Faced with a $1.6 billion FY15 budget deficit upon taking office, Governor Bruce Rauner almost immediately asked for executive powers to reorganize spending and enable the State to get through the fiscal year, which covers spending needs through June 30, 2015.

Without immediate action, the State would have been unable to make payroll at Illinois prisons, low-income working families would lose their child care assistance, court reporters would be laid off and money for services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled would run out. In addition, inaction would have further delayed and perhaps jeopardized critical categorical school funding and State aid payments.

After negotiations in which House Republicans were full participants, the General Assembly agreed last week to language contained in HB 317 and HB 318. HB 317, an appropriations bill, made cuts and transfers in State spending. HB 318, a budget implementation bill, granted the Governor the legal authority to carry out and implement the cuts in spending and spending transfers made in HB 317. Together, these bills work to fill critical holes in the deliberately unbalanced FY15 budget passed by majority Democrats and signed by former Governor Quinn.

Longtime Chicago-area firm, Kraft Foods, announces deal to be acquired. The acquisition partner is Pittsburgh-based HJ Heinz, backed by 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett’s longtime interest in established American consumer brands turned to the owner of “Jell-O” jellied desserts, “Kool-Aid” sweet drinks, “Kraft” cheeses, “Maxwell House” coffee, “Oscar Mayer” prepared meats, and “Planters” nuts, as well as a wide variety of other consumer products. The deal, announced on Wednesday, March 25, was slated to present Kraft Foods shareholders with approximately $50 billion in cash and Kraft Heinz stock based on market trading prices posted on that day.

Prospects for Kraft’s corporate headquarters in Northfield, Illinois were not certain. Preliminary press announcements indicated that the merged Kraft Heinz would retain executive operations in both Illinois and Pennsylvania, for now. However, few observers of U.S. corporate customs expect Kraft Foods’ Illinois jobs to remain in place indefinitely.    
My Colleague in the House, Rep. Keith Sommer has brought legislation to recognize personnel killed on active duty training. State law would be changed to allow the flying of flags at half-staff for Illinois military personnel killed while training on active duty under the new legislation. The bill passed the House Veterans Affairs committee on Thursday of last week by a unanimous vote following testimony from Dale Nannen of Hopedale whose son was killed in a Marine Corps training accident last year.

The legislation was inspired by the funeral of Marine Corps Major Reid B. Nannen of Hopedale, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan who was killed March 1, 2014, when his F/A-18C Hornet crashed at the Fallon Grange Training Complex in Nevada. At the time of his funeral, state law only allowed the Governor to direct flags to be flown at half-staff for members of the armed forces killed by hostile fire, not in training.

Read more on this story at The Caucus Blog.

Up until this month, the Illinois State Police have required Illinois firearms owners to submit paper applications for a concealed carry permits. However, starting this month, the State Police have begun to accept concealed carry permit applications online. This follows up on the startup period of the Firearm Concealed Carry Act, in which more than 91,000 Illinois residents have earned permits that enable them to carry concealed firearms. The Act became state law in July 2013 as Public Act 98-0063.

The Firearm Concealed Carry Act, which made Illinois the 50th and final state to have a concealed carry law on the books, was enacted as the result of a strong push from members of the Illinois State Rifle Association, which held their annual lobby day this week at the Illinois State Capitol. Gun owners gathered in Springfield on Wednesday, March 18 to push to defend and expand the law. Illinois residents continue to be subjected to time-consuming requirements as elements of the concealed-carry permit application process under current law.
"Today, the Illinois House of Representatives took its first steps toward working with Gov. Rauner in repairing Illinois’ fiscal catastrophe. Gov. Rauner inherited a fiscal year 2015 budget from former Gov. Quinn that was out of balance by $1.6 billion requiring immediate action to save necessary services.

By passing legislation today, we ensure that the state will be able to provide essential funding for child care services and prevent payroll shortfalls, while also keeping our prisons and courtrooms open. Although, the most important part of this legislation is that it saves funding for our states most vulnerable, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

I have said before that the next couple years will be difficult, but tough decisions will need to be made."
HB 437 will authorize municipalities and counties to approve one-day compostable waste collection events. Creation of these one-day events, which will be operated in a manner similar to one-day yard sale event days, will encourage homeowners to work with compostable waste collectors to turn their yard waste and compostable household garbage into useful materials.

As more and more communities ban the burning of leaves and lawn waste, homeowners are facing challenges. In some cases, the anaerobic bacteria active in the final stage of a compost pile can create odors, and the compost pile is not acceptable to neighbors. A neighborhood compostable collection program can move the final stage of the composting process into a low-density residential area and help create a compost chain that will be acceptable to all parties. HB 437 was unanimously approved by the House Environment Committee on Tuesday, March 17. The bill now goes to the full House for further discussion and debate.
Have you ever wondered what life was like for children in the past? Now open at the Lake County Discovery Museum, "Growing Up in Lake County" shares the everyday and extraordinary stories of children who grew up in the county. Try your hand at living and working on a pioneer homestead. Discover what life was like for a young drummer boy in the Civil War. Learn about the first African-American family to settle in the county. Attend school in a one-room schoolhouse and play as children did over 100 years ago. Through real artifacts, historical accounts and hands-on experiences, children connect the stories of the past to their own lives in this new exhibition for families.
The Illinois Tax Refund Alert system, rolled out this spring by new Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger, allows taxpayers to monitor the status of their Illinois tax returns, including an automated text-messaging system. Similar to the familiar warnings that many of us get when our phone or cable bill is due, the test message will tell eligible taxpayers of their payment notifications. Registration is free through this portal: myrefund.illinoiscomptroller.com.

This week, Representative Barbara Wheeler (R-Crystal Lake) has kept-up her busy start to the 2015 legislative session by passing her first bill of the year with the support of the full House of Representatives. House Bill 299 will provide a direct benefit to a unique problem in Lake and McHenry counties with regards to security officers in each county’s court system.

“As I’ve said before, my number one focus when I consider legislation in Springfield is how it will impact my constituents at home,” said Wheeler. “The counties brought this unique issue with court security officers to my attention and it made perfect sense to bring it before the House and get it resolved in as timely a manner as possible. The bill clarifies an aspect of state law so that our court systems are able to function more smoothly and without unnecessary bureaucrat confusion.”

The facility for specialized medical education would be physically separate, and separate in its mission statement, from the existing “U of I” school on the Medical Campus of the West Side of Chicago. University President Robert Easter announced on Wednesday, March 11 (read more here) that he would recommend that the Board of Trustees approve the Champaign-Urbana medical school project.

Under the proposal, the University of Illinois’ Downstate hub campus will become the center of a cooperative center of medical education and bioengineering research and development. The proposed medical school will leverage the University’s established Champaign-Urbana presence in engineering sciences. The medical school is expected to work in financial and clinical affiliation with the Urbana-based Carle Foundation Hospital System. The Carle alliance could create a platform to test new medical devices and therapies in a clinical setting. This potential Champaign-Urbana operating model contrasts with the traditional teaching-hospital role of the Chicago-based University of Illinois-Chicago medical school and hospital.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) operates 25 prisons throughout Illinois. The Department also operates boot camps, work camps and adult transition centers. Nearly 49,000 persons are residents of State of Illinois confinement facilities. In addition, IDOC supervises about 29,000 men and women who are on parole.

With an annual budget of more than $1.3 billion, IDOC is on the front lines not only of Illinois’ public-safety and security needs but also its current budget situation. Governor Rauner has gone outside Illinois to appoint a new director for the Department. Donald Stolworthy (read more in the SouthernIllinoisan), age 54, will head Illinois’ correctional system. After becoming experienced in corrections management in the Alaska Department of Corrections, Stolworthy moved to the federal government and worked at a high-ranking executive level in Iraq and in the international War on Drugs.

The state’s 529 prepaid tuition plan, College Illinois, offers families a flexible and affordable option to prepay college tuition, locking in tuition rates at today’s current prices so that no matter how high tuition rates climb, by the time a child or grandchild is ready to attend college families can breathe easy knowing tuition is covered. Prices on plans have been reduced by up to 29%, making a College Illinois prepaid plan available to fit almost any budget.

College Illinois tuition benefits can actually be used at almost any public or private college or university within Illinois or across the country. As a state 529 plan, College Illinois also offers great tax benefits and flexible payment options. All plan contributions are kept in a separate Prepaid Tuition Trust Fund, which by law can only be used to pay tuition benefits and run the program.

Representative Barbara Wheeler’s (R-Crystal Lake) legislation to protect law enforcement, correctional officers, and employees of those agencies in the performance of their duties moves closer to passage. Wheeler’s legislation, House Bill 341, amends the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act to ensure that law enforcement and corrections officials have the ability to conduct their duties in dealing with incarcerated or paroled individuals without risk of criminal or civil liability. This unintended consequence was brought to Wheeler’s attention thanks to the efforts of Bull Valley Police Chief Jim Page.

“This legislation provides an important fix to an unintended aspect of the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program,” said Wheeler. “Our state’s law enforcement and corrections officials need to be able to perform their duties without having to second guess themselves because of an unintended consequence of a new law. I’m glad my legislative colleagues agree and I look forward to sending this legislation to the Senate for approval very soon.”
PARCC standardized tests, which utilize an online platform that students are expected to interact with as they take the test (rather than the format, familiar to their parents, of filling in bubbles on a piece of paper) began to be administered throughout Illinois on Monday, March 9. The testing cycle is expected to continue for approximately four weeks. Data from the test will be used to evaluate Illinois public and charter school students, teachers, schools and school systems.

Many parents are concerned about the new PARCC system, which from their point of view was sprung on their children without recourse and without sufficient warning. No current law allows parents to withdraw their children from the PARCC test, which is supposed to be given to every eligible child in order to generate statistically significant results that can be used to gauge everyone’s performance. Furthermore, the federal government has sent warning letters to Illinois’ State Board of Education (http://www.isbe.state.il.us/) to remind educators of the nexus between federal school aid and compliance with the order that students all take the test.
Outreach by the bikers’ group climaxed with their Legislative Day on Wednesday, March 4. Items on ABATE’s 2015 agenda center support for bills that will make biking safer across Illinois, and encourage group biking events. Key bills include HB 3538 (Wheeler) to encourage and further authorize community groups to operate locally licensed, supervised poker run fundraisers, and HB 3944 (Bennett) to authorize new forms of safety lighting on motorcycles operating at night.

ABATE and the Illinois Department of Transportation encouraged further participation in the Illinois Ride Smart program, a volunteer bikers’ education program to improve biker safety. This cooperative awareness program encourages bikers and public-response teams to learn more about bike safety checks, biker high-visibility clothing, and free motorcycle training classes offered throughout Illinois with the cooperation of the Illinois Motorcycle Dealers Association.

With the FY15 budget more than $1.6 billion out of balance, more and more sub-sectors of the Illinois economy were affected this week. House Republicans reaffirmed their commitment to solving issues related to immediate funding issues faced by child care, corrections, and court reporter sectors of the economy.

“The unbalanced FY15 budget needs to be corrected immediately and brought into balance,” asserted House Republican Leader Jim Durkin on Tuesday, March 3. Pointing to the State’s failure under former Gov. Pat Quinn to meet its constitutional responsibility to enact a balanced budget, Durkin and his leadership team pledged to help “clean up the mess Governor Rauner inherited on January 12, 2015.”

The COWL Scholarship seeks to maximize educational opportunities for all income levels by offering tuition assistance to mature (age 25 or older), deserving women who show evidence of furthering their education in order to make a contribution to their government, children, families, and community. The one-year undergraduate scholarship will cover tuition, books and fees up to $2500 per year, including summer school.

COWL endeavors to support women who, for various reasons, have not had the opportunity to begin or complete their education at an earlier stage due to life changes and/or financial difficulties. Further, COWL encourages women of all races, religions, creeds, and ethnic backgrounds to apply for the scholarship.

Applicants for the scholarship must meet certain requirements to be eligible. In addition to being a woman 25 years of age or older, she must be an Illinois resident and plan to attend an accredited on-campus school in Illinois for at least six semester hours. (Online colleges are not eligible.)

Representative Barbara Wheeler (R-Crystal Lake) filed House Resolution 9 (HR9) in January to call on House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) to enact a special committee in the House to examine the existing school funding formula. Her efforts have borne fruit as the Speaker just created a special task force, to which Wheeler has been assigned, to do just that. Wheeler’s efforts came from the out-cry over last year’s Senate Bill 16 (SB16), reintroduced as Senate Bill 1 (SB1) this year.

“After numerous calls from my colleagues and I, I’m pleased to see that the Speaker has heard our voices to have the House thoroughly examine the education funding formula change that the Senate tried to force through last year, and is attempting to do again this year” said Wheeler. “The House was never given a chance to review our state’s current funding breakdown, which led to a very bad bill. I’m looking forward to this opportunity to bring my experience as an educator to the table and make recommendations that will provide a beneficial restructuring to our school funding formula that improves education for all Illinois children.”

Located throughout Illinois, the National Register sites are recognized as part of the historic fabric of their communities. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IAPA) released the news on Monday, February 23: https://www.illinois.gov/ihpa/news/Pages/2014-National-Register.aspx. New sites added to the national registry include the brick-built railroad depot (http://www.nps.gov/liho/great-western-depot.htm) from which Abraham Lincoln waved good-bye as his train left Springfield, Illinois for Washington, D.C. in February 1861.

In a change of emphasis, the National Register has begun listing historic downtown community centers, including central-city blocks that are currently redeveloping themselves or hope to redevelop. Two Illinois downtowns, in East St. Louis and Elgin, are included in the 2015 listing. Elgin’s Downtown Historic District is acclaimed as showing off a transition in Illinois retail activity, from shop-front buildings built in the 1800s to department stores in the 1900s. The Associated Press and its partner, the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” describe 16 of the newly-listed sites: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/illinois/illinois-sites-joining-national-register-of-historic-places/article_830ff37a-388f-5461-8764-ba874be6fdd4.html

The Department of Homeland Security (http://www.dhs.gov/), acting as implementer of the REAL ID Act of 2005, has directed all 50 states to push their adult residents toward universal possession of a standardized identification card. The “REAL ID Card” is expected to replace the familiar state drivers’ license cards possessed by millions of Americans and (http://www.dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs) is expected to be significantly more secure than a driver’s license.

Persons will not be eligible to receive a REAL ID Card until they have presented several redundant, secure, and verifiable documents of their identity, including a birth certificate or other proof of lawful status within the United States. Unfortunately, the costs of implanting this program and the verification requirements are anticipated to be significant. The Secretary of State’s office believes that the compliance costs of verifying this documentation will be approximately $3.75 million per year.

Newly-elected Representative Peter Breen moves resolution honoring veterans for service. The resolution, HR 75 (http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocTypeID=HR&DocNum=75&GAID=13&SessionID=88&LegID=84712), recognizes and shows support for the future National Desert Storm War Memorial in Washington. It designates February 28, 2015 as Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield Day in Illinois.

Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm was the 1990-91 war that reestablished control over Kuwait from Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, which had conquered the oil-rich Persian Gulf state. The U.S. armed forces led an international coalition of tactical air, armor, naval, and Special Forces in a flanking movement around the Iraqi army to force it to retreat and regain control of Kuwait. The National Desert Storm War Memorial (http://www.nationaldesertstormwarmemorial.org/) is expected to create a permanent installation of honor to remember the sacrifices made by the personnel stationed in the war zone.

A bipartisan committee created by the Illinois House has been asked to look into redoubling efforts by Illinois school districts to prevent school shootings and lethal violence in places of education. The Violence Prevention Task Force met for the first time in Chicago on Monday, February 23. The lead witness at the inaugural hearing was Diana Rauner, president of the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund.

One key goal of the committee is to study the recommendations being put into practice in other states such as Connecticut. The eastern state was the site of the widely-covered Sandy Hook school shooting incident in December 2012. Connecticut reforms enacted after the massacre include increasing the security of school buildings, increasing the monitoring of entry and exit points into school buildings and school properties, and improving the speed and frequency of school evacuation drills.
The budget reform work necessary to finish up Fiscal Year 2015 and start FY16 remained on the table this week as Illinois House committees began to hold hearings on Illinois spending plans. The first hearings by the House appropriations committees (http://www.ilga.gov/house/committees/hearing.asp?HearingID=12366&CommitteeID=1538) began on Thursday, February 26.

In the first committee hearing, the new heads of three of the State’s biggest-spending agencies – the Department of Public Health (DPH), the Department of Human Services (DHS), and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services (DHFS) – introduced themselves to the House of Representatives. All three were appointed by Governor Bruce Rauner. Major work will be necessary to develop a spending program that does not flow money out faster than it comes in. DHFS (http://www2.illinois.gov/hfs/Pages/default.aspx), in particular, is a department of key interest to budget watchers. It handles the multi-billion-dollar Illinois Medicaid program. Controversial decisions and hard choices are expected to be made. Representative Patti Bellock has taken the lead in working pushing for Medicaid budget reforms. A DHFS overview of the implementation of the reforms so far enacted, and the current budget status of Medicaid, can be found here (http://www2.illinois.gov/hfs/agency/Pages/Budget.aspx).