"Pass Illinois Budget" Now

Capitol_5.28.17.jpgRecently, some of the schools in our area put messages on their marquees to “Pass Illinois Budget.” I’m not sure whether the message was aimed at the public, in hopes they will call their legislators, or aimed at legislators themselves driving by. Either way, I saw it and certainly agree.

In fact, everyone you ask will agree that Illinois needs a budget now. I’ve been telling everyone who will listen how we’re overspending by at least half a billion dollars a month, just from court orders and consent decrees—spending ordered by judges and agreed to by the Attorney General. This has to stop.

It’s like someone who lives paycheck-to-paycheck making $32,000 per year, running up $500 per month in excess credit card spending. That person may be able to get away with overspending for a few months, but after two years, they’re facing $12,000 in credit card debt, with no clear way to pay it off. If you add six zeros to the numbers, that represents your state government. (How the judges could order this overspending, and the Attorney General agree to it, is a subject for another day.)

Despite this, the parties in Springfield are deeply divided on the budget, with the key questions being 1) whether spending should be reduced, 2) whether taxes should be increased, and 3) whether reforms should be made to reduce the cost of government and improve the business climate.

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Unfunded Mandates Continue to Burden Homeowners

house-163526_1280.jpgProperty tax bills have landed in mailboxes. Every year, without fail, the taxes increase. Yes, sometimes, you’ll see a freeze in the levy of one unit of government or another, but the total always goes up.

When you compare the median property tax burden in Lombard versus median household income, property taxes come to between 8%-10% of the average household’s take home pay. And of course, the concept of “take home pay” only applies if you have a job: for folks who are retired or unemployed, there’s no comparison. The property tax burden is just massive. 

For nearly all of us who live in the suburbs of Chicago, property taxes are the highest state taxes we pay. And we’re not a small group: roughly 5.5 million of us live in the suburbs—over 40% of the entire population of Illinois.

In Springfield, few want to grapple with the heavy burden of property taxes. People prefer debating the state income tax rate: whether it should stay at the current 3.75% or move closer to 5%. But while they’re arguing over quarter-points in the income tax rate, to support ever-expanding state spending, folks are being taxed out of their homes.

Recently, I was talking with a legislator whose district borders Wisconsin. That district has suffered dearly from the suburban property tax crisis. In fact, that legislator’s own sister, child, and neighbors, all longtime Illinoisans, have just closed sales on homes in Wisconsin. While each person had a different list of reasons to leave, the number one reason on every list was property taxes. There are similar stories in our area and across Chicagoland.

But there is some measure of hope. The governor has demanded a property tax freeze as part of recent negotiations, and it appears that, if a real vote were allowed, a majority of legislators would support a freeze. We think the votes are there, because over the past couple years, Speaker Mike Madigan has scheduled almost 20 separate House votes on bills to freeze property taxes. While most of these votes were successful, not one of the bills was actually intended to be considered by the Senate, much less reach the governor’s desk. These were “show votes,” meant to provide political cover for vulnerable representatives, all while property taxes continue to rise unabated back in their districts.

While a freeze will save homeowners from increases in the short-term, the only way to get property taxes down in the long term is significant reform to the way we deliver services locally. For instance, there are over 150 unfunded mandates from Springfield that drive up costs in our local school districts—and every mandate requires additional administrators to oversee compliance, both in our local districts and inside the state government. In fact, some of these mandates only apply to our school districts and not to the Chicago Public Schools, but there’s still heavy resistance to giving our districts the same flexibility under state law.

There are just three weeks to go until the May 31 end of this year’s legislative session. I’ll keep working for three things: 1) a realistic balanced budget, 2) pro-business and pro-job reforms, and 3) tax relief. The alternative—more deficit spending, more families and businesses leaving, and ever higher taxes—is unthinkable.

A Steep Price to Pay

Starved_Rock.jpgI hear from a lot of folks who fear for the future of our state. They read the daily reports of woe about state government, and wonder if there will be a place in Illinois for them and their children and grandchildren.

Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that, when you take the entire pension debt of all 50 state governments, Illinois’ $130 billion debt is roughly 10% of the nation’s total. And that number doesn’t include the roughly $50 billion we owe for retiree health benefits, and the tens of billions more owed to local pension plans. Even using the most rosy future investment return estimates, every household in Illinois owes about $50,000 to the state government, just to make our pension funds solvent today. 

Since the 50 states directly compete with each other—and folks can move between them at will—there is a steep price to pay for falling behind your neighbor states. We saw that price paid with the report a few weeks ago that DuPage County lost over 9,000 residents last year, and our entire state lost over 35,000 residents. That makes three straight years we’ve lost more residents than any other state in the country. Many of those leaving cite Illinois’ highest-in-the-nation property taxes, which are roughly double the median among the 50 states, along with the various other problems with Illinois government.

Realistic appropriations bills haven’t been allowed to move forward in the General Assembly, and we’ve been without a budget for almost two years. Since I was sworn in as a representative in 2015, I still haven’t had the opportunity to vote on a balanced budget. I’ve written in this space about one key reason why: the state government continues to operate 90% of its programs (at 100% funding!), because the Attorney General agreed to let judges do the spending for us, by entering consent decrees and court orders against the state. These decrees and orders force us to spend billions more than we take in.

Against that backdrop, what can we do?

First off, we have to remember that Illinois has massive natural advantages. We have Chicago, a world class city. We have a well-educated, creative, and industrious workforce. We have great transportation hubs, rich farmland, and strong manufacturing capabilities. Together, these can be a strong foundation for future growth. However, if we abuse these advantages, we can lose them, and yield them to other states that are working harder to develop their own competing strengths.

Second, we have to make sure our neighbors and friends understand the gravity of our situation. We’re in a deep hole. I’ve been using some pretty strong language to describe the situation, in hopes of painting a picture for folks that can’t be ignored. But there are still a substantial number of legislators in Springfield who believe that the problems aren’t that bad—they literally refuse to believe the statistics that people are leaving. We have to make these legislators understand that folks will flee a state with excessively high taxes and bloated and corrupt government.

Third, we have to follow the advice of President Teddy Roosevelt, who urged, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” He wasn’t a person to wallow in self-pity and despair, and neither should we. Each of us is a free citizen in the greatest nation in the history of humankind.

We each have a voice and a mission, a unique role to play in this world. We each have the power to take action to confront the problems that face us. We can inspire others to do the same. We each have the ability to work to lift Illinois up, and stop our state’s continued drifting down. If we work on this project together, then we cannot help but improve from where we are, and eventually return Illinois to its rightful place as one of the best states in the Union to live, work, and raise a family.

Burn it Down vs. Turn it Around

matches-171732_1280.jpg“Our home, our Illinois, is on fire.” Those were my opening words this past week during House floor debate of Speaker Mike Madigan’s latest “stopgap” spending bill. The bill is timed to conclude fiscal year 2017 spending, which ends this upcoming June 30. Leading Democrats have recently said they won’t allow a full balanced budget to reach Governor Rauner’s desk, so we are stuck debating partial spending bills like this one.

You see, for the past year, social service providers have been providing care to the elderly, the poor, and those who are physically and sexually abused, on the understanding that the General Assembly would enact the proper appropriations to ensure they are reimbursed for that care. However, Madigan’s latest spending bill would end this fiscal year with cuts of almost 2/3 of funding to senior meal programs, initiatives to reduce infant deaths, and domestic violence shelters. None of the bill’s supporters could explain how these programs are supposed to survive on 30% or 35% funding.

Even more broadly, this stopgap bill provided no solutions, no reforms, and no balance. No Republicans were involved in the drafting of the measure. For all these reasons, I even went on to characterize the bill as a “Burn it Down” plan.

We had a pretty heated and wide-ranging debate on the measure, but my point was a simple one: today, Illinois is faced with two paths. One path, represented by bills like this “stopgap,” does nothing to keep folks from being driven out of our state, nothing to address our crushing spending and debt problems, and nothing to provide certainty that our most vulnerable citizens will get the services they need. 

The other path is a tougher one, requiring negotiation and compromise. That other path requires us to achieve three major objectives. First, we have to immediately pay off our back bills. We owe $12 billion in the short term—the equivalent of our state’s “credit card bill”—and we’re paying 12% interest on that short-term debt. When split out among a family of four in Illinois, that debt requires an immediate payment of about $4,000 per household to pay it off.

Second, we have to do everything possible to reach a full, realistic, and balanced budget. We can’t fund every pet project at the 100% level. But we can identify our most important and necessary programs and fund those programs as much as our tax revenue will allow.

Third, we have to enact sustainable reforms to government worker pensions and benefits. Our debt for pension obligations is estimated at $130 billion, retiree health care is estimated at $50 billion, and other bonds outstanding is estimated at $31 billion. That’s a total of roughly $211 billion, which “we the people” owe in long-term debt. This adds up to about $65,000 that each family of four owes the state government, all so that the state can meet its current long-term obligations. When folks fret about the future of Illinois, this debt is the biggest reason why. We have to get those numbers down, immediately, and stop them from growing in the future.

Folks will often ask me, “how do you put up with Springfield?”

My way of refocusing each day at the Capitol is to recall specific individuals from our district and across the state. Each person in Illinois deserves better—you deserve better—than this mess of a state government. The stakes are too high to back down. We have to turn Illinois around, and quickly.

Emerging from the Dark Ages

middle-ages-735063_1280.jpgSometimes in Springfield, the truth beats any fiction you could invent. One of my bills this term seeks to fix a quirk in Illinois law that negatively impacts nonprofits and small businesses. Every nonprofit and business in Illinois must file an “annual report” with the Secretary of State. That report provides basics about the board members of the operation and includes the annual fee—it’s required to remain in good standing as a corporation.

I discovered in filing one of those reports this year that there is an electronic filing option. That was great news: instead of hand-writing the required information on a sheet of paper, cutting a check, and sending the papers in the mail, you could e-file with a credit card.

Here’s the problem: the Secretary of State’s office charges you an extra fee of $25, $50, or more for e-filing.

Because our fee statute hasn’t been rewritten in a while, the law had lumped e-filing in with “expedited services,” which allows to folks who need same-day treatment of their filing to pay an extra fee for that service. But most folks don’t need “expedited service,” especially when filing something like their annual report with the Secretary of State’s office.

My bill simply says that an e-filing will be treated like any other filing—it’s not an expedited service solely because of being conveyed electronically.

Seems easy enough, right? If anything, e-filing should cost the Secretary of State’s office less than processing all those paper forms and checks. And you eliminate issues like forgetting to include your check or the form getting lost in the mail. Not to mention avoiding the problem of someone mistyping your handwritten information into the Secretary of State’s database.

Well, in Springfield, nothing is that easy.

I got word that the Secretary of State’s office opposed my bill. The reason: money.

The staff at the Secretary of State’s office said they didn’t want to lose the extra money they are making off these fees. I’ve tried to make the case that most folks running nonprofits and small businesses are like me: when I saw the $50 fee I’d have to pay for e-filing, I went back and grabbed my pen, checkbook, and a stamp. There’s no way I was going to pay $50 extra for the privilege of e-filing.

The reality of Springfield is also that, because the Secretary of State is a popular Democrat, it’s nearly impossible to move a bill if his office is opposed. Before the committee hearing on the bill, I was having real trouble getting folks to sign on to the measure. (To her credit, Rep. Carol Sente, a Democrat from Vernon Hills, agreed to sign on as my chief cosponsor.)

Then came the committee hearing at the end of last week. I testified, and then the staff person from the Secretary of State’s office testified. All of the sudden, with both sides’ arguments laid bare, you could see the looks on the faces of the committee members change. They were not happy. Then came the questions:

“We charge people more to e-file, even though it costs us less to process?”

“Why don’t you guys get into the 21st Century?”

“If anything, shouldn’t we charge people more to file by mail, not less?”

It didn’t go well for the Secretary of State. The bill advanced on a bipartisan vote of 6-1. 

While the prospects now look good for this bill, there are plenty of other similar measures that die quietly. This is a mentality we run into every day at the Capitol. The question isn’t whether a particular fee or tax makes any sense, or whether it best serves taxpayers, nonprofits, and small businesses.

Instead, the fees and taxes are imposed because those inside the government see the fees and taxes as their money. They forget that “We the People” send that money—the product of our labor and industry—to fund a proper state government.

When you’re looking where to lay the blame for the dysfunction in Springfield, you can start with the roadblocks I ran into here. There’s way too much deference to politically powerful people and offices, and bureaucrats forget that government exists to serve taxpayers and not the other way around.

The one way I know to fight these mindsets is to shine a bright spotlight on them whenever they rear their ugly heads. As it’s said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Of Soybeans and Special Interests

soybeans-2039641_1280.jpgThe legislative session is in full swing in Springfield. The House was in session last week, while the Senate is in session this week. In the House, tempers are flaring due to lack of movement on a budget: the Democrats are blaming Governor Rauner for the budget impasse, while the Republicans are blaming Speaker Mike Madigan for refusing to hold hearings and consider reforms and spending bills.

Since budget bills aren’t being allowed for hearing, folks are moving their other bills through the typical committee and floor process. This is what I call “regular order,” where we consider bills that, while there may be differences of opinion, any differences are less about Democrats vs. Republicans and more about interest group disagreements or regional differences. If “regular order” is working, that means we’re observing a basic level of courtesy, and lines of communication are open among the representatives—lines that will have to be open, if we’re to do any serious work on a budget.

But even if the partisan divides aren’t as active on the bills moving right now, the special interests in Springfield are working overtime to protect their turf.

One recent example is a bill from Rep. Mark Batinick of Plainfield, to eliminate the state government’s “soybean ink mandate.” In his research on higher education costs in Illinois, Rep. Batinick learned that our state has a unique mandate that every agency, including all of our universities, must use soybean-based ink in all printing. About twenty years ago, the General Assembly imposed this mandate to help the young and growing soybean ink market, in hopes of helping Illinois’ soybean farmers sell more soybeans.

Today, however, the soybean ink market is well-established and is regularly used by newspapers and other more traditional printing presses. And in the two decades since the mandate was imposed, digital printing has taken off—but soybean ink is incompatible with this new technology. This means, for instance, that a university or government agency faced with a small print job that would call for digital printing instead couldn’t use that technology. Even for traditional large print jobs, there are times when soybean ink is more expensive or less appropriate. All the extra cost of mandating soybean ink comes directly out of your pocket.

This mandate means that our universities alone are paying at least $1 million more per year than they should for printing. Across the entire Illinois government, the cost would presumably be many multiples of that.

You’d figure that a bill to end the soybean ink mandate would be easy to support, especially during a time of grave fiscal crisis for our state government. But, unfortunately, you’d be wrong.

It turns out, the soybean farmers have a powerful group of lobbyists in Springfield, and they have so far successfully stalled Rep. Batinick’s bill. Again, this is not a partisan issue—representatives on both sides of the aisle are vigorously fighting against this small, simple reform. (I’ve signed on as a cosponsor of Rep. Batinick’s bill, to help him end this costly and unnecessary mandate.)

There are two lessons I would offer from this example, just one of many reform bills now pending in the General Assembly. First, the negative one: even now, in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in our state’s history, pushing even the smallest reform through the General Assembly requires a herculean effort. Second, the positive one: despite the despair so many have about Illinois and its future, folks like Rep. Batinick are in the General Assembly, willing to take on these challenges to beat back the special interest groups, so that we reach the hopeful and bright future that Illinois deserves.

As tough as things are now, that sort of optimistic and determined spirit can and must win out.

Budget Negotiations are High Stakes Game of Poker

play-593207_1280.jpgThis week brings the governor’s annual budget address. As well, the Illinois Senate is expected to continue negotiating a “grand compromise,” which would tie together spending, reforms, and revenue into one package. Every day at the Capitol, new rumors spread about the contours of possible solutions to the state budget crisis.

Folks are glad that the senators are talking and trying to work together, but the word on the House floor is that Speaker Mike Madigan has made it clear that, no matter what the Senate does, any agreement is dead-on-arrival in Madigan’s House. You see, the big fight is still Governor Bruce Rauner vs. House Speaker Michael Madigan, and the belief in the Madigan camp is that any budget compromise will be seen as a “win” for the governor. On the policy level, Rauner has said he won’t agree to tax increases without major government and business reforms, while Madigan has made it clear he wants tax and spending increases with no preconditions.

The other complicating factor is that the roughly 80 court orders and consent decrees keeping the state government operating are forcing us to spend billions of dollars more than we take in. That overspending is adding to the pile of unpaid bills being racked up every month. And just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a motion to reverse and eliminate the court order continuing wage payments to Illinois government workers. State workers have been paid under that court order for over a year and a half, but Attorney General Madigan stated she filed the motion just now to give the budget negotiations some “momentum.”

Now, one could applaud an action like this as “fiscally responsible,” and one would also typically believe in the purity of the motives of a state’s chief legal officer. The problem is, instead of filing this motion in each of the 80 courtrooms where these orders are pending—whether to end the orders or at least reduce the required payments to an affordable level—Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed in just 1 courtroom, leaving the other 79 orders and consent decrees in place. It doesn’t make sense as a financial or legal matter.

I’ve not seen any other media sources opine on this issue, but the reasoning seems simple enough to me: most state workers live in downstate districts, now represented by Republicans. Lisa Madigan’s actions make perfect political sense in that they increase pressure solely on Republican legislators, in hopes of weakening Governor Rauner’s ability to obtain reforms, while strengthening Mike Madigan’s ability to force tax and spending increases.

This is a high-stakes game of poker. The Madigan family has millions of dollars in campaign contributions at stake, from special interests and their lobbyists. Every one of those taxes and spending items being pushed by Mike Madigan has lobbyists dedicated to increasing them. However, Illinois taxpayers trying to eke out a living, and small businesses struggling to survive and grow, have only their elected officials to hold taxes and spending in line.

From my end, I’m advocating for two key items. First, we should immediately pay off our $11 billion in unpaid bills. By law, we’re forced to pay 12% interest on those bills—that means we’re flushing roughly $500 million down the toilet in short-term interest every year. There are plenty of ways to generate the necessary funds to pay down those bills, from issuing bonds to selling state assets. Second, we should immediately approve spending for the amount of money we have coming in, so that we stop all, or almost all, of the court orders and consent decrees which are causing our pile of bills to grow. Based on our best estimates, we are bringing in roughly $33 billion per year. By at least approving spending at that level, we can ensure that our social service providers and community colleges get immediate payment, of at least most of the funds they need, instead of continuing to suffer massive cuts and lengthy payment delays.

With a spending backstop in place, the legislature and governor could then take the time they need from now to the end of May to negotiate a full package of appropriate reforms, spending reductions, and revenues to move our state government and economy forward for the longer term. And, we will avoid the kind of gotcha games that are going on now, where state workers or other disfavored groups or programs get targeted in court, while unpaid bills pile up and residents and businesses are harmed even more deeply.

They Get Crystal Clocks...You Get Your Clock Cleaned

dollar-499481_1280.jpgThe governor delivered the annual “State of the State” address this past week, and he struck an optimistic and conciliatory tone in the speech. I hope folks on both sides heard his words and will take them to heart.

Unfortunately, the governor’s speech came one day after a colossal fight on the floor of the Illinois House over its “Rules,” which will govern the operation of the House for the next two years. Everything from how bills are considered to what committees will exist are in the “Rules.”

A study was done recently showing that, under Speaker Michael Madigan, our Illinois House Rules have become the most undemocratic in the country. Madigan’s Rules regularly prevent thousands of bills from being considered by the representatives, whether in committee or on the floor, with no true right of appeal. You could have 60 co-sponsors for a bill—over half the House, enough to pass the bill—but it still can’t even get a committee hearing if Madigan doesn’t bless it. Madigan’s Rules were also panned by the study, because of the total control they give him over who serves as a committee chairman—a position that comes with an immediate $10,000 raise for the representatives whom the Speaker chooses to elevate. And, Madigan has absolute power over when a particular bill is called, so we never know when measures will be brought to the floor. There have been times over the past two years where we’ve been given, literally, about 30 seconds to consider a bill and then vote on it.

Now, you’d figure that, in the wake of a study like this, there would at least be a feint at reform of the Rules. Instead, Madigan proposed even more draconian Rules (which I hadn’t thought possible) for the historic 100th General Assembly. We will go into our 200th anniversary as a state with a set of House Rules that the founders of Illinois wouldn’t recognize as fitting for a free people. You deserve better!

I wanted to give you an update after my last op ed about the re-election of Michael Madigan as our House Speaker in mid-January. I’d mentioned that one Democrat voted “present.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but just last week, the results of that vote came to light. The member was stripped of his committee chairmanship, which means an immediate pay cut of $10,000, and despite being a former federal prosecutor, he was tossed off the Judiciary-Criminal Committee, where he had previously served with distinction.

But it gets better. It turns out, after the vote, Speaker Madigan gave each Illinois Democrat Representative an exquisite crystal clock, engraved on the back with the inscription, “The Honorable Michael J. Madigan. Longest serving Speaker of a state House of Representatives in United States history.” Well, everyone got a clock but our unfortunate “present” voter, who took to Facebook to complain about the snub.

The Democrats elect the most despised political figure in the state to run the Illinois House. They vote in a set of Rules that would make Vladimir Putin blush. And the lone Democrat who voted “present” complains that he didn’t get his engraved crystal clock.

Only in Illinois!

We all know this has to stop. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s time to come together and fix this mess.

Rep. Breen Files Bill to Stop Installation of Red Light Cameras at Oak Brook Mall

Ban red camsIn response to a recent Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) decision to allow the Village of Oakbrook Terrace to place a red light camera at the entrance of Oak Brook Center Mall at 22nd Street and Route 83, State Representative Peter Breen (R-Lombard) filed legislation today that would reverse the decision and prohibit a red light camera at that intersection. House Bill 506 is chief co-sponsored by Representatives Patti Bellock (R-Hinsdale), Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park), and David Olsen (R-Downers Grove).

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Rising to the Challenge

start-1414148_1280.jpg“Michael J. Madigan” … “Michael J. Madigan” … “Michael J. Madigan”

It’s one of the most nerve-wracking moments of Inauguration Day: you’re sworn in with 117 other Representatives and, immediately thereafter—on a stage in front of thousands of people—you have to speak aloud your choice for Speaker of the House.

Despite some uncertainty about whether the Democrats would stand behind him, we heard “Michael J. Madigan” 66 times, from 66 of the 67 Democrats in the Illinois House, with 1 voting “Present.”

And so, as the historic 100th General Assembly convenes, it will mean the 17th term as Speaker for Michael J. Madigan. By the end of this term, Speaker Madigan will have ruled the Illinois House for 34 years, making him the longest-serving state house speaker in American history. Illinois turns 200 years old in 2018, and at our bicentennial, Michael Madigan will have presided over the Illinois House for roughly 1 out of every 6 years of our state’s existence.

On the Republican side of the aisle, we’ve gained 4 new seats, emerging from the super-minority for the first time since 2012. We will have a very different leadership team, with numerous members who are newer and younger than before. The Republicans are for the most part united, hopeful, and optimistic that the upcoming term will be more productive and successful than the last one. We’re looking forward to the important debates to come during these crucial next two years.

However, Michael J. Madigan is still in firm control of the Illinois House Rules, the committees, and the agenda, so any optimism on our side is tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the Illinois Senate, it was recently revealed that the leader of the Democrats, John Cullerton, has been quietly and directly negotiating with the leader of the Republicans, Christine Radogno, in hopes of working out a compromise to break the state’s budget impasse. Not so in Madigan’s House!

Against this backdrop, I occasionally wonder what Abraham Lincoln, who served in the Illinois House, would think of what has become of his House, and of his home State. What would Mr. Lincoln say if he were to stride onto the House floor next week? (I can’t imagine he would be happy!)

I’m often asked what it’s like being in Springfield. On the one hand, serving in the Illinois House is an incredible honor and privilege. There’s nothing like it. On the other hand, that same service can be just as frustrating as you would imagine it would be: we’re facing a terrible crisis of confidence, an unbalanced budget, and mounting debts, with many refusing to even acknowledge the problems.

Going into my second term as your state representative, I know we can rise to the challenge. These past two years, I saw moments of bipartisan compromise on smaller issues, and I know we can get there on the larger issues. Thank you for giving me the continued opportunity to work for you to turn our state around, and to return Illinois to its rightful place as one of the strongest, safest, and most prosperous states in the Union.