Rep. Wheeler's Weekly Roundup: April 7

Budget – Stopgap
·         House Democrats advance irresponsible stopgap spending plan.  It is disappointing, but not surprising, that Democrats once again rammed another stopgap spending plan through the House – it’s precisely why Democrats have been unwilling to negotiate with House Republicans on a full, balanced budget. 

We have said all along that it was the plan of the Speaker and the majority party to only pass stopgap spending plans and allow our state to simply limp along to get to the next election – and their most recent actions prove that.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen all of this before. Typically, right before a break or deadline, the majority party decides it’s best to play politics and passes a spending plan that never balances or fails to address the real issues of our state so that they can go home and pretend that they’ve done their job.

Our students, community colleges and universities and social services providers deserve long-term certainty.  The House Democrat plan does nothing to address their long term problems and concerns and simply strings them along.

The funding that Democrats are proposing isn’t even close to what vital programs need. For example, their spending plan includes only 36% of the funding for domestic violence shelters, only 36% for infant mortality programs and only 38% for the senior meals program.

To make matters worse, their plan would spend $1.5 million on a program in Chicago that has already been disbanded and employees laid off and more than $500,000 on two programs that are currently ineligible to receive funds due to noncompliance issues with reporting of how state funds were previously spent.

Instead of stop gaps and governing through piecemeal “solutions”, we need to make those who depend on assistance from the State whole. That can only be done through a balanced budget.

So let’s call this what it is. House Democrats do not intend to get a budget done before 2019. That is unacceptable.

Republicans have said over and over again that we are ready and willing to work with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to find an agreement on a budget that balances and fixes the long term issues facing our state while respecting the priorities of both Republicans and Democrats. But so far Democrats have refused to even begin those discussions.

Republicans have been very clear about our priorities in a budget:

o   A budget that actually balances
o   Property tax relief for families and businesses
o   Political reform (term limits and fair maps) to restore accountability and trust to government
o   Pension reform to save the state billions of dollars
o   And other reforms (workers’ comp) to make Illinois competitive, grow our economy and most importantly create jobs

So we hope that instead of being the party of “No”, House Democrats will return to Springfield and will be ready to work with us on a balanced budget. Work with us to bring certainty to our state and fix the problems that we all know must be addressed to put Illinois back on the right track.

Budget – Moody’s Warning
·         Moody’s Investors Service labels current Illinois budget situation “unsustainable.”  The globally-followed credit-rating firm, which has downgraded debt securities issued by the State of Illinois and its affiliates in the recent past, has issued another warning.  In the most recent caution issued to Springfield, Moody’s indicated that if the State does not enact a budget by May 31, Illinois will be on a pathway to “unsustainable fiscal challenges.” 

Creating special concerns for credit analysts is the growing possibility that Illinois’ fiscal situation could threaten its ability to maintain an investment-quality credit rating.  Only two additional credit reductions would reduce Illinois’ credit rating to non-investment-grade level.  Moody’s analysts warned that the consequence of this loss of investment-grade quality could expand the cuts that are now being inflicted on individual social service offices and individual departments within institutions of higher education.  Under threat could be the long-term survival of entire public universities and swathes of community services across complete regions of Illinois. 

“Illinois is at a critical juncture,” stated Moody’s vice president and senior credit officer.  The credit-rating official pointed out that Illinois already has the lowest debt rating (BBB/Baa2) of any state in the U.S.  The developing budget situation has already helped to create a significant pension underfunding situation, which has exacerbated the overall picture of Illinois’ debt-to-assets ratio.  The Moody’s report was released on Thursday, March 30.      

Budget – Workers’ Compensation Costs
·         Illinois’ dysfunctional workers’ compensation system blamed for swollen public-sector operating costs.  A new study, backed by the Illinois Policy Institute, suggests that the cost of workers’ compensation to Illinois taxpayers is at least $1 billion a year.  The total includes at least $727 million/year attributable to local governments and school districts, and an estimated $255 million/year for the State of Illinois.  The study was released on Wednesday, April 5.

Workers’ compensation costs are paid by taxpayers as the employers of the thousands of Illinois public sector personnel, including school and university personnel.  Under existing law, most employers must cover their employees with workers’ compensation insurance to reflect the actuarial future costs of the employment-related health challenges they may face in the future while employed. 

The Illinois workers’ compensation system costs more, per employee, than the systems operated in most other U.S. states.  Republicans this year are redoubling their call for overall workers’ compensation reform to move Illinois’ system closer to nationwide standards.  Reforms include changes to fees and awards, caps on wage reimbursement rates, work-duty changes to reduce the time that a workers’ comp patient has to wait before going back to work, and changes in workers’ comp pharmaceutical practice to discourage the workers’ comp patients from being prescribed opiate painkillers.  Implementing a family of reforms of this type could reduce the cost of workers’ comp to Illinois taxpayers by as much as $300 million/year. 

The current Illinois workers’ comp system is set up in complex ways to ensure what are thought to be adequate compensation levels for injured workers, the medical care providers who provide care to persons injured on the job, advocacy personnel (including lawyers) who represent parties in workers’ compensation claim disputes, and the insurance firms that sell workers’ compensation insurance.  Opponents of workers’ comp reform tend to blame one or more of these four compensated parties, rather than advocating reforms to the whole system. 

Environment – Adopt-a-Trail
·         Spain bill allows volunteer work at State Parks.  State Rep. Ryan Spain passed his first bill on Wednesday, a bipartisan measure to allow volunteer work to be performed at Illinois State Parks.

“This is common-sense legislation that allows volunteers to create an Adopt-a-Trail program as well as allow volunteer work at State Parks and trails.  Included in permissible activities are spring cleanups, accessibility projects, special events, trail maintenance, enhancement, or realignment, public information and assistance, or training," said State Rep. Ryan Spain.  

This legislation attempts to resolve a long-standing problem at many State Parks and facilities where volunteers are being told they are not permitted to help keep trails clean and maintained.  Currently, those individuals are able to assist with removal of trash and litter.  Spain continued, “My intention here is not to take away work historically done by State employees, but rather to allow supplemental efforts to help keep our state natural resources in even better shape for future generations.”

Representative Spain sponsored House Bill 3455, a measure suggested to him by trail riders at Jubilee State Park in rural Brimfield and negotiated with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other stakeholders, and passed the legislation on Wednesday in the Illinois House by a vote of 113-0.  The legislation attracted bipartisan support and co-sponsorship from House legislators throughout Illinois.  Testifying in support of the bill were the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as well as the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois.

Jobs – Chicago Tourism
·         Millennium Park becomes top tourist attraction in U.S. Midwest.  A visitor count carried out during the final six months of calendar year 2016 showed 12.9 million visitors setting foot in Chicago’s iconic park, making Millennium Park the most popular single site in the central region of the United States.  The park centers around sculptor Anish Kapoor’s internationally recognized abstract stainless-steel sculpture “Cloud Gate.”  Millennium Park topped the Midwest’s second-most-visited tourist attraction, Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Outmigration – Indiana
·         Census finds increasing numbers of former Illinoisans have moved to Indiana.  The counts carried out by the American Community Survey include movements of former Illinoisans through calendar years 2015.  In 2015, 34,220 former Illinois residents moved to the Hoosier State. 

Indiana currently possesses features that increase its attractions relative to Illinois.  Features of Indiana policy include a working state budget, a statewide property tax limitation law, a “triple-AAA” credit rating, and a job-friendly business climate.  More Illinois residents are expected to move to Indiana as these policy factors continue to operate.     

State Government – Historic Preservation
·         Governor begins consolidation of IHPA into IDNR.  In an executive order, Gov. Bruce Rauner took steps this week to trigger the elimination of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA).  The Agency operates more than 50 historic and cultural-heritage sites throughout Illinois.  Sites controlled by IHPA include the Hotel Florence, an architectural keystone of the Pullman National Monument in Chicago; Lincoln’s Tomb and Lincoln’s New Salem in Central Illinois; and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cahokia Mounds, east of St. Louis.  IHPA was separated out from its former parent, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (then called the Department of Conservation) in 1985. 

Under the terms of Rauner’s Executive Order, most of IHPA will be returned to what is now the Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).  The consolidation of the two agencies is expected to generate significant administrative savings.  A key entity within IHPA, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, will be granted its own Board of Trustees and autonomy directly under the Office of the Governor.

The consolidation of most of the IHPA and granting of autonomy to the Lincoln Presidential Library will take effect 60 days after issuance of the Executive Order, unless the implementation of the Order is blocked by joint resolution of the Illinois General Assembly.  The Executive Order was released on Friday, March 31, setting the stage for this administrative change to be implemented at the end of May, 2017.       

Transportation – Tollway Speed Limits
·         House Republican bill “nudges” Illinois tollways into increasing speed limits.  The maximum speed limit on non-congested divided-highway freeways has been increased from 65 mph to 70 mph.  The faster speed limits are enjoyed by Illinoisans who take millions of driving trips annually on Illinois’ free interstate highways.  However, Illinois toll roads continue to maintain a maximum speed limit of 65 mph, including speed limits on rural sections of toll road highway west of Aurora and Elgin.  The toll roads are operated by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority (ITHA), an independent panel that has so far maintained the older, slower speed limit.

Representative Peter Breen’s HB 2938 is aimed at nudging the Authority to raise the speed limit on stretches of highway where it is safe to do so.  The bill provides that 12 months after the effective date of the bill, the effective Illinois toll road maximum speed limit will be 70 mph for highways other than the Tri-State Tollway.  The bill authorizes the Authority to have control over the timing and process by which the speed limit will be increased.  Breen presented his bill to the Illinois House on Wednesday, April 5.  After a favorable roll call of 109-5-0, the bill was sent to the Senate for further discussion and debate.        

Spring in Illinois – Buffalo Rock State Park
·         Crews clean up February tornado damage. Major damage was inflicted upon Buffalo Rock State Park by the February 28 tornado that hit the Ottawa area.  Since the storm, the park has been closed to the public as Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) crews try to clean up debris left behind by the storm.  A brick pavilion where families hold reunions and picnics was badly damaged by a falling tree.  A nearby open-air White Oak, sometimes called the ‘wedding tree,’ was maimed by the storm and will likely need to be removed.  The River Bluff Trail, where parkgoers hike and enjoy the Illinois River, has been made impassable by fallen trees.  The State Park has not yet set a timetable to reopen the park.  

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