Springfield 2016: Taxpayer, criminal justice victories amid ongoing budget gridlock

Springfield 2016: Taxpayer, criminal justice victories amid ongoing budget gridlock

Although the battle for the budget drags on, there were several important legislative wins for Illinoisans in 2016 including criminal justice reform, averting tax hikes, and stopping Madigan’s agenda in the lame duck session.

While the Illinois General Assembly still refuses to work on many critical issues, other victories this year reflect a growing recognition in Springfield: business as usual cannot continue.

During typical years, bills that force through more spending, lavish perks for government-union workers, and tax hikes would have passed without much controversy. But 2016 was different; taxpayers made a difference, by standing up to the entrenched interests of big government, big labor, unreasonable regulations and indefensible levels of public spending. Moreover, in the last election, House Speaker Mike Madigan lost his historic supermajority. The upcoming vote on his traditionally unanimous election to the Speakership is finally drawing deserved attention to, and scrutiny of, Democratic members of the House.

Budget gridlock dragged on for first half of 2016

No fiscal year 2017 budget: After attempting and failing to pass a budget with a $7 billion deficit, during the final days of June ̶ just in time for the start of the 2017 fiscal year ̶ a rare summer gathering of legislators passed a six-month “stopgap” budget, essentially compromising the recommendations of legislative working groups from earlier weeks. The most significant provisions included funding for road projects, human services, state vendor contracts, and higher education. This stopgap budget got service providers through the second half of 2016, but lacks the reforms Illinois desperately needs as part of a full budget deal.

Legislator pay controversy: In April, facing a $10 billion backlog of unpaid bills, then-Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger stopped paying Illinois lawmakers, relegating them to the same payment queue vendors were forced to wait in during the state’s monthslong budget gridlock. In response, six Democratic representatives filed suit against Comptroller Munger based on a 2014 law exempting legislators’ pay from the risks and oversight of the annual appropriations process.

Tax hikes averted

Progressive income tax: House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 59, which failed to secure sufficient votes in May would have put a referendum on the November ballot to change the flat tax provided under the Illinois Constitution and adopt a graduated state income tax. Undoubtedly, this issue would have distracted the electorate from the daily dysfunction of Illinois state government by offering a seemingly simple, but economically devastating, solution to the state’s financial crises. Had the resolution passed, Madigan would have gotten the tax hike he desires, but without directly muddying the hands of his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly.

Millionaire’s tax: House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 26, which was defeated in the House April 20, fell three votes short of the 71 vote supermajority required for passing a 3 percent tax on income over $1 million per year in the Illinois Constitution. Despite its populist-sounding name, this tax would have made it even harder for job-creators to grow their investments in Illinois and would have worsened the state’s middle-class and higher-earner out-migration, further reducing the state’s tax base.

Lame duck tax increases: House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 62, passed in the House Dec. 1, 2016, placing legislators on the record deeming tax increases during lame duck sessions inappropriate. This measure will hold Illinois lawmakers accountable and avoid another situation like January 2011, when the income tax hike that took $32 billion from taxpayers almost certainly only passed because the vote occurred during the lame duck session.

‘Veto session’ taxpayer victories

Government worker arbitration bill: The General Assembly sustained Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of House Bill 580, a bill that would have allowed government-worker unions to unilaterally take the governor out of contract negotiations , while delegating the decision to a panel of unelected, third-party arbitrators.

SEIU mandated training bills: These proposals intended to raise the minimum wage for particular occupations, require health care contributions from the state, and codify key issues traditionally negotiated during collective bargaining. All together, these bills forced over $100 million annually from the State. One of the biggest aims of these bills was to have taxpayers fund efforts by the SEIU to recruit more child care providers and personal assistants into the union. The 2014 Supreme Court decision Harris v. Quinn allowed thousands of childcare providers and personal assistants to opt out of union membership, and the SEIU has been trying to make up for it ever since. The governor’s veto was sustained for both bills (Senate Bill 2536: SEIU Child Care Providers Training; and Senate Bill 2931: SEIU Home Care/Personal Assistant Training).

Criminal justice bills: Bipartisan progress

Discouraging prison for first time Class 3 or 4 felonies: Senate Bill 3164 joins several important reforms to Illinois’ broken criminal justice system passed by the General Assembly. This bill protects against the over-incarceration of low-level offenders with no prior violent convictions and was signed by the governor on Aug. 19.

Ex-offender state ID issuance: Senate Bill 3368, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by the governor on Dec. 15, grants state ID cards to individuals released from state prison or parole. Daily life, including obtaining employment or housing, often requires identification, and this bill will help ex-offenders re-enter their communities and the labor market. This is key, as securing a good job is the surest way to prevent ex-offenders from falling back into crime.

Related convictions: House Bill 5973 signed by the governor in August, requires employers to cite specific and relevant evidence in order to deny a job applicant because of his or her criminal record. This law protects both employers from hiring someone obviously at-risk, but also the potential employee from being unreasonably discriminated against. In another effort to promote employment among Illinois’ massive ex-offender population, occupational licensing boards may only look at criminal convictions significant and related to the nature of the license.

2016 proved the growing inability for the speaker to simply pass whatever bill he wants.

In fact, Madigan’s job is getting harder each day. Not a single proposal to raise taxes survived 2016. Legislators’ desire to rush through another tax hike during the final days of the lame duck session ̶ Jan. 9 and 10 ̶ as occurred in 2011, also appears diminished.

Though likely to win his 17th term as speaker, Madigan’s future at the helm of state political power will be even more uncertain as the 100th General Assembly convenes in 2017. Momentum is already building for further reforms to the state’s hefty tax burden, archaic regulatory system and ineffective criminal justice system. Springfield’s business as usual is about to be challenged even more.

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