Springfield, IL – While the Legislature is still in the midst of its summer recess, there was activity this week involving two special committees tasked with addressing issues surrounding the state’s Medicaid Reform plan passed last year and tackling the thorny issue of education funding fairness. Meanwhile, this week was also Constitution Week marking the 226th anniversary of the adoption of the US Constitution.
At the center of the joint House and Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Sept. 17 on Medicaid Reform (which I attended) was the state’s contract with Maximus, a company hired to remove ineligible individuals from the state's Medicaid program. The contract was a key component of the 2012 bipartisan Medicaid reform effort. However, in June an arbitrator agreed with the union that using a third party vendor to review Medicaid eligibility violates the state’s contract with the state employees union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).
During the hearing, state officials said they plan to appeal the arbitrator's ruling. According to Department of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) Director Julie Hamos, Maximus has reviewed approximately 15 percent of the state’s Medicaid cases and has already saved taxpayers $44 million with about 125,000 ineligible individuals having been removed from the program.
Also meeting this week was the bipartisan Senate Advisory Committee on Education Funding, which heard testimony about an independent review of Illinois’ school finance system. The report revealed the state has moved away from long-standing funding formulas, originally intended to equalize funding for Illinois schools. It indicated the state’s use of poverty grants has increased dramatically over the last ten years, which has contributed to the funding imbalance between schools in Chicago, suburban and downstate. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), which testified at the hearing, confirmed that over the last decade poverty grant funding has increased from $300 million each year to $1.8 billion annually.
Earlier this year, a report made public by Senate Republicans showed while only 18 percent of the state’s students attend Chicago Public Schools (CPS), CPS receives 48 percent of the state’s poverty grants. What is more troubling is that the state’s steady increase in allocations to the poverty grant program is a funding decision that has occurred with limited review or input from policy makers or the public.
Although poverty grants vary from school district to school district, some metropolitan schools receive nearly eight and a half times the funding compared to some downstate schools. In some situations the imbalance is quite notable. In fact, CPS poverty grant students qualify for $3,000 in funds versus some downstate schools that only receive $355 per pupil.
Obviously, high poverty schools require greater resources than those schools with lower poverty rates but it’s also clear the considerable disparity in the allocation of this funding deserves greater review.
During the hearing, Senate Republican members also questioned why CPS receives guaranteed block grants each year for special education and early childhood education dollars while suburban and downstate schools must submit paperwork to the State Board of Education for review. Another interesting revelation to come out of the hearing this week was an admission by ISBE Superintendent Christopher Koch that overall education funding, from federal, state and local funding, has actually increased 55 percent during the past decade, which is in contrast to the more widely accepted popular notion is that education funding in Illinois has decreased.
Meanwhile, the Senate Advisory Committee on Education Funding is tentatively scheduled to meet again in mid-October and ISBE said it would provide guidance and suggestions on achieving a fair and equitable funding formula at that time.
Finally, this week was Constitution Week, marking the 226th anniversary of the adoption of the US Constitution on September 17, 1787. Perhaps the most incredible part of our Constitution is how it was crafted by the Founding Fathers. Until the US Constitution, never before in the history of the human race or since has any government been founded on the principle that those who govern, govern only by the consent of the people. The United States of America is unique in that regard and it’s is a great responsibility and legacy that we all must share in defending, protecting and passing down to future generations. Constitution Week was officially enacted on August 2, 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower from a congressional resolution petitioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, but it wasn’t publicly declared until President George W. Bush officially did so 11 years ago this month.
While we’re on the subject of constitutions, there is currently an effort underway to amend the Illinois Constitution which would limit legislators and Constitutional officers to eight years of service. I believe it is critical for the future of our state that we return to citizen legislators instead of career politicians. Only then will our legislators vote for what is good for our state instead of what they perceive to be good for their reelection. In addition to term limits, the Amendment would reduce the number of state Senators to 41 from 59 and divide each Senate district into 3 house districts instead of the current 2. It would also increase the majority needed to override a Governor’s veto to two-thirds from the current 60%.