Senate Week in Review: May 12-16

Democrats pushed more than 30 spending bills through the Illinois House May 15; passing what is essentially the Governor’s permanent tax increase budget on to the Senate.

Because the spending bills rely on money from the extension of the 67% tax hike passed in 2011, opponents said voting for the budget was synonymous with voting to make the tax hike permanent, State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) said.

Streator educators, administrators and board members travel to Springfield to ask for help

Also this week, administrators, educators and board members traveled to Springfield May 13 from Streator to share their concerns regarding funding for Streator Elementary School District #44. 

The group expressed their extreme concern over the continued proration of General State Aid (GSA) funding and delayed categorical payments by the State of Illinois.  The proration and delayed payments have had negative effects in several areas of the school district.  Superintendent Matthew Wilkinson noted that the district has taken several steps to help mitigate the state’s cuts, but they are still struggling to continue the operations at a level that is needed.

“Over the last six school years, we have reduced our budget by over $5.3 million,” Superintendent Wilkinson said.  “We have reached an operational tipping point where for the protection of students and staff, we cannot make any further cuts.”

The group met with both Sen. Rezin and State Representative Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) during their visit and asked the legislators to propose legislation to fully fund GSA at 100% and require that categorical payments be made on time. 

Sen. Rezin said she understood how huge of an issue this was for the school district and supported a stop in continued proration to the district as well as immediate payments made to them.

“This school district has done everything they can on their end to live within their budget but provide the needs of their students,” Sen. Rezin said.  “It’s time that the state live up to its side of the bargain and fund this district properly so students and the district aren’t suffering like they are now.  Continued proration and delayed payments are unacceptable at this point.” 

Streator Elementary School District’s budget cuts have translated into closings and dismissals.  The district has closed one school, dismissed 15 full-time and 5 part-time teachers, dismissed 11 and reduced 49 full-time support staff positions to part-time, and eliminated 1 principal and reduced 5 administration building positions. 

The GSA proration and the delayed categorical payments have had consequences extending past closings and dismissals.  It has also forced the school district to borrow more than $1.5 million each year for the last four years.  Despite the budget cuts and borrowing, the district has had to reduce several programs and the teacher layoffs have led to increased class sizes, which has had a noticeable effect on the students. 

“We’re at a point where we are not able to do much more and still provide proper services and education to our students,” Superintendent Wilkinson said.  “Our programs and students have already suffered.  We believe there is a solution.  If the state would pay Streator Elementary 100% of its GSA and delayed payments were made on time, we believe that with the budget reductions we have made so far, we would be able to continue to survive this economic crisis.  Additional proration to GSA would be extremely detrimental to Streator Elementary.”

The group that traveled to Springfield marched in front of the State Capitol with signs that read: “Save Our School,” “Children Should Come First,” “Our Kids Need You!” and “Streator Kids Are Depending On You.”

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn May 31.  Budget legislation has yet to pass either chamber.  
The following two pictures are of the educators and administrators in action in front of the Capitol.  
Ridesharing Regulations

In the Senate, lawmakers took up a variety of issues as they continued reviewing measures that have already passed the House. One issue generating interest involved independent ridesharing providers.

Legislation requiring safety regulations for ridesharing companies passed the Illinois Senate on May 15. House Bill 4075 and House Bill 5531 create statewide safety regulations for ridesharing companies, like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, which are defined as Commercial Rideshare Arrangements (CRA).

The measures were introduced after hearings in March raised concerns that customers and drivers of these companies may fall into an insurance gap. Other safety concerns about these services, like ensuring proper background checks and vehicle safety, have also been raised in recent months.

Under the legislation, CRAs are required to carry commercial liability insurance, effective from the moment the driver turns on the ridesharing application, with primary coverage for the dispatcher, driver and vehicle. The legislation also establishes legal liability for CRAs.

Obama’s State Senate Memorabilia

The Senate also approved a proposal that would assure that furniture and other items used by President Barack Obama when he was a state senator will be preserved and available for future display and research.

Obama served in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004, which was longer than he served in the U.S. Senate.

Senate Bill 125 allows the Secretary of the Senate to loan or donate to a presidential library or museum any books, items, furniture, equipment or other materials or property used by Obama if such items are in the possession or control of the Senate.  The loan or donation will be on the terms and conditions which the Secretary of the Senate deems to be in the best interest of the state.

‘Cupcake Girl’

If the full Senate approves a committee-passed reform, 11-year-old “Cupcake Girl” Chloe Stirling could be back in business.

House Bill 5354 grew out of a case where the Madison County Health Department shut down Chloe Stirling’s homemade cupcake business, because she was not in compliance with the state’s sanitation code or regulations for cottage-food operations.

She primarily sold her products to friends and occasionally at fundraisers. This legislation is an attempt to loosen the regulatory burden on small, home-based food-preparation operations by permitting home-kitchen operations to sell food if they meet certain requirements, including limiting sales to no more than $1,000 a month and notifying the buyer that the food was produced in a home kitchen.

Budget Vote Means Tax Hike

The tax hike budget narrowly passed the House, with most of the individual bills receiving the minimum 60 votes needed to win approval. The bills spend nearly $3.5 billion more than the bipartisan House revenue estimate for Fiscal Year 2015.

The House Speaker advanced this budget with the intention that lawmakers who supported the appropriation bills must vote for an income tax increase to fund them. Republican lawmakers also linked the votes to a tax hike, arguing that a vote to spend the money was identical to voting for the taxes.

Republican opponents in the House and Senate also said approval of the budget was irresponsible and likely unconstitutional—because the Illinois Constitution requires that “appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.”

Not only does the recommended FY15 budget violate this constitutional requirement, but it also increases general funds spending by nearly $2.5 billion over the enacted FY14 spending plan. 

At the time the tax hike was approved, proponents pledged that the tax hike would be temporary; that the money would be used to pay down the state’s bill backlog; that it would boost the state economy; and it would improve the state’s credit rating.

None of those promises have been kept.

Despite receiving $26 billion in new revenue, there is still nearly $6.9 billion in unpaid bills.

Illinois has the worst credit rating in the nation and has been downgraded five times since the tax increase. Gov. Pat Quinn now owns more credit downgrades than all other Illinois governors combined.

The state’s unemployment rate is higher than any other Midwestern state, far above the national average and the third highest in the nation.

Additional Measures

In addition to the Obama memorabilia measure, committees also approved a bill (HB 8) to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees, as well as a measure aimed at protecting workers who receive their pay in the form of reloadable payroll cards. That proposal (HB 5622) seeks to address a problem where some employees find they must pay high bank card fees in order to access their pay.

For more on these and other measures taken up in the Senate, go to the Senate Action Page on the Senate Republican Website.

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