Rep. Wheeler's Weekly Roundup: May 12

Budget
·         Fresh thinking will fix Illinois.  House Republican Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno

For too long, Springfield politicians have been stuck in the past. They think the pressing issues of our day — large budget deficits, unfunded public pensions, and dangerously high out-migration — are similar to the ones Illinois has faced in eras past. 

Have a problem? Look to the glory days of state government, they say. Just cut a little spending here and there, do a massive tax hike, and another short-term pension fix to top it off. Just remember to keep the overall system intact. They swear it’ll do the trick for a few years, maybe even a decade.

Current and former elected officials may deny it, but the old ways of doing business have been anything but glorious for the people of Illinois. For the past 15 years, state government has been operating with budgets in structural deficit. That’s 15 years of complete and total failure. Fifteen years of the General Assembly failing to meet its most basic constitutional obligation — to pass a balanced budget for the governor to sign into law. Read the rest of the editorial in SJ-R.

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·         Want an Illinois budget? Adopt a revenue estimate.  K-12 schools and state universities need a state budget. Social service providers need a state budget. The most vulnerable individuals and families across Illinois need a state budget.

State government in Illinois is financially adrift because the General Assembly hasn’t stepped up to lead and make the tough decisions to work through a budget. By law we are required to begin by adopting a revenue estimate. I have filed legislation to do just that.

Why is it so important that we adopt a revenue estimate? There are three reasons:

The revenue estimate is the actual first step in our budgeting process. How do we know how much each appropriations committee has to allocate for their assigned departments and agencies if we don’t start with the Revenue Estimate?

The revenue estimate is required by state law and the Illinois Constitution. Just look it up. We have to do it. If we appropriate funds without a revenue estimate, we are, in effect, breaking the law.

The revenue estimate is an important form of taxpayer protection. If we skip the revenue estimate and just appropriate according to our wishes and the requests of the departments and agencies of state government, we will likely spend too much, which will trigger a tax increase.


Chicago – Thompson Center
·         Selling the JRTC: Generating Millions for Chicago Public Schools.  Governor Bruce Rauner announced Friday that Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R- Western Springs) have filed legislation that will direct all future property tax receipts from the redevelopment of the James R. Thompson Center (JRTC) to Chicago Public Schools. The bill numbers are SB2209 and HB4044.

"The JRTC is sucking up valuable space, time, and money," Governor Rauner said. "No one likes working here. It's expensive to maintain and it's a drain on taxpayer resources. The legislation introduced today gives us yet another reason to move swiftly in selling this building. Every day of delay just postpones Chicago's ability to earn millions in property taxes."

The JRTC currently occupies an entire city block in Chicago's Loop and presents a unique redevelopment opportunity for the city. By selling the building, Illinois taxpayers could earn hundreds of millions in a sale and Chicago could generate up to $45 million annually in property taxes. Under Leaders Radogno and Durkin's legislation, CPS could see an additional $1 billion in dedicated revenue by 2040.

“Selling the JRTC and directing all of the future property tax proceeds to the Chicago Public Schools would benefit both Illinois and Chicago taxpayers," Leader Durkin said. "The legislation would provide CPS with a stable source of additional revenue for years to come, and would let Illinois off the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs and maintenance costs on a dilapidated building we can no longer afford."

“This is a win-win, which will provide savings for the taxpayers of Illinois while at the same time providing a much needed economic boost to the City of Chicago,” Leader Radogno said.

In order to get the best deal for taxpayers, the General Assembly needs to pass legislation to sell the building. Additionally, Central Management Services (CMS), which manages the JRTC, has been working cooperatively with the City of Chicago and other stakeholders to position taxpayers to get the largest return on investment.

"The JRTC has always been costly to operate, and when combined with the millions in needed repairs, it's worth less than it would cost to fix," Acting CMS Director Mike Hoffman said. "We have pledged to be a partner with Chicago to ensure state and city taxpayers get what they deserve."

CMS estimates deferred maintenance on the building is more than $326 million. Among the repairs needed are: the HVAC system, the fire and sprinkler system, and the elevator system.

"This sale has been talked about for way too long. It’s time to get something done," Governor Rauner added. "With the cooperation and partnership of city and state leaders, we can make this a reality."

Video of the press conference can be found here.

Agriculture – Rain-Soaked Farm Fields
·         Heavy rains lead to delays in spring fieldwork.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which tracks farm fieldwork throughout the U.S., is reporting problems in Illinois.  In its May 8 “Crop Progress” report, which followed a period of heavy precipitation throughout Illinois, the USDA reported that there were only 0.6 days suitable for spring fieldwork.  Precipitation averaged 1.89 inches across the state, 0.92 inches above normal.  Heavier rains fell in many areas.

Spring fieldwork centers on preparing the fields, planting the crops, and waiting for crop emergence.  As of May 8, 65% of the corn had been planted, but only 14% of soybeans.  29% of the corn had emerged out of the ground, but only 1% of beans.  Low soil temperatures were cited as one reason for sprouting delays.  The average soil temperature was 51.4 degrees Fahrenheit, 6.5 degrees below normal.           

Education – Early Childhood Education
·         Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) to be expanded to cover all schools.   As research evidence expands to show the importance of early education on adult outcomes, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is rolling out implementation of the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) program.  The ISBE received approval for the administrative rules that will implement the KIDS expansion from a General Assembly rules coordination panel on Tuesday, May 9.  This clears the way for the KIDS rules to become part of Illinois administrative law.     

Under the KIDS program, early childhood educators are trained to observe, assess, document, and report on children’s development, using objective measuring sticks.  Much of the training is done by taxpayer-friendly webinars.  The goal of the KIDS program will be to collect data for all kindergartners to measure their readiness to start the educational process.  Preschools, home child care centers, Head Start centers, family homes, and every other provider of life training for kindergartners are urged to participate in the KIDS assessment process, with the focus being on group-preschool care settings and the professionals who staff them.  The KIDS rules were developed with continuing advice and input from First Lady Diana Rauner, a leading advocate of early childhood education.   

Education – School Funding Reform
·         Rep. Bourne: School Funding Reform Needed Now.  On Monday, State Rep. Avery Bourne released the following statement on school funding reform upon the House's return to Springfield for the final month of the spring legislative session:

“For years, multiple legislative commissions and committees have studied the obvious inequities of Illinois’ school funding system. As it stands now, Illinois has the most inequitable school funding system in the nation. That means students are essentially forced to play a zip code lottery that will determine whether they learn in classrooms equipped with an iPad per student or one where students share decades old textbooks. This is a challenge we need to tackle as the legislature, and there is bipartisan agreement that it must happen soon.

We have a diverse state. A school in Naperville will not have the same needs, property values or student demographics as a school in Hillsboro. This diversity is not appropriately recognized in our current system. That’s why under our new bipartisan proposals, a new school funding formula will look at each school district’s unique characteristics.

There have been countless hours spent in the last year around this bipartisan solution to our school funding problem. We cannot, however, take our eyes off of the goal. Our goal is a system that works for every student in this state. Getting this crucial reform passed is within sight. However, as often happens - this is when special deals are added or fairness is tossed out the window in exchange for what is politically expedient.

When talking about state policies, I hear often from constituents that the money flows straight to Chicago while the rest of Illinois is forgotten about. We cannot let this happen again. The children of Illinois are too important. Understand though, I agree - the children of Chicago deserve a high quality education. Many of them are not afforded that opportunity under the current system. However, the children outside of Chicago, in central and southern Illinois deserve the opportunity to get a great education too.

We have come a long way. I am encouraged by the hard work that has been done on school funding reform and I will continue to work for a bipartisan, fair solution for every student in Illinois. We cannot continue with the broken patchwork of a system that we have now and we cannot add to the patchwork. Now is the time to pass school funding reform and it is time to do it right.”

Economy – Tourism
·         Governor Kicks Off National Travel & Tourism Week.  Governor Bruce Rauner kicked off National Travel & Tourism Week and released domestic Illinois tourism figures that show robust growth in visitor spending in 2016.

"Illinois welcomed 110 million visitors from around the country in 2016 and last year, tourism revenue grew three percent across the state," Governor Rauner said. "This is another example that in areas where we can improve the economy, our administration is moving forward. Illinois is the greatest state in the nation. We have so much to be proud of and so many reasons to invite our out-of-state friends to visit the Land of Lincoln."

Governor Rauner and the Illinois Office of Tourism announced that in the first quarter of 2017 there has been a seven percent increase in tourism revenue in Chicago and a four percent revenue increase downstate. Since the administration took office, tourism has grown three percent every year. Visitors to Illinois invested $35 billion in the state's economy in 2016. In the last two years, Illinois has created 20,000 tourism-related jobs.

At Monday's kick off, the Illinois Office of Tourism announced a new Illinois Made series to feature four new small businesses and artisans based in Illinois. New Illinois Made features include the host Optimo Hats. It is in a former Chicago fire house based in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood. Owner Graham Thompson is Chicago's last true hat maker known for handcrafting custom hats. Other Illinois Made artisans are Eshelman Pottery in Elizabeth, Heritage Bikes in Chicago and Blaum Brothers Distilling Company in Galena.

"This year's National Travel and Tourism Week theme recognizes ‘Faces of Travel,' saluting the amazing people behind the travel industry. Here in Illinois we want to recognize and promote more of our Illinois Made artisans who are small businesses and job creators helping to drive the state's economy," said Cory Jobe, Director of the Illinois Office of Tourism. "The expanded Illinois Made program will attract new visitors to explore our state, while supporting local businesses and generating important tourism spending for our communities."

Video of the press conference can be found here.

Elections – Database Hack
·         Investigation finds massive data mining in Illinois.  The Illinois State Board of Elections (ISBEL) contains duplicate files of the identifying information presented by voters to local election boards.  Senior ISBEL officers have testified to a General Assembly panel that an unknown party made their way around the firewalls used to guard this information and viewed files containing the names of thousands of Illinoisans.  Information that the intrusive program could see include names, birth dates, addresses, drivers’ license numbers, and the last four digits of a voter’s social security number.

Apparently by chance, the compromised section of the ISBEL database included many voters from Galesburg.  14,121 Galesburg residents have received letters informing them of the intrusion. The ISBEL voter database is physically separated from the individual voter lists contained within the vaults of each local election authority.  Because each local authority tabulates and counts votes separately, this activity with respect to the statewide voter database could not affect any election outcome.  The investigation continues.  No one knows who was behind the intrusion activity.   

General Assembly
·         House considers bills from Senate.  The Illinois House reconvened this week for a two-week period dedicated to the consideration of Senate bills in the House.  The Senate has sent 345 bills to the House, less than 16% of the 2,209 bills filed in the Senate this spring.  These bills have been assigned to House committees for further discussion and debate.  Under normal House rules, Senate bills have to get out of House committee no later than Friday, May 19, in order to be eligible to become law this spring.  In a few cases, a few Senate bills may be granted extended deadline consideration, but this should not be counted on.  The current status of all of these bills can be tracked on the General Assembly website, ilga.gov

Jobs
·         More jobless Illinoisans are giving up the job search, study finds.  Though people often focus on unemployment rates as a measure of economic health, another telling data point is how many people are so discouraged with the job search that they're dropping out of the labor force altogether.

A newly released survey found good news: Fewer unemployed Americans are giving up looking for work. But that's not the case in Illinois, where more people seem to be throwing up their hands.

A survey conducted by Harris Poll for Express Employment Professionals, a staffing agency, in March and April found 44 percent of jobless people in Illinois said they had completely given up looking for a job. That's worse than the 41 percent who said the same last year and the 33 percent who said so in 2015. Read more.

State Government
·         Hearing officer finds Auditor General Mautino willfully violated campaign finance requirements.  Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino, age 54, is currently under investigation.  Allegations include reports that Mautino, who prior to his appointment was a state representative, used or allowed associates to use campaign funds for non-campaign purposes.

In order to protect the integrity of campaign funds, substantial reporting requirements are placed on campaign committees. They have to report substantially all of their larger contributions and spending.  The reports are contained in mandated filings that must be deposited with the Illinois State Board of Elections (ISBEL).

As part of the overall investigation, questions have been asked about the reports filed by former Rep. Mautino and his campaign committee.  An ISBEL hearing officer officially found this week that the Mautino committee willfully violated the informational requirements that surround at least one of these required filings.  The hearing officer had the right to recommend that the State Board of Elections impose a fine on the campaign committee, which remains in existence pending conclusion of the investigations.  The ISBEL will consider this recommendation and take final action. 

The hearing officer did not have the right to inquire on the backstory, if any, that accompanied this alleged reporting violation.  Why the campaign committee did not submit adequate information to nonpartisan authorities was not made clear.  Other investigations continue.        
    
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