Update from the Capitol 2/1/16

Spring Session Gets Underway with Governor’s State of the State Address

The Illinois House opened the new spring session on Wednesday. We convened to hear Governor Bruce Rauner’s State of the State Address and to begin to discuss new bills introduced by members for committee consideration and floor debate during the 2016 spring session.  At the top of every list of discussion, however, was the continued impasse affecting the FY16 budget.

Despite the ongoing stalemate, the Governor struck an optimistic note.  I share the Governor’s optimism that working together we can make Illinois a better place for our families and that needs to start with passage of a responsible budget that funds our priorities within our means. 

I was also glad to hear the Governor focus on jobs and education. The year-end unemployment rate of 5.9% here in Illinois was 0.9% higher than the nationwide rate of 5.0%, and reflected a decline of 16,300 jobs. Illinois is in dire need of a transformation and improving our schools and our jobs climate is where we need to start.

Republicans Offer Realistic Emergency Funding for Higher Education

With Illinois college and university budgets stretched beyond their breaking point,  my House Republican colleagues and I last week offered a realistic plan to provide emergency funding for operations, and also funding for students’ MAP grants.

House Bill 4539 would provide approximately $1.68 billion that would come from general revenue to adequately fund colleges and universities, and students’ MAP grants for the rest of this fiscal year. It is contingent on the passage of the recently filed Unbalanced Budget Response Act – legislation that would afford the Governor ability to manage monies in existing funds to adequately fund programs including higher education. This is a real, tangible path to securing emergency funding for the rest of this fiscal year for four-year universities and community colleges, and to also fund MAP grants that students depend upon.

Unfortunately, Speaker Madigan promptly buried our proposal, and instead pushed a House vote on Senate Bill 2043, which, according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, “…provides no funding source to pay for the additional spending…”  In other words, it’s an empty promise to community colleges and students. What’s more, it completely excludes the University of Illinois and all of our other four year universities that desperately need their funding.

This vote was a huge disappointment, but I’m not going to give up on getting universities and students the funding they need.

Prison reform offers opportunity for long-term budget savings

 With 49,000 inmates housed in Illinois prisons and confinement spaces, the operational cost of the system has become one of our biggest budget expenses- approximately 1.3 billion dollars each year.  These costs continue even during times, like now, when Illinois does not have a spending budget.  The operations of Illinois prisons are defined as matters of essential public safety, and they continue whether or not the money to pay for their operations has been appropriated by law. 

As part of long-term planning, Governor Rauner has convened a Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. The 28-member panel, which includes executive criminologists and representatives of law enforcement, has issued a series of recommendations intended to reduce Illinois’ prison population by approximately 25% over a 10-year period. The recommendations center on three major policy areas:

• improved classification of prisoners in terms of likelihood that they will commit new crimes after release;
• improved behavioral-modification services, during and after imprisonment, for subgroups of eligible inmates; and
•  grant more leeway to trial courts and their judges when sentencing offenders for non-violent crimes. 

Action by the General Assembly will be necessary to implement the Commission’s recommendations.    

New Department of Innovation and Technology Created

One simple way we can cut costs and save taxpayers money is to streamline government and consolidate operations where we can. To help accomplish that goal, a new Department of Innovation and Technology has been created which will unify under one roof all of the state departments’ individual Information Technology (IT) staffs.

Previously, each of the more than 100 State departments, bureaus, and agencies that operate under the overall supervision of the Governor had the right to operate separate, free-standing IT offices. Over time, this has created significant barriers.  Different offices developed more than 1,000 separate and incompatible software solutions, at least one of which dates back to 1974.

Unifying programs and software will help agencies to better communicate and share information, and also reduce the vulnerability of the State’s electronic infrastructure to hacking and other cyber attacks.

As always, you can contact me via webform at https://repbennett.com/.