Week in Review for 11/9/15 - 11/13/15

FY16 Budget
House Democrats block budget compromise, put politics above solutions.  For months, the Democratic opposition to change in Springfield has called for “reasonable” discussions and compromise regarding the budget impasse.

It’s clear by their actions this week, with a compromise very much on the table, that majority Democrats in the House have absolutely no intention of compromising and would rather put partisan politics above budget solutions.

The Illinois Democrats who have perpetuated this budget impasse are making promises they can’t deliver. They don’t have the votes to increase taxes, so instead of negotiation and compromise, they’ve again created a spectacle in Springfield. They’ve indignantly demanded we pass a budget we can’t afford and have not once offered a way to pay for it.

Without a budget to restrain out-of-control spending, the State’s financial spigot is wide open. A series of judicial actions accompanied by a reckless, piecemeal approach to appropriations has forced spending at levels higher than we’ve ever seen. When projected out over a year, Illinois is on pace to spend $37 billion, over a billion more than last year and nearly $5 billion more that we are projected to take in.

Illinois needs real reforms along with a truly balanced budget, one that sets our priorities and provides for our most vulnerable citizens, while responsibly spending our tax dollars.

Governor agrees to compromise on child care eligibility, while Democrat action fails.  A spokesperson for Governor Rauner issued a statement on Monday, November 9 describing the move: “As a result of bipartisan discussions with legislators concerning the future of the Child Care Assistance Program, the Rauner administration today plans to amend the emergency rule it filed at the beginning of the fiscal year. Under the amended rule, income eligibility will rise to 162% of the federal poverty level while current co-pays will remain intact. Other eligibility and restrictions will also be lifted pending further review and legislative consultation. Additionally, the governor's office will establish a bipartisan, bicameral task force aimed at ensuring the long-term stability of the program.”

After legislators in both parties urged Governor Rauner to compromise, the Governor acted in good faith to restore eligibility for the overwhelming majority of families receiving child care assistance. Compromise language supported by the Governor brings CCAP eligibility up to 162% of the federal poverty level (FPL), which is higher than most of Illinois’ neighboring states. This is a reasonable compromise that protects child care for the working poor, while at the same time holding the line on spending.

House Democrats responded by thumbing their noses at the compromise and forging ahead with a vote on SB 570, legislation to keep CCAP eligibility at 185% of FPL. Despite bipartisan efforts to achieve a reasonable compromise, Democrats refused to back down and their legislation ultimately failed on a vote of 70-35-4 (71-vote supermajority required for passage).

Despite agreement on DON score, Democrats pursue override.  Earlier this year, Governor Rauner responded to budget shortfalls by issuing rules to raise the Determination of Need (DON) score used to establish eligibility for long-term care.

Democrats subsequently passed legislation that would return the DON score threshold to the original number of 29. Last week, Governor Rauner issued an amendatory veto of that bill and explained that while well-intentioned, HB 2482 would lock into statute a provision that would allow qualifying individuals to be eligible for both institutional and home and community-based care services, thus driving up costs and eliminating the possibility of cost efficiencies.

This week, the Rauner administration announced that it will not be increasing the DON score used to determine eligibility for long-term care. Instead, the State will use the existing DON score of 29 to ensure Illinois’ elderly and most vulnerable citizens receive appropriate care.

In spite of this compromise, Democrats brought the bill to the House floor on November 10 for an override vote. Once again, the Democrats’ move against a negotiated solution failed on a vote of 70-38-1.

Motor fuel tax legislation passes, but Madigan puts a hold on it.  With Illinois now in the fifth month of Fiscal Year 2016 without an approved budget in place, many important appropriations have been left in limbo.

HB 4305 authorizes the distribution of motor fuel tax (MFT) receipts to local governments. These funds are vitally important to municipalities and townships for local road projects and public safety. House Republicans successfully persuaded the Governor to join us in our support for providing this essential funding for MFT, 9-1-1 services and additional public safety funds.

After reaching an agreement to pass HB 4305, the legislation was overwhelming approved by the House on November 10. However, Speaker Madigan used his draconian House Rules to put a hold on forwarding the bill to the Senate, with Majority Leader Currie filing a motion to reconsider the vote. This parliamentary hold means MFT receipts and 9-1-1 funds will not be distributed until the Speaker removes his blockage and the bill can be passed by the Senate.

Governor and legislative leaders prepare for budget meeting on Nov. 18.  No firm progress was made this week on the passage of a constitutional balanced budget to meet the overall fiscal needs of the State of Illinois and its citizens. However, the House Republicans were actively engaged this week in preparation for scheduled face-to-face budget talks to take place in Chicago on November 18.

Business/Labor – Unemployment Insurance
Governor Rauner, General Assembly reach agreement on reforms to Illinois’ unemployment insurance law.  This important statute, which will be amended by HB 1285 and/or SB 1941, covers the procedures that take place when a worker is laid off or otherwise subjected to no-fault unemployment. Many of the benefits created by the Illinois unemployment insurance (UI) statute were scheduled to sunset at the end of 2015, creating an incentive for Illinois business and labor to come to the negotiating table. Away from press scrutiny, and meeting under the guidance of a team headed by Rauner cabinet member Jeff Mays, longtime advocates for both sides described some of their concerns with current law. Relief for some of these concerns was contained in the agreed language of this week’s legislation. Governor Rauner’s announcement that an agreement had been reached was made on Monday, November 9. Key members of the General Assembly participated in the meetings on behalf of both political parties and all four caucuses.

In Illinois, most people in this position are granted the right to receive unemployment insurance (UI) for up to 26 weeks in any one-year period after they are laid off. UI payments are overseen by the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which provided staff support for the agreement. Under an important provision of the agreement, the new UI law will explicitly protect the interests of employers that terminate an employee who has demonstrated grossly negligent conduct and thereby engaged self or co-workers, or damaged an employer’s property. Under the revised UI law, these individuals will not be eligible to receive UI payments. There is an appeal process that provides administrative review, upon separation, to former workers who believe they were improperly treated.

In a key facet of the agreement, recently separated workers who are also eligible for Social Security will now be eligible to both collect Social Security and receive a full Illinois UI benefit. Under current Illinois law, Social Security recipients could only receive UI half-benefits. Moving to full UI benefits will lead to an addition $25 million/year being paid to Illinois senior citizens who have suffered layoffs.

HB 1285, with the UI amendment attached, unanimously passed the Senate on November 10 and is expected to be passed by the House when it returns on December 2.

Energy – Downstate
Dynegy announces plans to close major coal-burning power station.  The 465-megawatt Wood River Power Station, located by the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, is scheduled to close in mid-2016. The coal-burning generating station, which employs about 90 people, began operations in 1954 for Dynegy’s predecessor, Illinois Power. The owner-operator stated that the operations of the plant, which served as a mainstay of the electricity needs of the Metro-East area for more than 60 years, cannot be reconciled with the current marketplace for wholesale electricity in central and southern Illinois.

The marketplace for electricity throughout much of Downstate Illinois is coordinated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), a consortium of deregulated electric utility generators, buyers, and resellers. MISO has come under criticism in recent weeks as an entity that is allegedly associated with sharp increases in the price of Downstate Illinois retail electricity. In some cases, these increases have been traced to changes in the spot prices of electricity bought and sold through MISO, especially during peak summer consumption months. The consortium operator is expected to approve Dynegy’s plans to close the Wood River generating plant.

Illinois Commerce Commission approves Grain Belt Express transmission line.  On Thursday, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) approved Grain Belt Express Clean Line LLC’s application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity to construct, operate and maintain a 600 kV, 4,000 MW capacity, high voltage electric transmission line.

The 780-mile Grain Belt Express Clean Line transmission line will span from Kansas to Indiana. The proposed line spans much of south-central Illinois, including right-of-way in Pike, Scott, Greene, Macoupin, Montgomery, Christian, Shelby, Cumberland, and Clark Counties. The project will provide direct access for high capacity wind generation to the electricity markets.

The ICC’s order requires that Grain Belt Clean Line secure funds to cover total project costs before construction commences, prohibits project expansion without Commission approval, and requires further Commission approval prior to recovery of any project costs from Illinois retail ratepayers through regional cost allocation. The ICC also directed Grain Belt Clean Line to take specific actions to address landowner concerns that included potential impacts from the construction of the line on irrigation operations, soil compaction and erosion, wetland areas, and timber land.

All documents related to the case, including the Commission’s Final Order, can be viewed under docket number 15-0277 via the ICC’s e-docket system at www.icc.illinois.gov.

Medical Cannabis
Medical cannabis program undergoes first week of operation.  Dispensaries were authorized to begin sale of small quantities of medical cannabis on Monday, November 9.

Under Illinois’ medical marijuana program, small quantities of cannabis are grown under highly secure conditions inside the walls of permitted Illinois cultivation centers. The substance is then transported to limited-access dispensaries and offered for sale to persons with medical cannabis cards. The Department of Public Health (DPH), which is responsible for scrutinizing applications from prospective patients, has approved the issuance of approximately 3,300 cannabis cards to approved patients. Possession and display of a card will be required to enter a dispensary and to purchase the substance. The DPH operates a website with introductory information on how a potential patient can gather the information necessary to submit a valid card application.

Approved patients will be allowed to buy up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. These rationed quantities will be dispensed by five dispensaries that are stocked with inventory this week. The currently approved, supplied dispensaries are located in the Chicago suburbs of Addison and Mundelein, and the Downstate municipalities of Canton, Marion and Quincy. The Illinois medical cannabis program is authorized to expand up to an upper limit of 18 cultivation centers and 60 dispensaries. The dispensaries must be located within prescribed geographical areas throughout Illinois. Medical cannabis is dispensed in Illinois under the terms of the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, enacted by the Illinois General Assembly in 2013.

Veterans – Illinois Jobs
Easter Seals leads private-sector push to improve jobless numbers for Illinois veterans.  Nationwide statistics show that post-9/11 U.S. veterans have a higher unemployment rate than nonveterans who are also members of the nationwide labor force. Numbers like these weigh even more heavily in Illinois, which has a jobless rate (currently 5.4%, as of September 2015) that is higher than the nationwide rate. Issues facing jobless veterans were discussed by WLS-TV/Channel 7 and Easter Seals on Sunday, November 8.

Autumn in Illinois 
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports fall soybean harvest numbers; Illinois takes #1 position again.  The USDA reported this week that American farmers are expected to bring in a record soybean crop for 2015. The bean harvest, much of which is used for animal feed and soybean oil, is expected to total 3.98 billion bushels. More than 550 million of these bushels will have been cut and harvested in Illinois, which will once again be the nation’s #1 soybean producing state. The nation’s third-largest corn crop ever counted, 13.7 billion bushels, will further swell Midwestern grain elevators and harvest bins. At least 93% of both crops had been harvested nationwide as of this week.

November is Winter Weather Preparedness Month.  The Illinois Emergency Management Agency, acting in cooperation with the National Weather Service, is highlighting winter preparedness activities for homeowners and motorists throughout November. Useful items include a flashlight with spare, powered batteries; a first-aid kit; and nonperishable food and water. A checklist of recommended items for home and car can be found at Ready Illinois.

Week in Review
Get the Week in Review emailed directly to your inbox!  Sign up today to get a first-hand look at the continuing legislative and fiscal challenges facing policymakers in Springfield.