Lawmakers return to Springfield with some new ideas, but the unfinished business of 2015 will likely overshadow other topics in the second year of the legislative session.
For statehouse insiders, the start of a new legislative session can have a “back-to-school” feeling: a fresh start, with new lessons to learn and tests to tackle, emptied hallways once again fill with the sounds of shuffling feet and of acquaintances catching up after prolonged break.
Except this year, there was no break. There will be no fresh start.
After lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner failed to agree on a budget, the legislature has convened at least once each month since May, when the General Assembly was supposed to have adjourned and been finished with its regular business. Those sessions did little to bring about a comprehensive resolution, meaning that when Illinois rang in the New Year, it entered its seventh month without a fiscal plan in place.
There’s no indication that Rauner or the Democrats who control the General Assembly are ready to yield in their stances on workers’ compensation, the prevailing wage, the civil lawsuit system, term limits and legislative redistricting — all elements of the “Turnaround” agenda Rauner has laid out as requsite before he’ll focus on the state’s immediate balance sheet or discuss revenue.
Which is to say, the budget stalemate and the gridlock that’s led to it will carry into and dominate the 2016 session.
“This is extra ordinary. We have never seen anything like this. We have certainly had death matches and death stares between the legislature and … previous governors, but nothing of this magnitude,” says Kim Maisch, a former Republican legislative staffer who has lobbied for the National Federation of Independent Businesses’ Illinois arm for nearly two decades now. “And so I think that 2016, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a whole lot different.”
A pair of major factors separate this year from last, however.
For one, the longer Illinois continues down this path, the pressure for a deal is apt to intensify as ramifications compound. The state has largely managed to muddle through the historic budget situation because of what Rauner’s budget director Tim Nuding calls the three Cs: continuing appropriations, consent decrees and court orders. Together, they ensure that state employees haven’t missed a paycheck, Illinois is making good on its debt service, and Medicaid, child welfare and other human service payments have continued. Lawmakers and the governor also approved money for schools early on and subsequently for needs like 911 call centers and Lottery payouts. The spending trigged by those budget bills and the three Cs has Illinois steadily racking up a deficit, increasing the chances that the state’s credit rating will further tumble. Already the impasse caused Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation standing to take a hit.
Areas not covered by a court order, decree or state law are becoming more desperate as time goes on. Public universities and community colleges haven’t seen any state cash since June. Anecdotal stories of professors leaving the state for better-paying, more secure positions elsewhere could amplify, as there’s speculation schools without strong foundations could have trouble keeping classrooms open as soon as spring semester.
The other variance is that 2016 is an election year, which could affect political decisions in any number of ways. The prospect of incumbent lawmakers having to ask for voters’ support after a time of clear dysfunction in Springfield could be an impetus for action. Conversely, politicians tend to steer clear of controversial decisions the closer they are to Election Day. Especially in today’s hyper-political milieu, lawmakers may avoid topics like taxes, pensions and items on Rauner’s agenda until after the March primary, or even November’s general election. Already, a glance at the legislative calendar indicates this could be the case. Speaker Michael Madigan canceled the first couple days of House session. The Senate only met for one day this week. Neither chamber will return until January 27, when Rauner is scheduled to layout his updated agenda in his second State of the State address. Thereafter, the legislative calendar remains spare – especially for the House – until April.
That’s not to say nothing will be accomplished in the 2016 legislative session.
If Rauner is to get his term limits constitutional amendment, or advocates of moving the state to a progressive tax structure, are to get their way, this could be the time. Senate President John Cullerton had wanted all debate on constitutional amendments put off until this, second half of the two-year legislative session.
Legislation is pending that would make way for automatic voter registration. Sen. Kim Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, hasn’t ceased advocating for a hike in the minimum wage. Exelon has lifted its doomsday warnings that it will close Illinois nuclear plants, but only temporarily. The Chicago-based corporation could resume its push for legislative intervention, as renewable energy activists likewise push for updated standards. Republican Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington wants to free manufacturers from having to pay income taxes.
Following Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s finding that daily fantasy sports qualify as gambling, regulation of the popular activity is in play this legislative season. Rauner's criminal justice commission has backing from Republicans and Democrats alike, as its work pushes forward. Education activists are hopeful for action on the funding of schools, police shootings in Chicago have pushed law enforcement accountability to the forefront, a new report aims to harness Illinois’ multitude of local governments and other new points of advocacy are also bound to spring forth in 2016.
“Illinois is the worst state in America for funding our schools. We’re number 50. We’re the lowest state for supporting schools from the state government. And I want to improve that,” Rauner told a classroom of Chicago Public Schools high school students dually enrolled in DeVry University’s Advantage Academy, just before Christmas.
It remains unclear how exactly Rauner plans to do so. Despite often saying he wants Illinois to send more money to schools, without a tax hike, Illinois’ surging deficit makes that implausible. For many education advocates, the emphasis is on how Illinois distributes state aid to schools. “The only way we’re going to achieve [a healthy system of public education] as a state is if we have more equitable funding among our school districts,” says Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill. “That calls for wholesale reform. And that’s a tough task. That’s a tough question to ask of our elected officials. But it’s one that I believe needs to be asked, and needs to be answered.”
Manar is the sponsor of legislation that has been described as a “Robin Hood” model. His plan would divert money the state sends to wealthier districts, that because of local property taxes can spend upwards of $30,000 per student, to districts that, even when property tax rates are high, can only spend about $6,500 on a student.
Manar admits that it’s controversial but says the groundwork is done, and that “the governor has a leadership opportunity, to say: You know what? Let’s get people around the table. Let’s get this job done once and for all, and let’s move forward in a positive way, to bridge that divide that exists all over the state today.”
There are early signs of nips and tucks of fund reallocation. The Illinois State Board of Education in early January voted to pump up the general state aid fund, using dollars that had been set aside for special education, and to then use that infusion to send more money to poor districts.
Rauner, however, has been wary of taking this approach too far. “I don't support taking money from some school districts and giving it to others. What I do support is raising overall state support for public education,” the governor said in August, without any indication of where the additional funds would come from, save for improved revenues should there be an uptick in the state’s economy under his leadership.
Rauner has promised to roll out a specific education agenda early this year.
“Here in January, February, we’re going to be rolling out a very comprehensive education reform, education improvement plan,” the governor said during his December DeVry classroom tour. “One of the things our team has been doing, I’ve been doing is, traveling the state this year, visiting different schools, with different models. Palatine schools have a model where they’re working with a local community college. Rockford does that, Danville. We’re learning about what they do, what’s working, what’s not working so well, trying to get the best ideas. And then we’re going to be rolling out our plans here in the very near future.”
Rauner continually hinges the state’s ability to fund schools on passage of his stalled pro-business proposals. One can expect that his immediate plan may put less an emphasis on overhauling the education funding formula, and more of a focus on improving pathways to career readiness, on eliminating so-called unfunded mandates on schools, or even on charter schools and other options.
“The Turnaround Agenda is a requirement for us to be able to make the structural changes and improve the overall educational system for our scholars,” Rauner’s Secretary of Education, Beth Purvis, said recently. “I don’t think that we’re ready yet to talk about what the right plan is for educational funding yet.”
Like Manar, Robin Steans, who recently left her position as director of the education advocacy organization Advance Illinois, says the state needs to put its attention toward a new funding formula that has dollars following student need.
Similar calls for action have been made since the late ’90s. Whether 2016 is the year is inextricably linked to the state’s largest schools system: Chicago Public Schools. Unlike other public school districts, the state does not pick up the employers’ share of CPS teachers’ pensions. Decrying the anomaly as unfair, CPS’s budget relies on a $500 million bailout from the state – or else, layoffs loom. That potential outcome has Chicago Teachers Union members prepared to strike. “One way or another, we have to figure out how to get them on stable footing not only this year, but for the out years,” Steans says. She says that will require “some hard medicine here in Chicago,” along with help from the state.
“Something really does have to give,” Steans says.
Illinois’ budget stalemate could make it even more difficult than usual for legislators to agree to help Chicago. Alternatively, a CPS crisis could force Rauner and the Madigan and Cullerton, who both hail from the city, to compromise.
Rauner in August offered to send $200 million from the state to CPS, but only if it’s paired with a property tax freeze and a rollback of collective bargaining requirements on the local level, something that’s staunchly opposed by Democrats. Rauner’s claims that prevailing wage and other union-weakening measures will help to improve education. Madigan and Cullerton quickly rebuffed the idea.
“If the circumstances, and then the prospect, of the largest district, that’s educating over 300,00 students not being able to make it through second semester … if that’s not enough to trigger people to reach a solution, I’m not sure what is,” Steans says. “I think the answers are known. I think that answers are out there. I don’t think they’re necessarily easy, but I think they’re known and I think they’re doable. … It’s just going to require some political leadership and some political will. We’ve got some very real things at stake with very real timelines.”
Beyond school funding, overarching changes are afoot in education this year, including the continued implementation of new learning standards, such as Common Core. And a decision has to come on how Illinois will use the flexibility states have been given in the new incarnation of what was No Child Left Behind, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
That at some point Rauner will push for an expansion of charter schools, or for vouchers or scholarships that will enable children to leave behind their assigned public school, seems inevitable given his campaign promises. And there is also his private support for charter schools, including one in the Noble network named in his honor, and Illinois’ successful application for a five-year, $42 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support the growth of public school options, like charters.
The release of a silent video, only fifteen seconds long, and grainy, has resurrected a debate over police accountability that Illinois lawmakers may otherwise have believed settled.
One of the more heralded, bipartisan accomplishments of 2015 was the passage of a seemingly synoptic law, which includes a ban on chokeholds, new officer training requirements and standards for the use of police dash cameras and body cameras. It also calls for the creation of a database of officers fired for misconduct.
“I’m personally proud of what we were able to achieve by way of protocol, enhanced training, a database of rogue cops,” says Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, adding, “There’s more work to be done yet.”
Raoul says that was always the case, even in the spring after negotiations on the current law came to an end. But he says that 15-second video of a white Chicago police office shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times, made public more than a year after the shooting, means “circumstances have clearly changed, and become a whole lot more local in terms of the public focus.”
To that end, several bills have been introduced that would tinker with and expand on the law passed last year. Under that law, police are not required to have cameras — the law merely sets standards for taping and storing footage when they are used. It also increased fees on traffic citations to create a fund police departments can draw on to purchase the technology.
Recently introduced legislation, Senate Bill 2207, from Chicago Democratic Sen. Emil Jones, III would require Chicago police officers to use body cameras by 2017. Raoul says his goal is to make these cameras mandatory “in the not too far off future,” but he’s not pressing for it yet. “I’m mindful we don’t have a budget yet. We are in debt, and you have to be cautious about mandating things unless you know exactly how you’re going to pay for them,” he says.
Raoul’s focus thus far is on licensing police, something other states do. “In the state of Illinois we license a vast majority of professions. We even license barbers, hairdressers. And they have their licenses revoked or suspended. However those who walk around with deadly force are not licensed.”
Raoul, a lawyer, says it would be similar to how a wronged citizen could bypass his employer and try to have him disbarred. His plan would establish a body to hear complaints about officers, and when warranted mete out discipline, including the revocation of their licenses. The concept is, by law, something a newly formed commission on police professionalism is to discuss. Fraternal Order of Police appointees are part of that commission, and the FOP has said it will carefully watch those deliberations.
The public would have better access to footage of police-involved shootings, under legislation introduced by Rep. Art Turner Jr., a Chicago Democrat. In a sense, Turner’s House Bill 4355 would flip the burden, so that videos of officers firing their guns or incidents that result in a citizen’s death are presumed accessible. Departments wanting to keep such videos from the public would need to go to a court to obtain an exemption from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
It’s clear that the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, of which Raoul, Jones and Turner are all members, will make police reform a focal point of the coming session. Their initiatives thus far include HB 4358, introduced by Chicago Democratic Rep. Marcus Evans. It would require state, municipal and university police forces to develop strategies “for the use of nonlethal force on a person suspected of committing or having committed a criminal offense or resisting arrest.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already said that his city’s police will now be required to carry Tasers, but Chicago Democratic Sen. Mattie Hunter has raised the prospect of requiring it by law, and possibly expanding that to other municipalities.
Another piece of legislation introduced for 2016 would have no effect on police duties, but it is worthy of mention as it was directly spurred by fallout from the McDonald shooting. Chicago Democratic Rep. LaShawn Ford has filed legislation to allow for the recall of Chicago’s mayor. It’s one of several measures before the General Assembly that would allow voters to kick out politicians before their terms are over. Republican Rep. Mark Batinick of Plainfield has filed a constitutional amendment that would apply to all statewide officials, legislators and all levels of elected government. Democratic Sen. Napoleon Harris of Harvey held a press conference to announce he was introducing something similar.
Despite the feuding that was a hallmark of 2015, lawmakers from both parties came together to approve a package intended to prevent more people from falling victim to heroin abuse, and to help save the lives of addicts who overdose on the drug. Legislators will no doubt watch to see how those changes fare.
Likewise, observers are keeping a close eye on the state’s medical cannabis program. Illinois has collected just over $100,000 in taxes from the program on $1.7 million in sales. Customers were finally able to purchase the drug in November after a slow rollout. Authority for the pilot project runs out in 2018, making sponsor Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, uneasy.
Yet, Lang says he does not expect to ask for an extension this year. He did last year, but Rauner vetoed it. Rauner has likewise rejected attempts to add to the list of illnesses that could qualify a patient.
Lang says if he thinks there is enough support to override a veto from the governor, he would try again. But without a critical mass, he “will allow this year to go by.” He says the program needs time to prove its worth, so next year he can circle back with any tweaks, or attempts to prolong it. “I think we have an opportunity to make something out of this program.”
As Brian Mackey recently reported for Illinois Issues, Rauner will be hard-pressed to reach his goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent within the next decade by solely focusing on sentences for drug crimes. Nonetheless, Rep. Kelly Cassidy’s proposal to “decriminalize” marijuana would dovetail with that mission.
It’s Cassidy’s second try. She’d previously ushered a measure that would have levied fines against people caught with small amounts of marijuana rather than sending them to jail, but Rauner used his veto pen to change it. He wanted to lower from 15 grams to 10 grams the amount of marijuana that would not be subject to criminal penalties. Rauner also wanted higher fines. At the time, Cassidy rejected those amendments and didn’t attempt to call a vote to accept them. Now, she’s back with HB 4357, which she says mirrors the language Rauner had wanted — a change which is apt to help it succeed.
“This is critically important,” Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, says. “There are well over 100 local ordinances with differing factors for amounts that can be possessed, fines and the process by which the tickets are processed. These ordinances vary widely, and creates a confusing array of laws and ordinances — a patchwork — that essentially means that where you live and what you look like will determine whether you pay a simple ticket and move on with your life, or go to jail and spend the rest of your life carrying that consequence with you.”
While legislators continue to push their individual agendas, and the problems associated with having no budget, persist, Rauner and Republicans appear united in their commitment to advancing his Turnaround Agenda.
“Illinois is worth fighting for, and the key to change is persistence,” Rauner said in an interview with Illinois Public Radio on the one-year anniversary of his taking office. “Democracy is not designed to change quickly. Democracy doesn’t … uh, doesn’t allow for rapid, large change. And I know that … big change takes time. But what’s clear is we need big change. We can’t just nibble around the edges.”
Madigan takes the brunt of Rauner’s blame for fighting the governor’s vision of change. Yet he continually insists that he's compromised with Rauner — for example, with a willingness to move on a pilot basis to a partially privatized Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Cullerton puts it this way: “I do know that we’ve offered to negotiate in the areas of workers comp, in the areas of collective bargaining. We’re willing to compromise. But the demands that [Rauner and his fellow Republicans] make are so outsized compared to the downgrading of the state’s rating, the dramatic increase in our debt, it’s disproportionate.”
It’s not just on the budget and dealing with Rauner’s “wish-list” that will only be resolved if the governor and legislative leaders are able to work together in a bipartisan fashion, says the top Senate Republican, Christine Radogno, who recently told an audience at Chicago’s City Club: “There are a lot of issues that are going to require very delicate negotiations, including school funding reform, which we desperately needed in this state. Very, very difficult issue to undertake. We’re going to need to be looking at further reforms to Medicaid. The criminal justice reforms are very important and difficult to find the right balance. But all of those are things that you need statesmen on.”
At the same time, Democrats continue to see Rauner's wish list as an assault on their party, and on labor. As if to exacerbate the divide, there are early signs that negotiations between Rauner and AFSCME, which represents 36,000 state workers, are breaking down as the two sides attempt to agree on a new contract. Though it’s never happened before in the 40 years Illinois has had collective bargaining for its state employees, it’s not unimaginable to consider that talks will devolve to the point that an impasse is reached and workers strike.
Matters in Springfield could come to a head, should CPS make good on its layoff threats, or should universities shut down for lack of state funding.
“You know, the state has got to get [its] act together,” says public affairs consultant Thom Serafin.
Political observers said the same in 2015.
When in 2016 Illinois will “get its act together,” or even if this will be the year, remains to be seen. What is certain so far in this new year is that the state deficit has grown, providers’ worries about the future have become all the more desperate and election day is drawing nearer.