Week in Review for 6/22/15 - 6/26/15

FY16 Budget
Governor Rauner signs education budget bill. On Wednesday, June 24, Governor Rauner signed the elementary and secondary education component of the Fiscal Year 2016 State budget, taking our children’s education out of the crossfire in Springfield. While HB 3763 does not increase education spending by as much as the governor’s proposal, it does increase K-12 education funding by $244 million and early childhood education funding by $25 million.

“Education is the most important thing we do as a community. I would have done more for our schoolchildren, but I am taking action today to ensure our teachers are paid and our schools are open and funded,” Governor Rauner said. “I refuse to allow Speaker Madigan and the legislators he controls to hold our schools hostage as part of their plan to protect the political class and force a tax hike on the middle class without real reform.”

House Republicans strongly support the effort to increase education funding. However, we stood in opposition to the original bill because it was rammed though by the Democratic majority, which passed 19 other budget bills that would spend nearly $4 billion more than projected revenue in the next fiscal year. That fact hasn’t changed, and the budget as a whole is unsustainable. The State of Illinois cannot continue to spend more than it takes in from our hardworking taxpayers.

That being said, we are glad education won’t be caught up in the Springfield stalemate and that our school children will not be held hostage over this budget battle. Schools will open on time, teachers will be paid and education will get a needed boost in funding.

Governor Rauner vetoes unbalanced, unconstitutional budget; cites $4 billion deficit. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the bulk of the Illinois budget Thursday that the Democratic-controlled General Assembly sent him, increasing the likelihood that some state services could be disrupted when the fiscal year begins next week.

The new governor, in constant battle with powerful lawmakers for six weeks, announced he had vetoed 19 budget bills because even Democrats acknowledge they fall short on revenue by $3 billion to $4 billion.

"For too long, the state of Illinois has made spending promises that exceed available revenues, relied on accounting gimmicks to make budgets appear balanced, used borrowing and cost deferral strategies to push costs into the future, and delayed payments to vendors," Rauner said in his veto message.

With a June 30 deadline for approving a fiscal year 2016 budget, Rauner continues to insist on "structural" changes to the business and political climates in Illinois before dealing with the opposing party on spending. Democrats want a tax increase, along with strategic spending cuts, in order to continue what they call vital state services. Read more on ABCNews.

For the past month, House Republicans have gone to Springfield each week hoping that the Chicago Democratic leaders who have held up the budget process were going to finally make it to the negotiating table. Instead we were subjected to a series of disingenuous House hearings intended to do little more than derail the process.

The same Chicago leaders who brought service providers, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons to the brink with a shorted budget last year are attempting to do it again.

Democratic leaders could have come to the table months ago with their concessions to Governor Rauner, who has backed off a portion of his agenda with absolutely zero reciprocation from the other side.

Now is the time for the Democratic leaders to put the interests of Illinois taxpayers first and work with the Governor and Republican legislators to pass a truly balanced budget that protects our working families, seniors and school children.

AFSCME and Governor’s Office announce one-month contract extension. Thursday evening, a joint statement was released from Governor Rauner’s General Counsel and from AFSCME Council 31:

“Today AFSCME Council 31 and the Governor’s Office reached an agreement that precludes the possibility of a strike or lockout for a one-month period after the state’s collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Council 31 expires on June 30. This agreement preserves all legal and contractual rights of the parties as of the contract expiration date. More importantly, it allows both sides to continue to negotiate during the month of July without the threat of disruption to important public services.”

Chicago Public Schools Budget Crisis
Chicago Board of Education approves more than $1 billion in new borrowing. The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday approved plans to borrow more than $1 billion in an effort to manage an immediate cash crunch and get through the coming budget year.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the borrowing is on top of an existing line of credit of up to $500 million. The initial $200 million in borrowing authorized Wednesday could help the district cover its bills through the end of June, but the district would be short of cash to cover payments shortly after that, according to documents obtained by the Tribune. A separate line of credit of up to $935 million would take the district through the coming budget year. The loans will be secured with the promise of future property tax revenue.

In addition to money needed for existing operations, CPS also owes more than $600 million in a “balloon” pension payment made necessary by previous short-funding of the generous benefits offered by the system to full-time employees and administrators. Efforts by Chicago to get the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to help them to postpone this payment failed on Tuesday, June 23 after a vote on SB 437 failed to generate the necessary votes for this pension payment delay.

Cook County Sales Tax 
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle asks for a 1.0-cent increase in the countywide sales tax. The sales tax increase, if it is approved by the county board, would raise sales taxes throughout the county. The new rates would differ by municipality; for example, the rate would increase from 9.25% in Chicago before the increase, to 10.25% after the increase. The Cook County sales tax is imposed on top of separate sales taxes also imposed by the State of Illinois, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), and the municipalities within the county.

Cook County is a home rule unit and, under State law, can enact sales tax increases at the discretion of the county board. The county board does not have to ask permission from the General Assembly to increase the tax. Even prior to enactment of the possible new tax increase, sales taxes in Cook County are among the highest in the U.S.

Department of Public Health Scandal
Blagojevich-Quinn-era chief of staff sentenced to serve 8 years in prison. Former IDPH chief of staff Quinshaunta R. Golden (2003-08) was convicted of leading a kickback scheme that monetized the Illinois Department of Public Health’s awards of grants and contracts. Under the scheme, insider Golden saw to it that a major share of the Department’s grants and procurement plum work flowed through a consultancy that was led by her allies, former IDPH aide Roxanne Jackson and Chicago grants facilitator Leon Dingle.

The court found that much of the money paid to the Jackson-Dingle grants facilitation office was ‘sticky.’ The money stuck to the Jackson-Dingle office and did not flow into field work to fight against influenza, West Nile disease, Ebola disease, and other public health challenges faced by the Department. Instead, Jackson and Dingle kept $772,500 of the money and kicked back half of the sum to Quinshaunta Golden. The sentencing took place on Tuesday, June 23. Jackson and Dingle have also been convicted for filing false income tax returns and conspiracy to defraud.

Poker Runs
Poker run bill gets approval by both houses of General Assembly. HB 3538 will help to smooth the licensing approval process for this popular fundraising tool throughout suburban and downstate Illinois. Current law creates local snags in the ordinances that groups use to win licenses to carry out these popular fundraising activities, and HB 3538 pushes to streamline out these snags by placing poker run licenses in the hands of Illinois county boards other than Cook County. The bill also clarifies that all bona fide nonprofit groups are eligible to seek to operate a poker run.

Poker runs are activities, usually one day long, in which a group of people make an event of traveling from place to place and playing a game at each location. At the end of the poker run, the players concentrate at a finish line and play out the game, and prizes are awarded. Under the provisions of HB 3538, the poker run must be set up so as to raise money for a needy person, a good cause, or the financial survival and stability of the group sponsoring the run. Many motorcyclists and biker groups carry out poker runs. After passage by the House in April, HB 3538 was amended in the Senate to authorize Cook County’s county board to retain the existing poker run law at their discretion. The House vote on Tuesday, June 23 to concur with the Senate amendment completed the legislative work on this bill, and it joined other bills ready to be sent to Governor Rauner’s desk for final action.

School Construction
House Republicans advocate for long-promised State funds for school construction projects. Due to the budget crisis, some projects already under way have been halted. For example, the State has given a green light and a promise of matching State funds to the construction of new classrooms and a gymnasium at South Central Elementary School in Kinmundy, Illinois. However, the current budget crisis has led to a halt in State funding, even though building work is going on during the summer construction season. School districts affected by this halt in State payments for ongoing building work could face a severe cash crunch.

Representative John Cavaletto, who represents Kinmundy and is one of the lawmakers for school districts affected by this funds stoppage, is taking action to help his local school district. Cavaletto joined Rep. David Reis and his Republican colleagues in sponsoring HB 4232 this week, which makes reappropriations from the School Construction Fund and the Capital Development Fund for ongoing school construction and improvements for fiscal year 2016. Monies for capital projects, such as roads and school construction, are funded by levies on products and services such as motor fuel, alcoholic beverages, and video gaming. This money is legally separate from money in the cash-short State general funds, which are funded by income taxes, sales taxes, taxes on casino gambling, and other sources. The relatively healthy nature of the legally separate capital funds of the State make it financially possible for capital projects to move forward even in the absence of vitally required overall budget action.

Tornado Outbreak – Northern Illinois 
At least twelve persons injured by cluster of tornadoes; Governor activates emergency response center. At least nine twisters were reported on the evening of Monday, June 22, in Grundy, LaSalle, Lee, and Will Counties south and west of Chicago. Substantial property damage was reported to claims adjusters. Damage was especially intense from an EF-3 twister in Coal City, the Grundy County community just northwest of Interstate 55. 160 mph winds were reported, and the interstate highway was temporarily blocked at Reed Road.

Early Tuesday, Governor Bruce Rauner activated the State Emergency Response Center, an operational clearinghouse that coordinates the activities of State and local emergency response teams. The Response Center is overseen by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the Illinois disaster preparedness and disaster-mitigation authority. Rep. John Anthony, who represents Coal City, did not attend the General Assembly’s Tuesday session, as he stayed in his district to assist with the emergency response.

Monday’s tornadoes were part of a thunderstorm squall line that roared through northern Illinois. The Northland Mall, a shopping mall in Sterling, Illinois, was damaged. Approximately 15,000 customers were reported to have lost electric power. Damaged infrastructure included high-tension power lines that serve several nuclear generating plants in the region. The power plants themselves were not damaged.

University of Illinois – Bioenergy 
U. of I. bioenergy grant announced. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced on Wednesday, June 24 that it had received a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to enable two years of intensified research on energy sorghum. The grant will help cover the cost of semi-robotic farm machinery that will roll between rows of sorghum plants and sense the genetic information contained within the plants’ stems and leaves. This information will control researchers’ efforts to achieve success in the breeding of improved strains of the potential new crop.

High-biomass sorghum shows potential in carbon capture and green energy production. Plant breeders in Texas have grown sorghum stalks up to 20 feet tall, which can be harvested for distillation into ethanol and other energy products. The plants have to be carefully bred so as not to produce flowers and seeds.

Eastern Illinois was, for many generations, a longtime leader in the production of grains belonging to the sorghum family. The prolific crop, which up until now has often been grown for its small seeds, is used for stock feed, bird seed, and broom grass.

Veterans – Vietnam War
“The Wall That Heals” in Jacksonville, Illinois. The Wall is a portable celebration and replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Like the permanent memorial in Washington, D.C., The Wall That Heals carries the names of all 53,253 names incised as the list of the fallen. Thousands more, who have died from conditions associated with enemy action since the original Wall was built, are also remembered. The Wall, which travels nationwide, is in Jacksonville, Illinois this weekend (June 24-28). The installation is in Central Park, Jacksonville’s downtown square. It is underwritten by VET-2-VET, the local AMVETS Post 100, and radio stations WJIL/WJVO. Admission is free, and persons of all ages are welcome to contemplate the sacrifice made by the more than 58,000 men and women who fell in their country’s service during the Vietnam War or as a result of war-related service.

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