Senate Week in Review: January 6-10

On January 4, State Senator Sue Rezin (R-Morris) took the plunge into icy waters with more than 200 other participants to raise money for the Make-A-Wish program.  The Penguin Plunge, which took place at Heritage Harbor in Ottawa, is in its third year and has participants raise money through pledges that go to fund the wishes.  This year’s event raised approximately $64,000.

Sen. Rezin has been involved with the Make-A-Wish program for over 25 years and said she was pleased to participate in this local event.

Sen. Rezin is pictured with her Make-A-Wish plunge team.  Participants were split up into teams and the teams jumped into the water together.

Rezin opens office for concealed carry application submissions

Sen. Rezin is opening her district office to help individuals submit concealed carry applications online since the Illinois State Police are not accepting paper applications at this time.  

Sen. Rezin said she hopes this will remove any barriers for individuals seeking to apply.  

“It has been a huge concern for people who want to apply for a concealed carry license but are either unable or unsure of how to,” she said.  “It is my hope that we can help these people submit their applications quickly so they can take advantage of the new law now instead of waiting until the summer to submit an application.”

Please make sure you have completed the “checklist prior to application” on the Illinois State Police website and then call the district office at 815-220-8720 to set up an appointment.  Sen. Rezin’s district office is located at 103 Fifth Street in Peru.  

$16 Billion Bill Backlog Predicted

While it’s still early in January and the 2014 legislative session is yet to get underway, it seems almost certain budget and spending issues will dominate much of the discussion in the coming months, Sen. Rezin said.

As required by law, three-year budget projections were released by the Governor’s budget office on January 6 and they show continued spending growth and massive deficits ahead for Illinois.  

The projections, which are for fiscal years 2015 through 2017, estimate a nearly $2 billion deficit by the end of next fiscal year and annual deficits of over $4 billion in each of the following two years.  

Even more alarming, Sen. Rezin said, is a predicted $16 billion bill backlog by Fiscal Year 17, which would result from the cumulative effect of those deficits.  The backlog at the end of the last fiscal year was roughly $6 billion.

Every January the Governor’s budget office is required by law to submit three-year revenue and spending projections along with an Economic and Fiscal Policy Report. The figures provide an overview of what lawmakers can expect when the Governor formally submits his budget in February.

The budget office was required to assume that the state will lose the major portion of a 67% income tax hike enacted during a lame duck session in 2011, because it is set to expire automatically. The drop in that revenue coupled with the anticipated spending growth has the potential to create the largest deficits the state has ever seen.

Ever since the tax hike was imposed over Republican objections, Senate Republicans have warned that significant spending reductions were needed to pay off back bills and allow for the tax increase to expire as promised.  

Illinois Last in Economic Growth

A recent report from the PEW Charitable Trusts paints a rosy picture for increased employment and economic growth nationally in 2014, but it tells a different story for Illinois. The state was placed dead last in a ranking of the 50 states based on projected job creation in the coming year.

The PEW report, citing data from Moody’s Analytics, says that, “after four years of fragile and uneven recovery, the U.S. job machine is likely to kick into high gear in 2014.” Nationally the economy will generate 2.6 million jobs in 2014, 2.2 million more than last year.

The report includes an interactive map showing 572,000 of those new jobs will be created in two states alone, with California adding 264,000 (or 1.80 percent growth) and Texas adding 307,590 jobs (or 2.75 percent growth).

In sharp contrast is Illinois, which comes in last on the list with a prediction from Moody’s that the state will see less than 1 percent job growth in 2014.  

U of I Index Shows Economic Growth

Illinois lags behind much of the nation in economic growth, but one indicator monitored by the University of Illinois finished the year at one of its highest points since April 2007.

The University’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs reported Jan. 2 that its Flash Index hit 107 in December, an increase from 106.5 in November. The Flash Index also hit 107 in September. Any reading higher than 100 indicates the state’s economy is growing, while a reading below 100 reveals a shrinking economy.

Fred Giertz of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs said the higher Flash Index indicates a stronger economy even though Illinois’ unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation at 8.7 percent in November, the most recently available month for unemployment numbers.

Study: Medicaid Increases Emergency Room Usage

Further complicating the budget debate could be a new study that reveals Medicaid coverage actually increases emergency room use, in contrast to the conventional wisdom and hope that providing insurance coverage would reduce the use of costly emergency room services, especially in non-emergency cases.

The emergency room findings were reported Jan. 2 by a blue-ribbon team of researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Columbia University School of Social Work, Providence Portland Medical Center, Harvard School of Public Health and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who have been studying the Oregon Medicaid system.

Illinois is struggling to keep up with skyrocketing Medicaid costs, which represent the largest and one of the fastest growing state budget expenditures. Reducing emergency room costs has been a critical component of efforts to rein in Medicaid expenditures.

But, the Oregon study found that access to Medicaid increased emergency room visits by 40% over an 18-month period.

“We find that expanding Medicaid coverage increases emergency department use across a broad range of visit types, including visits that may be most readily treatable in other outpatient settings,” the researchers concluded.

Comptroller Shines Light on State Debt

And, in still more state budget news, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s end-of-the year publication Fiscal Focus, a quarterly devoted to all things financially-oriented in Illinois, has some surprising and interesting facts in its cover story about the state’s indebtedness.

Titled “$127 Billion, Is Illinois Drowning in Debt?” the story focuses on Illinois debt and the challenges the state faces from credit agencies. Just as a family might go into debt by using credit cards and taking out high interest loans, Illinois has gone into debt by issuing bonds, the Comptroller points out.

Transparency Legislation Gets a Boost

In a state that has seen four former Governors during the past 50 years sent to prison for betraying the public’s trust, is it too much to ask for transparency about a close relationship between lobbyists and public officials? A leading non-partisan advocacy group doesn’t think so.

The watchdog group, Reboot Illinois, editorialized January 7 in favor of a bipartisan ethics reform co-sponsored by State Sen. Darin LaHood. Senate Bill 1361 would require sitting members of the General Assembly and constitutional officers to publicly disclose additional information in the Statements of Economic Interest they are currently required to file. The legislation would extend the requirements to include familial relationships with lobbyists, additional income, loans and gifts.

Business Brisk for Concealed Carry Applications

The first day of concealed carry applications saw more than 4,500 persons submitting applications – and that was on a Sunday, over the internet.

The state’s concealed carry online application site went live Jan. 5. According to the Illinois State Police, the online sign up went smoothly, thanks in part to an early application period that began Dec. 18 and allowed the State Police to test the system and work out problems prior to the formal launch.

It could still be about three months before any permits are issued. The State Police have 90 days to approve or deny completed applications. Those without an electronic version of their fingerprints can expect an additional delay of up to 30 days.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies, including local police and sheriffs, have 30 days after the application has been submitted to object to an individual licensee. While online applications are now being accepted, a paper version may not be available until July.

Gun Shop Ban Overturned

In related news, a federal judge in Chicago has said the city cannot arbitrarily ban gun shops. 

U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang has ruled that it is unconstitutional to prohibit licensed gun stores from operating in Chicago. While recognizing that the ban was intended to address the city’s serious gun violence issues, the judge said that did not justify violating fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

Although he threw out the ban, Judge Chang delayed implementation of his own order to allow the City time to decide whether or not to appeal. 

Hydraulic Fracturing Rules Under Review

Recently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) closed the public comment period that allowed Illinois residents to weigh-in on the administrative rules that will govern the fracking industry.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking” or “horizontal drilling” utilizes high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to drill for natural gas and oil. The development of fracking rules has been closely monitored since SB 1715, a bi-partisan measure widely considered to be a national model for regulation of the industry, was signed into law in June. 

Two years of negotiations and six months of rule drafting has led to 123 pages of instructions on how to regulate horizontal drilling. Updates on the status of the proposed rules can be found on the IDNR website.

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