Observations and comments about state government by State Representative Robert W. Pritchard.
In this Issue:
· Agency Redirects Childcare Subsidies
· State Worker Benefits Must Be Fair
· Governor’s Prayer Breakfast Offers Hope
· Assistance Outlined for Illinois Business
· Abuses Reveal Unhealthy Culture
· Drivers Ed Reforms Spark Controversy
· Visitors Fill the Capitol
Agency Redirects Childcare Subsidies
This past week while various working groups in the House were debating budget appropriations for the next fiscal year, an immediate crisis was brewing for daycare centers across the state. The funding for subsidized childcare for low income families had been diverted to another program.
The Department of Human Services in a letter to all childcare providers said reimbursements for services would be delayed for three months. The action results from the Governor’s failure to manage his budget during the past year or convince legislators to allow him to exceed spending limits.
There is no question about the value of childcare to help kids develop and be ready for school. The subsidy allows low income parents to improve their incomes while their kids are learning in a safe environment.
Childcare centers struggle with balancing the cost of a quality program and affordable tuition for parents. They certainly don’t have the financial backing to go without payment for three months as the state agency proposed. Many would have to close their doors and parents quickly found that no other providers would accept children if their tuition was subsidized by the state.
I am optimistic that the legislature will agree to a plan for reallocating revenue for subsidized childcare very soon. Nevertheless, the legislature also knows that to climb out of our financial hole, we must live within available revenue. We must set priorities carefully so this type of situation does not reoccur.
State Worker Benefits Must Be Fair
The legislature has been discussing state worker benefits for some time so it was expected that at some point health insurance would be added to the pension discussions. SB1313 which has been sitting in the House for a year became the vehicle for major changes in employee health insurance this past week. Our phones began to light up immediately with calls from concerned retired state workers.
The bill, with now its 8th amendment, deletes the current formula for state contributions to employee health care and provides for the director of Central Management Services to set the level of contributions. It is expected that the director will rely upon employee union contract negotiations to set the level of state insurance contributions for employees just as the legislature did in 1997 when the current plan was adopted.
The state has three health insurance plans for state workers: one for teachers (TRIP), another for community college employees (CIP), and a third for all other state employees. It is only this third group that is addressed in SB1313. Changes to TRIP and CIP must occur as well since both programs are not covering expenses given current premium levels.
For the third group of employees, the state pays 5 percent of the premium for each year of service. Employees after 20 years of service pay no premium but do pay the normal co-pay and non-covered medical costs. The estimated cost of this benefit is $631 million for next year.
SB1313 in its current form provides no guidelines for the rate that the director will set which understandably has employees very concerned. In addition, the premium does not have to consider the employee’s salary or retirement income. Since many state workers are not eligible for the federal Medicare program, the state program is their only health plan in retirement and must be affordable for retired workers.
When the bill likely comes to a floor debate this week, I will be raising these concerns and considering what is a fair benefit for state workers.
Governor’s Prayer Breakfast Offers Hope
The 50th annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast was held in Springfield last week to coincide with the National Day of Prayer. The events reaffirm the role spiritual faith plays in American life by promoting values, service beyond self and confidence in God’s guidance and wisdom.
The governor introduced the keynote speaker, Josh Bleill, who had a message of overcoming adversity. The Marine, now a double amputee from war injuries, leads an active lifestyle. His message of “one step at a time” provided guidance for the legislature as it seeks to correct the state’s fiscal direction and for citizens as they become more self reliant and less dependent on government programs.
Josh Bleill’s book, One Step at a Time, proclaims how to embrace bad days and keep going forward.
Assistance Outlined for Illinois Business
Last week the Legislative Research Unit unveiled its First Edition of “Assistance for Illinois Businesses.” While this new publication presents information mostly about governmental assistance, it includes private organizations that help businesses open, expand, or relocate in Illinois as well.
The booklet summarizes the major assistance programs in one place and tells readers where they can get more detailed information. It’s a worthwhile read for any business owner, but I believe the government could do more to help businesses by exacting reforms that roll back regulations and minimize red tape.
For example, new regulations affecting teacher recertification and real estate licensure took effect this past year. Both pieces of legislation raise barriers and create requirements that cost individual’s time, money and perhaps their jobs. Even local units of government create layers of forms, fees and drawn out hearings that add cost to doing business in Illinois and lots of frustration.
Before June, the legislature will act upon numerous bills to address some problems but in the process make Illinois less business friendly, competitive or able to grow the economy. The best assistance for Illinois businesses just might be less government.
Abuses Reveal Unhealthy Culture
Newspapers revealed last week yet another abuse of a state program that frankly makes me sick. All too often this spring we have heard of individuals gaming the pension system, misdirecting college scholarships and taking bribes for just doing their job.
While these incidents may seem minor and infrequent, they are examples of a shift in our culture, provide examples for others to “bend the law”, and add millions of dollars to the cost of government.
Last week the papers reported yet another “highly placed” official who took advantage of our complicated state pension system to greatly increase his payout beyond what his contributions justified. We may say good for him but such actions erode public confidence in the fairness of the state pensions, contribute to the high cost of the system and encourage others to bend the law too.
Illinois has the national stigma for corruption because we have allowed our culture to accept a little “bending” of the rules. If we are truly going to exact change for future generations, we must reprogram our thinking that corruption is unacceptable in any form. We must lead by example.
Drivers Ed Reforms Spark Controversy
SB 3367 is moving through the legislature with its attempt to improve standards for teaching of driving in public schools but not without controversy. The bill was approved in committee last week after a long debate about its impact upon private driving schools and cost increases for students.
This legislation is aimed at updating the curriculum, raising the qualifications of private driving school instructors who are paid with public funds, and the safety of vehicles. Many feel this law will make it more difficult for schools to outsource driver’s education in an effort to devote more resources to core academic subjects. The cost of teaching drivers education is growing and these new rules may only make it more expensive.
Visitors Fill the Capitol
I would like to extend a special thanks to our capitol visitors last week. They included representatives from our community colleges who came to share their views about cost shifts, pension, and budget issues. Park and Recreation District officials were also meeting about their efforts to increase health and low cost recreation. Various Latino groups were sharing information about efforts and programs to improve income and lives for their communities. They also helped the legislature celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Kids from Focus House in Rochelle and Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb toured the Lincoln sites and their capitol. I hope your visit was productive and enjoyable.
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