Lawmakers considered a mixed bag of legislation during our four-day session in May. Some measures, like legislation that provides for the automatic rollover of certain property taxpayer exemptions (senior, senior assessment freeze, disabled, etc.) with respect to their homesteads, and pandemic-related updates to workers compensation and unemployment insurance laws for frontline workers and first responders, were notable highlights of the week. Ensuring the Local Government Distributive Fund (LGDF) will be fully funded, making sure nursing homes receive their share of CARES Act funds, providing schools with new flexibility to adjust learning requirements during health emergencies, and ensuring the state will make its full FY 21 certified pension payment were other successes that came from our abbreviated session. But I consider the passage of the wildly out-of-balance budget for Fiscal Year 2021 as the low point of the week.
In my mind, equally as important as the bills we did vote on in May is the list of important votes we didn’t take while we were in Springfield.
Paramount among these is ethics reform. This was going to be the year that the General Assembly would finally take significant action to root out corruption in state government. For a while, it seemed that every month a new scandal hit the news. Offices and homes were raided, arrests and indictments were hitting high-level lawmakers, legislators were wearing wires and cutting deals to gain leniency for their own bad behavior, and everyone was wondering who would be next in a sprawling federal investigation into political corruption in Illinois.
The fallout was severe. A State Representative from Chicago resigned after he was charged with bribery for allegedly delivering $2,500 in monthly payments to a current State Senator in return for support of a bill on gaming machines. Another State Senator was charged with federal embezzlement for pocketing $275,000 in salary and benefits for work he did not do for the Teamsters union. Another Senator plead guilty to charges that he accepted bribes in exchange for blocking legislation to remove or limit the use of red light cameras.
With the start of the 2020 legislative session, the House of Representatives seemed ready to finally address glaring ethics problems that cast a blanket of corruption and dishonor over state government. Then COVID-19 hit, and all talk of ethics reform was once again swept under the rug. When we returned to Springfield in May, there were ethics reform bills pending. None of them saw the light of day.
We also failed to take any action on pension reform or fair maps— two issues that are routinely listed as priorities with Illinois residents. With more than 25 cents on the dollar now allocated to pension costs within the budget, other key budget areas, like social services and programs for low income earners, get shortchanged and crowded out. I believe states should be judged on how well they take care of people who cannot care for themselves. In Illinois we do a terrible job, and skyrocketing pension costs is a primary reason why.
We also didn’t take action to repeal an onerous 555% increase in trailer registration fees, and there was no vote taken to authorize an audit of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), which has failed at every turn of the Coronavirus crisis. There were no votes taken to enact any property tax relief, even though a task force charged with recommending reforms were created for that very reason. And of course, there was no vote taken to reject an automatic pay increase for lawmakers. Republicans filed bills in all of these areas, and the majority party blocked every one of them.
When we return to Springfield for the fall veto session, my hope is that some issues that were sidelined in May can be brought forward for consideration. My colleagues and I will continue pushing for important reforms in these key issue areas.