Five state legislators – four representing parts of Evanston – gave highlights of the year in the General Assembly to an audience of about 70 members of local Leagues of Women Voters at The Merion, 1611 Chicago Ave., on Aug. 25. In some cases, the focus was on improving the quality of life for the residents of Illinois. The mention of expenditure reduction – in mental health services – appeared to mirror the mindset in Springfield to address the State’s budgetary problems by reducing some services to residents.
Senators Daniel Biss and Heather Steans and Representatives Laura Fine, Robyn Gabel and Lou Lang all appeared to agree that tax reform and redistricting would not earn meaningful discussion in either the House or the Senate until 2015 or 2016.
Both Sen. Steans and Rep. Lang said they thought the State is seeing its way through its long-time financial difficulties. “This was clearly a difficult year,” said Rep. Lang, “but good news is on the horizon. Unemployment is down, the economy is getting better. It’s been a good year in Springfield, but there is still a lot to fix.”
Cuts in Spending, Services
“We’ve been taking economic steps to address the fiscal problems in Illinois,” said Sen. Steans, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. She said the state now has less than $5 billion in unpaid bills, down from about $9 billion. “We want to get it to $2.7 or $3 billion.”
To do this, Sen. Steans said, “we’re doing some significant fiscal cuts – spending $1 billion less on mental health.” She said the State has been able to reduce funds allocated to Medicaid by a combination of cutting spending and adding in revenues from the cigarette tax.
Sen. Steans said several mental health facilities have been closed but did not elaborate on how those with a mental illness would fare without support from the state. Earlier this week, in reaction to the closing of six of the 12 public mental health facilities in Chicago a couple of years ago, many persons affected by those closings testified before the Chicago City Council. They described the effects of the closing of the mental health clinics and demanded that they be re-opened and that the City of Chicago commit to increased mental health funding and services.
Rollback of Income-Tax Increase?
The temporary income tax implemented in 2011 may be rolled back as of Jan. 1 of next year. If the legislature takes no action, the State will lose $4 billion in revenues this fiscal year, said Sen. Steans. “I think that’s an opening [to discuss tax reform]. Regardless of what happens in November, this will be on the table. … We will have to do serious tax reform,” she added.
Rep. Lang said the failure to address tax reform “isn’t a matter of leadership; it isn’t a matter of public policy; it’s a matter of politics.” He said the matter “will not get on the ballot [through the legislature]. It will not be a surprise to many of you that [in Springfield] there are not many profiles in courage.”
Sen. Steans said, “Maybe a presidential election is the best time to have [tax reform] on the ballot. A push toward redistricting received a setback in June.
More positive notes were struck as each legislator described the highlights of their individual efforts.
Rep. Fine said one of her bills limits an insurance company to 72 hours to deny coverage of a medication. If there is no response within 72 hours, the medication is automatically covered, she said. She also noted her “backyard bill,” which she said resulted from a conversation with a neighbor who is the mother of teens. The bill would allow a school to discipline a student for cyber-bullying if the results of that student’s action can be “brought into the school’s purview – that is, if the bullied student is afraid to go to school or has grades dropping,” she said. Previously, schools could get involved only if the bullying occurred on school property, she said, but a lot of bullying takes place on social media, when kids are at home or in other non-school areas. A third bill mandates insurance companies participating in exchanges to list what medications they cover.
Rep. Lang said his “pet project is the legalization of marijuana – a product that helps people feel better. … It’s never been about money; it has always been about the quality of life for some very sick people in the State of Illinois. This was a very important step for health-care – and it won’t cost tax-payers. It’s self-sustaining because of taxes and licensing fees.”
Sen. Steans, after articulating many spending cuts, said, “We’ve restored dental benefits.”
Sen. Biss spoke of the Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program, a bill to help the 2.5 million Illinois workers who currently lack access to employer-sponsored retirement plans and who “are looking at living in or near poverty in retirement. … This is a problem that’s really crept up on us. Illinois could be a leader by providing a way for them to provide for themselves in retirement.” The bill passed the Senate in April but the House has not yet voted on it.
Sen. Biss also talked about the pension crisis at the State level. He referred to a court battle over one pension-reform bill and said there is some fear that other bills will not be upheld and added, “probably several chapters [of the saga] await.”
Rep. Gabel, who chairs the Human Service Committee, described a bill that mandates the repackaging of refill bottles for e-cigarettes. “The refills carry very high levels of nicotine in baby-bottle shaped containers,” she said. The contents smell enticingly like bubble-bum or coconut but “half a teaspoon of that liquid can kill a toddler,” she said.
One of her proposed bills would have added a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. “It would have raised $600 million in taxes and helped reduce obesity,” she said, but added, “These kinds of bills can’t be passed in one year. We’re looking for a three-to-four-year window.”
Two other bills Rep. Gable sponsored are a “ban-the-box” bill and an automatic expungement one. Under “ban-the-box,” employers with 15 or more employees would not be able to have potential hirees check a box as to whether or not they have a criminal record. “[Employers] cannot [ask] this on the initial application, but they can ask that question in an interview,” she said.
Her second bill would allow the expungement of records of “juveniles who have been arrested but never charged,” Rep. Gabel said. Both of these bills, she said, are aimed at helping people who may have a record have a better chance at becoming employed.
Silence on Senate Bill 16
There was no mention by legislator or League member of Senate Bill 16, the “education reform” bill that reallocates state education funding but does not enlarge the pot of funds to be divided – despite the fact that Illinois is among the lowest-ranked states in terms of State funding for education.
If the bill in its present form is passed into law, Evanston’s two public school districts would collectively lose more than $8 million annually in funding. The Illinois State Board of Education has calculated that School District 65 will lose 85% of its State funding, or $6.5 million, and School District 202 will lose 81% of its State funding, or $2.2 million, if SB 16, as passed by the Senate, is enacted into law.
The bill passed the Senate this spring. Senator Daniel Biss voted in favor of it; Senator Heather Steans voted “present.”
At a forum held on July 17 at Evanston Township High School, Sen. Biss and State Representatives Robyn Gabel and Laura Fine all said that they believed that the bill in its present form would not advance any time soon. At that forum, Rep. Fine, a member of the House Education Appropriations committee that is studying Senate Bill 16, said the legislation has “started the conversation” about school funding but that there is still a “long way to go.”