Tom Bennett column sig

The Illinois House met for a single day this week to get organized for the 2021 legislative session.

The first item on the agenda Wednesday was to adopt the official House Rules which will govern the way we conduct business during the session. There were high hopes that with a new House Speaker for the first time in the 21st century we might see some improvements in the way the House is run.

But when the rules were rolled out, we were sorely disappointed.

Aside from allowing for committees to meet remotely due to the pandemic and a 10-year term limit on the Speaker, these rules are almost identical to those of the sad era which we all thought had ended with the election of our new Speaker.

Just like in years past, the Speaker has total and absolute control over every piece of legislation and every motion made.

Republicans asked for four changes to House rules: 1) all bills should get a vote in committee, 2) there should be daily notice made to the public about which bills will be considered in committee and on the floor, 3) all budget bills and amendments should be subject to a waiting period so that legislators have a chance to read them before they are voted upon, and 4) members who wish to debate a bill on the House floor should be given the chance, and it should be more difficult to shut off debate and move to a vote.

All four of these common-sense suggestions were ignored. The rules passed on a party-line vote.

There is no improvement in transparency, and no change to the bad practices of the past. One of the worst aspects of the old way of doing things was the ability of the majority to introduce a budget amendment which is hundreds of pages long in the middle of the night and then call a vote before anyone has time to read it. Sadly, this process was re-authorized this year.

If we are going to fix our broken state government we need to make a clean break from the practices of the past. These rules do nothing but keep these bad practices in place for another two years.

Introducing new bills for the new session

In the weeks since the new General Assembly was sworn in, members of the House and Senate have been busy drafting and filing legislation for the spring session. Here are a few of the bills I have been working on.

I introduced House Resolution 15 to amend the House Rules and allow for a delay of three days before a budget bill can be brought up and voted on. This allows us some time to read and analyze bills which spend billions of dollars.

House Bills 165 and 166 create a carbon capture task force and a method for regulating storage of carbon dioxide from power plants.

House Joint Resolution 12 creates a task force to further study the issue and help us craft the legislation. This was an idea I first introduced last year which would take advantage of Illinois’ geology to store carbon emissions underground instead of releasing them into the atmosphere as pollutants.

There is a facility already in operation in the Decatur area which shows that this system can work. I believe we can embrace this new technology to produce clean power using energy sources from right here in Illinois.

To prevent fraudulent use of Illinois public aid cards, also known as LINK cards, House Bill 262 would require the card to include the name and photo of the authorized user or users of the card.

Because we need ethics reform in state government I have introduced House Bill 719 to prevent legislators from leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists. This revolving door between legislating and lobbying allows legislators to trade on their connections in the General Assembly to aid the special interest groups which hire them as soon as they leave office. The bill would put in place a two-year waiting period before any ex-legislator can go to work as a lobbyist.

State revenue up in January

Despite the impact of the pandemic and the shutdowns, Illinois sales tax receipts actually went up in January by $29 million compared to January 2020. Personal income tax receipts by the state increased by $212 million for the month. In part these increases were due to the arrival of federal stimulus checks which led to more sales, and to the record highs in the stock market which drove up capital gains tax revenue.

Overall revenue from all sources was up in January by $407 million compared to one year earlier.

Entire state now in Phase 4 of re-opening

Counties in our region led the way in progressing into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois re-opening plan, and now the entire state has advanced. As positivity rates have fallen, more businesses are now able to re-open, including indoor dining with some restrictions still in place. Youth sports have also re-started throughout the state.

This move forward was made possible not just by the declining positivity rates but also by improved hospitalization numbers and figures on the utilization of intensive care units.

We need to be careful not to let down our guard too much, however, as more than 1.1 million cases have been diagnosed in Illinois. As of the end of last week, more than 16.3 million tests have been administered statewide.

How much do we owe?

As of the time of this writing, the State of Illinois owes $5.09 billion in unpaid bills to state vendors. One year ago, the backlog stood at $6.4 billion. This figure represents the amount of bills submitted to the office of the comptroller and still awaiting payment. It does not include debts that can only be estimated, such as our unfunded pension liability which is subject to a wide range of factors and has been estimated to be more than $141 billion.

Tom Bennett is a Republican member of the Illinois House of Representatives who represents the 106th district, which includes all or parts of Ford, Iroquois, Vermillion, Livingston and Woodford counties.