Friday, March 28, 2014

Obamacare deadline three days away, there is a chance for more time

By Jamey Dunn 

The official deadline to get insurance coverage and avoid a penalty under the Affordable Care Act is Monday. However, Barack Obama’s administration announced this week that those who ask for a little more time would get it.

Anyone who goes to before the Monday deadline can click a “special enrollment” box to gain an extension. The administration if offering as an acknowledgement of the website’s early technical problems, as well as a pre-emptive solution in case the site cannot handle the increased traffic that is expected over the next few days. The amount of time those seeking an extension would get to enroll has not been determined, and administration officials said it would depend in part on how many people sign up for the extended enrollment period. Those who do not get coverage in the next few days, or request to be part of the special enrollment period, could face a financial penalty—of $95 or 1 percent of their total income, whichever is greater—when they file their 2014 taxes next year.

As of the end of February, 113,733 Illinois residents have purchased insurance under Obamacare, and another 210,000 received Medicaid coverage under the massive expansion, which is a key component of the president’s health care program. Traffic to Illinois’ jointly run state federal exchange has increased from about 10,000 unique visitors per day in February to 40,000 visitors per day this week. The state’s help desk has also seen a spike in calls. Illinois has extended hours for its call center, which will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. tonight, and from 7 a.m .to midnight on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. In-person assistance will also be offered throughout the state with some locations staying open until midnight this weekend.  State officials say they expect to meet the enrollment goal of 143,000 people getting insurance through the market place by the end of this month. On the federal level, the administration expects to reach its target of 6 million enrollees by the end of the month. However, the goal was revised down from 7 million in September after the exchange got off to such a rocky start. For more on problems with the federal website and state websites, like Illinois's, that are linked to it, see the March 2014 Illinois Issues.)

 Illinoisans who still want to enroll have several options. They can:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Madigan's millionaires tax has its political advantages

By Jamey Dunn

The House revenue and finance committee dove right into the topic of taxes this morning following Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget speech yesterday.

The committee today approved Speaker Michael Madigan’s proposal to tax millionaires at a higher rate to fund education and rejected a measure that would have allowed for a graduated income tax in the state. As protesters flowed into the capitol chanting, “We want a fair tax,” the House revenue and finance committee voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Illinois to have a graduated income tax. Currently, the state’s Constitution requires a flat income tax.

Committee members cited concerns that the proposed amendment does not include the progressive tax rates structure, but simply would change the Constitution to allow the legislature to approve a graduated tax. “I don’t believe its wise to put simple a strike through amendment on the ballot. I think the better approach is to enumerate what would be asked of the voters,” Riverside Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski said before he voted against the amendment today.

Supporters of the plan say that it is best not to enshrine tax rates into the Constitution, because the threshold for changing the document is so high. “Actually embodying rates in the Constitution from just a good government and policy standpoint is very problematic because if you’ve got that rate wrong or you’d like a change, now you need a new constitutional amendment. It’s far better the have the rate structure be a creature of legislation so that you can adjust your tax policy over time,” said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, sponsor of a Senate version of the graduated tax amendment, unveiled proposed rates earlier this week.

Martire said that the concept of taxing the wealthy at a higher rate, which is also at the core of Madigan’s proposal, is a good policy choice because most income growth is occurring amongst higher earners. However, he said that putting the specifics, such as the rate and the $1 million cut off, in the constitution does not allow for the flexibility that would be needed as the economy changes and inflation marches forward. For example, if in the future lawmaker decide that the rate is too high, or that $1 million is not what it used to be in terms of earnings, or that they want some of the money to go to health care instead of education, they will have to gain the support of three-fifths of both chambers and then wait for an election. They then would need to get the support of either three fifths of voters who vote on the question or the majority of voters participating in the election. If some of those details were determined by legislation instead, they could be changed by a simple vote in each chamber and the governor's signature.

Policy debates aside, Madigan’s proposal, which would impose a 3 percent surcharge on income offer $1 million, likely won out for a number of reasons. It would be a much easier vote than voting for the graduated income tax for lawmakers who have few millionaires in their area. Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who is chairman of the committee, said as much before he voted in favor of the proposal. “This is an opportunity for a lot of areas of the state to actually do a lot better with minimal impact on my region.” There seems to be a perception among lawmakers that Madigan’s amendment is ready for primetime, while the graduated tax is not. “The speaker’s amendment is more show ready than this,” Zalewski during committee today. The graduated income tax proposal does not have the needed support to pass in the House. Still, Harmon said he has not given up hope on the graduated tax idea. He told supporters today “do not despair,” and said that the fight has just begun.

Conservative groups and business organizations are opposed to both. However, it does seem that the opposition has been hitting the graduated tax proposal much harder. National groups such as American’s for Prosperity and The Tax Foundation have joined the fray over the graduated tax plan. Of course, it has been around a lot longer so opposition has had more time to build and organize. Todd Maisch, the vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said at today’s hearing that the flat tax is a “key incentive” for businesses considering Illinois. And that the graduated tax comes from a “soak the rich mentality” that send a negative message to businesses and successful individuals. He also said Madigan’s plan would hit small businesses that file their taxes as individuals.” We think it’s just the wrong public policy to punish them with this surcharge.” If either of these plans is going to pass in the House, it would likely need the support of all Democratic members, something the graduated tax lacks. (For a comprehensive look at the graduated tax proposal and the arguments for and against it, see Illinois Issues January 2014. )

Madigan’s plan would probably be easier for voters to understand if it makes it to the general election ballot. It would also likely be very popular with anyone who is not bringing in $1 million (or close to it) annually because they would not be affected. It could also be useful as campaign ammunition that Quinn could against his opponent, multimillionaire Republican Bruce Rauner, who opposes the plan. The proposal would not conflict with Quinn proposal to make the temporary income tax increase permanent and give homeowners a $500 refund to defer property tax costs. Quinn is also asking to double the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers from 10 to 20 percent. If this proposal and Madigan’s end up working in concert, it would be a rudimentary version of a graduated plan because lower earners would have more of their tax burden deferred and higher earners would pay more. It might have less nuance and flexibility than a graduated tax plan, but it would also be free of the political baggage of claims that it would hurt the middle class (depending on where you think the cut off is for the middle class).

 Martire says that, while he thinks the graduated tax amendment if better policy, the politics of the situation cannot be put aside. “Any legislation or constitutional amendment that moves through a very political process has to take political concerns into account or it wouldn’t be a very sophisticated approach to changing policy,” he said after the hearing. “Illinois is at least moving towards a fairer tax structure and moving toward amending its Constitution to permit a fairer tax structure. Now the questions is whether or not that amendment is going to be the best one that we could have.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Quinn calls for making temporary income tax increase permanent

By Jamey Dunn with Caitlin Rydinsky contributing 

Gov. Pat Quinn called on lawmakers to make the temporary income tax increase permanent during his budget speech today.

“The truth is, while we've taken some difficult steps to balance the budget, the issue of expiring revenue this year is a real challenge that will require another hard choice,” Quinn said in his speech to lawmakers today. Quinn presented a budget that he says reflects the severity of cuts that would be needed if the current income tax rates, which are 5 percent for individuals and 7 percent for corporations, were allowed to step down in 2015. Under current law, the rates would go to 3.75 for individuals and 5.25 for corporations half way through next fiscal year. The reduction would take more than $1.5 billion in revenues with it. Quinn also presented an alternative budget that would include revenue from extending the tax rates, and it is this second plan that the governor advocates for. “Our plan is specific, concrete and responsible. It balances the budget and doesn't shirk our responsibility to our veterans, to our children, to our working families and to our most vulnerable citizens,” he said. 

Quinn offered property tax relief and an incremental doubling of the Earned Income Tax Credit as potential sweetener that might help the income tax proposal go down with voters. Homeowners would lose their current property tax credit and it would be replaced with a flat $500 refund for each owner occupied property. Quinn’s budget office estimates that such tax relief would cost $1.3 billion annually. The current credit costs about $600 million. While some homeowners currently get a tax credit that is larger than $500, Quinn’s staff said that 92 percent homeowners would be better off under his proposal. Quinn’s plan would also increase the EITC from 10 percent of the federal credit to 20 percent at a rate of 2.5 percentage points per year. The increase would cost more than $200 million annually once it reaches 20 percent. Quinn and his staff are packaging his pitch to make the tax increase permanent as a reform of the state’s tax system. His proposal also included a five-year budget “blueprint” that calls for spending caps, a rainy day fund and cutting the state’s bill payment cycle down to 30 days.

The governor's Republican opponents say he is going back on the promise of a temporary tax increase. “Pat Quinn first promised the working people of Illinois he wouldn’t raise taxes by 67 percent. He broke that promise, taking away nearly a week's worth of pay for Illinois families. Then he promised his tax hike would be temporary. Today he broke that promise too and is doubling down on his failed policies,” Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner said in a prepared statement. “After five years of Pat Quinn’s failed leadership, we have record tax hikes, outrageously high unemployment, massive cuts in education and there’s still a giant budget mess in Springfield. It’s now or never to save Illinois. We can balance the budget without more tax increases, if we create a growth economy, and restructure and reform our broken government. That’s what I’ll do as governor.”

They claim that Quinn and other Democrats are trying to make the fiscal situation look worse than it truly is to justify keeping the current tax rates. So what people need to remember at the end of the day [is], it’s still a tax increase. Your income tax is going to go up from where it should have been come January 1,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said. She said that Quinn’s property tax relief plan is not all it's cracked up to be because it would eliminate the current property tax credit that homeowners already receive. So they would not get $500 in addition to their current break, but in place of it.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said after Quinn’s speech, “the Democrats who run this building do not tell the truth about taxes and spending.” He said that spending has increased in recent years. Quinn’s staff is quick to point out that the governor never made any promises about whether he would seek an extension of the tax increase. They say that Quinn has signed budgets with billions of dollars of cuts to discretionary spending, but overall spending totals have increased some years because fixed costs, such as the required payments into the pension systems, have gone up. His campaign issued a statement this morning claiming that Rauner’s “budget plan” would result in devastating cuts to education. Rauner has yet to give details on his vision for the budget, other than saying he wants to the tax increase to roll back and that he is not prepared to take the possibility of taxing retirement income off the table. Quinn said today that he would not support taxing retirement income or charging a sales tax on many “basic” services, such as haircuts.

In his speech, the governor tried to walk a fine line between highlighting the improvements he says have happened during his time in office and making the case that the budget situation is still unstable enough to justify hanging on to the current tax rates. “Illinoia is in stronger financial position now then we were five years ago because of the hard choices we have made,” Quinn said today. Time will tell if this strategy will resonate with voters. Not surprisingly, a recent poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois Carbondale found that 60 percent of voters oppose making the tax rates permanent. However, the majority of respondents liked major state services and were opposed to cutting them. Voters were also opposed to taxing retirement income or increasing sales taxes. The only new revenue source that more than half of those polled supported was expanding gambling. 

Democratic lawmakers said today that they do not think voters are really aware of the progress that has been made in terms of the state's budget. “I think voters do not grasp how much progress has been made. It’s unfortunate to me that one budget address will not necessarily emblazon that in people’s minds,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who was one of the key players on recently passed changes to the state’s pensions systems. But she said that while voters may not be as aware of some of the things, such as pension reform and cuts to Medicaid costs, that have been done to help the state climb out of its budget hole, the bond rating agencies that determine the state’s credit rating do seem to have taken notice. “We are getting there. It took us a long time to get in, and I always said it’s going to take us a long time to get out.” Nekritz noted that the property tax relief in Quinn’s plan has the potential to be very popular with voters. “The number one thing I hear from constituents back home is (complaints about) their property taxes.”

The chairmen of House budgeting committees, which are considering deep cuts for their areas of the budget, said they were glad Quinn came out strongly for more revenue. “I have always not shied away from the revenue conversation so I am encourage that the governor wants to look at ways to bring new revenue or additional revenue to the state,” said Lewistown Democratic Rep. William Davis, who is chairman of the House education budgeting committee. He said that K-12 education is currently facing a $900 million cut. Davis said he supports the concept of coupling tax relief for low-income workers and homeowners with a call for new revenue.

Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who is chairman of the House revenue committee, said that he does not think that an extension of the tax rates has enough support to pass in his chamber at this point. “That’s going to be a difficult issue. That was a tough vote before. So I think a lot of people will keep an open mind to it but that’s a long way from happening right now.” He said that lawmakers should be open-minded about Quinn’s ideas. “He threw it out there, and I give him credit for putting ideas out there. So now the legislature will move forward.”

Quinn’s proposal has the backing of the legislative leaders in his party. “I would commend the governor for his political courage and honesty,” House Speaker Michael Madigan told Illinois Public Television’s Jak Tichenor, host of Illinois Lawmakers. Madigan said that he “demanded” property tax relief be included in a proposal to make the tax rates permanent. “I plan to support the governor’s position on the extension of the income tax increase,” said Madigan. “If we wish to continue to provide the level of services which we’ve become accustomed to for education and other purposes, then the income tax increase should be extended.” However, Madigan said he still supports his own “tax on millionaires” to fund education. The proposal is a constitutional amendment that would place a 3 percent surcharge on any income over $1 million. Madigan said he expects that the tax issue will be “resolved” before the spring legislative session ends.

Bradley said that his committee plans to move ahead with Madigan’s millionaire tax proposal “right away.”

 “I think the governor made a really bold stand basically saying ‘we’re going to keep the taxes the way they are, but we’re going to give back a whole bunch of money in property tax relief,’” Senate President John Cullerton told Tichenor. He said the proposal takes the state’s high property tax rates into consideration while also deferring “draconian cuts.” Cullerton said he did not expect Republican support, which he called “unfortunate.”

Judging from the reaction to Quinn's speech from across the aisle, Cullerton’s prediction seems dead on. “The governor is more interested in making the argument that if there is not another massive tax increase that school children would be thrown into mobile homes and would be dying in the streets. That’s the governor’s arguments here. It’s an argument of hysteria. I think the governor, his first job is not to run for governor and create a campaign based on class envy, it’s to govern,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon. He said that Quinn should do a line-by-line review of the budget to find savings. “I think he is going to discover in his own budget there are a lot of areas that he could save money and in then the words he speaks on lower income and middle income Illinoisans can actually come to prevision. Because he will find out he doesn’t have to take more money from families.”

Waiting in the dark for doomsday

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is not releasing details ahead of his budget speech tomorrow, but Republicans say they expect him to paint a picture that is more negative than it needs to be.

UPDATE 3/26/2014: The Chicago Tribune has reported that Quinn plans to propose making the temporary income tax increase permanent and offering property tax relief for homeowner. The story cites anonymous sources. Quinn's budget staff refuses to share any details of his plan with the press. His budget office did not give reporters a customary budget briefing that typically takes place the night before the speech. However, his campaign released a statement this morning blasting Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner for wanting to roll back the tax increase, an indication that Quinn will advocate for keeping the current rates. His campaign says allowing the tax rates to roll back would be devastating to education, making it seem likely that the governor's speech today will focus on funding schools. “Rauner’s sales pitch to run Illinois like a business would run our state straight into the ground,” Deputy Press Secretary Izabela Miltko said. “It's clear his plan would take a sledgehammer to education, lay off tens of thousands of teachers and leave Illinois’ students at a huge disadvantage. His inability to provide real solutions for our state makes it clear he can’t be trusted to run Illinois.” Quinn is required by law to present a budget based on current statute. But there is nothing stopping him from calling on lawmakers to make the tax increase permanent as he does that, as long as his budget document is not based upon the proposal. 

Quinn is breaking from tradition in a few ways when it comes to this year’s budget. He intends to present a five-year plan to lawmakers tomorrow instead of the typical one-year proposal. Quinn asked lawmakers to give him extra time to prepare his budget, pushing the speech until after last week’s primary. Staff was reportedly still putting final tweaks on it through he weekend. Quinn is facing wealthy Republican businessman Bruce Rauner in the November general election, and politics will tinge every aspect of the rollout of his proposal. Rauner has already released an ad attacking Quinn in anticipation of the budget speech and is expected to come to Springfield tomorrow.

While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said that they would support longer-range budget planning, some are suspicious of Quinn pitching a budget that might last longer than his time in office. They see the new format as a possible way to spread out accounting tricks over several years and make what will be a difficult budget for Quinn politically an easier sell. “The governor is talking about completely changing the format that he presents this budget in from the way it’s been done in the past, and I think it is an intentional act on his part to confuse and distract,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from Palatine. Republicans said that did not expect to receive an advance briefing on the budget. A press briefing is scheduled for tomorrow after the speech. When asked why they were pushing off the briefing, Quinn staffers said that the 5-year plan could be confusing and they wanted to ensure they would have enough time to answer all of reporters’ questions.

Murphy and the rest of his caucus say that Democrats are trying to make the situation look worse than it could be in order to justify continuing the current income tax instead of allowing them to step down as the are scheduled to beginning in 2015. Murphy said that Democrats started off with a more conservative revenue estimate and are ignoring some money that typical come in, such as revenue from unclaimed property. He also said they could consider transferring less money out of the general revenue fund for other spending, and could make a smaller payment to the fund for state employee health insurance. The insurance fund has been shorted in recent budget years. He said that less money could also be dedicated towards bills because there will likely be more revenue than expected at the end of the current fiscal year, and that could be used to pay down the backlog. “The Democrats’ approach this entire spring has been to try to create as dire a picture as possible,” he said. “You can make it a lot more plausible that you can fund core services and still allow the tax rate to go back down as the Democrats promised it would, but they don’t want people to see that. They don’t want that argument out there because they want to continue to get the money that they’ve been getting.”

He presented a few scenarios, one of which he said would actually give the state $13 million more to spend on discretionary costs and one that would require a $700 million cut. Murphy said that Republicans are not necessarily advocating for all of these ideas, but he says they illustrated that there are more options out there besides devastating cuts or a tax increase. “We’re not suggesting that you do this,” he said. “It’s just an exercise to illustrate that they’re kind of gaming the numbers to create a doomsday scenario.” Some of the options Murphy outlined would require changes to law.

Senate Democrats strongly disagree with Murphy and his party’s take on the budget. “These are real numbers. This is the impact that we see. This is the reality that we’ve been dealing with,” Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski said at a hearing budget earlier this week. Senate Democrats asked state agencies to present the potential fallout from a 20 percent cut. Kotowski said today of Murphy’s scenarios, “That’s just wrong. If you look at the numbers that we presented, the group health [insurance] number represents the actual costs.” He said that under the budget starting point that is currently being used by lawmakers, total obligations to the health insurance plan are being underfunded. He also said that much of the money that is put aside for overdue bills would go toward Medicaid obligations and capture federal matching funds. He also said that Quinn’s plan to present a five-year proposal is a step in the right direction because it allows the governor to indicate his vision for the future instead of potentially using creative accounting to scrape through one tough fiscal year. He said government should adopt more long-term budget planning tactics, which are commonplace in the private sector. “It depoliticizes the budget process because you’re looking at five years.”

Democrats note that levels of state staffing and core services have been cut in recent budget years, and under the $34.495 billion revenue projection approved by both chambers, that trend would continue. That amount is about $1.5 billion less than the revenue projection approved for the current fiscal year. House committees have already been told what numbers they are working with based on the revenue projection and they are considering 14 percent reductions. Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, who is chairman of the House human services budgeting committee, said that under the revenue projection his committee would have $719 million less to work with this year. He said that all programs that are not mandated by court orders or other requirements could be eliminated “and then we’ll have to cut 200 million more.” Childcare for low-income parents, in-home care for seniors and addiction treatment and prevention programs would all be on the chopping block. Meanwhile, he said that a proportionally equal cut for education would lead to the layoffs of thousands of teachers. “In order to balance the budget and provide the services and undo our backlog of bills, we need to be responsible in how we budget. That means controlling our expenses, but it also means having necessary revenue.” He said that putting off bills and underfunding obligation is not the way to go.

When asked what he hoped to see from Quinn tomorrow, Harris said: “I would like to see just a really bold and powerful explanation of the fiscal realities that face our state and how we must be responsible to pay down our back log of bills. So we need the revenue to do that, to meet our current obligations and to be sure that we are not cutting aid to education, that we’re not discontinuing meals on wheels to seniors, that we are not cutting substance abuse programs.”

Arlington Heights Republican Rep. David Harris said he hopes to hear the opposite. He says he would like Quinn to say that he agrees with the House’s revenue estimate, which he helped craft as part of the House revenue committee, and that the state can live within that amount. Harris agrees with Murphy that some costs could potentially be shifted to make the situation a little easier and bring the cuts down to a few hundreds of millions of dollars instead of billions of dollars. “Do you mean to tell me that we can’t have a reduction of $700 [million] to $800 million and not run sate government? I don’t buy that.” He said he is concerned that Quinn instead is going to propose some costly initiatives, such as an increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers.

Murphy said he is not expecting much out of the speech tomorrow. “He’s got a real divide in his party about whether to raise taxes or not, and I think he’s going to try to get out of tomorrow without saying anything concrete and hope nobody notices.” He, and other lawmakers, said that he has heard that Quinn's budget office, which originally had a larger revenue estimate than the one lawmakers approved, is revising its estimate down. Murphy reads this as indication that Quinn may follow the Senate Democrats' lead in framing the budget as a “doomsday” scenario.

Rep. Greg Harris said that whatever Quinn presents, his committee will meet the next day to continue with the budgeting process they, and other budgeting committees in the House and Senate, have started.

Rep. David Harris said that so far, Democrats and Republicans in his chamber have been able to work together to agree on a spending number. But once the debate comes down to how to spend the money, things may not remain so amicable. “The fireworks will start on Thursday,” he said.

Monday, March 24, 2014


CapitolView, WSEC-TV Springfield. Host Jamey Dunn (IL Issues) and guests Brian Mackey (IL Public Radio/WUIS) and Nicole Wilson (24/7 News) discuss the recent primary results as well as House Speaker Michael Madigan's proposed millionaire tax.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Democrats make the case for more revenue

By Jamey Dunn

Democrats on key budgeting committees are beginning to build the case for finding more revenue for the next fiscal year’s budget.

A Senate budgeting committee today called upon agency heads to present the potential impacts of a 20 percent cut. The results were dire. The State Board of Education said that if the cut, which would be $967 million, fell on general state aid it would result in the per-pupil foundation level being funded at 65 percent. Currently, Illinois is meeting 89 percent of its statutorily required per-pupil funding. State Superintendent Christopher Koch said that the number of schools on “financial watch” status would more than double. The number of districts that would be deficit spending would jump from 532 to 724 of the state's 860 districts. He estimated that up to 13,400 teachers could face layoff and many schools would have to eliminate all extracurricular activities. Koch said that the cut in funding could also result in a loss of almost $80 million in federal funds, including Title I and Title II funding, which is meant to assist at-risk students.

“We could eliminate our Early Childhood Block Grant and that would only get us about a third of the way to a $967 million reduction in state spending. It would also mean more than 90,00 children would no longer receive early childhood education,” said Koch.

As things stand now, the Illinois Department of Corrections officials said that without a funding increase, three facilities would need to be closed. If those closures happen, the department would have to find room for about 4,000 inmates in its overcrowded prisons or release them. An estimated 900 staff members would be laid off.

IDOC Director Tony Gondinez said that a 20 percent cut would mean that 11 corrections facilities would have to be closed, and 15,500 inmates would be released. He said that the current parole system, which has more than 27,000 parolees monitored by about 350 agents, would be hard-pressed to monitor those newly released offenders. Corrections officials said that those newly released offenders would be “virtually be unsupervised.” More than 3,000 DOC employees would be laid off without offers of transfer to new positions.

Under a 20 percent cut, the Department of Juvenile Justice would have to close two facilities and release 215 youth out of the 800 it has in custody. The department is currently hammering out the details of a court order to improve its education system, mental health care and the safety standards at its facilities. Experts that were called upon to report on these areas found that the department was in violation of state and federal laws. “One of the issues now is whether or not we can provide minimum services with the funding we had,” said acting Director Candice Jones. She said that the department would lose federal funding if it is unable to comply with required staffing ratios.

Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau said that his agency would have to lay off 450 state troopers, which is 30 percent of the department’s officers. More than 100 cadets would be dismissed from the current class. ISP would have to close all of its forensic labs and layoff all 400 employees. More than 5,000 rape kits would not be processed. Local law enforcement would lose access to forensic analysis. Grau said that the cuts would require the department to respond to “only the most critical calls.” He said that the department is already having issues with response time. In 2013, the Chicago district had 6,399 calls for which it did not have a car immediately available for response. 

Representatives from the Department of Human Services and the Department of Aging said they would have to cut back on services. In home care for the elderly and childcare for low-income families would be on the chopping block. Nursing home inspectors would be laid off. Welfare benefits would be reduced, and the state would have problems implementing the food stamps program. Illinois could lose up to $585 million in fund for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The state could also potentially loose hundreds of millions in federal matching funds.

The Department of Child and Family Services would eliminate services for 18 to 21 year olds. Acting Director Bobbie Gregg said that those youth would be less likely to finish high school and would no longer receive support from the department to attend college. She said of those in this age group who are cut off from services: “Many of them end up homeless. ... That’s the outcome that we would anticipate.”

Republican committee members derided the hearing, calling it a “dog and pony show” of “Chicken Little scenarios” that blow the state’s budget woes out of proportion. “This doom and gloom scenario that you have paraded everybody in here to provide is actually as far from the reality that we face in putting this budget together as could be,” Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from Palatine, said during the hearing. “And frankly, it’s a pretty cynical ploy because it is not reflective of the revenues that we’re going to have and doesn’t have to happen. And yet, you put all these people through this dog and pony show to make it look like this all has to happen to justify the tax increase.”

The Republicans likely are not wrong, at least in part. It does seem that the Democrats are building the case for some form of new revenue, which could potentially be the extension of the tax increase. The House is contemplating giving appropriation committees 14 percent less revenue to dole out in its budgeting process. Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, chairman of the House human services budgeting committee, said that the state faces “massive budget challenges” for Fiscal Year 2015 because the temporary income tax will begin to step down. In a post to his Facebook page, Harris made the case for more revenue. “We have undertaken major reforms of Medicaid, our state’s pension plans (no savings can be assumed from those changes until court challenges conclude), a plan to pay down our mountain of old bills and reducing expenses. Now is the time to maintain our revenues to protect core education, public safety and human services spending. I will support plans to maintain our revenues, close tax loopholes and shift the burden of taxes from those with the least means to those with the most ability to pay.”

The way a news release from Senate Democrats’ communications staff described the tax step down is telling. While Republicans say an extension of the current rates would be a tax increase, Democrats are beginning to call the automatic step down a tax cut. “Automatic tax break[s] that take effect next year will have a dramatically negative impact on State functions, according to testimony given to a Senate budget panel today,” said the news release.

But with about $1.5 billion in revenue disappearing along with the step down and growing costs associated with statutory obligations, such as Medicaid, which could be more than $1.5 billion, the Senate Republicans’ claims that things aren’t as bad as they seem, ring hollow.

Nonpartisan group The Civic Federation called for a one-year extension of the tax rates and then a gradual step down to avoid unmanaged cuts to the state budget and enable the state to pay off its old bills. This is the same organization that has for years been hammering home the need for changes to the state’s pensions systems.

Murphy and others have taken issue with the projected revenue number approved by the House and Senate because it allows for $400 million in transfers out to education and medical funds. While that money, and other statutory transfers out could, and maybe should, be reassessed, $400 million in revenue is not going to keep the FY 15 budget afloat without some deep cuts and changes to current law. Gov. Pat Quinn is scheduled to present his budget next week. He is required to present a budget based on current revenue and law. While the sky may not be falling in Illinois, the situation is looking  precarious at this point.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Madigan proposes millionaire tax for education

By Jamey Dunn and Caitlin Rydinsky

House Speaker Michael Madigan proposed today a constitutional amendment to impose a higher tax on millionaires, which would bring in an additional $1 billion for school funding.

Under the proposal, Illinoisans would pay an additional 3 percentage points surcharge on any income they made over $1 million. The revenue generated, which Madigan estimates could be $1 billion, would be given to each district throughout the state based on the number of students. He estimates that schools would get an additional $550 per pupil. “Over the last several years, every area of Illinois has experienced school closures, teacher layoffs, and classroom cuts due to reduced education funding that has been forced by a crowding out of state revenues,” Madigan said in a written statement. “This is not a complete solution to our education funding issues, but it is a fair and equitable way to reverse a decline brought on by the national economic problems and will help address a number of spending pressures that vary among school districts.”

If both chambers approve the plan by May 5, voters will have the deciding factor of whether millionaires’ should be taxed the additional amount during this November election. Illinoisans’ may also see an amendment to add term limits for lawmakers placed on the ballot from the efforts of Republican governor candidate and multi-millionaire businessman Bruce Rauner. In addition to running for governor, Rauner has launched a campaign to get term limits on the ballot by collecting signatures through a citizens’ initiative. There is also a push to get an amendment on the ballot to change the way the state draws its legislative districts. If either proposal gets the needed signatures, they would likely also have to survive a court challenge to make it to the ballot.

If Madigan’s plan appears on the November ballot and gains the necessary support from voters, schools could expect to see additional funds in 2015, he said. “Given the drastic cuts to education in recent years, and the threat of cutting nearly $1 billion more in this year’s budget, we are encouraged by the speaker’s proposal to invest more money in public education for our children,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said in a written statement.

For the last three years, the state has failed to meet the per pupil funding level required by law of $6,119. Illinois’ temporary income tax increase is scheduled decrease in 2015 from 5 percent to 3.75 for individuals. The lost revenue means that lawmakers are looking at a tough task as they try to craft next fiscal year’s budget. Early projections indicate that almost $1 billion could be cut from schools. Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education requested a funding increase of $1.08 billion for next fiscal year. The bulk of the request, $879 million, would be needed to meet foundation level funding.

Opponents to the amendment say it is nothing more than a political move meant to polarize voters in an election year. They also suspect it is a distraction from what they believe Madigan’s real intent is—to make the temporary income tax increase permanent. Madigan has not taken a stance on what the state should do about the income tax increase; he says the two topics are not linked. “That’s a separate issue. This is separate from the question of whether the income tax increase would be extended. It’s not related.” Madigan said that his plan is not meant to fill in the gaps of potential cuts. “I think that what we are doing here is calling upon people in Illinois that are well equipped to provide support for education which is available to everybody in the state,” he said.

Conservative groups say that the proposal would drive wealth people out of the state. They also note that it could hurt small businesses that file their taxes as individuals. “With the second highest unemployment rate in the nation, one would think the Democrat[ic] leaders of Illinois would want to grow jobs for our families. Unfortunately, yet again they choose to pursue policies that will push more jobs out of the Land of Lincoln by punishing job creators,” David From, the Illinois state director of Americans for Prosperity, said in a written statement. Madigan, who acknowledged that there are some years in which he would earn enough to have to pay the surcharge, said of millionaires in the state: “If they’re in Illinois today, they’re probably so much in love with Illinois that they’re not going to leave, and they’ll be grateful for this opportunity to support lower (grade level) education.” Madigan estimates that in 2011, there were 13,675 millionaires in Illinois.

Rauner ‘s campaign shot back with a statement highlighting his personal giving to schools and education reform efforts. “Bruce is happy to pay more to support education—in fact he's been doing that personally for decades, but he doesn’t support what looks like a first step towards empowering Mike Madigan and [Gov.] Pat Quinn to raise taxes on the middle class, small businesses and family farms,” said a prepared statement from campaign manager Chip Englander.

Senate committee approves minimum wage increase

By Jamey Dunn with Caitlin Rydinsky contributing 

A Senate committee today approved a plan to increase the state’s minimum wage.

The proposal would incrementally raise the minimum wage from the current $8.25 an hour to $10.65 an hour by 2016. Opponents of Senate Bill 68 argued that the increase would hurt small businesses and cause them to lay off employees or hesitate to create new positions. Mike Murphy, owner of Charlie Parker’s Diner in Springfield said if the proposed increase took place he would have to cut back the hours of his minimum wage employees and potentially might have to let some of them go. Murphy said his current payroll is about $285,000, not including his own salary and tips that wait staff bring in. He said the proposal would increase payroll costs by about $78,000. “I have two choices: raise prices, or cut costs,” he told the committee. “I cannot price myself out of business; nor will I, and so what I will have to do is cut costs.” He said that he could not do without his skilled higher-paid employees. “My minimum wage employees would be the first to be cut.” Murphy said that the minimum wage has been increased nine times since he opened his business. When asked if the had to layoff any employees under those increases, he said no. But he said that it made things harder for his business, and he did have to cut back on some hours.

Sponsor Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford said that the proposal would bring the minimum wage in line with the current cost of living and help working families avoid poverty. Proponents argue that it would also boost the economy by giving workers more buying power. “This is economic. This is living outside of poverty. This is working an earning a minimum wage,”  she said. “I don’t even feel that this is a party issue. This is people issue.”

While Lightford may not believe that it is a party issue, the legislation passed on party lines out of the committee. Chicago Democratic Sen. John Mulroe voted in favor of the bill today but said he was not yet ready to approve it on a floor vote. “I just want a little more time before I commit to any vote on the floor.” After the committee hearing, Lightford said that she had more negotiating to do on the bill and did not yet have a timeline for when she might call it for a vote in Senate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Incumbent losses and big spending races

By Jamey Dunn

The General Assembly is guaranteed to have some new faces next year after a handful of incumbents were knocked out in their primary races yesterday.

 Chicago Democratic Rep. Antonia “Toni” Berrios spent more than $520,000 in her failed bid to retain her seat in the 39th district, according to spending projections compiled by Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the university of Illinois Springfield. Redfield tracks campaign spending for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Will Guzzardi, who beat out Berrios to be the Democratic candidate for the seat, narrowly lost to her in the primary when he challenged her in the last election cycle. Guzzardi spent about $320,000, but he was also boosted by another almost $100,000 in independent spending, mostly from union groups.

The race was the second most expensive House primary. The bulk of Berrios’ funds came from Democratic Party organizations and House Speaker Michael Madigan. Berrios is the daughter of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, and while local politics came heavily into play in the race, it can also be chalked up as a loss to Madigan, who was unable to protect a member of his caucus. In 2012, Guzzardi, who is a community organizer in Logan Square and a former writer for The Huffington Post, lost by less than 200 votes. Yesterday, he won with a margin of more than 1,000.

Glen Ellyn Republican Rep. Sandra Pihos was defeated by Lombard Village Trustee Peter Breen. Pihos spent almost $400,000. Her funding came from Republican Party organizations, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and organized labor. Breen, who is a lawyer with the conservative nonprofit legal firm the Thomas More Society, only spent a little more than $120,000. But Liberty Principles PAC, a political action committee chaired by conservative talk radio host Dan Proft, made more than $100,000 in independent expenditures supporting Breen in the campaign. Proft also backed Keith Matune against incumbent Rep. Ron Sandack, who is from Downers Grove. Sandack won that race by less than 200 votes, but as of writing this, Matune had yet to concede.

With its incumbent-targeted independent expenditures, Proft’s PAC was able to make the already-tight-on-cash House Republican leadership spend big in the primary. Liberty Principles Pac spent more than $1.5 million, almost all of which came from Lake Forest businessman Richard Uihlein, who runs the Uline packing supply company. His great-grandfather was a co-founder of Milwaukee's Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. Uihlein has emerged in recent years as one of the topic conservative political contributors in the state. Four years ago, he moved Uline’s headquarters from Waukeegan two miles over the state line into Wisconsin after the company received millions in state and local tax incentives to make the move. (For more on Uihlein, see this very interesting Crain’s Chicago Business story, which looks at his recent uptick in political spending.)

Chicago Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith lost to attorney Pamela Reaves-Harris. The Generally Assembly voted to eject Smith after allegations that he took a $7,000 bribe, but he was re-elected to the seat in 2012. Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti lost to Chris Nybo in the Republican primary for Sen. Kirk Dillard’s seat. Nybo is a former House member who was defeated by Dillard in the primary when he ran for the Senate in 2012. Dillard gave up his seat to run in the Republican Gubernatorial primary, but came in second to nominee Bruce Rauner.

A freshman incumbent was able to hang on to his seat in the priciest race in yesterday’s election. Chicago Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell faced a challenge from community organizer Jay Travis. Mitchell spent nearly $770,000. He received his funding from House Democratic leadership, education reform groups and business groups. Meanwhile, Travis spent about $100,000. However union-funded groups made independent expenditures of more than $250,000 supporting her. The bulk of her campaign money also came from unions, which were presumably pushing back against Mitchell’s vote in favor of changes to public employee pension benefits. Mitchell had some high-profile supporters, including U.S. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. Despite his aggressive spending, Mitchell won by fewer than 500 votes. As of writing this, Travis had yet to concede.

Johnson County anti-fracking initiative fails

By Jamey Dunn

A ballot initiative to ban fracking in Johnson County was solidly defeated during last night’s primary vote.

After years of negotiation among interest groups and environmental organizations, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law regulating high-volume hydraulic horizontal fracking in June. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking. Nearly 200 leases have been signed by landowners in the sparsely populated county to allow companies to use fracking to extract oil and gas.

The new law sets statewide rules for the practice and does not allow for local bans. The Department of Natural Resources, which will regulate fracking, is currently working to establish rules that will determine the implementation of the new law. The nonbinding referendum in Johnson County, which is in southern Illinois, would not have had the legal power to keep fracking out of the community, but supporters had hoped that if the proposition passed, it would spur local officials into passing something known as a Community Bill of Rights. “It doesn’t do much good to just pass a ban because that’s not ever going to stand up in court,” said Annette McMichael, communications director with Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). “It [was] our hope that the commissioners [would] see that as a call of action to go ahead and develop a community bill of rights.”

The bill of rights is a tactic championed by the Community Environmental Legal Defense. The group argues that communities are having their rights to say no to potentially harmful practices in their area preempted by other levels of government. “To protect these rights, the Community Bills of Rights prohibit activities that would violate those rights, such as fracking and genetically modified seeds. Harmful corporate activities that directly impact a community are banned as community rights are elevated above corporate ‘rights,’” said the CELD’s website.

But voters rejected the concept. More than half of those that went to the polls in Johnson County said “no” to the question: “Shall the people’s right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health, safety and a clean environment?” The initiative failed with 2,223 opposed and 1,602 in favor. Many believe the question brought voters to the polls; turnout was just under half of registered voters, a high rate for a primary election.

Early polling indicated that there was widespread support for the initiative. It was placed on the ballot after backers collected 1,000 signatures. They needed fewer than 400. But local groups—including businesses, farmers, and organized labor—came together to oppose measure. The opposition raised about $20,000 to get its message out and had at least one county commission backing them. The group focused on the concern that a community bill of rights could be used to block other development in the county beyond fracking. “That says a lot about the concern that is within the community,” Mike McMahan, treasurer of Citizens Opposed to Johnson County Fracking Proposition, said to The Southern Illinoisan about the vote.

Those in support of the initiative said that the opposition clouded the issue by making it about something other than fracking, which they said was their only target. “I’m disappointed of course. The reason I’m in this is because this is my home,” local proponent Stephen Nichols told ABC News affiliate WSIl.

 “We were very pleased with the results in Johnson County last night,” said Mark Denzler, co-chair of industry group GROW-IL and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. He said that he thinks the measure won out in part because the public learned about the regulations built into the new law, which supports call the strictest in the country, and the safety measures taken by the industry to avoid environmental calamities. The biggest concern that typically comes along with fracking is water pollution and the sheer volume of water the process requires. But the potential for air pollution and increased wear and tear on local infrastructure are also factors.

Denzler, who was part of the negotiations over the new law, said legislators opted to give the state control over fracking legislation to ensure that the rules are the same across the state. “It makes it difficult for any industry to do business on a county by county basis. ... Some of these leases might cross county lines, for example. You want to make sure that you have consistent regulations.” He said that while some residents may want to ban fracking, other counties might want to set very weak regulations in an effort to draw more development. Denzler said that a statewide standard ensures that all citizens are protected equally.

Those who are worried about the environmental impact fracking will have in southern Illinois say they will continue to push for stricter regulation through the IDNR and will continue efforts at public education about the possible risks. Nichols said he plans to keep trying to “convince people of the potential for problems with fracking before it gets here.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Primary election resources

Here are some resources for today's primary.

See Illinois Issues' rundown of the governor's race and legislative primaries to watch. Also, yesterday's primary preview is here. 

Illinois Issues Statehouse Bureau Chief Jamey Dunn will be participating in The Count 2014's Google Hangout from 9:30 pm to 10:30 pm tonight. A few longtime statehouse observers will be calling in, and some reporters may also drop in, schedules permitting. Participants can ask questions and share comments. You can follow this link to join.  (You must make a Google profile, if you do not already have one.)

Other resources:

WUIS and Illinois Public Radio will have live coverage starting at 7:00 pm. (Click the Listen Live button at the top of the page.)

The Chicago Sun-Times' Early and Often political team has a primary live blog. 

You can also check out the Chicago Tribune's Election Center.

The State Journal-Register will have several election-related features on its homepage. 

Lee Enterprises has coverage from its papers throughout the state consolidated on its elections page.

For news on the governor's race and legislative races in the Chicago suburbs, go to the Daily Herald's Election 2014 webpage. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Primary preview

By Jamey Dunn

With two candidates clearly in the lead for their perspective party’s gubernatorial nominations, statehouse watchers are not expecting many surprises from tomorrow’s primary election.

Since the early days of the Republican primary race, the question has been which candidate might become the viable alternative to wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner, who has consistently led in the polls? After gaining the support of public employee unions, it seems that Hinsdale Sen. Kirk Dillard has won that role, but it also seems that it won’t be enough for him to defeat Rauner.

A We Ask America poll of more than 1,000 likely Republican voters conducted on Sunday night found Rauner, who is from Winnetka, in the lead with 44 percent of the vote to Dillard’s 27 percent. Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady had 19 percent and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, had just 9 percent. (Percentages do no add up to 100 percent because of rounding.) The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3 percent. “I would be surprised [if Rauner is not the nominee]. I mean, I really would,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “His appeal has been broad. He’s not a regional candidate. He’s getting downstate support.”

It seems nearly impossible that Chicago Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn would be defeated by his primary challenger Tio Hardiman, who has been unable to raise any substantial funds. With the pressure off in that primary, unions may work to get members who usually cast a Democratic ballot in the primary to cross over and vote for Dillard as an alternative to the “union boss” bashing Rauner. Still, it looks unlikely that they could corral enough cross-over votes. According to the We Ask American analysis, based on a turn out of 800,000 voters in the Republican primary, Dillard would need 135,040 cross-over votes to win. “To get union people who are Democrats to cross over, I think, is just really hard. We don’t have much of a history of cross over,'' in the state, Redfield said. To put it another way, the We Ask America analysis says: “There may be enough cross over to move numbers tomorrow. But a few won’t be enough. Dillard needs a stampede.” Redfield, who tracks campaign contributions and spending for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s Sunshine Project, said that according to his rough estimates, Dillard will likely have had about $2 million or $3 million total to spend on the campaign. That compares to Rauner’s war chest, which he says could be as large as $17 million.

At one point it seemed like Rutherford might emerge as the dark-horse contender, but accusations of sexual harassment and pressure to do political work from an employee dealt a mortal blow to his campaign, which has continued limping along it what seems to have become purely a symbolic effort at this point. Rutherford is not making a final tour of the state today and he has barred reporters from his election night party for supporters. “I don’t know where the Rutherford voters go. If you’re looking for a fresh face, and think that Brady and Dillard were old news ,and therefore you were attracted to Rutherford as the new person that had the energy, that was doing fundraising and stuff, then I don’t know that you automatically go back to Dillard or Brady. Some of its going to Rauner. I think that’s pretty clear,” Redfield says.

After the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary came down to just a few hundred votes, those who closely watch Illinois elections are unwilling to call anything a totally certain bet. When multiple candidates are competing for a small pool of primary voters, relatively small changes in voter opinion can have big consequences. Still, there is a feeling among analysts and observers that Rauner has it sewn up. “Low-turnout low-interest primary, four candidates—yeah weird things can happen but it’s just it’s hard to see the dynamic about how anything’s going to change. Those tracking polls have been pretty consistent.” For more on the governor’s race, see Illinois Issues February 2014.

More than half of the 137 state legislative races are uncontested. About 30 candidates do not face a primary challenger but will face a general election opponent. Of the contested primaries, a few boil down to some key votes made by incumbents and outside groups having the money to challenge them. Freshman Rep. Christian Mitchell, a Chicago Democrat, is facing a tough race against opponent community organizer Jay Travis. Mitchell voted in favor of recently passed changes to public employee pension benefits. Now he has been hit with push back from public employee unions. Travis is reaping the benefits—in the form of campaign funding—from that fallout. Meanwhile education reform groups, such as Stand for Illinois Children, are putting cash into Mitchell’s campaign. So far, Mitchell has been leading in the polls. Redfield said it is important to House Speaker Michael Madigan that incumbents like Mitchell, who took a tough vote, not get knocked out by a primary challenger.“[If] those people were to go down then that will send a message that the speaker can’t always protect you. And the speaker’s not in favor of that message being out there.”

On the Republican side of the aisle, some incumbents are facing races against decidedly more conservative primary candidates. Downers Grove Republican Ron Sandack, one of only three House Republicans to vote in favor of same sex marriage, is facing Keith Matune in the primary. Matune’s bid is being financially backed in part by independent expenditures from a political action committee run by former Republican gubernatorial hopeful Dan Proft. Mundelein Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan, who also voted in favor of same sex marriage, is facing a challenge from Bob Bednar.

Wealthy conservative Republican Sen. Jim Oberweis, who is from Sugar Grove, has been leading Doug Truax in the Republican primary race to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin. This is Oberweis’ third try at running for the office. If he wins tomorrow, it will be the first time he has survived the primary in a U.S. Senate race. “You have this war about what’s the real Republican Party—the big ideological conflicts,” Redfield says. He says that social conservatives may be disappointed if Rauner is one of the candidates leading their ticket because he does not seem willing to fight culture war battles. Instead it seems likely he will focus on education reform and making the state more business friendly. “I can’t imagine Rauner’s going to be willing to spend political capital on social issues that he can’t win when he really wants to do these (other) things as far education, as far as tax code, those sorts of things.”

For more on what state legislative primary races to watch tomorrow, see Illinois Issues February 2014.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chicago issues rules cracking down on petcoke storage

By Jamey Dunn

The city of Chicago issued rules today that will require storage facilities to do more to prevent petroleum waste from becoming airborne and floating over residential areas. Petroleum coke, also known as petcoke, is a byproduct of refining oil. It is primarily composed of carbon and sulfur but can also contain heavy metals. Some kinds of petcoke are marketable as a fuel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not classify petcoke as a hazardous material. But residents who live near storage facilities on the Calumet River say that the wind carries dust from large piles of petcoke to their homes and properties.

The city’s new rules go into effect immediately, but they give storage facilities two years before they are required to keep petcoke in enclosures. They rules also require that trucks and conveyer belts moving petcoke be covered. Facilities will be required to install monitoring devices to track dust emission. Companies have 90 days to submit their plans to comply with the new rules and will be required to give monthly updates as they implement their plans. “Just as we fought to shutter the two remaining coal power plants in the city of Chicago, we are working to force these petroleum coke facilities to either clean up or shut down,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a prepared statement.

There is a push to adopt similar rules across the state. Gov. Pat Quinn proposed emergency regulation on the industry, but his plan was shot down by the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Business groups claimed that Quinn was trying to rush rules through the process in a situation that did not constitute an emergency. They said that the regulations were too strict and sweeping and would cost the state jobs.

“These rules would affect far more than one industry. Petroleum coke is used in the manufacturing of cement, steel, paper, brick, glass, paint and other products, not to mention the related industries of trucking, rail, barges, refineries and power generation. Imposing these rules could result in a de facto moratorium on petroleum coke and the loss of many jobs in Illinois,” Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, said of the rules after Quinn proposed them. The rules are now going through the standard process, which can take several month. 

Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering proposals that would crack down on petcoke dust. House Bill 5939 would require that pet coke be enclosed. A hearing on the legislation is scheduled next week. “The city's regulations complement what we are seeking to do at the state level, with legislation proposing enclosures for certain facilities that handle pet coke and other refinery production materials,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a prepared statement. “Through joint legal and legislative action, we will require these companies to clean up their acts and protect the health and safety of residents in Chicago and throughout Illinois.” Both Madigan and a group of community members have sued KCBX Terminals, which is a subsidiary of Koch Industries — owned by the ├╝ber wealthy and politically active brothers, Charles and David Koch.

“We are still evaluating the city's rule and our ability to comply with it. We've recently invested more than $30 million in improvements to our site and this would require a very significant investment on top of that, which we need to carefully consider,” KCBX spokesman Jake Reint said in a written statement. “We have employees whose families depend on the jobs we provide, so we are going to make every effort to work with the city to ensure that our operations remain compliant so that we may stay in business.”

For more on the environmental history of the southeast side of Chicago see Illinois Issues July/August 2012. For more on the dispute over petcoke, see Illinois Issues February 2014.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Enrollment grows as Obamacare sign-up deadline approaches

By Jamey Dunn

According to enrollment numbers released by the federal government today, more than 313,000 Illinoisans have obtained health care coverage under “Obamacare.”

As of the end of February, 113,733 got insurance coverage through either Illinois’ insurance marketplace or the federal website. That number is up by 25,131 from January’s total. In addition to those who have chosen insurance plans, about 200,000 people have received coverage under the Medicaid expansion, which is a key component of the Affordable Care Act. “February was a busy and productive month, and we are working hard to build on it in the next three weeks. We want everyone who is not yet covered to know that the six-month enrollment window will be closing as of March 31,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois, said in a prepared statement. “To everyone who has been waiting on the sidelines, we are saying: ‘Don’t delay: Enroll today.’ Go to our website, and find out what your options are. We are working closely with hundreds of community partners across Illinois to ensure that everyone who needs assistance can get it, and that no one misses out on the opportunity to enroll in a quality, affordable health plan this month.” Those seeking insurance coverage that begins on April 1 must unroll by this Saturday. Anyone who does not have coverage by the March 31 deadline would be subject to a penalty fee when they file their tax returns for 2014. However, there are exemptions for those who opt out of coverage for religious reasons or those who can show that they are not eligible for Medicaid and cannot afford coverage. The next open enrollment period is scheduled for November with coverage beginning in January 2015.

Of the Illinoisans that have purchased insurance, 77 percent are eligible for federal subsidies to help cover the cost. More than half of those getting coverage are women and 25 percent are between the ages of 18 and 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 pre-existing conditions. The rate of young enrollees in Illinois tracks with the federal numbers, but is lower than the number of them that are eligible for coverage. 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. Health care officials on the state and federal level are courting young people to sign up before the March 31 open enrollment deadline. Illinois partnered with the satirical news website The Onion to advertise coverage. President Barack Obama made on online splash today by pitching Obamacare on Between Two Ferns—a talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis that airs on a website called Funny or Die.

For more on the state's online insurance exchange, see the current Illinois Issues. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Senate approves revenue estimate

By Jamey Dunn

The Senate today approved a revenue estimate already passed by the House. According to the projection, the state will have about $1 billion less to spend in the next fiscal year.

The revenue projection of $34.495 billion is based on estimates from the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability's (COGFA). Revenue will drop substantially from the current fiscal year because the state’s temporary income tax increase will begin to step down during the second half of Fiscal Year 2015.

Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat from Park Ridge, said that the approval of a revenue estimate at the beginning of the spring session, something lawmakers have done the past few years, is an improvement on the budgeting process. “We’re identifying available revenue first,” and then deciding how to spend it, he said. “We used to do it based on what we were going to spend first.”

 While the revenue estimate passed with strong bipartisan support in the House, Republicans in the Senate took issue with the numbers. They argued that the estimate sweeps about $400 million of general revenue into special funds, and therefore makes the loss of revenue for next fiscal year look even worse. Palatine Republican Sen. Mat Murphy said he suspects that Democrats may by trying to make the situation look worse “to try to justify continuing the tax increase.” He cautioned that whatever the revenue estimate is, lawmakers should not consider it all money that they can spend next fiscal year because the state still has billions of unpaid bills. Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter said, “This is creative accounting, and typically creative accountants would go the jail.”

Senate President John Cullerton noted that the use of special funds for budgeting is standard practice in Illinois and about half of the money in the budget is in such funds. “We’re not hiding it. It’s just not considered to be part of the General Revenue Fund,” he said. “It’s not a conspiracy.”

The estimate is not legally binding, but lawmakers have generally stuck to them since the process began  the process in 2011. If that continues this year, expect cuts to spending in core areas of the state budget, such as education.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

House begins to mull minimum wage increase

By Jamey Dunn

A House committee today began taking testimony on a proposal to increase the minimum wage in the state.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Arthur Turner proposed House Bill 3718, which would increase the minimum wage in the state in an incremental way. Under the proposal, the wage would go from $8.25 an hour to a $9.25 an hour starting in October of this year. The wage would go up to $10 and hour in 2015 and increase again in 2016 to $10.65. The bill has yet to be assigned to a committee. But the members of the House Labor and Commerce committee said they wanted to get a jump on getting information about the proposal. The legislation has 26 House sponsors.

Robert Lee, who said he had been homeless in the past, told the committee that an increase to the minimum wage would help him support his daughters. “When I have to tell them ‘no’ all the time because I can’t afford to be able to do what I need to do for them, it hurts,” he said.

Tim Drea, the secretary treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said that typical minimum wage workers are not teenagers and college students. But he said that even the ones who are, face growing college tuition costs. But in increase in the minimum wage could also mean less work available at public universities for students. Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard told lawmakers last month that if the minimum wage were increases to $10, the school would either have to cut back on student workers or cut elsewhere in its operations. “Between salaries and fixed costs, we don’t have any extra to run our universities,'' he said.

Rev. Robert Jones with the Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago said that financial hardship is one of the most common personal problems that he counsels his parishioners about. “The workers I hear from are not looking for a handout. They’re not looking for a government subsidy. They simply want to earn a fair day’s wage for a good day’s work.” He said that the cost to fill basic needs, such as food and transportation, continues to increase. “Yet, it seems that it is not okay to raise the wage for the workers who make the bread, who work at the gas stations, who produce the goods and services that we as citizens are used to consuming on a daily basis.”

The committee only took testimony from proponents today, and it plans to hear from opponents when lawmakers return for session after the March 18 primary election. Gov. Pat Quinn called for an increase to the minimum wage in his State of the State address earlier this year. There is also a campaign underway in the Senate to pass a different bill to increase the minimum wage. That legislation is sponsored by Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford.

Monday, March 03, 2014


Need to catch up on Illinois politics? Check out this new edition of CapitolView that aired over the weekend.

CapitolView, WSEC-TV Springfield. Host Bernie Schoeburg (SJR) and guests Kent Redfield (UIS) and Brian Mackey(IL Public Radio/WUIS) discuss Rauner's infusion of money, Dillard getting endorsed by the Illinois Retired Teachers Association, new polling, the audit of the anti-violence plan that was very critical of Gov. Quinn, and the investigation into DCFS. Also a nice dedication to Bob Murray, former weather man and TV/radio personality, at the end.