Legislative Update: November 17, 2015

Ridge Farm Veterans Memorial Dedicated
On Veterans Day I was truly honored to speak at the dedication of the Ridge Farm Veterans Memorial. The large granite memorial honors those who have served and are serving. It was great to see such a large turnout and such a great showing of community support for our local heroes. My thanks go out to all whose hands and deeds culminated in this fabulous recognition and remembrance. 

I’m shown in the photo with Charlie Dukes, WWII Veteran and POW. He was just one of many veterans with ties to Ridge Farm who attended the November 11 dedication ceremony.

Motor Fuel Tax Legislation Passes, but Madigan Puts a Hold on it
With Illinois now in the fifth month of Fiscal Year 2016 without an approved budget in place, many important appropriations have been left in limbo. HB 4305 authorizes the distribution of motor fuel tax (MFT) receipts to local governments. These funds are vitally important to municipalities and townships for local road projects and public safety. House Republicans successfully persuaded the Governor to join us in our support for providing this essential funding for MFT, 9-1-1 services and additional public safety funds.

After reaching an agreement to pass HB 4305, the legislation was overwhelmingly approved by the House on November 10. However, Speaker Madigan used his draconian House Rules to put a hold on forwarding the bill to the Senate, with Majority Leader Currie filing a motion to reconsider the vote. This parliamentary hold means MFT receipts and 9-1-1 funds will not be distributed until the Speaker removes his blockage and the bill can be passed by the Senate.

Legislative Leaders to Meet with Rauner on December 1
The Republican and Democrat Leaders of the House and Senate will sit down for the first time in months on December 1 to get budget discussions back on track. While I consider this meeting a great step toward the creation of a budget, my first thought is, “What took you so long?” I have made repeated calls in Springfield for the end of the shenanigans and have said the door keepers for the House and Senate should lock the doors and keep us in our respective chambers until a budget deal is finalized. Still, I am hopeful that this December 1 meeting will mark the beginning of the end of the budget stalemate. The meeting will take place in Governor Rauner’s Springfield office at 8:30 AM on the 1st and will include both public and closed portions.

Governor Rauner, General Assembly Reach Agreement on Reforms to Illinois’ Unemployment Insurance Law
This important statute, which will be amended by HB 1285 and/or SB 1941, covers the procedures that take place when a worker is laid off or otherwise subjected to no-fault unemployment. Many of the benefits created by the Illinois unemployment insurance (UI) statute were scheduled to sunset at the end of 2015, creating an incentive for Illinois business and labor to come to the negotiating table. Away from press scrutiny, and meeting under the guidance of a team headed by Rauner cabinet member Jeff Mays, longtime advocates for both sides described some of their concerns with current law. Relief for some of these concerns was contained in the agreed language of this week’s legislation. Governor Rauner’s announcement that an agreement had been reached was made on Monday, November 9. Key members of the General Assembly participated in the meetings on behalf of both political parties and all four caucuses.

In Illinois, most people in this position are granted the right to receive UI for up to 26 weeks in any one-year period after they are laid off. UI payments are overseen by the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which provided staff support for the agreement. Under an important provision of the agreement, the new UI law will explicitly protect the interests of employers that terminate an employee who has demonstrated grossly negligent conduct and thereby engaged self or co-workers, or damaged an employer’s property. Under the revised UI law, these individuals will not be eligible to receive UI payments. There is an appeal process that provides administrative review, upon separation, to former workers who believe they were improperly treated.

In a key facet of the agreement, recently separated workers who are also eligible for Social Security will now be eligible to both collect Social Security and receive a full Illinois UI benefit. Under current Illinois law, Social Security recipients could only receive UI half-benefits. Moving to full UI benefits will lead to an addition $25 million/year being paid to Illinois senior citizens who have suffered layoffs.

HB 1285, with the UI amendment attached, unanimously passed the Senate on November 10 and is expected to be passed by the House when it returns on December 2.

University and College Presidents Testify in Springfield
On November 10, Leaders from Illinois institutions of higher education attended a committee of the whole hearing where they outlined their concerns about the lack of a state budget and the impact that the budget impasse is having on their funding. Higher Education is one of the few areas of State spending that does not fall under the existing court orders, consent decrees or continuing appropriation measures, and as a result, our colleges and universities have not received any of their funding since July 1. In the photo above, Dr. Alice Jacobs (far left) testifies before the House of Representatives and explains the importance of State funding and the critical role that community colleges play in the economic vitality of our communities.

Governor Agrees to Compromise on Child Care Eligibility
A spokesperson for Governor Rauner issued a statement on Monday, November 9, announcing the Governor’s decision to amend his emergency rule from earlier this year which raised the eligibility threshold for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). In the statement, the Governor said, “As a result of bipartisan discussions with legislators concerning the future of the Child Care Assistance Program, the Rauner administration today plans to amend the emergency rule it filed at the beginning of the fiscal year. Under the amended rule, income eligibility will rise to 162% of the federal poverty level while current co-pays will remain intact. Other eligibility and restrictions will also be lifted pending further review and legislative consultation. Additionally, the governor's office will establish a bipartisan, bicameral task force aimed at ensuring the long-term stability of the program.”

After legislators in both parties urged Governor Rauner to compromise, the Governor acted in good faith to restore eligibility for the overwhelming majority of families receiving child care assistance. Compromise language supported by the Governor brings CCAP eligibility up to 162% of the federal poverty level (FPL), which is higher than most of Illinois’ neighboring states. This is a reasonable compromise that protects child care for the working poor, while at the same time holding the line on spending.

Even though there was an agreed compromise, House Democrats forged ahead with a veto override vote on SB 570, legislation to keep CCAP eligibility at 185% of FPL. Their vote failed to garner the required 71 votes needed, with the final vote tally recorded as 70-35-4. In my comments on the House floor prior to the vote, I pointed out the ludicrous nature of even discussing SB 570 since an agreement had been reached and a revised rule had been filed. You can watch my remarks here.

Despite Agreement on DON Score, Democrats Pursue Override
Earlier this year, Governor Rauner responded to budget shortfalls by issuing rules to raise the Determination of Need (DON) score used to establish eligibility for long-term care.

Democrats subsequently passed legislation that would return the DON score threshold to the original number of 29. Last week, Governor Rauner issued an amendatory veto of that bill and explained that while well-intentioned, HB 2482 would lock into statute a provision that would allow qualifying individuals to be eligible for both institutional and home and community-based care services, thus driving up costs and eliminating the possibility of cost efficiencies.

Last week, the Rauner administration announced that it will not be increasing the DON score used to determine eligibility for long-term care. Instead, the State will use the existing DON score of 29 to ensure Illinois’ elderly and most vulnerable citizens receive appropriate care. In spite of this compromise, Democrats brought the bill to the House floor on November 10 for an override vote. Once again, the Democrats’ move against a negotiated solution failed on a vote of 70-38-1.

Illinois Commerce Commission Approves Grain Belt Express Transmission Line
Last week, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) approved Grain Belt Express Clean Line LLC’s application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity to construct, operate and maintain a 600 kV, 4,000 MW capacity, high voltage electric transmission line.

The 780-mile Grain Belt Express Clean Line transmission line will span from Kansas to Indiana. The proposed line spans much of south-central Illinois, including right-of-way in Pike, Scott, Greene, Macoupin, Montgomery, Christian, Shelby, Cumberland, and Clark Counties. The project will provide direct access for high capacity wind generation to the electricity markets.

The ICC’s order requires that Grain Belt Clean Line secure funds to cover total project costs before construction commences, prohibits project expansion without Commission approval, and requires further Commission approval prior to recovery of any project costs from Illinois retail ratepayers through regional cost allocation. The ICC also directed Grain Belt Clean Line to take specific actions to address landowner concerns that included potential impacts from the construction of the line on irrigation operations, soil compaction and erosion, wetland areas, and timber land.

All documents related to the case, including the Commission’s Final Order, can be viewed under docket number 15-0277 via the ICC’s e-docket system at www.icc.illinois.gov.

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Reports Fall Soybean Harvest Numbers; Illinois takes #1 Position Again
The USDA reported this week that American farmers are expected to bring in a record soybean crop for 2015. The bean harvest, much of which is used for animal feed and soybean oil, is expected to total 3.98 billion bushels. More than 550 million of these bushels will have been cut and harvested in Illinois, which will once again be the nation’s #1 soybean producing state. The nation’s third-largest corn crop ever counted, 13.7 billion bushels, will further swell Midwestern grain elevators and harvest bins. At least 93% of both crops had been harvested nationwide as of this week.