Budget talks suspended
The six-month stopgap budget that was passed at the end of June will expire on December 31, leaving no budget in place to authorize much of the state’s spending during the second half of the fiscal year. Therefore, many aspects of state spending are hanging in limbo right now awaiting some kind of budget agreement to continue state funding. The stopgap budget was intended to be a bridge to cover the first half of the new fiscal year while the negotiations for a full year budget continued. However, budget talks amongst the Governor and legislative leaders have been suspended. Governor Rauner stated last week that based on his conversations with leading Democrats, negotiations are not being productive at this time.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ellee Pai Hong of Comcast Newsmakers during the first week of veto session back in November to discuss events in the General Assembly. The video is posted below.
Another week with no budget agreement
As the stopgap six-month budget for the first half of this fiscal year approaches its scheduled expiration on December 31, pressure is growing for top Illinois officials to develop a budget agreement. House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, Governor Rauner, and the other legislative leaders were meeting almost daily in Chicago. Some of the main issues under discussion include cash flow for state spending areas covered in the stopgap budget. If these areas are to get funding in January 2017 and following months, they will need a renewed appropriation. However, as of this writing, no agreement has been reached.
Still no budget deal, Governor calls for term limits, property tax freeze
Legislative leaders and the Governor met early in the week to discuss the state budget and other legislative items, but no agreement was reached. Large parts of the Illinois state budget are scheduled to expire with the sunset of the so-called "stopgap” budget that we passed back in June and which is in effect until December 31. Additional action will be necessary to keep funds flowing to those agencies after the end of the year. Unfortunately, the meetings between Governor Rauner and the four legislative leaders, including House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, have not produced the level of agreement necessary for a budget bill to start moving.

Fall veto session concludes
The House and Senate adjourned Thursday without passing a budget. The stopgap budget passed back in June will expire on January 1, and the House stands adjourned. This is unacceptable. We have an opportunity for real reform and a balanced budget if people on all sides would just come together and put the best interests of Illinois first.

Lineup set for new General Assembly
The members of the 100th Illinois General Assembly will take the oath of office at noon on Wednesday January 11, 2017, in Springfield. The new General Assembly will include some newly-elected members, as well as many who have served previously. I am looking forward to beginning my second term representing the people of the 106th district in the House of Representatives.

Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier
New Chief Justice for the Illinois Supreme Court
The Illinois Supreme Court will now be presided over by Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier of Nashville, in Washington County. Chief Justice Karmeier is a former Washington County State’s Attorney, and spent more than 20 years working in a private law practice. He was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2004 and was retained in 2014. Justice Karmeier became the 120th chief justice of the state when he took the gavel on October 31.

2015-2016 Illinois Report Card now available
The Illinois State Board of Education has issued the 2015-2016 Illinois Report Card, the annual report to citizens of Illinois on how each of the state’s schools performed in the most recent academic year. This year’s report has some new categories as well as many that have been included in the past.

Unemployment rate holds at 5.5%
The September jobs report from the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) found a net creation of 7,400 new Illinois payroll jobs for the month. In what is becoming a trend in Illinois, new job creation appeared to be mainly in the services sector. There were a total of 7,800 net new jobs created in professional, business, education, health, and other services sectors. In the manufacturing sector, Illinois lost a net of 800 jobs.

Illinois moves closer to REAL ID compliance
Illinois is among more than a dozen states considered out of compliance with the 2005 federal law requiring a state ID card (such as a driver’s license) to be seen as adequate identification for federal security purposes, such as entering a military base or boarding an airplane. Under the federal law, an applicant for a drivers’ license is required to present documentation to verify their legal status in the U.S. In addition, the license must be produced in a secure facility and comply with federal rules meant to reduce or eliminate counterfeiting.

Report indicates tax revenues on the decline
The latest monthly revenue report issued by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), the General Assembly’s nonpartisan budget watchdog office, indicated that tax revenue to the state declined in September. Revenue to the state’s general funds was down by $119 million below the levels received during the same month last year. The decline was attributable to changes in income tax cash flows, as personal income tax receipts were down $136 million and corporate income tax receipts came in $87 million lower. The drop in corporate income tax revenue amounts to a decline of 22% from a year ago.

Moody’s grades U of I credit among the best in Illinois
As the state continues to grapple with low credit ratings, there was some good news for one state institution. In its September report on the University of Illinois’ revenue stream, Moody’s Investors Services granted the school a sharply higher grade than many of Illinois’ public universities. The credit rating agency took note of recent state budget cuts to the university, but commended the three-campus institution for its underlying liquidity and diverse revenue streams. The university is less dependent on state tax funding because of these cash flows.

Illinois improving its information technology systems
The nonpartisan Center for Digital Government recently surveyed all 50 states and rated their status on digital technology issues. In this year’s survey, Illinois improved from a C+ in 2014 to a B+ in 2016. The Center’s publication, Government Technology, gave the new Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology (IDIT) credit for sparking much of the improvement.  In the past, each department of state government had its own information technology division, which sometimes used non-compatible or even unique software. In some cases, the software programs were decades old. The new IDIT, which was created this year, is working on changing all that.

Illinois expands employee leave for certain family situations
The Child Bereavement Leave Act was signed into law earlier this summer. Under the Act, Illinois employers who have at least 50 employees must grant up to ten days of unpaid leave to eligible full-time employees who have suffered the loss of a child. Except in emergency situations, there must be 48 hours of notice. The employee will have 60 days during which to take the leave time. Some Illinois employers already have bereavement policies under which they voluntarily pay workers who take this kind of leave.

The legislation was Senate Bill 2613. It passed the House 108-1.

New hunting laws take effect
Some pieces of legislation affecting Illinois hunting and fishing opportunities were signed over the summer. The new laws include legislation centered on youth trapping; bow hunting for catfish; and simplified landowner hunting permit procedures for deer and wild turkey.

The landowner bill, SB 3003, applies to owners and resident tenants who have at least 40 acres of Illinois land. Under the new law, which amends the Wildlife Code, these hunters will be able to apply for and receive a deer permit, a turkey permit, or a new combination deer/turkey permit that will cover both types of game. In the past, the separate landowner deer and landowner turkey permits were issued without fee, and this will still be the case. If a hunting club, hunting partnership or hunting cooperative owns its land they can be eligible for the permits under the new law as well.  The bill passed the Illinois House unanimously.

New concussion guidelines are in effect for contact sports
As awareness of the dangers of concussions in youth sports have grown, so too has the need to take action to better protect student-athletes from these injuries. New guidelines, adopted this season by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), are intended to reduce the number of concussions in contact sports. Student-athletes will be required to be tested and monitored during contact-sports activities.  The goal is to diagnose concussions as quickly as possible.

Legislation, executive order, aims to help kids in DCFS system
There are approximately 16,000 children in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Ideally, when a child needs a guardian, an adult relative or friend from the child’s background is selected, but this is not always possible. In some cases, the guardianship over a young person is assigned to the state. These young people were traditionally called “wards of the state,” but a new executive order will request that people in this standing now be called “youth in care.”

New legislation increases veterans services, honors Gold Star families
Several pieces of legislation to aid Illinois veterans have been signed into law over the past couple of weeks. The bills provide needed assistance to veterans and their families and honor to those who have sacrificed so much for our country and our state.

Two more bills signed into law
I am proud to report that two more of my bills have been signed into law. House Bill 4603 helps local governments cut down on excessive paperwork by allowing county boards to have the option of requiring a report from their public defenders quarterly rather than monthly. It was an idea presented to me by the Livingston County Board and I was glad to see it make its way all the way through the process.

Lots of action affecting agriculture in the spring session
The stopgap budget passed by the General Assembly, as well as some other legislation passed by both houses and expected to be signed into law this summer will affect agriculture in Illinois. Among the items in the budget was funding to make sure that important functions such as health and safety inspections of meat and eggs will not be interrupted. The budget provides $5 million for Soil and Water Conservation Districts and conservation programs. It includes the same level of funding for county fairs as did the FY15 budget. There is also $13 million for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension program.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com, or by phone at (815) 844-9179 (Pontiac) or (815) 432-0106 (Watseka).

New State job-creation agency is officially unveiled 

‘Intersect Illinois’,  the name of the new agency, reflects our state’s position as a focus of U.S. nationwide transportation infrastructure.  Intersect Illinois was created as a spinoff from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), and will be in charge of “selling” Illinois to potential job creators.  

Though just officially named and unveiled by the Governor’s office, Intersect Illinois has already begun selling Illinois as a place to work and invest. Last week, Amazon.com announced their decision to open a new 750,000-square-foot order fulfillment center in Romeoville.

Illinois State Police reports on implementation of concealed carry law

 In 2013, Illinois became the 50th and final state to allow the concealed carrying of guns by license, permit, or as a right.  In Illinois, persons seeking to carry a concealed firearm must undergo training and get a license from the State Police, including instruction in firearm safety.  More than 181,000 Illinois residents had obtained concealed carry licenses as of June 1, 2016.
There may be some tweaks ahead for the new law.  Gun owners continue to be concerned about interstate concealed-carry permissions and reciprocity with other states. Some states, such as Arizona, allow persons to carry concealed weapons as a right without a training or licensure requirement.  On the other hand, some other states (led by California and New York) have tougher concealed-carry licensure requirements than Illinois, and so may be hesitant to honor an Illinois license.
New process now in use for drivers’ license renewals
Illinois drivers looking to renew their licenses should take note of some new processes now in place at the Secretary of State’s office. One key change, mandated by the federal government, is an end to the practice of presenting each driver with a new license on-site when the renewal procedure is completed. The REAL ID law requires all new drivers’ licenses to be manufactured in guarded, secured facilities. In Illinois, drivers who successfully renew their licenses at a Driver Services facility will get their old license back with a hole punched through them, accompanied by an additional 45-day paper slip of successful renewal. The old license will remain temporarily valid through the 45-day period. The driver should carry both the old license and the paper slip.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com, or by phone at (815) 844-9179 (Pontiac) or (815) 432-0106 (Watseka).

Despite bad news, some accomplishments in the past year
We have all heard the bad news out of Springfield on an almost daily basis: budget standoff, credit downgrades, the unpaid bill backlog. But there has also been some good news to report from the past months. While we still have a lot of work to do, there have also been some successes.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com, or by phone at (815) 844-9179 (Pontiac) or (815) 432-0106) Watseka.

New School Funding Reform Commission Appointed

The commission will be composed of five designees from the Governor’s administration and each of the four legislative leaders. Secretary of Education Beth Purvis will serve as chairperson.  

There’s no question that our current school aid formula is outdated and leads to large funding inequities from district to district. The overreliance on property taxes is also a tremendous burden on local homeowners.  The new Commission is charged with coming up with a recommended comprehensive solution to reform Illinois’ school funding formula.  A report is to be presented to the Governor and the Illinois General Assembly by February 1, 2017 with action to be taken in time for the 2017-2018 school year.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com, or by phone at (815) 844-9179 (Pontiac) or (815) 432-0106) Watseka.

443 bills passed both houses this spring
Since the beginning of the year, the House and Senate passed a total of 443 bills to Governor Rauner’s desk, almost evenly split between bills originating in the House and bills originating in the Senate. These included large bills affecting every corner of the state; like the budget agreement reached on June 30; and small bills that only impact one program or one community. Some were bipartisan agreements which passed with large majorities, and others were more controversial and passed on party line votes.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com, or by phone at (815) 844-9179 (Pontiac) or (815) 432-0106) Watseka.

State K-12 budget will enable schools to open on time, stay open all year
On the last day of the fiscal year, the House and Senate came together to pass a budget bill which included full funding of Illinois schools for the first time in seven years. This will allow every school district in Illinois to open on time this fall, and to stay open for the full school year.

In addition, it ends the unfair practice of “proration” which reduced the level of General State Aid which schools have been receiving over the past seven years. This year’s K-12 budget provides record funding for elementary and secondary education, an increase of $520 million compared to last year.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com, or by phone at (815) 844-9179 (Pontiac) or (815) 432-0106 (Watseka).

Continuing budget stalemate threatens road and bridge maintenance
Illinois’ lack of a general funds budget has led to problems in other areas where money is available, particularly capital spending for roads and bridges.  In these capital-spending areas, money from taxes other than income and sales taxes are set aside for specific uses defined by law. The largest of these set-asides is money from the per-gallon tax on motor fuel, which is put into the Road Fund and used to rebuild state-maintained roads and bridges.

Governor Rauner and House Republican leaders are calling for the immediate enactment of a “stopgap” road construction bill to maintain the state’s transportation program.  Contracting crews go out to many locations every summer to perform needed road maintenance.  This work continued even after the budget process came to a halt last year.  However, the state’s legal counsel and accounting staff have now advised that this cannot continue on into FY17.  The director of the Illinois Department of Transportation, Randy Blankenhorn, warned at a news conference that his department will be forced to suspend the IDOT construction program at month’s end unless money is released before then by law for transfer to contractors.

House Republicans continue to push for 2016-17 school funding
The House Republican Caucus has been working with all sides, including Governor Rauner and rank-and-file Democrats, to ensure that funding is in place for Illinois public school districts to open on time this fall.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin filed legislation prior to the May 31st session deadline to provide funding for Illinois elementary and secondary education in this coming school year. House Republicans see this measure as taking K-12 schools out of the budget crossfire. The bill would take effect immediately, but its key impact would be felt in the 2016-17 school year. While the General Assembly could consider the bill at any time, most observers believe that it will become increasingly essential to pass some sort of school funding bill prior to the next calendar deadline – the start of the FY17 fiscal year on July 1.

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com.
House Republicans file legislation to ensure schools open during ongoing budget stalemate
One year ago, Illinois public schools and their pupils were spared the impact of the budget impasses when the Governor signed legislation that appropriated full funding for Illinois public schools in the 2015-16 school year. The enactment of a K-12 budget, while leaving the rest of Illinois state government to try to operate without a budget, while deeply flawed, did protect schoolchildren, their parents, and educators from the worst consequences of the current budget impasse for one year.  However, the 2015-16 school year is over and a new fiscal year will soon begin.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, with the support of many members of the House Republican caucus, has responded to the current stalemate by filing a bill to fully fund K-12 education in Illinois for FY2017. This strategy follows the one adopted last year. HB 6583 responds to discussions among many House members of both parties who have called for leaving schools out of the current budget crisis. The measure responds to changes in school attendance, school district equalized assessed values (EAVs), and school district maintenance of efforts. HB 6583 includes a $104.8 million “hold harmless” provision to ensure that all Illinois public school districts will receive at least 100% of their gross prorated 2015-16 General State Aid school aid in FY17.

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

General Assembly wraps up regular spring session with much work left to do
After five roller-coaster months, the Illinois House of Representatives reached its scheduled adjournment date on May 31. Some important work got done, some important work did not get done. Major issues are still unresolved; some are years overdue; and our state is in one of the most difficult moments in its history.

Clock ticking on serious budget deal, Pontiac students’ legislation passes

As always, you can contact me via webform at www.repbennett.com. While there, I hope you will take a moment to take my short survey on issues affecting the state.

Time running out on chance of Constitutional, balanced budget
The cautious optimism of earlier this month; when bipartisan working groups were said to be hammering out a budget deal; began to fade last week as Democrat leadership in the House rejected their proposal as “insufficient.” This week, Democrats advanced a wildly-unbalanced, unconstitutional budget that increased spending to more than $40 billion (about $7 billion more than the available revenue). We would have to raise taxes by around 47% to close that gap.

This amounts to more of the games that Democrats in the House have been playing since last spring. This situation is unacceptable: we haven’t had a budget in nearly a year, and now all the House has done is pass a budget that violates the Constitution’s balanced-budget requirement and explodes our already out-of-control deficit. It moves us no closer to ending the budget standoff.

Instead of continuing these games, we need to get a balanced budget in place, with the kind of structural reforms that will allow the state to grow again. The simple truth is that we need reform in order to grow jobs and have more people working and paying taxes. The more people working and paying taxes, the less taxes we need to have in order to fund state government.

As of this writing on Friday morning, there is still time to work together and pass a real budget; if the Democrats who run the House will permit it. I hope they will do so soon and take into consideration the negotiations that have been ongoing as we work toward a compromise and a real, balanced budget.

Rep. Tom Bennett (R-Gibson City) today joined House Republican colleagues in standing up to demand the House remain in session through the weekend to work toward an agreement on a balanced budget.

With only four days remaining in the regular session, Bennett joined in a call for legislators to stand if they are willing to stay at work during the weekend to work on a comprehensive, balanced state budget. The move came after House leadership cancelled a scheduled session day on Saturday May 28, leaving the House just three working days to pass a budget before the May 31 adjournment deadline.

With deadline approaching, more talk on the state budget
It’s a common theme every week in May: legislators from both parties continue to negotiate a state budget. This week, Governor Rauner and the four legislative leaders met to try to hammer out a compromise. The only agreements reached were to keep talking, and to put together working groups on several items.

Rep. Tom Bennett (R-Gibson City) will appear Sunday morning on WCIA's Capitol Connection program to discuss the ongoing state budget negotiations. The program will air on WCIA at 10 a.m. Sunday.

One proposed Constitutional amendment clears both houses
Only one of the many proposed Constitutional amendments made it through both houses in time to be submitted to the people of Illinois for possible ratification this fall. HJRCA 36 would put all revenues from transportation taxes and fees into a “lockbox” that can only be used for transportation purposes.

Under HJRCA 36, the money generated by these taxes and fees could only be spent for road construction and repair, enforcing traffic laws, and paying off transit-related debt.  Cash flows that would be affected by this amendment include the state tax imposed on motor fuel of 19 cents per gallon of gasohol and 21.5 cents per gallon of diesel fuel.  Sales taxes also imposed on motor fuel are not defined as specifically transportation-related taxes and fees, and would not be affected by this amendment.

A proposed amendment to abolish the office of the Lieutenant Governor passed the House, but did not get through the Senate. Another amendment to change the way Illinois draws legislative districts also passed the House, but the Senate passed a different version and the differences between the two could not be reconciled in time. The state constitution requires that all proposed amendments receive a 3/5 vote in both the House and Senate, and then must receive approval from 3/5 of the voters at the November election.

Redistricting amendment passes Illinois House, graduated income tax not called for vote

On Tuesday, the House passed a proposed Constitutional amendment which would change the way legislative district maps are drawn in Illinois. Currently, the map is drawn by incumbent lawmakers and then signed into law by the Governor. The proposal passed this week, HJRCA 58, would place redistricting in the hands of an eight-member commission appointed by members of the Illinois Supreme Court. The commission would be required to hold at least 15 public hearings throughout the state during the map-drawing process. The proposed amendment passed the House by a vote of 105-7.

Key supporter backs away from mileage tax proposal

The proposed mileage tax, floated a couple of weeks ago by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), to charge Illinois motor vehicle owners a mileage-based tax for use of Illinois roads, appears to be going nowhere.  The Senate Democratic leader stated that he did not plan to move forward with the proposal this spring.  Cullerton described his proposal as a trial balloon intended to start discussions on funding for road construction and maintenance.

Bipartisan compromise reached on higher education funding

The news has been filled lately with stories of the hardships that state universities, their students and staff have encountered due to the ongoing budget stalemate. In fact, Chicago State University officials stated that their school would run out of money and close on April 30 if something wasn’t done.

This week, rank-and-file legislators from both parties worked together to come up with a compromise that would get some desperately-needed funds to state universities, community colleges and students who rely on MAP grants for their education. Governor Rauner and leaders from both parties came on board with the agreement, and on Friday the House passed the compromise bill.

I was proud to vote with the majority on a bill which, though it did not solve the problem in full, was the first major step in the right direction. This fully-funded lifeline keeps our higher education institutions running through the rest of the fiscal year, and represents the kind of bipartisan cooperation that we sorely need to see much more of in Springfield. I hope this is the beginning of the end of a budget standoff that has gone on for far too long.

SPRINGFIELD – A pair of bills sponsored by State Representative Tom Bennett (R-Gibson City) passed the House this week; House Bill 5651 which assists Illinoisans in renewing their license plate registrations, and House Bill 4558 which protects the rights of law-abiding deer hunters.

The State of Illinois has now gone for 10 months without a budget. Services have been cut. People have lost jobs. Public Health Departments and Soil & Water Conservation Districts are quickly running out of money. Now, universities, colleges and community colleges are in fiscal crisis.

If legislators were feeling the same pain that others are feeling, I believe that we would have passed a budget a long time ago. If you agree with me that legislators should not get paid until we get a budget,
click here to sign our petition.

I have been a co-sponsor of this bill since July 31, 2015. Thank you State Representatives David McSweeney, Mark Batinick and the four other House members who are co-sponsors of this bill.

Fire Fighters Memorial Fund license plate bill passes House

On Wednesday the House passed my bill to allow motorcycles to carry the Illinois Fire Fighter Memorial Fund license plate, proceeds from which go to provide scholarships to children and spouses of firefighters killed in the line of duty, and to maintain the Illinois Firefighters Memorial at the Capitol. This specialty plate already existed, but it currently cannot be carried by motorcycles. Under my legislation, motorcyclists who wish to support the Fire Fighters Memorial Fund may request one of these license plates from the Secretary of State. The bill is House Bill 5649 and it is now pending in the Senate.

Local government bill passes House

A bill I am sponsoring to reduce the paperwork burden on county governments and public defenders passed the House Judiciary Criminal Law committee Monday and cleared the full House on Thursday. HB 4603 gives public defenders in smaller counties the option of making a report to the county board quarterly instead of every month. In less populous counties with a smaller caseload for public defenders, this bill will give the county board the flexibility to require fewer reports, and thus reduce the workload and paperwork. It would give each county board the flexibility to decide whether or not to require these reports monthly or quarterly. The bill passed the House 113-1 and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Several bills in committee this week

The House is scheduled to be in session April 4-8, with Friday being the deadline for legislation to advance out of committee. If it has not cleared committee by then, the bill is most likely dead until next year.

I have several bills in committee this week. House Bill 4603 eliminates a requirement for public defenders in small counties to make a report to the county board every month. Instead, they would report quarterly. This issue was brought to my attention by the Livingston County Board as a way to reduce unnecessary paperwork by setting a more appropriate interval for public defenders to report upon. House Bill 4558 would clarify some parts of the Wildlife Code dealing with deer hunting to allow authorities to prosecute repeat and excessive violators of the law.

Procurement reform could save Illinois more than $670 million

As Illinois’ debt grows, there is a plan on the table that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars without cutting programs or raising taxes. The savings from modifications to the Illinois Procurement Code, the law that governs how Illinois and its state universities are required to purchase many goods and services, would come from speeding up the process and creating a new class of pre-cleared bidders who could compete in future Requests for Proposals (RFPs) without time-consuming verifications. 

After studying the operation of the existing Procurement Code, the Rauner Administration released the results of a preliminary study which indicated that the enactment of reforms could generate as much as $514 million in procurement savings for state agencies with additional savings of $159 by state universities.

Republicans call for full funding for elementary and secondary education

With budget conditions continuing to be unsettled, many Illinois teachers, educators, and parents are concerned that Illinois school funding may get caught in the crossfire.  The Rauner Administration and Republican legislators are calling for full 2015-16 school aid foundation grant funding. The foundation grant level, which is determined by a formula set by statute, is currently $6,119 per student.
On Thursday, Governor Rauner visited the Paxton-Buckley-Loda K-12 school district.  The Governor visited classes and talked with students at an assembly. He noted that Paxton-Buckley-Loda enjoys strong leadership from administration, faculty and staff, and stressed that education is a priority of his administration. He also talked about the budget impasse where he encouraged Speaker Madigan and the House Democrats to come back to the table to get a budget done.

Despite the failure of Illinois to enact an overall balanced budget to cover the 2015-16 fiscal year, the State last spring did enact an appropriation bill to partly cover Illinois school funding in FY16.  Although this FY16 appropriation bill was not fully funded, it did include money that Illinois school districts are using right now to meet their operational needs in this fiscal year.
As Illinois’ fiscal condition continues downhill, unpaid bill total nears $9 billion

The Ledger, a spreadsheet summary posted online by Comptroller Leslie Munger, now shows Illinois with almost $7.5 billion in unpaid bills.  This includes not only the $3.68 billion in unpaid bills actually forwarded to the Comptroller for payment, but also an estimated $3.80 billion in past-due bills and invoices held at state agencies and not yet forwarded to the Comptroller. 

Comptroller Munger told the Senate Appropriations I committee on Thursday, March 17 that there is also an additional $1.3 billion owed  for statutory programs not covered by judicial process, such as  higher education and providers of social services. 

The $7.5 billion in conventional bills represent state programs, such as Medicaid, that are seen as legally essential and so continue to operate automatically under continuing appropriations, consent decrees, and court orders.  Additional bills of more than $1 billion represent programs that are dependent upon appropriated funding.  Unpaid promises by the State, such as the college-oriented Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) grant program, fall into this category.  In many cases, providers of services under these programs, such as providers of social services and universities, have continued to operate the past nine months in the hopes that appropriations measures will be passed at some point and signed into law.   
When asked to add both categories of debt together, Comptroller Munger projected that the cumulative total budget deficit would top $10 billion by June 30, 2016; yet rather than working on getting the bills paid, Speaker Madigan has adjourned the House for the entire month of March. It’s mind-boggling.

Mahomet Aquifer monitoring to increase

In response to concerns raised by Central Illinois families, water authorities, and Republican lawmakers, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has announced plans to increase the ongoing and continuous monitoring of the Mahomet Aquifer, which serves a wide variety of rural and small-town residents here in Central Illinois. The traditionally clean water of the aquifer could be affected by increasing uses of the soil above it for landfill and chemical usage, including PCB chemicals. 

HB 1326, signed into law in August 2015, represents work by the General Assembly to protect the Mahomet Aquifer from potential landfill pollution. Test wells will be drilled and samplings will be taken adjacent to existing, operating landfills.  Champaign, DeWitt, Ford, Iroquois, Logan, McLean, Mason, Piatt, Tazewell, and Vermilion Counties are among the counties whose residents get their drinking water from the aquifer.

Gas prices on the rise again in Illinois

 As the spring driving season gets underway, gas prices are back on the rise in Illinois.
The average price per gallon charged for motor fuel increased 18 cents during the week ending Monday, March 14.  Statistics compiled by the motor fuel website GasBuddy.com indicated that during this period the price of gas rose from $1.88 per gallon to $2.06 per gallon, marking the second highest increase for the week among the 50 states.

Illinois gas prices were 12 cents per gallon higher than the nationwide average of $1.94 per gallon, due in large part to our relatively high tax rates. The State of Illinois charges separate taxes on motor fuel by the gallon (Road Fund excise tax) and by the dollar (General Funds sales tax).  As recently as August 2012, gas cost an average of $4.31 per gallon in Chicago. 

Students begin taking state-mandated achievement test for 2015-2016 school year

Its PARCC time in Illinois schools. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a standardized test of English language arts and math that is given to students in Illinois public school districts.  The assessment is designed to measure student performance under the Common Core Standards, and students and test supervisors must undergo the testing procedure during a state-mandated “window” of time.  This year’s PARCC testing window began on March 7 and will end on June 10.  Numbers generated by the test results will be reported to Springfield and, after scrutiny, will be re-released to each Illinois school district and each school as an assessment of the school’s overall performance.

The 2015-2016 school year is the second annual cycle in which the controversial assessment test has been administered statewide.  One reason for the unpopularity of the PARCC assessment test in some quarters has been the relatively high level of poor results released by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to many Illinois school districts following implementation last year, as well as the number of hours students were required to dedicate to the test.  On a statewide level, test results were deemed to indicate that only one-third (33%) of Illinois public school students taking the test were “meeting or exceeding expectations.”  The ISBE has stated that this year’s protocol will include a shorter, simplified test taking format, which may allow some students to show results that indicate greater functionality than was demonstrated last year.

As always, you can contact me via webform right here on our webpage.
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.
At a press conference in Normal today, area Republican lawmakers emphatically reinforced their
willingness to compromise on the issue of Higher Education funding.  Local Representatives and Senators stressed that there are numerous viable proposals still on the table that Democrats have so far refused to consider.
House Democrats advance budget-busting spending plan 

We’re now in our ninth month without a comprehensive state budget plan in place, and instead of working across the aisle to pass a compromise plan, Speaker Madigan continues to simply push bills that contain billions of dollars in spending with no money to pay for them.
Prior to Thursday’s abrupt adjournment, House Democrats advanced a budget-busting spending plan. House Bill 2990 and House Bill 648 would spend approximately $3.7 billion with only $454 million in accompanying resources. 

Simply put, we don't have the money to pay for it. The Comptroller’s Office currently reports a backlog of unpaid bills totaling $7.2 billion, with almost 50,000 unpaid vouchers on hand.  Promising money we can’t pay is not why you sent us to Springfield.  You deserve better.

Republicans have proposed responsible alternatives and I continue to stand ready to work and to compromise on a balanced budget that meets the needs of all Illinoisans while protecting hardworking taxpayers.

Criminal justice reforms unveiled

A new package of bills has been unveiled with a goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25% over the next 10 years.

The three-bill criminal justice reform package will start in the state Senate.  Two of the bills, headed by SB 3294, work to increase the safety of streets and public spaces when offenders are released back into society, including expansion of the use of electronic monitoring when released offenders are in transitional status.  A third measure, SB 3164, amends Illinois sentencing procedures to increase the presumption that a low-level offender with no violent criminal record will be considered for alternatives to incarceration.

Under current law, many Illinois residents convicted of felony criminal offenses, including nonviolent, low-level felonies, are sent to prison.  The Illinois Department of Corrections currently houses approximately 49,000 inmates in spaces designed for less than two-thirds that many.  Each inmate costs the taxpayers more than $22,000 per year to incarcerate, and the overall prison system costs well more than $1 billion/year in scarce State general funds. 

House committee considers pension proposals

With Illinois facing increasing challenges to fund existing defined-benefit pension commitments, some House members are looking at potential constitutional alternative policies.  

The House Personnel and Pensions Committee looked at two bills last week that, if passed into law, could encourage existing public-sector employees with vested pension status to consider the buyout of some or all of their future benefits.  Employees who take a buyout would be given a one-time payout of funds, and would enjoy the opportunity to invest them for a payout that would match their future life plans.

In some cases, these proposals could reduce current costs and future unfunded pension liabilities borne by Illinois’ five state-managed pension systems.  Illinois’ unfunded pension liabilities currently top $110 billion.

Both proposals, House Bill 4427 and House Bill 5625, were held in committee for further discussion.   
Governor Rauner seeks federal assistance for counties hard hit by December flooding

Governor Rauner has requested federal assistance for 16 counties in Downstate Illinois, including Iroquois and Douglas, hard hit by heavy rains and flooding in the final days of 2015.

Under federal law, the governor of each state takes the lead in requesting disaster assistance for residents, businesses, and local governments whose property and interests were damaged by a natural disaster.  Investigative work carried out by federal authorities, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, and local first responders has found that the series of storms and flooding events inflicted public expenses and damage of more than $15 million in Illinois.  The storms also damaged nearly 700 Illinois homes. 

House Republicans urge compromise, responsible solution to higher education funding

I have received quite a bit of input in recent weeks on Senate Bill 2043, the Democrats’ proposal to fund community colleges and students’ MAP grants. The bill was vetoed by the Governor because it was a funding proposal that contained no actual funding. For that same reason, a veto override attempt failed last week in the House.

The good news is that several options remain on the table that will actually provide needed emergency funding for students’ MAP grants and Community Colleges and 4-year universities as well including House Bill 4539, which I am co-sponsoring. This legislation would provide approximately $1.68 billion that would come from general revenue to adequately fund colleges and universities, and students’ MAP grants. It would work in tandem with 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.

Students’ and universities’ budgets are at the breaking point. They can’t pay the bills with an empty promise. They need a plan that will provide actual dollars now. The plan I’m sponsoring will do that and I will continue to request that the Speaker allow us to discuss it and to work together on a realistic compromise.

Republicans move to keep the House in session, Democrats vote for a four week vacation

Perhaps the most frustrating vote taken in the House last week was on the motion to adjourn.

We don’t have an agreed-upon budget.  Local human service providers, students and universities are without funding .  My House Republican colleagues and I on Thursday moved to keep the House in Session, working on those issues. Speaker Madigan and Representatives on his side of the aisle broke their own House rules to avoid even considering our motion, and quickly voted to adjourn the House for a four-week vacation.

 We’re not in session again until April 4th. That’s unconscionable.

As always, you can contact me via webform right here on the website.
Statement of State Representative Tom Bennett on Democrats’ unfunded higher education appropriations bills:

“Our higher education funding crisis has reached critical mass. Students, universities, and community colleges need emergency funding now to get through the rest of this fiscal year, but the vetoed MAP bill and the new, largely unfunded appropriations bill pushed by the Speaker are shams, not solutions,” said State Representative Tom Bennett, a former Community College Board Chairman. “We want to compromise with Democrats to end this budget impasse and restore funding for everyone who’s being caught in the crossfire of Speaker Madigan’s obstructionism – students and colleges, seniors on fixed incomes, and working parents trying to make ends meet. Instead, Speaker Madigan and his allies continue to offer only false promises.”

Representative Bennett and his House Republican colleagues  made a motion to reconvene the
House Friday to continue important budget work, but majority Democrats instead voted to adjourn the House and left Springfield for a four-week holiday. You can listen to Representative Bennett's comments here.