Senator Barickman’s Senate Week in Review: August 17 – 21

Springfield — Honoring the beloved public servant the late Judy Baar Topinka, Gov. Bruce Rauner dedicated a street in her name at the Illinois State Fair on Aug. 18, and signed into law a measure that preserves the state government transparency and accountability that Topinka strived so hard to implement throughout her career.

While State Fair festivities were under way this week, at the Statehouse, the Senate overrode the Governor’s veto of legislation that would implement a mandatory arbitration process to decide the outcome of a negotiation stalemate between state employee unions and the Governor. The Senate majority also pushed through a measure to fund the MAP grant program for college students, though no compromise has been reached on a complete Fiscal Year 2016 budget plan.

However, many social service providers breathed a sigh of relief when Gov. Rauner signed bipartisan legislation into law authorizing $5 billion in federal funds to be appropriated to programs that assist crime victims, provide assistance to citizens with disabilities, senior citizens, and women and children. The new law ensures these programs receive the federal funding they rely on.

Deficit spending continues via piecemeal budget

Another spending measure was pushed through by Senate Democrats this week in the absence of a state budget. The Monetary Award Program (MAP), which provides grants to low-income college students, would see funding of $373.3 million this fiscal year under Senate Bill 2043.

Though Senate Republican lawmakers underscored their support for MAP, they raised red flags about the proposal. Senate GOP legislators stressed that cobbling together a spending package piece-by-piece will only exacerbate the state’s climbing deficit.

Legislation authorizing federal funds for social services signed by Governor

In the wake of the state’s budget impasse, this week the Governor signed legislation that will allow the state to distribute $5 billion in federal funds to critical social service programs.

Without a state budget, social service agencies that provide meals for senior citizens and supplemental nutrition programs for women and children, help crime victims, and provide community and rehabilitation services for individuals with disabilities, said they would have been forced to cut services or eliminate programs if appropriations authority wasn’t granted.

The state is responsible for administering many programs mandated or funded by the federal government. Although funding for these programs has been approved at the federal level, without appropriations authority the Comptroller was unable to cut checks to agencies for these programs. Senate Bill 2042 allows the Comptroller to spend those dollars and ensures the providers receive the federal funding they rely on.

House to decide outcome of controversial collective bargaining legislation

A controversial measure that would take away state government’s authority to negotiate employee union contracts and instead use a costly arbitration process, was once again advanced by the Senate this week. The measure passed initially over the objections of Republican lawmakers and Gov. Rauner, who later vetoed the measure. The Senate overrode the Governor’s veto on Aug. 19. The legislation now advances to the House of Representatives, where that chamber has 15 days to act.

Senate Bill 1229, crafted by the state’s largest employee union, would temporarily require an unelected arbitrator to decide the outcome of contract disputes between the Governor and state employee unions. Critics argued the legislation takes away the Governor’s authority to negotiate taxpayer-paid, multi-billion-dollar labor agreements and places it in the hands of a third-party mediator. They also questioned the proposal’s constitutionality.

The Administration estimates the measure will cost taxpayers upward of $1.6 billion. Critics also questioned the interference with the collective bargaining process, blocking unions’ right to strike or government’s lockout authority. Gov. Rauner has publicly announced he will not lock out employees.

Judy Baar Topinka legacy preserved

In a ceremony dedicating “Judy Baar Topinka Lane” at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Aug. 18, Gov. Rauner signed legislation preserving the legacy of transparency that the late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka demonstrated throughout her career in office.

Comptroller Topinka was praised during the ceremony for her efforts to increase transparency in state government and provide the public with greater access to state and local fiscal data, specifically her creation of the Online Ledger and The Warehouse online public information databases.

The new law codifies the Online Ledger and The Warehouse under the State Comptroller, ensuring that they will be preserved and maintained, and that these resources will continue to be available to taxpayers.

The Ledger connects taxpayers to state financial records and other official reports and analyses. Information about the state’s fiscal condition, revenue, expenditures, state contracts, awards and grants, state employees and other reports are made available. The Warehouse offers similar information as it relates to local government finances.

The Ledger and The Warehouse are both accessible through the Illinois Comptroller’s website .

Click here to watch the highlights from the Aug. 18 dedication ceremony.

Synthetic drug ban becomes law

Illinois now has one of the strictest laws on the books to combat newly-styled street drugs. This legislation was proposed in response to a rise in the use of drugs such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts in Illinois and across the country.

Senate Bill 1129 was recently signed into law by Gov. Rauner, outlawing the basic chemical structure of synthetic drugs. In recent years, illicit drug makers, some who have operated out of homes, simply altered a banned formula and sold a revised version of the drugs. The new law seeks to halt this practice, basing the ban on the drugs’ underlying chemical composition.

Synthetic drugs mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine and meth, but with significantly higher potency and significantly more danger to the user. Severe reactions to the drugs include suicidal thoughts, confusion, violent behavior, hallucinations and chest pains.

Synthetic drugs are known by a wide range of names, including K-2, Spice, Yucatan Fire, Double X and Scooby Doo. They are often purchased at convenience stores as an over-the-counter product. And, while the drugs’ labels often carry a disclaimer “Not for human consumption,” such statements will no longer qualify as a legal “way out” for the manufacturers.

Previous legislative efforts to ban synthetic drugs proved to have limited effect because those laws targeted specific formulas of the designer drugs.

New law enforces government transparency and accountability

Enforcing transparency and accountability in government meetings is the aim of a new law sponsored by three Senate Republican lawmakers.

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.

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 Meetings laws, but will work to deter government entities from withholding information from the public. Senate Republican sponsors, Sen. Dan Duffy (R-Lake Barrington), Sen. Pamela Althoff (R-McHenry) and Sen. Michael Connelly (R-Wheaton) stressed that elected officials should welcome the opportunity to increase transparency and accountability to the people they represent.

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 Meetings Act. Under current law, the 60-day window to report the violation had expired.

House Bill 175 was signed into law by Gov. Rauner on Aug. 19 and goes into effect immediately.

Executive mansion renovation team pursuing design firms

The non-profit organization charged with raising private funds to renovate the Governor’s Mansion is pursuing design firms to take on the $8 to $12 million renovation project. 

Constructed in the 1850s, the Executive Mansion has experienced years of wear and tear. Until Gov. Rauner took office, there had not been a Governor living in the mansion for 12 years. Over time, the mansion has fallen into extreme disrepair.

A leaky roof, a broken elevator, dangerous balconies, basement flooding and peeling paint are just a few of the much-needed repairs that the Executive Mansion Association says need to be made. Since assuming office, Gov. Rauner pledged to not use the state’s scarce resources to fund the renovation project, but rather has sought to raise private funds, including his own, to pay for the project.

The Association said it will review applications for up to 10 design firms to take on the estimated two-year project to restore “the people’s house.”

Rough year taking a toll on crops

Months of wet weather have taken a toll on much of the 2015 Illinois corn and soybean crops. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, only 56 percent of corn acres and 50 percent of soybean fields are rated as “good” or “excellent.”

While yields are likely down from last year, in terms of growth stage, corn and soybeans have nearly caught up to where they would typically be at this time of the season. Thirty-eight percent of corn has reached the dent stage, just behind the five-year average of 41 percent. Eighty-one percent of soybeans are setting pods, just behind the normal of 83 percent.

Statewide, precipitation averaged just .52 inches, .4 inches below normal, leaving 6.4 days suitable for fieldwork, and farmers continued to literally make hay while the sun shined. The third cutting of alfalfa is now 59 percent complete, a major jump from just 38 percent last week.

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