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.