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For the first time in twelve years, the Illinois legislature passed two bi-partisan budget bills with a unanimous Republican vote.  Governor Rauner was a driving force behind them, but both Democrat and Republican leaders joined in sponsoring both bills.  Today, I’m going to delve into the budget deal to help you understand how the legislature is going to plug the $1.6 billion deficit that was looming in front of us this spring. 

HB 317
HB 317 appropriates funds to address the FY15 deficit, specifically to make payroll at our prisons, to provide low-income working families with child care assistance, to prevent court reporters from being laid off, and to fund services for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled before funding for these programs run out.  To fully fund these programs, most line items in the General Fund are reduced by 2.25%.  In addition, the Governor was given access to a $90 million pool of funds to use to backfill operations lines, and $97 million is appropriated to the Illinois State Board of Education to offset reductions to K-12 programs.

HB 318
HB 318, sister bill to HB 317, defines and allows for emergency rulemaking for medical assistance programs and hospital assessments, amongst other items.  The bill also requires school districts to designate some of their state funding for special education expenses to maintain federal grants for special education, and the bill cuts funding for certain public services by 2.25%.

Budget Deal Strengths
The recent budget crisis was among the worst our state has ever seen.  Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the FY15 solution is that it showed that our representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle can work together to pass legislation that puts our state on the right track. It gives me hope that future forward-thinking budget deals can be passed through bipartisan teamwork and effort.

Additionally, as I mentioned before, this action taken fills big holes.  The FY15 solution means that working parents will still be able to afford childcare for their children, that court reporters will still have jobs to go to everyday, that our hard-working correctional officers will still be paid for the important services they render to our state, and that the most vulnerable of our citizens will still receive the care and services they need.

Budget Deal Weaknesses
The cuts required by the FY15 budget deal aren’t ideal.  However, cuts to important services and programs, including cuts in healthcare funding, education funding, and public aid funding, are not what any of us want, but they will help us get on the right footing so our state is in a financial position to fully fund all state programs in the future.  To offset these cuts, the Governor has discretionary funds to ease the burden over the next several months until the FY16 Budget takes effect.

Conclusion
I believe passing legislation that resolves the deficit but does not raise state taxes is a wise move. Thomas Jefferson said that “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Our state is filled with diligent, industrious people who need every penny they earn. We empower them to be successful by not taking the hard-earned results of their labor away from them.


IDOT: “project may or may not be terminated”

Springfield… The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) issued a response to local lawmakers regarding the possible future of an Amtrak passenger rail service to Rockford. IDOT stressed that project stakeholders understand the status of the project and the possibility that it may or may not be terminated.

“The availability of funds for this project was falsely advertised.  There was no money designated for the project. It was an outrageous political lie by the prior administration,” said State Representative Joe Sosnowski (R-Rockford).  “We must proceed cautiously and explore other means of developing transportation until IDOT determines their current and future fiscal outlook.”

“I am disappointed that this project continues to be delayed,” said State Representative Brian Stewart (R-Freeport). “IDOT confirmed that this project currently looks doubtful, however I am hopeful that future plans will continue to develop as we strive to address our States’ current fiscal mess. Until then, we will just have to wait.”

IDOT went on to explain that the Governor’s office is committed to turning Illinois around, but it has to first perform a comprehensive review of all spending and programs, including major infrastructure projects.

As the Spokesperson for the Appropriations Public Safety Committee, which appropriates IDOT, State Representative John Cabello (R-Machesney Park) expressed some concern for the future of the project.

“It’s unfortunate that this project continues to be unsuccessful, but the reality is the funds were never allocated. IDOT is in a difficult fiscal situation and will have to evaluate its long-term fiscal problems before committing to the project. I will have a better understanding as I work with Secretary Blakenhorn to appropriate IDOT’s FY16 Budget. However, we must first and foremost be stewards to the taxpayers of the state.”

“This is a project that we all want, and that I think everyone is excited about,” said State Senator Dave Syverson (R-Rockford), “but unfortunately our last Governor made a promise that he never funded. In light of our state’s current fiscal condition, it looks like the project will continue to be delayed until suitable funding can be found.”

The Amtrak project to Rockford will be reviewed by IDOT and allow for locals to submit their concerns for the future of the project as they work to evaluate other projects around the State.
Welcome to spring everyone! While spring is not officially here, the warmer temperatures will definitely make my frequent trips to Springfield more enjoyable.  Here’s a snapshot of the past week:

Train Derailment
Last Thursday, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed south of Galena.  The derailment could have been tragic; however, the remote location and the quick and efficient response of local emergency units mitigated any immediate danger to local residents.  The federal, state, and local responders are true heroes.  Thank you to all of you who joined forces to respond and limit damage.

Death Penalty
A colleague of mine in the House and a local state representative, John Cabello, filed HB 4059 to reinstate the death penalty.  The bill would amend the Criminal Code and eliminate the provision that abolished the death penalty.  The death penalty would not be widely applied to convicted criminals under this bill but only to individuals who take the life of a police officer or first responder, a child, or multiple victims.  In Cabello’s words, it’s intended for the “worst of the worst.”  I joined Representative Cabello in sponsoring the bill because I believe actions have consequences.  A person who chooses to violently take the life of a police officer, a child, or multiple victims also chooses to suffer the consequences for his crimes.

                                                                                    Turnaround Agenda
Much of this session will revolve around Governor Rauner’s turnaround agenda.  And, according to the Wall Street Journal, this year, Illinois is “the state drama to watch.” The Governor faces strong opposition, but if he can break through, we’ll start to see some changes.


Economic Growth and Jobs Package
One change I hope to see in the near future is economic growth in our region.  We have lost too many jobs to nearby states simply because our State is not competitive.  To help our State stand out from other states, the Governor has put together an Economic Growth and Jobs Package that includes a minimum wage increase over the next several years, fair unemployment insurance for both employers and employees, competitive bidding on public projects, and local employee empowerment zones.  Those programs along with others in the Economic Growth and Jobs Package will produce an economic environment where businesses will thrive, providing secure jobs and wages for the people of our great State.

Student and Career Success Package
The Governor also has plans to turn our schools into flourishing institutions that prepare our students for successful lives after school.  He plans to increase funding, increase parent participation in the classroom, allow more charter schools, reform tenure so high performing teachers are rewarded for their hard work, and improve teacher recruitment to ensure a diverse base of educators for our schools.  We have some of the best kids in the nation right here in Illinois, and it is our duty to make sure they have the tools they need to prosper both in their education and in their future careers.

Tax Empowerment and Government Reform Package
Essential to our State’s growth is government reform.  Government sprawl, special interests, and high taxes have all added to our economic stagnation.  Governor Rauner plans to reform State government through a government consolidation taskforce spearheaded by the Lieutenant Governor.  He also plans to reform the State’s pension system by passing a constitutional amendment and to empower both government employees and local voters to make decisions about our State.  At this time in our State the Governor’s plans are crucial to our success.

Conclusion
While the Governor’s plans may be politically unpopular to some in our capital, all of us need to remember that government cannot fulfill everyone’s wishes.  In the words of Former President Gerald Ford, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

As always, you can reach myself or Sally at 815/232-0774 or e-mail us at repstewart@gmail.com.  You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or on Facebook.
Session has been a whirlwind so far; from the Governor’s State of the State Address to the Budget Address to the deadline for new House bills a week ago, my colleagues and I are working hard to keep up.  Many of us are thinking that, based on the recent political environment in Springfield, this year’s session will be extended into the summer months.  The FY16 budget is the driving force behind many issues facing us, and budget negotiations have begun and will continue as we get closer to the May 31st deadline.

Amidst all the busyness, I was honored to host Governor Bruce Rauner in Freeport this past Thursday.  The Governor came to inform local officials and business leaders about how his Turnaround Agenda will empower voters and give them more local control.  He said that many of the changes we need to make to resolve our economic and financial issues will be difficult changes, but they are necessary to put us back on sound footing.  The Governor also stated during his visit that surrounding states have learned how to become financially viable and to live within their means during challenging economic times.  His goal, he says, is to help Illinois do the same.  I realize that there will be some who don’t agree, but it is now or never for Illinois, and if we work together and make the tough and sometimes unpopular decisions, we can make Illinois the greatest state in the country again. 

It’s been my privilege to work with talented colleagues in the General Assembly to introduce new legislation.  One of the bills that I introduced is House Bill 3889 which seeks to amend the Economic Development for a Growing Economy Tax Credit Act.  The bill removes provisions concerning conditions that must be met before an incentive is given to a business to remain or locate in Illinois. Before Illinois gives incentives to businesses to remain or locate in Illinois, they must first get a competitive proposal from another state.  These businesses then take their proposal from Illinois to another state to see what incentives they would give them to locate there.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone that our surrounding states easily beat our proposal, leading to numerous businesses in Illinois moving to Iowa, Wisconsin, and other states surrounding Illinois.  JoDaviess County alone has lost at least four companies in the past two years due to this clause in the act. I will continue to provide you more information on legislation I have sponsored in future columns.

I believe our State has a great future ahead of it, but that future pivots on what we do this year to set the precedent.  We face serious challenges that will test every legislator’s ability to find some common ground.  At this time in our State’s history, political ties are meaningless and the titles Democrat and Republicans should be disregarded.  We are, instead, first and foremost citizens of Illinois.  Of partisan politics, John F. Kennedy said “let us not be petty when our cause is so great.  Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our [State’s] future is at stake.  Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause—united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future.”  President Kennedy was obviously speaking on the national level, but I believe his statement can be applied on the level of our State.  Let go of petty issues in favor of a greater cause—that’s my goal in this pivotal time in our State’s history.

Can you add to the conversation? Join me on Facebook and Twitter to let me know your thoughts on the challenges our State faces and how we can combat them.


Springfield… Early this month, Gov. Bruce Rauner issued his 14th executive order to create the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform. State Representatives John Cabello (R-Machesney Park) and Brian Stewart (R-Freeport) were tasked with representing the House Republican Caucus on the commission.

“We a have problem that deserves our full attention and I am confident this is the right step toward taking action,” said Rep. Cabello. “As the Republican Spokesperson for Judiciary-Criminal and 20 years of service in law enforcement, I believe my experience will help bring some new ideas to the commission. We have some serious issues to tackle and I look forward to getting started right away.”

The commission will be tasked with conducting a comprehensive review of the State’s current criminal justice and sentencing structure, sentencing practices, community supervision, and the use of the alternatives to incarceration.

“Recidivism in Illinois is dangerously high,” said Rep. Stewart. “48 percent of adult inmates and 53 percent of juveniles released from incarceration return within three years. This statistic should be shocking, but unfortunately it is a reality that we must address. As a former law enforcement officer, I understand this is going to be a challenge. However, Gov. Rauner’s swift action to create this commission could be the remedy to solving this vital issue.”

Imprisonment is Illinois’ most expensive form of criminal punishment. Taxpayers spend $1.3 billion on the Department of Corrections and $131 million on the Department of Juvenile Justice each year.  
Last week, Governor Bruce Rauner delivered his first annual budget address.  I believe we can all agree that it’s not perfect, but it illustrates the financial instability our State faces.  As a state, we need to live within our means as we work to pass a bi-partisan budget that will trend toward a much more stable spending environment.

The budget for fiscal year 2016 (FY16) presented by the Governor contains many challenges to traditional spending patterns in Springfield.  The Governor imposed serious cuts on a wide variety of expenditures, especially in areas covered by General Revenue Fund spending ($31.5 billion).  The Governor says Illinois taxation and spending has, for too long, been on autopilot and that he was elected to pull the State’s government out of a death spiral.

The State’s budgetary challenges are no secret, but under Gov. Rauner, these challenges are actually being acknowledged.  For the first time in a decade, the Governor and the General Assembly are starting the budgetary process grounded in the reality of matching revenues with expenditures while paying our required obligations.  He has set a revenue estimate of $32 billion with a clear directive to make that number work. 

The Governor’s introduced FY16 budget is sobering, but it  is built on several core priorities: public safety, education and paying our bills.  The General Assembly is beginning to review this budget and its impact on Illinoisans and will soon be making recommendations as to our shared priorities.  We face hard times ahead of us, but in the end, we must do what it takes to turn Illinois around.

It was a busy week in Springfield.  Along with a full schedule of committee meetings and General Assembly sessions, we were able to pass a bill that I sponsored, Scott’s Law Day HB246.  This bill designates December 23 of every year as a day to honor our public safety workers and to remind drivers throughout the State to slow down and watch for emergency vehicles parked alongside the road.  Scott’s Law was originally enacted in 2002 after Lt. Scott Gillen of the Chicago Fire Department was struck and killed on December 23, 2000 along the Dan Ryan Expressway when a motorist recklessly drove through an accident scene at which Lt. Gillen was assisting.  This legislation commemorates the date to remember the sacrifice of Lt. Scott Gillen and all public safety workers.  Let’s not endanger the individuals who dedicate their lives to protecting us.

I was also pleased to see a strong show of support by our local Farm Bureau members this past Wednesday at the Illinois Farm Bureau event.  I am working to make agriculture and agribusiness a legislative priority in Springfield, and I’m thankful that individuals from our region take the time away from their businesses and farms to lobby for an industry that is at the heart of our region’s economy.


In conclusion, I wanted to take the opportunity to congratulate the Dakota High School wrestling team.  They accomplished a remarkable feat by returning home with six state titles in Class 1A, the most ever won by the program in one season.  Congratulations to the coaching staff and wrestlers for their hard work and determination that led to six State Champions.  Those Champions are Carver James, J.J. Wolfe, Alec Henze, Printice Walls, Nathan Olsen, and Greg Krulas.  In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” Our Dakota wrestling team exemplifies that American courage, imagination and unbeatable determination.  Way to go, team.
Last week in Springfield, we were given our committee assignments.  For the 99th General Assembly, I will serve on the Agriculture & Conservation, Appropriations-Public Safety, Human Services, Judiciary-Criminal, Labor & Commerce, Revenue & Finance, and Veterans’ Affairs.  I believe the array of committee assignments represents the interests of the 89th district, as well as taps my unique experience as a State Representative.  I served in the Army (Veteran’s Affairs); I am retired Stephenson County Sheriff’s Sergeant (Judiciary-Criminal); I run several small businesses (Labor & Commerce and Revenue & Finance); and I’ve worked to create strong ties to the agriculture leaders and industry, so I can represent our farmers and agri-business well.  Human Services will allow me to assist in providing services to those in our region with disabilities and to families in need.  Appropriations-Public Safety maintains purview over the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois State Police, and I will continue to bang the drum for another 25 years, if necessary, about Highway 20 and other road projects.
In recent days, Illinois has seen what it looks like when a politician keeps his word.  Whether you agree with him or not, you can trust that the Governor will do what he says he will.  Governor Rauner stated in his State of the State Address that his goal was to make Illinois the most competitive and compassionate state in America. 
Two examples:
Governor Rauner established the Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandate Task Force of which Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti will be Chair.  Illinois leads the nation with nearly 7,000 units of local government, which is higher by 1,800 more than any other State.  Some of these unnecessary layers of government are why hardworking families end up paying some of the highest property taxes in the nation.  Illinois shares more than $6 billion in revenue with local governments but imposes more than 280 state-imposed unfunded mandates on local governments which costs our communities billions.  
Illinois has 905 school and community college districts, the 3rd highest in the country and Illinois school districts have had at least 140 unfunded mandates since 2000.  Now, not all mandates are bad, some can save taxpayer dollars or help provide better services, but that is exactly what this task force will be looking into.  Streamlining local government functions and school districts will help reduce costs and freeing local government from unfunded mandates imposed by the state will save local taxpayers money.  Every dollar saved through this Task Force process adds up and ultimately goes back into the taxpayers’ pocket.
Governor Rauner also explained in his State of the State Address that he plans to reform the criminal justice system, and, on Wednesday of this past week, he started the process of doing just that by creating the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.  The commission will examine the current criminal justice system and sentencing structure to develop comprehensive and evidence-based strategies to improve public safety.  The commission is responsible for recommendations to the Governor that will effectively improve public safety outcomes and reduce the prison population by 25% by the year 2025.  I was honored to be asked by the Governor to serve as a member of this commission.
While I know that some in our district will disagree with the Governor’s recent actions, I believe all of us can respect a Governor who acts on his promises. “There are many qualities that make a great leader,” says Rudy Guiliani. “But having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader.” Our state and country need more of that kind of leadership.


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.