Senator Syverson’s Week in Review: Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2014

Governor Quinn’s scandal-plagued Neighborhood Recovery Initiative is poised to once again take center stage as federal prosecutors cleared the way for the bipartisan Legislative Audit Commission to resume their investigation of the program, said State Senator Dave Syverson (R-Rockford).

In advance of an Oct. 8 Audit Commission hearing, several lawmakers are raising concerns that Governor Quinn has shuffled millions of dollars into a re-branded version of his failed Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and appears to be accelerating the pace of handouts as the election nears.

State spending records show $5 million in funds that were supposed to have gone statewide to help at-risk youth have been shifted to programs in Chicago that are virtual clones of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI), including several to the same contractors whose misuse of funds from the previous program sparked multiple criminal investigations.

U.S. Attorney gives audit commission green light

The Legislative Audit Commission is set to resume its investigation of the original NRI program after the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois informed the co-chairs of the bipartisan commission that he does not object to the Audit Commission resuming public hearings on the NRI.

In August, U.S. Attorney James Lewis had requested that the commission delay its investigation for 90 days so as not to interfere with federal investigators.

One of the witnesses subpoenaed by the Audit Commission has also said she will testify. Barbara Shaw, the former director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority has informed the audit commission that she will comply with a subpoena issued before the hearings were placed on hold. She is considered to be a key witness and has firsthand knowledge of the preparation and roll-out of the $54.5 million grant program that is now under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in Springfield and Chicago.

The Legislative Audit Commission has scheduled hearings for Oct. 8-9, at the Bilandic State Office Building in Chicago. The Oct. 8 hearing is set to begin at 10 a.m. in room Room C-600, and to continue the next day beginning at 9 a.m.

Quinn shifting money to NRI Clone

The news that Quinn has been shifting money to programs in Chicago drew especially sharp criticism because the money is being taken from a statewide program that awards grants on a competitive basis. Instead, Quinn has been spending the funds on many of the same providers who are under investigation for the botched Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

The shift in taxpayer funds has occurred despite repeated assurances from Quinn that he shut down the NRI program in 2012. During a one-week period in September, Quinn pumped an additional $400,000 into just one entity – the Chicago Area Project. The Chicago Area Project is already under investigation for its hiring of the husband of Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown. The $400,000 brought the total handed to the group to over $1 million, less than six weeks before the election.

Downstate programs lose under Quinn shuffle

Lawmakers point out that the money is being diverted from a program targeted to at-risk youth across the state. That program, Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services (CCBYS), awards grants in an open, competitive process.

Senators Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington), Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) and Darin LaHood(R-Peoria) held an Oct. 2 press conference to call attention to the fund diversion. They said they learned of the diversion after youth service providers expressed dismay that funding appropriated to the CCBYS program was being shifted instead to Quinn’s re-branded NRI program with no public scrutiny.

Suburban schools raise concerns about fund shift

In an unrelated development, suburban school districts are honing in on legislation that would strip them of most of their state funding through a massive rewrite of the state’s education funding formula.

The measure, SB 16, has raised eyebrows among suburban school districts and taxpayers who are concerned that many districts would lose 80% or more of their state support. Concerns have also been raised that the proposal, while claiming to offer a more equitable system of funding schools in Illinois, contains a number of special exemptions that will channel more money to the Chicago Public Schools than they would receive if treated like other school districts.

Ostensibly an outgrowth of a bipartisan Education Funding Advisory Committee’s hearings, the legislation was actually drafted in secret without Republican participation after the advisory committee concluded its hearings. More recently, it has been revealed that Illinois House Democrats are holding closed door meetings on the legislation.

Past statements from House Speaker Michael Madigan that he believes suburban and downstate schools receive a “free lunch” for teacher pension contributions have raised concerns that the legislation will be used as a “cost shift” to move state support away from schools that already receive little from the state, and channel more money to Chicago schools.

Opponents point out that the legislation does not provide any new funds to schools in Illinois and that Governor Quinn has cut funding to education in Illinois, despite raising taxes by 67%.

Dave Syverson

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