Friday, May 30, 2008

The imperfect storm

By Bethany Jaeger
A tornado warning interrupted the House and Senate this evening before they could debate larger portions of the state operating budget, further delaying the ability to approve a spending plan before the constitutional deadline of midnight Saturday.

We all had to head to the basement of the Statehouse, where tunnels connect buildings on the Capitol complex. Amanda Vinicky, reporter for WUIS public radio station out of the University of Illinois at Springfield, caught up with House Speaker Michael Madigan in one of the tunnels. We listened to her audio file. She asked the speaker about the status of the budget, the leadership style of the governor and the lack of trust plaguing the democratic process.

Madigan’s advice for others was to consider the past five or six years — and to “prepare for the worst.”

The General Assembly is expected to approve a state budget before the deadline, but the budget also is expected to contain a rather large hole. Madigan said the legislature’s job is to approve the spending authority. The actual spending is up to the governor. “If he feels that some of those numbers should be changed, he has a reduction veto.”

The state Constitution grants the governor the power to strike out portions of the budget or to reduce the amount of money dedicated to specific programs.

The lawmakers also are considering the capital plan drafted by former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard, who were recruited by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to bring everyone together on a multi-year plan for construction projects. Madigan has not attended any of the meetings with the negotiators and the other legislative leaders. Of the governor’s previous meetings, Madigan said, “I have found meeting with Gov. Blagojevich to be totally non-productive, and so we decided to take a different approach.” That included sending his majority leader, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, in his place.

The $31 billion capital plan has grown to $33 billion under the Senate proposal (see below). It now has a specific list of projects that would be funded, something legislators demanded before they could consider approving a deal. But rank-and-file legislators, particularly Democrats, continue to question whether they could trust Blagojevich to release the money for projects in their districts. Madigan reiterated the reason behind lawmakers’ hesitation: “It’s all about trust. It’s all about trust and whether people are prepared to trust Gov. Blagojevich and trust his record of broken promises.”

The legislative leaders are meeting with the governor in his Statehouse office as I post this. The Senate is expected to meet in committees yet this evening to discuss the capital plan and the proposed funding sources, including leasing the Illinois Lottery; expanding gaming to include a new and two additional riverboats, as well as expanding positions at existing facilities; and transferring money from the state’s Road Fund and the general fund. The House is done for the evening but will start with committees at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Expect a long day and night.

Here are a few other items of interest that unfolded earlier Friday:

Potential CeaseFire agreement
Rep. Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat, said she’s able to vote for a state budget now that an agreement has been made with Senate Democrats to reinsert $6.25 million into the state budget for a CeaseFire, gun violence prevention program.

The CeaseFire campaign employs ex-convicts to work as mediators to diffuse tension in communities with “hot spots” of gun and gang violence. They also connect clients to community services for jobs, education and other social services. The program is administered by the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention located at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich last summer vetoed $6 million for CeaseFire from state budget as part of a series of budget cuts totaling about $460 million.

In early May, a Northwestern University study announced the program as successful in deterring gun violence. Professor Wesley Skogan at the Evanston school found that the number of shootings dropped between 16 percent and 34 percent in four Chicago neighborhoods with CeaseFire programs. Six CeaseFire communities saw a 42 percent average reduction in shootings during the first year of the program.

The study also shows that the program has lasting effects on such other challenges as getting jobs, returning to school or disengaging from gangs. Clients interviewed for the survey also reported that they built relationships with their mediators so that if, for instance, they felt tempted to use drugs again, they could call their mediator in the middle of the night.

The study concluded that the program saves the state and the taxpayers money by decreasing the number of emergency room visits and the number of criminals in the justice system.

Potential Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals
The state could garner up to $4.5 billion in federal funds over five years that Illinois would redistribute to hospitals, primarily facilities that care for the most needy patients. The legislature is advancing a plan that would need the governor’s signature and the feds’ approval.

About 200 hospitals in the state already have participated in a so-called hospital assessment program, collecting a total of $$2.3 billion over three years. That program is set to expire June 30. The plan approved by the House Friday afternoon (and expected to win Senate approval Saturday) would create a new program for the next five years.

The new plan would be larger than the existing program. It would distribute more than $640 million a year to the hospitals that voluntarily pay an assessment (a.k.a. tax) that leverages federal matching funds. This plan also differs in that more hospitals, particularly in the Chicago suburbs, would be considered “losers,” meaning they would pay out more than they collected in federal reimbursements. The feds view that favorably because the system would better redistribute the money to the most critical and needy hospitals in rural and low-income areas, says House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat.

She added the state also needs the plan because without federal approval, “we will be looking for substantial dollars to fill a very deep hole in the state’s Medicaid budget.”

Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat sponsoring the measure in his chamber, said hospitals agreed to the plan. “Everybody recognized that we all have a stake in it together, and without this infusion of new federal Medicaid funding, many hospitals in the state will have to either curtail their services or close their doors entirely. And we simply cannot allow that to happen.”

That’s partially because without the program, hospitals on average would be paid only 64 percent of what it actually costs to deliver the care, said Howard Peters with the Illinois Hospital Association.

The state also leverages about $130 million that’s left over from the Medicaid reimbursement program to obtain additional federal matching funds. They must be spent on health care, including services for mental health, developmental disabilities and long-term care. Schoenberg said that he would like to use some of the excess money for substance abuse and treatment programs, many of which have long waiting lists. That would require legislative approval.

Just for fun
To the right: Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican, explains the physics of a tornadic cell to fellow legislators and lobbyists after a tornado was sighted in Springfield.


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