February 25, 2013

Indiana House Set to Vote on GOP Budget Plan

Republicans who control the Indiana House are poised to advance a budget plan that leaves out the 10 percent income tax cut sought by Gov. Mike Pence in favor of more spending on schools and roads.

The House is scheduled to vote on the budget plan Monday after GOP members turned back proposals from Democrats last week for more schools funding and blocked a vote on the Pence tax cut plan.

House leaders say they haven't ruled out the proposal that the Republican governor made a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign last year.

The House plan increases K-12 funding by 2 percent the first year and 1 percent the second year. Pence had proposed 1 percent increases each year.

February 25, 2013

New Report Shows Illinois' Finances Could Go from Bad to Worse

A new report projects Illinois’ state budget will go from bad to worse if legislators don’t address some key issues. If things stay as they are, Illinois can expect to see more money devoted to rising pension costs and more bills go unpaid, according to a new report by The Civic Federation, a financial watchdog group.

The report says pension contributions are eating up money for other essential government programs and will go from $5 billion this fiscal year to $7 billion five years from now.

“Illinois is in a horrible financial situation,” said The Civic Federation’s Laurence Msall. “It is continuing to get worse and we’re at the breaking point where core government services will not be able to be funded if we are going to maintain the existing pension structure.”

Legislative leaders have not been able to agree on the best way to pay for state employees’ pensions. They have disagreed on everything from which plan is considered to save the most money, to the legality of certain proposals, since the state constitution says a pension cannot be “diminished or impaired.”

The Civic Federation’s report says another factor why the state is expected to continue to struggle financially is the personal income tax rate. Gov. Quinn raised it from three percent to five percent two years ago, but the rate is scheduled to go down in 2015. Corporate taxes were also raised to seven percent. Those are also scheduled to be cut in 2015.

The decision to keep the income tax rate where it is or cut it is expected to be a big part of next year’s governor’s race.

“We might not be able to make it to 2015 if the state doesn’t address the pension crisis and reduce that $97 billion in unfunded liability,” Msall said.

Msall’s report also details the consequences of the state’s financial problems. Illinois is expected to have a backlog of unpaid bills owed to vendors of $21.7 billion in five years if the pensions stay where they are and the tax rates are cut. The state has $7.8 billion in unpaid bills in fiscal year 2013.

Quinn is scheduled to give his budget address next week.

January 23, 2013

Durbin Frustrated with Funding Loss to State Department

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin has expressed his frustration over what across the board spending cuts would mean to State Department coffers that have already taken a hit.

The Democrat addressed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as she defended her handling of the September attack in Benghazi.

Durbin notes Clinton sought more funds for protection of ambassadors and diplomats, and was refused existing dollars by the U.S. House.

Meanwhile, when the automatic budget cuts known as ‘sequestration’ take effect March 1st, the Senator says that means losing another $50-million for facilities and personnel that protect staff.

“So I’d like you to comment," Durbin asked Clinton. "How can we keep our commitment to be a leader in the world in the area of diplomacy and statecraft to avoid the necessity of war if we don’t give the most basic resources to your department which commands, as I understand it, about 1 and a half percent of the federal budget?"

Clinton says the State Department was doing all it could with all the funding it received.  She says it’s also a matter of dealing with a struggling economy, but also being smart about making the right investments.

Durbin also defended the actions of Ambassador Susan Rice, saying there was no cover-up in the investigation of the attack that left four Americans dead.

January 21, 2013

Topinka: Ill. Agencies Face $1 Billion Shortfall

Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka says Illinois is running out of money for child welfare, workers' compensation and services for seniors and the disabled.

Topinka is the state's chief fiscal officer. In a statement Monday, she says state agencies need about $1 billion to carry them through the end of the fiscal year in June.

A Republican, Topinka says lawmakers need to "end the denial'' and deal with the crisis before it jeopardizes critical services residents need. She's urging them to transfer money from more financially sound programs.

Topinka says with budget cuts likely on the way, state agencies can help themselves by saving money.

“I’m not being charitable or nice to these folks, I realize that," she said.  "But we’re saying ‘you know it’s coming, so just do it right out of the box and take the hit and put that money aside.”

Last year more than 40,000 child care providers were notified they wouldn't get state funding for three months because the child care fund had run out of cash.

Legislators later moved $73.6 million from other parts of the budget to supplement the fund. 

<em>(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)</em>

January 17, 2013

AFSCME Continues Court Fight in Prison Closures

Despite an announcement from Governor Pat Quinn, and a state Supreme Court ruling, Illinois’ prison workers union says nothing is finalized on the closure of correctional facilities.

AFSCME Council 31 Regional Director Ed Caumiant does confirm that some prisoners are being transferred from the Logan Correctional Center. 

They’re expected to make room for women inmates to be transferred to Logan from the Dwight Correctional Center.

Caumiant notes the Illinois Supreme Court only ruled against the injunction to keep the prisons open, and did not address the concerns in the union’s lawsuit about safety and health in state correctional facilities.

Gov. Quinn recently said two prisons, some juvenile facilities, and several adult transition centers (including one in Decatur), would be closing ‘in a matter of weeks’, and the Tamms Correctional Center closed late last month. 

But Caumiant said AFSCME hasn’t received a firm closure date from the Department of Corrections for Dwight.

“In the face of that confusion, we’ve asked, we’ve tried to get within the several within the department to get a definite plan from them" he said. "I was promised a call back from their operations chief.  And as of (Thursday), I still haven’t heard anything.”

Caumiant said closing the Dwight facility has to be at least a couple months away, given safety standards. 

Despite the fact Tamms is empty, Caumiant says there’s still a question as to whether the state can reasonably close any facilities.

For example, he said the Sheridan Correctional Center is now operating with more inmates than ever.

“It’s supposed to be a therapeutic community," Caumiant said. "They’ve had to suspend many, if not all of their drug treatment classes, just to make room for, and had to deal with this huge influx of 100’s of inmates coming from all over the state.  We’re seeing a state that is doing absolutely irresponsible things with their inmate population, and their prison system as a whole.”

Caumiant said there is a court hearing in Cook County on Friday over AFSCME's lawsuit regarding to the closures, and a separate one coming up in Alexander County.

Illinois' Department of Corrections didn't return a call seeking comment Thursday.

January 15, 2013

Pence Team Delivers 1st Budget to Indiana Lawmakers

Gov. Mike Pence is rolling out his spending blueprint for Indiana one day after taking office.

The Pence administration plans to unveil its first budget before a hearing of the State Budget Committee Tuesday afternoon.

The new Republican governor has cash in the bank and a roughly $500 million surplus to work with, courtesy of former Gov. Mitch Daniels. But he also has many demands from lawmakers in both parties to restore spending cuts to education, child services and other areas.

Pence will also have to find room for his proposed income tax cut at a cost of roughly $500 million a year. He’s facing hesitation from lawmakers who say any tax cut proposal should wait until they receive new tax collection forecasts in April.

January 08, 2013

Indiana Lawmakers to Consider Budget, Gay Marriage, School Vouchers

Lawmakers returned to Indianapolis on Monday for the start of their four-month session. The legislature is expected to take up a host of issues during their session, including gun control, a gay marriage ban, and expanding school vouchers.

The state's biennial budget and tax cuts are also among the issues expected to be discussed during the session.

A handful of Republican state senators are pushing to expand access to guns this session. Sen. Jim Banks (R-Columbia City) has proposed allowing students to carry firearms on Indiana's public university campuses.

The measures face little chance of success in the General Assembly this year. But Banks said Tuesday that lawmakers should still have an open and ranging discussion about guns.

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) wants a bill that would exempt guns made exclusively in Indiana from federal rules and regulations.

The proposals go up against a national push for more gun control following the Newtown school shooting. Members of Indiana's Black Legislative Caucus said Tuesday that they would support any national effort to reduce gun violence and are ready to support new federal limits.

There is also a push to ban gay marriage. State Rep. Eric Turner (R-Cicero) said Tuesday he will file a resolution this session to write the state's ban on gay marriage into the Indiana constitution.

Turner was the author of the measure that passed in 2011. It would need to be approved by lawmakers one more time before going before voters for consideration in 2014.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma of Indianapolis and Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long of Fort Wayne haven't said whether they'll allow action on the issue this year. Long says his staff is reviewing possible ramifications from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the topic due next summer.

Indiana lawmakers are expected to consider a measure to expand the state’s school voucher program, but critics worry doing so could shift attention away from strengthening public schools.

Under the voucher program, the state provides assistance to low- and moderate-income families who want to send their children to private school.

Each voucher at the elementary and middle school levels is worth up to $4,500.

Rep. Bob Behning (R- Indianapolis) chairs the House Education Committee.

He plans to introduce legislation to get rid of the $4,500 cap, and lift eligibility requirements for military and foster families, as well as families with children in special education.

“If you philosophically believe that parents should be able to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children,” Behning said. “Then making that choice available to more makes sense in terms of improving education.”

But the Indiana State Teacher's Association’s Teresa Meredith said expanding the voucher program doesn’t fix troubled public schools.

“We should be offering, whatever is needed, support wise, to those students and those families as the best we can through the public school system,” Meredith said. “And if we’re not meeting the needs of those learners in the public school system, then why not?”

Meredith is behind a lawsuit challenging the legality.

Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) said vouchers hurt urban school districts. He wants the General Assembly to wait and see what effect the program is having before making more changes.

More than 9,000 students are receiving vouchers this year.

Meanwhile, the following bills have been assigned by Senate President Pro Tem David Long to the Senate's rules committee, a step typically used to bottle up a proposal and prevent further action toward it becoming law:

  • Prohibit state agencies or public universities from limiting firearms possession except for buildings that house courtrooms.
  • Make any firearms or ammunition made in Indiana and remaining in the state not subject to federal laws or regulation.
  • Allow public school districts to require recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of each school day.
  • Prohibit abortions being sought based on the gender of the fetus or because the fetus has a genetic abnormality such as Down syndrome.
  • Prohibit many arrests or searches by federal agents without written permission from the local county sheriff.
  • Ban the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by law enforcement agencies or others to monitor a person or property without consent.
  • Eliminate the use of grand juries by prosecutors to decide the filing of criminal charges.
  • Prohibit Indiana government entities from implementing any policies relating to the United Nation's 1992 conference on the environment, the subject of the novel titled ``Agenda 21'' by conservative commentator Glenn Beck.
  • Block public school districts from starting the school year until after Labor Day unless the district follows a year-round calendar or takes other steps.

January 07, 2013

Indiana Lawmakers Return for Packed 2013 Session

Indiana’s General Assembly is reconvening for a 2013 session certain to be jammed with debate over the budget, taxes and a raft of divisive social issues.

Lawmakers return to Indianapolis on Monday for the start of their four-month session that will also feature dozens of new faces, including Gov.-elect Mike Pence and his new administration. Pence takes office Jan. 14.

Legislators will be busy drafting the state’s biennial budget, pondering the restoration of education spending and looking for ways to pay for road projects. They will also consider Pence’s proposed personal income tax cut.

Hot-button social issues have already popped up as well, including proposals to recite the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, challenge the teaching of evolution and write the state’s gay marriage ban into the state constitution.

November 05, 2012

Illinois Board of Education Holds Hearing on Budget

The Illinois State Board of Education is holding a series of public forums before making recommendations on education funding for the next fiscal year.

The board’s Finance and Audit Committee met Monday at the Champaign Public Library, where area teachers and school administrators showed up to say unless more is done to fund schools, programs will have to be cut.

Cris Vowels is the principal of Urbana’s Washington Early Childhood School, which helps preschoolers with special needs. Washington School is supported almost entirely by the state, and in recent years, Vowels said, funding for the school has taken a hit.

“This past year, we had an 8-percent cut, which cost us about $95,000, and because of those cuts we’ve had to cut services to children, to staff, and to families,” she said. “We’re very concerned that if we don’t get funding restored to a level where we can operate efficiently, we may have to cut classrooms and that would devastate a lot of the families in our community.”

Donna Kaufman is the director of alternative education for the regional office of education in Champaign and Ford Counties. She expressed similar concerns about funding shortages, and the impact on the R.E.A.D.Y program, which is an alternative school in Champaign.

“Every year we receive less funding, and so it is so important to provide quality education for those students who come to us,” she said.

Kaufman said there are 121 students from 17 school districts who are currently enrolled in the R.E.A.D.Y program.

“We’re getting close to being full, and so it would be important to hire a couple more teachers so that we can have more sports available,” Kaufman added.

The Board of Education’s Jim Baumann said with primary and secondary education losing more than $200 million in state funding in the last year, the challenges facing teachers are noticeable.

“You know, we’re hearing that they’re doing a lot of selfless work, and very focused on helping children and we need to do more for them,” Baumann said. “(The cuts) are impacting children from all over the state - whether it’s from safe schools; whether it’s early childhood education; or how districts can survive with transportation cuts. It impacts most children in Illinois.”

By January, the Illinois State Board of Education will submit recommendations on education funding to Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly. But first the board will hold three more public hearings in Grayslake, Chicago, and Granite City.

October 11, 2012

Vermilion County Republican Cites Concerns with Budget

Vermilion County’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year is now on display for the public, but one county board member argues the document doesn’t do enough to address the future.

District Two Republican Mike Marron admits there are a lot of things county leaders can’t address, including outstanding bills the state hasn’t paid, and lower equalized assessed valuation of property.

But he also says by dipping into reserves, the board isn’t thinking with a lot of foresight, and not taking steps to deal with a crisis down the line.

"It may be a case where there needs to be better communication between the chairman and I about how we're going to proceed," he said.  "I just feel like before I can comfortably sign on to something like that that I just need to due diligence for my constituents to make sure that plan - an adequate plan is in place."

Democratic County Board Chair Jim McMahon didn’t return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

On Tuesday night, the Vermilion County Board approved putting the suggested budget on display, which statute requires for 30 days before the board can take a final vote on.  The budget can be viewed on the 1st floor of the courthouse annex Monday thru Friday.

The $11.5 million proposal shows levied totals are down just over $7,000 for the next fiscal year.

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