CAPITOL RECAP: State ran up $7.7B deficit last year

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Governor JB Pritzker

Capitol News Illinois

The state of Illinois ran up a deficit of more than $7.7 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018. But as bad as that sounds, it was only about half as bad as the $14.6 billion deficit amassed the year before.

That’s one of the conclusions from the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report that Comptroller Susana Mendoza released Thursday, August 29. It’s the first such report released since the end of the state’s historic two-year budget impasse during former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration.

The 397-page report offers an intensely detailed look at the state’s overall financial condition as well as an analysis of economic factors that could affect state finances into the future.

It notes, for example, that spending on health and social services accounted for the largest single area of state spending during the year, totaling nearly $28.9 billion, or almost 41 percent of the state’s budget. That was followed by education, including K-12 and higher education, which accounted for $20.2 billion, or 28.5 percent of state spending.

According to the report, the state’s overall financial condition improved during that fiscal year, which began July 1, 2017, largely because the final budget plan that passed in late August of that year included significant increases in both individual and corporate income tax rates coupled with authority to issue bonds backed by future tax receipts that were pledged to pay down debts that were incurred in prior years.

BACK PAY LAWSUIT: Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul says two former lawmakers should not receive back pay for frozen cost-of-living increases and forced furlough days because they previously voted to approve the two laws and waited “for so long” to file a lawsuit challenging their constitutionality.

Those laws, a Cook County judge ruled last month, violated an article of the state’s governing document that dictates legislators’ wages cannot be changed during the terms for which they were elected.

Judge Franklin Valderrama’s ruling was a partial win for two former senators — Democrats Michael Noland, from Elgin, and James Clayborne Jr., from Belleville — who sued for lost wages.

The lawsuit is applicable only to Noland and Clayborne, but its outcome could create an avenue for other lawmakers to seek the same financial reimbursement.

Potentially, those lost wages could be sought by and paid out to all members of the General Assembly who were affected by the statutes the judge deemed unconstitutional — the cost-of-living freeze, effective from July 2009 through June 2018, and the furlough days, effective from 2009 through 2013.

But the Illinois attorney general’s office argued in a court document filed August 5 that Noland and Clayborne’s voting history — each “voted repeatedly in support” of the pay freezes and furloughs — and lack of previous legal action negates their claim for lost wages.

The lawmakers’ lawyer responded in a court filing Wednesday, August 27, that said the attorney general’s office’s argument “has no merit” because it was the state that waited too long to challenge the suit, filed in June 2017.

The next hearing in the case is set for September 9.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: The state commission that oversees charter schools is set to be abolished next year while its powers and duties will be transferred to the Illinois State Board of Education.

That’s the result of Senate Bill 1226, sponsored by state Senator Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, which Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law August 23.

Under the new law, beginning July 1, 2020, the State Charter School Commission will cease to exist and the terms of its members will end. The Illinois State Board of Education will then inherit all of the powers and duties of the commission, including the power to reverse local board decisions, and it will take over.

Most Charter Schools are run by private, nonprofit organizations, but they operate within a public school district and receive public funding. Under state law, organizations wanting to establish a charter school must apply for a charter through a local school district, which has the authority to grant the charter for a specified length of time or deny it.

There are 140 charter schools operating in Illinois, 126 of which operate within Chicago Public Schools, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Until 2011, charter applicants that were denied a charter by a local district could appeal to the Illinois State Board of Education.

LOTTERY ONLINE: The Illinois Lottery is expanding the options players have to buy certain tickets without leaving the house after the General Assembly passed a law allowing them to do so earlier this year.

House Bill 3661, which became law on June 28, allowed the Lottery to sell single-draw tickets for the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Lucky Day draw games on Illinoislottery.com and their Illinois Lottery Official Mobile App. Previously, these games were available only through a subscription of a minimum of one week’s worth of tickets.

These games join Mega Millions, Powerball and Lotto as available for single-draw sales.

Jason Schaumburg, communications director for the Illinois Lottery, said total sales for the Lottery were $2.93 billion in fiscal year 2018 and $2.84 billion in fiscal year 2017, the last two audited fiscal years. In those fiscal years, the Lottery transferred $722.5 million and $732.7 million to state coffers respectively, with the rest of the money going to pay prizes to players, commissions to retailers and operational expenses.

SMOKING IN CARS ILLEGAL: It is now illegal in Illinois to smoke in a vehicle in which a minor child is present.

Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker on Friday, August 23, signed House Bill 2276 into law, making it a petty offense to smoke in a vehicle in which there are one or more children under age 18. That can result in a fine of up to $100 for a first violation, and up to $250 for each subsequent violation.

Law enforcement officers are not allowed to issue tickets solely for violating the law, but they can issue tickets if they pull a vehicle over for some other violation. The law also does not apply if the person smoking is a minor who is the sole occupant of the vehicle.

If a minor is present in the vehicle, however, citations can be issued to anyone in the vehicle who is smoking, including the driver and any other passenger.

Earlier this year, Pritzker signed another bill into law, commonly known as “Tobacco 21,” which makes it illegal to sell or provide tobacco products to anyone younger than 21. That new law, however, removed an earlier prohibition against minors possessing or using tobacco products.

That means minors cannot be charged with an offense solely for smoking. But if they smoke in a vehicle in which other minors are present, they could be cited for violating the new law banning smoking around minors in vehicles.

Proponents of the new law say it’s intended to reduce children’s exposure to secondhand smoke.

MATERNAL MORTALITY: Illinois is taking steps to combat troubling maternal and infant mortality statistics after one lawmaker was moved to action by a series of reports which showcased the state’s and country’s maternal health shortcomings, particularly among African-American women.

The lawmaker is Chicago Democrat Mary Flowers. The troubling statistics: Pregnancy-related complications kill more mothers in the United States than in any other developed country, and African-American mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers.

Last week, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the last bills from a package of new laws to create new maternal legal rights and a task force to study the high death rate among African-American mothers and babies, to force hospitals to collect more accurate data on maternal mortality and be better equipped to treat pregnant women, and to mandate proper training for medical staff that are likely to treat pregnant women.

The racial disparities are driven home in a report by the Illinois Department of Public Health which said an average of 73 women in Illinois died each year from 2008 to 2016 within one year of pregnancy, and African-American women were six times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related condition during that span. According to the report, 72 percent of those deaths and 93 percent of violent pregnancy-associated deaths were preventable.

State Senator Jacqueline Collins, a Chicago Democrat and Senate sponsor of several of Flowers’ maternal health care measures, said the disparities existed across income and education levels.

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