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December 29, 2009
For many it will be a relief to close out 2009 and start a new decade. My farmer friends have a wonderful way of mentally wiping the slate clean during the winter and starting each spring with optimism and hope. Before we turn the calendar though, let’s review a few of the events and news stories from the past ten years that have shaped politics and our state.
How does my list compare with yours? State Senator Barack Obama is elected President; not one but consecutive Governors are charged with criminal and ethical wrong doings; and the first gubernatorial impeachment proceedings in history removed Governor Blagojevich from office.
Legislature fails to balance the budget leading to massive borrowing and long delays in paying bills; state financial problems create domino effect for pension systems, health care and human service providers, and schools and universities.
State health insurance coverage extended to all kids and more low income families; medical malpractice insurance crisis leads to reform; utility deregulation contributes to higher rates and more government control; and Governor Ryan issues moratorium on executions that lasts for the decade.
While these stories and excesses help explain our negative feelings about government right now, hopefully they will encourage citizens to hold elected officials accountable for solving issues and keeping vital services operating.
Little Federal Education Dollars Expected Locally
The State of Illinois will apply by January 19 for a share of $4.35 billion in new federal education funding called Race to the Top. State School Superintendent Christopher Koch recently explained that if Illinois is successful, it could receive about $400 million but the money would go for state administration of targeted programs and schools most in need of reforms.
For our local school districts, the Race to the Top program is significant because it points to a change in the way state and school district resources might be used to achieve better student learning. The national focus is on teacher and principal training and evaluation, updating student learning standards and the way student learning is measured, as well as shaping a plan to intervene when students aren’t progressing.
I will be watching to make certain that this program doesn’t turn into another unfunded state mandate for our local schools that increase their cost of operations or place more demands on staff time. We should all fully support efforts to help students learn and intervention when they aren’t achieving their potential. In these economic times when districts are receiving less funding, we should focus dollars on desired outcomes.
As the spring legislative session resumes, a number of my colleagues and I will be working to stop more unfunded state mandates and if state funding for local districts is reduced to also give relief from state regulations.
Status of State Revenue
As we end the first six-months of the state fiscal year, revenue is down about $787 million compared with last year. Fortunately federal funding has filled much of this gap but those programs are ending. Unpaid bills to human service providers, schools, universities and colleges, health care providers and others now total over $4 billion.
Governor Quinn continues to ask for more authority to borrow money to pay the most critical bills. He has already borrowed $1.2 billion in short-term loans that must be repaid by June 30. In addition he has borrowed about $1 billion from the federal government to pay state unemployment benefits.
The state’s shortfall in revenue combined with increasing expenses due to the economy has trickled down to create a revenue problem for any organization with a state contract to provide programs–private, non-profit and local governments. They have been telling me that they may have to close programs or even their doors very soon.
Political leaders don’t want to deal with the state’s fiscal problems and are developing plans to continue the “creative accounting” that has gotten us into this problem. I won’t stand for this irresponsible behavior and you shouldn’t either. It’s time to balance the budget with a combination of simultaneous cuts, reforms and modest revenue increases. Raising taxes without first addressing the issues that have put us in this predicament is simply irresponsible.
Another Use for Thomson Prison
Many people are desperate to put the unopened state correction center at Thomson, Illinois, to use and stimulate the local economy. The Obama administration and Governor Quinn are focused on just one use for the prison—selling it to the federal government as a maximum security prison for the “worst of the worst.”
I traveled to Thomson last week to tour the prison and listen to testimony at a public hearing on the sale of the facility. It is a state of the art prison, one of the best in the country, which is why the federal government is interested in it.
At the hearing what impressed me was the Director of the Illinois Department of Correction’s testimony that our state prison system is old and needs upgrading. He supports the sale because he wants to remodel and expand current prisons, not move prisoners to Thomson.
The past two governors have not fully opened the prison because they don’t want to allocate the necessary state resources to operate it. Meanwhile our current prisons are overcrowded and under staffed.
What hasn’t received much discussion is the option of opening the facility and leasing space to neighboring states or the federal government. A number of county prisons in the area lease space to the federal government already and more than cover their operating costs.
Instead, it appears the Quinn administration will vacate the small portion of the prison currently being used and call the prison a surplus asset. If the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) agrees with that determination in the next month, the process to sell the facility will begin.
Other State Assets Being Sold
The Thomson Correctional Facility isn’t the only large state asset being offered for sale. The State Treasurer is concluding a deal to sell the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel and Convention Center in downtown Springfield for $6.5 million.
The hotel built in the 1980s by William Cellini and a group of political insiders for $15.5 million was backed with a state guarantee. Last year when the state took over the hotel it had a debt of $30 million. The treasurer called the hotel a “black eye to Illinois” and was finally glad to be putting at least one financial disaster behind us.
New Laws Take Effect
The legislature passed 276 new laws that have or will take effect with the New Year. I have a brief description of each law posted on my web site (www.pritchardstaterep.com) if you are interested.
One law in particular effects every public body—the rewrite of the Freedom of Information Act. Effective in the New Year, all records in the custody or possession of a public body are presumed to be open to inspection or copying. This means that all forms of communications, including electronic mail, instant messages, and text messages, will be considered part of the public record.
Many school districts have already contacted me about the release of employee personnel records and evaluations. In testimony on the House floor, Speaker Madigan said the intent of the rewrite was not to change current policy in this matter. Nevertheless, districts should ask the Office of Public Access Counselor for confirmation.
New Texting and Cell Phone Laws
Vehicle drivers in Illinois will no longer be able to text message while driving and some cell phone usage is now outlawed. Effective on January 1, drivers cannot read or send text messages while their vehicles are moving.
In addition, it is in violation of the law to talk on the cell phone while driving through a school zone or construction zone unless you have a hands-free device. Violators can be fined from $75 to $200.
Recent studies conducted by the National Safety Council found that cell phone use while driving has contributed to 660,000 crashes, over 330,000 injuries with more than 2,600 deaths each year.
Easier to Vote in the New Year
Another of the new laws taking effect in January will make it easier to vote. Citizens can already vote early in person or by mail if they cannot get to the polls on election day. The new law passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor this year allows any registered voter to vote by mail. Ballots can be requested from the county clerk who serves as chief election official. The clerk can also tell you the hours and locations for early voting in person.
The upcoming primary election will be held on February 2—the earliest date in Illinois history. The deadline for registering to vote is January 5 and the early voting period will run from Monday, January 11, through Thursday, January 28. Contact your local county election authority for information about grace period registration, absentee ballots, and early voting centers.
Congratulations to National Board Certified Teachers
Each year elementary and secondary teachers have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in teaching and receive National Board Certification. To date, 3,923 teachers in Illinois carry this prestigious designation including 5 from Ogle County, 23 in DeKalb County and 14 in LaSalle County.
Let’s congratulate the 2009 teachers earning this honor from our area: Jacqueline Cleven, Sycamore School District; Susan Winter of Meridian Unit District; Audrey Campbell and Kathryn Michaels from Genoa-Kingston, and Ann Ritchie from Kaneland.
Best wishes for health and helping each other in 2010.