State Roundup: Lawmakers urge Governor for more info and time on pension reform

From Illinois News Network

The two main architects of a challenged pension reform law are urging Illinois’ Governor to take time in working through another pension reform proposal. Senator Daniel Biss and Representative Elaine Nekrtiz held a press conference Tuesday where they say the Governor’s plan to put more employees into a new tier poses problems. Biss has a simple directive for the various parties.

“Governor and pension systems talk to the IRS, and get an answer from the IRS about a tier 2.”

Biss says he doesn’t think there’s time to achieve the more than $2 billion savings the Governor outlined his pension reform proposal would bring for the coming fiscal year. That’s something Nekritz agrees with.

“If you want this something to happen, we’re telling you that there’s a long lead time in actually getting the data and information you need to make wise and considered long-term choices.”

Governor Rauner says Illinois’ current pension system is unaffordable and choking the state’s budget. The Governor’s office also says he gave his proposal to caucus leaders weeks ago and believes there is ample time to review and pass the pension plan. Illinois has more than $111 billion unfunded public pension liability. A law crafted several years ago by Biss and Nekritz to provide the state with some savings is currently held up in the state Supreme Court where it’s challenged as unconstitutional by the state’s unions.

Appropriations hearing focuses on grant suspensions

The issue of $26 million in grant suspensions by the state’s Department of Human Services was the focus of a three hour appropriations hearing Tuesday. State senators grilled Greg Bassi, acting secretary of the Department of Human Services, about the suspended grant dollars that were issued on Good Friday. Bassi says that’s just how the numbers played out.

“Once they figured out what was available, we were informed, and we wanted to get those letters out immediately.”

Bassi said the longer the Department waited, the more pain there could have been and letters had to go out as quickly to ensure necessary funding for the current fiscal year. Senator Matt Murphy said the bad budget passed by Democrats is to blame and decried the hearing as a waste of time.

Autism grant money focus of hearing

Committee chair Senator Heather Steans says lawmakers didn’t change the appropriations levels, but Bassi says there wasn’t enough cash to pay the grants that were appropriated. In a fiscal emergency, Bassi says there has to be cuts. As for funding autism services, Bassi says there was only one line item for one autism service provider suspended, not all services offered by the state.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that DHS is no longer providing services for individuals with autism, and that is not the case.”

Bassi says characterizing the approach as picking what was and wasn’t important is disingenuous and says crucial decisions must be made now to preserve services moving forward. But Senator Dan Kotowski says he’s been misled.

“I put my vote out there and I expect it that we were going to follow through and provide funding and support for this. So now I have to ask you why is this program worth something when I know that it’s worth the investment. It’s an absolute kick in the stomach on behalf of people that I represent.”

Republican lawmakers characterized the hearing as political theater because the funding problems were created by democrats. Other grant funding that has been suspended includes addiction treatment programs, and immigration services, some of which could be eliminated moving forward into the next fiscal year.

GOMB: State not out of woods in current fiscal year

The state isn’t out of the woods yet when it comes to possible suspension of grant dollars. That’s according to Tim Nuding, the Director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

Despite a pair of bills passed by the House and Senate and signed by the Governor to fill a $1.6 billion budget hole in the current fiscal year, Director Nuding says the state is still managing grant dollars to ensure proper funding for priorities. Nuding says without the previously passed measure to shore up the budget hole, cuts would have been even more severe and there would have been even more bills being pushed into the backlog. As for how to avoid what Senator Daniel Biss says was a blindsiding of lawmakers, Nuding says there needs to be an avoidance of crisis governing with balanced budgets.

“So that we don’t have to come back at the middle of the year where we have crisis situations where we have to start looking for savings to make a budget balance. Let’s pass a balanced budget with a little bit of cushion to pay down the backlog of bills and I think that’s the best way to ensure that that happens.”

Depending on the financial landscape moving forward, Nuding says service providers reliant on state dollars should act as if grant suspensions continue.

House floor action

There was a lot of action on the House floor.

Elected officials won’t be able to associate themselves with grant or contract award announcements a full month before a general election under a bill that passed the House Tuesday. The measure places that blackout on any elected officials placing their name or image on the announcements of allocations of state dollars. The measure does allow for state agencies to issue notifications and allows members to attend public or private events associated with the award or grant. House Bill 113 now heads to the Senate.

It’s not just action taken behind closed doors that could be null and void if it violates the open meetings act, a House Bill that passed Tuesday would target action in open meetings. The bill that passed unanimously says if a court finds actions of government officials either behind closed doors or during an open meeting violates the Open Meetings Act, any action would be considered null and void. The measure now heads to the Senate.

A measure to allow townships bigger than 23 square miles in smaller counties to fold into neighboring municipalities passed the House Tuesday. House Bill 3693 from Representatives Jay Hoffman and Dwight Kay would also provide for procedures that allows townships to retain records and the disposition of any property belonging to the township. The measure now heads to the Senate.

Schools districts outside of Chicago can use construction grants to pay off outstanding debt for construction projects in an effort to reduce the bond and interest levy in a bill that passed the House Tuesday. The measure says a districts shall use a minimum of 80 percent of the grant funds to first pay outstanding debt within the first five years of receiving the funds. The bill states any remaining funds could then be used to fund capital improvements related to school construction projects. House Bill 2823 passed unanimously and now heads to the Senate.

Senate floor action

The state Senate moved some bills.

A measure banning the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for hunting passed the Senate Tuesday. The measure prohibits the use of a drones in taking wildlife, including fish, with penalties being a Class A misdemeanor in addition to other statutory penalties. Senate Bill 44 now heads to the House.

Non-home rule counties may tax and regulate a slew of businesses for unincorporated areas within the county limits under a measure that passed the Senate Tuesday. Senate Bill 1262 provides that a county board may tax and regulate restaurants, amusement parks, and theaters through intergovernmental agreements with municipalities. The bill now heads to the House.

Governor delays tax deadline for tornado victims

Those impacted by last week’s deadly tornado may find Wednesday’s tax deadline as the last thing on their list of concerns, and Governor Bruce Rauner agrees. The Governor announced Tuesday afternoon he is extending a tax filing deadline for businesses and individuals impacted by the storms that hit parts of DeKalb and Ogle counties. Those impacted by the tornado will have until October 31st to file a return. Taxpayers wanting to defer returns can either write “Tornado April 2015” in red ink on their envelope or they can use an electronic method with instructions found online at tax (dot) Illinois (dot) gov.

Revenue: Online resources can help electronic filers

Meanwhile for those waiting last minute to file their state income tax will find some assistance through the Illinois Department of Revenue. Spokesperson for the Department, Terry Hortsman, says there are programs on their website tax (dot) Illinois (dot) gov that can assist in the process of filing returns electronically.

“We actually have tax prep software and there’s a tax professionals link for approved Illinois

electronic filing and IRS electronic filing programs.”

Horstman says the Department expects to see an increase in the number of electronic filings by two to three percent over last year. The deadline to file taxes for both Illinois and the federal government is Wednesday.

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