The Truth of the Matter

road-sign-464641_1280.jpg“What is truth?” It’s a question as old as western civilization. But with each passing day, it feels like lies and “spin” are winning in the public arena over truth.

For instance, there’s a new movie in the theaters with the title, “Truth.” Such a title would be fine, except that this alleged “real-life story” was definitively proven to be false. The topic of that particular movie is the CBS 60 Minutes investigative report in 2004 which attacked George W. Bush’s military service. Independent investigations found the story to be fabricated, to the extent that this false report even cost larger-than-life anchor Dan Rather his job.

In our state politics, it’s getting even harder to recognize the truth. Some editorial pages covering Illinois’ budget stalemate talk about how terrible House Speaker Mike Madigan is, while others complain about how unreasonable Governor Bruce Rauner is. And, if you get your news from AFSCME, the primary state worker union, you’re getting regular emails telling you how Gov. Rauner is allegedly trying to put government workers out of house and home.

Even former Gov. Jim Edgar recently claimed that Gov. Rauner was holding the budget “hostage” by pushing for term limits, property tax relief, worker’s compensation reforms, and other items that would invigorate Illinois’ economic climate. Gov. Edgar urged that Gov. Rauner focus on what’s “doable.” That sort of talk sounds reasonable. However, the reality is that our elected officials have been “doing what’s doable” for decades. That sort of get-along, go-along government is the primary reason our state is in such a mess today. 

As painful as it may be to admit, both parties helped sow the seeds of this problem. During Gov. Edgar’s administration, a “pension ramp” was adopted, which meant low payments to pensions in the then-near term (the 1990s and 2000s), with huge payments later (in the 2010s, 2020s, and beyond). By putting less money to pensions back then, the politicians had lots more money to spend on their pet projects and special interests. At this point today, most of those politicians are retired and receiving generous pensions, at your expense.

Well, Gov. Rauner wasn’t the governor in the 1990s or 2000s. Speaker Madigan was in place through the whole thing. Madigan negotiated that pension ramp and spent the excess money. Tough decisions on pension reform should have been made back in the 1990s, but the principle of “doing what’s doable” instead resulted in doing whatever Speaker Mike Madigan wanted. 

When you read the news about the budget impasse, keep in mind that many of these supposed “non-budget” reforms are actually necessary to balance the budget. After decades of waste and abuse in Illinois government, it makes sense that substantial reforms would be required. For instance, the Governor has proposed reducing the state funds that are sent to municipalities, but he’s done so while also proposing to roll back state mandates that make local government too expensive. In this instance, cost savings from taking away those mandates has the potential to even out the reduced fund transfers from the state. That way, there’s no loss of services at the local level.

We started with a question about truth. Truth isn’t in the news reports and the prepared statements taken at face value. Truth in politics instead is found by following the money and the personal and special interests of the players. With a bit of work, we can see that truth with clear vision and hold our elected officials to account.


Polls Show Voters Frustrated with Status Quo

Feedback_photo.jpgTo say that folks are angry and frustrated with politics right now would be an understatement. In fact, it seems that the entire country is fed up with politicians and the political establishment. You can see it in the rise of “outsider” candidates in the presidential primaries. From Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, majorities of Americans want a change from the status quo—and they don't care how outrageous the statements or positions of a particular candidate may be, as long as they will upend the established order.

Here in Illinois, we are no strangers to anger and frustration at the political process. I recently gave a talk to a bipartisan group at the Beacon Hill senior community in Lombard. We talked about the lack of an Illinois budget, about House Speaker Michael Madigan, and about Governor Bruce Rauner.

While folks were almost unanimous in their dislike of Speaker Madigan, there were divisions on Governor Rauner. To that end, I wanted to see what the folks at Beacon Hill thought of recent poll results I’d seen relating to the Governor. The poll stated that the Governor’s approval rating is around 45 percent of Illinoisans, and his disapproval rating is around 40 percent. (Normally, an incumbent with an approval rate below 50 percent is considered “in danger.”)

However, that poll also had tested another question—whether folks agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Bruce Rauner is trying to shake things up in Springfield, but the career politicians are standing in his way.” The poll results were 71 percent yes to just 21 percent no.

I asked the seniors at Beacon Hill whether they agreed with that statement or not. Nearly every head in the room nodded in approval. In fact, not a single person in that room full of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents disagreed.

To me, that result speaks louder than the standard approval/disapproval numbers that pundits watch. In this environment of anger and frustration, the public will support an authentic elected leader every time against a status quo politician.

We’ve seen examples locally, too, most recently with the housecleaning at College of DuPage, where the voters chose all new leaders for that school board, even though all of those candidates had little or no prior elected experience.

As we enter day 106 of our Illinois budget impasse and government “shutdown,” the lines are clearly drawn between reform and “the way it’s always been.” But, unlike previous years, the people of this State have had enough—they’re sick and tired of the same old, same old.

That’s why I tell folks that I’m more hopeful today about the future of this State than I’ve been in decades. We all know that our elected officials failed us, by not dealing with our structural financial issues of debt, pensions, health care, and the like, many years ago. But, the upside is that fight for the heart and soul of Illinois is raging, right here, right now.

 

Not only is that debate finally happening, but it’s happening under the bright spotlight of public scrutiny.

I am confident that, at the end of this battle over budget and reform, the people of Illinois will know exactly where their political leaders stand. My great hope is, at that point, the people of this State, through their sacred right to vote, will then act accordingly.


Rep. Breen Files Legislation to Waive Late Fees on Vehicle Registration Renewals

IL_License_Plate.gifAs the effects of Illinois’ budget impasse begin to impact vehicle owners, State Representative Peter Breen (R-Lombard) filed legislation today to protect them from late fees that could result from the Secretary of State’s recent decision to suspend the mailing of reminders for vehicle registration renewals. Current Illinois law does not allow the Secretary of State to legally waive these late fees.

“The suspension of this important service is the latest fallout from the lack of an approved Fiscal Year 2016 budget in Illinois,” said Breen. “Secretary of State Jesse White has made a decision that will allow the functions of his office to continue for a few more months, and I respect his decision. However, motorists rely on those notices and should not be penalized for the legislature’s inability to get a budget approved.”

HB4306 would amend the Illinois Vehicle Code by prohibiting the Secretary of State from imposing a delinquent registration renewal fee when the registered owner of the vehicle has not been provided with either a postage mail or an emailed notice of the date the registration expires. The bill also provides that reminder notices will state that a $20 delinquent fee may be imposed if a vehicle owner does not renew the registration within one month of the expiration.

When making the announcement about suspending the mailings, Secretary White encouraged vehicle owners to utilize a website link to sign up for an email reminder that a vehicle registration is about to expire.  “While I believe many people will take advantage of the email notification alternative, I worry about seniors and others who do not have routine access to computers and email,” said Breen. “People who don’t use email are going to fall through the cracks and face unfair fees through no fault of their own. HB4306 would provide protective measures during this unprecedented time in Illinois history.” Breen is hoping his bill will be debated and voted upon during the upcoming veto session.

To sign up for email reminders, go to www.cyberdriveillinois.com. For those without email or internet access, you can renew either in person at your local Secretary of State office or through the mail. For both options, you need to identify your pin number, which is on your registration card. If mailing, you will need to include your license plate type and number and your renewal check or money order, and mail to Secretary of State, Vehicle Services Department, 501 S. 2nd St, Room 011, Springfield, IL. 62756. The cost of the fee is the same as last year.


Pope Francis & the State of Illinois

Pope_blessing-of-children-604358_1280.jpgThis past week, Pope Francis captured the attention of our nation. His visit brought tears to the eyes of otherwise-cynical TV commentators. The Speaker of the U.S. House, John Boehner, even decided to step down in the wake of the first-ever address by the Roman Pontiff to Congress. We haven’t seen a papal reception like this since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.

In the wall-to-wall TV coverage of Pope Francis, the reporters discussed his speeches in detail, which covered a range of subjects, from the environment to religious liberty, from immigration to the protection of life. But the Pope didn’t lay out a political program – what he shared with our nation is a set of guiding principles. While we are deluged every day by various “programs,” “solutions,” and “four-point plans,” we don’t hear a lot of talk about principles in our political discussions. Not so with the Pope.

If you look past the political commentators, you see that the real focus of the Pope’s message was on the virtues of faith, hope and love. In his final homily at Sunday Mass in Philadelphia, Pope Francis summed it up in his words on the family. What touched me was when he talked about the little ways we show love in our family. He spoke of how these gestures of love begin in the family and radiate out into the world and those we encounter:

“How are we trying to live this way in our homes, in our societies? What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? We cannot answer these questions alone, by ourselves. It is the Spirit who challenges us to respond as part of the great human family. Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions.”

These words can be applied to many different scenarios and issues – to what happens in your home and mine. How do we treat each other? Are we truly doing unto others as we would have them do unto us? The Golden Rule is simple, but certainly not easy to follow!

Despite the media reports, Pope Francis is not preaching a different Gospel than that preached by Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II. For instance, Pope John Paul II regularly spoke of “solidarity” and the common bonds of fraternity and responsibility between all peoples.

Looking specifically at Pope Francis’ words, I ask myself how the Illinois General Assembly is doing. What kind of state are we leaving for our children? On the one hand, are we truly caring for the most vulnerable when our funding for the developmentally disabled is the worst in the country? Yet we rack up debt because we refuse measures like pension reform – and refuse to even discuss how to pay for government pensions. Is it right to put off paying for these obligations and instead force our children and grandchildren to pay for them?

The principles that Pope Francis has shared are timeless, and if we can agree on the principles, they can guide our consideration of specific policies to improve our common life together. We can look critically at how our government should spend the taxpayer dollars entrusted to it. We can carefully review our laws and legal structures to cut waste and abuse. We can ask whether government policies promote or hurt the family. Then together, we can truly make our state a bit more faithful, a bit more hopeful, and a bit more loving.


Status Quo

worker-659884_1280.jpgMy brother-in-law, who lives in our district, is starting his career working in manufacturing, after serving almost a decade in the military. Manufacturing is universally acknowledged as one of the keys to a stable healthy economy. And Illinois has traditionally been the manufacturing hub of the Midwest. 

Well, I just saw a statistic that turned my head: for every 3 manufacturing jobs in Illinois, there are 4 state and local government jobs. That’s according to the June 2015 survey from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which identified 746,700 state and local government workers, compared to 574,200 manufacturing workers.

What happened?

Manufacturing companies are leaving for greener pastures, in nearby states like Wisconsin and Indiana. Some leave because the laws and regulations are too complicated and obtrusive. Some leave because their property taxes and other taxes are higher than our neighbors. In business, you can either increase your revenue—the number of products sold and the amount you sell them for—or you can decrease your costs to produce and deliver the product—that’s where all the property taxes, income taxes, corporate taxes, fees, lawsuit costs, and state and local regulation costs combine to impact the profit margin. Without profits, you can’t hire folks. Without profits, your business will soon enough go under. 

When our manufacturing businesses leave, they take a range of jobs. There are the entry level positions, like the one my brother-in-law and many other young people need to get their start in manufacturing. Then there are those mid-level skilled positions, the types that allow folks to buy homes, support families, and set down deep roots in their communities. And there are also the management and ownership positions to aspire to, for those who have the aptitude and willingness to work hard enough to get into them. Sometimes the management positions become jumping off points for folks to become owners of the particular business—or to go and start their own businesses. 

All of this is why losing a business means a lot more than just a fluctuation in some economic numbers. When an Illinois business moves or closes, it’s like a small community scattering or vanishing. 

Some in Springfield don’t agree with this assessment. They advocate for the status quo: the status quo that got them elected, the status quo that often provides them additional personal profit. For them, it’s about “getting theirs.” These are the legislators who refuse reform and instead just demand more and more money for government—usually at the expense of folks in DuPage and the collar counties. 

Well, we’re tired of paying for their status quo. We’re tired of seeing our neighbors forced out of Illinois because of job loss. We’re tired of kids not being able to find jobs here. We’re tired of being the laughingstock of the country. 

The only thing standing in the way of an Illinois turnaround is the status quo in Springfield. 

But for the first time in over a decade, the fight is on to upend that status quo. The fight is on to reform government at every level - to change our regulations, to meet the needs of innovative and modern businesses, and to finally reform our broken property tax system. 

You’re now seeing the chinks in the armor. Bad bills are being vetoed by the governor—and the status quo legislators are learning that they can’t override the vetoes. In the recent past, these legislators got whatever they wanted, as long as they could cut the right deal with the right people. No more.

As you watch the news coverage of what’s happening in the state capital, watch for these victories, the times where the political establishment can’t get its way. Each time that happens, we’re one step closer to getting the reform we need in Illinois. We’re one step closer to becoming a state where my brother-in-law and those like him can find good-paying jobs, raise healthy and happy families, and build strong communities.


Rep. Breen Stands Up for Taxpayers on SB 1229


The Nuts and Bolts of Veto Session

bolt-87524_1280.jpgToday is one of the most important days in the legislative session: the day the House takes up the bulk of the vetoes issued by the governor. In the past, we called this the “veto session.” (Because the General Assembly didn’t balance the budget by May 31 as required, the regular session never ended.)

So far this year, the governor has signed almost 500 bills into law, while issuing vetoes for 63 bills. Governor Rauner’s vetoes cover bills addressing everything from heroin addiction policy, to how villages are formed, to whether schools can employ felons.

The governor has a few options when a bill hits his desk: sign it into law, veto it entirely, or recommend changes to the law through the use of an “amendatory veto.” For spending bills, he can also reduce or eliminate individual spending lines. Governor Rauner has issued total vetoes to 42 bills, amendatory vetoes to 20 bills, and a line item veto to 1 bill.

To override his veto, a supermajority of 71 members of the House must support the override, along with 36 senators. To agree to changes the governor recommends in an amendatory veto, just a simple majority of House and Senate members are needed. The Democrats have 71 members in the House and 39 in the Senate, so in theory, they can override any veto they’d like.

The House or Senate—wherever the bill started out originally—has 15 days to take action on a veto, so the clock is now ticking on the majority of the non-spending bills the governor vetoed. (Several months ago, the governor vetoed the spending bills, because they spent $4 billion more than the $32 billion we will take in during this fiscal year.)

The amendatory veto is a unique feature of the Illinois Constitution, and it is a good one. The legislative process in Springfield often moves at breakneck speed, and language occasionally finds its way into a bill that shouldn’t be in there. Sometimes the language is unclear or would cause unintended consequences. Sometimes the language was added to secure extra votes for the measure. And other times the language is just bad for the people of the state, whether intentionally benefitting a special interest or unintentionally because of oversight.

The debate will be vigorous on these vetoed measures. In the media, the governor has been accused of every terrible thing you can imagine because of his 63 vetoes. However, when you read through the governor’s veto messages, they show a high level of care and thought about the possible effect of each of the bills.

If a bill can be fixed, Governor Rauner has proposed and explained changes through an amendatory veto. For a bill that can’t be fixed, the governor has written a considered analysis through a total veto why that particular bill would be against what’s best for the people of Illinois. If you’re interested in a specific bill, you can go online to ilga.gov and read the governor’s veto message for yourself. (If you prefer not to go online, go ahead and call my office, and we’ll send you hard copies of veto messages.)

When you watch the news coverage of these vetoes over the next few weeks, ignore the heated rhetoric, look for the substance, and above all “follow the money.” Those most vigorously opposed to a particular veto may be looking to protect a financial perk for themselves, even if the bill in question would be bad for the people of the state. As we enter the third month of our government stalemate, folks still are angling for their carve-outs and special treatment.

The problem is, the only way to fix Illinois government is to return our focus to the people’s interest, and away from petty special interests. Until such a new way is adopted by the majority of the members of the General Assembly, we won’t be able to solve the financial and ethical crises facing our state.


Breen Applauds Rauner Veto of Wastewater Fee Increase Bill

drinking-water-293926_1280.pngOn Friday, Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed Senate Bill 1421, which could have resulted in fee increases for drinking water customers in DuPage County to pay for wastewater improvements downstate. The bill would have allowed private utility companies to charge drinking water customers for wastewater improvements, no matter where located and even if the customers receive wastewater services from their local municipalities and not from those private utility companies.

The bill easily passed the Illinois Senate on April 23 by a vote of 40-4-2, but Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) led a floor fight against the bill in the House, almost killing it. The bill eventually passed the House 63-50-2 on May 28, receiving just 3 more than the minimum 60-vote margin needed for passage. Breen then publicly requested that the governor veto the measure.

“Folks shouldn’t have to pay for services and improvements that don’t benefit them,” said Breen, whose 48th District includes Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Lombard, and Lisle, towns with numerous residents served by private utility Illinois American Water. “People don’t have a choice of drinking water and wastewater providers. Because of the monopoly those providers enjoy, the government carefully regulates the types of fees they can charge. This bill would have weakened these careful regulations. Governor Rauner’s veto is a victory for homeowners across the state.”

In his veto message, Governor Rauner noted that, "Whenever we permit utilities to pass on their costs to consumers, we should ensure that costs are passed to consumers who use and benefit from the particular services to the extent possible. Unfortunately, because not all consumers receive both their water and wastewater services from the same utility, Senate Bill 1421 would permit a public utility to pass on wastewater costs to consumers who do not receive wastewater services. This type of subsidy is not appropriate or necessary."

The bill now returns to the Illinois Senate, where it originated. In order to override the veto, 36 votes would be necessary in the Senate and 71 votes in the House. Breen is optimistic that the proponents of the measure will be unable to obtain the additional 8 House votes needed to reach the 71-vote margin needed for override. The sponsors of the bill are Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria).

 


Crash Diet Shutdown

scale-403585_1280.jpgThis past week, the House unanimously approved a bill that would allow the state to spend $5 billion in federal money that supports state programs. The proceedings were heated, however, because at first, Speaker Madigan and his majority caucus wouldn’t allow debate on the agreed-to “clean bill” to merely spend the federal dollars available to Illinois. Instead, they tacked on over $1 billion in state spending to the measure—at the same unbalanced spending level previously vetoed by Governor Rauner. Only after the bill with the extra spending failed did Speaker Madigan and the majority allow a vote on the “clean bill,” to spend just the federal dollars, which passed easily. The Senate is expected to approve the measure this week, and the Governor has indicated that he will sign it as soon as it reaches his desk.

The Illinois state government has now been “shut down” for over a month and a half. Even so, some estimate that as much as 90% of state government is continuing, because of various court orders—requiring certain spending on Medicaid, foster children, the disabled, etc.—and pre-authorized spending—such as debt payments and pension payments. This way of operating means that a number of programs are entirely stopped, some are partially stopped, while others are running along on “autopilot,” without any assessment of the relative importance of each program or the amounts of money that are truly needed to deliver the benefits of each program. Yes, the state isn’t overspending right now, but this way of “budgeting” is like going on a crash diet: it wreaks havoc on your body and, as soon as the diet ends, you’re right back to eating too much.

With so much spending continuing as usual, there is less pressure on political actors to end the shutdown, whether from state government workers, the disadvantaged, or the disabled. Generally, state legislators’ offices aren’t being deluged with complaint calls. Without pressure, there is greatly reduced impetus to compromise, so we trudge along, week after week, with little or no progress on budget negotiations.

Instead, Speaker Madigan and his majority have scheduled at least 10 votes on fake property tax reform—measures that could never pass the Senate or be signed into law—all so that politically vulnerable members of the House majority can claim, in their next elections, that they supported property tax relief. Madigan and his members are also trying to override the governor’s veto on a bill that would strip from the governor and the executive branch the ability to negotiate state worker contracts. If that bill passed, an unelected arbitrator would instead determine state worker contracts, at an estimated additional cost to state taxpayers in the billions of dollars. No other state has enacted such a draconian measure.

Our state needs real reform, and it starts with a balanced budget. People can’t find work, and businesses can’t operate, because our current taxes and regulations are oppressive. And, even if the current structure works for particular types of businesses, they have no certainty due to the political mess plaguing in our state.

The solution is to get every idea on the table, with all parties involved. Up to now, that’s not been allowed to happen in the Illinois House and Senate. Majorities of Illinoisans want government and economic reform. The members of the General Assembly owe it to the people to go on the record and either support or oppose that reform. Soon enough, we’ll all have to stand before the voters again—they deserve to know where we stand first.


The Way Forward

road-815297_640.jpgWhile the Illinois budget shutdown is center stage right now, the General Assembly has sent Governor Bruce Rauner hundreds of bills to either sign or veto. I’ve had one of the three bills for which I’m chief sponsor signed—a bill to eliminate an unnecessary unit of DuPage County government—while two more are still awaiting gubernatorial action.

As a new member of the Illinois General Assembly, I have experienced my fair share of “firsts,” but one that’s a “first” for all of us is seeing how Governor Rauner works differently than our past governors. In the past, the governor’s signing or veto was a foregone conclusion. If the bill made political sense or someone needed a favor, he signed it. If not, he vetoed it.

Governor Rauner has taken a different approach. For every bill, he has ensured that there are multiple layers of staff studying, debating, and reviewing the bills. They ask a lot of questions. For instance, will the bill help the economy to create jobs? Will the bill reduce government bureaucracy or grow it? Does the bill serve special interests or the people’s interest?

The governor himself will even participate in these sometimes vigorous debates about the merits of a particular bill, before he makes the decision to sign or veto it. You might think this would be standard practice, but it’s not. Considering the reaction I got when folks in Springfield realized that I was reading the bills—and asking specific questions about the effect of bill language—I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Some bills, however, don’t need a lot of debate before vetoing. One that has received a lot of press is the governor’s recent veto of Senate Bill 1229.  This bill is described as being related to “Interstate Medical Licensure.” However, what the bill actually does is upend the historical balance of the labor-management relationship, just for state government unions. Instead of a negotiation on fair terms between representatives of labor (the AFSCME union representatives) and representatives of “management” (our elected officials), the bill would put the terms of labor contracts in the hands of an unelected arbitrator. In other words, the taxpayers will foot the bill for the contract, even if their elected representatives—in this case, the Governor and members of the General Assembly—don’t agree to the terms of the contract.

The Governor recently negotiated an agreed contract with Teamsters union leaders, who represent several thousand state workers, so it’s not as if the Governor can’t or won’t negotiate in good faith. Governor Rauner wants fair wages and benefits for government workers, and with our state nearly bankrupt, that’s not being “anti-union” or “unreasonable.” It’s just common sense.

If this bill were to go into law, there would be nobody really looking out for the taxpayers, which is a primary reason why our state is in the fiscal mess that we’re suffering today.

The backstory is that the bill was intended as a political move by Speaker Michael Madigan and his members to generously pay back the AFSCME union leaders for their support in past (and presumably future) elections. AFSCME wants an up to 29% pay increase over 4 years, generous pension payouts, and overtime after 37.5 hours (instead of the usual 40 hours). This bill wouldn’t ensure a “level playing field,” which everyone supports. This bill would be a massive giveaway, at your and my expense!

Local editorial boards have seen through this charade, using words like “unsettling” and “flawed” to describe the bill and the process used to pass it through the House and Senate. However, Speaker Madigan and his majority caucus are expected to bring the bill back in the next couple weeks to seek to override the Governor’s veto.

As we continue into the second month of the Illinois state budget shutdown, you’re seeing two visions of government very clearly demonstrated: one way looks back and one looks forward. Whether you agree with everything the Governor has proposed or stands for, his proposed solutions for Illinois are clearly the way forward, while Speaker Madigan’s proposals are the way backward.