Good People Can Make a Difference

board-978179_1280.jpgIn the wake of the scandal at the College of DuPage, the General Assembly demanded an independent audit of the books and practices at COD. When the College’s Board of Trustees turned over after the 2015 election, the new board members agreed to the audit. Almost a year-and-a-half later, the auditor’s 253-page report has now issued, painting a detailed picture of government bureaucrats run amok.

They ignored and flaunted relevant laws and policies put in place to protect taxpayer dollars. Over half the purchases reviewed by the auditor were made in a “no bid” manner—and even when bids were properly solicited, administrators didn’t follow the Illinois laws that ensure transparency in awarding contracts. On top of that, the former Board of Trustees didn’t regularly evaluate the college president, who has since been fired by the new board, despite policies requiring annual reviews. Nor did that former board provide proper oversight over the college’s many millions of dollars in investments of taxpayer moneys.

The audit also highlighted the excessive compensation and severance paid to the former college president by the old board, almost double that of any other community college president in Illinois.

But the real story here is how this audit even came to be, because the audit of COD had to be approved by the COD Board itself—and when that vote was taken in April 2015, it was by a bare majority, 4-3. The only reason the audit demanded by the General Assembly happened was because three new board members were elected (to join the lone reformer on the old board). These three are the reason you and I are now able to see an independent, detailed review of the various issues at the College.

You should remember the names of these three brave public servants: Deanne Mazzochi, a mom from Elmhurst and leader of the group, Frank Napolitano of Bartlett, and Charles Bernstein of Wheaton. They had nearly no elected service, but they took on the local political establishment and won the three open seats on the COD Board, in an incredible upset. And the “reward” of their victory was to take on the herculean task of cleaning up a college mired in scandal. These board members are true public servants, serving in an unpaid role as trustees to save a community gem, our beloved College of DuPage. 

I get to see the best and the worst of public officials in Springfield, and sometimes it’s disheartening: you wonder if, for the sake of turning Illinois around, there are enough good people out there, willing to serve for the public interest and not to line their own pockets. I take great inspiration from these reformers at COD, newcomers to politics who stepped forward to run for and serve during a time of crisis. While I’m singling out Deanne and her compatriots, there are folks like them at every level of Illinois government—but we need more!

You may find yourself in a place where you are able to run for office. It’s certainly not easy, nor is it always fun. Unless your definition of “fun” is knocking on the doors of thousands of complete strangers in rain, snow, sleet, and hail! But if your skills, ability, and family situation allows you that opportunity, maybe you are being called to serve. Either way, you can support honest, ethical, and thoughtful candidates for office.

When those candidates come to your door, please give them encouragement, even if you disagree with their politics. I can give you many examples in my own involvement where a kind word or a friendly face at the door propelled me onward, to continue knocking on doors and reaching a few more folks, despite the rain, snow, or freezing cold. And if you like the person and their policies, then go ahead and put up a yard sign, volunteer to help, and tell your neighbors and friends about them. By your efforts—whether supporting those who run for office or running yourself—you can help ensure that our community, our county, and our state are the kinds of places where our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can live, grow, and prosper.


Rep. Breen Receives Chicago Tribune Endorsement

Click here to read Chicago Tribune endorsement of Rep. Peter Breen.Tribune.png


Bipartisanship

meeting-1002800_1280.jpgThe Fall campaign is in full swing across the country and the State of Illinois. Some themes span both state and federal election, especially the feeling of a substantial majority of Americans that the system is “rigged.” Other issues are necessarily specific to our state, like the economic and government reforms we need to be competitive with our neighbor states. From the campaign ads, you might think that there’s no common ground or possibility of reform. But based on my private conversations with other legislators, I would instead urge that reform, though difficult, is not out of reach.

Behind the scenes, legislators from both sides of the recognize that our economic regulations and system of delivering government services are broken. This recognition was part of the reason for the Reform Working Group, which I was recently appointed to. The eight legislators of the Group—two each from the House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans—have come together to have the compromise conversations in a more structured way, in hopes of moving our state politics forward.

The issues being dealt with by the Reform Working Group are not necessarily “partisan” in the classic sense. There’s nothing partisan about recognizing that Illinois property taxes are the highest in the country or that our state’s worker’s compensation system is one of the most expensive in the country.

And there’s substantial consensus on these items. We’ve seen majorities of the legislature at various times support a property tax freeze, as long as other reforms can be had to ensure the efficient delivery of local government services.

Everyone agrees that our worker’s compensation costs are too high and are driving companies—especially manufacturers—out of Illinois. We can find compromise to rein in those costs. Our worker’s compensation system exists to care for workers who were injured on the job, but our cost for providing that system is much higher than in our neighboring states.

This is one area where, despite public posturing, there is substantial room for agreement across partisan lines. For instance, Massachusetts has a much less expensive worker’s compensation system than we do, and that state is a much more Democrat-leaning state than Illinois. Whether it's the people of “blue” Massachusetts or “red” Missouri, folks in those states appear to be pretty happy with their respective systems. We can provide provide proper care for workers without imposing excessive costs to employ folks in Illinois.

Procurement reform is another area where experts estimated we could save anywhere from $500 million-$1 billion per year. Procurement reform is about putting systems and processes in place to help governments buy products and services at a lower price and more efficiently. There’s nothing “Republican” or “Democrat” about getting a better price for office supplies!

Even pension reform provides opportunities for our two parties to work together. With the recent move by the Teachers Retirement System board of directors to lower the expected rate of return on pension investments, the state will likely owe over $400 million per year more in pension payments than before. With pension payments already taking up a quarter of our state budget by some estimates, this is another massive budget hit. Without reform of our system, we’ll only continue to see those numbers increase. On pension reform, our Republican Governor started the negotiating process by adopting the most recent proposal from the Senate Democratic Leader. Again, this is an area where the heated rhetoric between partisans isn’t reflected in the real potential for the parties to reach a compromise.

Another issue of great concern is local school mandates. Despite enjoying well-regarded schools in our suburbs, Springfield has added over 100 different mandates on our local school districts over the past decade or two. These mandates are often inefficient or duplicative of other programs, unnecessarily driving up the cost of providing an excellent education for the kids of our area. What’s worse, some of these mandates are imposed on our better-performing suburban school districts while the worse-performing Chicago public schools get a pass! From my conversations with other legislators, I know that we can find substantial common ground to reduce unnecessary mandates on our local schools coming from Springfield.

There are still massive challenges facing our state government, including fixing our out-of-balance budget. But we have plenty of important areas where compromise is possible and achievable. As compromise builds on compromise, the trust between the partisans will naturally increase, allowing even greater achievements. We all know it took decades to get us into this mess, and while turning Illinois around won’t be immediate, we can make a good strong start today, in these areas.

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Margie and I would like to thank everyone who has expressed good wishes to us about little Matthew. He is now 6 weeks old, and he’s healthy and growing rapidly!


It's a Boy!

Matthew_Photo_1.jpgMy wife Margie and I are pleased to announce that we are now the parents of a beautiful baby boy, Matthew Elijah Breen! It has been a difficult path over the past three years, and we had several near misses over that time: even one where we’d loaded up the car with baby items and found out along the way that the birth mom had changed her mind. Throughout, Margie and I have been privileged to have folks throughout Lombard thinking about us and praying for us.

All those prayers were answered this past August 9th, when our little Matthew burst into the world, 700 miles away in Virginia. We were blessed to be there to meet him soon after he was born, and we spent the first two weeks with Matthew in a hotel room in the Cavalier State, waiting for the interstate adoption paperwork to clear.

You’d laugh if you watched us navigate all the “first-time-parent” cliché moments, from the first sponge bath for the squirming, screaming little guy, to the blurry-eyed cleaning up of his 3 a.m. diaper explosions. And we’ve both been awed at those quiet times late at night when we each realize that we’re no longer (just) “Aunt Margie & Uncle Peter” but now “Mommy & Daddy.”

Probably the toughest part of a new baby is learning to operate on very little sleep. I turned 40 last week: the all-nighters and near-all-nighters are a lot tougher now then they were when I was in my 20’s. I also get varied reports from friends and family on whether the sleeplessness gets any better—as one experienced mom told me, “you won’t sleep soundly again till he moves out of the house!”

The other part you don’t fully realize, until baby arrives, is that every carefully crafted plan you had is out the window. Baby is now in charge of the schedule!

This column is generally about politics and policy, and briefly on that point, I was reminded by a friend that we’ve brought a baby into Illinois at a time when many folks are leaving, all because of a government that has severely damaged our economy and communities. But if you really want to view the most compelling reason to fix our state, look at a brand new baby, bursting with potential and growth. We can’t pass on a corrupt and broken government to these little ones, and we can’t in good conscience load them up with tens of thousands of dollars in debt—all before they’re even potty-trained!

Finally, I’d like to say something about our adoption experience, because it seems that adoption is one of the most misunderstood institutions in modern America. In our case, we’ve gotten to know the birth mom and her family well, and we remain in regular contact with them. Our birth mom, faced with a unique and challenging situation, carefully reviewed her options. She reviewed many hundreds, if not thousands, of profiles of potential adoptive parents, and she chose us to be the parents of her baby boy. We visited before the birth, and she was able to see our joy at becoming parents, and we know that she found strength and comfort in that joy.

And the circumstances of our adoption are not unique. Many birth moms today choose a more “open” adoption, and there are many thousands upon thousands of couples just waiting to be chosen to become parents. So, if one of your family members or friends finds themselves in a difficult or untimely pregnancy, you can feel confident in recommending that they consider adoption, as a positive and viable option for them.

In our case, we’re just over the moon about our little Matthew, and we can’t imagine our lives without him.


Cleaning House in Illinois Will Take a lot of Elbow Grease

lego-cleaning_.jpgIn my first term as state representative, we have seen some success in cleaning up Illinois government, with the passage of several major reform bills, including ensuring public meetings are truly “open” to the public, making end-of-career pension spiking more difficult and transparent, and reforming the way severance packages are doled out for government employees. These are just a few ideas that made it to Governor Rauner’s desk in bill form. Of course, there’s still much to be done!

One of the key reform measures that I believe would be a huge help is the referendum to take politics out of the way we draw district boundary lines for state representatives and senators. This important initiative, called “Independent Maps,” received well more than enough valid signatures to be placed on the November General Election ballot, but House Speaker Michael Madigan’s lawyer stepped in with a legal challenge. The future of this referendum now hangs in the balance, after a recent decision by a Cook County Circuit Court judge to strike the measure off our November 8 General Election ballot. The Independent Maps group has some very fine lawyers, and they have said they’ll mount a vigorous appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which will likely take the case on an expedited basis.

Why would anyone oppose a good government measure like fair and independent maps? Politics, of course: Speaker Madigan is working against the measure to protect his supermajority in the Illinois House. He draws the district lines, keeping his preferred representatives in office for a very long time, which gives him the power to block good ideas and to push forward really bad ones (like a budget that’s $7 billion out of balance!). It’s the same thing for our state’s unprecedented budget stalemate—Madigan believes that the politics of a stalemate will tilt in his direction. And avoiding serious votes keeps his vulnerable legislators away from possible electoral danger.

The other part of Illinois government that needs a deep cleaning is the office of the Auditor General. Frank Mautino was appointed to that position in October of 2015 for a 10-year term. As Auditor General, Mautino has the responsibility of watching how the State of Illinois spends its money. Of any official in state government, the Auditor General has to be squeaky clean. Mautino was one of Madigan’s chief lieutenants in the House as state representative and is currently under investigation by both state and federal investigators. They are looking into some unusual spending from his now-closed campaign account. For example, Mautino spent $200,000 on gas and car repairs over 10 years, at a gas station owned by a local alderman. That’s a lot of repairs! He could have purchased ten new vehicles for all that money. He also made $94,000 in repayments to a local bank for a $26,000 loan—where the excess funds actually went is what investigators want to know.

I have been calling for Mautino to come clean for months, and he has refused. At this point, having given him every benefit of the doubt, I’ve cosponsored a resolution to remove him from office. Unfortunately, Speaker Mike Madigan is the one who controls whether the House will consider and vote on the resolution! The right thing to do would be for him to step down, but if not, we need him out immediately.

It took us decades to get into this mess, so reform is going to take a while, often in fits and starts. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel and movement—albeit too slow—toward a new and better future for our state. Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant, and together, we can keep shining it on the corrupt and dark corners of our government.


Half a Loaf

bread-534574_1280.jpgOn the last day of June, the final day of our state’s fiscal year, a deal was cut to fund K-12 education for the next school year and to fund critical state services until after the Fall elections. But a month before, when Speaker Michael Madigan sent the General Assembly home on May 31, our two sides couldn’t have been farther apart.

Compared to the bedlam of the end of regular session in May, the General Assembly was positively subdued on June 30. Those last few days of May featured the supermajority ramming through a budget that would have spent roughly $40 billion, even though the state is only expected to take in $33 billion in taxes. On top of the $7 billion hole that budget would have ripped in our backlog of unpaid bills, Speaker Madigan only allowed members one hour to read that 500-page measure before debating and voting on it.

And in those final days of May, Democratic leaders said that any tough votes on budget and reform would be put off until after the November elections. In response, on May 31, Gov. Rauner urged the General Assembly to pass a stopgap funding measure to keep the state operating through the November elections and to pass a K-12 school funding measure to ensure that schools would open on time in the Fall. His proposal was summarily rejected.

Why the change? Well, you and other citizens of Illinois got mad, and got active.

After massive public uproar, House and Senate members forced their legislative leaders back to the negotiating table to reach an agreement. The compromise is not perfect—nowhere near it—nor is it a full budget. There are significant spending reductions, including a freeze on lawmaker pay, but the economic and governmental reforms we need to turn Illinois around were put off, until after the election. There was some movement on pension reform, but again, the leaders of the supermajority in the legislature have pushed back any detail work to November.

I’ve read a lot of hyperbole since the deal was enacted, including much criticism. Those critics are correct that the General Assembly should have stayed until its work was done: to enact a full balanced budget and substantial reforms, to turn around our economy and fix our government.

But despite this being a partial measure, it is progress. First, “We the People” were heard by the members of the General Assembly, and the majority party in the legislature finally allowed a compromise measure to be voted on by all the members. Second, kids will be able to attend school in the Fall, and critical state services will be maintained. Third and finally, for the first time in a while, this November’s elections in Illinois may be about real policy and issues, not personalities.

It looks like we’re finally going to have a robust, substantive debate on where the state should go—and how best to get there. The only thing holding Illinois back from the kind of economic success being experienced by our neighbor states in the Midwest is our broken state government. May the best plan win!


Rep. Breen Votes for Full School Funding and Six-Month Stopgap Budget

Compromise_graphic.jpgSPRINGFIELD…..In the final hours of Fiscal Year 2016, Republican and Democrat lawmakers came together and approved a package of bills that funds K-12 education at record-high levels for all of FY17, provides for six months of funding for all other key budget areas and freezes lawmaker pay. In response to the approval of the bill package on Thursday, State Representative Peter Breen (R-Lombard) has issued the following statement:

“This is not a perfect plan. In fact, there are parts of this comprehensive agreement that I do not like. However, this was a negotiation, and we met in the middle to approve a plan to allow every school in Illinois to open on time in the fall, provide bridge funding to the charitable agencies that serve Illinois’ most vulnerable citizens, along with freezing lawmaker pay.”

“In particular, K-12 education will be funded in FY17 at the highest level in our state’s history. For the first time in seven years, the funding formula will not be prorated. This means that each of our schoolchildren will receive 100% of the funds promised to them. Most importantly, this measure removes children from the crossfire of the budget and reform negotiations, which have been put on hold by Democrat legislative leaders until after the November elections.


Another Opportunity Lost

Hope_Despair_Photo.jpgIllinois is an incredible state, filled with creative and competent people. We’re the nation’s transportation hub and its breadbasket. We are home to some of the most successful businesses in the world, and we are the high tech and financial hub for the Midwest.

But our state political culture is corrupt and toxic. Everyone is out to “get theirs.” Behaviors that are common in our state politics would never be tolerated in our homes, workplaces, or communities.

Our state’s constitution requires the General Assembly to enact a balanced budget. Yet we’re almost to the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year, which concludes this June 30, without a budget. And we’re now at the precipice of entering fiscal year 2016-17, still without a budget.

At the end of our regular session on May 31, Speaker Mike Madigan promised to bring us back to Springfield for overtime session every Wednesday, but he has since cancelled each of the past three weeks of that scheduled overtime session. He and Senate President John Cullerton have also said they won’t take any tough votes before the November elections.

If this were a business, the leadership would have been fired. If this were a household, the child who refused to do his chores (until November!) would face swift consequences.

I’ve met with Governor Bruce Rauner several times over the past month, and he’s rightly frustrated with the leadership of the General Assembly. He’s urged that, if Madigan and Cullerton won’t pass a full balanced budget, they should at least do two things: 1) ensure that our local schools open in the Fall and 2) ensure an emergency level of funding for vital state services. I strongly support this view. There are also moneys from the federal government and from dedicated funds that can be appropriated without adding to our state’s stack of unpaid bills.

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, the situation is a mess. We’ve got deep systemic problems in the Chicago Public Schools, an underfunded state pension system, and we’re spending more than we’re taking in. The way things have “always been done” isn’t working any more.

You are probably asking right now, “What’s the solution?” Ideally, Republicans and Democrats would come together and craft a solution that works for the people of Illinois. But right now, the chasm is too deep. The Republicans have introduced significant reforms to improve the economy and to clean up state government, but those bills have been blocked. The Democrats want to raise taxes and increase spending on various government programs, including substantial new moneys to the City of Chicago and its schools. Such drastically different visions for state government make it difficult to have a meeting of the minds.

I’ve suggested that, if the two sides can’t get to a negotiated solution, we owe it to the people of Illinois to clearly frame their choice in the next election. In these next few election cycles, Illinoisans are facing choices that may prove to be as momentous as the recent vote by the people of Great Britain to leave the European Union. Our state government is at a crossroads, and the difference between the competing visions of those who want the status quo versus those who want reform couldn’t be more stark.

But as we gear up for the great electoral debate to come, we need to get the schools open in the Fall and the emergency funding in place for vital government services.


Budget Deja Vu

budget_photo.jpg

Next week, May 31st, we end our regular legislative session. Last year around this time, the General Assembly approved bills spending about $36 billion, even though our projected income for the year was roughly $32 billion. Those bills passed on almost straight party-line votes, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. The governor said he would veto any unbalanced budget, and when the spending bills got to his desk, he followed through on his promise. In the intervening year, we’ve had on-again, off-again negotiations over the budget, with little progress. Government spending and operations have continued for the most part, due to various courts ordering the state to fund specific programs and services.

Maybe it’s an oversimplification to say that fixing the budget is a math problem, but on one level, that’s true. When you’re doing a budget, you start by determining how much money you have available to spend, and then lining up what services you want to spend it on. If you want more services than you can afford, you have three options: 1) figure out a way to get the services cheaper, 2) decide you don’t really need all those services and reduce spending on some of them, or 3) increase the amount of money available by borrowing money or raising taxes.

The one thing you can’t do is to spend $36 billion when you only have $32 billion available. It doesn’t work in your budget at home, or in a small business, or in a municipal government, and it certainly doesn’t work for the State of Illinois.

Some have claimed that Illinois law allows the governor to sign unbalanced spending bills but decide not to spend some of the money. The problem with that claim is that the General Assembly puts so many strings on the way money must be spent that the governor’s hands are tied under current law. The governor can’t use our “option 1” and figure out how to deliver services cheaper, because he’s forced to spend the dollars in a particular way. He also can’t fully use our “option 2,” because he’s forbidden from moving money away from legislators’ pet projects to the places where the money is most needed.

You may not have seen it reported, but several months ago, a bill was filed to fix this problem, called the Unbalanced Budget Response Act. That Act would give the governor the flexibility to make the difficult spending decisions necessary to balance the budget.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in my past year-and-four-months in the General Assembly, it’s that no politician ever wants to cut or reduce a government program. That’s why the governor’s offer to make the reductions himself is extraordinary. He’s agreed to be the so-called “bad guy” and take the heat for whatever cuts are necessary to balance the budget. And if this Act is passed, it would only be effective until the General Assembly reaches agreement on a balanced budget: the Act would serve as a backstop for the legislature.

Each side has a way it views the current budget crisis. The number one point that Republican leadership has impressed on our members is that we’re willing to talk, anywhere, anytime, with anyone, to negotiate solutions to this crisis. Some fruits of that willingness are two emergency funding measures that were negotiated and passed by rank-and-file members, to ensure that our colleges are able to stay open and that social service charities can get some portion of the money they’re owed from the state.

But as willing as we have been to negotiate, there’s not been a lot of progress on an agreed overall budget. Call it politics, call it fear, whatever. Either way, we need a balanced budget. We’re the only state in the country without an approved balanced budget, and a measure like the Unbalanced Budget Response Act can get us there immediately, while still allowing for continued negotiations by the legislature.


Auditing the Auditor General

calculator-1180740_1280.jpg“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any man, family or class of men.” John Adams.

Our Founding Fathers knew human nature, especially how easily government power can corrupt those entrusted with it. Serving in public office is supposed to be service, not a profit-making enterprise. But for some, the perks and the money blind them to this purpose.

The people of Illinois have seen more than their fair share of corrupt politicians, who bend and often break the rules to pad their wallets. Governors Blagojevich and Ryan are the most prominent recent examples, but we’ve also suffered a flood of legislators, aldermen, and other local officials who have been corrupted by public “service.”

We’ve got a new scandal brewing in Springfield. This one involves the state’s Auditor General, Frank Mautino—the public official whose entire job is ensuring honest, transparent, and effective operation of Illinois government. Our state constitution created the office of Auditor General, in large part to protect the people’s tax dollars from theft, misdirection, and waste.

Prior to becoming Auditor General, Mautino was a state representative for 24 years, rising to Deputy Majority Leader and acting as one of Speaker Mike Madigan’s chief lieutenants. But shortly after becoming Auditor General in January, numerous irregularities in Mautino’s campaign funds were uncovered by watchdogs and good government groups.

It turns out, Mautino made payments averaging over $20,000 per year, for 11 years, to a local gas station owned by a city alderman, for alleged “gas” and “repairs” to his automobile. At the same time, Mautino received tens of thousands of dollars in travel reimbursements from the taxpayers of the State of Illinois.

He also averaged almost $400 per month on “campaign meals,” including roughly $33,000 spread over 500 trips to his wife’s restaurant, Alfano’s Little Sicily. There are many other suspicious items on his spending reports, but the real kicker is over $250,000 in alleged campaign payments to his local bank, when the campaign loans reported from the bank only amounted to $26,000.

When you see all this spending by a representative, you’d expect to see some pretty tough re-election campaigns. Except Mautino was either unopposed or very lightly opposed for most of his elections over the last decade.

After months of trying to get answers from Mautino and his lawyers privately, this past week, I joined 20 members of the General Assembly to publicly demand a full explanation and all documents related to these irregular spending items. You see, Mautino has hired a skilled criminal defense attorney—a former federal prosecutor, who served as the U.S. Attorney for Springfield—to defend against our inquiry and another public inquiry by the State Board of Elections. There is also speculation that the FBI and IRS may be looking into this spending, and Mautino’s spokesman has refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether federal investigations are pending.

At this point, we don’t know whether the campaign dollars went to enrich family members and political cronies, or were given in exchange for some political or other favors, or whether some funds were skimmed off the top for personal use—or if all the expenditures, however suspicious-looking, were legitimate campaign items. Without all the documents and a full explanation, we just don’t know.

People often ask me whether we’ll be able to clean up Illinois. It’s disheartening when the Auditor General, the constitutional officer charged with auditing Illinois government, can’t even explain his own records promptly and forthrightly. The only way forward is to seek out every single instance of corruption and self-dealing, and to shine a bright spotlight on every dark corner of Illinois politics.