It’s almost a new year, a time for new resolutions. Dan Diamond, a Forbes contributor, says that around 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions every year, and I suggest that Illinois join the ranks of New Year’s resolution makers. If the state needs any help figuring out what resolutions to make for 2015, I've got a few ideas.

1. Illinois should resolve to become a business-friendly state. A recent Gallup poll gave Illinois an F in all things related to business—it’s hard to start a business, hard to hire, hard to jump through government hoops, hard to keep up with the mountain of taxes. The legislature and the governor need to work together to lessen regulation, lower taxes, and make start-up fees lower. Instead of favoring big business with tax loopholes and breaks, Illinois needs to give small business opportunities to succeed. Those small businesses “constitute nearly half the private-sector workforce and contribute two-thirds of job creation,” according to an August 15, 2014 Chicago Tribune article.

2. Illinois should resolve to balance the budget. The 2015 budget leaves a $5 billion shortfall that would take the income tax remaining at 5% to make up the difference. The legislature and the governor need to create a budget for 2016 that does not depend on taxing the good people of Illinois out of house and home. We need to cut spending in places that don’t benefit the people and to live within our means.

3. Illinois should resolve to fix the pension predicament. The state has not fulfilled its obligation to public employees, in essence stealing from the retirement of people who have worked hard to serve the state, the teachers, the police officers, the firemen and the state workers. Illinois needs to keep its promises to its employees but also needs to create a retirement plan for new employees that provides for their retirement but does not cost taxpayers astronomical amounts.

4. Illinois should resolve to reform education funding. The current funding plan favors Chicago and collar county districts and under serves downstate districts. Current state funding funnels money into large Chicago districts but leaves downstate schools to rely on property taxes for the funds to support school programs. The legislature needs to create a plan that funds Chicago and downstate schools equally. Our downstate students are just as important as city students and deserve the same opportunities and programs that city students are given.

5. Illinois should resolve to throw out partisan politics. Partisan politics on both sides of the aisle has done nothing to help our state. Politicians create programs that benefit them or their party but don’t necessarily benefit the good of the people. For 2015, politicians need to forget about their own personal ambitions to create an environment that fosters economic and social growth.

6. Illinois should resolve to audit state aid programs. An audit this spring “found that the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services had 8,232 people still on Medicaid rolls qualifying for benefits, even though they were dead,” according to a May 29, 2014 Sun Times article. Other state aid programs need auditing to ensure that enrollees are still alive and still in need of aid and are actually still eligible. The state should also encourage individuals who are able to work to find jobs instead of only working a certain amount of hours so they can continue receiving state aid.

7. Illinois should resolve to keep the income tax burden manageable. The personal income tax is set to roll back to 3.75% on January 1, 2015, and it should stay that way. Illinois families struggle to keep up with escalating property taxes and federal taxes in addition to the recent tax increase that the Governor and state legislature promised was only temporary. Illinois needs to allow its people to thrive instead of just barely survive on the little left over after federal, state, county, and local taxes.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” As we come to the end of a year, we have a new beginning ahead of us. Let’s use it to make a difference in the lives of the people of Illinois.

Happy New Year to you all!

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 don’t know about you, but the Christmas season sometimes gets so busy that I don’t have time to enjoy it the way I would like.  The parties, the shopping, the traffic—it tends to overtake Christmas.  I want to take a break from all of that right now, from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season and from the politics we’ve all had to endure in recent months.  I want you to take a break and reflect on all that we have to be thankful for in Northwest Illinois.
 
First, I’m thankful for the people I get to serve.  You are the reason I go to Springfield every spring and fall, the reason I put up with the nonsense that often goes on in the Illinois General Assembly.  And I count every second a privilege.  If you ask me, there’s not another more hardworking group of people in the country than those of you in northwest Illinois, and I want to make sure your voice gets heard in our state government.  I am honored to serve you in Springfield.

Second, I’m thankful for the people I get to serve with.  In spite of all the things that happen in Springfield, I’ve got some great colleagues who work hard to make sure their constituents get what they need, not what some others think you may want.  I’m also excited that we get a fresh start with a new governor who will help turn our economic mess around.

Third, I’m thankful for our local law enforcement and firefighters.  In addition to working to keep our communities safe, they also strive to make sure kids in our region have a Merry Christmas.  Local police officers take area kids Christmas shopping at Walmart so those kids can have gifts under the tree, and firefighters hold an annual auction and raffle to buy gifts for kids with special needs.

Fourth, I’m thankful for our military both stateside and serving across the globe.  Those men and women in uniform are protecting our founding principles and the privilege of being an American.  Tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines will be far from their families this Holiday Season and we cannot thank them enough or be grateful enough for their sacrifices. 

Fifth, I am thankful for our local churches.  We’ve got some great churches here who strive all year long to meet the spiritual needs of Northwest Illinois, and they remind us of the true reason for the Christmas season.
 
Sixth, I’m thankful for our area nonprofits who work to help the less fortunate.  From the Freeport Pregnancy Center, an organization that helps young mothers through pregnancy and teaches them how to care for their young children; to Gigi’s Playhouse a one-of-kind achievement center for individuals with Down syndrome, their families, and the community; to United Way, an organization that mobilizes communities in caring for their own, we’ve got some excellent nonprofits serving our communities.  Why not serve them this Christmas season by donating your money or your time?

Lastly, and more importantly I am thankful for my family, friends, staff and co-workers for their ongoing faith and commitment.  Words cannot express how fortunate I am to be blessed with your support.    

This Christmas season, I wish you a day that is, as Margaret Thatcher said, “a day of meaning and traditions, a special day spent in the warm circle of family and friends.” Slow down, forget the bustle of the season, and enjoy all that you have been given. Merry Christmas to you all.

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.
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.