Update from the Capitol 3/14/16

Area Lawmakers Call for Higher Education Compromise

Several of my legislative colleagues and I held a press conference in Normal on Friday to once again call for Democrats to return to the table and to work with us on a compromise to fund higher education. There are still numerous viable proposals on the table that Democrats have so far refused to consider.

As you know, speaker Madigan earlier this month called for House votes on two unfunded bills and then hastily adjourned the House for a full month while universities send out layoff notices and students wait for promised MAP grant funding.

All the while, House Bill 4539 is still on the table. It would reasonably fund MAP grants, community colleges and four-year universities.  And, unlike the unfunded Democrat proposals, House Bill 4539 actually has a funding source attached to make sure promised dollars are actually delivered.

At the press conference, Representative Dan Brady, Senator Jason Barickman and Senator Bill Brady and I discussed this bill and other options that would actually provide funding. Any of the funded options would serve as a good starting point for discussion on a bi-partisan compromise if Speaker Madigan would allow them a hearing in the House.

We’re in the middle of a very real crisis and Speaker Madigan this month broke his own House rules to avoid considering a motion by House Republicans to stay in Springfield and work. Democrats then hastily voted to adjourn and skipped town for an entire month. We want to work together on funding for higher education, for service providers, and for the new budget as a whole, but we can’t do that with the entire House Democrat Caucus on a four-week vacation.

FEMA denies Illinois’ request for federal assistance for December floods 

Late last week, notification arrived that Illinois’ request for federal assistance to help people, businesses and local governments in several counties recover from flooding has been denied.

On Feb. 26 the State submitted a request for two types of federal assistance: Individual Assistance to help people and businesses recover and Public Assistance to provide reimbursement to local governments for some of their disaster-related expenses. In the denial notification letter, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate said the damage from the floods and severe storms “was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the State, affected local governments, and voluntary agencies.”

“This is yet another example of how the federal government’s population-based threshold for determining assistance works against states with large metropolitan areas,” said James K. Joseph, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.  “We will be reaching out to our emergency management partners in the affected counties to see if there is any additional information that would support an appeal of the denial of either type of assistance.”

We have discussed before the need to change FEMA’s population based threshold to get needed help to smaller, more rural communities. We will continue to work with our Congressmen and Senators to accomplish that change.

Comptroller Leslie Munger continues to report on budget situation

As we continue in our ninth month without a budget to control cash flows and spending, Comptroller Munger reports rapid piling-up of bills in spending categories (such as Medicaid) controlled by court orders and consent decrees.  Munger’s “The Ledger”, posted online, currently tracks more than $7.5 billion in unpaid state bills.

As Illinois’ total of unpaid bills passes $7 billion, Comptroller Munger has suggested what she considers to be essential elements to be considered by the General Assembly to prevent crises like these from recurring in the near future. Her multi-step package proposal includes having the State consider moving itself from an annual budget cycle to a two-year budget cycle; creating an “overspending alert system” for spending lines (including spending lines controlled by court orders and consent decrees) in which spending is exceeding budgeted amounts, and taking action to control the number of specialty funds that form subsets of State coffers, such as the Lobbyist Registration Administration Fund.  Illinois currently has approximately 500 specialty funds despite its near-insolvent financial condition.  

Veterans have greater access to special courts under new proposal

Legislation moving forward in the House this spring would increase the number of Veterans Courts in Illinois.

Veterans Courts focus directly on the needs of former and current members of the armed forces. Currently, there are 12 Veteran Court programs in Illinois. All are limited to veterans with non-violent records who are struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. Veterans who qualify and successfully comply with court orders get the treatment they need and can have charges dismissed. As of 2014, problem-solving courts including Veteran Treatment Courts kept 1,200 offenders out of prison, saving the state of Illinois nearly $20 million.

House Bill 5003 requires the Chief Judge of each judicial circuit to establish a Veterans and Service members Court program. The legislation specifies that the Chief Judge of each circuit has the discretion to decide the format of the program, whether it’s a separate court or a problem solving court, including but not limited to a drug court or mental health court.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com.