoria, where IDES found more than $72,000 in wrongful payments. In total, more than 1,100 individuals received benefits while they were behind bars and unable to work.

Rivara said that in the future, the amount of benefits paid out in such cases would likely be much smaller. “Moving forward, we do not expect to find anything near that. In fact, we hope to stop payments before they are made.” Some of the individuals from the early months of the program had been incarcerated and collecting benefits since 2010. However, Rivara said many others had only collected a week of benefits. He added the state was able to cut people off quickly once they compared the lists. “There’s a slew of examples where, by looking at the dollar amounts, you can tell that they only got paid once.”

Rivara said the number is also inflated because unemployment benefits were extended in the wake of the recession. But as Illinois’ unemployment rate has dropped, so has the amount of time residents can remain on benefits. “Unless there is a dramatic change in the law, we’re really not going to see numbers like this again in the near future.”

IDES is working to recoup the benefits that were collected fraudulently. “We would expect that some of [them] will pay us back right away. We would expect that some of [them] will go into a payment plan, and we would expect that some of [them] are going to be just difficult.” For those who do not pay back the money, IDES can garnish their state and federal tax returns. Those who do not pay back the money will not be eligible for future unemployment benefits. Those who collected benefits while incarcerated and unable to work could be prosecuted. But Rivara said that the department plans to limit its pursuit of criminal charges to cases with high dollar amounts, obvious fraud or instances when people refuse to pay back the benefits they received. “So the person who made a poor decision because they were down on their luck and they owe us $100, the reasoning pattern for that case is going to be different for the individual ... who owes us tens of thousands of dollars, who has money in the bank and who is being belligerent.”

Rivara said the department cannot afford to pursue criminal charges in every case. However, he said that such fraud is not a victimless crime. “When people steal -- and this is stealing -- when people steal, it hurts the economy because it is affecting what businesses pay [into the unemployment insurance trust fund], and it's affecting decisions that businesses make,” he said. “There is a negative effect when people do this.”

Monday, October 08, 2012

Advocates concerned about lack of direction from feds on health care reform

By Jamey Dunn

Health care advocates are generally pleased with the benchmark benefits for individual and small group health plans that Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration chose to comply with the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act. However, they worry about the lack of details coming from the federal government on how states should carry out those and other changes that came with federal health care reform.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave states the task of choosing the basic level of benefits that plans for individuals and many small businesses will offer under the new law. “HHS decided to punt the ball to the states at least for 2014 and 2015,” said Lydia Mitts, a health policy analyst for Families USA, a health consumer advocate group based in Washington, D.C. In 2016, the federal government plans to revisit the benchmarks set by states. “But for now, it’s the states’ responsibility,” Mitts said. States picked existing plans to base the so-called essential benefits on.

Illinois had the option to choose among existing plans for federal and state workers, as well as several private options. Quinn’s advisory council opted for the Blue Cross Blue Shield's Blue Advantage plan. The council focused on finding a plan that included all of the state’s numerous insurance mandates. The one they chose does cover them all, but if they had picked one that did not, the state would have had to pay for any mandates that weren't included. Members also tried to find a balance between benefits and price. “One the big issues for the work group [was] balancing the cost of the coverage with the actual comprehensiveness of the care,” said Coleen Burns, special counsel for health policy for the Illinois Department of Insurance.

The plan will set the level of care covered in 10 benefits categories, such as emergency services and prescription drugs. Small group insurance providers will not have to offer plans with identical benefits to the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, but they will have to offer benefits under those 10 categories that are equal to the benefits offered in the benchmark plan. “It will set a minimum that consumers will be guaranteed,” Mitts said.

But deciding which benefits are equal to those offered in the benchmark plan is a complicated task. Advocates say they need to be vigilant to ensure that other plans offer truly equal benefits. Burns said that the Department of Insurance will provide oversight and the federal government will provide actuarial analysis to ensure that benefits offered live up to the minimum requirements.

HHS still has to approve Illinois' choice of the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan. The department will accept  public comments, and Burns said HHS has not yet issued a deadline for when it will sign off on states’ choices. HHS is still working on many of the regulations for the plan, as well as on other areas of the Affordable Care Act, which states must implement by 2014. The uncertainty leaves many of those working to put the law into action on the state level unable to answer key questions until guidance comes down from the federal government. It also makes many advocates nervous.

“They didn’t really outline the clear chain of command and accountability,” Mitts said. “HHS is in the process of working on proposed regulation for this. Things might slip through the cracks, and people might find themselves in plans with coverage that doesn’t really meet their needs.”

Sara Moscato Howe, chief executive officer of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, agreed that things are uncertain. “Nothing is very clear in terms of how comprehensive or how robust the mental health or substance abuse coverage is.” She said that definitions of basic services, such as residential care for addiction or mental illness, differ across different plans, which could result in disparities in benefits. “Key definitions and terms need to be the same across the board.”

Brigid Leahy, director of legislative affairs for Illinois Planned Parenthood, said many advocates would have preferred the option to build a benchmark from the ground up instead of choosing from existing plans, but that wasn’t an alternative. “We feel given the parameters that were set under the Affordable Care Act ... given what we had to choose from, we were satisfied with the choice.”

Burns said most consumers who have small group or individual plans probably won’t notice much difference in their coverage “Most of the plans in the small group market covered all the 10 essential benefits. They just covered them at different levels,” she said. “It’ s unlikely that they are going to see a great difference in their benefits.” However, she noted that there are plans that do not cover some of the essential benefits, such as maternity care, and in 2014 they will be required to.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Judge rules to keep campaign contribution limits in place

By Jamey Dunn

A U.S. District Court judge today denied a request to block Illinois' campaign contrition limits, but the group behind the lawsuit plans to push forward with its efforts to get the state's new campaign finance law tossed out.

Illinois Liberty PAC, a political action committee, sued to have the limits thrown out. The group argued that the state law was unfair because contribution limits apply to individuals and groups, such as businesses and labor unions. However, political parties have no limit on the amount of money they can give to candidates. “Party bosses should have to live under the same laws they impose on the rest of us,” Dan Proft, chairman of Illinois Liberty PAC and former gubernatorial hopeful, said in a written statement when the group filed the suit. “This law is a scheme to further consolidate power in the hands of party bosses by limiting the participation and free speech rights of 13 million Illinoisans. Everyone who wants to participate in the political process in Illinois should be treated equally.”

But federal Judge Gary Feinerman of the Northern District of Illinois denied the group’s request to lift the limits. “If a preliminary injunction were granted, there would be no contribution limits for individuals and PACs in the weeks leading up to the 2012 Illinois state elections. This would create a manifest possibility of actual or apparent corruption, an irreparable harm to Illinois, its citizens and the public interest. That harm far outweighs any irreparable harm that the challenged provisions might impose upon individuals and PACs, who may contribute up to $5,000 or $50,000, respectively, to any given candidate, and who may make their voices heard by devoting unlimited sums to their own independent expenditures or by contributing unlimited sums to independent expenditure committees or to PACs that make only independent expenditures,” Feinerman wrote in his ruling.

“This federal ruling ensures that rules to combat corruption in Illinois state government will remain in place in the coming weeks through this, the first general election under this important reform measure,” David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said in a prepared statement.

“We don’t believe that there would have been any harm in striking these caps down as unconstitutional,” said Diane Cohen, general counsel representing Illinois Liberty PAC.

She pointed to a recently passed law that removes the caps in races if an outside group, such as a political action committee, makes independent expenditures over certain limits. “The fact that cap limitations are expendable in the face of [certain kinds of] speech ... really calls into question the very purpose of the caps themselves.”

The group plans to move forward with an appeal and still hopes to get the limits blocked before the general election in November. “Challenging any statute is often an uphill battle but certainly one that we are ready to move forward on,” Cohen said. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

DCFS chief says budget cuts threaten children's lives

By Jamey Dunn

In the wake of an estimated $90 million budget cut, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has slashed a program that works to keep kids with their families and is shifting focus from prevention to meeting its legal obligations and simply keeping kids alive.

“We took a look at how could we minimize our risk and still maintain the level of services that we are responsible for. When I say minimize risk, I’m talking about death of children. Because that’s ultimately what the Department of Children and Family Services is responsible for is protecting children from dying,” DCFS Director Richard Calica told a Senate committee at a Chicago hearing. He added, “Well-being is nice, but death is what lands in the papers, and death is what I’m responsible for.” Calica said that the cut means the agency would reduce services that are not legally required by law or consent decrees.

DCFS admitted earlier this year that it was not in compliance with a 1991 federal consent decree. As a result, DCFS rehired some retired workers on a temporary basis and moved employees over to abuse and neglect cases. Caseloads had climbed up to 18 or 19 per investigator per month. DCFS agreed to lower limit caseloads to 12 except for three months out of the year when they can climb to 15. “Conditions inside DCFS had reached a tipping point,” said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois told the Chicago Tribune in August. “Recent budget cuts, combined with a degradation of frontline services over the past years, threaten to wipe out important gains made in reforming the system in the past two decades. The plan presented in court … is an important step toward reversing that trend.” Under the consent decree, the ACLU represents all children in the foster care system.

Calica said that the department could have handled the more than $40 million cut in a restructuring plan worked out by the Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and would not have had to cut services or reduce headcount. He said the deeper cut, approved by the General Assembly this spring, requires the layoffs of nearly 300 workers. Of the reduction, $27 million came out of money for personnel, so the director said that left him no choice other than layoffs. “I cannot make the decision to not buy computers instead of not firing people. When you tell me $27 million in personal services, those are bodies.”

The bulk of the layoffs will come from a program known as intact family services. Before the cuts, the services, such as counseling, child mentoring and parenting classes, have been offered to at risk families. “It is an option between taking a child into custody and walking away and doing nothing,” said DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe. “In the past the investigator was able to make that judgment call base on the situation that they saw in front of them, based on their assessment.” But as of October 1, DCFS no longer administers the program and is instead contracting with outside organizations to provide intact services. The department has also tightened eligibility requirements.

“So we looked at intact family services and we took a look at of those families that we were serving currently which ones were the ones that were most likely to result in a child that would die?” Calica said. He said that after reviewing research, the department created indicators meant to predict which families were likely to have repeat cases of abuse. Those warning signs then became the filtering system for eligibility for the program. The indicators are: a child under five years old in the household, five or more previous reports of abuse, a male adult in the household who is not biologically related to children and has committed abuse previously and a mother who was raised in the DCFS system. Marlowe said that in order to be eligible for the program, a family must have a verified case of abuse and one of one of the five risk factors. More at risk families are prioritized because the department must cut costs. “It was a manner of managing a caseload to [fit] a dollar figure,” he said.

The intact services program served between 4,500 and 5,00 families annually. DCFS estimates that the new eligibility requirements would allow about 3,2000 into the program this year. “Intact family services are not being eliminated. The scope is being reduced by a third,” Marlowe said.

Letreurna Packer, a DCFS intact supervisor and 22-year veteran of DCFS, told the committee stories of families that were helped by the program but would not qualify under the new rules. One was of a father with five kids from 10 to 16 years old. His wife died and the father took on the role of fulltime income-earner and care-giver. “He worked every day and he came home and he did the best that he possibly could to care for his children with the lack if support that they had.”

The father was reported for abuse. “He physically abused the children because that was he only mode of discipline that he knew,” Packer said. She said that the intact program provided counseling and mentoring services for the children and parenting classes for the father. The also checked in on the family twice a week and after 15 months were able to close the case without having to remove the children from their home. “It keeps the kids out of the system which can cost even more,” she said. Marlowe said there is process through which a family could be granted an exception and allowed intact services, even if it does not meet the new requirements.

“They keep families together, and they also provide a monitoring function so we know what’s going on in families that have had trouble,” said Anne Irving, director of public policy for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31. The union represents many of the employees that are slated for layoff. Irving said that if the program is scaled back and no longer administered by DCFS, “more kids are going to get pulled from their home. That’s bad for the state finically. It’s bad for the kids. It’s obviously bad for the families.”

The union and Calica urged legislators to approve supplemental spending for the agency to either eliminate or soften the blow of the cuts. Quinn has spoken out against the cuts, too. However, AFSCME opposes the funding source that he has suggested to pay for supplemental spending. Quinn is asking lawmakers to sustain his vetoes of funding to keep several state facilities, which employ AFSCME members, open and instead spend the money at DCFS. Some on the committee echoed the governor’s point of view. “When you have a budget, it’s more than a data point on a sheet. It’s a moral document, and it’s about how our state sets our priorities. If we can retain prisons that are half full in certain areas of the state or give tax credits to certain businesses that are holding the state hostage saying that they will live unless they get money form the state to stay, there’s a problem there,” said Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Democrat from Chicago.

Lawmakers at the hearing accused Calica of being callous in his statements before the committee and the way he has related to DCFS employees. “The bottom line is, you’re the Grim Reaper. You’re to keep the governor’s name out of the paper. That’s your job,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat. “When you applied for the job, you knew what the job description was. One of them was to come in and make these cuts in this agency.”

Calica was brought in to replace former director Erwin McEwen, who resigned just prior to a scandal that broke over the awarding of contracts to provider George Smith, who the director described as “personal mentor and friend.” Smith is accused of double billing the state and accepting money without providing services. Smith may have walked away with millions in fraudulent billing. (For more on Calica and the proposed restructuring plan, see this profile of the director in Illinois Issues June 2012.)

Calica said that he was aware when he started the job last December that he would be overseeing a restructuring plan that would involve trimming the budget and moving some management workers to frontline positions. “I was brought into the department under a cloud of fiscal irresponsibility by my predecessor.” However, he said that the cut passed by lawmakers in May was much deeper than what he had planned for. “When I was given that [restructuring plan] budget, I was not the Grim Reaper. That was not Grim Reaper time. When the budget was passed by the legislature that added another $50 million cut on, that became a Grim Reaper problem.”

He said that the changes at the agency are the product of the budget approved by the General Assembly. “The layoffs that you’ve been hearing about have to do with the budget that you all passed. You gave me the mandate to save $27 million. I don’t know how to save that without firing people, and I don’t know how to choose other than to choose based on the well-being of the children that I’m responsible for.”

Marlowe reiterated his boss’ statements about the department’s priorities, albeit in a slightly less blunt fashion. “We have core responsibilities to safety, permanency [of placement of children either back with their families or in adoptive homes] and wellbeing. But permanency and well-being can’t happen if a child is [not] safe. We need to protect lives. And in tight times, we still work to give children permanency and wellbeing, but we do have to prioritize their lives and their safety.” But both acknowledge that scaling back the intact families program could lead to more children becoming wards of the state. However, Marlowe said that he suspects it would not be a substantial increase.

“It may cost the state a lot more money by our doing this. ... A lot more children may land in foster care. It might have been a very stupid move to pass a budget like that,” Calica said.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Quinn wants to use cash from Thomson sale to pay old bills

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn hopes to use money from the planned sale of the Thomson prison to the federal government to pay off some of the state’s overdue bills.

“I think we ought to pay our bills with that money,” Quinn said today after he and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced that a plan for the federal government to buy the empty state prison for $165 million will proceed. “And now, we’re going to move forward to make this a federal prison, and it’s going to be one of the best in America,” Durbin said today in Thomson. Quinn and Durbin estimate that the sale would bring more than 1,000 permanent jobs to the Thomson area in northwest Illinois.

The plan for the U.S. government to guy the prison, which has never been filled to capacity, was floated back in 2009 as a place to put Guantanamo Bay detainees. President Barack Obama had vowed to close the controversial detention camp in Cuba.

That’s not to say Illinois does not have enough prisoners to fill the Thomson prison, the Associated Press reported that the number of inmates in Illinois reached an all-time high in September. The Department of Corrections took issue with the AP’s math, but even by its own count, there are more than 15,000 more inmates than the system was designed for. The Thomson facility has housed some prisoners over the years but has never been remotely close to its capacity. The prison has not been truly operational since its completion in 2001 because it was never funded. (For more on Thomson and other unused state facilities, see Illinois Issues January 2012.)

While many in Illinois jumped at the chance to unload the underused prison and make some cash to help bolster the state’s struggling budget, the national politics over the closure of Guantanamo Bay, also known as Gitmo, and haggling over the price of sale stalled the plan.

But after it became clear that Obama’s campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay was not going to become a reality, Durbin and others still wanted to move forward to buy the Thomson prison as a way to alleviate the overcrowding in the federal corrections system. Republicans in Congress continued to opposed the purchase, citing concerns that the prison would still somehow be used at part of a Guantanamo closure plan. Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who chairs a key spending House subcommittee, would not sign off on using unspent Department of Justice funds for the purchase.

Durbin said that the law requires that detainees such as those at Guantanamo must be housed in a military facility and not a federal prison. “The president has given his word, this administration has given its word. The law requires that no Guantanamo detainees be placed in the Thomson prison. Period.”

Durbin said such approval is usually routine. However, Wolf was not convinced by Durbin’s arguments and refused to approve the transfer of funds needed to buy the prison. Durbin said he went directly to Obama and asked him to intervene after he felt that Wolf was stonewalling the plan, and the Department of Justice signed off on the sale without Wolf’s approval. “It reached the point we couldn’t convince him. There was nothing we could say,” Durbin said today. “This first time we put this letter in front of this congressman was over a year ago -- over a year ago. We’ve been waiting for this. We finally reached the point where we said, ‘We’ve got to seize the moment.’”

Wolf said Obama and Durbin are doing an end-run around longstanding procedures. “President Obama’s unprecedented directive to Attorney General [Eric] Holder to circumvent Congress to purchase Thomson prison is deeply troubling,” Wolf said in a written statement. “It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.” Wolf reiterated his fears that the sale is part of a larger plan to close Guantanamo and transfer the detainees to a facility it America.

But the sale seems to be a done deal. Quinn said today that the checks are already in the bank. “Under the rules, the federal government cannot write a check more than $100 million. So in Rockford today, was deposited a check for $99 million and one for $66 million from the federal government to the state of Illinois.” The facility will need upgrades to meet federal standards, and Durbin and Quinn said the sale would also result in some temporary construction jobs. The money for construction has yet to be appropriated by Congress.

Thomson Mayor Jerry “Duke” Hebeler said he hopes there are no more holdups. “We’ll wait and see if anything else happens, I hope not.”

Quinn said some of the money from the sale would go toward paying off bonds used to build the facility. He said has his administration still has to calculate how much would go to pay down borrowing. However, the governor said that the rest of the money should be spent on unpaid bills. “I have to interact with the General Assembly on this when they come together in late November [for the fall veto session],” Quinn said. He said that the overdue payments to vendors, schools and providers should take priority over any other areas of spending. “We owe this money right now to good people and businesses who provided services to the state of Illinois.”