EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is by the elected representative from the 54th State Senate District, Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon.
SPRINGFIELD – The final month of the spring legislative session is here. Because of the looming session deadline, May 31, these final days and weeks can be a time of hurried action, overlooked details buried within legislative language and increased internal political pressures. That can lead to bad votes and bad decisions. But thankfully this past week was highlighted by some much needed accountability, responsibility and plain old common sense.
Here’s an idea: Financial responsibility
Tax revenue to state government is on the rise and a recent analysis indicates that Illinois will take in more than $1billion ($1,000,000,000) by the end of June than was expected when the Legislature passed the current fiscal year budget. My Republican colleagues and I drew attention this week to the extra revenue and publicly demanded that outstanding bills owed by the state be paid with those dollars and that the money not be used for more spending and growing government.
For the past 10 years, the state’s finances have been grossly mismanaged to the point where today we have more debt loaded on the backs of taxpayers than at any other time. And this has happened despite the 67 percent state income tax increase the governor and the majority party passed three years ago. They promised to use the money from that tax hike, which annually took a week’s salary from the average family, to first pay off old bills but that didn’t happen. That is why I am cosponsoring legislation that directs the state to use the extra tax revenue to pay old bills, including obligations created by the governor’s pay raise deal with state employees before the last election. The oldest bill the state has in the backlogged bill system is back pay for thousands of employees. The back pay was also the subject of a lawsuit that the state lost so it’s also a legal obligation that we need to meet. Of the $112 million owed in back pay, about $6 million is owed to state employees in the 54th Senate District.
Investigating waste, fraud and abuse
Also this week, more attention was focused on the questionable Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a Chicago violence prevention program that was created in the weeks leading up to the last election for governor in 2010. NRI has been the subject of an audit by the Illinois Auditor General who found a number of problems so severe the findings were turned over to local and federal law enforcement for investigation. The Legislature’s own Audit Commission, a bipartisan panel of senators and representatives, voted 10 to 1 to authorize the use of its internal subpoena powers to get to the bottom of the alleged misuse of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
I fully support the investigations and inquiries that will bring much needed transparency and accountability about how our tax dollars were spent on this program. I have long advocated for a forensic audit of state government to weed out the waste, fraud and abuse that may exist. NRI is just one example and there are likely others. Recently, it was revealed the state’s Medicaid system paid out millions of dollars to people who were deceased and a private firm hired to look into the Medicaid rolls identified thousands of people who were receiving benefits but were not eligible.
Medicaid spending is out of control
Medicaid is broke but it can be fixed if state government would honestly implement reforms to protect the program’s integrity and the taxpayer’s money. The Legislature passed major reforms to the Medicaid program in 2011 and 2012. The reforms were bipartisan but again mismanagement and partisan efforts that weakened the changes ultimately played a roll in undermining those reforms, which has left us with a bloated and unworkable program. Medicaid is now the most expensive taxpayer-funded program in our state budget and it’s likely to get more expensive because of continued expansions and the imposition of Obamacare. This week, I joined my Republican colleagues in calling for a freeze on any new Medicaid spending until the goals the Legislature agreed to in those bipartisan reforms of a few years ago are reached. That’s simple common sense.
Scary “Tax” Movie 2
Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if Medicaid’s financial woes won’t be turned into yet another reason to scare citizens and lawmakers alike into support for making the 2011 Democrat tax increase permanent. You remember that tax. That’s the one the governor and the majority party promised would be “temporary.” They said three years ago the 67 percent income tax hike would pay off old bills, improve the economy, and raise the state’s financial status. The reality is the state still owes billions of dollars to providers, it has the highest unemployment rate in the Midwest and third highest nationally and the state’s credit rating has been downgraded five times since the tax hike was imposed and the biggest promise of all – being temporary – is being dropped.
We’ve also seen the scare tactics at work in a multitude of budget hearings on agency budgets over the past two months. The truth of the matter is Illinois has collected $26 billion in higher tax revenue since January of 2011 and yet our financial problems and the crisis remains unchanged. It’s a simple fact but it’s true: Illinois doesn’t have a tax revenue problem it has a spending problem. Hardworking taxpayers can’t afford another tax increase. Raising taxes does nothing to help the 550,000 unemployed Illinoisans find work.
Workers’ comp reform is still needed
This week I was named to Illinois’ Workers’ Compensation Program Advisory Board. The board’s stated goal is simple: “… to review, assess, and provide recommendations to improve the workers’ compensation program and to ensure that the State manages the program in the interests of injured workers and taxpayers.”
I am pleased with the appointment because workers’ compensation is one of the issues that led to my interest to serve in the State Senate. As a manufacturer, I understand why the system was created and how it works, and I know its failures and successes. I believe there’s room for practical and common sense reforms. We can both guarantee protections for workers who need help when they are injured on the job and at the same time help improve Illinois’ business climate by reducing the underlying cost of doing business. With the right reforms we could help turn around the state’s economy and get more families back to work.
I have consistently proposed workers’ comp reforms since I’ve been in the Senate. This year, I have sponsored and cosponsored a number of reforms to address Illinois’ ranking as having the fourth highest workers’ compensation insurance rate of the 50 states. Workers, employers and even taxpayers have something to win when it comes to workers’ compensation reform. True reform; fair reform would take the shackles off our economy and take better care of workers who are injured on the job.
School funding controversy
The week’s activity in the Senate also included the ongoing debate over a controversial rewrite of how taxpayer dollars are used to fund our schools. The proposal that has been laid out before us is Senate Bill 16. It’s controversial for a number of reasons not the least of which is the plan’s unknown financial impact on our schools and our students.
The Senate Executive Committee approved the measure May 7. The next step is a vote by the full Senate. Although the proposal had its roots in a bipartisan effort to address inequities in the state’s school-aid formula, the legislation has morphed into a partisan plan that could worsen existing inequities in funding between the City of Chicago and downstate and force taxpayers statewide to subsidize pension payments for Chicago teachers.
The measure takes Illinois’ already complicated School Aid formula and makes it more complicated. I’m also disappointed it offers no relief from state imposed unfunded mandates. Relief would give districts more flexibility to control their costs and better use their local dollars from the property tax.
Senators were given a print out of the bill’s projected financial impact just before the committee vote but we have since come to learn that many districts were incorrectly listed as being in one Senate district or another. I want to see an accurate list and the financial numbers clarified before I commit one way or another. I will base my vote on what’s best for the students in the 54th Senate District.