Week in Review for 10/28/12 through 11/1/13

Gov. Quinn’s “supplemental” budget request includes significant overtime payments to unionized State employees.  State auditors have reported that the Department of Corrections (IDOC) notched $62 million in overtime expenses in fiscal year 2013 (ended June 30, 2013).  The overtime payments, which are required by the terms of the union contracts signed by the Quinn administration and the AFSCME union that represents prison guards, help compensate these workers for the dangerous work of maintaining control of overcrowded prisons.

While the Quinn administration had claimed that several of the prison closures implemented over heavy opposition in FY13 (including the controversial closure of the former “supermax” prison in Tamms) would save taxpayer money, the Associated Press expose of the audit findings indicate that the expenses associated with shifting a growing prisoner headcount from jail to jail has simply moved much of the cost around Downstate Illinois, without achieving the promised level of statewide savings.  In addition, Quinn and IDOC have requested that a $221 million “supplemental” budget bill be appropriated for FY14; much of the $40 million requested by Quinn for IDOC is expected to cover further prison overtime expenses.  An additional $112 million will cover back wages awarded by a court to 25,000 State workers.

The General Assembly could take up this supplemental budget request in the second week of veto session, starting on Tuesday, November 4.

Criminal Law – Pensions
House Republicans introduce bill to close loophole that allows corrupt politicians to receive taxpayer-funded pensions if they have been convicted of, or have pleaded guilty to, a felony.   Under current law, the pension rights can be removed if pension credits were earned as part of the same pattern of conduct that generated the felony.  This imposes additional burdens upon prosecutors seeking to deprive a corrupt public official of his or her pension.  Under HB 3665, the pension would be automatically suspended after the conviction or plea of guilty.  The bill grants to a convicted/plea-of-guilty public official the right to petition for pension reinstatement after he or she completes his term of sentence.  HB 3655 (Senger-Pihos-Bellock-Kay) was assigned last week to the House Rules Committee.

Drivers’ Licenses
“Temporary drivers’ licenses” to be issued starting Tuesday, December 3.  The controversial new class of drivers’ licenses will be issued, after a screening and driving-skill examination, to people who live in Illinois and do not have standing to apply for a standard drivers’ license.  While several groups of people fall into this category and will be eligible to apply for TDLs, including some groups of people with temporary visas enabling legal U.S. residence, it is expected that some of the TDL applicants will be people who have entered the United States through non-legal means.

The number of TDL applicants is not known at this time and the Office of the Secretary of State has requested that applicants find a driver services facility with authority to issue the new TDL and make an appointment for the examination.  Not all Secretary of State facilities will have TDL issuance authority.  The TDL, which will be a separate, distinctive plastic drivers’ license card with a thick, easily-visible purple strip printed onto the edge of the card, will not be usable for legal identification purposes.  The TDL will also not be usable to purchase a firearm, board a plane, or cast a vote.  Applying for a TDL will trigger the mandate that registered Illinois drivers purchase motor vehicle insurance; it will continue to be illegal to drive without insurance in Illinois.  From 250,000 to 500,000 Illinois residents could apply for a temporary drivers’ license under this new Illinois law, which was enacted by the General Assembly in late 2012 (SB 957/P.A. 97-1157).  

Health Care – Obamacare 
Illinois residents tell their “Obamacare” stories to the media.  Many Illinois residents, including forward-looking Illinoisans who purchased primary or supplemental health insurance policies to cover themselves and their households as individuals, are finding that, as of January 1, 2014, they will be mandated to purchase full-service insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.  The new mandates are likely to create substantial pocketbook hits to many younger Illinoisans, self-employed Illinoisans, and Illinoisans who had exercised their right (up until now) to purchase partial insurance policies that did not include certain expensive coverage mandates.   Now that many of these coverages are mandated, Americans are finding they will have to buy and pay for them whether or not they have previously chosen to do so.  

In addition, Illinois residents informed this week of the new mandate-to-purchase are finding it difficult, or impossible, to learn how much the new mandate will cost them as individuals.  An all-important family of webpages, created under the supervision of the federal Department of Health and Human Services and intended to allow American citizens and residents to sign in and find out their status under the federal law, was persistently snarled this week.  Many of the Americans who have submitted personal and private information to this snarled website are not getting useful insurance quotes or information out of it.
As federal Affordable Care Act websites continue snarled performance, one facet of “Obamacare” continues to thrive in Illinois.  More than 100,000 Illinois residents have begun to enjoy new ACA benefits in October 2013.  However, almost all of them are residents of Cook County who are allowed, under one of the provisions of the complex new law, to sign up for Medicaid benefits funded by State and federal taxpayers.  Under ACA law, federal aid to the states to cover the increased cost of ACA/Medicaid is scheduled to partly phase out over a three-year period, leading to sharply increased impacts on the State budget in fiscal year 2017 and following years.

Representative Patti Bellock, the House Republican Caucus’ Deputy Republican Leader and spokesperson on health-care issues, has asked why the Quinn administration is not including these predictable future ACA/Medicaid expenses in its long-term budgetary planning.

Local Government
Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka’s website increases financial transparency of Illinois local governments.   The Comptroller on Monday, October 28, opened a new “Warehouse” website to consolidate information about the financial status of 5,200 taxpayer-funded units of local government in Illinois.  The “Warehouse” website is made accessible by Topinka’s staff online at http://www.warehouse.illinoiscomptroller.com/.  It includes links to annual audits of each local government covered, annual financial reports, and reports of the tax increment financing (TIF) districts operated under the umbrella of local counties and municipalities for infrastructure development.  

Comptroller Topinka’s work follows a push last spring by House Republicans to sharply increase the accessibility of local government financial information and enact curbs upon local financial secrecy.  HB 1555 (Cross-Sandack-Tryon-McSweeney-Demmer) called upon the State to create a local-government transparency and accountability portal by statutory law.  This portal was meant to move information essential to taxpayers online.  After passing through the House in the spring 2013 session, HB 1555 awaited action this fall in the state Senate.  Topinka has now created a parallel portal through her powers as a statewide elected official.

Taxes – Families
Rep. Barbara Wheeler sponsors bill to help extended families.  With the U.S. economic challenges that started in 2008, many Illinois households are rediscovering the costs and benefits of extended family life.  Building activity is taking place on existing homesteads to provide new living space, or renovated living space, for a member of the household who is a senior citizen or a challenged adult.  In some cases, people in this category would find it challenging to live safely on their own, but under existing State law the family members who taken them in and create space for them can be penalized by property tax assessors.  An assessor may find that the new space built for the member of the extended family is a “property improvement” that has increased the assessed value of the property and, thus, will raise the property tax bill that will be mailed to the extended family’s household head.

Listening to concerns raised by her constituents, Rep. Barbara Wheeler is sponsoring HB 3715 to amend the law governing property tax assessments.  The bill will exempt improvements to make a property accessible to a person with disabilities, or to a senior citizen, who is living on the property.  Improvements of this type include rebuilt garage space, ramps, widened hallways and corridors, accessible toilets and washroom fixtures, and many other changes and extensions to an existing building or buildings.

Taxes – PTELL
Rep. Ron Sandack works to protect PTELL property tax caps.  Since the property tax cap law (called “PTELL”) was extended to the six-county Chicago area in the 1990s, local governments and taxing bodies have been looking for ways to deal with the complex law.  When it works properly, PTELL sharply limits growth in property tax bills by placing caps on the money totals (called “property tax extensions”) that property tax-funded bodied can ask the taxpayers to provide them every year.

However, these caps have several loopholes.  One of these loopholes allows property taxing bodies to ask for an increase in their extensions that is equal to the annual rate of inflation.  This loophole continues to operate as part of State property tax law even in years from the market values of real property are deflating – in other words, if overall economic conditions mean that your property values are less this year than they were last year, or less than they were 2-3 years ago, the taxing bodies still has the right to ask for, and get, an increase in their extension.  Furthermore, if a taxing body is dissatisfied with the money total they are scheduled to get through PTELL property tax caps, they have the right to place a referendum on the local ballot at any time to ask for the right to increase property tax extensions, override PTELL, and charge more.

Rep. Ron Sandack is sponsoring a two-bill package to rein in this power.  HB 3726 creates a three-year property market value base and instructs taxing bodies and county treasurers not to allow inflationary increases in PTELL tax extensions when property values fall below the baseline.  HB 3727 requires that a warning to local taxpayers be printed on all PTELL-override referendum ballots.  The bills have been assigned to the House Rules Committee.

Abraham Lincoln
Props from award-winning “Lincoln” movie to Presidential Museum collection.  The Steven Spielberg/Daniel Day-Lewis film about the challenges facing Lincoln as he worked with Congress in January 1865 to complete the abolition of American slavery was nominated for twelve Academy Awards.  “Lincoln” generated a large quantity of props and costumes that are no longer needed by filmmakers Touchstone, DreamWorks, and their affiliates.

A joint announcement was made on Monday, October 28 by a studio consortium and Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library.  The agreement provides that some of these Hollywood items will be displayed at Union Station, a historic railroad station building and annex of the Springfield-based Museum complex, starting in 2014.  An admission fee will be charged.  Representative Raymond Poe, who represented the Museum when it opened to the public in 2005, has played a key role in maintaining this facility’s status as a repository for the nation’s memories of our 16th U.S. president.