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.


Fighting Job Killing Bills


Cracks in the Walls of Madiganistan

wall-1179614_1280.jpgLast Thursday evening, on the House floor, we witnessed something that shocked even veteran members of the Illinois General Assembly. Speaker Madigan lost control of the Democrat caucus.

The House was in session Thursday night, but business came to a screeching halt, as rank and file Democrats huddled in various groups, scattered across the floor. Over here, a faction of the Black Caucus met, over there were city and near-north-suburban liberals, and other groups formed organically without any noticeable defining characteristic.

Mike Madigan has kept the House Democrats in line for 30-plus years, with differences of opinion or dissent quickly quashed—and certainly never put on public display. Such a level of power is unique in American politics, but it’s understandable when you consider that Speaker Madigan is personally responsible for electing many, if not most, of the House Democrats.

The Madigan campaign program is legend: he often plucks a person out of obscurity who could never be elected to the General Assembly on their own. (Sometimes these individuals are even registered Republicans, but no matter, they switch parties in order to be part of “the program.”) Then Madigan provides them with millions in campaign cash, along with paid staff members and “volunteers.” For some of these candidates, work as a General Assembly member is the best employment they’ll ever have—it’s a steady paycheck with benefits, and folks deferentially call you “Representative” and spontaneously and instantly hold doors open for you.

However, when that person wins a seat in the Illinois House, they understand that the price of the seat is predicated on absolute loyalty to Speaker Madigan. If you cross him, (poof!) you’re out. Just this past year, Chicago Democrat Rep. Ken Dunkin—a 13-year veteran of the House—went against the Speaker on a small number of votes. The Speaker then found an opponent to run against Dunkin in the Democrat primary, and Madigan showered the opponent with millions of dollars in campaign donations. Madigan took a “scorched earth” approach to the election, repeatedly and personally tarring Dunkin. Madigan beat Dunkin in that very ugly primary election last month, destroying Dunkin’s public reputation in the process. That’s the Madigan program.

But last week, the reality of the past 30-plus years was suspended, due to intense pressure on Democrat representatives from the impact of the budget crisis on higher education. Chicago State said it would shut down on May 1, which is the same day students must make their college choices. Many feared that high school seniors would reject Illinois public institutions altogether because those institutions could not guarantee they’d be open and fully operational in the fall, due to lack of funding.

As a result, downstate and Black Caucus Democrats abruptly broke with Madigan to negotiate with Republicans, and together, we reached a compromise on emergency funding for state universities, community colleges, and Monetary Assistance Plan grants for poor students. Unlike the prior “spending plans” put forward and passed by Mike Madigan, which either had no funding or grossly insufficient funding, this emergency plan was fully funded, with state dollars from a special fund for education. For that reason, the governor gave the plan his approval and signed it first thing this past Monday morning.

Was this display of bipartisanship a one-time thing, or a sign of momentum? Will Speaker Madigan come around to embrace compromise, or continue to dig in his heels? Will Madigan snap his members back into line, or will he continue to lose them?

In the end, this crack in the walls of “Madiganistan” may be just the opportunity to get us where we need to go as a state: substantial reforms, proper government services, and a balanced budget to pay for them.


Rep. Breen Bills to Clean Up Government Advance to the Senate

Capitol_Shot.jpgFriday, April 23, was the deadline for getting all House bills out of the House chamber and over to the Senate. That date serves as an unofficial end of the first half of the legislative session. Rep. Breen worked a number of House bills this term and won passage of three of them, with two focused on government reform and transparency.

When the disgraced former president of the College of DuPage was awarded a contract extension behind closed doors in 2011, the COD Board violated the Open Meetings Act. It wasn’t until 2015 that the IL Attorney General’s office confirmed that a violation had occurred and reprimanded the board. The Open Meetings Act allows citizens a brief 60 days to go to court to get relief, but unlike most other laws, the time clock here starts at the time of the actual violation, instead of after the decision is issued by the Attorney General’s office. Because of this, the citizen who filed the complaint with the Attorney General about the sweetheart contract deal at COD never had her day in court. HB 5683 will close this loophole and start the clock for a lawsuit only after the Attorney General’s office has issued its decision. "We can't afford a weak or ineffective Open Meetings Act, especially in light of the corruption we've lived through in Illinois," stated Rep. Breen. HB 5683 passed 114-0 and is now in the Senate.

During the last hour of the last day of the "first half," the final bill considered was Rep Breen's legislation to make end-of-career pension spiking in municipal government a thing of the past. HB 5684 garnered a diverse bipartisan group of cosponsors, and the measure passed 100-3. "Across the state, taxpayers are suffering because of this practice, which occurs when longtime public employees with large accrued balances of sick time and vacation time are allowed to transfer those days into pre-retirement cash payments that are made outside the usual 90-day look-back period," Breen said. HB 5684 will require local municipal boards to hold an open meeting with full disclosure to the public of exactly how a retiring employee’s salary would be affected, before any pension spiking can even be considered. "This sort of public notice and shaming in some cases will hopefully put an end this practice, saving municipalities and taxpayers substantial amounts of money."


In the Trenches

war-1182365_1280.jpgIt’s deadline month for the General Assembly, that time of year where pending bills must meet the various time limits set for consideration. We spent most of last week in committee hearings on the thousands of bills filed this year. This week, we will negotiate amendments for bills that need additional work, with a few more bills reaching agreement and advancing, while the rest are deemed dead for this session. We’ll also begin House floor consideration of bills that are in final form. This is the regular cycle of the House: committee, amendments, floor, passage.

The budget and larger debates over the future of the state hang like a fog over the legislature, but this “regular order” is still observed. There are still many laws to tweak, add to, or subtract from in our Illinois code, just as in other years. Amidst a deeply divided General Assembly—and deeply divided Illinois—the fact that we can find enough common ground to advance mundane legislation may be an indication we’ll be able to work together on the bigger issues facing the state down the road.

Even so, I hear from the old-time legislators that the current acrimony is the worst they’ve seen. One even compared the current situation in the General Assembly to the trench warfare in World War I: combatants on both sides pinned down in their respective trenches, with no easy means of obtaining more than a couple of feet of ground.

The sides are pretty well fixed: Speaker Michael Madigan wants to spend $36 billion this year, but the state will bring in $32 billion in tax revenue—so he needs a tax hike—but he doesn’t want his Democratic caucus to be seen as responsible for that tax increase. Governor Bruce Rauner wants government and business reforms, and he sees his election in 2014 as a mandate for those reforms. The business community wants to see some progress to prove that Illinois is truly turning around, whether that means changing the way legislative districts are drawn (by an independent commission instead of by whichever party is in power), or term limits for legislators, or substantial regulatory and tax reform. For young people just starting out and for those who have lost jobs, they want to see Illinois return to being the economic engine that it should be. For seniors, they want the brakes put on property taxes and other government taxes and fees, so they aren’t forced to move out of state and away from friends and family. The people of the state generally just want the whole mess fixed, so they can go about their lives.

And, while everyone believes that the end must be coming soon, no one is quite sure when or how that end will look. Without stretching the analogy too far, the tide of the “Great War” was turned and won through the addition of an overwhelming outside force: the United States military. If you had to guess where that new “outside force” would come from in Illinois, a safe bet would be some type of crisis. The lack of funding for social services and higher education have added pressure, but not enough to force a resolution. Soon enough, we’re going to see larger crises, such as the insolvency of the Chicago Public Schools (or of the City of Chicago itself). It’s tough to imagine this dispute continuing much past a crisis of that magnitude.

But until then, regular order in the House continues, and we remain “in the trenches.”