The hottest topic at the Capitol during the week was testimony surrounding a new state budget while the hottest ticket in town was a seat inside the State Supreme Court Chambers for oral arguments on public pension reform.
Also during the week, the annual budget hearings continued as Senate budget committees heard testimony at meetings in Chicago and Springfield, which included funding requests from state agencies, board and commissions, and state universities.
I have filed Senate Bill 1706, the Religious Freedom in Business Act, which says that if an auto dealer observes a day other than Sunday (e.g., Saturday), that dealer can close on its religious day and open on Sunday. That puts all religions on an equal footing instead of forcing all to observe Sunday.
Yet the auto dealer industry seems to be fighting even that recommended compromise legislation. According to a poll this week by the polling company We Ask America, Illinois consumers believe that they should be able to buy a car on Sunday by a margin of almost two to one. And we believe even more strongly that all religions should be respected.
Because of Illinois’ current fiscal crisis, the Governor and Senate Republicans are calling for changes in the operation of state government. A restructuring of the state budget is needed to realign priorities and reduce spending by eliminating mismanagement and waste. The restructuring allows state government to focus resources on budget priorities such as education, human services and public safety. Unlike the budgets allowed under the past two Governors, we think it is important that state spending should not surpass state revenues.
Fixing a Hole
Adding to state government’s difficulties in shaping a budget for the new fiscal year that starts July 1, is the present reality facing lawmakers and the Governor about plugging the $1.6 billion hole in the current budget.
The current budget – with all of its financial problems – was knowingly approved last May by Democrat majorities in the Senate and House and signed by then-Governor Pat Quinn. It did not have adequate funding for the spending it proposed. The “booby trap” budget is beginning to explode as human services programs such as the state’s Child Care program, are running out of money.
However, a solution to address the crisis may be near, according to Governor Bruce Rauner.
Two legislative proposals promoting budget transparency and sunshine are pending before the Senate this spring. The measures would impact how the budget process is conducted at the state and local level.
Last year, the budget legislation was dropped on lawmakers’ desks with just a few hours for senators and representatives to consider the thousands of details and cast a vote. Senate Bill 1356 requires a three-day posting before a state budget bill can be voted on by the legislature.
The second measure, Senate Bill 1469 requires county boards and commissions to post their budget plans for a minimum of seven days before taking final action.
Public Pension Reform at the State Supreme Court
The Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 11 on a public pension reform law passed in 2013 that would change how pensions for state employees are calculated and paid. The law would affect four state retirement systems: Teachers, Universities (including community colleges), State Employees and the General Assembly. Among other provisions, it included a reduction in annual cost-of-living adjustments on pension benefits and creation of an optional 401-K style savings plan. The issue came before the high court after a lower court ruling in November 2014 declaring the pension law unconstitutional. Judge John Belz ruled at the time the Illinois Constitution protects state pensions from reductions or diminishments. The state appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
On March 11, the Attorney General’s office argued the state’s police powers give it the authority to alter the pensions because of the state’s serious financial crisis. An attorney representing state employee unions told the Justices the pension protection clause in the state constitution protects employee pensions from any alterations resulting in reduced benefits.
The state’s public pensions systems are considered to be the worst-funded of any state. The underfunded liability is estimated at $105 billion, which jeopardizes the integrity of the pensions. Attempts to correct the underfunding with catch-up payments also impose a burden on the state’s ability to pay for basic programs such as human services and public safety.
Supreme Court oral arguments lasted about an hour. Justices gave no indication when they would rule on the state’s appeal.
School Safety Redo
A renewed effort is under way at the Capitol to improve school security and student safety. Senate Bill 1340 would create a statewide School Security and Standards Task Force to help schools improve their active security measures and overall safety and security of buildings and classrooms. A similar law was passed in 2013 and a task force was created last year and commissioned to report its findings this year.
However, then-Governor Quinn failed to make timely appointments to the task force and the panel never met. The original motivation behind the task force was the highly-publicized violent school shootings around the nation. The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 1340 March 10 and the measure now goes before the full Senate for consideration.
Additional Legislative Committee Action
Senate lawmakers approved several dozen other bills in committee during the week on such issues as education, utilities, crime and local government. All of the bills now go back to the full Senate for consideration.
A list of legislation passed by Senate committees is available at the “Senate Action” page where it is possible to search each day’s activity.