Thanks to students from Bloomington Junior High School who explained their project to me during TECH 2011, a demonstration of school technology May 5 in the State Capitol. I was pleased to talk with Teacher Jayme Corcoran, 8th-grader Lee Reynolds and 7th-grader Kourtnei Burgess. TECH 2011 is designed to show state leaders what skills will be needed for the Illinois work force and how technology can improve teaching and learning.
I also welcomed Kaelen Smith, an 8th-grade student at Clinton Junior High School, to the Illinois Senate. The son of Robert and Karla Smith of Clinton, Kaelen served as a legislative page for me on May 6.
SENATE DEMOCRAT BUDGET PLAN INCREASES SPENDING
With a month to go until the General Assembly’s scheduled May 31 adjournment, Senate Democrats advanced a handful of budget measures that would lock Illinois into a permanent tax increase, and quite possibly force tax hikes higher than the 67 percent increase already passed this year.
While I applaud the efforts made by Senate Democrats to reduce spending in the budget documents advanced May 4, a number of the so-called “cuts” are actually increases over the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget. While reductions were made from the Governor’s recommended spending levels for the FY 2012 budget, spending under the Democrats’ plan still exceeds spending for FY 2011.
The Senate GOP Caucus urged Democrat lawmakers to withhold a vote on the budget measures, and instead work together on a budget package that advances realistic spending caps to keep state spending at a level that allows the tax hike to expire and phases out the state’s looming debt.
Recently, State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka cautioned that even with the tax hike, Illinois could end the fiscal year with an approximately $8 billion deficit—roughly the same size shortfall the state had in 2010—unless significant spending cuts are made. Senate Republican lawmakers noted that voting for the Democrats’ budget measures would have been akin to voting for a permanent 67 percent tax increase.
BIPARTISAN COMMISSION OUTLINES BUDGET PROJECTIONS
In a related matter, the Legislature’s bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the organization charged with reviewing state spending and revenues, released a new report that outlined eight different budget projections.
Six of the scenarios would leave the state with a deficit in three years—and the lame-duck 67 percent tax increase would remain in effect.
The only budget projections released by the Commission that would put the state in the black during the tax hike would require zero spending growth over the next three years. However, even under these no-growth budgets, without significant cuts the state would once again be in the red once the tax hike expires. The projections were consistent with a “Reality Check” budget plan unveiled by Senate Republicans in March that showed cuts of $4-$5 billion are needed this year to allow the tax hike to expire as promised.
WORKERS’ COMP REFORMS ALSO KEY
Republicans have also said that it is inappropriate to move ahead on the budget without progress on much-needed workers’ compensation reform. Workers’ compensation reform is an essential component of budget reform that will reduce costs to the state and encourage job growth.
Senate Democrats killed important workers’ compensation reform recently when 28 Democrat senators voted “present” on the measure. Though negotiations on the vital legislation continue, a compromise has not yet been achieved.
Speaking before business groups during the week, Governor Pat Quinn again pledged to support meaningful workers’ compensation reforms. But the day after his speech, when employers got a look at the Governor’s actual proposal, the state Chamber of Commerce termed it “terribly disappointing” and “a lot of soft mush.”
‘DREAM ACT’ STIRS STRONG OPINIONS
Also during the week, the Senate advanced controversial legislation that seeks to provide children of undocumented immigrants with greater access to higher education. Proponents say the measure will help the college-bound children of undocumented immigrants, though opponents say the measure encourages illegal immigration.
Senate Bill 2185—the “Dream Act”—allows students who are non-U.S. citizens to participate in the state’s college savings programs, which require personal, not taxpayer-financed contributions. The legislation also establishes a scholarship fund that would be financed entirely through private donations, and institutes guidance counselor training on working with students who are undocumented immigrants.
The student would be required to obtain a taxpayer identification number from the Internal Revenue Service and be a state resident in order to take advantage of the programs.
Opponents emphasized the law represents acceptance of illegal immigration, and expressed concerns that undocumented students could take spots in these institutions that would otherwise be given to legal citizens.
Lawmakers who voted in favor of Senate Bill 2185 said that the children who were brought to the country illegally should not be held accountable for the decisions of their parents. Supporters noted that undocumented immigrants are already allowed to attend Illinois universities, and can receive in-state tuition.