Budget battles rage on

Today is the last day of legislative session, and there are still numerous issues left outstanding before the close of business on May 31.

Last night, Illinois Senate Democrats approved the Illinois House’s budget – a budget heavy on new spending (up more than $1 billion from last year) but light on the cuts necessary to truly bring fiscal discipline back to our state and the budget into balance. In addition, Senate Democrats approved a supplemental budget which increases spending even more – by an additional $430 million – beyond the budget passed by the House.

It’s important to know this supplemental budget comes with strings attached – to compel the House to approve this massive new increase in spending, Senate Democrats attached funding for Illinois’ capital construction plan to the measure. This means if the House fails to pass it, funding for ongoing and future road, highway and bridge projects contained in the plan would come to a halt. It is unfortunate Senate Democrats decided to take this route, which could jeopardize the thousands of jobs that were created with the passage of the construction plan.  

The news on the budget front hasn’t been all bad, however, Earlier this week, I joined with Senate Republicans and numerous Democrats to block  a proposal (Senate Bill 342) that would have increased borrowing by more than $6 billion in order to pay down the state’s backlog of bills. That measure would have compelled taxpayers to pay an addition $1 billion annually over the next seven years at a time Illinois’finances are already stretched to the brink of bankruptcy.

I agree Illinois must step up to the plate and reduce the state payment backlog, but more borrowing is not the way to do it – reducing spending is. Unfortunately, at the current time, it seems the Senate Democratic leadership seems unable and unwilling to recognize this reality.

Much like a junkie is addicted to drugs, Illinois under its current Democratic leadership has become addicted to spending. Most Republicans and even many Democrats in the General Assembly recognize this fact and realize the only way to end this addiction and restore fiscal sanity is to pass a budget that makes tough, but fair, budget cuts. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership doesn’t seem to grasp this fact, which is why I will continue working with my colleagues in the coming months to finally force Illinois to live within its means.

Pension reform

Fundamental reform of the state’s pension system is crucial if we are to tackle Illinois’ short term and long term deficits. This year, negotiations began in earnest to pass changes that would maintain the system for retirees, but increase contributions and slightly reduce benefits for current and future state workers.

Today, in the wake of staunch union opposition, progress on that front was temporarily halted when House Speaker Madigan and House Republican Leader Cross announced pension reform would be postponed until the fall veto session.

As someone who has long been an advocate of pension reform, I promise I will continue to press for substantive changes to the pension system in the coming months, so that we can see a new, less costly system in place by the end of this year.

Workers compensation reform

Another major issue that’s seen major hurdles in the last couple of days is the contentious issue of workers’ compensation reform.

Here in Illinois, cases between injured workers and their employers are settled under the state’s workers’ compensation system to help keep those cases out of our already-overburdened courtrooms. For years, however, that program has seen its costs skyrocket due to false claims by many employees seeking to take advantage of the relative lax system. As a result, many businesses have been hit by billions of dollars in additional costs, and driving away companies from locating in Illinois that otherwise  would have.

This week, the Illinois Senate passed a workers’ compensation bill aimed at tackling some of these abuses. While it included some common-sense changes – including the establishment of new, tougher standards for hearing officers and capping carpal tunnel claims, it failed to reform the most important problem facing the system – ensuring that the employees’ workplace was the primary cause of their injury. It was that lack of fundamental reform that led many Republicans in the Senate to oppose the measure, and caused it to ultimately fail in the Illinois House.

As of this writing, Democrats are threatening to unleash a “nuclear option” of totally eliminating the workers’ compensation system entirely, which would throw all these cases back into the courts. This is a horrible idea that would ultimately end up costing employers even more and drive up costs even farther, while at the same time placing even greater pressure on our overburdened legal system.

Paul’s Law and Nurses Compact

On a brighter note, two pieces of legislation I championed this session are in the final stages of becoming law. “Paul’s Law” (House Bill 653), aimed at curbing the abuse of developmentally disabled residents of group homes, passed the Senate without opposition. It was inspired by the case of Paul McCann, a 42 year-old resident of a downstate group home who was viciously killed by an employee of the facility. Under Paul’s Law, group homes would face tough new guidelines, including regular background checks of their employees and greater licensing review.

Another measure I sponsored would bring Illinois into the Nurses Licensing Compact – a consortium of 24 states that will help increase health care quality and access here in the Land of Lincoln. By streamlining nurse licensing requirements among the compact’s member states, the legislation will allow nurses greater flexibility to treat patients across the country, especially through the greater use of electronic health services such as telehealth and e-care.

Questions? Concerns? Please contact me.

As always, if there’s any way I can be of service, or if you have questions or comments about the issues facing our state, don’t hesitate to contact my office at Pamela@pamelaalthoff.net, or call 217-782-8000.

 

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