Legislators discuss state of the state at chamber event

By Megann Horstead | For the Bugle
sweditor@buglenewspapers.com
@JolietILNews

After eight months without a state budget, local elected officials updated the Joliet business community on a gridlock that has shaken up downstate politics.

The Joliet Chamber of Commerce invited a handful of state legislators to speak at its March 21 luncheon, where everything from the state budget to criminal justice reform and taxes were on the agenda. Among those who spoke at the event were state sens. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, and Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, and state reps. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Joliet, and Natalie Manley, D-Joliet.

In conversations with area officials, McGuire notes that he’s heard people say legislators must work toward an agreement regarding the state budget because it cannot go on much longer. While there’s no word on whether the impasse is coming to an end, he added that it’s unfortunate to have not passed legislation to fund the remaining 10 percent of Illinois government not covered by various legislative, judicial and executive actions.

That 10 percent includes funding for higher education and social services, which McGuire said critically important to some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

“We’ve seen the effects here on Cornerstone Services, we see the effects on Catholics Charities, we’ve seen the effect on Stepping Stones, and other human services providers,” he said. “Ninety percent of the budget is moving out because the governor signed the K-12 bill, because of the consent decrees and court orders.

However, McGuire said it is extremely unfortunate that the 10 percent in limbo is for human services and higher education. As chairman of the higher education committee, he knows how important the MAP grant is for Illinois students and public universities.

Individuals who come from low-income backgrounds sometimes have to work with financial aid packages that include several different sources to fund their education. Because of the state budget impasse, these students are faced with a great deal of uncertainty.

“We’re looking at two of the sources not being existent for another year and the other perhaps being reduced,” McGuire said.

A criminal system

While the budget standoff appears to have no end in sight, McGuire said criminal justice reform is one important issue seeing movement in Springfield. In order to reform that system, the state is placing a new focus on offenders diagnosed with severe mental illness.

In February, officials prepared a proposal allotting $38 million to staff a new mental health treatment facility at the former location of the Illinois Youth Center. That bill could be passed as early as July, according to McGuire.

The Rauner administration began acting on the agenda item set in motion by former Gov. Pat Quinn, spending about $15 million last summer for the renovations of the Illinois Youth Center in Joliet.

“Regarding the Illinois Youth Center in Joliet, my pal and fellow Democrat Pat Quinn of course closed that facility a couple years ago,” McGuire said. “In retrospect, I respect his justification. There was excess capacity in Illinois’ juvenile justice system. There were more beds than were needed, which is good news because there are fewer teenage boys in our juvenile prisons. But we don’t want that facility to sit, either.”

In 2007, a federal court case involving Ashoor Rasho, an inmate at Pontiac Correctional Center, was filed against the Illinois Department of Corrections, alleging that the state did not provide adequate support to offenders with severe mental illness.

McGuire said the new treatment facility in Joliet could serve as a possible remedy for the court case. The hope, according to the senator, is that offenders will be able to return to the general population after receiving the necessary treatment at a newly renovated Joliet  facility.

Finding funds for local government

During the event, Bertino-Tarrant shared an update on municipal funding, as it pertains to the state’s budget process. She said she didn’t approve of how funding was held up last year, and is continuing to hold the same concern for the appropriation of funds to municipalities in the upcoming year.

“What this translates to us is that what we witnessed this past year may be a little bit of the same moving forward,” she said. “We know we get into a separate appropriation bill for our local municipalities to get the money that they deserve. It was held up as a result in dollars from IDOT over $582 million for local government share of the motor fuel tax.”

During last year’s budget talks, a number of other appropriations were also on hold, including monies valued at $77 million for 911 related costs and $45 million for video gaming proceeds.

“Needless to say, while we were able to pass appropriation bills this current year,” she said. “We’re going to be facing the same crisis again. If you add those dollars up there, that’s a critical amount of money to our local government.”

In response to this year’s budget talks, Bertino-Tarrant said she continues to support distributing state funds that are owed to local municipalities. 

Transportation

Walsh spoke about new developments in funding upgrades to Will County’s transportation system. He said change will not happen overnight, but officials have been working to improve some of the traffic-related issues occurring in the area.

Will County has seen a lot of growth because of area intermodal facilities and all the associated industries. Walsh said that type of growth has increased truck traffic.

“We’ve been sitting diligently trying to come up with ways on how to fund infrastructure,” he said. “One of the things you might have heard of is an increase in the gas tax. Right now, Illinois pays 19 cents per gallon—no matter if that is $4 or if that gallon is $1.99, it’s 19 cents—that’s what goes into the motor fuel fund.”

In previous general assemblies, Walsh said the 5.25 percent sales tax that municipalities generated would go toward the motor fuel fund. In recent years, however, these funds are being allotted toward the state’s general fund. Walsh said he is working to see sales tax revenue moved back into the motor fuel fund.

“Basically, what we need in the state of Illinois is about $1 million to $1.2 million per year just to do the routine maintenance that we have on roadway systems the state and IDOT control,” he said. “Taking that away is what’s crippling us.”

Over the past several years, he said officials have been using capital dollars for roadway improvements and that’s part of the problem.

In response to appropriations of capital funding, Walsh added that these monies would be better spent on building new infrastructure, bridges and schools, among other items.

Dollars and cents

Manley talked about taxes and how the state can use them to increase revenue. She sees an issue that is prevalent among those of retirement age in her district concerning any potential action taken to tax their income or raise property taxes.

“People on fixed incomes are very nervous about how we are going to fix the budget hold,” she said. “My job is to represent their interests. Taxing retirement income is not the first place I ever want to go. I voted for freezing property taxes in great part to support the governor and to be willing to compromise – 16 times the last time I counted, never seems to pass through the legislature.”

She said the taxing of services is another area of concern among legislators.

“My opinion of that is that it’s a regressive tax,” she said. “People that can least afford it are going to feel the effects of that and I don’t that’s the way we need to do it. I really think that when we talk about revenue and how we’re going to plug the hole that we have, it’s going to take more than one thing.”

Manley said she hopes that several different elements will be utilized to make the state’s effort to balance the budget work and to convey a sense of fairness to everyone.

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