Springfield, Ill. – Senate Republicans announced last week they will voluntarily walk away from the controversial and scandal-prone Legislative Scholarships Program, State Senator Sue Rezin (R-Morris) said. The Senate Republicans hoped their decision will pressure their Democrat colleagues to also give up the costly and politically-charged perk.
Also during the week, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka released a new report that estimates that one year after the state raised personal income taxes by 67 percent, Illinois has a bill backlog of about $8.5 billion.
Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn announced plans to close a state-run developmental center in Jacksonville and a mental health center in Tinley Park in 2012. The Governor also indicated he plans to close three other developmental disabilities facilities and possibly additional mental health facilities over the next several years.
And, just weeks after lawmakers voted for a pension reform to block highly-paid union executives and lobbyists from cashing in on taxpayer-funded pensions, the Better Government Association revealed that other private sector lobbyists are also in line to score benefits from Illinois' public pension systems.
Senator Rezin said she was pleased that the Senate Republican decision to stop participating in the scholarship waiver program drew quick editorial applause from the Chicago Tribune. A Jan. 19 Tribune editorial praised Senate GOP efforts, saying: "Republicans in the Illinois Senate are voluntarily suspending their participation in the tuition waiver program that has brought so much dishonor — and so much dishonorable conduct — to the General Assembly."
The newspaper then chided the Democrat leaders of the legislature for their refusal to end the program, pointing out that the Senate Republican action "raises an obvious question for Democratic legislators...What, exactly, is your problem? Do you think citizens by the millions haven't learned what a rip-off you're perpetuating?"
Many Senate Republicans have consistently sponsored legislation to end the program. As recently as last fall, a measure that would have ended the program was blocked by the Democrat leadership. That bill, which originally would have made some reforms to the program but left it in place, was amended by the Governor to completely eliminate the waivers. Although the Senate Republican sponsor of the bill had urged the Governor to make those changes and supported them, the Legislature's Democrat leaders blocked consideration of the proposal. Already this year, at least one new measure (SB 2570) was introduced by two Senate Republicans to repeal the program.
The legislative tuition waivers are awarded to students at public universities in Illinois. There are no academic standards or requirements that the scholarships be based on need. Because the scholarships are not paid for by the legislature and the universities receive no financial support for the program, costs are passed on to other students.
In the past, the program has been plagued by revelations that some legislators have awarded the waivers to relatives, political allies and campaign contributors. While many legislators took steps individually to avoid conflicts – often handing over the awarding of scholarships to independent committees – not all did so, and individual abuses continue to surface.
The Comptroller's report is the latest in a long list of negative news about Illinois' financial management. Earlier this month, one major bond rating agency lowered Illinois' credit rating to the worst in the nation. Coincidentally, that same rating agency recently reviewed the finances of European nations and downgraded many of the European Union states. With those downgrades, Illinois now shares the same credit rating as Slovenia.
According to the Comptroller, more than $5.15 billion in Fiscal Year 2012 funds were swallowed up by bills that were accumulated in Fiscal Year 2011. Pushing off of costs from one fiscal year to the next, without reducing spending, will contribute to an expected deficit at the end of the current fiscal year.
The investigation by the Chicago-based Better Government Association revealed that private, paid lobbyists for the Township Officials of Illinois, the Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Association of Park Districts are eligible for taxpayer-paid pensions under little-known state laws. In one case, the government watchdog group revealed that a former lobbyist is now receiving a public pension in excess of $225,000.
Finally, the Governor’s recent announcement that he will pursue closure of two state-run facilities serving individuals with developmental disabilities and mental health conditions, is receiving mixed reviews. Quinn is advocating for the closures, embracing a push toward community care that he says will improve the residents’ quality of care and save the state almost $20 million.
While many lawmakers are supportive of moving from traditional institutional care to the more personalized community care option, the Governor’s announcement has not been universally embraced. Critics say that many of the residents living at the Jacksonville and Tinley Park facilities require the constant care and oversight that the facilities provide. They also expressed concern over what they view to be a lack of planning to transition the patients out of the mental health and DD facilities, and into the local hospitals and community health care providers Quinn says are available to take in the displaced residents.
Quinn advocated for closure of the two facilities – and five others – last September. Though lawmakers ultimately approved financing to keep all the facilities running through June 30, 2012, the Quinn Administration had made it clear they would continue to pursue closure of state facilities.