May 10, 2010
The wheels started coming off the train early last week and by Friday we had a full-scale legislative derailment. Considering the budget plan Speaker Madigan unilaterally developed, I’m not surprised that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle finally said “enough.”
The plan presented to the majority party on Friday when they met in caucus for the first time this year was more borrowing, a bigger budget, further delays in paying bills and giving unprecedented power to the Governor to direct spending. These were not good ideas or long-term solutions to the deep fiscal problems we have in Illinois.
I point out that this was their first meeting to give a sense of how Speaker Madigan governs. The Republicans caucus at least once a week to talk about bills, try to anticipate what the Speaker will do that week, and suggest ways to recapture some of the power that has been given the Speaker over his 26 years in the office. The Speaker doesn’t want to even listen to his members so doesn’t let them gather as a group.
The five Appropriation Committees of the House used to craft the budget line-by-line but that stopped about the time I joined the legislature. Speaker Madigan wanted more control of drafting a budget and the agency heads appointed by then Governor Blagojevich wouldn’t share information crucial for the legislature to make budget decisions.
Appropriation Committee chairs and a few legislative leaders called “budgeteers” then met to suggest funding levels for the Speaker but even that broke down in recent years. The budget cuts and allocations presented to the legislature Friday were drafted by the two leaders in the House and Senate. It’s understandable then that legislators revolted when they saw what was presented, didn’t have a hand in crafting the budget, and couldn’t have a hearing of their ideas.
Perhaps the leadership in Illinois has hit rock bottom and legislators along with angry citizens will take back control of the process and allow open debate on the difficult choices our state faces. Maybe Friday will be the spark needed for true reform in Illinois.
Another Irresponsible Budget Stopped, for Now
The budget plan presented to the legislature on Thursday relied upon stealing $1 billion from special funds, deferring the $3.7 billion pension payment until after the election, and using income from half of next year to pay this year’s bills. In addition, funding would have been cut for the most vulnerable and schools, and the Governor would have been given unprecedented powers to decide which bills to pay and reallocate funding.
Last spring the Governor committed to work with the legislature to make reforms in government, reduce spending to balance the budget and stimulate the economy to create more jobs. The Governor was given unprecedented authority and flexibility, many citizens and legislators shared ideas and bills were introduced that if passed would have helped. A year later we are still waiting for the Governor to respond.
The budget presented last week was not a road map to employ people, make careful choices about spending or to stop digging our budget hole. Perhaps in the next few weeks, legislative leaders and the Governor will rethink their dictatorial styles and be open to other ideas.
Sales Tax Holiday Adds to Hole
The Illinois House passed SB 3658 this past week which would remove the state sales tax on back to school supplies and clothing. The 10-day holiday if signed into law would start August 6th and waive the 5 percent state sales tax on school supplies and clothing costing less than $100.
While many families would welcome any financial relief, the legislation reduces state revenue by $25 to 50 million at a time some want to raise taxes on other groups to add revenue. The sales tax would help pay for many services including appropriations to our schools. When Illinois is struggling to pay bills, it’s hard to see how a sales tax holiday will create jobs or solve our budget hole.
Re-tuning for McCormick Place Economic Engine
SB 28 passed both chambers last week with its reforms and restructuring to Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority–McCormick Place. The legislation attempts to address issues that have caused many national trade shows to select other convention destinations, such as Las Vegas and Orlando, over Chicago’s McCormick Place.
The new law will affect management of the nation’s largest convention center, labor rules, debt structure, exhibitor’s bill of rights and governance among other issues.
Fewer conventions coming to Chicago totals billions of dollars less revenue for the region and state. Loss of local tax revenue from the convention business means the state will have to subsidize bond payments for McCormick Place. Efforts to refinance those bonds in recent years could have saved the state $250 to 500 million but were blocked by Speaker Madigan.
Hopefully this legislation will provide a transformation to McCormick Place and make it a competitor once again in the convention industry.
Nursing Home Regulations Expand
Legislation aimed at restructuring nursing homes in Illinois advanced through both chambers last week. The push for reform originated from media stories about assaults, rapes and even murder by mentally ill criminals living in Chicago area nursing homes.
Governor Quinn formed the Nursing Home Safety Task Force to examine these issues and pushed for legislation incorporating its recommendations. SB 326 requires facilities to develop residence care plans. The legislation sets forth background checks for incoming nursing home residents, a procedure for mental health screenings, increased staffing levels and more state regulation.
In the next month I will be scheduling a forum for area nursing homes to discuss the new law, the task force report and allow nursing home management to meet with regulating agencies.
Telecom Law Rewrite Heads to Governor
Legislation intended to modernize Illinois’ telecommunications law passed both chambers unanimously this past week. Since the current law was passed over 25 years ago, wireless technology and broadband communication, which aren’t covered, have become more widespread and popular.
Current regulations force companies to invest in old technology and limit their ability to expand into the new media. Neighboring states have updated their laws and have seen business investment and job growth as a result.
The legislation also maintains high standards for service quality by promoting competition in the marketplace. SB 107 requires a few low-cost old technology options for consumers while loosening regulation on modern technology allowing companies to respond to consumer demand and compete for business. Basic landline costs would also be frozen for three years until the bill sunsets in July 2013.
Public Education Critical in a Democracy
The debate over how to improve failing schools continues after the defeat of SB 2494—school vouchers—this past week. The legislation would have allowed a pilot student voucher program in Chicago’s worst elementary schools where test scores are in single digits and less than a quarter of students go on to complete high school. Students reportedly could use the vouchers to attend a private school where they would get a better education.
I was especially persuaded by legislators representing the most failing schools who explained that few kids will be able to escape their neighborhoods to attend private schools. The problem, according to Representative Turner who lives in the affected area, is that poverty limits how engaged parents can be in their children’s education and limits the community’s ability to support teachers and school leaders.
An engaged community has proven to be a better model for student success and support of qualified teachers and school leaders who are working to handle the personal challenges children bring to school.
I remember reading how our founding fathers worked to create a public school system where all children, not just the wealthy or brightest students, could get a basic education. They understood that an educated nation is essential for the success of democracy and to compete in a global economy.
If we truly want to help our failing students and schools, we need to start from the bottom up and reorganize the failing schools. The legislature has already taken steps to add more charter schools in Chicago and elsewhere, to improve the preparation for teachers and school leaders, and to track the growth of our students over time.
More than just vouchers are necessary to change the culture, values and ability of these communities to support education for their children. I am committed to working with educational leaders, school advocates and community leaders to change the direction of failing schools. I am meeting with the State Superintendent of Schools this week and I welcome your ideas for a real solution.
I look forward to going back to Springfield—all summer if necessary–to craft a budget that will make difficult choices, set Illinois on the path of economic recovery and help put people to work.
Observations and comments about state government by State Representative Robert W. Pritchard.
District Office 815-748-3494 or E-Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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