Pritchard Perspective for March 16th

Observations and comments about state government by State Representative Robert W. Pritchard
March 16, 2015
In This Issue:
  • Bills Move Out of Committee
  • Value of Physical Education Questioned
  • Youth Experience Government in Action
  • House School Funding Task Force Begins Work
  • Informing the Public in the Digital Age
  • Asking the Question of Why Higher Education Costs More in Illinois
Bills Move Out of Committee
        With only two weeks left before the Speaker’s deadline for bills to move out of committee and to the House floor, Springfield is a lot like college basketball’s March Madness. Members are rushing from one committee where they are discussing bills to another where they are presenting their bills.  It’s a crazy time which may explain why what some feel are crazy ideas are passed.
       One example of that was HB133, which would regulate seafood labeling. The bill at best is redundant of federal law and at worst would be confusing for consumers should two labels be required on every seafood item.  Even more damaging is this bill will increase the cost for businesses to comply and, since Illinois has a lot of food distribution centers, increase the complexity of food distribution to Illinois retail outlets and those in other states that do not require “country of origin” labeling.
      Another bill-HB1- is touted to be a comprehensive solution to the heroin abuse epidemic in Illinois—imposes a number of mandates that are estimated to increase costs to consumers and businesses by $25 million.  The mandates include that all pharmacies become unused drug collection centers and incur all associated costs, insurance mandates, reporting requirements of county coroners, sentencing guidelines for heroin convictions, more drug prevention programs in schools, and higher Medicaid costs.  The bill also requires the dispensing of opioid antagonists (to counter heroin effects) to all first responders, schools and families of heroin addicts.  It is these kinds of unfunded mandates that the Governor has said make Illinois a difficult place in which to do business. 

Value of Physical Education Questioned
        On a day when the Illinois Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (IAHPERD) came to Springfield to discuss the benefits of exercise on brain activity and student learning, several bills were heard in the House Education Committee to allow schools to excuse students from physical education (PE) classes.
       HB1330, HB1443 and HB2536 would allow schools to either make PE optional or excuse students from PE for various reasons.  Proponents say that these kinds of bills will give school districts more flexibility, allow students the option to take needed academic classes, and would put Illinois along with every other state in the country in not requiring daily PE.  Some even suggest that the Illinois PE mandate has not significantly reduced the number of physically overweight youth.
I visited with PE teachers and American Heart Association representatives about the benefits of physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, on brain function. According to a study by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. Exercise increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain and it aids the body in releasing a plethora of hormones, some reducing stress and most helping to provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.  

Youth Experience Government in Action
        This past week two youth groups from our area were in Springfield to study government up close and visit with some of the leaders in our state.  Boone County States Attorney Michelle Courier brought a group of students who visited the legislature and judiciary systems.
       Some of my high school Youth Advisory Council students also visited and spent two busy days talking with legislators, constitutional officers, department officials and media.
Members of my Youth Council pictured with Representatives Demmer and Sosnowski at the speaker’s podium
        One of the greatest values of the trip to Springfield is the chance for students to visit with different officials, learn about their challenges of office and raise a number of their questions. This year I was especially appreciative that the Governor, Lt. Governor, Comptroller, House Majority leader and House Republican leader spent time with the group.
Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti shares her experiences with the Council
        One of the students, Hannah Weirich from Hinckley-Big Rock, said “I loved talking with everyone because they all had unique stories….I am better able to understand why politicians make the choices that they do.”  Julia Lemp from Kaneland added “I learned so much about the way our government works and about the career path I hope to pursue."       
         My Youth Council consists of students from each high school in the district who meet for 4 months to study state and local government and public service careers.  

House School Funding Task Force Begins Work
       The House Education Funding Task Force I mentioned last week met for the first time in what appears to be a long process to change how the state distributes school funding.  The committee heard testimony on SB1 and how prorating general state aid has a more negative impact upon low property wealth districts and students in poverty. Since the task force has a number of members who do not normally serve on education committees, it will have to spend some time learning the basics of school funding and the disparity of funding per pupil in a property wealthy district compared to one with low property wealth. 
        The task force will be asked to consider equity in funding among districts as well as the adequacy of state funding for education. Two models are being considered for determining the adequacy of funding. The “successful school model” looks at what high-achieving, but low-spending districts spend on educating a student ($8,899 in the latest report). The “evidence-based model” looks at the cost of implementing best practices based upon student needs which would vary dramatically from district to district, but would nevertheless be much higher. The legislature has been using a foundation level of $6,119 per student for several years and not appropriating enough money to even reach that level.

Informing the Public in the Digital Age
       Several bills filed this session seek to remove or adjust the state mandates that require public notices from local governments and schools be published in a local newspaper.  Proponents argue that posting these notices and reports on a web site would be less costly and still easily accessible.
        A recent audit conducted by the Citizens Advocacy Center (CAC) concludes many units of local government don’t comply with making already mandated reports on their websites.  A study of over 750 public body websites in Illinois found only 73 percent complied with the posting notice of upcoming meetings, 57 percent complied with posting proposed meeting agendas, and less than half, 48 percent, complied with posting approved meeting minutes.
        Public notices published in local newspapers are also available on the Illinois Press Association’s website www.publicnoticesillinois.com in a form easy to search and compare among the different governmental units.  As much as I would like to help local units of government reduce their cost of public notices, it is hard to remove the newspaper notice requirement when so many units of government aren't posting information or keeping their websites current.

Asking the Question of Why Higher Education Costs More in Illinois
         The House Higher Education Appropriation Committee has been receiving testimony from public universities and community colleges about their operations, performance results and response to a proposed budget cut of 31 percent next year.  Responses to at least two questions bear repeating and further study.
        First, why has student tuition at Illinois public universities increased so dramatically in the last 15 years and is considerably higher than out-of-state universities in the same conference?  The common response from the four universities who have testified so far is “a reduction in state support.”  State support for public universities has gone from over 60 percent of some university’s operating budget to less than 20 percent since 2002.  Student fees have gone up to compensate for the state decline.
       One university did admit that tuitions have risen much faster than inflation because of the state law requiring “Truth in Tuition”—which freezes the cost of tuition for each entering class for up to six years.  Universities have anticipated inflationary costs and raised tuition rates.  Another university admitted they had done less than they could to manage their operating costs, review the cost of providing certain majors or courses, or adopt cost saving ways to provide instruction. It was equally enlightening to hear one university say the cost of operating a university in Illinois is much higher than in neighboring states.  Perhaps he was referring to our onerous procurement laws, unfunded mandates or labor rules.
       The other question I found interesting was if you can’t withstand the 31 percent budget cut proposed by the governor, what level of cut can you withstand?  Two brave universities responded with a 5 to 10 percent cut.
      This response reminded me of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and perhaps holds at least a partial solution to our state’s spending problems.  In the movie, actor Jimmy Stewart was trying to save his savings and loan company in the time of a financial panic. To prevent a run on the bank, he wanted to limit the withdrawal of his members’ investments.  He convinced each member to withdraw only a portion of their investment in order to keep the savings and loan solvent.  Perhaps we should ask that question of each agency and client of state programs—how much can you get by with to help the state get out of its financial hole?
Enjoy the spring weather this week and continue to share your thoughts and ideas.

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