Springfield, IL – The hottest topic at the Capitol this week was testimony surrounding a new state budget while the hottest ticket in town was a seat inside the State Supreme Court Chambers for oral arguments on public pension reform, according to State Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington).
Also during the week, the annual budget hearings continued at a fast pace. Senate budget committees heard testimony at meetings in Chicago and Springfield, which included funding requests from state agencies, board and commissions, and state universities.
Because of Illinois’ current fiscal crisis, the Governor and Senate Republicans are calling for changes in the operation of state government. A restructuring of the state budget is needed to realign priorities and reduce spending by eliminating mismanagement and waste. The restricting allows state government to focus resources on budget priorities such as education, human services and public safety. It means for the first time in more than a decade, the management standard is making sure state spending does not surpass state revenues.
Fixing a Hole
Adding to state government’s difficulties in shaping a budget for the new fiscal year that starts July 1, is the present reality facing lawmakers and the Governor about plugging the $1.6 billion hole in the current budget.
The budget for Fiscal Year 2015 – with all of its financial problems – was knowingly approved last May by Democrat majorities in the Senate and House and signed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn. It did not have adequate funding for the spending it proposed. The “booby trap” budget is beginning to explode as human services programs such as the state’s Child Care program, are running out of money.
However, a solution to address the crisis may be near, according to Gov. Bruce Rauner.
While continuing his tour of the state March 10 to talk about his plans to “turnaround Illinois,” the Governor said he was close to an agreement with the leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives to fix the $1.6 billion budget shortfall. Negotiations about the current budget have been ongoing for weeks. The Governor told southern Illinois media the consultations with lawmakers were like “sausage being made,” not always a pretty picture.
Two legislative proposals promoting budget transparency and sunshine are pending before the Senate this spring, sponsored by State Sen. Michael Connelly (R-Wheaton). The measures would impact how the budget process is conducted at the state and local level. In the case of last year’s “booby trap” budget, the massive spending plan was dropped on lawmakers’ desks with a mere few hours for senators and representatives to consider the thousands of details and cast a vote. Senate Bill 1356 requires a three-day posting before a state budget bill can be voted on by the legislature. The second measure, Senate Bill 1469 requires county boards and commissions to post their budget plans for a minimum of seven days before taking final action.
Public Pension Reform at the State Supreme Court
The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 11 on a public pension reform law passed in 2013 that would change how pensions for state employees are calculated and paid. The law would affect four state retirement systems: Teachers, Universities (including community colleges), State Employees and the General Assembly. Among other provisions, it included a reduction in annual cost-of-living adjustments on pension benefits and creation of an optional 401-K style savings plan. The issue came before the high court after a lower court ruling in November 2014 declaring the pension law unconstitutional. Judge John Belz ruled at the time the Illinois Constitution protects state pensions from reductions or diminishments. The state appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
On March 11, the Attorney General’s office argued the state’s police powers give it the authority to alter the pensions because of the state’s serious financial crisis. An attorney representing state employee unions told the Justices the pension protection clause in the state constitution protects employee pensions from any alterations resulting in reduced benefits.
It’s not a matter of argument about the condition of the state’s public pensions systems, considered to be the worst-funded of any state. The underfunded liability is estimated at $105 billion, which jeopardizes the integrity of the pensions. Attempts to correct the underfunding with catch-up payments also impose a burden on the state’s ability to pay for basic programs such as human services and public safety.
Supreme Court oral arguments lasted about an hour. Justices gave no indication when they would rule on the state’s appeal.
Economics 101 for Elected Officials
Illinois elected officials who deal annually with budgets, pensions, programs and services would be required to undergo an eight-hour course on economics every two years under legislation sponsored by State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford). Senate Bill 700 would require elected officials to take the continuing education class at their own expense. The curriculum would cover basic economic theories and how those theories impact governmental policy.
School Safety Redo
There is a renewed effort underway at the Capitol to improve school security and student safety. Sponsored by State Sen. Neil Anderson (R-Rock Island), Senate Bill 1340 would create a statewide School Security and Standards Task Force to help schools improve their active security measures and overall safety and security of buildings and classrooms. The General Assembly took action last year to create the task force and it was commissioned to report its findings this year. However, after signing the legislation into law, then-Gov. Quinn failed to make timely appointments to the task force and the panel never met. The original motivation behind the task force was the highly-publicized violent school shootings around the nation. The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 1340 March 10 and the measure now goes before the full Senate for consideration.
Additional Legislative Committee Action
Senate lawmakers approved several dozen other bills in committee during the week on such issues as education, utilities, crime and local government. All of the bills now go back to the full Senate for consideration. A list of legislation passed by Senate committees is available at our caucus’ “Senate Action” page where you can search each day’s activity.
Senator Barickman meets with Matthew Thomas and Debbie Fay from the Illinois Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (IAHPERD) at his Capitol office.
Senator Barickman discusses legislation with Senator Steven Landek (D-Burbank) on the Illinois Senate floor.