Senate Week in Review: April 6 – April 10, 2015
Senate GOP emphasize need for reform, spending reductions at recent budget hearing
On April 8, Senate Republican lawmakers attended a joint hearing of the Appropriations I and II Committees at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), focusing on Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016.
State Senators David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville), Dale Righter (R-Mattoon), and Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) all represent areas that are affected heavily by Illinois' public university system. During the hearing they emphasized that the Governor’s budget proposal was just the first step on the path to the final budget, but stressed that spending reductions and reforms will be necessary if the state is to fill an anticipated $6 billion deficit in the coming fiscal year.
The lawmakers questioned panelists—including university administrators, representatives from the medical community, human service providers and local government officials—about their expenses relating to workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and other "costs of doing business,” which often create a significant financial burden for the average Illinois employer. The lawmakers pointed to these areas as places where significant savings could be realized, and panelists who testified agreed that it would certainly improve their bottom line if the cost of doing business in Illinois was reduced.
SIUC alone pays millions each year in workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance costs, expenses that redirect resources away from the university’s course offerings and student services. The service providers in attendance also mentioned that grant funding cuts could be less severe if certain business reforms were undertaken in order to improve Illinois' fiscal condition.
Survey finds Illinois’ property taxes top nation
A new analysis found Illinois boasts the second highest property taxes in the nation. According to financial resource website WalletHub, Illinois homeowners’ average property taxes cost them nearly $2,000 more than the national average of $2,089. In fact, Illinoisans pay an average of $3,939 in property taxes on their homes each year.
WalletHub noted that while renters may think property tax rates don’t impact them, they can think again. WalletHub pointed out, “We all pay for property taxes, whether directly or indirectly, as they impact the rent we pay as well as the finances of state and local governments.”
As part of Gov. Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda to empower voters and improve local control, he is advocating for a property-tax freeze that would remain in effect until voters decide via referendum to override it. He’s also offering reforms that would address the root causes of high property taxes, proposing changes that would reduce bureaucracy and costly mandates.
In their methodology, WalletHub used data from the census to calculate the real estate property-tax rates by dividing the median real estate tax payment by the median home price.
Rauner admin pledges to fix past wrongs at DCFS in response to audit findings
In response to a recent audit highlighting areas in need of improvement at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), a DCFS spokesman stressed that acting Director George Sheldon is actively working to identify reforms that will help resolve the problems that persisted under the guidance of past administrations.
The audit findings lend credence to recent news reports highlighting problems at the agency. Specifically, Auditor General William Holland’s office found that DCFS took longer than 24 hours to look into nearly 180 abuse or neglect reports in 2014, and almost 150 reports in 2013.
The audit noted that failure to respond to reports of abuse or neglect within 24 hours could result in further endangerment to the child, making this finding particularly troublesome.
Additionally, the Department was slow to review child death cases. Though the Department has 90 days from notification to conduct such reviews, in 2013 it took an average 182 days to review 80 “closed” child death cases. In 2014, 27 reviews were not conducted within 90 days; the average time to review was 172 days.
Auditors noted that failure to review child death cases within the allotted 90-day time frame undermines the purpose of reviewing child death cases.
The audit also identified problems with the Department’s financial reporting process, as well as highlighted issues with the timeliness and adequacy of case file documentation.
As reported in the audit, DCFS officials agreed with many of the audit recommendations and expressed intentions to rectify the issues identified in the review.
Task force hears from DuPage County about consolidation efforts
Government consolidation was the focus of the most recent Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force, which met in Wheaton on April 8.
DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin outlined consolidation measures that were pursued and implemented in DuPage County as part of the County’s ACT Initiative (Accountability, Consolidation, Transparency), which is projected to save taxpayers more than $116 million.
The ACT Initiative was undertaken to address a lack of accountability and transparency identified in an assessment of 24 independent agencies in DuPage County. The program was also organized to provide a roadmap for agencies to explore consolidation and share services.
During the meeting, members of the task force discussed the feasibility of mimicking at the state level the same sort of consolidation measures that DuPage has successfully implemented, and also talked about legislation that would place a moratorium on creating new units of local government.
Utility improvement measure signed into law
A bill to expand the time utility companies Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) have to implement the state’s “smart grid” electrical improvement and modernization program was recently signed into law by Gov. Rauner.
The initial smart grid law, passed in 2011, was scheduled to expire in 2017; the new law extends the law by two years to allow utilities Ameren and ComEd to continue upgrading the state’s electrical system. Ameren requested an extension of the original smart grid law to give the company more time to implement improvements to the state’s electric system.
The smart grid program was initially passed to improve the state’s dated electrical system, including investments in new “smart” meters, new poles, substation upgrades, underground manholes and storm prevention upgrades. These improvements are intended to improve the quality and reliability of the state’s electric system, preventing widespread, lengthy power outages and allowing for future consumer growth throughout Illinois.