Friday, January 31, 2014

Rutherford says Rauner behind employee allegations

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford says that his opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Bruce Rauner, is behind allegations being made about him by one of his employees.

Rutherford held a Chicago news conference today, where he told reporters that the lawyer of an employee approached his office and demanded a $300,000 settlement to keep the allegations against him quiet. Rutherford refused to reveal what the employee is accusing him of, saying his lawyer advised him not to reveal the details or the employee’s identity. “Let me make this very clear: There is absolutely no truth to the allegations. No factual support or merit,” he said in Chicago.

The employee’s lawyer, Christine Svenson, has ties to Rauner’s campaign, and Rutherford claims he is being set up by Rauner. But Rauner’s campaign staff says he had nothing to do with the allegations. “Treasurer Rutherford should spend his time answering the serious claims made against him by a state employee rather than trying to distract attention with false claims against us,” Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for Rauner’s campaign, said in a prepared statement. They said Rutherford’s campaign lawyer recommended Svenson and that she only worked for the campaign briefly. “The campaign hired Ms. Svenson to review and edit our office space lease last spring because our regular attorney had a conflict of interest with the landlord. We paid her a one-time fee of $3,500 for that service and never discussed anything with her related to the treasurer.”

Rutherford said he has internally investigated the issue and that he is also initiated an external review. “I find this to be very, very offensive,” he said.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Quinn lays out five-year plan in State of the State address

Gov. Pat Quinn gave an upbeat State of the State address today, touting his accomplishments and laying out a five-year plan for economic recovery.

Quinn, who was sworn in as governor after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office, recounted the problems he faced when he became governor and the progress he said the state had made in the interim. “Exactly five years ago this day, I was sworn in as governor, at Illinois’ darkest moment. We were facing an unprecedented triple crisis of government corruption, economic collapse and financial instability,” Quinn said. “It was a perfect storm, and it left destruction in its path. We all knew that repairing the damage that had been done over decades would not happen overnight. But over the past five years, we’ve rebuilt one hard step at a time. And we’ve been getting the job done. Illinois is making a comeback.”

Quinn presented broad strokes of a plan that focused on education programs and economic issues. “It’s a blueprint that recognizes that a truly strong economy relies not just on jobs, but also on fairness and inclusion,” he said. “If we follow this blueprint, we’ll do three things: create more jobs, deliver stronger education and build an economy that works for everyone.” Not surprisingly, Republicans vying for the chance to challenge Quinn in this year’s general election were not impressed by the speech. Their criticisms were similar.

“This afternoon, we heard an election year campaign speech from a governor who’s failing the people of Illinois,” said Bruce Rauner. “We’re one of the worst-run states in America. We have entered an economic death spiral, and Gov. Quinn is trying to cover it up and put a rosy picture on it.” Rauner brushed off questions from reporters regarding negative stories that have recently surfaced about his former investment firm, GTCR Golder Rauner. The company has been linked to neglect cases at nursing homes it invested in.

The venture capitalist from Winnetka today borrowed a line from President Barack Obama. “The attacks, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about them. ‘There’s no there there.’ We’ll be attacked every day in the race. That’s part of politics.” Obama used the “There’s no there there” quote from Gertrude Stein when questions about his administration’s handling of a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, continued to hound him. “There's no there there. The fact that this keeps on getting churned up, frankly, has a whole lot to do with political motivations,” Obama said at a White House news conference.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, who is from Hinsdale, said Quinn should have addressed the state’s temporary income tax increase, which is set to begin stepping down in 2015, taking billion of dollars of revenue with it. “We’re overtaxed. We are greatly overregulated,” he said to the ideas Quinn put forward. 

“That’s not a playbook for success,” Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady said of Quinn’s speech. “Ranking among the worst in the nation is the record of the current administration and the Democrats’ hostility toward the private sector. I didn’t hear any talk about reducing burdensome regulations or lowering the cost of doing business in Illinois through further reforms in our workers' compensation program. I certainly didn’t hear anything about his commitment to cut taxes by allowing his 67 percent income tax increase to expire next year.”

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, said Quinn’s speech was about what he had expected. “It was what an incumbent governor’s State of the State should be in an election year. It was very optimistic, very positive.” He said that creating a long-term plan is not a bad thing. “I don’t fault long-term planning. As I’ve said more than once on the circuit out there, strategic long-term planning for our state facilities, our capital assets, is extremely important.” However, he said Quinn should have focused more on creating an environment that would encourage private-sector job growth.

While responses to Quinn’s speech were generally tepid. Some Democrats were enthusiastic about the governor’s ideas. “I thought it was an excellent speech,” said Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge. “I thought the governor did a great job of communicating a vision of what it’s going to take in our state to make sure we address these challenges that are out there, so that we can create jobs and maintain the ones that we have. But also make sure we prepare our young people for a future. He’s identified the challenges we face in our state, and I agree with him. He’s taking them head on.”

But the verdict from other Democrats was less glowing. “It’s just talk. So the legislature will begin the process of crafting the budget and trying to work through these issues. We’ve already started. The people of the state of Illinois are tired of talk. They want action,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Democrat from Marion. Bradley is chair of the House Revenue and Finance Committee, which has preempted Quinn in the past on fiscal issues by proposing a spending cap for the budget before the governor gives his budget address.

Economic Issues
By Jamey Dunn 
Quinn pitched several measures targeting businesses and workers, including a proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage. “This year, we really need to get the job done for our fellow citizens who are making the minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. Our minimum wage workers are doing hard work. They’re putting in long hours. Yet in too many instances, they are living in poverty,” he said. “That’s not right. That’s not an Illinois value. And that’s not a fair shake. This is all about dignity and decency. So I said it last year. and I’ll say it again: It’s time to raise Illinois’ minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.”

Quinn called for an increase to the minimum wage last year during his State of the State address. “I’m pleased that the governor is continuing his message on the minimum wage,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who sponsors legislation that would increase the minimum wage. She said she has been negotiating the issue for month with business groups.

Lightford said she knows that it is nearly impossible to expect that the business lobby will support the proposal. “There’s nothing that we can do for a corporation to agree with a minimum wage increase. There will be nothing that you can do. There is no happy medium on an increase.” But she said she has worked to revamp her legislation to give some consideration to businesses. In perhaps the only surprise in the speech, Quinn also called for workers to get at least two paid sick days. Quinn also said he wants to double the Earned Income Tax Credit, which goes to low-income working families, over the next five years.

Doug Whitley, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said he was glad the governor’s speech focused on the economy. But he said that adding more business regulations would not help job growth. “I was pleased with the themes [of the governor’s speech], but I was not impressed with the details,” he said. Whitley said the minimum wage is not meant to sustain a family. He said those jobs are intended to be for young people, students and those looking to supplement their incomes with part-time work. He said he is concerned that if Illinois increases its minimum wage, which is already greater than many other states, it will hurt its ability to compete. “I would rather see the [U.S.] Congress do it than individual states do it,” Whitley said.

Republican leaders agreed. “The minimum wage doesn’t lift people out of poverty. I think the minimum wage is the wrong discussion,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “We’re not unsympathetic to the fact that people are making very low wages, but the questions are: Why aren’t people moving into higher wage jobs? How do we create those jobs? And how do we match the talent to get those jobs? So I think focusing only on the minimum wage is a distraction from the real work we need to be doing.”

But proponents say that those living on low wages often also receive help from safety net programs, so taxpayers are in effect being asked to subsidize the cost of workers for private businesses. “Those people will be on government benefits. And they will be relying more on government, and they’ll be relying more on government for services and that costs everybody money,” Kotowski said. “I think people recognize that if you’re working full-time hours but making wages that don’t allow you to feed your family and take care of yourself and pay for the basic necessities of life, there’s something fundamentally wrong.”

Quinn also called for cutting the cost for incorporating a limited liability corporation from $500 to $39. Whitley called that idea “creative and fresh.” But he said: “I’m sure that small businesses will appreciate that. But the magnitude of an increase in the minimum wage and additional required days off will dwarf any savings that that LLC might actually have from a reduction in the fee.”

Some lawmakers said the change might not be realistic, given the state’s budget situation. “What’s the cost to the state of doing that? It’s a great thing to say in a speech, but what’s it going to cost the state?” asked Bradley. “I mean, we’re staring at a really ugly budget scenario coming up and a really difficult fiscal and revenue situation coming up in the near future, and he’s talking about getting rid of money that’s coming in.”

Education initiatives
By Caitlin Rydinski
As part of his address today, Quinn proposed expanding early childhood programs and a college scholarship program, but lawmakers question where the funding for his plans would come from.

Quinn’s “Birth to Five Initiative” looks to provide prenatal care to low-income families, increase access to childhood early education and offer programs that provide parental support. Quinn said his initiative would help taxpayers avoid paying for the cost of medical needs, early intervention, remedial education and grade repetition.

Lightford said Illinois already focuses on early childhood programs from age 3 to 5, so adding prenatal care to age 3 may not be difficult. “It’s really not as difficult of a challenge getting there,” Lightford said. “I think that the area of the wrap-around services that [Quinn has] included with the prenatal care and the parent involvement piece — I think those are good areas to focus on.”

But Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter and other legislators are concerned with where funding will come from. “I think it’s a great idea, but if you can buy parental support, we would have bought it decades ago. I don’t know how you buy that. That’s a cultural problem,” McCarter said. “Given the situation we are in with the tight budget, he is going to have to cut something else in order to pay for this.”

Wheaton Republican Sen. Michael Connelly said education is important, but he wants to focus on the economy to give students access to better jobs. “I’ve got a constituent that has a child that is going into a graduate program, and other states … are basically saying Illinois is done. Come to our state. … This is where the future is,” Connelly said of states not only persuading jobs to leave Illinois but also college students. Quinn also proposed to double the funding for Monetary Award Program scholarships that currently about 140,000 students receive.

Many lawmakers want to see both of those programs funded but are concerned they may lose out to other competing budget interests. “I hope that we can find a way to fund that program, as well as the MAP grant,” Lightford said, adding that the MAP program helps keep Illinois competitive with other states in having an educated workforce. While Quinn’s initiative is a five-year plan, Lightford said she hopes the MAP funding increase can happen sooner.

With Western Illinois University and several community and private colleges in his district, Sen. John Sullivan said he supports the doubling of MAP grants. “We know that there’s huge demand there. We talked about actually doubling the scholarships. ... I think most people are supportive of that, but I think the next speech that the governor gives will be the budget address. And so, how is he going to pay for some of these new initiatives like the prenatal program,” he said of the budget issue with the state and the ending of the temporary income tax increase. “The governor has introduced some new perspective and new programs, and I’m going to be interested in how he is going to pay for them.”

Many lawmakers and advocates said they want to know more about how the state will be able to provide the finances for Quinn's education proposals and still maintain the programs Illinois has now. “I think it’s really encouraging to have the governor advocating early childhood education,” said Emily Miller, policy and advocacy director for Voices for Illinois Children. But she said she is waiting for the budget address in February to find out how much funding Quinn will propose for education and early childhood programs.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Legislators' plan offers relief from high propane prices

By Caitlin Rydinsky 

As Illinoisans face a propane shortage, lawmakers propose a plan to help some businesses and families pay their growing bills.

State Sen. Sam McCann, a Republican from Carlinville, and Sen. Bill Haine, a Democrat from Alton, are proposing legislation to help those who are unable to afford the price of propane from December 2013 to March 2014. The plan would allow more families to apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) by temporarily loosening requirements. They also are looking to establish a $20 million short-term loan program with the Illinois Finance Authority for small businesses, propane distributors and farmers.

“The big concern for everybody right now is $900 to $1,000 is a lot to spend on propane, but I’m worried right now if I don’t buy it, I won’t be able to get it from anywhere,” said Arend Poe, who lives in a rural area between Stewardson and Charleston. Poe said the last time he filled his tank, he was only able get 150 gallons, which will last him a month. He normally fills his 500-gallon tank to 400 gallons. His supplier, Effingham Equity, gave him a smaller amount because they are experiencing a shortage. They also confirmed they are not accepting new customers.

“Price increases have been quite dramatic, and it is just the market responding to the tight supply and demand,” said Harry Cooney, the manager of energy and customer risk management at GrowMark, which supplies propane to businesses and farmers. Typically, the price is about $2 per gallon during the winter, but due to the shortage it has spiked to around $5 a gallon. Lawmakers who are proposing relief are looking to increase LIHEAP funding by $10 million. However, supporters of the idea do not know yet where the money will come from. As part of the plan, the group says the eligibility requirements for LIHEAP would be temporarily raised by $10,000, making a family of four with a yearly income of $44,000 eligible.

As the prices have spiked, families already eligible for LIHEAP assistance are having trouble covering their heating costs. Mindy Brown, the LIHEAP coordinator for Embarras River Basin Agency, which provides assistance to families in eastern Illinois, said that this past week, the agency has assisted 42 families. Even with LIHEAP assistance, which allows up to $1,000 a month, she says households are getting behind on their bills.

Multiple factors contributed to the shortage of propane over the past year, such as pipeline maintenance, exporting propane during milder past winters and the 300 million gallons of propane used to dry crops this past wet harvest season. The recent cold weather that Illinois has experienced has made it worse. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projected earlier this year that prices for propane and several other natural resources would increase. The price of propane was estimated to increase from last year’s $1.74 a gallon to $2.10 in the Midwest, but because of the cold weather, it has gone higher. “If you bring all those together, along with what weather people are calling ‘the polar vortex,' which is bitterly, bitterly cold weather, and the result is individuals and families who are having to make very real decisions about whether or not they can adequately heat their homes in the coming days or weeks ahead,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon.

On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn declared a propane emergency, which has allowed truck drivers within the state to travel longer distances, waived requirements for them to apply for additional licenses while driving through multiple states to bring propane to Illinois and temporarily exempted the tax for out-of state truck drivers within Illinois. Quinn has not taken a stance on the plan from lawmakers. “We are carefully reviewing the proposal as a way to alleviate the crisis,” said Quinn’s spokesman, Dave Blanchette.

Union coalition challenges pension law

By Jamey Dunn

A coalition of public employee and teachers' unions has filed a lawsuit challenging the new law that makes changes to the state’s pension systems.

The We Are One Coalition today filed a class action lawsuit in the Circuit Court for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which is in Sangamon County. The suit has 25 named plaintiffs, who have worked in the public sector in a variety of jobs, from all over the state. “Our suit makes clear that pension theft is not only unfair, it’s clearly unconstitutional,” Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan said in a prepared statement. “Teachers, nurses, emergency responders and other workers and retirees will not stand by while politicians try to take away their life savings illegally. The legislature and governor shirked their responsibility to uphold the Constitution, so we are seeking justice in court to right their wrongs. Promises must be kept, and the rule of law must prevail over politics.”

 The suit claims that the new law violates the pension clause in the state’s Constitution. That clause says, “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the state, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

Union officials have been vowing to sue since Senate Bill 1 was approved my lawmakers and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in December. The measure is projected to save $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the pension systems, which are currently underfunded by an estimated $100 billion, by 2043. The plan will cut annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for current and future retirees. The law also increases the retirement age for employees under 46. For each year an employee is younger than 46, an additional four months would be tacked onto the time he or she would have to work to receive full benefits. The proposal will also cap pensionable salary at $109,971, but that number would increase annually based on inflation.

The law will reduce the employee contribution toward retirement benefits by one percentage point and allow the systems to sue the state if it does not make its required payment. However, lawmakers could vote to change the payment schedule and reduce the annual payment. Some who support the measure argue that the reduction in employee contribution and the guaranteed payment from the state make the legislation constitutional because employees are getting a form of consideration for the reduction in their benefits. Supporters of the plan have also made the case that the state should be granted special powers to contain pension costs because Illinois is enduring a fiscal crisis. “These lawsuits come as no surprise. We believe it’s constitutional, and we’ll defend the interests of taxpayers,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said in a written statement. “This landmark law was urgently needed to resolve the state’s $100 billion pension crisis, which was created over 70 years of financial mismanagement. We expect it to be upheld as constitutional. This law squarely addresses the most pressing fiscal crisis of our time by eliminating the state's unfunded pension debt, a standard set by Gov. Quinn two years ago. It had to be done to ensure retirement security for those who have faithfully contributed to the pension systems and support economic growth.”

The employees and retirees who filed suit today do not agree. Their complaint says the state failed to meet its obligation to fund the system and that the new law violates the pension protection written into the state’s Constitution. “The state chose to forgo funding its pension systems in amounts the state now claims were needed to fully meet the state’s annuity obligations. Now, the state expects the members of those systems to carry on their backs the burden of curing the state’s longstanding misconduct. Specifically, [the law] unlawfully strips from public servants pension amounts to which they otherwise are entitled as a matter of law, let alone fundamental fairness,” the complaint said. “That is the very threat against which the pension clause [in the Illinois Constitution] protects.”

The group says it reserves the right to seek an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect while the unions and the state fight it out in court.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fact check: Republicans on the budget

By Jamey Dunn

If one of the Republican primary candidates ultimately wins the race for governor, he will face some challenging budget conditions. The temporary income tax increase, which was approved in 2011, will begin to sunset during the last half of next fiscal year. Projections from Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget office estimate that Illinois will have a $2 billion budget deficit by the end of Fiscal Year 2015 and $7.5 billion in unpaid bills.

During the Republican debate last week, GOP candidates shared some of the ideas and qualifications they would bring to the table when looking to address the state budget.

Sen. Kirk Dillard touted his experience working under former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. “We inherited a $1 billion deficit in a recession and left a $1.5 billion surplus, all without an income tax increase,” Dillard said. He noted that during Edgar’s time in office, the state’s credit rating went up and the backlog of overdue bills was paid down.

It is true that Edgar’s administration started off with a budget deficit and left office with a budget surplus and paying the state’s bills on time. Edgar made some difficult budget choices, including cuts to Medicaid. The income tax did not increase. However, after being elected in 1990, Edgar made a temporary income tax hike permanent. He told Illinois Issues at the time that the cuts that would be needed to allow the increase to sunset would have been too deep. “There's no way you can make that amount of cuts without cutting into programs that I think everyone agrees are necessary.” Making the increase permanent was part of the platform Edgar ran on. "I won with everybody knowing my position. Nobody can be surprised on that one,” he said.

The budget recovery was also helped along by the economic boom of the mid-1990s. When Edgar took office, the country was in recession and Gross Domestic Product growth was nonexistent. By the time he left in 1999, GDP growth was almost 5 percent. Over the same period, the federal government went from a $269.3 billion deficit to a $125.6 billion surplus. Economic growth could go a long way toward improving the state’s current fiscal condition, but the kind of economic bubble the country experienced in the '90s is not likely to reoccur in the foreseeable future.

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford said he plans to conduct a performance review of all state agencies, similar to one he did when he entered his current office. Rutherford pointed to budget cuts he has made as treasurer. “I cut the budget of the state treasurer’s office by 2 percent, next fiscal year 3 percent and then 5 percent — a total of 10 percent. I’ve got the experience to do that,” he said.

Rutherford has not yet made that 5 percent cut but plans to call for it under his budget for next fiscal year. He has managed to cut his office’s budget over the last few years. Some of the substantial reductions include closing the treasurer’s satellite offices throughout the state, reducing staff through attrition, cutting the vehicle fleet and reducing phone lines. The general fund budget for the treasurer's office in the current fiscal year is about $9 million. To call it a drop in the bucket of the overall General Revenue Funds budget would be an overstatement. While Rutherford’s cost-saving measures do seem to be effective for his office, many state agencies have made similar moves to cut costs. There are only so many cars, phone lines and employees you can get rid of and still do the business of state government. Agencies that provide social programs, such as Medicaid, must have offices throughout the state that applicants can reach. To bridge the revenue gap that will follow the sunset of the tax increase, it will take more than such nibbling around the edges of the budget.

Sen. Bill Brady pointed to recent pension reform legislation as a good start on tackling Illinois’ budget troubles. “It will save the taxpayers $190 billion,” he said.

Brady has his savings number wrong. In reality, the plan was originally estimated to save about $160 billion over 30 years. But new estimates from the retirement systems now peg the savings at about $145 billion. The new law will have to survive a court challenge to produce any savings.

Brady also said he would eliminate the Illinois State Board of Education.

Again, ISBE’s spending makes up a small fraction of overall education costs. Brady said he would create a department under the governor’s office to oversee education. Such a department would presumably have staff, need office space, phone lines, even a travel budget. So the spending now going to ISBE would not be totally eliminated. When former Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed a similar idea, his department of education would have cost about 80 percent as much as ISBE did at the time. Brady said his idea is not just about the savings but would “end the bureaucratic red tape that harms our children’s educational opportunities every day.”

He failed to mention however, that most of the mandates imposed on schools are voted into law by the Illinois General Assembly.

Bruce Rauner said he would focus on fighting union bosses, who he says are driving up the cost of government operations. He said he wants to use creative negotiating tactics, such as those employed by former Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Daniels put a merit pay system in place in Indiana and effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees through an executive order in 2005. He was able to do that because the collective bargaining provisions were originally put in place through a previous executive order in 1989. Indiana lawmakers voted to codify Daniels' move in 2011, so future governors would not be able to restore collective bargaining with their executive power. Daniels signed that legislation into law. “He used executive order and the power of the government office to stand up to the power of the government union bosses that control the state governments around the nation and are driving up costs and driving down productivity,” Rauner said. Since collective bargaining rights are written into Illinois law, such a move may not be so simple, or even possible, here.

Rauner, along with the other candidates, said he would find savings in the state’s Medicaid program, which he called “broken” and “corrupt” “Based on studies that have come to light recently, it looks like close to half of the enrollees in our Medicaid system aren’t entitled to receive the benefits they’re getting, based on the report so far.” As part of sweeping Medicaid changes passed last year, the state is checking on Medicaid recipients to make sure they are eligible to receive benefits. So far, 315,000 cases have been reviewed, and 40 percent of those were found to be ineligible. But the first cases being tested were ones that were suspected of not being qualified for benefits. The benefits in most of these cases were canceled because there was no response to the requests for verification. The department does not expect the number to remain that high as it continues the verification process. “The cancellation rate is expected to come down because the reviews started with cases that had been flagged for having a discrepancy,” said a statement from the department.

While much of what the Republican candidates said about the budget during last week's debate was true, or mostly true, none of the candidates has offered a comprehensive plan for how he would address the budget shortfalls that will come as the tax increase steps down.

To be fair, neither has presumptive Democratic candidate, Gov. Pat Quinn. So far, Quinn has refused to talk about whether he would support an extension of the tax increase. By law, Quinn is required to propose an FY 2015 budget that is based on current revenues. His budget address is scheduled for February 19.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Juvenile Justice director returns to DCFS

By Jamey Dunn

The director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is returning to his former employer, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service, this time to lead the agency.

Gov. Pat Quinn announced this afternoon that Juvenile Justice Director Arthur Bishop will be director of DCFS. Bishop started working at DCFS in the 1990s and rose to the post of deputy director of field operations. He took over at the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2010 for former director Kurt Friedenauer, who resigned after Quinn announced a desire the merge the two agencies. Legislation was passed and signed into law by Quinn in 2010 to allow the two agencies to share some resources, but a full merger has yet to be realized. “Arthur Bishop is a long-standing public servant who has dedicated his professional career to helping Illinois families,” Quinn said in a written statement. “I am confident that he will carry out the mission of the department by making the safety and well-being of children across the state priority number one.”

Bishop will replace former DCFS Director Richard Calica, who died in December. Calica resigned in November after being diagnosed with cancer. “I appreciate this new undertaking from Gov. Quinn and for the continued opportunity to serve our state,” Bishop said in a prepared statement. “Every child deserves a safe environment, and there is no greater responsibility than keeping our children out of harm’s way. I am eager to work with department staff to ensure we carry out the mission of protecting and serving the youngest residents of our state.”

Both Child and Family Services and Juvenile Justice have faced their share of troubles in recent years. DCFS was violating a federal consent decree by having too few front-line investigators and had awarded millions of dollars to contractors for work that could not be verified. Calica oversaw a rebalancing of staff in an effort to come into compliance with the federal court order. That change added 138 new front-line investigators and cut caseloads in half. However, DCFS still has its problems. During the last fiscal year, child deaths from abuse or neglect hit a 30-year high in the state, according to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ Chicago. A recent U.S. Department of Justice survey found that 15 percent of respondents had experienced sexual assault while detained by the Department of Juvenile Justice. The agency is in the process of entering into a legal agreement to make improvements in the areas of areas of education, mental health treatment, use of solitary confinement, safety and after care provided once offenders are released. Juvenile Justice department Chief of Staff Era Laudermilk will become acting director of the agency.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Republican candidates retract their claws for Peoria debate

By Jamey Dunn

Republican candidates for governor toned down the personal attacks and played up their experience and electability during a primary election debate this evening.

When the four candidates came together last week, they spent much of the time going after each other. Tonight’s debate, held in Peoria, was more subdued. The candidates covered a lot of old ground, such as questions over the minimum wage. They also fleshed out some of their policy visions, which included eliminating the Illinois State Board of Education and cutting state funding for Amtrak train service.

Venture capitalist Bruce Rauner focused on what he says are his four priorities: improving the economy, cutting government spending, reforming education and imposing term limits on state elected officials. In addition to running for governor, Rauner is backing a push to put a constitutional amendment on the general election ballot that would limit legislators to eight years in office.

Rauner said that if elected, he would advocate for moving state workers into 401(k)-type retirement plans. He also said workers should receive merit pay for increasing productivity and meeting goals. He said he thinks former Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels was the “the best governor in America.” Rauner said: “He brought 30 superstars from the Indiana business community to the state capital, allocated responsibility and had them oversee the government. I will do exactly the same thing here.”

Daniels put a merit pay system in place in Indiana and effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees through an executive order in 2005. He was able to do that because the collective bargaining provisions were originally put in place through a previous executive order in 1989. Indiana lawmakers voted to codify Daniels' move in 2011, so future governors would not be able to restore collective bargaining with their executive power. Daniels signed that legislation into law.

“He used executive order and the power of the government office to stand up to the power of the government union bosses that control the state governments around the nation and are driving up costs and driving down productivity,” Rauner said. Since collective bargaining rights are written into Illinois law, such a move may not be so simple, or even possible, here.

While Rauner said the recent pension reform legislation was marginal and called it a “Band-Aid on an open wound,” Sen. Bill Brady said his vote in favor of the bill illustrates his ability to make difficult decisions. “I know what it’s like to take the tough vote. That was meaningful. You know, it wasn’t easy to tell people who paid in the system, we’re going to cut the way their pension grows.” But Brady said it would save taxpayers money and ensure that benefits are there for retirees in the future.

When asked what else he might do to cut government spending, Brady, who is from Bloomington, said he would eliminate the Illinois State Board of Education. “Partly because it saves money. But mostly because it will end the bureaucratic red tape that harms our children’s educational opportunities every day,” he said of the proposal. Brady said he would instead form a smaller education agency that would work directly under the governor.  Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich had a similar plan. While he was able to reduce the size of the workforce at ISBE and other state agencies, he was never able to fully eliminate the agency.

Brady did take some digs at his fellow candidates. But he did so while rarely naming names and in a way that would have likely passed by the casual political observer. He did call out Rauner and Sen. Kirk Dillard on their stances on the minimum wage. Brady said the debate over the minimum wage that has gone on during the primary campaign has “damaged the brand’ of the Republican Party in the state. “Even businesses don’t want to see a cut in the minimum wage. They don’t want to see their employees' morale reduced and pay cut.” He added that the state cannot afford to increase the minimum wage.

Rauner, who is from Winnetka, has said in the past that he wanted to lower the minimum wage. He later reversed that statement, saying he would support an increase under certain circumstances. “It’s a double-edged sword ... and we need to be very thoughtful and cautious in our consideration of it,” he said during tonight’s debate. “Raising the minimum wage can help struggling families. However, raising the minimum wage can hurt small-business owners and can cause them to leave or close their doors or replace workers with machines. And that can end up hurting the very struggling families, struggling workers, it's designed to help.” He said he would back an increase if it came coupled with “comprehensive pro-business reforms,” such as worker's compensation changes and tax reforms.

Dillard said he does not support an increase to the minimum wage. However, he said that local marketplaces should “set the upper limits of the minimum wage.” He said, “It is clearly needed to be higher in places like Chicago than it would be in rural Tennessee.” Dillard added, “No one should be raising a family on a minimum wage.” He said elected officials should instead work to ensure that better paying jobs are available.

Gov. Pat Quinn, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, supports increasing the minimum wage.

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford agreed with Dillard. “We don’t want to have this be the base to which people try to aspire to, just to be at minimum wage.” Rutherford said he does not think the minimum wage can be increased now but said he is not closed off to the idea of discussing an increase in the future. “The idea of where we go in the future on the minimum wage is going to be contingent upon many other factors out there: where we are in the growth of this economy, where we are in regards to other business factors going on out there, where we are in regards to other taxes on our businesses.”

Generally Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, was the one candidate who discussed leaving room for negotiating most major issues if he becomes governor. He said he does not want to see the current income tax increase, which is due to begin stepping down in 2015, extended. However, he said he would come to the office with “everything on the table” so he could try to hammer out some major reforms. On the flip side, Brady vowed to veto any extension of the increase if he ends up behind the governor’s desk.

Rutherford did seem certain of at least one thing: He is unhappy with Amtrak. “There’s too many times you’re sitting there in a cold gravel parking lot waiting for a train that is four hours late,” he said when asked about state funding for the train service. Rutherford said that unless Amtrak could make its trains run on time, he does not support the state funding it.

When it came to making the case for their ability to win the general election, Rutherford was the most animated. He said he is a moderate who has won a statewide election and can reach out to diverse communities of voters. “I’m a reasonable Republican," Rutherford said. “I am not a Republican with horns and a tail.”

Brady said he could build off the name recognition he created with voters during his failed general election run against Quinn in 2010. He said his message could resonate with voters of all political stripes. “I don’t care if you’re an independent, Democrat or Republican, you can’t be happy with the highest unemployment [rate] practically in the nation,” Brady said of this race, “We’ll finish the job this time.” 

Dillard, who is from Hinsdale, said his suburban connections, along with his ties to downstate -- he attended Western Illinois University and was married in central Illinois -- make him the ideal candidate. He also played up his executive experience as former Gov. Jim Edgar's chief of staff. Dillard said he is the only GOP hopeful who can win the general election. “I can guarantee you that all four of us up here us agree on one thing, and that’s that Pat Quinn needs to go, and that for too long, this state’s been controlled by one party and one city. We need to restore the political balance of Illinois.”

In the one of the most direct attacks during the debate, Dillard said that the negative press Rauner has begun to receive makes him a risky candidate. Most recently, court documents have surfaced tying Rauner’s former company, GTCR Golder Rauner, to neglect cases in nursing homes the company had invested in. In once case, a Florida jury awarded a $1 billion settlement to the family of Arlene Townsend, who died in one of the nursing homes at 69 years old after suffering more than a dozen falls and a hip fracture that went untreated for a week. “The drip, drip, drip, drip of stories day in and day out about Mr. Rauner’s business dealings and his history of pay-to-play activity will wash away our chances as a party to ever get rid of Pat Quinn in November,” Dillard said.

 Rauner did not respond to Dillard’s statement. Instead, he emphasized his business pedigree without going into the specifics of his business dealings and alluded to his vast wealth as a positive. “I’m not out looking for political career. I don’t need a job. I can’t be bought, intimidated. bribed, influenced. I can just stand up and fight for taxpayers, schoolchildren, homeowners, small-business owners,” he said. “I am not the problem. Everyone that I am running against has been part of the problem for decades.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ISBE backs off special education changes

By Caitlin Rydinsky

The State Board of Education has abandoned its efforts to make controversial changes to statewide special education policy.

The board was considering, for the second time, a proposal to eliminate restrictions on the number of special education students that can be placed in general education courses. The current rule allows no more than 30 percent of the classroom to be students in special education programs, except those who receive speech services. The board was also looking into eliminating caps on the number of students in special education classes. That number is currently based on the level of accommodation needed by students and is generally capped at 15 students.

The so-called 70/30 rule was set in a court order, which stopped applying to ISBE in 2012. Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Board of Education, said the board was revisiting the rule to try to give special education students access to more classes, such as advanced math and foreign language courses. She said ISBE has a responsibility to ensure that such students “gain a free and appropriate education with no restrictions to their education.”

Last school year, 251,114 Illinois students had an individual learning plan to accommodate special needs. Of those students, 134,381, or 53.5 percent, spent more than 80 percent of the day in general education classes. “This is where (the State Board of Education) wants to see improvement,” Fergus said in a written statement. “However, if you are looking at the national average for the category of students with IEP (Individualized Education Program) spending 80 percent or greater of their day in the general education setting, you will find that Illinois is well below the national average of 62.8 percent.”

But educators, organizations representing teachers and students, and parents vocally opposed the change. The board opted not to take up the issue at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday. Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna, said, it was “very good (the State Board of Education) listened to experts, parents and educators that this won’t be a good idea.” Continuing that the “proposal was not geared to students in our view, but how to save money,” Klickna said she believes there are other ways to resolve the issue if there are districts that are having problems with class sizes. She suggested using the waiver process, which can exempt schools from mandates such as physical education and driver’s education requirements.

However, Anne Garcia, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, said the policy should stay as it is now and not vary by district. She said that if a student moves from one district to another, he or she would have a hard time adapting to the different classroom settings. Having the special education and general education class sizes managed by the state prevents such variations. “I don’t think what forced them to go down this route has gone away. I hope they find another way to protect students and teachers if the issue arises again,” said Garcia who is also the family support coordinator for the National Association for Down Syndrome.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch, who was a special education teacher, said he still supports the change. But for now, the rule will remain in place. “The board will not be taking action on rules governing special education class size and composition. … I still believe our current rules are overreaching and do not always allow for optimal placements, however, at this time we will focus on providing districts with the flexibility available through existing processes and procedures to ensure all students have access to challenging curriculum so they’re prepared for college and careers,” he said within a Weekly Message on the State Board of Education’s website.

This week would have been the board’s last opportunity to vote to change the rule at this time. Without a vote, the proposal will have to go through the ruling making process again. Fergus said the ISBE would work on “giving districts flexibility.” One option it will consider is simplifying the waiver application process.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Deadline for February insurance coverage today

By Jamey Dunn

Illinoisans looking to become insured through Obamacare must pick a plan today if they want it to go into effect on February 1.

After the federal online health-care marketplace, and the state exchanges tied to it, suffered a glitch-filled rollout, the early Affordable Care Act and Patient Protection Act deadlines were pushed back. Originally, consumers were asked to sign up by December 15 to get coverage beginning this month. But President Barack Obama’s administration pushed that cutoff to December 23. Since then, some of the technical problems have been sorted out, and enrollment numbers have surged. The administration decided to let today’s deadline stand. Those who do not pick coverage today still have time. Open enrollment lasts until March 31. Americans who do not have coverage at that point face the possibility of being fined for violating the insurance mandate included in the law. There are some exceptions for those who have a religious objection or cannot afford insurance.

Illinois’ insurance exchange,, is tied to the federal site and had technical issues after it went online. Illinois’ website has had 788,035 visits since October 1. Problems with the website are likely reflected in the early sign-up numbers. Only 7,000 people picked insurance plans in October or November. About 54,000 signed up for plans last month. The state also launched an outreach effort in December to encourage residents to sign up before the deadline for January coverage. Officials expect sign-up numbers to grow as the final days of open enrollment draw nearer. “While we are encouraged by the almost eight-fold increase in marketplace enrollments in December, there’s still much more work to do to reach Illinois’ uninsured population,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois, said in a prepared statement. “We know who is eligible, and we have a solid plan in place to reach them. Over the next 78 days, we will work closely with our hundreds of community partners across Illinois to ensure that everyone who needs it can take advantage of the opportunity to obtain quality, affordable health care.”

Of all Illinois enrollees, 73 percent were eligible for federal subsidies to help cover some of the cost of their insurance premiums. The state has also enrolled 136,000 new Medicaid patients under Obamacare. With more than 100 outreach events scheduled across the state, Illinois officials hope to use the upcoming holiday weekend to grow enrollment numbers. “We are building momentum and raising awareness statewide through our marketing, events and targeted outreach efforts,” Koehler said. “We are just halfway through the enrollment process for the marketplace, which runs through March 31st.”

Friday, January 10, 2014

Republicans call for state hiring restrictions

By Caitlin Rydinsky

Republicans in the Illinois House are proposing changes to state hiring practices after the revelation that a Department of Correction’s administrator had a criminal record and gang ties.

Xandrian McCraven, who was employed as the senior advisor to the IDOC chief of parole, was discovered by a Chicago Sun-Times investigation to have had more than 24 arrests and links to gangs. McCraven has held several state jobs since 2000, including a position at the Department of Child and Family Services. When the story broke, McCraven was on paid leave. He has since been fired by the IDOC.

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a Republican Elmhurst, says he supports giving a convicts second chances, but there are positions within state government that they should not hold. Rep. Reboletti and Republican Rep. John Anthony of Plainfield proposed barring gang members from working at the IIDOC, the Illinois State Police, Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the DCFS. “What you have to understand is gangs are coming to the 21st century. They are using every tool they can possibly use. They are building up people to actually represent them in these locales. I know. I’ve lived it; I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it,” says Anthony of his experience as a police officer working with gangs.

For someone to be restricted from employment under the plan, he or she would have been convicted or have had evidence of membership to a gang or gang activity documented by a court.

Wheaton Republican Rep. Jeanne Ives’ proposal would go a step further by banning the state from hiring anyone convicted of two or more criminal offenses such as a felony, class A misdemeanor or DUI. “We got a lot of unemployment out there in Illinois, and if you can’t actually abide by the laws, why should the taxpayers be paying you?” asks Ives. “There are a lot of unanswered questions here about the hiring practices, and we do need to have a full investigation.”

Since the reports on McCraven’s past, Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Kirk Dillard has called on Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, to fire Illinois Department of Corrections Director Salvador Godinez. “We need a full-scale review of IDOC operations beginning with the removal of Director Godinez. The 10,000 hardworking, rank-and-file correctional employees deserve better than this.” Reboletti supports Dillard in the GOP primary, but says that it does not affect his proposal.

Dave Blanchette, a spokesman for Quinn, said in a written statement that the administration has zero tolerance for unethical behavior. Blanchette said McCraven was hired under former Gov. Rob Blagojevich and inherited by the Quinn administration. “After this individual’s background came to our attention, the governor directed the Department of Corrections to review the individual’s employment status, at which point discrepancies in his previous application were identified. He was immediately terminated from employment,” Blanchette said. Gov. Quinn is sticking by Director Godinez, who Blanchette says has “one of the toughest jobs in the country.”

Republicans say they want a hearing next week on this issue. Steve Brown, a spokesman for  Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, said that no hearings are planned at this point. He said that “first we would need a bill” before any hearing would be scheduled.