Senate Week in Review: March 16 – 20, 2015

Springfield—While yet another week passes, Democrat leaders continued to drag their feet instead of taking immediate action to help Gov. Bruce Rauner fix the $1.6 billion hole in the current Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

In other state news, as promised, Gov. Rauner continues to propose ways Illinois can reduce the size of government and improve efficiency. Recently, he announced the lawmakers, local leaders and consolidation experts who will work as part of the newly created Local Government and Unfunded Mandates Task Force to identify how the state can consolidate local governments and reduce state costs.

The Rauner Administration also continues to explore the need for reform at several state agencies, including the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) that has been under media fire for months. 

Legislation sponsored by Senate Republicans that seeks to enforce transparency and accountability of government meetings unanimously passed the Illinois House of Representatives and now awaits further consideration in the Senate.

Additionally, the same week that hundreds of Illinois gun owners visited the Capitol, the Illinois State Police announced its new streamlined online gun-licensing application process.

Negotiations to Fill Budget Hole Again Delayed

State prisons, childcare facilities and many other state-run programs are struggling to fund essential services as yet another week passes without any progress made to fix the $1.6 billion budget hole advanced by Democrat leaders in the current budget. Though Gov. Rauner has repeatedly asked for the tools to fix the crisis created by his Democrat predecessor, Democrat leaders in the House and Senate have continued to delay a resolution to repair the deficit they caused.

By failing to make accommodations for the expiration of their income tax hike, Democrat leaders knowingly approved an unbalanced budget last year that they admitted would severely underfund many state programs.

The current budget underfunded the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Aftercare program by $5.3 million. As a result, kids are hanging in the balance who desperately need the rehabilitation services intended to promote positive reintegration in their community and reduce recidivism.

Additionally, Democrat leaders also underfunded the Child Care Assistance Program by $300 million, and now it is no longer receiving state assistance. As a result, families have been disrupted and child-care providers are left scrambling.

Furthermore, the Department of Corrections will run out of money to pay guards by mid-April, and the fund to pay court reporters will run out even sooner. That could result in disruption of court activity, and dangerous uncertainty at state prisons.

Gov. Rauner has asked for greater spending authority that would allow him to transfer funds to agencies facings shortfalls. While Democrat leaders claim a resolution to the issue is close, for many struggling agencies, it is not close enough.

Just as frustrating for Senate Republicans, rather than addressing the problem at hand, Democrat lawmakers continue to introduce billions of dollars in new legislative initiatives that the state cannot afford. Senate GOP legislators stress that the focus should be on funding the state’s current priorities rather than exploring new ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

Local Government and Unfunded Mandates Task Force

Created to help identify ways to help streamline and consolidate local governments, the Local Government and Unfunded Task Force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, aims to help make Illinois government more effective and efficient.

State Senators Dan Duffy (R-Lake Barrington) and Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) were appointed by the Governor to sit on the task force, along with municipal and county leaders, representatives of school districts, other state legislators, and experts in consolidation.

Gov. Rauner explained the task force was created as a way to consolidate the “excessive numbers of local government units” and “reduce the burden of unfunded mandated imposed by the state,” which “will reduce costs, increase efficiency and improve delivery of services.”

There are currently nearly 7,000 local government entities in Illinois, more than any other state in the nation.

Open Meetings Act Reforms Advance to Senate

Three Republican Senators are now spearheading efforts in the Senate to advance legislation that seeks to enforce transparency and accountability of government meetings, after the measure unanimously passed the House.

Sponsored by Senators Dan Duffy (R-Lake-Barrington), Pamela Althoff (R-McHenry) and Michael Connelly (R-Wheaton), House Bill 175 will give people more time to report a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act. Now someone will have 60 days after discovering the violation to report it, as opposed to current law that requires a violation to be reported within 60 days from the date of the meeting.

This legislation was inspired by reports of a potentially illegal closed-door July 2013 meeting by the Oakwood Hills Village Board, which met secretly to discuss a controversial proposal to construct a $450 million power plant in their town. The public had no knowledge of this secret meeting until nearly a year later when the gathering was discovered by an attorney hired by village residents who opposed the power plant project. However, because of the loophole in current law the meeting could not be submitted to the Attorney General’s office to enforce the provisions of the Open Meeting Act. Under current law, the 60-day window to report the violation had expired.

Reforming the state’s Open Meetings Act to eliminate the loophole that exists will not only give the public more time to respond to future violations of the state’s Open Meeting laws, but will work to deter government entities from withholding information from the public. Senate GOP lawmakers stressed that elected officials should welcome the opportunity to increase transparency and accountability to the people they represent.  

House Bill 175 passed the House 110-0 and has advanced to the Senate for further consideration.

Media Highlights Need for Change at DCFS

DCFS came under fire this week, after an investigation led by WBEZ found that the agency has frequently relied on juvenile facilities in Cook County to provide temporary housing until the welfare agency manages to find suitable homes to place kids who are wards of the state.

The practice appears to violate the minors’ basic rights, denying them justice at a sensitive age. And it forces taxpayers statewide to pick up the tab for the bureaucracy and confusion. Unfortunately, under former Gov. Pat Quinn, scandals and mismanagement like this were all too common. Under new leadership from Gov. Rauner, Illinois can begin to expect better than a constant drumbeat of failures like this.

WBEZ reported that in a three-year period, they identified 344 cases in which a child was court ordered to be released into DCFS custody, only to spend a week or longer waiting in jail for home placement. As reported by WBEZ, DCFS spokesman Andrew Flach said that Gov. Rauner has made it a priority to bring stability to the agency by appointing new Director George Sheldon on Feb. 13 “to help turn the agency around.”

The media investigation revealed that Cook County is asking DCFS for reimbursement for costs associated with housing wards of the state, who the agency left waiting in juvenile facilities past their sentencing dates. Cook County has requested $232,750 to cover the cost of housing 41 DCFS wards over the span of two months, Dec. 2014 to Jan. 2015. Cook County demands reimbursement for what the County has spent to house kids that should be under the guardianship and responsibility of DCFS.

Per person, Cook County estimates that the cost of housing a juvenile to be more than $500 each day. In the case of the 344 instances found by WBEZ, this additional burden on state juvenile facilities adds up to be almost $4 million in expenditures.

Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day (IGOLD) at the Capitol

Hundreds of Illinois gun owners headed to the Capitol on March 18 for the annual Illinois Gun Owners Lobby Day (IGOLD) to advocate for their Second Amendment rights.

Marching from the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield to the state Capitol, members from the Illinois State Rifle Association (ISRA) and gun owners from across Illinois met with lawmakers to lobby for the expansion of Illinois’ concealed carry law.

Illinois was the last state in the Union to implement concealed carry in 2014, and has some of the country’s most stringent regulations. Currently, there are 23 different gun-free zones throughout the state that do not allow permission of a weapon regardless of the gun owner’s licensure. Legislation has been introduced that would expand the number of places that responsible, licensed gun owners can carry.

State Police Announce Modernization of Gun Licensing Process

While gun owners rallied in Springfield this week, the Illinois State Police (ISP) announced on March 16 the Agency will begin accepting online FOID applications beginning March 16,  to provide a more streamlined and modernized application process.

The ISP will no longer accept the current FOID paper applications after March 9; however, like the Concealed Carry License, the new FOID application will be available through the Department’s website or through the paper alternative call center method for those individuals who do not have computer access.

The ISP has also made changes to the login for both the Concealed Carry License and FOID applications.  Applicants will no longer be required to obtain a State of Illinois digital I.D. through the Department of Central Management Services.  This login change will allow users greater accessibility to the new application process.

The new Concealed Carry License and FOID application process is intended to provide a user-friendly portal designed to ease and streamline both application processes.

Website (https://www.ispfsb.com/Public/FOID.aspx)

Legislation Proposed to Pay for Body Cams                                    

Helping local police departments pay for body cameras if they become mandatory is the aim of legislation sponsored by State Sen. Tim Bivins (R-Dixon).

As the former Lee County Sheriff, Sen. Bivins said requiring police officers to wear body cameras has been discussed as a practical solution to protect both the public and law enforcement officers. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and similar situations that highlighted incidents of police and civilian violence have spurred increased interest in body-worn cameras. Many believe these cameras would provide an objective record of events if an alleged crime takes place, and also deter violence.

Sen. Bivins’ proposed legislation, Senate Bill 710, would allow grants from the state’s existing Law Enforcement Camera Grant Fund to be used to purchase and support use of video cameras (including body-worn cameras) for law enforcement and for training officers. Senate Bill 710 has been assigned to the Senate Criminal Law Committee for consideration.

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