Senator Syverson’s Week in Review: Sept. 4 – 8

SPRINGFIELD, IL – As part of an effort to pay down Illinois’ $15.4 billion bill backlog, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced a refinancing plan this week that would allow the state to pay down overdue obligations to the state’s vendors and other providers.

Also during the week, Illinois schools have begun to receive their overdue funding. On Sept. 7, the Comptroller’s Office transmitted $541 million in payments to schools that were due on Aug. 10 and 20. Funds for the Sept. 10 payment were also expected to go out by the end of the week. In total, Illinois schools will receive $805 million this week.

In other action, Senate Republican lawmakers joined with current and former legislators from around the United States to voice their support for fair legislative maps. Legislators signed on to an Amicus Curie brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the court to review partisan gerrymandering practices.

Finally, a joint House and Senate subject-matter hearing was held this week on the potential public safety ramifications of legalizing marijuana, and Gov. Rauner signed an Executive Order creating the Governor’s Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force.

Governor announces plan to pay down bill backlog

Gov. Rauner announced a refinancing plan Sept. 7 to pay down a portion of the state’s $15.4 billion bill backlog. While advocating for spending reforms and policies that will help Illinois’ economy to grow and become more competitive, Rauner acknowledged that Illinois has been in deficit spending for many years, resulting in the state’s large and growing unpaid bill backlog.

Currently, a significant portion of the bill backlog is subject to late-payment interest penalties of up to 12 percent annually. By using a tool included in the Democrat majority’s budget, the state can pay struggling state vendors, and taxpayers will benefit from considerable savings. The Comptroller’s Office estimates the refinancing plan – which was called for in the Democrat majority’s FY18 budget package – will save taxpayers $550 to $650 million per year over the 12-year repayment schedule.

The Budget Implementation Act (BIMP) in Senate Bill 42 requires the refinancing to be completed in 2017 and be applied to the bill backlog. The Administration will need the collaboration of the offices of the Comptroller and Attorney General to target payments to the high-cost bills – including Medicaid and Group Health Insurance.

The Governor noted his preferred path of balancing the budget without borrowing, but acknowledged, “it’s better to have Wall Street carry our debt than Main Street Illinois.”

Schools start to see funds

The Comptroller’s office began transmitting on Sept. 7 $541 million in General State Aid to schools throughout Illinois. These payments contain the funds that were due to schools on Aug. 10 and 20. The next $264 million payment, due Sept. 10, is scheduled to be transmitted on Sept. 8. In total, schools will receive $805 million this week.

At this time, these payments will only include the base funding, which is each district’s hold-harmless to prior year funding, for each district until the new “tier funding” levels created through the new formula can be calculated. These calculations, which include many new data points as well as verification of the data, are expected to take some time to complete to ensure schools are being accurately funded.

For now, the Illinois State Board of Education is ensuring that schools get their hold-harmless payments to tide them over until these calculations can be completed. The “hold-harmless” amount equates to what each district received in Fiscal Year 2017 for the following: General State Aid, Bilingual Education, Special Education Funding for Children, Special Education Personnel Reimbursements, and Special Education Summer School. These are the five programs that were rolled into the one, new formula for this year and going forward.

Key elements of Illinois’ new school-funding formula

It has been just over a week since Illinois’ new school-funding formula was signed into law on Aug. 31. The new formula, which was the product of bipartisan negotiations, treats all of Illinois’ 852 school districts fairly and equitably while also prioritizing funding for low-income districts. It’s also important to note that absolutely no school district loses money under this plan.

The legislation also contained a provision to offer a tax credit to individuals who donate to a scholarship program for low-income students in struggling districts. Despite some misinformation that has circulated about this provision, it is not a voucher program and does not divert state dollars from public schools to private schools. The program will rely on private funds to help offer some choices to students who need the most help.

At the heart of the plan is an evidence based-model to distribute money to schools. The key components of the new formula include:

·         Evidence-based Funding Model with 27 Elements to Define Adequacy: Directs new state funds to ensure districts with the largest gap between available resources and adequacy targets receive funding first—helping low-income districts first.

·         Equitable Charter School funding: District-authorized charter schools receive funding that is equal to the funding of district-managed schools, so every child will be treated fairly according to their families’ school choice for their children.

·         Property Tax Relief: Allows districts over 110 percent of adequacy to hold a referendum to reduce property taxes.

·         Mandate Relief: Streamlines the legislative waiver process to give districts more flexibility, allows schools to contract with a third-party for driver’s education with no waiver requirement, and changes physical education requirements and athletic waiver process.

·         Tax Credit Scholarship Program: Provides a 75 percent income tax credit for donations to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, targeted primarily to lower-income students.

·         TIF Districts: Creates a Commission to study TIF districts in relation to school-funding formula.

·         CPS Pension Parity: Provides that CPS’ normal pension and healthcare costs be paid in the same manner as all 851 other school districts.

·         CPS Pension Liability: Allows the Chicago School Board to raise their property tax that is specifically dedicated to their teachers’ pension liability.

Legislators take bipartisan effort to end gerrymandering to U.S. Supreme Court

Senator Syverson and a number of other Senate Republican lawmakers joined current and former legislators from around the country to voice their support for fair legislative maps by signing on to an Amicus Curie brief filed in the United States Supreme Court urging the Court to end the practice of political gerrymandering.

Lawmakers made their argument as amici in Gill v Whitford, a redistricting case in which a U.S. District court found that the State of Wisconsin used partisan gerrymandering to create the state’s legislative district map, violating protections given to voters by the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The case will be argued before the Supreme Court on Oct. 3.

The Amicus brief itself points out that “few tools for political entrenchment have corrupted our democracy more than modern-day gerrymandering,” and further notes that “powerful software and detailed, block-by-block voter data enable redistricting plans that give one party huge partisan advantages that survive shifts in voter preferences and demographics.”

Supporters noted it is important the Supreme Court intervene with some clear direction on how we can eliminate political gerrymandering in our state and ensure Illinois residents are no longer shut out of the political process. Additionally, if the Supreme Court finds Wisconsin did use partisan gerrymandering, that decision could play a factor in future efforts to strike down political gerrymandering in Illinois.

Members of the Senate Republican caucus have long argued that partisan gerrymandering can be used as a powerful political tool that interferes with the democratic process and subverts the idea of fair representation. Senate Republicans’ noted that Illinois’ legislative districts are drawn with the purposes of creating and maintaining political power. Through the last redistricting process, Democrats drew Illinois’ map to their advantage, splitting up similar communities while at the same time combining dissimilar communities. They stressed “voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

Gov. Rauner creates task force targeting opioid abuse

Gov. Rauner signed an Executive Order Sept. 6 creating the Governor’s Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force. The Task Force, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, will look at strategies to tackle the escalating opioid crisis in Illinois, aiming to stop its spread, reduce the number of opioid-related deaths, and aid in the recovery of individuals with opioid-use disorder.

In Illinois, the number of heroin overdose deaths has doubled since 2013, and the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. This year, more than 1,900 people in Illinois are expected to die of opioid overdoses. This is more than one-and-a-half times the number of homicides and almost twice the number of fatalities from motor vehicle crashes.

Members of the Task Force will look at strategies to combat this growing problem including increasing the number of providers that use the Illinois Prescription Monitoring Program and reducing high-risk opioid prescribing. They will also examine how to make information and resources more accessible to the public, how to strengthen data collection, analysis, and sharing efforts, as well as strategies to reduce the number of overdose deaths of individuals recently released from an institutional facility. Additionally, they will examine ways to increase naloxone availability and training to combat overdoses.

The Task Force will be made up of officials from the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Illinois State Police, and from the Illinois Departments of Financial and Professional Regulation, Human Services, Public Health, Juvenile Justice, Insurance, Corrections, and Healthcare and Family Services.

Joint legislative hearing held on cannabis regulation and taxation proposal

During the week, the Senate and House Appropriations committees held a joint hearing on Senate Bill 316, a proposal to legalize the taxation and regulation of recreational cannabis. The hearing focused on the issue of public safety and the potential ramifications of legalization and sales of recreational marijuana in the communities.

Under the proposed legislation, adults 21 and older could legally possess, grow and purchase specified amounts of cannabis. It would also give the State of Illinois the authority to license and regulate businesses that wish to cultivate and sell marijuana to adults, and set the health and safety regulations. Customers would incur tax on cannabis purchases at a rate of $50 per ounce at the wholesale level. Retail sales would be subject to the state’s standard 6.25 percent state sales tax.

Various law enforcement officials expressed concern for a potential increase in substance abuse as a result of legalizing marijuana. The statute, as written, proposes those convicted of selling marijuana to a minor would incur a civil fine; however, it would be much lower than the fine issued for selling alcohol to a minor. As a result, officials believe the lessor punishment would contribute to an increase in the underage use of marijuana, as well as an increase the number of marijuana dealers. Opponents also pointed to Colorado’s increased drug crime rates, and cautioned that the loss of one substance on the black market can lead to criminal investment in a different drug market. They also predicted a potential rise in drug sales in neighboring states that have not legalized marijuana.

Additionally, if Illinois were to implement Senate Bill 316, cannabis still remains a controlled substance under federal law, in which case, operations involving the taxation and regulation of cannabis could be shut down by the federal government at any point.

Senate Bill 316 is in the Senate Assignments Committee and potentially up for review during the 2018 Spring Legislative Session.

Dave Syverson

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