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This week I’d like to discuss a few more bills that were passed in veto session this year; I voted for neither of them, and I’m concerned that the manner in which they were passed indicates shady politicking that will do nothing to help our state’s fiscal crisis or the taxpayer burden.

Senate Bill 3075 began as an amendment to the Juvenile Court Act of 1987.  The original text of SB3075 read that it provided “that a non-judicial probation adjustment plan includes any appropriate action with the concurrence of the school district where the minor resides.”  The bill was introduced in February of this year, made it through the Senate and to a second reading in the House before the end of spring session.  Nothing much happened to it throughout the summer and fall until suddenly on November 25, Representative Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park) filed an amendment that deleted “everything after the enacting clause with” a whole new bill that amends Counties Code by changing juror pay to $25 for the first day and $50 for every day after.  The bill, which goes into effect June 1, 2015, also changes the number of jurors used for all civil trials from 12 to 6; additional fees will be charged if additional jurors are requested. 

The bill purportedly saves counties money by reducing jury size.  It seems like a win-win for all parties involved—jurors get paid more than three times what they used to be paid ($4 to $10 or so a day in most counties, plus mileage), and the counties save by having fewer jurors to pay. That’s the theory anyway.

But we all know there’s more to the story.  So here it is: only civil juries are cut in half.  Criminal juries remain at 12 jurors, and since a large percentage of trials are criminal, and since the $25 a day per juror is not limited to civil trials, counties will actually be increasing their spending on juries, to the tune of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, per county.  In Winnebago County alone, the budget for juries could increase by $250,000 to $300,000, and in Stephenson County and the other counties in the 89th District they will more than likely see the jury cost more than double the amount which was budgeted.  And sadly for all counties, their budgets have already been adopted.  Because of political finagling, they’ll now have to go back to the drawing board to figure out where they’ll find that extra cash.  Don’t think this won’t affect you, the taxpayer.  Where do you think counties are going to find that money?

It seemed like veto session was, in reality, bludgeon-the-counties session.  Another bill that passed this December will pile more work on county clerks and create extra expenses for the counties. Senate Bill 175 began as a simple and very short bill to amend candidate nomination. It sat in the Senate for a year—the last action taken on it was November 18, 2013.  On November 19, 2014, the bill suddenly passed the Senate, arrived in the House where three amendments were added that changed the bill from a candidate nomination bill to a bill that allowed same-day voter registration. The bill was hurried through the House and passed on December 3.  Later the same day, the Senate approved the amendments and passed the bill.  The bill now amends the Election Code by extending voter registration to same-day registration, by contracting with the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a multi-state voter registration data-sharing cooperative, to keep more accurate records of voter registration data, and by using the National Change of Address (NCOA) service to remind voters to change their voter registration if their address changes.

Again, in theory, this is a good bill.  Same-day registration will encourage voters who forgot to register to still vote, and I am all for getting the vote out.  ERIC will streamline data records, and perhaps help weed out dead registrants and people who have moved out of state, and NCOA will help determine if a voter has moved and needs to update his/her voter registration.

But, again, there’s more to the story.  The bill creates extra headaches for county clerks by requiring them to be open for voter registration, even on Sunday.  And yes, that means taxpayer dollars to pay the clerk and staff weekend pay and to fund overhead costs to have the office open on weekends, including the manpower costs for courthouse security.  The clerks will also have to keep track of voters who register the day of the election at each precinct and make sure voter fraud isn’t occurring. The mandates in the bill are unfunded, so county clerks will again have to find somewhere to come up with money to pay for the extra burdens.

The nature of how both these bills were passed seems a little fishy to me.  It’s time for the legislators in our state to forget about party politics and to sincerely consider what is best for the state.  We are seeing in our state what President George Washington described as “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities.” This alternate domination of one faction over another, Washington says, will eventually lead “to a more formal and permanent despotism.”  Partisan politics got our state into its current mess, and there’s fault on both sides, so to fix it, both sides need to come together and work to create a government environment that fosters a respect for what the people need, not what the politicians want.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
Veto session is finished for another year. Surprisingly, or maybe not depending on your favorite media sources, minimum wage did not come to a vote; never fear, though, Governor Quinn promises to raise minimum wage if it’s the last thing he does as Governor.  He’d better hurry up because he only has about a month left.

We did pass one bill, however, that I am not happy about.  Senate Bill 2758, which will take effect on June 1, 2015, creates the Secure Choice Savings Program. The irony of that name is the word choice—the bill mandates that employers of 25 or more employees participate (employees will automatically be enrolled having 3% deducted from their paycheck and sent to the state program, but they will have the option to opt out). And, of course, the other glaring irony is the word secure, and the word savings, for that matter.  Money in the hands of the Illinois government secure?  And whoever heard of the Illinois government saving money?  My apologies if I sound a bit skeptical.

The concept behind the bill, to help Illinois workers save for retirement, really isn’t so bad.  A recent Crain’s Chicago Business article quotes the bill’s sponsor State Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) as saying that “of all the economic questions affecting the middle class, retirement is the one most under discussed.”  And he’s right—a recent AARP statistic shows that “45 percent of working-age households have NO retirement savings.”  That’s a pretty dismal number.  Sure, those folks have Social Security to fall back on, but the average monthly Social Security check is around $1,300. When was the last time you lived on $1,300 a month?

So yes, encouraging Illinois workers to save is a fantastic idea.  But one-size-fits-all legislation for every private employer and employee in the state was not the way to do it.  Have you heard about the Illinois pension mess? Or what about our unbalanced budget? Or our massive debt? And now we expect our state government to manage retirement funds for private sector employees.

In a May 7, 2014 Crain’s Chicago Business article, Philip O’Connor, Illinois’ director of insurance from 1979 to 1982, also questions Illinois’ ability to manage funds, saying that the “Illinois’ record managing its own public employee pension program suggests that managing private-sector retirement funds is the last swamp the state should be wading in.” O’Connor lists a few other problems with the bill, notably that it is “a government program that largely duplicates IRA services already available online,” that unintended enrollments will likely occur, that employees who opt in but then decide they can’t afford to have 3% taken out of their paycheck will face tax penalties if they withdraw early from their IRA, and that litigation will likely occur “over whether a state can compel participation in IRA programs Congress designed as voluntary.”

In addition, the program will cost $15 million to $20 million in startup fees, and while, according to an Illinois Policy article on December 2, the Office of Management and Budget’s note on the bill “indicates no fiscal impact on the theory that private interests or federal government will fund the program,” the bill does “allow the program to receive state funds, and you can bet the pressure will come to finance startup costs with general fund appropriations.”  In a time when we should be cutting spending, not increasing it, a bill that creates more spending is not good news for our state’s financial crisis.

The bill also brings the government into a role that “is not truly governmental,” according to the same Illinois Policy article.  And here’s the real catch—the administrative expenses, including the staff of the board, will be paid from a separate fund that does not require appropriations to spend from so, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, the staff of the board will essentially be “off the books.”  They are also not covered by the same personnel code as civil-service positions, so “they can easily be used as political operatives as they conduct their state business” since they are not given the same hiring and firing protections given to typical state employees.

Philip O’Connor in his May Crain’s article ends with a superb quote on the issue that would be a better fix than the one we’ve got: “Illinois would do better to focus on teaching students about saving, letting people keep more of their own money and helping employers educate employees.”  Perhaps if the state acted as more of a cheerleader than as a busybody trying to manage matters better left to the people, we would be in a better place than we are now.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
Last Friday, Judge John Belz of Sangamon County Circuit Court ruled that Illinois Pension Reform Bill, SB 1, was unconstitutional.  Both my predecessor, former State Representative Jim Sacia, and myself voted against the bill—Jim voted against it in May of 2013, and I voted against it when it came up in veto session the following December.

Judge Belz ruled the law unconstitutional based on The Pension Protection Clause in the Illinois Constitution which states that “membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.” In his ruling, Judge Belz writes that the bill diminishes and impairs the pensions by reducing the compounded automatic annual increase amounts that some pension members receive, by reducing annuity payments, and by raising the retirement age.  Judge Belz goes on to say that “the Act without question diminishes and impairs the benefits of membership in State retirement systems” and that “protection against the diminishment or impairment of pension benefits is absolute and without exception.”  While the defendants argue that the State has the right to exercise police power in a fiscal crisis, Judge Belz writes that “the Pension Protection Clause contains no exception, restriction or limitation for an exercise of the State’s police powers or reserved sovereign powers.”  He concludes by saying that “the State of Illinois made a constitutionally protected promise to its employees concerning their pension benefits.  Under established and uncontroverted Illinois law, the State of Illinois cannot break this promise.”

While I couldn’t put those statements in as eloquent legalese as Judge Belz does, those statements sum up my thoughts on the pension bill pretty well.  The state made a promise, and it doesn’t matter how good or bad you think that promise is, it’s a promise, and the state owes it to its hard working employees to keep its promises.  This isn’t a new issue, either—according to Eric Madiar the Chief Legal Counsel to Senate President John Cullerton, it’s been going on since 1917.  Madiar says that “in 1917, the Illinois Pension Laws Commission warned State leaders in a report that the retirement systems were nearing ‘insolvency’ and ‘moving toward crisis’ because of the state’s failure to properly fund the systems.”  Illinois has had almost a century to fix the problem.  The State has known about it since 1917, and little has been done to remedy the snowballing debt.  It has consistently neglected to fund pensions that it promised to its employees.

So where does the court’s ruling leave us?  First, the bill will need to be tried in the Illinois Supreme Court, and hopefully that will happen sooner rather later.  If the Supreme Court upholds Judge Belz’s ruling, expect a credit downgrade for the state.  The court ruling is in favor of employees, but it still leaves the State in a fiscal mess of its own making.

All is not gloom and doom, however.  The pension system needs to be fixed, and soon, but I fully believe that the new governor-elect and the leaders from both the Illinois House and Senate can work together to create a bill that remedies the State’s pension debt and still fulfills promises to State employees.  Such a bill will mean all hidden agendas are left out of the mix and both legislators and the governor work together for the good of the people, not for the good of their own desires.  I could see a pension reform bill that revamped pension plans for new hires, possibly even offering a 401K type plan.  Current employee plans would remain the same, or they could be given the option of choosing to switch to the new plan if they thought it would be beneficial.  Retiree plans would remain unchanged.

“[The Constitution] is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests,” Patrick Henry once said, referring, of course, to the United States Constitution, but the sentiment can be applied to the Illinois Constitution.  It is an instrument for we the people of Illinois to restrain the government and hold them to their promises.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
The few days I spent in Springfield this past week were relatively uneventful. The tax increase was not even mentioned, and it sounds like the rideshare bill is not going to move until next year. The one big item on the agenda, a minimum wage increase bill, passed Senate committee, but with a few changes to make it more palatable to the somewhat more conservative House. To make it easier to get the bill through both chambers, the effective date was changed to July 1, 2015. The minimum wage would increase to $10 by that date and to $11 by the same date in 2016.

There are definite pros and cons to this bill. First, the pros—Chicago is tossing around the idea of passing a $13 minimum wage law—while a $10 and eventually $11 minimum wage will hurt Illinois businesses, $13 will hurt the state’s economic situation even more. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the bill may pass because of a major compromise: the minimum wage “goes to $10 but applies statewide. Chicago’s power to go higher would be pre-empted.” The cons, though, are that the bill, in the long run, will hurt the state and the workers living on minimum wage more than it will help. Naomi Lopez Bauman writes in a November 19 Illinois Policy Institute article that raising the minimum wage will actually push the “lowest-skilled workers out of the job market.” Many of those who earn minimum wage, she goes on to say, will lose their government benefits when their wages increase, leaving them worse off in the end. Bauman concludes that raising the minimum wage is “a crude antipoverty tool,” because it doesn’t change anything for the 100,000 or so Illinois workers who work for commission or tips. In addition, most minimum wage workers start off at minimum wage but in a year they’re earning more than minimum wage because they’ve worked to develop their skills and to become more competent on the job.

Enough of politics, though. Thanksgiving is only a few days away, and we have so much to be thankful for in Northwestern Illinois. Yes, it’s cold (at least we’re not buried under 7 plus feet of snow like Buffalo, NY, right?), and, yes, the vibrant fall leaves are all but gone; still, I wouldn’t choose another state to live in. The people from this district—the farmers, the small businessmen and women, the school teachers and administrators, law enforcement and firefighters —are some of the hardest working people I know. You and many others are the reason I chose to go to Springfield, to fight for your economic and political good. As we all give thanks this Thursday, I want you to know that you and all the people in this district will be at the top of my list of things to be thankful for. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with and to serve.

Greek philosopher Epicurus once said “do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” We may have much we want to change in the state, but this week as we reflect on all we’ve been given, let’s remember how good we here in Northwestern Illinois have it, the friends, the family, the bountiful harvest, and the freedom to live, speak, and worship as we choose.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

I’ll be heading to Springfield next week for veto session, and, to be honest, the other legislators and I (with the exception of House Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton) aren’t quite sure what to expect this time around.  It could be a busy season in Springfield, or it could be relatively quiet, if Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton choose to let soon-to-be Governor Rauner have his wish—that nothing major would be done until he takes office.  The three of them did meet in the last week, which, I think, bodes well for a good relationship between the two parties while Governor-Elect Rauner holds office.  We’ll just have to see what happens.

If it is a busy lame-duck session, though, here’s some of what we may cover:

·         Ridesharing (HB4075). Governor Quinn vetoed this bill last summer because he wanted cities to be able to develop their own laws concerning ridesharing.  HB4075 is a one-size-fits-all bill that could potentially kill ridesharing or at least hinder its ability to deliver economically.  Rideshare drivers get much better pay than taxi drivers, and they currently don’t have to jump through as many hoops as taxi drivers.  This bill would, at this present time, only affect Chicago, since Chicago is the only Illinois city with ridesharing services.  However, economic development anywhere in the state is good for the whole state, so if Chicago rideshare services are able to continue unhindered we all benefit.  There are also rumors that ridesharing may make its way into other cities, like Peoria, and, who knows, maybe someday Freeport or Galena or East Dubuque or Rockford.  

·         Education funding (SB16).  This bill didn’t make it through the House this past spring, but rumors abound that the powers that be may push it through this fall.  In the words of one astute taxpayer who wrote an editorial in The Regional News, “Senate Bill 16 is nothing more than an attempt by the state of Illinois to ignore its ‘primary’ obligation to fund public education by shifting even more of the burden to the local taxpayer.”  The funding formula would be based on local property taxes and would not increase state funding but would only redistribute it.  If this bill comes up in session, I will be voting no.  Education funding needs to be reformed, but it can’t be fixed by taking away from some students and giving to others.

·         Minimum wage.  Illinois voters voted heavily in favor of an increase to minimum wage. If House Speaker Madigan or Senate President Cullerton introduces a minimum wage bill, it would have to pass the General Assembly with 60 percent of the vote.  My hope is that Governor-Elect Rauner gets his way on this one, that they wait to pass any minimum wage legislation until he is in office, and that, IF it passes, it is part of a package that increases business in the state.

·         Millionaire’s tax. Again, Illinois voted heavily in favor of a millionaire’s tax increase.  I personally don’t think this issue will come up in veto session, simply because even if it were to pass, it would have to wait around until the next general election for voters to weigh in on a constitutional amendment.  It could not go into effect until 2017, which would leave plenty of time for millionaires to leave the state en masse—just what we need right now!

All these bills are out to fix the economic state of Illinois, because we are last in just about every single economic list there is (except taxes, which most of these bills would only increase).  But here’s my take: government can’t and won’t fix economic problems.  The only way to fix it is to allow the free market to work its wonders uninhibited by red tape and taxes.  And here’s Herbert Hoover’s take: “economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement.  Economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body—the producers and consumers themselves.”  He got that right.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

Together with FHN, State Representative Brian Stewart will host a free diabetes screening for the public from 8 to 10AM on Friday, November 14. The event will be held at the Stewart Centre, located at 50 W. Douglas, in Freeport. People wishing to be tested at this event are advised to fast for two hours prior to their screening, as a finger-stick blood glucose test will be issued.

Nearly 800,000 Illinoisans have diabetes, and of that number, 500,000 are unaware of their condition.

Representative Stewart stated, “As the fight to curb the onset of diabetes continues, FHN will graciously host this event to make our citizens more aware of the troublesome disease. Health screenings such as this can help save lives and I encourage everyone to join us on November 14.”

Yearly, $7.3 billion is spent on both direct and indirect costs associated with the care of diabetes in Illinois, which accounts for more than 10% of all health care spending. The earlier treatment begins, the easier it is to prevent the dreadful, costly and sometimes fatal side effects of diabetes.
In the past, I’ve written about small business in Illinois, and today I want to continue that topic with a look at the relationship of small business to government.  Small businesses, I’m sure you’ve heard many a politician claim, are the backbone of the economy.  And they’re absolutely right.  Our state alone “is home to approximately 397,000 small businesses and . . . three out of four Illinois employers are small businesses,” according to a Crain’s article.  Three out of four seems like a high number—but when you think about our corner of Northwest Illinois, the majority of businesses are small businesses—from Union Dairy just down the street from where I write this to Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. in Galena to NITE Equipment in Winnebago County.

So, if small business makes up so much of our economy, what exactly are we as a state and as a country doing to help it?


As it turns out, not much, actually.
Currently, 800 to 900 federal rules affect small businesses—and that doesn’t even include the state rules.  Every new rule is sort of a hidden tax: it represents a new cost that businesses have to pay, either with their money or with their time.  Larger businesses are able to better absorb costs that come with new rules, but, according to an article in a Kansas newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, “the Department of Labor reports that firms with fewer than 20 employees spend 38 percent more per employee to comply with government regulations than firms with 500 or more employees.”  In dollars and cents, that’s on average “$10,585 for businesses with fewer than 20 employees but only $7,755 for businesses with more than 499 workers,” says an article in Small Business Trends.

In addition to the hidden tax of new rules, government regulation creates uncertainty for businesses both large and small.  But because small businesses have limited funds, they are more likely to avoid investing in new ventures and more likely to avoid hiring new employees, according to the same article in Small Business Trends.

So what does that mean for small businesses in Illinois?  Well, for one, our business regulations are pushing businesses out to more business-friendly states.  Take, for instance, the example from The Illinois Policy Institute of Sara Travis, an entrepreneur from Chicago who began a mobile coffee-vending business called The Brew Hub.  After waiting for over a year for a business permit from Chicago and constantly having to worry that she would be fined or harassed for selling coffee, she chose to pick up her business and move it to Austin.  Instead of the more-than-a-year-wait she endured in Chicago, she filled out paperwork, paid for a permit, and received it all in one day.
And, two, regulation costs businesses money and time and can cause some to go under.  Another example—new rules on unpasteurized milk are in the works.  Those rules could and likely will “force small producers out of business or underground by requiring them to invest in the same kind of expensive equipment and processing required of large commercial dairies,” according to an article in The State Journal Register.

So what’s a state to do?

Well, there are a few things that can be done.  First, startup fees need to be lowered.  To start an LLC, you need $500 (as opposed to the $150 needed to start a corporation).  Lowering those fees would give entrepreneurs a bit more money to finance their businesses instead of throwing it into the gaping maw of Springfield.

Second, while some regulations are necessary, most aren’t.  Many regulations are one-size-fits-all band-aids meant to remedy one instance of bad business, and while the regulation may fix the one instance, it ends up doing a whole lot of harm to good small businesses.  Instead of slapping band-aids on all small businesses, maybe it’s time to listen to small business men and women about what helps and what hurts. (Incidentally, Governor Quinn created a position in his administration last January for a small business advocate. As of September, though, that position still wasn’t filled.)

And lastly, what can we in the 89th District do?

First, we can ensure sure that our cities, villages and counties are business friendly, that we’re doing everything we can to retain the businesses we have, and that we continue to create an environment to attract new businesses. And second, we can all work to ensure that our school districts are producing well-educated students who are prepared to enter the workforce.

For a full “legislative agenda for entrepreneurs,” read The Illinois Policy Institute’s article by that name at http://www.illinoispolicy.org/a-legislative-agenda-for-entrepreneurs/.

You know me—I love a good Milton Friedman quote, and here’s one that fits the occasion perfectly: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”  I’m sure those 800 or 900 federal rules in addition to state rules were created with the best intentions, but the results aren’t pretty.  Let’s rethink this regulation thing and figure out how to free up small businesses to use their limited resources to grow their businesses instead of to comply with government regulation.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.