With roughly two weeks until the scheduled May 31 adjournment deadline, State Senator Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) said lawmakers from both chambers have continued to meet with representatives from the Rauner Administration to try and find common ground on some of the state’s most pressing—and controversial—issues.
State budget talks have been ongoing, and Senate lawmakers have spent much of their time moving legislation through the committee process. Additionally, numerous measures were considered by the full Senate body during the week, including one proposal decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
Meanwhile, political games continued in the House of Representatives this week, when Speaker Michael Madigan called for a vote on Right-to-Work legislation. An initiative of the Speaker that was not introduced or supported by the Governor, the move was criticized as political theater and was panned by lawmakers from both parties.
However, lawmakers came together on May 12 to honor fallen fire fighters at the annual memorial ceremony at the Capitol, while later in the week the Department of Transportation made public its yearly list of road and bridge projects throughout the state.
Outside the Statehouse, Chicago took a significant hit from credit ratings agencies.
Weatherization program raises concerns in Senate Committee
A 2009 program intended to “create jobs in low-income areas and improve energy efficiency” sparked debate in a Senate Committee May 14, when Senate Republican lawmakers raised concerns about problems within the state’s Urban Weatherization Program, recently identified by the Better Government Association (BGA).
Five years into the program, the BGA found that the Urban Weatherization Program was “in disarray.” The government watchdog organization noted that of the $16 million spent, $13 million—or more than 80 percent—of that had been spent on administrative and training costs, instead of actual home improvement repairs. Additionally, the program fell significantly short of its 1,000 home improvement goal, having only upgraded 183 homes since the program was created in 2009.
Senate Republicans on the committee voted against House Bill 3194, which would have increased grant awards for the Urban Weatherization Program from the current $500,000 to $2 million, and upped the amount spent to improve homes from $6,500 to $10,000. They expressed serious concerns about the amount of money being directed into a program that has failed to meet its initial benchmarks, particularly when the state is facing a serious financial crisis.
Measure to decriminalize marijuana held in Senate
Legislation to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis was debated in the Senate on May 14, but later held by the sponsor in response to concerns with the legislation. House Bill 218 would reduce penalties for possession of 15 grams or less of cannabis, establishing a maximum $125 fine for the offense.
Supporters of the legislation, including the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, say that the measure will create a uniform penalty through Illinois and remove non-violent, minor offenders from the state’s overcrowded court system. Additionally, proponents say the measure, which allows for numerous ways to test for cannabis DUI charges, will make it easier to prosecute drivers found to be under the influence of marijuana when behind the wheel.
The bill also cracks down on “butane hash oil,” an extremely potent form of cannabis that is manufactured using butane. Because butane is highly flammable, butane hash oil has caused home explosions and serious fires, which pose a significant threat—particularly to first responders arriving at the scene.
However, opponents raised concerns about the impact of a provision in the bill that establishes THC levels—the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects—that are allowable while driving. Critics found fault with the standards for cannabis DUI in the bill, which are not as strict as those in place for an alcohol DUI. Many law enforcement organizations continue to oppose the legislation.
Firefighter Memorial held at State Capitol
Hundreds of firefighters from across the state gathered at the State Capitol grounds on May 12 for the annual Fallen Firefighter Memorial and Medal of Honor Ceremony. The event honors those who have given their lives in the line of duty and to those who heroically serve with courage, pride, and honor.
The Fallen Firefighter Memorial monument, which sits near the southwest lawn of the Capitol, was erected at the direction of the Illinois Fire Services Association in 1993 to serve as a reminder of the sacrifice and bravery made by firefighters who save lives on a daily basis.
Watch a video about this year’s memorial service: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BS0oJKEGsXI
Senate Republicans Pay Tribute to Fallen U.S. Military Heroes
Memorial Day is a time to honor fallen heroes across the nation and the state of Illinois. The Senate Republican Caucus will pay tribute to U.S. Military members who have passed away, with a Memorial Day Remembrance Wall. The Remembrance Wall will be displayed in the State Capitol Rotunda from May 25 through May 30.
Senate Republicans are asking Illinoisans to submit a photo and written remembrance to MemorialDay@senategop.state.il.us by May 20 to honor a loved one or friend on the Memorial Day Remembrance Wall. Participants are asked to include the following information: name, military branch and conflict served. Military photos are preferred, but not necessary.
IDOT Releases multi-year highway construction plan
On May 14, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) released an $8.4 billion six-year highway construction plan as part of the state’s Proposed Highway Improvement Program. Of that, $1.85 billion is to be invested in Fiscal Year 2016, which begins July 1.
The program allows for maintenance on the state’s existing roads and bridges, financing improvements to 1,431 miles of highway and 357 bridges. IDOT noted that while 83 percent of state highways and 93 percent of bridges are currently in acceptable condition, without significant improvements over the next five years only 62 percent of highways and 86 percent of bridges will be in acceptable condition.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has been advocating for a statewide capital construction program to make improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Illinois’ budget crisis the worst in the country
A recent Associated Press report underscored the significant challenges Illinois faces when it comes to filling its anticipated multi-billion dollar budget hole. The Associated Press found that of 22 states facing budget deficits, Illinois has the worst deficit by far, at more than $6 billion.
According to the AP’s analysis:
· The only state neighboring Illinois that is also facing a deficit is Wisconsin, which has two year deficit of $650 million or only 1/10 of Illinois’ deficit.
· The other 21 states with a shortfall have an average deficit of $974 million – less than 1/6 Illinois’ deficit. Additionally, many of those are two-year budgets.
· The only other state with a deficit half as big as Illinois’ is Alaska. Alaska faces a $3.6 billion deficit, which has been attributed to plunging gas and energy costs.
Record-breaking number of visitors made a trip to the Land of Lincoln
More than 107 million visitors traveled to Illinois in 2014, a new record. With a nearly a four percent increase over 2013, the state can celebrate the fourth consecutive year of record-breaking visitor numbers.
“Increasing tourism and its resulting economic impact are central to driving Illinois’ economy forward,” said Gov. Rauner. The increase in visitors resulted in an increase in the state’s hotel-motel tax revenue, which brought in an addition $250 million, up more than six percent.
Illinois farmers making major progress
Illinois farmers continue to make major strides throughout the state. Overall, 88 percent of corn fields have been planted, compared to 73 percent at the same time last year, and the five-year average of 64 percent. The total amount of corn plants that have emerged jumped to 42 percent, up 27 percentage points from last week.
Farmers have planted 33 percent of their soybean crops, compared to 23 percent last year and the 5-year average of 19 percent.
To watch a video on the planting season, the 2015 crop outlook, and the importance of agriculture at the Capitol, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlgIlcyKiVQ&feature=youtu.be
Chicago’s credit ratings drop this week
Following last week’s decision by the Illinois Supreme Court that found Illinois’ pension reform law unconstitutional, bond-rating companies weighed in.
Early in the week Moody’s Investors Service lowered the City of Chicago’s credit rating to one step below the investment grade—considered “junk bond” status, while S & P lowered the city’s A+ rating two steps to A-, still considered investment grade.
Lower credits ratings translate into higher costs associated with future borrowing, as investors demand higher interest payments due to the increased risk they are taking.
Chicago is the second lowest-rated city in the U.S., only behind Detroit. Moody’s also downgraded the credit rating of both Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Park District this week.
Senate action round-up
Action continued on the Senate floor and in committees this week as legislators consider various pieces of legislation before the scheduled May 31 adjournment. You can find a full round-up of all the measures that passed in committees and on the Senate floor this week visit the Senate Action Page at the Senate GOP website: http://www.senategop.state.il.us/AbouttheSenate/SenateAction.aspx