Senate Week in Review: December 3-7
SPRINGFIELD – This week marked the close of the Illinois legislature’s annual veto session. While some major pieces of legislation passed through the chambers, including a road safety bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, work on other prominent proposals—such as gaming and pensions—was left to be done early next year during the “lame duck” session, State Sen. Sue Rezin said.
The Legislature will return to Springfield on Jan. 2 and is scheduled to work through Jan. 10. Legislative leaders might push through more controversial bills in the waning days of the 97th General Assembly, anticipating the upcoming turnover in members will compel some “lame ducks” to vote for contentious measures. Additionally, bills only need a simple majority to pass in January, as opposed to the three-fifths approval needed to advance legislation during the fall veto session.
Pension Reforms Shelved Until January
Pension reform remains the single largest issue facing the state. As expected, no formal plan was taken up, but instead was deferred until January, when the state constitution requires fewer votes to implement legislation immediately, Sen. Rezin explained.
During the week, a coalition of House members floated a plan that was viewed as important, not because of its specific provisions, but because it seemed to demonstrate that a number of rank-and-file lawmakers were ready to accept unpleasant choices in order to address the problem. Illinois has the worst-funded pension system in the nation, driven largely by massive borrowing and the skipping of payments over the last decade under both Governors Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich.
Gov. Quinn has said he wants to address the problem during the "lame duck" legislative session the first weeks of January and has launched a Web site, released videos and even created an official reform character, “Squeezy the Pension Python,” to build support for reforms. However, the Governor has not unveiled a plan of his own.
Governor Quinn’s Misuse of Taxpayers Funds Draws National Attention
Months after lawmakers called for an audit of a state program that was spending millions of state dollars without apparent oversight, a CNN investigation has determined that taxpayer funds have been misused by Gov. Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
An audit of the program is currently being conducted, with a report expected by the Illinois Auditor General's office in spring 2013. However, late last week Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative was placed under the microscope by CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. A four-month CNN investigation found that the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative paid teens to hand out flyers promoting inner peace, to take field trips to museums, march in a parade with the Governor, and attend a yoga class.
When questions about the program were raised during the spring 2011 legislative session, the Governor’s Fiscal Year 2012 request for the program was reduced by 70% and funded at approximately $10 million. As a result, the Governor made three massive transfers of funds out of his FY11 discretionary GRF lump sums into the non-appropriated Illinois Violence Protection Authority Special Projects Fund. The total amount transferred was approximately $95 million.
Senate approves measure that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants
Also during the week the Senate voted in favor of legislation granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Senate Bill 957 now moves to the House for consideration and if approved and signed into law, would expand Illinois’ existing temporary driver’s license program for immigrants to include undocumented immigrants. If passed, this bill would impact the estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrants currently driving on Illinois roadways.
Those in favor of the bill view the situation as a public safety issue, Sen. Rezin explained, and noted the potential benefit and increase of tested and insured drivers on Illinois roads. Nearly 80,000 accidents involve uninsured drivers, costing $64 million in damage claims, and last year 42 percent of all fatal crashes in Illinois involved unlicensed drivers. Proponents also pointed to the potential economic impact, noting the legislation would stimulate $3.75 million in new revenue, ease the burden on jails and courts, assist first responders and healthcare providers, and increase the pool of urgently needed organ donors.
Negotiations continue on Illinois gaming
Setting the stage for potential consideration of a gaming expansion in early January, the Senate Executive Committee advanced legislation during the week that would be used as the vehicle for a gaming package. Gov. Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several lawmakers remain in negotiations over a gaming expansion, which is expected to advance gaming licenses for a Chicago casino and riverboat licenses in four other Illinois communities.
Gov. Quinn already vetoed a proposal (SB 1849) earlier this year that would have allowed for the establishment of five new casinos, including one in Chicago. The Governor said the measure lacked ethical safeguards, such as a ban on campaign contributions from the gambling industry. However, a number of legislators continue to push for a gaming expansion as a way to boost state revenues, and generate jobs and commerce in several Illinois communities.
Attorney General, ICC warn of utility company scam
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) alerted utility customers to a recent scam targeting residents in the Chicago area in which someone claiming to be a utility employee asks for immediate payment of a bill either at a customer’s door, over the telephone or by e-mail.
The Attorney General advised that if anyone appears at your door claiming to be from your utility company and asking for immediate, you should contact the police and your utility company directly. She said that utility companies do no go door-to-door collecting payments. Furthermore, she asked that if an individual has given personal information out to make an on-the-spot payment, to contact her office’s Consumer Fraud Bureau with details.
The Attorney General and the ICC offer these reminders to utility customers:
- Never provide personal information to anyone who comes to the door or calls you claiming to be a representative of the utility.
- Contact the utility at the phone number listed on your bill to confirm the caller or the representative at your home is a verifiable employee of the utility. Do not call a different number suggested by the potential scammer.
- Utility field personnel in Illinois do not take payments from consumers. Be on guard with anyone who asks for your personal information, or says you must pay immediately and suggests a method to get the money quickly.
If you suspect you have been scammed, have a suspicious incident to report or have questions, contact the Attorney General’s office at 1-800-386-5438 or the ICC at 1-800-524-0795.
Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation Grant opportunities now available
Federally recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations as well as state and local government agencies serving Illinois residents may now apply for the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grants. To find out eligibility requirements and how to apply, please visit http://www.illinoiscleanenergy.org/how-to-apply/.
Rezin highlights, visits the Grundy Transit System
After a visit with the Grundy Transit System recently, Sen. Rezin asked Director Sherey Zerbian to highlight the system and its recent growth and importance. The following was submitted by Director Zerbian.
The Grundy Transit System (GTS) provides demand/response, curb to curb and door to door public transportation to all Grundy County residents. The County covers 432 square miles, and has a population of 50,063. Grundy County is the third fastest growing county in Illinois, with an increase in population of 33% over the last 10 years. The service area covers all of Grundy County, and transportation is provided daily to nearby Joliet.
Like many rural counties in Illinois, Grundy County has experienced a high unemployment rate, registering 8.3% for October 2012. In addition to the shortage of jobs, residents of Grundy County face several other factors that contribute to the high unemployment rate. According to the 2010 census, 5.5% of GC residents do not have access to a vehicle. 6.9% of residents live below the poverty line, and people living with disabilities make up 9.3% of the general population.
The presence of public transportation in a rural area can have a dramatic effect on unemployment. In FY12, nearly 30% of all rides provided by the GTS were work related, and 16% of rides provided were for higher education. As more people in Grundy County become aware of the public transportation available to them, it is expected that the number of people using the GTS to get to work will continue to increase.
The availability of reliable, affordable public transportation is an especially vital service for senior citizens. In Grundy County, nearly 16% of all residents are 60 or older, and of those, over 24% are living alone. Public transportation can allow seniors to remain independent and stay in their home even when they are no longer able to drive. The presence of public transportation also allows seniors to access needed health care services and continue to be an active participant in the community in which they live.
In 2008, Grundy County entered into a partnership with the Community Foundation of Grundy County and numerous local social service agencies. The Grundy Transit Stakeholders group, working with the Rural Transit Assistance Center, worked to position the county to access additional funding and vehicles for Grundy County. As a result, the county was granted an appropriation for a Downstate Operating Assistance grant, and received the funding for the first time in FY12.
The group also submitted a Consolidated Vehicle Procurement application on behalf of the county in late 2010. They were granted three buses, two of which have been delivered, the first in December of 2011 and another in January of 2012. One additional bus from the 2010 grant is expected in the spring of 2013. The latest 2012 CVP application has yielded another four medium duty buses, which, when delivered, will bring the total fleet to nine buses. All GTS buses are ADA compliant.
Although Grundy County has been a 5311 grantee for 13 years, the system provided limited service for most of that time. In 2011, as the result of working with the Rural Transit Assistance Center, the system expanded the hours of service from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, to the current hours, 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. At the same time, the service area was expanded to cover the entire county. These changes led to an increase of 87% in ridership for the year.
In FY12, the addition of the Downstate grant funds allowed the County to hire a full time director for the transit system. Sherey Zerbian, previously the Program Director for the Community Foundation of Grundy County, and lead facilitator for the Grundy Transit Stakeholders group, was hired in August of 2012. With a full time director providing continuous marketing and promotion of the Grundy Transit System and the addition of the two latest buses early in 2012, the system has experienced a continued increase in ridership of 30% for FY12. In the first 5 months of FY13, ridership has increased an additional 41%.
“Although the county has had a transit system for 13 years, it feels like a new start-up in many ways,” said Zerbian. “The vast majority of Grundy County residents were not even aware that there is public transportation available in our county. Much of my time is spent talking with groups and making presentations about the system and how to use it. Word is starting to get around, evidenced by the continued increase in ridership…the need is there, we just have to keep working to get the word out,” Zerbian explained.
The most common request within Grundy County borders is for expanded service into the evening hours to accommodate nontraditional work schedules, and weekend service, needed primarily for dialysis patients. As additional funding resources and vehicles are acquired, there are plans to expand service to meet these needs in the future.
“We’re a small system, but one with a tremendous potential for growth,” said Zerbian. “Our goal going forward is to continue to promote the services we have, and make sure everyone in need of transportation knows what is available to them as a Grundy County resident.”
“Ridership continues to increase, so we are clearly on the right track,” Zerbian continued. “This service is all about getting people where they need to go, so that they can live the lives they want to live. What’s more important than that?”