Thursday, October 31, 2013

New ADM tax break bill proposed

By Jamey Dunn

Whether same sex marriage or public pension reform will pass during the last week of the Illinois General Assembly's fall veto session seems to be anybody’s guess at this point. But it appears that there may be a way to move forward on a tax break for Archers Daniels Midland. ADM announced plans to move its corporate headquarters from Decatur.

The company said it was considering Chicago as the new location and then came to the General Assembly looking for a tax credit. The initial public reaction from lawmakers was less than positive. However, statehouse observers have been saying for weeks that a deal would likely be worked out in the veto session. Lawmakers are scheduled to be back in session for three days next week. The first week of the fall session wrapped up a day early after little was accomplished.

Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, filed legislation today to give ADM the tax credit it sought to keep its headquarters in Illinois. Manar was critical of an earlier bill. “I’ve had countless conversations with constituents, local officials and community groups who are angered by ADM’s recent announcement of their intention to move their headquarters. I would have preferred to have seen ADM first engage state and local officials to find a way to maintain employment levels in Decatur,” he said in a written statement earlier this month. “Now, only eight days later, there is legislation moving in the House of Representatives to give ADM tens of millions to potentially stay in Illinois and move to Chicago. Not so fast. Illinois is facing tough times. Decatur is facing tougher times, with the highest unemployment rate in the state. I will oppose any bill, and I will urge my colleagues to join me in opposing any bill that results in net job loss in Decatur.”

Manar’s new legislation (Senate Amendment 2 to House Bill 2536) would require ADM to replace the 100 corporate jobs that would leave Decatur by moving 100 jobs to Decatur from other states. “Throughout this process, I have said that keeping ADM in Illinois was a priority but not at the expense of taxpayers and jobs,” Manar said today. “The bill I have introduced will allow ADM to continue their long and valued partnership with Illinois, while growing and creating much-needed jobs here.” The proposal would also create a task force with the goal of creating jobs through ADM's intermodal transportation facility in Decatur. Construction of the facility was funded in part through a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The bill was the product of collaboration between ADM executives, Manar and elected officials in Decatur. “We are grateful for Senator Manar’s support. We appreciate the constructive dialogue he’s led with ADM and local leaders around our shared desire to see Decatur grow and prosper,” said Victoria Podesta, ADM’s chief communications officer. “The outcome envisioned in the legislation, if realized, would be a win for Illinois, for Decatur and for ADM.”

Mitch Schaben, a spokesman for Manar, said the amount of the tax credit is still being negotiated. He said the goal is to have everything hashed out by the end of the veto session. But the proposal could still face an uphill climb. Some Democrats are less than thrilled that corporations continue to get tax breaks while education and human services suffer cuts. On the other side of the aisle, some Republicans have voiced opposition to the concept, saying that the state should reduce taxes for all businesses instead of handing out special breaks to larger, well-connected companies. Most recently, lawmakers voted in 2011 to give tax cuts to Sears and the CME Group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. Gov. Pat Quinn signed that legislation but has since said he would not consider any tax breaks that pass before lawmakers approve changes to public employee pensions.

State Board of Education puts new face on school data

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois State Board of Education released an updated version of its annual school date reports, which officials say will give parents a more holistic view of Illinois schools.

The board released its Illinois Report Cards for the state’s school districts today. ISBE used about $600,000 in federal funding from the Race to the Top program to redesign the report cards in an effort to make them more user-friendly. The new version of the report cards does not focus only on test scores, it also includes school conditions, school budget information and the college readiness of students. “In previous years, the school report card focused on student performance on state standardized tests. While this data is important, we all know that test scores alone do not provide a full picture of student learning or a school's climate and learning conditions,” said a video about the data on ISBE’s website.

The interactive report cards provide test scores as well as other information, including average class size, per-student spending and teacher retention rates. Parents can find information about courses and extracurricular activities offered and a link to a survey of students and teachers about their schools. The report cards also provide student demographic data. The information released today indicates that almost 50 percent of students in the state are classified as low-income, and 2 percent are homeless. Nearly half of all students are minorities, with a growing number of Hispanic students contributing to the robust minority student population.

“The data we’re releasing today provide a better picture of student and school growth than ever before,”  Christopher  Koch, the state superintendent, said in a written statement. “We’re no longer providing just a snapshot of student performance but offering something more akin to a video of ongoing progress toward ensuring that every public school student in Illinois is prepared to succeed in college and careers.”

The report cards come after the state placed more rigorous standards on student testing as part of adopting the Common Core curriculum. Under the new requirements, the percentage of students who received a passing grade or better on a statewide standardized test went from 81.2 in 2012 to 61.9 in 2013. “This year’s performance on state tests can’t be viewed in isolation but as part of an unprecedented amount of change and higher expectations that educators, families and policy makers have taken on to better prepare students for the world that awaits them after high school,” state board Chairman Gery J. Chico said in a prepared statement. “I know that it’s a lot of new expectations, and it’s difficult to see school scores decline, but we needed to give families a better indication earlier on of college and career readiness. Students are still learning, and hopefully, in new and more engaging ways under the Common Core Learning Standards, which emphasize that students not only master content but can demonstrate their understanding, along with critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and other important skills.” According to ISBE’s data, only 45.7 of the 2013 high school graduating class is prepared for college coursework based on their ACT scores.

While those stats seem jarring, ISBE is in the process of transition from one major education policy to another. New testing associated with the Common Core program is scheduled to begin by the end of the 2014-2015 school year. However, the state continues to wait for a waiver for No Child Left Behind standards from the federal government. Congress has yet to pass an update to the law, which has been roundly criticized in the years since its implementation for setting unrealistic standards that schools must meet to avoid being dubbed failures. President Barack Obama's administration has opted to grant waivers from the program requirements to states willing to make certain education reforms. According to the ISBE, the U.S. Department of Education is asking Illinois to implement new teacher evaluations that use student performance — measured by test scores — as a key component for evaluating teachers. Illinois law does not call for the new evaluations to be in place statewide until the 2016-2017 school year.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Food stamp benefits set to drop this week

By Jamey Dunn

Starting this Friday, Illinois residents who receive federal food assistance benefits will take a hit to their grocery budgets.

Benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were temporarily increased under the federal stimulus package in 2009. That increase of almost 14 percent is set to roll back on November 1. Nationally, the reduction will be about $5 billion in the 2014 fiscal year. In Illinois, it will mean a $220 million cut. According to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the reduction will affect more than 2 million Illinois residents. A family of four receiving the maximum benefit will see a cut of $36 a month, leaving them with a $632 monthly benefit. This equals about $1.75 per person for each meal. Overall, SNAP benefits average out to be less than $1.50 per person for a meal. (For a full list of the reductions, see the Illinois Department of Human Services website. All the examples listed there are the maximum benefits.)

“SNAP has never experienced a reduction in benefits that impacts all participants, including 22 million children nationwide. Given the fact that benefits are already inadequate for many families, these cuts will be particularly painful,” said Gaylord Gieseke, president of Voices for Illinois Children. Recipients will see the reduction when benefits begin to go out on Friday.

When originally passed, the increase would have remained in place until food price inflation surpassed it. But food prices did not increase as expected. In 2010, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a law to sunset the increase and gave the money to states in the form of additional federal education funding and an increased Medicaid match.

Advocates for the poor argue that SNAP benefits are too meager and say they fear further cuts being considered in Congress. “SNAP has been a powerful tool in helping to keep families out of poverty,” Gieseke said. “The majority of SNAP recipients who are able to work do so. Cuts to SNAP will result in more children lacking access to nutritious food that is critical for their healthy development. Now is not the time to further reduce this already modest assistance to these struggling families.”

SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the funding is part of the federal farm bill. Lawmakers have been unable to reach a compromise on the farm bill since the previous version expired more than a year ago. Congress approved an extension of the previous version, but the two chambers, each controlled by a different party, have yet to agree on SNAP. The Republican-controlled U.S. House voted to cut the program by almost $40 million over the next 10 years. In the Senate, where Democrats have the majority, the approved plan would cut SNAP by $4.5 billion over the next decade. A bipartisan conference committee made up of members of both chambers is tasked with finding a compromise. The group’s panel’s meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.

A group of congressional Democrats, including Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, sent a letter to the committee urging it not to tighten eligibility for the program. The letter argues that changing eligibility standards could have a ripple effect because some other public aid programs use SNAP eligibility to determine if someone qualifies for their services. “While we support efforts to improve the integrity of the SNAP program, we encourage conferees to reject all SNAP eligibility changes designed to erect new barriers to participation, preventing millions of seniors, children and families from accessing food assistance,” the letter states. “The eligibility changes also will mean an additional 280,000 children would lose free school meals because children in SNAP households are automatically eligible for school meals. Changes would also increase administrative costs by requiring states to re-determine eligibility for SNAP, even if a household was deemed eligible for other state and/or federal assistance programs.”

But proponents of deeper cuts point to the number of enrollees — in Illinois, about 16 percent of residents — and say the program’s growth makes it impossible to maintain. SNAP currently costs about $80 billion annually. “Just as I believe we must take care of fellow Americans who truly need the help, I also believe that we must address fraud and abuse in the SNAP program and provide opportunities and encouragement to put people back to work,” Illinois U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, told the Associated Press. “When unemployment declines, the number of food stamp recipients still increases under our current system. This is simply unsustainable.”

Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, said the disagreement over SNAP ties into the larger debate at the federal level over the growth of entitlement programs and government debt. He said as the country has seen a downturn, government has grown, and businesses, workers and the private sector have picked up the tab. “We need to reverse it,” he said. Dabrowski said there should be a safety net for those who truly need it, but that the best thing the government can do is limit spending and encourage businesses to grow. “Illinois is becoming better at putting people on food stamps than it is at creating jobs.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

Comptroller launches website with local government budget info

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s office launched a website today that allows visitors to find information about local governments in the state.

The comptroller’s office collects more than 9,200 reports from 5,200 local governments each year. Now, much of that information is available online. Dubbed The Warehouse, the site allows users to find financial reports and audits from counties; cities; special taxing districts, such as park districts; and other bodies of local governments. “We’re essentially allowing taxpayers to scour The Warehouse from wherever they are to seek whatever they want to learn,” Topinka said at a Chicago news conference. “It’s designed to be user friendly. In fact, we’re going to keep trying and trying and trying to make sure anything we put out [will] be as user friendly as possible.” She said the new site was made possible by a 2012 law that requires local governments to submit their information to her office electronically.

A similar state government site, called The Ledger, has searchable databases of state fiscal information, including employee pay and state contracts. Topinka said that since the site was launched in March 2012, it has received 2.5 million page views. “The fact is that government acts more responsibly when it knows people are watching,” Topinka said. “The Warehouse builds on the tremendous success of The Ledger, and let me assure you, we're not done yet.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who is challenging Topinka for the comptroller’s office, has tried to lay recent cases of high-profile local corruption at Topinka’s feet because the comptroller’s office takes in local fiscal information. Simon said in a written statement today that the website would do little to prevent local problems. “It is the job of the comptroller's office to be the fiscal watchdog over local governments. We’ve had far too many examples of corruption at the local level — along with missed opportunities to spot that corruption under Judy Baar Topinka,” said Simon. “Repurposing a Web address with the same information that could already be found on the comptroller website is too little and too late. Identifying and preventing local corruption will be a priority from my first day in office. It’s time we have a comptroller who provides not just accounting but accountability.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Regional Office of Education consolidation moved up to November

By Jamey Dunn

The state board of education will likely be deciding the fate of the state’s regional offices of education sooner rather than later.

Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the money to pay regional superintendents in 2011, saying that the money should be instead spent in the classroom. The superintendents sued and eventually a compromise was worked out. The state would continue to pay the administrators, but the offices would be consolidated down from 44 to 35. Counties were supposed to decide which offices would merge. Some counties made consolidation choices but some did not. “There were frankly some unhappy campers and they only could come to 38,” said Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat, who sponsored the bill to consolidate. The decision got passed along to the Illinois State Board of Education.

The original legislation gave the board until June 2014. But lawmakers voted this week to that date up to November 23, so a new map of the regional districts can be finalized in time for the candidate filing deadlines for 2014 elections. Haine said the change in timeline is needed so that potential candidates can know the boundaries of the district in which they are seeking to run. The board plans to make a decision at their November 22 meeting. They have up to four maps to choose from. The Illinois Association of  Regional Superintendents of Schools has endorsed a map. But not all superintendents back the association’s plan. Some superintendents have proposed other versions of the map. Matt Vanover, a spokesperson for ISBE, said that the board has already heard about two hours of testimony from interested parties.

Yet another option would be for ISBE to honor the plans made by the counties that were able to make a decision by the deadline set in the original legislation. The board would then only make the consolidation choices for the regions that were unable to meet the deadline. “Those county board resolutions need to be adhered to. They did what they were asked to do and what they were required to,” said Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat. Each new district must have at least 61,000 residents. Sullivan and other lawmakers that represent sparsely population rural areas say they are concerned that districts in their region might be too geographically large to be effective. Sullivan said the thinks all parties involved generally agree that ISBE should make the final call. However, he said, “Now there’s going to be a lot of lobbying, it sounds like, to the state board of education.”

Vanover said that ISBE staff is compiling all the information and testimony provided to help board members make their decision. He said that the board will continue to take written testimony up until its November meeting. For more information on how to submit testimony, call the board at 1-866-262-6663.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Veto session roundup

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois General Assembly's fall veto session was scheduled to continue through tomorrow, but both chambers canceled their Thursday sessions and hit the road after little legislative action this week. Here’s a rundown of what did happen: 

Veto stands 
The House voted not to override Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of House Bill 1200. The measure would have cut the number of free days museums are required to offer from 52 to 26. Rep. Joe Sosnowski argued that lawmakers should give museums a break because the state has not given them an operating subsidy in more than a decade. He said that low-income residents would still have plenty of opportunities to attend on free days or through school and library programs. Sosnowski said that by allowing museums to offer fewer free days, they would have more money to spend on education and outreach programs. “It will enhance and increase what museums can do.” The measure passed in the House in April with 79 “yes” votes and 36 “no” votes. Today, only 49 members voted in favor of an override, while 67 voted to uphold the governor’s veto.

Several legislators rose during debate to argue that the change would cut off opportunities for many families.  “The governor is correct. The purpose of a museum is to educate, to provide culture. And when we deny that, limit access, we really hurt all of us in this state,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Monique Davis. Quinn reportedly lobbied aggressively for support of the veto. “It’s always important to ensure that our residents with modest incomes have equal access to our world-class museums and cultural institutions,” he said in a written statement. “I commend members of the House for their vote today. They did the right thing.”

Budget issues 
Today, committees continued to debate adding additional spending to the current fiscal year’s budget. Gov. Pat Quinn is seeking about $200 million in additional spending. The money would cover back wages for state employees, which a judge ordered the state to pay with interest, set-up costs for the state’s concealed carry licensing system and operational costs in the Department of Corrections. The money would come from revenues that Quinn’s budget office said will come in higher than originally estimated. Budget committees held hearings today and yesterday but have yet to vote on any of it. Lawmakers said they plan to continue considering the new spending over the next week while they are out of session.

Same-sex marriage opposition rally 
After thousands of supporters of same-sex marriage held a rally and march yesterday, their opponents packed the Capitol today. Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard, who is running for governor, was one of several speakers who addressed the crowd. “I have said that I would veto the gay marriage bill,” Dillard said. “I believe that government which governs least governs best. But there are times when government has a solemn duty to stand up and protect its citizens.” Dillard emphasized his belief that children need both a mother and a father to thrive. “Every child in this state deserves to have a mom and dad.” Republican Sen. Jim Oberweis also spoke. He was at the rally collecting signatures to challenge U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin. He said he plans to run against Durbin if he can get the signatures required to get onto the ballot.

State retiree health care
The state is shifting many retirees from traditional Medicare plans to privately managed Medicare Advantage plans. Some lawmakers are unhappy that one provider did not qualify for the bidding process. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability held a hearing on the issue today.  You can read all about it in this post.

The House officially voted in Western Springs Republican Jim Durkin as the new minority leader yesterday. Illinois Issues interviewed him before he was sworn in. You can read that story here.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return for three more days of veto session starting on November 5.

Changes to retiree health care spur confusion and frustration

By Jamey Dunn

Some lawmakers voiced their frustration today that Health Alliance did not make the cut to offer health care plans to some state retirees, even though the provider claims it could have given a lower price than the vendors chosen.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability took testimony today on the process used to pick the providers for Medicare Advantage plans for retirees. Health Alliance Medical Plans did not meet the requirements to provide a Medicaid Advantage HMO plan. But the company says it could have offered a statewide HMO for less than UnitedHealthcare Group PPO, Humana Benefit Plan HMO, Humana Health Plan HMO, and Coventry Advantra HMO, which were the winning bidders. Currently, retirees are generally enrolled in Medicare with state coverage as a supplement. But under the change, retires must now pick a Medicare Advantage plan or lose their state coverage. The open enrollment period to choose a plan starts on November 12 and runs through December 13. New plans will go into effect on February 1, and according to Central Management Services, retirees who have not made the change to an advantage plan by that date will lose their state coverage. Eligible retirees will receive information in the mail. The change does not apply to retirees who have a spouse or dependent on their plan who is not Medicare-eligible. “That family unit stays in the plan they are currently in. We are not splitting families,” said Janice Bonneville, CMS deputy director of benefits. Retirees who want to keep traditional Medicare can do so, but they would lose their state coverage. CMS estimates that the change will save the state more than $250 million over two years.

Bonneville told the committee today that CMS was not aware that Health Alliance could have provided coverage that would have cost the state even less. Once it was determined that the company’s bid did not fulfill the requirements set for the contract, CMS did not look at the other aspects of it. “We don’t evaluate disqualified bids,” said Matt Brown, chief procurement officer for the state. Health Alliance did not meet requirement for having administered larger Medicare Advantage systems.

But some committee members said they suspected the requirements were intended to exclude Health Alliance, which sued the state after it lost its bid to continue to provide insurance coverage to state workers but then dropped the suit after it was allowed to submit a second bid. Health Alliance covers public employees primarily in the Champaign and Springfield areas. “You’ve got a process that knocks them out before you even score them. ... And at the end of the day, the taxpayers have a right to those savings,” said Mahomet Republican Sen. Chapin Rose. “You have a process that from the beginning looks like it was set up to exclude a company from bidding.”

Catlin Republican Rep. Chad Hays agreed with Rose’s take on the situation. “There seems to be a pattern of behavior that tries to exclude this company.” Many state retirees in Rose’s district and Hays’ district receive their medical treatment from the Carle health care system and have been covered by Health Alliance. Carle has an exclusive Medicare Advantage agreement with Health Alliance. However, the other plans that would be offered in east-central Illinois would reimburse Carle for services at the Medicare rate. Rose said that he has gotten reassurances from Carle that they will not demand that patients pay any out-of-network costs upfront.

Not all the critics were willing to go as far as calling it a conspiracy theory, but some said that CMS should have looked at the whole picture of the Health Alliance bid. “We’re talking about Health Alliance as if they’re some mom and pop shop that just got into health care,” said Sen. David Koehler, a Peoria Democrat. Sen. Michael Frerichs, a co-chair of COGFA, said that he realizes that CMS must follow procurement law and make sure vendors are capable of provide the service they are bidding for. But he says the state should make sure that it is not setting “arbitrary minimum requirements that reduce the amount of competition and increase prices.” Frerichs also represents retirees who obtain their care at Carle. “[The witnesses] said today that they will still have access to their health care providers. They won’t have the same insurance company, but they’ll still have access to their providers, and it won’t necessarily cost them any more money,” Frerichs said. "If that’s the case, my constituents should be OK. However, all those constituents are also taxpayers, and everyone in the state should have a problem if we are leaving savings on the table.”

Frerichs said he thinks CMS possibly should reconsider the decision because the contracts with the advantage plan providers have not been signed at this point. “If you’re looking at somewhere in the magnitude of 50-some-million dollars in savings. ... $50 million is an awful lot to leave out there.” However, he said that retirees should go ahead and pick a Medicare Advantage plan from the current offerings. “I don’t anyone to wait until the list minute miss any deadlines and then not have access to care.” He said that if any changes were made down the road, retirees would likely have the option to rethink what plans they want.

At the same time, CMS is working to verify that retirees’ dependents are eligible for health care coverage. Bonneville said that 10,000 verification letters were sent out before the end of September. But CMS recently sent out letters to 44,000 retirees and has gotten some negative reaction from retires who are uncertain about what information they must provide. Bonneville said that the larger group has caused “ a little more noise.”

Retired teacher Beverly Johns told the committee that the combination of the verification letters and the switch to Medicare advantage plans has left many retirees uncertain and scared. “Confusing misinformation and fear run rampant among my colleagues.” She said when her verification letter came from an out of state vendor, she contacted Attorney General Lisa Madigan because she was concerned that it might be a scam. “If people got the information and thought it was a scam, they may not have completed it; therefore they lose their dependents' health insurance.”

Bonneville said retirees should look to the Frequently Asked Questions section of the information they receive along with their letters for examples of what documents they must provide the state to prove their dependents are eligible. For more on the dependent verification process, see CMS’ website.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

First week of veto session shaping up to be a bust

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois General Assembly's fall veto session was off to an anticlimactic start today, as hearings on some of the most closely watched issues were canceled.

The House Revenue and Finance Committee did not take up a proposed tax break for Archer Daniels Midland. Committee chair Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley had few details to share about the proposal, which supporters hope would persuade ADM to put its corporate headquarters in Chicago. ADM announced earlier this month that it plans move its headquarters out of Decatur. The company would leave most of the current jobs in Decatur, but about 100 positions would go with the transfer. “They’re under consideration at this point,” Bradley said of several tax breaks being pitched to lawmakers. OfficeMax and Office Depot are planning a merger and have approached lawmakers for a tax break. OfficeMax is based in Naperville and Office Depot is headquartered in Florida. So the two states are now in competition for the headquarters of the final merged company. The two office supply companies area seeking a tax break similar to the one ADM is looking for. In the end, a tax break omnibus bill may emerge.

However, Gov. Pat Quinn has said that he will not sign “special” tax breaks for businesses until lawmakers approve changes to the state’s public pension systems. But Bradley did not seem phased by Quinn’s statements. “We’re used to rhetoric like that coming out of the governor’s office.”

A hearing on a proposal, backed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to increase penalties from some gun crimes also did not occur today. The sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski, is reportedly in talks with the National Rifle Association. If the negotiations are productive, a compromise bill could emerge as early as tomorrow.

Several budget hearings were held today, and a picture of what Quinn’s office would like to see in a supplemental appropriation became clearer. Ben Winick with the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget told a House committee that $97 million in unexpected revenues have been transferred into the General Revenues fund, and the budget office expects an additional $262 million in sales tax revenues that were originally underestimated. However, he said that telecommunications tax receipts would likely come in $46 million shy of estimates. Still, by Quinn’s budget staff’s count, there is about $313 million in funds to potentially spread around. The governor is asking lawmakers to approve about $112 million to pay back wages to state workers. A judge ordered the state to pay the wages with interest. Quinn’s staff is urging lawmakers to pay them sooner, so less interest is piled on.  Some agencies have already been able to find the money for back pay in their budgets. Senate Bill 2603 would fund back wages for the Department of Human Services, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Natural Resources. Other supplemental appropriations bills have not been filed, meaning that the details are likely not worked out yet. The governor’s office is also looking at spending some of the money on setup costs for the state’s licensing system for concealed carry of firearms.

Meanwhile, Quinn and several other elected officials spoke at a rally at the Statehouse for same-sex marriage. Quinn has called on lawmakers not to be distracted from pension reform by other issues, but he said today that same-sex marriage is an exception. “I think this is a civil rights issue, and anytime there is an issue about rights of people, that deserves important consideration.” Opponents to same-sex marriage are scheduled to hold a rally tomorrow. It is not clear if same-sex marriage supporters will be able to find the votes needed to pass a bill during veto session.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin was officially sworn into his new leadership role today. His statement to Illinois Issues earlier today that veto session is "generally overhyped" seems to be proving true at this point. The House and Senate have already canceled their Thursday sessions, indicating that little is likely to happen this week. Lawmakers are scheduled to return for the last week of the veto session on November 5.

Durkin: Pension reform plan must include GOP ideas to get GOP votes

By Jamey Dunn

New House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said today that if Democratic leaders want Republican votes on pension changes, they will have to include some proposals from Republicans in the final bill.

“I think it’s interesting that the Democrats have said there has to be Republican participation in a vote, but they need to take our suggestions as well. This isn’t a matter of Senate Democrats and House Democrats negotiating amongst themselves. If they want our participation — they want our votes — they will need to take our considerations and incorporate them in a bill,” Durkin said in an interview with Illinois Issues. He added: “Otherwise, they’ve got 71 in the House, and they’ve got 40 in the Senate. They can pass a bill on their own. Good luck. Go do it.”

Durkin said he thinks the work of a conference committee on pensions has moved the process forward on finding legislation that could pass in both chambers. But he and other Republicans want to see some tweaks made to cut pension costs further. “I think what is promising is that there has been progress made. There needs to be more progress, and there needs to be an additional uptick in the savings. But that’s still open for negotiation.” He said that annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) would likely have to be the target for more savings. The committee has been considering a proposal that would tie the COLAs to inflation. Employees currently receive a 3 percent annually compounded COLA. “The COLA, I think, is the most important part of the pension reform. I would say the most strain on the system has been through the 3 percent compounded COLA. To me, that is where a majority of the savings are going to be made.”

Durkin said he thinks it “may be a bit lofty” to expect that the issue will be tackled in the six session days that are scheduled for veto session. “I’ve been down here for a few terms, and one thing that I know about veto sessions is that they are generally overhyped,” he said. “This issue has such a profound impact on the state of Illinois — its residents, its employers — to just arbitrarily say that we have to get this thing done within six days in October and the first week of November, I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do. I want to do it right, and I want to do it once. If it takes us a little bit more time to get there, so be it.” But he said he does not want to see the issue go to far into the spring legislative session without a resolution because he said that next year’s elections could create a political climate that would make it difficult to get a bill passed. He said he is also concerned that the state could face another downgrade of its credit rating if lawmakers take too long to approve a plan.

 The minority leader said he has met with House Speaker Michael Madigan and hopes to work with him. “My job is not to be someone who is the minority blocker or the minority agitator. The issues are too profound and too robust and too challenging for people in Illinois for the Republicans just to be the party of no. I want to work with the Democrats, whether it’s the Senate president or the speaker, to get the issues done,” he said. Durkin said he and Madigan have always had a “cordial” relationship. “I’ve met with him. And right now, I think we’re just trying to get to know each other a little bit more. It’s different when you’re a member and on the other side. But I look forward to working with him on the right issues.”

In his own party, Durkin said, he plans to be a flexible leader and does not expect members of his caucus to vote in lockstep with him. For instance, he does not support same-sex marriage. However, he said: “It’s up to the individual members to make a decision of how it plays out in their district, and that’s all I ask them to do. It’s a deeply personal [and] very emotional issue. And I think that each member needs to make a decision about how it best works and fits in their district, and I just advise them to vote their conscience.” Durkin, a Catholic, said he has received calls from church leaders in the state asking him not to support the bill. He said that the state already has provisions, such as civil unions, that protect same sex couples.

But Durkin said he plans to back incumbents in primaries next year, regardless of how they vote on the issue. “I’m supporting every one of my colleagues who’s here, no matter how they vote on this issue, or any other issue. We are a caucus that is diverse, and we’re not going to agree on every issue. But my pledge to every one of them when I was elected two months ago was that I want each and every one of them to be returning with me when we get sworn in. ... I will support every one of my incumbents who have a primary challenge, no matter what [side of an] issue they take or whatever vote may prompt a primary.”

For more on the veto session, which begins today, see our preview here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Veto session preview

By Jamey Dunn

Our October issue has a helpful preview of the Illinois General Assembly's fall veto session. (It is only available in the print edition until Nov. 1, when it will become available online.) Many of the issues that could crop up are the same ones left unresolved at the end of the spring legislative session. But there have been some developments and changes since that story was published. Here are some things to watch for as lawmakers return to the Statehouse for veto session this week: 

Public pension changes 
Don’t expect much to happen this week on the most highly anticipated issue. Lawmakers working on a committee to propose changes to the state’s pension systems say they will not have legislation drafted in time for a vote in the first week of veto session. Details of a plan that they were considering went public in August. The plan would toss out the 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living adjustment retirees currently receive. Instead, cost-of-living adjustments would be half the rate of inflation. The rates would have a base level and cap set. The change would likely result in smaller COLAs for retirees, but if inflation goes up, so will the COLAs. Employees would contribute 1 percent less to their retirement benefits. The retirement age would not change. The proposal is estimated to reduce the almost $100 billion unfunded pension liability by $18.1 billion and save the state $145 billion over 30 years.

But some Republicans say the plan would not save enough money. They want to see some tweaks made, including decreasing the base guaranteed COLA, making the cut to employee contributions smaller, increasing the retirement age and offering an optional 401(k)-style plan to employees in all the pension systems. Right now, such a plan is only offered to university employees. The Republican members of the committee had these ideas scored by actuaries to estimate their potential savings and just got the numbers back at the end of last week. “We don’t have a bill that’s written yet. I don’t see us doing anything on pensions in veto next week,” said Naperville Republican Darlene Senger.

Aurora Democratic Sen. Linda Holmes said Democrats on the committee are open to the Republicans suggestions. However, ideas such as adding a 401(k) component or changing the retirement age could be non-starters. “I don’t think that our side really wants to touch retirement age,” she said. Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz said that while there will not be a lot of outward action on pensions, there will likely be a lot of behind-closed-doors meetings taking place this week among legislative leaders and members of the legislature. She says of the Republican proposals: “Personally I supported a bill that had a larger level of savings, so I don’t object to moving in that direction. But we have to find something that will meet everybody’s needs.” She said she hopes the committee will have a final plan to present to the General Assembly by the last week of veto session, which is scheduled to begin on November 5. “That is my fervent hope.” Lawmakers are not in session the last week of October. Nekritz said she thinks it is likely such a plan would get a hearing before a floor vote, but she said it might not be a procedural requirement. She said she would prefer a hearing. But she notes, “I don’t control the gavel.” Senate President John Cullerton told the Associated Press that a bill could be called in the Senate even if the committee cannot come to an agreement, but it could be harder to pass something in both chambers without a bipartisan stamp of approval from the committee.

Gov. Pat Quinn will likely talk about little else in the coming weeks as he has made pension reform his top priority. He vetoed lawmakers’ pay this summer, saying they should not get it until a bill was passed. However a judge ruled against his veto, and they started getting their checks again in September. The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case and will likely hear arguments in the spring. Quinn is voluntarily not taking a paycheck. He says he will not take his pay until a bill is sent to his desk.

Same-sex marriage
Proponents are optimistic about passing same-sex marriage in the near future, but whether it will happen in the veto session is unclear. Some advocates say they have the votes but are not willing to indicate whom they have brought on board in the House. That makes sense because Republicans who have made their support public have faced protests and are now likely to have primary challengers. To pass as is, the bill would need 71 votes now. But if the bill’s sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, waits until January, the deadline to file petitions to run in the primary will have passed, and the bill would only need 60 votes. He opted not to call the bill at the end of the regular session because he said he did not have the votes, and some House members wanted time to poll their constituents.  Harris, as always, will not share his vote count. But he told the Chicago Tribune that now is the time to legalize same-sex marriage. “It's the right time, and it's the right thing to do” he said. “Momentum is in the direction of this vote.” Supporters and opponents have rallies at the Statehouse scheduled this week.

ADM tax breaks
Archer Daniels Midland announced earlier this month that it plans to move its headquarters from Decatur, where it has been based for more than 40 years. The company says it would keep jobs that are in Decatur now but would move about 100 positions to the new headquarters. It appears that Chicago is on ADM’s short list of potential locations for its headquarters, but ADM is seeking up to $24 million in tax breaks from state government during the next 20 years. The legislation is scheduled for a House committee hearing on Tuesday. Few lawmakers are vocally supporting the proposal, and there are plenty of critics. But if it seems that ADM might really leave the state, votes could line up behind the legislation. However, Quinn has said he will not sign legislation with tax breaks for ADM before changes to the pension systems are approved. “Our number one way to help business is to get pension reform. We need ADM and all of our big businesses to band together, put pressure on the legislature — the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans — to get a vote on the pension reform. That helps everybody. That helps every business. That helps every taxpayer,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago earlier this month. “I think we need to have a moratorium on any special legislation for tax breaks for corporations. We have to focus on pension reform.” But Quinn’s relationship with the legislature after he cut off their pay may be frosty enough that his opposition on any issue could potentially give it a boost.

Gun crime sentencing
Some Chicago leaders, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are calling for the legislature to pass tougher sentencing laws in the hopes of quelling the deadly gun violence taking place in parts of the city. The push comes after a shooting in a park injured 13 people, including a 3-year-old, last month. The National Rifle Association and prison watchdog groups oppose the measure. The watchdog groups worry that longer sentences would strain the state’s already crowded corrections system.

The NRA has illustrated its ability to stop a bill in its tracks many times in the General Assembly. So unless the sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski, can work out a deal with the group, it could be a tough battle. The legislation is scheduled for a House committee hearing on Tuesday. 

Committee Hearings
Several issues are scheduled for “subject matter only” hearings during the veto session. That means witnesses will likely come in to testify and lawmakers can ask questions, but no committee vote is taken on legislation.
  • Gambling expansion It seems unlikely that lawmakers will vote on a gaming bill during the veto session, but there is a House hearing on the topic scheduled for Wednesday. Quinn has not said that he would give a gaming bill the same treatment as an ADM tax break if it landed on his desk before pension reform. However, he has warned lawmakers in the past not get distracted by the “shiny object” of a gambling expansion when he feels they should be working to get pension changes passed. He has vetoed two gambling bills in the past and said last year that he could only approve one if it had strict regulations and the money went to education.
  • Budgetary issues Several House budget committees are holding hearings on potential supplemental appropriations. It is the time of year when agencies tend to come to lawmakers looking to patch budget holes. Union leaders may also be seeking an appropriation for workers’ back pay from raises there were promised but did not receive. Quinn’s budget staff has said that workers should get the money under a new deal the state made with the unions. However, House Speaker Michael Madigan seems less than warm to the idea. Since there are no bills drafted and in committee, it seems more likely that such budget issues might be tackled in January. Quinn may also be reluctant to sign more spending unless pension changes pass. UPDATE: There is a bill for employee back pay, Senate Bill 2603. It had not been posted to an appropriations hearing as of Monday. Union officials are working to lobby lawmakers. “A circuit court judge has already ruled that the money must be paid. Now Gov. Quinn has agreed, too. But it is up to the state legislature to appropriate the funds that are needed,” says a call to action to its members from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31. 
  • Paint disposal One hearing that may lead to legislation down the road is scheduled for November 4. Lawmakers are looking to create a program to ensure that paint is properly disposed of in the state. Holmes, who sponsors the Paint Stewardship Act, said the committee is seeking input and hopes to get an end product that sellers and industry can agree to. Under such a plan, a small fee would be added to the cost of paint, and the money would be used to set up the program. Holmes cautions that the idea is still in a very early stage and could see major changes as the process continues. “What we want to do is have everyone on board with it,” she said.
  • Retiree health care The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability is scheduled to hold a hearing on state retiree health benefits on Wednesday morning. We will have coverage on the blog.
Committee hearings are also scheduled on the topics of college affordability, performance-based funding for universities and giving underfunded K-12 schools a break from some statutory requirements. There will be a lot going on this week, but time will tell if much actually gets done. All those hearings may be in part window dressing because much of the big legislation will not be ready for prime time until the final week of veto session in November. Lawmakers may also not be too excited to jump onto controversial bills this week when they can always put the votes off for two more weeks. However, if a sponsor thinks the votes are lined up for a bill, he or she will want to call it before anyone has time for a change of heart.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Illinois Supreme Court strikes down ‘Amazon’ tax

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Supreme Court today struck down a law that requires online sellers to collect state taxes if they partner with an Internet marketer located in Illinois.

Although Illinois residents owe taxes on anything they purchase online, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the state cannot make retailers collect the tax if they do not have a physical location in the state. Illinoisans are supposed to send the tax they owe on those purchases to the state. However, few residents actually send the money, and the state is missing out on revenues. In 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law that would require online retailers to collect tax on sales in the state if they worked with marketers located in Illinois. Supporters of the law argued that the online marketers are the physical location, or nexus, in the state that require sellers, such as, to collect the tax. For more on the law, see Illinois Issues April 2011. 

After the bill was signed into law, Amazon and cut ties with their online marketers in Illinois. Some of those marketers, including Fat Wallet and CouponCabin, left the state after Amazon severed ties. But today, the court ruled that the marketers, who direct their users to sales on retail sites across the Internet, were unfairly targeted under the law because it does not apply to their analog advertising counterparts such as newspapers. “The Act does not require use tax collection by out-of-state retailers who enter into performance marketing contracts with ‘offline’ Illinois print publishers and over the-air broadcasters,” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke wrote in her majority opinion. Burke wrote that this practice is prohibited by the federal Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA), which bans “discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.” She goes on to write: “In short, under the Act, performance marketing over the Internet provides the basis for imposing a use tax collection obligation on an out-of-state retailer when a threshold of $10,000 in sales through the clickable link is reached. However, national, or international, performance marketing by an out-of-state retailer which appears in print or on over-the-air broadcasting in Illinois, and which reaches the same dollar threshold, will not trigger an Illinois use tax collection obligation. The relevant provisions of the Act therefore impose a discriminatory tax on electronic commerce within the meaning of the ITFA.”

One retailer who left the state after the law was signed said he feels vindicated, but he does not know if his business will return to Illinois. “We have been tracking this case closely since we were forced to move outside the state in 2011, and we are happy that the Supreme Court agreed with the Cook County Circuit Court and reached what we believe to be the correct decision,” Scott Kluth, founder and chief executive officer of, said in an email. “We have received inquiries regarding whether we intend to remain in Indiana, and we plan to review our options about moving back to Illinois in April 2014, when our lease in Indiana is up for renewal. For now, we're heads down and focused on our busiest time of the year, the fast-approaching holiday shopping season.”

All of the justices sided with Burke except Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who wrote the dissenting opinions. The court avoided the larger constitutional question of whether the tax is allowable under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Karmeier argued that this was a mistake because he said that the issues will likely end up in court again. “A new commerce clause challenge is certain to follow. A year from now we could therefore find ourselves in precisely the same position we are in today, facing the same commerce clause challenge brought by and against the very same litigants. The delay will have accomplished nothing. The issue has been fully briefed and argued and is ripe for a decision now. We should make one,” he wrote. Karmeier said that not requiring online retailers to collect the state taxes associated with their sales means that much of those taxes will go uncollected and local merchants, who have to collect sales tax, are at a disadvantage. “As consumers realize that they can avoid their use tax liability by turning to out-of state Internet retailers with no physical presence here, retailers and servicemen with places of business located within Illinois are placed at a competitive disadvantage because they, unlike their out-of-state Internet competitors, must include the tax in the amount they charge and then assume responsibility for remitting that tax money to the State.”

That is the argument Illinois retailers make in favor of the law. “It's disappointing that the Illinois Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of the issue but, rather, erred in its conclusion that the act violated the Internet Tax Freedom Act. We haven't given up. There are other avenues for appeal we hope the state will take,” David Vite, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said in a written statement. Vite said the ruling emphasized the need for Congress to pass a federal law addressing the issue. “Working with a hodgepodge of laws around the country is intolerable, and brick and mortar retailers continue to be at a substantial disadvantage to their online competitors.”

Senate President John Cullerton, who sponsored the Illinois law, agreed. “The ruling highlights the need for federal action to level the playing field for traditional retailers,” he said in a prepared statement. Cullerton plans to consult Attorney General Lisa Madigan to see if there is any state level legislation that could address the issues the court had with the law.

Talks at the federal level about setting a national standard have been ongoing for years but have yet to produce results. For more on the ongoing debate in Congress, see Illinois Issues June 2012.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

State operations back to normal as federal shutdown ends

By Jamey Dunn 

Illinois budget officials say operations returned to normal today after the federal government reopened.

According to Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget office, all laid off state workers are back on the job. Federal workers were also asked to report back to work today. And for now, programs that were potentially threatened by a loss of funding, such as Head Start, are in the clear. The federal measure will fund the U.S. government through January 15 and extend the so-called debt ceiling to February 7.

Only one member of the Illinois congressional delegation voted against legislation, approved last night, to extend the funding of the government, as well as the country’s ability to pay its bills. U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Winfield Republican, said he voted against the agreement because it would not help reduce the country’s deficit. “It’s ridiculous to pay lip service to addressing our debt every few months and then do nothing,” he said in a written statement about his vote. “Procrastinating on our debt endangers our economic well-being. If we cannot address this problem now, after what this country has endured — then when?”

However, enough Republicans backed off their demand that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, be defunded or delayed to approve the extension an avoid a potential default. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, who signed on to a letter to House Speaker John Boehner that urged a push to defund Obamacare, voted in favor of the bill that has, at least temporarily, ended the federal shutdown. “From the very beginning of this debate I’ve stated that while I remain opposed to Obamacare, a government shutdown is absolutely unacceptable. Since then, I’ve voted for multiple bipartisan bills to reopen parts of the federal government while hoping that cooler heads would prevail and Republicans and Democrats would come together and negotiate in good faith. Today is no reason to celebrate because Congress finally did what we were sent to Washington to do — govern,” he said in a prepared statement. “That is why I voted in support of the bipartisan agreement to reopen the government and remove the threat of default, which could have had disastrous effects on an already-fragile economy.”

As the clock begins ticking on the new deadlines, lawmakers are set to return to negotiations over the federal budget. “For the past 16 days, my neighbors and all Americans needlessly suffered from a government shutdown and fear of a U.S. default on our national debt. Small businesses in my district had SBA loans and contracts with the government delayed. Federal employees who honorably serve our country went without paychecks, and veterans had many of their programs suspended. Tragically, even death benefits for family members of our fallen military heroes were put on hold. The American people deserve better,” said U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates. “It was absolutely essential that Congress vote to reopen our government and raise the debt ceiling, and I am relieved that we can move forward as a nation. Now, the real work of creating a budget that invests in our economy and reduces the national debt begins.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Half of Illinois' fast-food workers rely on public aid

By Jamey Dunn

More than half of front-line fast food workers in Illinois are recipients of public aid.

A new report titled Fast Food. Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California Berkley’s Labor Center found that 51 percent of the 84,000 workers in the fast food industry in the state rely on public aid programs, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Illinois’ stats were similar to national finding. Across the country, 52 percent of the employees of fast food restaurants are enrolled in public assistance programs. That compares with 25 percent of the workforce as a whole. The study also says that 73 percent of those enrolled in the programs covered in the study — Medicaid, SNAP, Earned Income Tax Credits and Medicaid programs specifically for children — are employed or are part of a family that has at least one employed member.

The median pay for fast food employees across the nation is $8.69. The report notes that pay for fast food workers is usually at or near minimum wage, which is $8.25 an hour in Illinois. The median number of working hours available to fast food workers each week is 30. An estimated 87 percent of fast-food workers do not receive health care coverage through their employers.

“The combination of low wages and benefits, often coupled with part-time employment, means that many of the families of fast-food workers must rely on taxpayer-funded safety net to make ends meet,” the study says. “People working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty. One in five families with a member holding a fast-food job has an income below the poverty line.”

The estimated national cost for public benefits given to fast food workers is $7 billion each year. In Illinois, the cost is $368 million annually. About 60 percent of the total national cost, or $3.8 billion, comes from the 10 largest fast food companies, according to a companion report issued today by the New-York-based National Employment Law Project. Last year, those companies reported $7.4 billion in profits and paid $52.7 million to their highest-level corporate employees.

The authors of Fast Food. Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast-Food Industry say these costs should be considered when public policy choices about public aid and minimum wages are made. “Although extensive, the hidden public cost of low-wage work rarely factors into debates about state and national policy. The public benefits discussed in this report provide a vital support system for millions of the working poor. The findings of this report suggest those programs could be more effective if supplemented by measures that improve workers’ wages and benefits, either through public policy measures such as living and minimum wage laws, or through collective bargaining.”

IDNR seeks help tracking deadly deer virus

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is seeking help from residents in tracking a deadly disease striking deer in the state.

Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) causes a high fever and internal bleeding in deer. The disease, which is spread by biting gnats, is often fatal in deer but does not threaten people or pets. There is no treatment for EHD. Once temperatures drop, killing off the gnats, outbreaks end for the year.

IDNR is calling on Illinoisans to report sick or dead deer that they suspect suffered from EHD so the department can track the disease. IDNR uses the information to help monitor deer populations so it can set conservation policies and hunting quotas, said Paul Shelton, IDNR forest wildlife program manager. Shelton said that after a report, IDNR may come out to test and confirm that EHD caused the death.

The numbers so far this year are less than last year. As of September 30, 403 EHD fatalities in 51 counties had been reported. At the same time last year, 2,043 deaths were reported in 76 counties. Drought conditions such as the ones in the state last year tend to increase infections because deer congregate around what little water they can find, creating a buffet for infected gnats. Many infected deer survive. Shelton said that the prevalence of infection last year maybe part of the reason numbers have dropped this year. Deer who survived now have a resistance to the disease. He said counties that had high mortality rates in 2012 have reported few or none in 2013.

The most common indication of EHD is deer dying in or close to water. Because the virus elevates the animal’s body temperature, those infected often seek water to try to cool off. The fever can also make deer lethargic. “They may even seem to lose their fear of humans,” Shelton said. “It may be hanging around a house, and it may not run away when you come up on it.” Shelton said that many deer die before the develop obvious physical signs of EHD, but some experience a discoloration of the tongue and lips, which can turn purple or blue.

If residents find a deer that they suspect may have fallen victim to EHD, the IDNR asks that they contact the nearest IDNR field office or call Doug Dufford, IDNR wildlife disease and invasive species program manager, at (815) 535-2875 or by email at The IDNR is seeking the county where the deer was found, the “number of dead deer, sex (if known) and specific location of the deer — distance [and] direction from the nearest town or intersection of two roads.”

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Illinois Head Start programs remain open — for now

By Jamey Dunn

So far, most Illinois Head Start Programs have stayed open during the partial shutdown of the federal government, but that could change if the bickering in Congress drags on.

Head Start provides food, medical care and preschool to low-income children. The shutdown left more than 20 Head Start programs serving 19,000 kids nationwide in the lurch because they were set to start their fiscal years and receive grant money on October 1. Some states have stepped in with funding to keep the doors open at Head Start centers. Today, John and Laura Arnold, a wealthy Texas couple, announced that they donated $10 million to help the programs that did not receive federal funds. When federal funding is restored, those agencies plan to repay the Arnolds.

Entities that administer Head Start have different fiscal-year starts for the program because they must submit grant applications and information to obtain their funding each year. Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association, said that if all programs submitted their renewal information at once, it would overwhelm staff responsible for reviewing the applications. “They couldn’t handle all of our Head Start programs at the same time.” No Illinois Head Start centers start their fiscal year on October 1. However, Morrison-Frichtl said that two Head Start operations in the state had trouble getting their funding after the shutdown. Two Rivers Head Start Agency, which serves the Aurora area, was shut down for one day this week but has since reopened after the problems with funding were cleared up. East Central Community Action Agency’s Head Start program also had issues with funds but did not close. “There wasn’t enough staff in [Washington] D.C. to man the system, and so when people were having trouble, there wasn’t anyone there to figure out what was going on.” If the shutdown continues into November, she said that two programs — CEFS Economic Opportunities Corp. in Effingham and Project NOW in East Moline — would see their federal funds cut off. The two organizations serve a combined total of 10 counties and more than 860 children.

This fiscal uncertainty comes after Head Start funding was cut by a little more than 5 percent in March under automatic federal spending reductions known as sequestration. In Illinois 1,700 children were booted from Head Start. “The majority of our programs across the state cut kids,” said Morrison-Frichtl. “There’s huge waiting lists.” And she says as poverty has grown in the state, “the demand is more than ever.” Head Start programs in Illinois have also cut staff hours and benefits, reduced transportation and field trips for kids and cut back on supplies. Morrison-Frichtl said she recently lobbied the Illinois congressional delegation to restore some of the funding cut by the sequester. “I truly believe in a balanced budget. But I also know the way we value and prioritize our spending is important,” she said. “When children — the only meal they get during the day is at Head Start, and they wake up in the morning and are hungry when they come back to school — that should be the priority. ... They deserve a good start before they hit the public school system.” But she said the current political climate does not make her optimistic about having some of the money put back.

 Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn’s office announced that 53 Department of Military Affairs employees and 20 Department of Employment Security employees have returned to work. That means that only 23 federally funded state employees are currently laid off. However, Quinn’s office says that more layoffs could come as the shutdown continues.

Quinn wrote a letter to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and members of the Illinois congressional delegation urging them to end the shutdown. “We need to end the shutdown now. This is not good for our economy. It’s not good for Illinois. It’s not good for any state in the union,” Quinn told reporters earlier this week. “We need some common sense in Washington to end this nonsense.”

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Rauner picks suburban running mate

By Jamey Dunn

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner today announced his choice of a suburban city councilwoman as his running mate.

Evelyn Sanguinetti was elected to the Wheaton City Council in 2011. She also served as an assistant attorney general under former Attorney General Jim Ryan. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before she ran for city council. Sanguinetti is the daughter of Cuban and Ecuadorian immigrants and was born in Florida.

“The Untied States pretty much presented the only and last shot they had,” she said of her parents in a video announcing her as Rauner’s running mate. Sanguinetti said her family received public aid when she was a child. She said she supports safety net programs, but she believes that government has grown too large. “Government should be in the business of giving us safe roads, sound sidewalks, police and fire protection. Delivering lower taxes, keeping things lean. I believe in the safety net, but when government grows too large and taxes too much, it does not create opportunity. It gets in the way. This is why businesses are leaving Illinois.”

She also had some choice words for teacher’s unions. “These unions in Chicago, the school teachers’ unions, are really failing their kids.” Sanguinetti said she did not do well when she started elementary school because she says she “was uninspired and disinterested” and so were her teachers. She said that going to a magnet school changed that for her, and she wants to give the same opportunity to Illinois children now. “We’re going to have to take on the system to get that done,” she said. “Bruce is not afraid. I’m not either. We’re ready for this challenge. The kids of Illinois are worth it.”

She noted that neither she nor Rauner has ever served at the state level, which fits into Rauner’s narrative as an outsider candidate. “She has the talent and guts to take on the lobbyists, special interests and career politicians that are destroying this state and eliminating opportunities for the next generation,” Rauner said about Sanguinetti in a written statement.

Rauner is the last Republican primary candidate to choose his running mate. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford chose Steve Kim, the 2010 Republican candidate for attorney general. Sen. Kirk Dillard picked Quincy Republican state Rep. Jil Tracy.

This is the first year that candidates for governor pick their running mates under a new law. Previously, lieutenant governor and governor candidates ran separately in the primary and then the winners paired up in the general election. The law was put into place after Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination in 2010. Allegations of domestic abuse and steroid use surfaced, and Cohen was pushed off the ticket. The Democratic Central Committee went with Gov. Pat Quinn’s choice, Sheila Simon. Quinn has yet to pick his a new running mate. Simon is not seeking reelection because she is challenging Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Quinn says he will not consider ADM tax breaks before a pension bill reaches his desk

Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn said today that it is not the right time to approve a tax break for Archer Daniels Midland and instead urged ADM to put heat on lawmakers to approve changes to the state’s public pension systems.

“Our number one way to help business is to get pension reform. We need ADM and all of our big businesses to band together, put pressure on the legislature — the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans — to get a vote on the pension reform. That helps everybody. That helps every business. That helps every taxpayer,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago today. “I think we need to have a moratorium on any special legislation for tax breaks for corporations. We have to focus on pension reform.”

ADM announced last week that it plans to move its headquarters from Decatur, where it has been based for more than 40 years. The company says it plans to keep most of the jobs that are in Decatur now but would move about 100 positions to the new headquarters. It appears that Chicago is on ADM’s short list of potential locations for its headquarters, but ADM is seeking up to $24 million in tax breaks over the next 20 years.

However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem less than warm to the idea. “I’m a Chicago resident, so I am always happy when companies decide to come my way. But as a state lawmaker, I’m a little troubled at the idea that we’re going to spend state tax money to help you leave Decatur, which as I recall is still in the state of Illinois, in order to come to Chicago, which is also in the state of Illinois,” Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said during a hearing in Chicago on the issue earlier this week.

“The reason that I’m going to oppose all of these deals: because I want to cut tax rates across to board. I don’t think that the government should pick winners and losers,” said Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican. Quinn’s spokespeople say he would not even consider a proposal to give ADM a tax break until pension legislation is on his desk.

“This is our moment,” Quinn said today of pension reform. He said he thinks that the special committee working on the issue has made progress, and he hopes that lawmakers will vote on legislation when they return to the Capitol for their veto session later this month. “I think there’s a lot of good ideas there. They need to kind of put it all together in a bill, and then get that bill to the House and Senate and then get a vote.”

Senate President John Cullerton told the State Journal-Register this week that he supports the “compromise” plan that the committee has been working on. The proposal would save a projected $138 billion over 30 years. Cullerton said he hopes a vote can take place during the veto session. However, new House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a western springs Republican, said this week that he is doubtful a pension vote will take place during the veto session. “The issue needs to be done, but we need to do it right,” Durkin told Illinois Public Radio. “But I am not going to just wave the white flag out of expediency because people have been worn down or they're tired of the issue and want to get it off their plates.” Some Republicans say they want a proposal that would produce larger savings.

Union representatives oppose both an ADM tax cut and the pension changes that committee members say they are considering. Unions instead back a proposal that Cullerton sponsored during the spring legislative session. A statement from Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, on behalf of the We Are One Illinois union coalition, called any consideration of a tax deal for ADM “baffling, troubling and wrong.” Union officials have chided lawmakers for giving tax break packages to Sears and The CME Group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, while at the same time seeking to cut public retiree benefits. They argue that the state should not be sacrificing potential revenues that could instead be used to bolster the troubled pension systems. “The governor would take the life savings of teachers, police and other public employees and retirees, only to turn that money later into corporate welfare. That's a win for one big corporation but a devastating loss for hundreds of thousands of middle-class families across Illinois, not to mention another blow to the state's fiscal condition,” Carrigan said. “Illinois’ corporate elite push for unfair, illegal cuts to modest pensions promised to public employees and retirees, yet have no problem asking for handouts to pad their own bottom lines and pay huge bonuses to CEOs. Our coalition stands firmly in favor of closing wasteful tax loopholes to get our state back on the right fiscal track.”

Thursday, October 03, 2013

IDNR accepting information from drilling companies interested in fracking

By Jamey Dunn

Drilling companies looking to start fracking operations in Illinois can begin registering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. But the department says there is still much to be done before it will begin to issue permits.

“We need to be very clear of where we are with the process,” said IDNR spokesman Chris McCloud. The new hydraulic fracturing regulations approved by lawmakers in the spring require drilling companies to register with the state. They must provide information about any previous environmental violations they may have and show proof that they have the proper insurance. However, IDNR does not yet have a timeline for issuing permits. The department is working on developing a draft of rules, which McCloud says could be completed by the end of the year. The rules will determine many aspects of implementation that are not included in the new law. After the draft rules are complete, there will be a public comment period. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) will have to take up the final draft. Fracking, in which water mixed with sand and chemicals is pumped through a well into rock to extract oil or natural gas, will not be allowed until the department has a final set of rules in place.

So far, no companies have registered with the department. But representatives of the industry say they are glad to see the process moving forward. “We are very pleased the Department of Natural Resources is opening up the registration process,” Mark Denzler, co-chair of industry group GROW-IL and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said in a prepared statement. “Our coalition is excited progress is being made to realize the tremendous economic benefit of hydraulic fracturing here in Illinois. This law will create thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in revenue, while keeping our environment safe.”

McCloud says the department cannot yet predict when it will begin approving permits and allowing operations to begin. He said that before fracking begins, the department plans to hire up to 53 people and create a new section to specifically oversee oil and gas extraction. He said that once fracking is underway, citizens will be able to look up details, including the depths and locations of wells and background information on well operators, on a website that IDNR will create. “The public disclosure components to this ... are far and away more than any other regulatory process we have," he said.

But opponents of fracking say the process is anything but open. They say that while the department is working on the rules, it has not consulted any community groups that have lobbied to ban fracking in southern Illinois. “We have a right to know what’s going on,” said Annette McMichael, communications director for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment. “It’s been very frustrating.” She says her group and others have had meetings with IDNR and presented a list of demands, including disclosure requirements and grounds for suspension of fracking permits, that they would like to see incorporated into the final rules. But McMichael said they do not know if the department is considering any of their suggestions. The group also is asking that JCAR hold several public hearings on the rules before they are approved.

“We have requested that they have three public hearings, including one in southern Illinois, one in central Illinois and one in Chicago. But we have no reason to believe that that request will be granted,” McMichael said. In the meantime, members of SAFE, a volunteer group that unsuccessfully pushed for a moratorium on fracking, are traveling throughout southern Illinois holding informational sessions for residents who have concerns about what fracking will mean for their region once wells are eventually up and running.

For more on the fracking process, see Illinois Issues May 2012.

For more on the politics of the battle over fracking, see Illinois Issues July/August 2013.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Insurance marketplace goes online despite federal shutdown

By Jamey Dunn

After the federal government shut down at midnight in a battle over Obamacare, the online health insurance marketplaces that are a cornerstone of the law rolled out across the country today.

Federal Government Shutdown
Some Republicans in Congress had been pushing to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care as a condition for their votes to approve a federal budget. Last night House Republicans approved a one-year delay in the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that all Americans have health insurance. The Senate rejected it, and the House refused to take up an extension of the federal budget previously approved by the Senate.

With no budget in place, all but what has been deemed “essential services” of the federal government have shut down. National parks and monuments are closed. Research labs have stopped their work. Many regulatory bodies will only maintain a bare bones staff. For instance, only 5 percent of the staff at the Environmental Protection Agency will work through the shutdown.

Social Security and federal entitlement programs, such as Medicare will continue to pay benefits. Mail service will also continue. So will services deemed necessary for safety or national security, such as the work done by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, most federal employees who report to work today will not be paid as long as there is no budget in place. Notably, members of Congress will continue to receive their checks, though some have vowed to forgo pay until the government is running again. The U.S. Constitution has a provision similar to the Illinois Constitution that prohibits any change in lawmakers’ pay during their terms. The 27th Amendment was intended to keep federal lawmakers from voting to increase their pay, but it will also keep their $174,000 annual salaries coming during the shutdown. Gov. Pat Quinn is currently trying to challenge that notion in Illinois after he vetoed the money for lawmaker’s salaries. Quinn says they should not be paid until the approve changes to the states troubled pension system. But a judge ruled last week that the move violated the state Constitution. Quinn is appealing to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Illinois officials say the federal shutdown would not halt state services in the short term.  State employees who are paid with federal funds will face temporary layoffs as soon as tomorrow. The timing of the layoffs could vary across agencies because some may have enough cash on hand to keep employees working longer. According to Quinn’s office, the agencies that could see layoffs include the Departments of Labor, Veterans’ Affairs, Military Affairs, Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Office of Health Information Technology and the Department of Human Services’ Bureau of Disability Determination, which evaluates applicants for disability benefits. When the federal government last shut down in 1995, the state laid off 1,200 employees.

If the shutdown drags on, federally funded programs could be in danger. Some states are already looking to tap into rainy day funds if Congress does not pass a budget soon. But Illinois, which cannot pay its bills on time under normal conditions, does not have that option. The biggest immediate impact on states will likely be an economic one as thousands of their residents are laid off. About 800,000 federal workers nationwide will be laid off until a federal budget is approved. According to the Pew Charitable Trust’s news service, Stateline, Illinois has 45,801 civilian federal employees, but some of them will continue to work. Retired federal employees will continue to receive their benefits. “Unfortunately, the possible consequences to state economies of a federal shutdown or not increasing the national debt limit are severe. States are partners with the federal government in implementing most federal programs. A lack of certainty at the federal level from a shutdown therefore translates directly into uncertainty and instability at the state level,” said a letter that the National Governor’s Association sent to President Barack Obama and congressional leadership. “That uncertainty can lead to the suspension of programs and services, increased borrowing costs or even layoffs — all actions that will weaken our economies and potentially stall the national recovery.”

Affordable Care Act Questions and Answers
While the political battle that held up approval of a federal budget was essentially over a push to defund the new health care law, the implementation of Obamacare will continue largely unscathed by the shutdown. The Affordable Care Act falls into a category of mandatory spending along with other federal programs such as Medicare. This spending actually makes up the majority — 57 percent — of the federal budget.

Do I have to buy insurance right away? No. The exchange is open for business. Any coverage you buy now will not kick in until January 2014. But you must buy your insurance before December 15 to ensure that your coverage will begin in January. If you wait longer, your coverage would begin later. The open enrollment period for 2014 ends on March 31, 2014. After that date, you can only sign up if you have a life event, such as a marriage or career change.

What kind of insurance coverage is available on the exchange? The plans offer a base level of coverage for 10 service categories, including ambulatory care and prescriptions. The plans have a metal ranking, with bronze being the lowest cost plans. Under such bronze plans, consumers would likely pay lower premiums but would have more out-of-pocket costs, such as copayments. Under the higher-premium gold and platinum plans, patients would likely pay less out of pocket. The rates in Illinois will vary across the state.

Does my employer have to help pay for my insurance? Starting in 2015, businesses with more than 50 employees will be required to offer coverage to full-time employees or face penalty fines. Small businesses can opt to use the exchange to buy coverage for their employees starting today, but they are not required to.

I already have insurance. Will I have to buy a different kind? Most likely no, especially if you get your coverage through your employer. Those with bare bones plans or catastrophic plans would have to get more coverage to meet the insurance mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act.

Can I keep seeing my doctor? Yes, if you do a little research. Some plans sold on the exchange will only cover care within the provider network for that plan. You should check to see if your doctor is in the provider network of a plan before you buy. You should be able to find provider information for each plan on the exchange’s website. Here is more info from the federal website. 

I smoke or chew tobacco. Do I have to pay more for coverage on the exchange? Yes. Tobacco users will pay higher premiums for insurance. For instance a 40-year-old smoker in Cook County will pay $44 more per month for a basic bronze plan. The law allows insurance companies to charge smokers twice as much, but states can opt to keep the rates lower. Insurance plans offered on the exchange are also required to cover programs to help smokers quit. Here is more info.

I’m young, healthy and broke. Do I have to buy insurance? If your parents have insurance and are willing to let you stay on their plan, you can until you turn 26. If you are younger than 30, you may be eligible for catastrophic plans offered through the exchange. You also may be eligible for insurance subsidies or Medicaid.

How do I find out if I am eligible for subsidies or Medicaid? If you make between 138 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level — $15,856 to $45,960 for individuals — you will be eligible for federal subsidies that will cut your monthly premiums. If you make less than 138 percent of the poverty level, you could be eligible for Medicaid. You can use this subsidy calculator from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation to assess your personal situation.

What happens if I am not covered? If you do not get coverage in 2014, you will likely face a penalty on your tax bill in 2015. The fee would be 1 percent of your household income, or $95 a person, whichever is more. Fees for having uninsured children would be $47.50 per child. That penalty is capped at $285. If insurance premiums are more than 8 percent of your household income, or you do not make enough to file federal income taxes, you are exempted from the individual insurance mandate. There are some other exemptions to the individual mandate, including a religious exemption. For more info on exemptions to the mandate, see this story in the Washington Post

How do I access the exchange? Go to click the “apply now” button and then choose Illinois as your state. You can also go directly to the Illinois exchange, called Get Covered IllinoisHere is a checklist of the personal information you will need to purchase a plan. Note: As of this morning the federal site has a very slow load time, so you may be waiting a while. When I attempted to access the federal site, the system was down. It is likely overloaded by curious browsers and reporters like me trying to check it out on the first day. You may want to give it a little time before you try to use it to buy insurance. Or try out the direct state site. In the meantime, you can check out some of the information provided in this blog to do a little research.

I don’t have regular access to the Internet. How do I get signed up? I do have Internet access, but I find the marketplace confusing and could use a little help. Where can I find it? There is help available both in person and over the phone. You can find the numbers for a federal toll-free help line here. There are also local groups working to help people navigate the marketplace and get insurance. You can find one of these groups in your area by entering your ZIP code here. 

Here is more info from the state of Illinois, including a short video that explains some of the key components of the law.