Senator Syverson’s Week in Review: February 9 – 13, 2015

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed two Executive Orders this week to eliminate so-called “fair share” dues for some public employees, and to create the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.

These Executive Orders come a week before Gov. Rauner will lay out a more detailed plan on how to start solving Illinois’ fiscal crisis with his budget address on Feb. 18. In the meantime, Rauner says he is confident schools and critical programs can be fully funded, despite Illinois’ budget crisis.

Executive Order: Rauner creates commission to study criminal justice system

Saying Illinois is in “desperate need of criminal justice reform,” Gov. Rauner issued an Executive Order Feb. 11 creating a new commission charged with identifying ways to reform the criminal justice system and sentencing laws in the state.

The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform will study a variety of issues, including incarceration time, early release, prison alternatives and community supervision. Rauner said the thorough examination of the current system will be used to develop strategies to improve public safety and reduce recidivism and prison overcrowding. 

Illinois has one of the most crowded prison systems in the country, and the state’s recidivism rate is dangerously high. The Department of Corrections is operating at 150 percent of capacity, while 48 percent of adult inmates and 54 percent of juvenile inmates are returned to the system within three years of release.

Executive Order: “Fair share” dues targeted

On Feb. 9, Gov. Rauner signed an Executive Order preventing public employee unions from collecting mandatory dues from certain employees. Calling them “unfair share” dues, Rauner said there are currently 6,500 state employees who have opted out of the union but are still required to pay dues to help finance certain union activities.

The Executive Order allows state employees who wish not to support government unions’ activities to stop paying the forced fees. It has no impact on those employees who wish to remain paying members of the union and fund union activities out of their paychecks.

The Governor said 29 other states have laws that prohibit government entities from forcing public workers to join or financially support labor organizations.

Rauner has hired a legal team to seek a declaratory judgment in federal court to rule on the constitutionality of fair share dues. Rauner points to a previous Supreme Court ruling on a fair share case, which found the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act violated the First Amendment by forcing certain state home health-care workers to involuntarily pay fees to a labor union despite opting out of the union.

In the interim, the Governor ordered fair share dues from the paychecks of the more than 6,500 employees to be put into an account and held until the courts issue their rulings. Rauner said that money would be returned to those employees if the courts support the Executive Order.

Budget preview: Funding for schools

While Illinois residents wait to hear what Gov. Rauner will propose during his first budget address on Feb. 18, the state’s chief executive says he’s confident schools and other critical programs can be fully funded.

During his State of the State address, Rauner told lawmakers he wants to increase funding for early childhood and K-12 education. The current budget, passed by Democrat lawmakers and signed by former Gov. Pat Quinn, currently “prorates” funding for schools, meaning they only receive 89 percent of the funding they are supposed to receive from the state.

The Governor recently outlined his budget expectations to a group of students at a Springfield High School, saying he is hopeful lawmakers will give him the authority to move money around in the budget to help fund areas that are reaching a breaking point, including daycare programs and the prison system.

Money for court reporters reaching a breaking point

Besides immediate budget concerns for prisons and daycare programs, Illinois could soon run out of money for the state’s court reporters. The Rauner Administration said the state program faces a more than $14 million budget gap, and funds will be exhausted by the end of March. The Rauner Administration says they are working with lawmakers right now to identify a solution to these revenue shortfalls.

Many state programs are running short of money prematurely, due to the Democrat leaders passing a budget that failed to account for the January 2015 phase-out of their 2011 tax hike. This was exacerbated by former Gov. Quinn, who failed to scale back spending during the first half of the budget year. Now, Gov. Rauner and the Legislature are tasked with addressing the budget problems aggravated by former Gov. Quinn’s lack of spending control.

Education funding reform legislation introduced

The ongoing discussion of how to reform Illinois’ education funding system continued during the week, as State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) introduced legislation to change the system for funding schools. Barickman was joined by the education reform alliance known as “Vision 20/20.”

Under Barickman’s proposal, the current education funding formula would be replaced with an evidence-based model. This plan would take into account the needs of every Illinois school district, leading to individual, need-based assessments for each school. Once in place, lawmakers would then have a scalable method to establish funding levels for each district.

The legislation would also require an Evidence-Based Professional Judgment Panel to update a 2015 study completed in 2010 by the Illinois School Finance Adequacy Task Force that already developed an evidence-based model for Illinois. The Panel would also determine the minimal level of state and local funding for each district, and provide recommendations on how to address the state’s neediest districts first, using a multi-year plan to phase in the adequacy model in an equitable manner. They would need to submit an updated study by Dec. 1, 2015.

The “Vision 20/20” model could be implemented over time by first targeting low-income school districts and implementing best practices as additional funding becomes available. The group is advocating for the proposal to be implemented for the 2016-2017 school year and includes a hold-harmless provision that ensures that no district would fall below state funding levels for the 2014-2015 school year. There would also be adjustments for factors like poverty, transportation, support services employees, and other costs.

Dave Syverson

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