Please note: The Week in Review is written by a staff member of the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus and approved by legislators. It is meant to provide constituents with information about legislative action and activities during the week.
Springfield, IL – It was a busy week in Springfield, as lawmakers entered the final push toward the scheduled May 31 legislative adjournment, Sen. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) said.
Though much of the senators’ time was spent in committees considering legislation that has been approved by House legislators, the Senate did approve a long-sought measure to eliminate the beleaguered General Assembly scholarship program, as well as a Constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for lawmakers to increase employee pension benefits in the future.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability also issued its opinion on Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed closure of several state facilities, and Senate Republican lawmakers and the Illinois Policy Institute highlighted the need for greater fiscal transparency at the local level.
General Assembly Scholarship Program
Lawmakers are one step closer to eliminating the scandal-plagued General Assembly tuition waiver program. On May 3, the Senate voted to advance House Bill 3810, which would end the controversial program. The measure now moves to the House, which must approve an amendment to House Bill 3810 that creates a Tuition and Fee Waiver Task Force charged with reviewing the use of tuition and fee waivers at Illinois’ public universities.
Sen. Sandack has long advocated abolishing this program and said he was pleased the legislature took what he considered to be an easy vote.
“I’m not sure why this bill was caught up in so many parliamentary procedures,” he said. “The delay in voting to eliminate this program was unnecessary considering it was a tired and grossly abused program whose usefulness had long passed.”
Senate Republican lawmakers, led by Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), voluntarily walked away from the controversial program in early 2012. Radogno has been a vocal opponent of the waivers and her leadership, in conjunction with the Senate GOP's unified position against the program, was a driving force in the effort to end the program.
The Illinois media has uncovered a slew of abuses relating to the program that stretches back to the 1980s. Allegations of impropriety continue to surface, which in some instances have led to federal investigations into evidence that lawmakers awarded the scholarships to benefit friends, lobbyists and campaign donors. Additional studies reveal that over the last six years a significant number of lawmakers illegally awarded the waivers to students outside their district.
However, while the focus often centers on abuse of the program, Sandack pointed out that the legislative scholarships are also a financial drain on Illinois’ higher education system. The state does not reimburse colleges for the cost of the program, which totals more than $13 million a year. Instead, those costs are passed on to other students in the form of increased tuition and fees.
“This program was an unfunded mandate on colleges and universities when the state doesn’t properly fund them to begin with,” Sandack said. “On top of that, the program was rife with corruption. I’m extremely pleased that we’re finally getting closer to eliminating this scandal-ridden program. It is my hope that the House quickly concurs with the Senate amendment and Governor Quinn signs this legislation shortly after to eliminate these scholarships for good.”
Senate Republicans stressed that the best thing lawmakers can do to improve access to and affordability of higher education is to get the state’s finances under control so Illinois can offer more support to the state’s colleges and universities.
Future Pension Benefit Increases
The Senate also advanced Constitutional Amendment 49, which seeks to further restrict the Legislature’s ability to approve future pension benefit increases. Having been approved by the Senate, Illinois voters will be given the opportunity in November to weigh in on the measure. If approved by voters, the measure would require a three-fifths vote of the General Assembly to pass increased pension benefits for employees in the future.
If the provision is to take effect, the amendment must be approved by either three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election.
Fiscal transparency is the focus of legislation highlighted this week by Senate GOP lawmakers and the Illinois Policy Institute. Allegations that a Dixon city official stole $53 million from city coffers highlights the need for Senate Bill 3392, which would require all local governments, including school boards, townships and municipalities, to post their checkbooks online.
The Illinois Policy Institute supports this legislation and greater efforts to improve the level of government transparency in Illinois. Since 2010, the nonpartisan Institute has partnered with local citizen activists to grade governments on how much public information is available online. More than 130 government entities have been graded using the Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist.
“After seeing how little public information is available on Dixon’s Web site, it’s no surprise that the alleged theft went under the radar for so long,” said Brian Costin, director of government reform at the Illinois Policy Institute. “What Dixon and the entire state must do now is create a culture of transparency and accountability. This will help weed out corruption, and restore the public’s faith in local government.”
Correctional Facility Closures
On May 1, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted against Gov. Quinn’s proposed closure of four correctional facilities, an Illinois Youth Center and the Murray Developmental Center. The bipartisan, bicameral legislative panel was supportive of Quinn’s desire to save the state money, but at the same time expressed deep concerns about the economic impact on the communities of Centralia, Tamms, Dwight, Peoria and additional job losses in the suburban areas.
The panel’s recommendation is only advisory and the ultimate decision still rests with the governor. Local senators who represent the facility host communities have also pledged their support to working with the governor on cost-saving measures. They argue that any savings must provide long-term economic stability for the host communities and a legitimate plan to safely reduce prison populations and to care for citizens with severe developmental disabilities.
New 21st District Offices
In March, Sen. Sandack’s district office building in Downers Grove experienced a damaging fire. Sandack’s new district office is at 633 Rogers St. Suite 103, Downers Grove, Illinois 60515. The phone and fax numbers are the same as before, 630-737-0504 and 630-737-0509, respectively.
Sen. Sandack’s third episode of “Capitol Agenda with Senator Sandack,” with guest State Rep. Michael Connelly (R-Lisle), is now airing on Elmhurst Regional Public Access Channel 19 on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. Tune in to hear Sandack and Connelly talk about what they expect to happen in the last few weeks of the spring session, Medicaid and pension reform prospects, and more.