Observations and comments about state government by State Representative Robert W. Pritchard.
In this issue:
· Need to Broaden Pension Negotiations
· Medicaid Changes Taking Effect
· Bill to Help Military Personnel Signed This Week
· Illinois to Help Students Be Career Ready
· On-line Lottery Ticket Sales Affect Retailers
· School Boards Replaced by ISBE
· Fire Fighters Give Legislative Awards
Need to Broaden Pension Negotiations
Despite the widespread belief that the General Assembly is on the cusp of passing landmark reforms to our public employee retirement system, talks between the Governor and legislative leaders are focused only on who pays the pension cost. Real long-term stability for the public pension system depends upon a broader discussion that reduces those costs. Whatever the final reform package, it appears legislative leaders aren’t eager to call for a vote on the package until after the fall elections.
The talks between legislative leaders and the Governor last week focused on the proposal to require all school districts to pick up the tab for teacher pensions like Chicago schools are doing. The Governor dismissed fears that such a cost shift would cause property taxes to increase by showing that schools have large cash balances.
Never mind that schools have a lot of cash on hand because the first property tax payment was just received or that schools need a large cash reserve to pay teachers when state payments are delayed or canceled altogether. The Governor decided not to pay schools the final installment on 2012 school appropriations and regularly pushes for reduced funding for student transportation. Such actions force schools to accumulate cash so they can pay bills on time. Maybe the state should follow the same practice.
If the state shifts the cost of pensions on school districts, colleges and universities, it could ease the bite by making appropriation payments to them in full and on time. Transportation costs should be reimbursed fully not at the current 85 percent level. And unfunded state mandates on these schools could be reduced which would allow the schools to use their cash to educate students rather than pay for reports and compliance officers.
The pension discussions should be broadened from who pays to how much is paid. There are lots of pension reform ideas floating about; I have been advocating a long list suggested by taxpayers, teachers and state employees themselves.
The current negotiations remind me of the school boy dawdling on his walk to school, trying to delay the inevitable. I join the Governor in being very impatient with the pace of negotiations and what is being discussed. Voters should show their dissatisfaction with this leadership when they vote this November.
Medicaid Changes Taking Effect
Last week Governor Quinn signed a package of bills into law that reduce eligibility for Medicaid (except in Cook County), cut payments to hospitals and raised revenue to fund Medicaid. The $2.7 billion package was needed to slow the growth in Medicaid spending and the increasing portion of the budget devoted to this program.
A privatized eligibility verification system will be put in place to reduce Medicaid fraud and make certain only those income eligible receive services. The agency overseeing Medicaid has not been verifying the incomes of all participants every year.
The tax increase on tobacco products went into effect on June 24. Not only was the tax on a pack of cigarettes raised $1.00 but also taxes were imposed on previously untaxed small cigars, loose tobacco and moist snuff. While many feel the tax unfairly singles out certain citizens, the use of tobacco has health consequences that increase Medicaid spending. The revenue will also be used to capture federal matching dollars for health care.
My office has been receiving lots of questions about the elimination of the Illinois Cares Rx drug subsidy and lower income threshold for FamilyCare. Illinois has been providing such programs that are not required by the federal government and thus they became part of the 62 changes and $1.6 billion in spending reductions.
For those clients in Illinois Cares Rx, I understand that this will be a difficult transition so I encourage you to seek additional help. Please keep in mind that Medicare Part D was not in existence when the state’s program was initiated, and Part D has been providing pharmaceutical assistance under Medicare since 2006. Some of the seniors and disabled persons who will be impacted by the changes to the program may qualify for Extra Help, a subsidy for low-income beneficiaries provided under the Social Security Administration.
In addition, there is a strong network of Senior Health Assistance Program (SHAP) sites that are available to assist beneficiaries. Information about these programs was included in the letter mailed to clients. Feel free to contact my office for this contact information as well.
Bill to Help Military Personnel Signed This Week
Herb Holderman, Superintendent of the DeKalb County Veterans Assistance Commission, will be joining me this week at the Governor’s signing of an important bill to help our military families. SB275 was drafted in response to a study by the Departments of Defense and the Treasury about the challenges facing our military and their families.
A service member and their spouse frequently work to supplement the family income and the military pay. As our service members are moved around the country, they want to transfer their professional license that may be needed for their work in Illinois. Getting a license is difficult, time consuming and just adds another stress to their serving our country.
The bill expedites getting a temporary license while still assuring the person is skilled and will safely serve Illinois citizens. I worked on a House bill that would accomplish the same assistance and sponsored SB275 in the House.
Illinois to Help Students Be Career Ready
The Illinois State Board of Education has announced that Illinois is among six states to participate in the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a coalition that aims to increase the number of high school graduates with skills valued in the labor market. The work will initially focus on Chicago and Aurora West districts, but the long-term goal is to create a statewide system of career pathways.
This is about schools and businesses working together to keep students engaged in high school and mindful of the skills they need for college and jobs, said State Superintendent of Education Chris Koch. The Illinois plan will follow a report by Harvard Graduate School of Education which argued students need additional pathways that combine rigorous academics with strong technical education.
A 2011 report by Complete College America showed that only 61 percent of full-time college students and 23 percent of part-time students in Illinois earned a college degree within six years. Recent national studies also show that even among those under 25 who have earned a college degree, as many as half may be unemployed or, more typically, underemployed.
The Illinois Pathways Interagency Committee will work with employers and educators to build career pathways systems for high school students. For more information on Illinois Pathways, visit: www.illinoisworknet.com/ilpathways
On-line Lottery Ticket Sales Affect Retailers
In this age of internet marketing, it was inevitable for state lottery tickets to be available on-line. Northstar Lottery Group, the state’s privatized operator since 2011, has been selling “Mega Millions” and “Lotto” lottery tickets online, and received approval in May to add “Powerball” by this fall.
While on-line sales may be convenient for some customers, retailers who sell such tickets in their stores have benefited by making sales of other merchandize as well. They don’t want the lottery sales to be another example of pitting main street retailers against on-line shopping.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association has been working to set up a dialogue between Northstar, state government and retailers to make lottery sales complimentary and benefit everyone. They are looking for ways to get the new on-line lottery players to shop on Main Street too.
School Boards Replaced by ISBE
The elected school boards in North Chicago and East St Louis were replaced by the State Board of Education (ISBE) last week. State Superintendent Chris Koch said the action was necessary for the benefit of the students in those districts.
Only 52 percent of the 4,000 North Chicago District 137 students and 60 percent of the 7,000 East St. Louis District 189 students met or exceeded federal standards after nine years. ISBE has worked with the districts’ administration over the past several years but did not achieve the necessary student and financial improvements.
The State Superintendent will appoint an Independent Authority, made up of five members, who will exercise the powers and duties necessary to operate the district, improve school performance and student achievement. More school districts with failing student performance justify action by the state board but it does not have the resources necessary to work with the school districts.
Fire Fighters Give Legislative Awards
The Illinois Association of Fire Fighters (AFFI) recognized four legislators for outstanding leadership in the 97th General Assembly at their recent state convention. I was honored to receive one of those awards.
As a founding member of the Legislative Fire Caucus, I work with fire districts, fire chiefs and fire fighters on legislative issues. Citizens expect trained, well equipped fire fighters to respond to emergency calls so I support legislation, where needed, to accomplish that level of service. I appreciate the work of all our first responders and those involved in emergency service.
Offering congratulations were current and retired firefighters from DeKalb and Sycamore: (left to right) Jim Ward, Luke Howieson, Dan Marcinkowski, Pritchard, Brian Lange and Noah Millard.
And finally, a number of communities will be honoring our nation’s birthday in the next two weeks. I hope you will be celebrating our freedoms and attending the many festivals and parades. I look forward to seeing you and having a chance to visit.
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