Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Action in August

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Lazy, hazy days of summer, bill signings, and campaign fundraisers. 

Baseball is still the national past-time. But after that, politicians and political groupies like to speculate about the statistically tied battle for the White House.  People have opinions. VP pick for the Republican ticket: bold and brilliant or not?  What will it take to swing a swing state into the right camp?  

It is much more fun to argue about the influence of campaign spending than about pension reform.  That is, unless you are counting on a state pension in which case, that is all you want to talk about.  Or you are Governor Quinn, alarmed at what a credit rating downgrade decision, which is being tied to failure to achieve pension reform, will do to the state's ability to do standard short-term borrowing.  However, at most summer gatherings of politicians, lobbyists, advocates, staff, and all others who frequent the Capital corridors, people are relieved to take a break from the grim and seemingly hopeless topics of pension reform and the state budget.   It feels like people are on break from serious thinking.

But appearances are deceptive.

All twelve legislators who make up the bi-partisan Joint Committee of the Administrative Rules (JCAR) showed up to a meeting. This is unheard for August. For those who have never heard of JCAR, JCAR oversees the administrative rule-making of the state agencies, making decisions on the legality of rules, not on the substance.  In other words, they decide if a state agency correctly wrote a rule implementing legislation but they don't opine about the legislation itself. Rules are the vehicle for translating legislative policy into action. In general, this work doesn't attract much attention.

Not so this summer. Early in July, the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services issued emergency rules that cut millions of dollars to the hospitals, based on their interpretation of the Medicaid reduction act known as the SMART Act. The lobbyists, board members and staff of the hospitals disagreed with HFS. To overturn the HFS decision, they took their case to each of the 12 JCAR legislators. They personally made sure that each of those 12 was there to vote on August 14.  Eight votes were needed to stop the rules; the final vote was 12-0.  Now, these folks can take an August vacation… or maybe not.

Beneath the surface, much work in preparation for the 2012 Veto Session (November 27-29 and December 4-6).

2012 Veto Session may turn into a blockbuster session, similar to the 2010 Session.  Then, difficult political votes were taken to raise the income and businesses tax rates, abolish the death penalty, and establish civil union protections.  All of this was accomplished in a period of a few legislative days.

On docket this year will be legislation to change parts of the SMART Act.  I have been hearing from our Jewish Federation network about problems. JCFS must now beg, borrow, and steal to find a dentist for their CILA residents, who are disabled, because Medicaid no longer covers dental care.  The Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation and the Ark are seeing sharp increases in the numbers of people asking for help with medication because the State is limiting medication to four prescriptions per month per individual without prior approval. But changing SMART act drives up costs and where will the money come from?

The need for pension reform hasn't gone away.  The word is that the State's unfunded pension liability has increased from $83 billion to $130 billion.  Failure to reform the pension system weakens the State's credit rating; squeezes money for education, human services, and health care; and puts the future of those dependent on state pensions at risk.  If there is a time for audacious work to happen on pension reform, it will after the November election, during veto session.

And what about beginning to catch up on the delayed payment of bills to the community-based human service providers; now more than six months delayed? 

Inside the state agencies, work has begun on the fy14 state budget.  It must have been this time last year that a plan began circulating among the upper level thinkers of a daring plan to go where no Democrat has gone before: Cut Medicaid by an outrageous amount so as to save it.  What is percolating now?

Now, about that summer vacation….

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