The Senate President and House Speaker continued to play politics with higher education during the week, voting to add more than $700 million to the deficit and ignoring other proposals that would adequately fund grants for college students, as well as community colleges and universities.
Though other lawmakers repeatedly offered up compromise legislation to direct state funding to the state’s universities, community colleges and Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant, the House adjourned for a month without acting on any of those proposals, forcing students and the higher education community to wait at least another month. The Senate is scheduled to return on March 8, but the House is out until April 4, which leaves the General Assembly without an opportunity to resolve these issues.
Lawmakers from both parties did come together with Governor Bruce Rauner to discuss bipartisan legislation to reform Illinois’ criminal justice system. The proposals seek to reduce recidivism, prison admissions and the length of incarceration through reforms to judicial sentencing, electronic monitoring and better preparing inmates to re-enter society upon release.
In other Statehouse news during the week, a controversial labor arbitration proposal that would remove the Governor from labor negotiations was pushed through the General Assembly yet again.
House Speaker adjourns without acting on higher ed funding
Though higher education and MAP grants haven’t received state aid since July 1, the House adjourned for a month without acting on any of the numerous funding proposals still on the table to finance MAP grant assistance and community colleges and universities. The Senate is scheduled to return on March 8, but the House is out until April 4, offering no time for the General Assembly to resolve the issue before early April.
Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to push through legislation (Senate Bill 2043) that would have added more than $700 million to the state deficit and given students and community colleges the false hope of funding since there was no revenue stream provided for the measure. The proposal also failed to include any operating funds for the state’s four-year universities. Senate Bill 2043 was passed by the Senate but did not receive enough votes to pass the House.
Working together on criminal justice reform
Governor Rauner and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together March 2 to highlight bipartisan legislation to help reform Illinois’ criminal justice system.
Three bills were introduced to address judicial sentencing, electronic monitoring, and to better prepare offenders upon release from leaving prison. The reform package includes a measure (Senate Bill 3164) requiring review of a pre-sentencing report, as well as an explanation prior to sentencing as to why incarceration is appropriate for an offender with no prior probation sentences or prison convictions.
Last year, nearly 60 percent of new prison admissions for Class 3 or 4 felonies had no prior convictions for violent crimes. Supporters of the proposal explained that probation could be a better option for offenders with no prior probation or convictions, noting that incarceration of those unlikely to repeat offend inefficiently uses prison resources and potentially makes offenders more susceptible to reoffending.
Another measure, Senate Bill 3294, expands the use of electronic monitoring to help transition offenders back into society. This will increase public safety and reduce costs by more effectively focusing the Illinois Department of Correction’s (IDOC) supervision and programming resources on reducing recidivism.
To help offenders transition into society more easily, Senate Bill 3368 requires the Secretary of State and IDOC to work together to provide state identification for offenders leaving IDOC. Proponents explain that without identification, offenders attempting to reenter society find it difficult, if not impossible, to secure employment, housing or pursue educational opportunities.
According to the IDOC, Illinois prisons have reached a capacity level of 147 percent, nearly 50,000 people, and it costs nearly $40,000 to incarcerate just one individual per year. Governor Rauner has stated many times that he would like to see the prison population in Illinois drastically reduced.
Arbitration bill once again heads to Governor
A controversial “binding arbitration” measure is once again headed to the Governor. An identical measure was advanced by Democrat leaders late last year, but it failed to become law when enough support could not be mustered to override Governor Rauner’s veto of the legislation.
During the week, legislation was again passed to place the process of determining the outcome of taxpayer-paid, multi-billion-dollar labor agreements between the Governor and state employee unions in the hands of an unelected arbitrator. House Bill 580 was characterized by opponents as a $3 billion tax that removes a duly-elected governor from union negotiations in the event of a contract dispute. Additionally, locally-elected union representatives would be removed from the process, and critics questioned a provision in the legislation that would have removed the union’s ability to strike.
The Governor is expected to once again veto the legislation.