Efforts to shine a light on state grant abuses and open up the state’s budget process were signed into law as the Governor wrapped up the process of reviewing and acting on legislation passed during the 2013 legislative session.
Also during the week, the state’s agriculture economy took center stage as Illinois hosted the annual “Farm Progress Show,” the nation’s largest outdoor farm show. The show alternates annually, with shows in Decatur in odd-numbered years and in Boone, Iowa, in even-numbered years.
On August 26, I hosted a Town Hall meeting at the Village Hall in Oswego to update local and area citizens about the issues we faced during the spring legislative session. Lawmakers made progress in some areas, and are still trying to find solutions for other problems. I specifically asked for their insight on Illinois’ pension and fiscal mess. It was a great meeting!
Fighting State Grant Abuse
State grants will be subject to additional scrutiny and specifically restricted from political use, under two new laws. Beginning January 1, 2014, Senate Bill 2380 will restrict state grant dollars from being used for prohibited political activities. To more easily track state grants, Senate Bill 2381 requires the state’s Chief Information Officer to develop a system to collect state financial data, including information specific to the management and administration of grant funds, and make the information available on www.data.illinois.gov for public review.
The new laws are in response to a four-month 2012 CNN investigation that revealed millions of taxpayer-financed grant dollars had been used by Governor Pat Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative grant program to finance a variety of questionable activities. The money was used to pay teenagers to march in a parade with the Governor, hand out flyers promoting inner peace, take field trips to museums, and attend a yoga class. The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program is now being audited by the state’s Auditor General.
Opening Up the Budget Process
Signed by the Governor August 27, Senate Bill 2106 creates the Governmental Transparency Task Force that is charged with developing a plan to make the state’s budgeting process the most transparent, publicly-accessible budgeting process in the nation.
The Task Force will be comprised of members from the Budgeting for Results Commission. The Director of Revenue, the Treasurer and the Comptroller may be consulted by the Task Force, which will report its findings to the Governor and General Assembly by January 1, 2015.
Pension Talks Continue
Meanwhile, a special Conference Committee charged with developing a compromise on pension reforms continues to work behind the scenes discussing and fine tuning proposals. In a related development, the state’s largest public employee retirement system revised its estimate of how much an earlier proposal would save the state.
The Teachers Retirement System – the largest of Illinois’ five pension systems – said it overestimated by about $24 billion the savings from a pension proposal that passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. The lowered estimate would bring the total savings for all retirement systems under the proposed Senate Bill 1 to about $153 billion over 30 years, instead of the original estimate of $187 billion.
The changes did not affect the estimates of a competing plan backed by the state’s unions that would save roughly $47 billion over the same time period.
Record Crop Yields Predicted
With the annual Farm Progress Show under way in Decatur, good news was reported by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) about the potential for record crop yields.
The USDA is estimating yields of 13.8 billion bushels of corn and 3.26 billion bushels of soybeans. A University of Illinois Extension official says several factors – planting time, rainfall amounts, and temperature – will influence the actual yields when the crops are harvested.
The USDA is predicting that fields should average 154.4 bushels an acre of corn and average 42.6 bushels an acre of soybeans. That average per acre yield of corn would be 31 bushels more than yields in 2012, and the average per acre of soybeans would be three bushels more than last year, according to the USDA report.
Agriculture – Illinois’ Top Industry
The Farm Progress Show also serves as a reminder of the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, about 1.5 million people in Illinois are employed in agriculture-related jobs. That means agriculture makes up about 27% of jobs in the state. In addition to farming, Illinois is a leading state in agriculture industries, such as soybean processing, meat packing, dairy production, feed milling and machinery manufacturing.
Although Illinois has only four percent of the farms in the U.S., the state’s farmers produce 16% of the corn in the nation, 14% of the soybeans and 7% of the pigs. Corn and soybeans account for the bulk of Illinois crops – 81% of all crops.
Farming has become significantly more efficient over the past 50 years. In 1960, Illinois farmers harvested 68 bushels of corn per acre. By 2010, each acre was producing 157 bushels. While corn and soybeans dominate Illinois crops, the state produces a wide diversity of other farm products, including nearly two million pounds of milk, 43 million pounds of apples and 7,500 tons of peaches.