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
February 8, 2010
I hope you had a super weekend and a chance to think about something other than the election. The news has been focused on the Governor and Lt. Governor elections for so long you may have missed a lot of news which also has an effect on local citizens and on our state. A few of those topics follow.
The House of Representatives met last week but we might as well have stayed home and taken down campaign signs. Little was accomplished and the leaders tried to avoid the topic of unpaid bills. I spoke on the House floor on behalf of our schools, colleges and local service providers that it’s time to break the budget gridlock. Businesses and non-profit providers who contract with the state can’t wait any longer to be paid. Essential services will be shut down very soon. The inactivity of the legislature has really paralyzed our state.
Court Ignores Access to Care Issue
Last week the Illinois Supreme Court overturned a 2005 law placing limits on jury awards in medical malpractice cases. I helped pass that law in response to a major health care crisis at the time. That law has helped to reduce insurance costs for doctors, stopped the exodus from the state of doctors who specialize in high risk procedures, and allows patients like pregnant women and spinal injury victims to get faster care closer to home.
Not surprisingly the high court continued the philosophy of past verdicts sympathetic to trial lawyers and people who want to sue for bad health outcomes. The majority of justices believe judicial verdicts should not be reduced by public policy adopted by the legislature. They feel this is a violation of the separation of powers between the courts and legislature.
That argument ignores the fact that 30 other states have limits on medical damage and their state courts have upheld the constitutionality of caps. In addition, the Illinois legislature frequently passes laws dictating policy to the court including levels of fines and even imprisonment for certain offenses.
We will have to see how doctors and trial lawyers respond to the ruling but I am concerned about the access to specialized health care for citizens in our area. Doctors and hospitals are already economically strapped by the state’s policy of delaying payment for care to Medicaid and state insurance patients. If insurance costs go up again and doctors have to defend themselves from frivolous law suits, they may choose to close their practices and move to another state.
Justices Karmeier and Garmin noted in their dissent to the opinion that “if the cap on noneconomic damages is truly problematic, one would expect to see situations in which its application has resulted in hardships. That has not happened.” Instead the law has encouraged 5,000 more doctors to practice in Illinois, three new insurance companies are now offering coverage in our state and current insurers have dropped rates by 5 to more than 30 percent. They have responded positively to the liability caps, which have now been removed.
As justice Karmeier wrote, the constitution gives legislatures the responsibility to set public policy not the courts. The cumulative harm from reduced access to medical treatment could easily overshadow the benefits to a few individual plaintiffs from the abolition of damage caps.
Illinois Qualifies for Bankruptcy
The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago concludes that Illinois is insolvent and may be reaching a tipping point where it will be extremely difficult to reverse the tide of debt and budgetary shortfalls. Legal experts say the protections of the federal bankruptcy code are available to cities and counties, but not states.
So while a state can’t go bankrupt, we fit the classic definition: Illinois’ liabilities far exceed its assets, while we have an inability to generate enough cash to pay our bills.
To focus public attention on solutions, the Civic Committee is kicking off a campaign in major newspapers and on the internet (www.IllinoisIsBroke.com). They support what my House colleagues and I have been saying: balance the budget, cut spending, reform pensions and Medicaid, and stop borrowing.
As if to mock our suggestions, the Governor recently sold $3.46 billion in pension notes. The proceeds of the sale will go towards pension payments and $840 million will be used to help reduce the state’s unpaid bills backlog.
Meanwhile the Comptroller’s office reports it will have to direct $500 million or more each month from March to June to pay off our emergency short-term borrowing. Some financial help is coming from the release of FamilyCare money held up in a Blagojevich lawsuit –$400 million—and nearly $1 billion from the release of federal stimulus dollars.
Expand Revenue by Creating Jobs
At least a few in Springfield realize the state’s revenue picture could be improved by attracting business to Illinois and the jobs and economic activity they create. The new House Bipartisan Jobs Creation Task Force held its first hearing in Rockford recently where many community and business leaders shared their experiences about state actions that attract or force employers out of the state.
The ideas included less regulation and faster permit review, retooling state incentives for job creation, and updating transportation and internet infrastructure. Education was frequently mentioned with ideas for more focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, workforce retraining and skill development, as well as helping small manufacturers stay competitive and adopt best practices.
Northern Illinois University College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Dean Promod Vohra talked about the importance of training students in application engineering and helping undergraduates intern with businesses too small to hire full-time engineers. He shared how NIU students conducted energy conservation audits for businesses and formed a center for manufacturing excellence.
There were many other ideas at the hearing and shared with me by constituents that are worthy of state action. Most of all, our state leaders must create an attractive business climate by balancing the state’s budget, adequately funding education and health care, and setting competitive taxes and fees.
Genoa and Sandwich Receive State Park Grants
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has announced $16.9 million in open space and land development (OSLAD) grants for 49 projects including funding for two in our area. The money comes from a small share of the real estate transfer tax and is awarded to enhance the quality of life in Illinois.
Genoa Township Park District will receive $400,000 to develop Chamberlain Park in Genoa. The development includes ball fields, a soccer field, walking path with fitness stations, a shelter, basketball shoot-around facility, fishing platform and a water playground.
Additionally, Sandwich Park District will receive $400,000 to develop 5.75-acres adjacent to Milestone Park on Castle Street. New facilities include a softball field, soccer field, splash pad, a skate park and a walking/exercise trail with fitness equipment.
Recipients must use local and other funds for at least half the cost of their projects. Therefore the $16.9 million will leverage projects valued at more than $33.8 million. The slowdown in the housing market has reduced transfers and resulting taxes for open space and land development.
Violent Crimes Victims Assistance Applications
Each year, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General makes available funding through the Violent Crimes Victims Assistance (VCVA) Program. Grants are available to social service and government agencies throughout the state that provide victims and witnesses faster and more complete recovery from the devastating effects of crime.
VCVA funds are awarded to any agency within a community that assists in providing helpful services to victims of crime. Past recipients include rape crisis centers, prosecutors’ offices, hospitals, and other community based organizations.
For more information, call 800-228-3368 or check the website, www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/victims/index.html.
Awareness Increases for College Financial Aid
Governor Quinn is promoting college financial aid awareness this month to help Illinois students and families learn about college financing and how to apply for aid. The cost to attend college is rising rapidly but there are several state savings programs and more financial aid available than ever before.
The Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) will emphasize “putting your hands on some cash” as part of its KnowHow2Go Illinois initiative. Their website (www.collegezone.com) shares information.
Federal Rural Development Financing Available
Local U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development staff held a meeting recently to share information about several loan and grant programs available for businesses, communities and individuals. Nearly $385 million has already been awarded for rural development in Illinois with nearly $19 billion appropriated nationally by Congress.
The financing includes business and industry guaranteed loans; community construction, libraries and broadband; water and waste water programs; and home financing in rural and small towns.
For eligibility go to http://eligibility.sc.egov.usda.gov or call my office for guidance and information.
Remember, the Ground Hog said spring was just around the corner.
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