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ANALYSIS: Still no clarity on Bailey’s budget cuts while Pritzker says a bit more on SAFE-T Act

Candidates meet for final debate of general election cycle

By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
jnowicki@capitolnewsillinois.com

After the first televised debate between Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Republican challenger state Sen. Darren Bailey two weeks ago, I wrote about two points that I thought the candidates should clarify.

For Bailey, that was his statement that the state budget contains $10 billion to $15 billion of waste. For Pritzker, I noted he was unclear about potential changes to the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform.

Debate moderators at the final meeting between the candidates Tuesday night gave each another crack at answering those questions. But while we heard a bit more from Pritzker, Bailey still won’t say how he’d cut roughly a third of the state’s budget that he believes to be “waste.”

When asked directly for three proposed budget cuts, Bailey didn’t name any.

His solution was, once again, a “zero-based budget,” which, he said, means “accounting for every dollar that’s spent.” He put the responsibility for identifying the waste on the shoulders of yet-to-be-named agency heads. And he said later in the debate he’d begin identifying them the day after the election.

“We’re going to fire all of the agency directors because they’ve failed. We’re going to place business-minded men and women in those positions,” he said.

The only number Bailey cited in the discussion was $2 billion in fraudulent claims paid out by the Illinois Department of Employment Security amid nationwide unemployment fraud of a new federal pandemic-related program.

It’s certainly an example of fraud, but it’s not an example of state spending.

The defrauded program was entirely federally funded.

In an audit, IDES blamed “insufficient and flawed federal guidance” and a lack of controls on a hastily constructed program put together by the Trump administration. It’s estimated that more than $160 billion was paid out wrongly from the program across the U.S.

Those are eyepopping and unacceptable numbers. But to cite it as an example of waste in state spending is, at best, a misunderstanding of how the system works.

Bailey was then asked about a comment he made to Crain’s Chicago Business that “the state should be paying less money” for public education. He said that comment was made in regard to “administrative bloat.”

“When schools get more money, when Gov. Pritzker throws cash out there, many times people just think they have a need to hire more administrators,” Bailey said. “We need to slash administrative funding and get that money in the classrooms to teach our children to read and write.”

For a little context, Illinois is in the fifth year of a new evidence-based K-12 education funding formula that calls for $350 million to be added to the formula each year to drive new money to the districts that are furthest from funding adequacy and most reliant on local property taxes to pay for education.

When that formula kicked in, the state was providing less than a quarter of education-related funding. Since then, the state’s share rose from $6.9 billion in fiscal year 2017, the last year under the old formula, to $9.8 billion allocated this year.

Throughout the life of the formula, the gap between the least-funded and best-funded districts has narrowed. During the first year, funding levels ranged from a low of 47 percent to a high of 288 percent of adequacy. This year, the gap ranges from 59 percent to 270 percent.

While Bailey contended Illinois schools need to show better academic growth, Pritzker accused the Republican of wanting to gut public education and, in turn, create upward pressure on local property taxes by diminishing the state’s share of public-school funding.

As for the SAFE-T Act, Pritzker said lawmakers should make it abundantly clear that when the calendar hits Jan. 1, those already held in lieu of cash bail will not be released from detention as the Pretrial Fairness Act provision takes effect.

Any follow-up legislation, Pritzker said, must “clarify” the intent of the law.

One thing I’ve observed in recent months of discussion regarding the SAFE-T Act, however, is that one lawmaker’s “clarification” may be viewed by another as a dismantling of the intent of the original legislation.

It’s been the case on at least a few of the provisions in one follow-up bill that’s drawn a lot of attention lately, a measure sponsored by Champaign Democratic Sen. Scott Bennett.

Abuse victim advocates and the SAFE-T Act’s House sponsor on Tuesday denounced language added to the SAFE-T Act by Bennett’s bill that would widen judicial authority to detain a defendant charged with any crime if the court believes they are a serious risk of skipping trial, pose a danger to the community, or are likely to threaten a potential witness or juror.

Bennett said he sees it as language clarifying that a judge should always have the authority to detain an individual if the judge believes they’re dangerous. The advocates said it’s a “catch-all” provision that would counteract the intent of the original SAFE-T Act by keeping the court system clogged with detention hearings for non-violent offenders.

Pritzker’s line on Bennett’s bill has been that all provisions should be considered, and lawmakers need to make clear that there are “no non-detainable offenses.” But does the judicial detention provision “clarify” or gut the Pretrial Fairness Act?

It’s a question that lawmakers are going to have to answer when they return for their fall veto session on Nov. 15. Unfortunately for voters, that’s a week after Election Day.

Jerry Nowicki is the bureau Chief of Capitol News Illinois, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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