Observations and comments about state government by State Representative Robert W. Pritchard.
February 15, 2010
School children in the House gallery last week witnessed a lesson in how democracy works in Illinois that isn’t taught in textbooks. House Speaker Michael Madigan refused to let HB 5008—a bill that would limit legislative leader influence, power and control—be debated on the House floor.
House rules have been shaped by Madigan over his 30 years in control of the chamber as Speaker or majority leader. Those rules give him near dictatorial power in the chamber including requiring a unanimous agreement to discharge any bill from committee for debate. As a result, he simply objects to discharging any bill he dislikes.
With such control it is easy to see why Republican ideas for government reform, balanced budget, and job creation rarely receive a hearing or vote. The Speaker, nevertheless, released a scathing attack of the Republican members on U-Tube this week calling us “do nothing dropouts” for not solving the state’s problems or, I might add, blindly going along with his ideas.
None of the Speaker’s party even dare challenge his decisions or his legislation. Consequently the responsibility for the state’s current fiscal crisis and legislature’s inaction to correct it must lie in large part with the person controlling the chamber.
Local Units of Government Want Corrections to FOIA Law
When the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed last year, Attorney General Madigan and Speaker Madigan rejected most concerns or requests for changes to the bill’s wording. Since then it has become clear that the revised act and the way the Attorney General (AG) is interpreting the law requires much more of local units of government than was represented in debate.
I met with representatives of counties, townships, municipalities and park districts this past week to hear some of their concerns and plan to push for revisions in the law. Perhaps the biggest change would be to modify the language that FOIA responses are the “primary duty” of the public body notwithstanding fiscal obligations.
The way the AG is applying the law requires every unit of government, even those with only a part-time staff, to supply requested information within five business days. Some staff only work a few days a week. The AG also ignores the cost in time and copying charges for supplying the information. In these tight economic times, no unit of government can afford to “drop everything” or pay overtime costs to research and reproduce what could be “fishing expedition” requests.
The local government groups also want to exempt personnel records, identities of individuals using park district programs, and be allowed to clarify requests so as not to waste time searching for unwanted information. They want to cap the amount of free information an individual can request in a year and prohibit use of information for commercial purposes.
The old Freedom of Information Act was being ignored and abused so something had to be done. The problems with the current law come from too little cooperation by the Attorney General’s office during drafting and its intransigent interpretation of the law.
Education Bill Would Help Locals Manage Budgets
School districts around the state struggling with less revenue are being forced to lay off teachers, increase class size and reduce course offerings and extracurricular programs among cost cutting options. Legislation has been introduced in the House to also allow districts to modify or ignore certain unfunded or partially funded mandates from the state.
House Bill 4711 sets out which mandates can be ignored if agreed by the local school board and which must still be followed. Of course various groups are lobbying to exempt their mandates from the local option or prevent giving local boards any discretion. The state is failing to pay what it owes schools so it should give districts some fiscal options.
Public Universities React to Delayed State Payments
Presidents and chancellors of twelve public universities have sent letters to Governor Quinn and Comptroller Hynes asking them to set a payment schedule for overdue state reimbursements. The universities say the state has only paid about a third of what it appropriated for their operations this year and they are at risk of not being able to pay employees.
In addition, some universities and legislators are backing a plan that would grant universities authority to borrow against anticipated state payments. Such a move would relieve pressure for the state to make payments anytime soon but would allow the universities some flexibility in continuing to operate.
The ripple effect of the state’s insolvency is hitting everyone. Like a deer caught in a vehicle headlight, the Governor and legislative leaders seem paralyzed to react. Citizens must force them to fulfill their responsibilities.
Help Governor Shape the Budget
Instead of presenting his 2011 budget the third Wednesday of February as required by the constitution, Governor Quinn was given a three week delay so he can gather ideas for balancing the budget from citizens. Legislation was passed last week giving him until March 10 which further delays legislative debate and solutions to our fiscal crisis.
HB 2240 passed into law in about 48 hours, instead of the allowed 3 months, showing that leaders can really move when they are motivated. Besides delaying the budget address, the legislation invites public comment about the budget and how to solve our fiscal problems.
Is this real democracy or evidence that current leaders don’t know how or have the will to make tough fiscal choices?
The bill specifies that the Governor create an internet website (www.budget.illinois.gov) by February 24 and post anticipated revenue and expenses for 2010 and 2011. Then it invites citizens and legislators to make written budget recommendations. No one remembers our state government ever asking taxpayers for their ideas let alone a chance to craft the budget.
The cynics among us will say the Governor and legislative leaders don’t want to take the responsibility for solving the fiscal mess they helped to create. This is just a quick poll to see how many people want a tax increase and how many don’t. Then legislators can say what comedian Bill Cosby used to say “The devil made me do it!”
By posting all comments on the internet, however, the legislation is a crafty trap to identify legislators in the next campaign who support cuts for certain programs or increased taxes, if even temporary, to just pay our bills. No one wants their program cut or to pay more taxes for something that doesn’t benefit them.
I am all for transparency and listening to the opinions and ideas of citizens. That’s the way I fulfill my responsibilities as representative. In addition, the bill gives legislators who have been excluded from the budgeting process for years a chance to finally participate in shaping the budget and state priorities.
I welcome the challenge and hope you do too. Write your ideas to Governor Pat Quinn, 207 State House, Springfield, IL 62706. Be positive, creative and brief. Help the Governor make some tough decisions, cut waste and reform ineffective programs. This is a historic opportunity to change the direction of our state and its fiscal policies. Don’t let the opportunity go to waste.
If you are coming to Springfield to lobby this week, give me a call so we can connect. The capitol will be very crowded on Wednesday.
District Office 815-748-3494 or E-Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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