Althoff Summarizes Week

A press release from State Senator Pam Althoff:

Senate Week in Review: Jan. 7 – 11, 2013

Springfield, Ill. – The January “lame-duck” session ended, leaving most major issues pending for 98th General Assembly lawmakers to take up during the spring session, according to State Sen. Pamela Althoff (R-Crystal Lake).

The Senate Republican Caucus welcomed five new members on Jan. 9, all of whom joined seasoned GOP Caucus members in saying Illinois legislators have their work cut out for them during the 2013 session.

The Inauguration of the 98th General Assembly marks the beginning of Althoff’s sixth General Assembly in the Illinois Senate.

Althoff was appointed to serve as the Caucus Chair as a part of the Senate Republican Caucus leadership by Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont). She was previously the Republican Caucus Whip for the 97th General Assembly. Althoff is honored by the appointment and looks forward to a challenging, yet productive two years ahead.

“I am honored to serve the caucus as Caucus Chair for this new General Assembly,” Althoff said. “We have a lot of issues that must be addressed in the coming months, and those issues are going to require bipartisan solutions and collaboration. I anticipate working well with all my Senate colleagues, as I always have, to enact meaningful reform. We literally cannot afford to wait much longer to solve these issues.”

Althoff said she looks forward to tackling the challenges ahead as she continues to work to bring fiscal responsibility to the state.

As second year of tax increase comes to an end, a new report shows Illinois remains dead last in pension funding

Nothing underscores Illinois’ challenges more strongly than the second anniversary of the Democrats’ 67 percent income tax increase. Two years ago, Senate President John Cullerton advocated for the hike as a way to pay off old bills and resolve the state’s financial problems, saying: “The purpose of this bill is to raise enough money so that we can continue to pay our pensions without borrowing the money. To pay off our debt. To have enough money to pay the interest on that debt.”

Led by Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Cullerton, Democrat lawmakers took advantage of a lame-duck session to push through the largest income tax hike in state history during the wee hours of Jan. 11, 2011. Senate Republicans voted against the hike, making arguments that now seem prophetic considering the Democrats’ “temporary” tax increase has neither made a dent in the state’s unfunded pension liabilities, nor has it been used to pay down the backlog of obligations owed to Medicaid providers or state vendors.

Pam Althoff on Senate Floor.  Photo credit: Senate Republican Staff.

Pam Althoff on Senate Floor. Photo credit: Senate Republican Staff.

Two years after the Democrats’ giant tax increase, Illinois’ finances remain in shambles, public employee pension reform remains in limbo, and the backlog of bills remains in the billions. Althoff said that though Democrat leaders pushed the tax hike as a way to pay off old bills and resolve the state’s financial problems, insisting they would eventually roll back the increase, they have continued to spend as though the increase will be permanent. Taxpayers are paying more, with nothing positive to show for their forced contributions.

In fact, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka recently told a House Executive Committee that the state’s current bill backlog tops $9 billion, as she testified against proposed legislation to borrow $4 billion to pay down those same bills Democrats said would be eliminated using tax increase revenues. And while Illinois has become accustomed to lackluster showings in national rankings over the last decade, some may find it ironic that as the state ends its second year of the “problem-solving” income tax increase, a new report in Crain’s Chicago Business shows Illinois continues to rank dead-last in pension funding.

Public employee pension reform continues to reign as the most critical issue facing the General Assembly, as lawmakers adjourned the 97th General Assembly without acting on a pension reform plan. Though Gov. Quinn spoke to a House Committee on Jan. 8, throwing his support behind a last-minute bill to set up a commission charged with designing and implementing a pension fix, the House of Representatives adjourned without considering Quinn’s proposal.

The Governor’s plan—widely thought to have been ruled unconstitutional if it had been approved—would have required the panel to issue a report outlining pension changes that would become law unless lawmakers took action to overturn the proposed changes. Action on the hot-button issue now carries over to the 98th General Assembly, who will take up work on the politically-charged pension reform efforts.

Illinois has long been home to the worst-funded pension reform system in the country, with more than $94 billion in unfunded liabilities. This week’s Crain’s reported that, “According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest Annual Survey of Public Pensions in fiscal 2011, Illinois had $89.29 billion in total cash and investments to cover $175.59 billion in obligations to current and future retirees. By that count, the Land of Lincoln has a 50.9 percent funded ratio — worst among the 50 states.”

The report went on to say that an 80 percent funding threshold is “generally viewed as being acceptable to support future pension costs” according to a 2007 Government Accountability Report. However, Crain’s also reported the American Academy of Actuaries takes a more stringent view that the 80 percent standard is “a myth,” and arguing that “pension plans should have a strategy in place to attain or maintain a funded status of 100 percent or greater over a reasonable period of time.”

Illinois’ 50 percent funding falls woefully short of either threshold, and though the state’s unfunded pension liabilities exceed $90 billion, many consider even those figures to be optimistic, placing the funding ratio lower and the total debt much higher. Poor fiscal management under Governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn has led to numerous downgrades to Illinois’ credit rating and credit outlook in recent years.

Most recently, Moody’s Investors Service saw the glass as half empty in December when it downgraded Illinois’ credit outlook to negative from stable, citing “pension funding pressures” as a primary cause for concern. Illinois in 2012 already slipped to an A2 rating, worst among the states Moody’s rates.

Lame-duck session ends, leaving major issues pending

Pam Althoff.  Photo credit: Senate Republican staff.

Pam Althoff. Photo credit: Senate Republican staff.

Pension reform wasn’t the only issue stakeholders hoped lawmakers would address in early January. It was speculated that the General Assembly would act on some controversial issues, such as same-sex marriage or legalization of medical marijuana, but the lame-duck session ended without any of these measures advancing to Gov. Quinn for consideration.

Despite inaction on some legislative fronts, House lawmakers did approve legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary driver’s licenses. Having already been approved by the Senate, Senate Bill 957 now moves to the Governor, who has said he supports the measure.

The legislation had bipartisan support from lawmakers who said allowing undocumented residents to apply for a driver’s license will increase safety for all motorists, who have been sharing the road with an estimated 250,000 drivers who are not trained, tested, licensed or insured. However, opponents argued the licensing amounts to the government sanctioning the violation of immigration laws, and suggested that similar laws in other states opened the door for fraudulent behavior, without dramatically increasing the number of uninsured drivers.

And while some hoped lawmakers and the Governor would come to an agreement on a new gaming expansion package for Illinois, that proposal failed to materialize. On Jan. 8, Senate President John Cullerton quietly sent Quinn gaming expansion legislation that had been approved by lawmakers in 2011, but held through procedural maneuvering. The move took some by surprise, though Quinn’s previous criticism of the package indicates it’s unlikely he will sign the bill into law.

Attorney General appeals court ruling on right-to-carry

A decision by Attorney General Lisa Madigan to ask for a federal court rehearing on a major gun rights could delay the quick adoption of right-to-carry legislation in Illinois. The appeal by the Attorney General could potentially set back efforts to construct concealed-carry legislation to meet a federal court directive.

On January 8, Attorney General Madigan sought an appeal to that decision asking for the full U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decision and make a ruling. The smaller panel decided that state lawmakers had 180 days to pass a concealed-carry statute to enable gun owners to join citizens in 49 other states with similar laws.

The Attorney General’s appeal has had little effect in slowing efforts by pro-Second Amendment legislators to begin drafting new concealed-carry bills to meet the three-member panel’s 180-day deadline. Conversely, recent gun tragedies and the nation’s-highest homicide rate have prompted Chicago-area lawmakers to draft counter assault-weapons bans and other purchasing restrictions.

Specific proposals have not emerged yet, but expect several proposals to be formally introduced because gun issues were a major topic of the recent “lame duck” legislative session.

If lawmakers fail to meet the deadline, many of the state’s current statutes on firearms could be ruled null and void. Despite the rules on right-to-carry, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has said he intends to push new restrictions on firearms in the city, after gun control measures died during the lame-duck legislative session. Traditionally, the Chicago Mayor’s plan has taken a very restrictive view on concealed-carry and firearm ownership.

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