Friday, February 28, 2014

Concealed carry licenses in the mail

By Jamey Dunn 

Approved Illinois residents will soon be able to start carrying guns in public.

The Illinois State Police announced today that 5,000 concealed carry licenses have been approved. They have begun printing and mailing licenses as of today. The state police say residents could begin receiving licenses as soon as Monday.

Applicants are required to pass background checks and complete a 16-hour safety course, including a live-fire exercise. Licenses cost $150 and are good for five years. After five years, licensees must reapply and take a three-hour training course. So far, the state police have received more than 50,000 applications since they began taking them in early January. Supporters of the law say they are happy to see that the police are issuing licenses even earlier than expected. “The state police have done a fantastic job. ... We thought we’d be three months before we’d get a permit out. So they’re going to get these permits out a little early,” said Benton Democratic Sen. Gary Forby, who was a sponsor of the concealed carry legislation.

Law enforcement officials can object to applications, and so far the state police have objected to about 800. So far, none of those objections have been appealed. The state police plan to deny about 300 applications after they go through one final review process to ensure that the applicants are indeed ineligible.

Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who also sponsored the law, urged gun control advocates and gun rights advocates to hold off on pushing for changes to the concealed carry law until it has been effect long enough to evaluate. “Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s try not to beat up this bill,” he said. “Let’s see how it works.”

Thursday, February 27, 2014

New Medicaid enrollments coming faster than expected

By Jamey Dunn

Illinoisans have signed up for Obamacare more quickly than the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services expected, Director Julie Hamos says.

Hamos told a House budgeting committee today that her agency had predicted about 509,000 people would enroll in Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. She said today that about 430,000 of them could be enrolled by the end of the calendar year. “We are actually seeing stronger numbers, larger numbers, earlier than we ever really expected.” Based on the applications that the department has on hand, Hamos said an estimated 315,000 Illinoisans who are newly eligible for Medicaid have applied so far. “We thought that we were going to be at 200,000 this year.”

Under Obamacare, the federal government will pay for 100 percent of the cost of patients who are eligible under the expansion of the law for the first three years. But HFS has predicted that some residents who are already eligible for Medicaid but have not applied will apply now because of the outreach efforts associated with the launch of the Affordable Care Act. The state would only get the standard 50-50 federal match for those enrollees. Illinois has received 82,000 applications from the federal online insurance marketplace and is sifting through them. Hamos said that until that job is done, there is no way to know how many of the applicants would fall under the lower funding match level.

Hamos also told the committee that the savings targets established under the 2012 Medicaid reforms (also known as the SMART Act) will not be reached. The original savings estimate was $1.6 billion, but Hamos said today it has been revised to $1.1 billion, which she called “still very significant for a program like this.” Hamos said several factors led to the savings being less than expected, including procurement timelines, pending litigation and delays in federal approval of same changes. The federal government also denied some of the proposals in the law. Hamos said the savings estimates tied to the state’s efforts to purge Medicaid of the ineligible enrollees was too high.

While Republicans have accused Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration of not being aggressive enough in implementing the Medicaid changes geared toward cutting costs, some said today they were glad to hear that the savings are still significant. “To be able to look at the savings from the SMART Act, [it] shows us that we did do something in government,” said Hinsdale Republican Rep. Patricia Bellock.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

DCFS director steps down

By Jamey Dunn

Arthur Bishop, acting director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, resigned today after recent negative reports about his past.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago public radio station WBEZ reported that Bishop pleaded guilty to stealing from clients of a social services agency where he worked in the 1990s. The story also said Bishop has a biological daughter who claims that he has not been a part of her life. “He’s supposed to be protecting the kids of the state — and you’ve got a kid out here you never done anything for,” Erica Bishop, who is 27 years old, told WBEZ in an interview that aired today. “He left me as a father, which I think that’s unfair to me and it’s unfair to my kids. ... As far as them wanting to keep giving him higher positions to look over people’s kids, I don’t agree.”

Gov. Pat Quinn tapped Bishop for the job earlier this year after the death of former DCFS Director Richard Calica. Bishop started working at DCFS in the 1990s. He most recently served as the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice before being chosen to head DCFS. Bishop had not yet gone through a Senate confirmation hearing. Quinn’s office declined to comment on the resignation. The governor reportedly chose DCFS administrator Bobbie Gregg to serve as acting director.

Champaign County begins issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on Cook County ruling

By Jamey Dunn

Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten has begun issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples after a federal judge ordered Cook County to begin issuing licenses last week.

When state lawmakers approved the bill allowing same sex marriage last year, there were not enough votes to put it into effect immediately under the state's constitutional requirements, so the law’s effective date is June 1. U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin ruled in December that couples could wed if one of them had a life-threatening illness. U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman took things a step further with her ruling last week that allows all couples to get married in Cook County. Coleman said that “there is no reason to delay further” on allowing gay couples to marry. Cook County Clerk David Orr began issuing licenses on Friday.

“On Friday, federal Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman held that the Illinois statute banning marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional and violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause,” Hulten, who is a Republican, said in a written statement. “The Illinois Attorney General and the Cook County Clerk were parties to the suit. The precise effect of the ruling on other Illinois counties is unclear. However, after consulting with State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, I have come to the conclusion that the rationale of the case applies to all citizens of Illinois and that Champaign County residents should have no fewer constitutional rights than those in Cook County. Furthermore, given the ruling, denying a license to a same sex couple would provide no benefit to the county and would likely result in litigation at taxpayer expense. Therefore, effective immediately, the Champaign County clerk’s office will issue marriage licenses to same sex applicants, in accordance with the 14th Amendment, and the Illinois and United States constitutions.”

Hulten told reporters in Urbana today that the office had received inquiries from same-sex couples since the ruling last week. He said that no couples had yet threatened to sue to try to get a license. “What I realized was that if somebody came into our office and asked for a same-sex marriage license in the wake of the Friday court decision in Chicago, we had two choices. We could either issue it or we could turn them away, in which their only recourse was to sue us, with the facts that would have been nearly identical to the case in Chicago. We figured going through litigation with a nearly foregone conclusion was a disservice to everyone.”

Advocates for same sex marriage applauded the move. “Clerk Hulten recognized both the humanity of helping gay and lesbian couples to fulfill their dreams and the legal soundness of following the decision of a federal court that denying marriage licenses was unconstitutional,” said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois. “It is simply time for the other county clerks to follow suit,” Cherkasov added. “As we saw in the immediate rush to the Cook County clerk's marriage bureau after Friday's ruling, gay and lesbian couples are eager and ready to take the step that not only grants them and their family the legal benefits and rights of marriage but also bestows society's recognition that their love is equal.” He said that his organization is encouraging other county clerks in the state to begin issuing licenses.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anti-violence program promoted by Quinn mismanaged funds, audit finds

By Jamey Dunn

Republicans are calling for an investigation of Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration after an audit released today found mismanagement in an anti-violence program backed by the governor.

In the summer of 2010, Quinn announced $50 million in funding for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a violence prevention program. The initiative received nearly $55 million from October 2010 to October 2012. The bulk, nearly $45 million, came from Quinn’s discretionary funds and was not directly approved by the General Assembly. Lawmakers approved about $10 million for the initiative as part of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget.

The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative has been the target of scrutiny for a few years now. A 2012 report from CNN called into question some of the program’s spending, including paying youth to hand out fliers, attend yoga classes and march in a parade with Quinn. Later that year, lawmakers approved a resolution calling for an audit of the program.

That review, conducted by the office of Illinois Auditor General William Holland, was released today. The report describes the program as “hastily implemented” and says that the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA), which oversaw the program, failed to properly document how money was spent. The funding for the program increased from $20 million to $50 million in less than two months.

Republicans are asking that the executive inspector general’s office to launch an investigation into the program. “This is the kind of information that indictments are made out of,” said Dixon Republican Sen. Tim Bivins. “Obviously there’s got to be an investigation. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty.” He added, “I think there’s more than enough probable cause ... for an investigation to occur.”

The audit found that the IVPA did not use a competitive bidding process to select the providers that administered the services under the program, instead relying on recommendations from Chicago aldermen. The agency also did not have documentation on how it selected the communities that would receive funding. “The communities selected for NRI were not all the most violent in terms of crime in the Chicago area. Our comparison of NRI communities to the violent crime totals published by the Chicago police found seven Chicago neighborhoods that were among the 20 most violent neighborhoods that did not receive NRI funding. In Year 3 of NRI, another Chicago community, Hermosa, was added to the NRI program. This community ranked 48th in violent crime from 2005 [to] 2010,” the audit said.

The audit looked at 23 providers that participated in the program. Auditors found that 40 percent of the contracts with community providers in the program were approved after the contract work timeline was already completed. Providers were allowed to work on the program before they entered into a contract with the state, and 33 contracts either had no end date or were never approved. Only 30 percent of audited providers kept time sheets for staff paid with funding from the initiative. Holland found documentation indicating that some workers were paid for more time than they worked. More than 60 percent of providers' quarterly reports were late. Some agencies revised quarterly reports more than a year after they were due. Of the 23 providers, two closed, and the IVPA did not recoup unspent program founds. The audit found documentation indicating that $2 million in unspent funds from the initiative were never recovered.

Republicans point to the timing of the spending and accuse Quinn of using the program as a slush fund to try to build community support before the 2010 general election. Quinn narrowly defeated Republican Sen. Bill Brady in 2010 to hang onto his office. Brady is running for governor again “This is a very troubling report about a program launched by Governor Quinn just weeks before the 2010 election with little planning from what certainly appears to be a taxpayer-paid political slush fund,” Brady said in a prepared statement.

Quinn’s office brushed off the accusations. “These issues were resolved more than a year ago,” said a statement from Quinn’s office. “When the governor’s office became aware of the issues with IVPA in 2012, the administration acted quickly and, working with Attorney General [Lisa Madigan’s] Office and the General Assembly, passed legislation to have [the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority] take over the authority. The ICJIA has taken major steps to ensure responsible management of this critical violence prevention program and this issue has since been resolved. We are committed to providing effective work and educational opportunities for our youth to help prevent violence in communities across Illinois.”

The revamped version of the program, now called the Community Violence Prevention Program, is currently operating on an annual budget of about $17 million. The program serves 24 communities and plans to branch out to 33 next year. According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, last year it administered job training to about 1,800 youth and placed young people in jobs, such as office and retail positions. The state pays the participants’ salaries in these summer jobs. Those in the program also participate in community service and receive mentoring. The program almost provided reentry services to nearly 450 young people who were returning to society after doing time in the state’s corrections system. “We’re excited about our program, and we’re going to continue to provide the effective work program that we’ve designed and continue to offer these opportunities for youth to help prevent violence in communities across Illinois,” said Cristin Evans, spokeswoman for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Republicans say a reworking of the initiative is not enough. They say they want answers about the years in which money was misspent. “Every once in a while, the truth comes out of this town, and I would hope that people have the courage to look at it and see what it shows,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy.

House approves revenue estimate

By Caitlin Rydinsky

A revenue projection passed unanimously today by the Illinois House anticipates a $1.5 billion revenue loss for state government next fiscal year.

The number approved by the House, $34.495 billion, is based on the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability's (COGFA) estimated state income for the coming year. Lawmakers will have less money to work with as they put together the Fiscal Year 2015 budget because the temporary income tax will begin to sunset during the second half of the fiscal year.

In recent years, lawmakers have generally stuck to the spending number approved by the House when creating the budget.

The Governor’s Budget Office projects a revenue amount that is larger than the House’s number by $705 million. However, legislators said they are encouraged that Gov. Pat Quinn’s number is close to theirs. “And I want to compliment the governor’s office because their numbers were very similar to the COGFA numbers this time, and I find that very heartening because a lot of other times, they have been very far apart,” said Democratic Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo.

Rep. Robert Prichard, a Republican from Hinckley, said, “Indeed they were very close, but I think what’s most important in this is that we are living within the laws that this body has set and that we are moving forward with a revenue number that is a realistic number.” Although the Republicans supported the projected revenue with the Democrats, they reminded Democrats that differences in opinions would arise once legislators begin debating spending decisions. “I just want to make this perfectly clear: We are supporting the revenue; it doesn’t mean that we are supporting the budget,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. “We are ready to work with you for a responsible budget for the taxpayers of Illinois, with emphasis that we need to do a greater job at reducing the state debt than what we are doing.”

Rep. William Davis, a Democrat from Lewistown, hesitated in his decision to agree with the budget because of the possibility of more revenue coming to the state. Davis said money could come in as a result of recent talks about changing the way businesses are taxed. “I am concerned about this not being the complete revenue picture. It may be where we are right now,” Davis said. But he wants lawmakers to leave the door open to considering the potential for more revenue. Davis chairs the House K-12 budgeting committee and wants additional money to be spent on education — including general state aid to schools — which has been cut in previous years. Although the House passed its resolution and passed a joint resolution in the hopes that the Senate would also adopt its revenue projection, lawmakers are not legally bound to stick to the agreed amount.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Cook County clerk begins issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples

By Jamey Dunn

A federal judge ruled today that same sex couples can now wed in Cook County.

When lawmakers approved the bill allowing same sex marriage last year, there were not enough votes to put it into effect immediately under the state's constitutional requirements, so the law’s effective date is June 1. U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin ruled in December that couples could wed if one of them had a life-threatening illness. U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman took things a step further with her ruling allowing all couples to get married in Cook County starting today. Coleman said that “there is no reason to delay further” on allowing gay couples to marry.

Cook County Clerk David Orr announced that his office would begin issuing marriage licenses and that the downtown Bureau of Vital Records, in the lower level of the Daley Center, will remain open until 7 p.m. today. “I’m thrilled same-sex couples who want to get married won’t have to wait any longer,” Orr said in a written statement. “We are very excited to celebrate this historic milestone with every loving couple from today onward.” Licenses cost $60 and are valid  for 60 days from the day they are issued.

Orr warned that couples who had planned to have their wedding after the June effective date of the bill should not rush to get a license now because it would expire before their wedding. The fee will be waived for couples who wish to convert their civil unions into marriages. However, Orr said those couples would have to wait until June because the court ruling did not address couples who are already in civil unions. “Tens of thousands of Illinois couples have been waiting for a long time, some for decades, for their love, commitment and marriage to be recognized. This day — and the opportunity to finally get married — could not have come sooner,” Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, said in a written statement. “We congratulate all of the couples and their families, and the people of Illinois, on this significant day.”

Gov. Pat Quinn said in a written statement in response to the ruling: “Many couples in Illinois have waited long enough for marriage equality, and today’s ruling means thousands of Illinois couples no longer have to wait. Our law is a victory for equal rights in America and shows that citizens and lawmakers can come together on issues of fairness and human rights. ... Every county across the state should enjoy the same freedom without having to wait until June.”

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Republicans put conditions on budget negotiations

By Jamey Dunn

On Monday, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton called on Republicans to help address a looming budget deficit as lawmakers craft the state budget for next fiscal year. Today, Republicans shot back with a list of demands.

Cullerton said at a Chicago news conference earlier this week that Illinois faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall for Fiscal Year 2015. He said several factors are coming together to create the shortfall. The temporary income tax increase will begin to step down in the second half of the fiscal year, taking an estimated $1.6 billion in revenue with it. Expenses such as Medicaid, the state’s annual pension payments and personnel costs are expected to increase. Cullerton asked Republicans to present ideas to address the shortfall.

“We want to work with the Democrats, but they seem to view bipartisanship as a one-way street, and its not,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “We have offered — we as Republicans — offered numerous solutions that have been disregarded, buried in subcommittee and frankly, at times, even mocked.”

 Republicans say the state’s budget problems happened while Democrats were in power, and now they are being asked to help clean up the mess. They say their suggestions have been ignored in the past, and now they have a number of conditions for working with Democrats on the budget.

The Republicans want:

  • The temporary income tax increase to be allowed to phase out, as is called for under current law. 
  • A proposal to amend the state’s Constitution to allow for a graduated income tax to be taken off the table. 
  • The approval of a workers' compensation reform bill that includes a requirement that employees prove they were hurt on the job. 
  • A prohibition on new programs and the expansion of existing programs in the FY 15 budget. 
  • Attorney General Lisa Madigan to request that the Illinois Supreme Court speed up its ruling on the pension changes that were recently passed into law. 
  • More aggressive implementation of the cost-saving Medicaid reforms approved in 2012. 

Radogno said Republicans plan to “insist that bipartisanship includes their votes on our ideas and not just the other way around.” She said lawmakers must do more than just produce a budget for this year. She says they must address long-term budget issues and make policy changes to improve the state’s economy. “There’s no budget that can succeed unless we fix the underlying economy in this state because we may have a one-year budget document that may take care of the next few months, but then we’re going to be right back in that crisis mode because we’re losing employers and we’re losing families.”

While the two caucuses held dueling news conferences this week, exchanges at a Senate budget hearing remained relatively subdued today. Some Republican members called Cullerton’s math into question, saying that the governor’s own projections do not predict such a large deficit. “Try was we might sometimes, saying a figure doesn’t make a figure factual,” said Mattoon Republican Sen. Dale Righter.

However, Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, said the figure is based on newer information than the governor’s budget office used for its projections. “I do think it’s clear we’re going to have budget challenges.” Steans, who is the chair of one of the Senate’s budgeting committees, said cuts would be necessary but that new revenue should also be on the table.

“I think we’re going to have a real interesting year,” said Sen. Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline. “We may have disagreement on how we got here, but it behooves us all to try to work toward a solution.”

Lawmakers propose tax on sugary drinks

By Caitlin Rydinsky

Democratic legislators have proposed a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in hopes that it will promote healthy lifestyles within Illinois.

Supporters say the legislation was introduced in an effort to help reduce the number of people with obesity, heart disease and cancers. Rep. Robyn Gabel of Evanston introduced House Bill 5690, which requests a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages sold or offered to retailers. The proposal indicates the retailer would be responsible to collect the tax from consumers. Sen. Mattie Hunter of Chicago proposed an identical bill under Senate Bill 3524. “Now, this won’t be an easy bill to pass,” Gabel said. “Some say it is moderation and exercise, but the reality is that a person needs to walk 3.3 miles to work off just one 20-ounce soda.”

The tax on the sugary drinks, including sports drinks, soda, fruit juices and some coffees, to name a few, is estimated to raise $600 million annually. Half of the money would go to Medicaid to reinstate dental care and other cuts. The other half would go to a wellness fund to promote community health and awareness. The Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity said in a written statement that the tax targets sugar-sweetened drinks because strong evidence links them to obesity and other chronic illnesses.

“(The diseases) are costing us a lot of money in terms of health care costs. The estimate is obesity alone costs Illinois $4 billion or more in health care costs,” said Elissa Bessler, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Illinois Public Health Institute. “So it is really a fiscal crisis and a health care crisis in Illinois.” Hunter said some may call the tax regressive, but she said obesity is also a health concern that is disproportionately plaguing the poor.

“Others will say that the tax is regressive, and it hurts poor people. Well, I’ll tell you what hurts poor people. That extra marketing of these drinks in poor communities, that hurts poor people. That extra deaths of diabetes and heart diseases in poor communities. The lack of safe places to exercise and healthy places to eat in poor communities. The cuts in Medicaid hurt poor people,” Hunter said.

While sugary drinks are linked to obesity and other medical issues, some question whether a tax is the best way to get people to cut back on consumption. “The soft drink industry has done a good job at making consumers know calories — not that it wasn’t on there before, but by putting it on the front of the can and from minimizing the ounces in cans,” said Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. Triche said merchants are already working on ways to promote better choices by having healthy foods at the entrance of the stores to help consumers think of better choices as they arrive. “It is already happening without the government getting involved by taxing.” She said the organization wants consumers to spend money buying more produce and food, rather than on taxes.

The Taxpayers Federation of Illinois has not taken a stance on the bill, but President Carol Portman said, “If you want to fight obesity, taxing isn’t the way to do it.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

GOP candidates square off in Springfield debate

By Jamey Dunn

Republican candidates for governor traded barbs at tonight’s debate but avoided attacking state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who has been battling sexual harassment allegations.

Hinsdale Sen. Kirk Dillard was the most aggressive when it came to criticizing his opponents. When candidates were given an opportunity at the end of the debate to make clarifications, Dillard took the time to list why he believes the other Republicans would not do well in the general election. He brought up venture capitalist Bruce Rauner’s business connections to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s crony, Stuart Levine, who is currently serving time in federal prison. Levine was a key witness for the feds in the case against Blagojevich and others charged with political corruption. He received a shortened sentence as part of a plea deal.

“He’s very very much someone with a pattern of pay-to-play politics in his personal, professional and political life,” Dillard said of Rauner after the debate at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield. Dillard also noted Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady’s very conservative social views and a recent story calling into question whether Brady took a vote on a tax issue that benefited members of his family. “I only bring up things that have been on the front page of statewide newspapers,” Dillard said when asked by reporters about going on the offensive.

Brady reaffirmed during the debate that he does not support abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and that he does support allowing school districts to opt to teach creationism. But he said those issues are not the focus of his campaign. He also said that as governor, he would not have the power to end abortion in the state. “I do also realize there’s something called the U.S. Constitution,” Brady said “No governor in this country can eliminate a women’s right to choose, but I am not going to back away from my pro-life beliefs. I believe government has an obligation to protect innocent human life.”

After the debate, Brady dismissed Dillard’s negative comments as “desperate.” “He’s at the bottom of the polls. He’s got a fledgling campaign that’s just not getting off the ground, and he’s going to try to bring up things whether they make sense or not,” Brady said.

While Brady and Dillard were critical of each other and Rauner, they avoided beating up on Rutherford, who is facing a harassment lawsuit. Edmund Michalowski, who worked for Rutherford from 2011 until he resigned this month, is suing Rutherford and his chief of staff, Kyle Ham. Michalowski alleges that both men pressured him to do campaign work on state time, including fundraising for Rutherford. He also claims that Rutherford sexually harassed him by groping him and offering him advancement for sex. Rutherford has denied all the allegations and called into question some of the timeline presented in the case. He has also accused Rauner of being behind the allegations, which come at a politically inconvenient time for Rutherford. However, Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, said during the debate that he has no proof that Rauner is involved.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Brady said after the debate. “If Dan Rutherford‘s innocent, this is a bizarre and terrible situation. If he’s not innocent, it’s a bizarre and terrible situation.”

Rauner, who is leading in the polls, refrained from going negative and generally ignored the comments that his opponents made.

In a segment of the debate that ran counter to many conservative talking points, three of the candidates spoke positively about public employee unions. “Illinois is not Indiana. We’re not Wisconsin. We are a state that has a proud organized-labor history,” Dillard said. The Illinois Education Association, a teacher’s union, recently endorsed Dillard. He noted that endorsement during tonight’s debate. Dillard said the way to get fair deals with unions is to talk with them, not to “demonize” them.

 “Certainly public and private sector unions have done a lot to assist in enhancing the quality of life for the people they represent,” Brady said. “They’ve been a pillar of our country, and they’ve been important to us.” Brady said that unions “provide for” the “skilled workforce” that is needed to run state government.

“I happen to believe in the right to collectively bargain, both in the private sector and in public sector,” Rutherford said. Dillard, Brady and Rutherford all agreed that as the percentage of union employees has grown, some jobs in state government have been unionized that should not be.

The venue of the forum may have been a factor in the praise. According to statistics from the city of Springfield, state government is the largest employer in the city by far. In fact, the state workforce has nearly as many Springfield residents as the rest of the top nine largest employers in the area.

Rauner, who frequently derides “union bosses” in his campaign ads, said, “I’m not against the existence of government unions, but workers should be free to choose whether to be in a union or not.” But Rauner also said: “When a government union boss has power with taxpayer-funded union dues to influence politicians through campaign cash and campaign workers that are free but actually paid or by taxpayers ... it’s a conflict of interest, and it’s a corrupting influence. And the result of it is, spending goes up, taxes go up and businesses leave our state.”

Rauner, who is from Winnetka, was the only of the four who did not stick around to talk to reporters after the debate. Rutherford fielded questions about his legal troubles. Most of the queries pertained to why he would not release the results of an independent investigation he initiated when he first went public with the fact that he was being accused of improper behavior by an employee. The treasurer vowed to make the findings of the investigation public but then did not because he said his lawyers advised him not to as long as he is the subject of a federal lawsuit. “I am absolutely not frightened,” Rutherford said of the findings of the investigation. However, he says that neither he nor his campaign advisers have read the report. “I have not read. I have not asked for it. No, I am not going to read the report right now.” He admitted that the suit has cast a shadow over his bid for governor. “I will say that our candidacy has a challenge, and I understand that. I would be better off, I believe, if this report was released.”

Proposed education budget increase is unlikely at this point

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois State Board of Education is asking for more than a $1 billion increase in its budget, but lawmakers indicated today that a large infusion of funding is unlikely.

In Fiscal Year 2015, ISBE is asking for $1.08 billion more than what was budgeted this fiscal year for K-12 education. The bulk of the increase, $879 million, would go to general state aid for schools. The amount would be needed to meet the foundation level, $6,119 per student. The foundation level is set in statute, but for the last three years, the state budget has failed to fully fund it. According to ISBE, education currently makes up about 27 of the state’s general spending. The board is asking lawmakers to dedicate 33 percent of Illinois’ budget to K-12 education.

So far, the budget outlook for the next fiscal year is not good. The temporary income tax is set to decrease, creating a hit of an estimated $1.6 billion in revenue. The employee pension payment, personnel costs and the state’s Medicaid liability are all expected to increase. Rep. William Davis, a Lewistown Democrat and chairman of the House committee hearing the budget proposals today, cautioned those presenting their budget plans, including ISBE, to be realistic. “Please, just keep in mind that this is going to be a difficult year for us. I think we all, if nothing else, can agree on that much,” he said. “Please, when you are making your presentations, please try to make them in the context of what we’re facing this particular year.”

But ISBE Chairman Gery Chico warned that if the Illinois does not invest in education now, it will hurt the state’s economy later. “if we don’t invest in our students today and produce an intelligent college- and career-ready class of graduates each year, Illinois' economic future is bleak. We know that if we don’t invest in our students' education, Massachusetts will, India will, or China will [invest in theirs]. Guess what follows investments in education — jobs.”

The board is also asking for increases in other areas, including $450 million in capital funding for technology upgrades for schools, $25 million for early childhood education and $12.3 million for bilingual education.

Hinckley Republican Rep. Robert Pritchard said ISBE officials should possibly take the fact that the foundation level has not been met the last three years as an indication that “looking at the funding level and how we’re seemingly never able to fund at the necessary level to do the objectives that we have, isn’t it time maybe to look at a new model for education?”

State Superintendent Christopher Koch said ISBE is willing to consider rolling back some mandates on schools, but he also said that some of those requirements are necessary. “While we know this is a big increase, allow me to put this a little bit into perspective,” he told the committee. “When adjusting the FY 09 K-12 budget for inflation, our request amounts to a 1.5 percent decrease from the adjusted FY 09 levels.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cullerton: Lawmakers must address $3 billion budget shortfall

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton today highlighted the challenges lawmakers will face as they try to craft a budget for the next fiscal year.

Cullerton said at a Chicago news conference today that Senate Democratic staff members have been running the numbers as budgeting hearings will begin this week in the Senate. “We find that Illinois faces a nearly $3 billion budget hole for this coming [fiscal] year, and if not corrected, this could decimate classroom funding, send college tuition soaring and erode all the financial progress that we have made in the last few years.” Several factors are coming together to create the shortfall. The temporary income tax increase will begin to step down in the second half of Fiscal Year 2015, taking an estimate $1.6 billion in revenue with it. Expenses such as Medicaid, the state’s annual pension payments and personnel costs are expected to increase.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address was scheduled to take place this week, but the General Assembly voted earlier this month to move it to March 26. Quinn’s staff says he needs more time because he intends to present a five-year budget plan. Republicans called the move political because the new date falls after the primary election, when Quinn would know whom his general election opponent would be. Quinn is the presumptive Democratic nominee, but four Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination. Two of them, Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady and Hinsdale Sen. Kirk Dillard, are sitting legislators.

Before the vote, Cullerton announced that the Senate would begin hearing budget ideas this week. “Surely people who have been running for governor for five years have some idea about what their budget should be,” he said. “For those who are disappointed in this, February 19th is the day to have your budgets ready.” A joint hearing of the chamber’s two budgeting committees is scheduled for Wednesday.

Today, Cullerton said he hopes to jump start a “discussion” on bridging the budget gap, and he called on Republicans in his chamber to present potential solutions. “We need to solve this $3 billion hole in our budget in a bipartisan way,” However, Cullerton said there is “no easy way to do it,” and he dismissed proposals such as cuts to Medicaid that Republicans have made in the past. “That would ignore the fact that we’ve already done that,” he said. Lawmakers approved and Quinn signed into law a package of Medicaid changes and new revenue in 2012.“This Medicaid reform package that was done in a bipartisan fashion — Republicans and Democrats — nothing was left on the table, and so it’s not like there’s $3 billion in savings that we ignored in our Medicaid reform bill.” Cullerton said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have made tough choices to manage the budget in recent years, including approving changes to pension benefits for public employees. “We’ve gone right at the nature of the problems, pensions and Medicaid, and we’ve cut them.”

He indicated that finding more to cut could be difficult, and any large spending reduction could result in slashing the state’s education budget. “We’ve already closed prisons, closed mental health facilities and other centers, cut payroll, head count is down thousands from years ago. So when someone says, 'Well, just eliminate the waste and fraud,' you have to cross-examine them and ask them what they’re really talking about.” While budget cuts have been made, the tax increase, which was approved with only Democratic support in 2011, also provided billions in revenue that helped Illinois partially climb out of the estimated $13 billion deficit it faced just a few years ago.

Republicans see this week’s hearing as another political maneuver in an election year. Senate GOP spokeswoman Patty Schuh said the hearing seems to be intended to provide the governor some “cover” for presenting his budget late. “Our members will be looking to see what the Democratic majority plans to do to keep the promises they have made.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Obamacare enrollment numbers grow, but many in state still uninsured

By Jamey Dunn

Nearly 30,000 Illinoisans purchased private insurance through the Illinois' online marketplace last month.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released enrollment numbers showing that 88,602 Illinois residents have purchased insurance in the four months that the jointly-run state and federal website,, has been online. As of December, 61,111 Illinois residents had purchased coverage. More than 168,000 people in the state have signed up for Medicaid under an expansion of the program — which is also a key component of federal health care overhaul, known as Obamacare. Before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act went into effect, an estimated 1.7 million Illinois residents did not have health insurance.

While the pace of enrollments has improved in the last two months, according to the report from HHS, 115,000 in the state are eligible to buy insurance through the exchange but have yet to purchase coverage.   “These numbers show we are making good progress, but we still have much to accomplish in the next 47 days,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois, said in a prepared statement. “We are in the midst of a crucial push to enroll as many residents as possible for health coverage. We know that for many people, it requires multiple layers of exposure to information, including word-of-mouth and street-level contact with trusted community partners. We are working closely with hundreds of community partners across Illinois to ensure that everyone who needs health coverage obtains this quality, affordable insurance.”

Of those enrolled in insurance plans, 25 percent are between the ages of 18 to 34. This group, dubbed the young invincibles, are important to the program because their relatively low need for health care would offset the costs of insurer the older and those with preexisting conditions. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on health policy, estimates that about 40 percent of those eligible to purchase insurance on the exchange nationwide fall into the young invincibles category. Get Covered Illinois has begun marketing the exchange with ads on satirical news website The Onion in an effort to target younger residents.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Rutherford employee claims sex harassment, push to campaign

By Jamey Dunn

A former employee filed a lawsuit today accusing GOP gubernatorial candidate and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of sexual harassment and pressuring employees to perform campaign work.

Edmund Michalowski, who worked for Rutherford from 2011 until he resigned this month, is suing Rutherford and his chief of staff, Kyle Ham. Michalowski alleges that both men pressured him to do campaign work, including fundraising for Rutherford. Michalowksi’s suit claims that he was passed over for promotions and raises while other workers who performed campaign work saw advancements and pay increases. Michalowski worked as director of community affairs and marketing for the treasurer. According to his lawsuit, he received a promotion and took on more duties without getting a raise.

“In 2013, Rutherford screamed to another employee of the Treasurer’s Office that Plaintiff was ‘useless to him’ because he had not helped him sufficiently politically,” the lawsuit says. Before being hired by the treasurer, Michalowski worked for the secretary of state’s office. He also alleges that Rutherford made several unwanted sexual advances, including groping him, and that Rutherford offered him professional advancement in exchange for sex. The lawsuit says that Michalowski went to Rutherford’s Chenoa home for a retreat, but that there were no other staff members there when he arrived. He says that after dinner, he went to the guest room and that Rutherford came in and groped him. “Rutherford entered Plaintiff’s bedroom and grabbed at Plaintiff’s genital area. Plaintiff immediately forced Rutherford off of him. Plaintiff gathered his belongings and left. Plaintiff informed Ham of the incident shortly thereafter, to which Ham replied, ‘At least we have job security’ and that ‘it’ had happened to him as well,” the lawsuit says.

Rutherford denies all the claims, and travel vouchers produced by his office call Michalowski’s timeline on the day of the retreat into question. “State records reviewed by the treasurer’s office bear no resemblance to Michalowski’s allegations. For instance, Michalowski claims that he was harassed at ‘an overnight retreat’ at the treasurer’s home in Chenoa on April 2, 2011. However, a travel voucher submitted and signed by Michalowski for the date of April 2, 2011, shows he traveled home from Pontiac (not Chenoa) at 2 in the afternoon. Most importantly, contrary to his claim that he planned to stay the night and that he was harassed in the evening, the voucher indicates Michalowski returned to his residence in Chicago by 4 in the afternoon that day. An email written by Michalowski to another co-worker confirms that he traveled to Pontiac and returned home the same day,” said a statement from Rutherford’s office.

Rutherford announced a few weeks ago that he was initiating an external probe into allegations against him from an employee, but he said he could not describe the allegations at the time. “While an independent investigation is ongoing, the Illinois state treasurer’s office conducted an initial review of documents [that] Michalowski claims support these allegations, as well as its own records, and preliminarily found there was no merit,” said a statement from the office. Rutherford told reporters at a Schaumburg news conference that he plans to forge ahead with his gubernatorial bid. “I’m carrying on with my campaign,” he said. “We’re going to continue on.”

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Budget address delayed until after primary election

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn will be giving his budget address later than originally planned this year.

The Illinois Senate today approved Senate Bill 1227, which moves the date of the budget address from February 19 to March 26. The House passed the bill Tuesday, and Quinn plans to sign it when it arrives on his desk. That means that he will wait until after the March primary election to present his vision for the state’s budget for Fiscal Year 2015 and beyond. Quinn’s office says he needs the extra time because he intends to present a five-year plan instead of the traditional one-year proposal. “In addition to presenting his budget on March 26, the governor will also present a five-year budget blueprint. Now that the budget picture is more stabilized — with pension reform, Medicaid overhaul, spending cuts, contract negotiations, collective bargaining agreement, etc. in place — we need to look at the bigger budget picture as we craft this year’s budget,and account for upcoming savings in order to develop the necessary solution that provides taxpayers and businesses with long-term certainty,” said a statement from Quinn’s office.

“I appreciate and applaud the approach by the governor’s office. This is what people are asking for when it comes to financial accountability,” said Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge, chair of one of the Senate’s budgeting committees. Kotowski said businesses in Illinois want to see long-term budget planning from state government. Supporters of the bill also noted that FY 2015 would be a difficult budget year because the temporary income tax increase will begin to sunset, taking more than $1 billion in revenue with it.

But Republicans say they aren’t buying it. “This is a total political sham,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy. He said it was insulting to frame the issue as a step toward good government. “Today’s request is purely political,” said GOP gubernatorial hopeful Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale. “The governor is waiting to see who his Republican opponent is.”

Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady, one of Dillard’s challengers in the Republican primary, agreed. “He needs to deliver his budget address, so the people of Illinois can know what is in it and we can debate that.”

Senate President John Cullerton said that moving the budget address is something lawmakers have done several times, including moving it for Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. Cullerton took a swipe at Brady and Dillard, who both ran for governor in 2010, when he suggested that members of the Senate use the original date as a time to present their own budget ideas. “Surely people who have been running for governor for five years have some idea about what their budget should be,” he said. “For those who are disappointed in this, February 19th is the day to have your budgets ready.” Brady beat Dillard in the 2010 primary and went on to lose the general election to Quinn. Brady, Dillard and the other Republicans running for governor — Bruce Rauner and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford — have all avoided giving many specifics on how they would handle the state’s budget.

 Both chambers plan to begin their budgeting process, even though Quinn’s speech will be delayed. “The governor is asking for a delay, but here in the House we aren’t asking for a delay. We’re going to move forward expeditiously,” House Speaker Michael Madigan said during Tuesday’s floor debate. 

The House’s Revenue and Finance committee has already begun holding hearings on its revenue estimate for FY 2015. In recent years, the final budget approved by lawmakers has been based on the estimated produced by the committee. Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who chairs the committee, said that he thought Quinn’s request is “deferential” to lawmakers, who have already started working on the budget. “The House is really the driver of the state budget,” Bradley said. “The last few years, the governor has attempted to make budgets and to put out numbers and disregarded the House Revenue and Finance Committee and this chamber, and it didn’t go well for him.”

Monday, February 03, 2014

Senate panel releases plans to revamp education funding

By Jamey Dunn

After months of hearings, a bipartisan group of Illinois senators has presented its proposal to revamp the way the state divvies up its education funding.

The state’s education funding formula, which was last tweaked in the late 1990s, has long been viewed as opaque and complicated. “The law in the school code, I think it’s about 35 pages of very small text. So it’s going to be a challenge to literally start from scratch to come up with a new law that governs the formula, but that’s what we’re going to try to do in the next month,” said Democratic Sen. Andy Manar, who is chairman of the Senate Education Funding Advisory Committee. He said the panel is proposing a more streamlined plan that would put much of state education spending through a process that emphasizes financial equity among districts. General state aid, poverty grants, most special education funding, transportation grants, Chicago block grants and other spending that is doled out by category would be funneled through a single formula that focuses on the fiscal needs of each district “This is the single greatest step we could take as a state government to address inequity,” he said. “Put more of the money that we appropriate in the state budget, regardless of how much we appropriate, through the need-based lens,” he said.

The General Assembly voted in the summer to create the advisory committee. The group presented its ideas to lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn in the form of a report, which lays out 10 goals for education funding. The goals as stated in the report are:

  1. Make use of a single funding formula. 
  2. Provide additional funding to at-risk, special education and English-language learner students through the single formula. 
  3. Hold districts and students to higher standards. 
  4. Require districts to provide greater clarity on how funds are expended. 
  5. Guarantee that all districts receive a fair amount of minimum funding from the state. 
  6. Ensure that districts retain the same level of funding as under the current funding system for a period of time once a new funding system is adopted. 
  7. Include an accurate reflection of a district’s ability to fund education programs within the district. 
  8. Equalize taxing ability between dual districts and unit districts. 
  9. Review the financial burden placed on school districts through instructional and non-instructional mandates. 
  10. Provide additional transparency regarding the distribution of education funding. 

The group plans to emphasize equity with a focus on more sunlight in education budgeting at both the state and local levels and an assessment of costly requirements placed on schools by law. “We had significant discussion about the cost of mandates to local school districts and how we can better address those costs on the legislative level,” said Manar, who is from Bunker Hill.

The way the state distributes education funding is seen as a “third-rail” in Illinois politics because one district’s definition of equity can seem unfair to another district that is losing out on state funding under any change to the formula. The issue is often framed as a regional dispute that pits suburban schools, Chicago schools and rural and downstate schools against one another for resources.

Manar said the committee agreed on much of the plan it has proposed, but he said it would be an “overstatement” to say that there was unanimous support of every bullet point. “Believe it or not, we didn’t get into the us-versus-them ... discussion, which typically these conversations devolve into very quickly,” he said. “You could see all of the different grant programs that exist today in law that don’t go through the need lens and the equality lens, and you could say, ‘There’s special deals for just about every part of the state.’” The Illinois State Board of Education has requested $1 billion in additional spending in its budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015.The agency asked for $879 million more in general state aid spending.

For the last three years, the state has failed to meet the $6,119-per-student foundation level. The committee report opposed that move and called for the foundation level to eventually be funded at the $8,672-per-pupil level recommended by the Education Funding Advisory Board. But Manar said the group focused “almost exclusively” on “how money is distributed rather than how much is distributed.” It seems the panel is trying to focus on the potentially possible. With the temporary state income tax increase set to begin stepping down during the second half of Fiscal Year 2015, a large increase to state education spending appears highly unlikely. In fact, additional cuts, or at least another year of the foundation level falling short, seem probable.

 “We believe that while we could have a rigorous debate about the levels [at which] we fund schools, we’re never going to have that debate until we get the distribution formula right,” Manar said. “And that means people can agree that it’s attached to priorities, that it addresses where the needs are in the state and that it is something that we can all believe is working again for the state.”