Continuing state worker pay; school funding reform commission report

Legislation filed to continue paying state workers
I have joined several of my colleagues in sponsoring House Bill 1787, legislation which makes state workers’ salary payments a continuing appropriation. This would guarantee payment of state employees during a budget stalemate. The issue of state employee paychecks has become especially urgent since Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a motion in court to stop paychecks for state employees at the end of this month.

If enacted, the bill would be effective immediately. I co-sponsored similar legislation in the previous General Assembly, but it was not allowed a committee hearing. I hope the House will take up this legislation without delay.

School funding reform proposal beginning to take shape
One of the largest items of state spending is aid to Illinois schools. The existing school funding formula is spelled out in state law and administered by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Funds that do not come from federal or state sources must be brought in from local property tax levies. Therefore, concerns about our school funding formula are understandably tied in with concerns about property taxes and tax rates.

Last summer, Governor Rauner and the legislative leaders created the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission. The Commission is made up of 25 members who were asked to come up with a way to reform our school funding formula to make sure schools are adequately funded and that funding is distributed on a more equitable basis. The Commission held its final meeting February 1 and has now submitted its report to the Governor and General Assembly. The report lays out a framework for how to move forward in putting in place an equitable school funding formula. Members of the Commission stated that they hope the General Assembly and the Governor will work together and use their report to craft legislation creating a new, more equitable and adequate funding system for schools in the upcoming fiscal year.

The state currently funds 26% of the total cost of Illinois primary and secondary education. The Commission set a goal of establishing the state as the primary funding source of education. In order to reach that level of funding, the framework sets out individual “adequacy targets” for each school district based on that district’s individual needs, such as enrollment, teacher salaries, low-income students, and English language learners among other factors. This adequacy target will help districts and residents get an idea of how much a district must spend to provide an adequate and equitable education to each student. The Commission also agreed that any new formula must provide transparency in regards to local dollars being spent. Their hope is to lessen the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund education.

The Commission’s framework is built upon the idea of a school district’s eligibility for aid being partially tied to evidence that one or more of the district’s schools have fallen short of adequacy targets while making progress toward meeting the targets. The goal of the new formula is to concentrate aid on vulnerable students while not rewarding school districts maintain a perpetual state of poor performance and outcomes. The legislature will now review the Commission’s report and use it as a basis for revamping Illinois’ school funding formula.

Illinois’ credit rating slips
Fitch Ratings cut Illinois’ general obligation bond rating last week from BBB+ with a negative outlook to BBB with a negative outlook. This rating is just one step above the lowest possible rating (BBB-) Fitch grants to an entity that is viewed as an investment-grade credit risk. Ratings for bonds issued by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority and by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority were also cut by Fitch. The credit rating house stated that Illinois’ failure to deal with its fiscal challenges “has fundamentally weakened the state’s financial profile.”

The expiration on January 1 of the six-month stopgap budget that provided appropriations for state agencies has created a serious cash flow problem for many Illinois offices and institutions. Public universities, community colleges, community mental health treatment agencies, and agencies that provide attention to elderly persons who are not in residential care have been especially hard hit. It is yet another reminder of the urgency of finding bipartisan consensus on a balanced state budget.

Fighting elder abuse
Financial abuse of elderly Illinoisans is one of the more heartbreaking crimes occurring in the state. I am proud to be sponsoring legislation to bring attention and resources to the fight against financial exploitation of the elderly. On Thursday, I presented two resolutions before the House Aging Committee which will help tackle this problem.

House Resolution 25 designates June 15 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day in Illinois to help bring attention and education to this ongoing problem. The date coincides with World Elder Abuse Day. It is an opportunity for Illinoisans of all ages to become more aware of the signs of financial abuse of the elderly and how to stop it. House Resolution 32 directs the Illinois Department on Aging and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to put together educational materials to help seniors understand their rights and what options they have for reporting suspected cases of financial abuse. Education is the best way to recognize and prevent abuse of our elderly neighbors, friends and family members.

Bald eagles return to Illinois
After migrating south from nesting grounds in the Great Lakes region, many bald eagles settle into winter homes near open water across central and southern Illinois. This time of year, bald eagles are a regular sight in the area around Alton, in southwestern Illinois. The confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers adds nutrients to the larger body of water and helps encourage fish to spawn. The eagles then come in search of the fish. Pere Marquette State Park near Alton offers resources intended to help birdwatchers catch a glimpse of the iconic birds.

Did You Know?
Present-day Illinois was once a part of Virginia. In 1778 George Rogers Clark and a force of 175 men defeated the British garrison at Kaskaskia during the Revolutionary War. Having taken control of the area, it became a county of Virginia. Illinois remained a part of Virginia until 1784 when Virginia gave up its claim to the land.