ISAC State Legislative Update
Director of Government Relations
June 29, 2020
The 101st General Assembly and its 2020 Spring Session will go down in history as being among the most unusual, thanks to the on-going coronavirus pandemic and public health measures to contain it.
On March 5th, legislators left Springfield to embark on a scheduled spring break, fully expecting to reconvene soon thereafter. Four days later, Governor JB Pritzker declared the entire State of Illinois to be a disaster area in response to the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has put older people and those with pre-existing conditions—categories into which many legislators fall—at elevated risk for serious complications and death. For weeks, consistent with public health guidance, the General Assembly cancelled session days and took no formal action despite hundreds of bills on the legislative calendar.
Finally, on May 20th, the General Assembly reconvened for a special session. To maintain the physical distances that public health officials advised, members of the Illinois House met off-site in a Springfield venue better known for hosting large events like basketball tournaments, concerts, and giant swap meets. The Illinois Senate convened in its normal State House location but instituted such strict limits on building access that the state’s Director of Public Health was briefly denied entry. Members were asked to test for COVID-19 before coming to Springfield; wear face coverings; limit interaction both on and off the floor; and self-isolate upon their return home.
While these steps—and the lengthy absence from Springfield that preceded them—were arguably reasonable safety measures during a pandemic, one result was a dramatic decrease in legislators’ availability to reporters, lobbyists, liaisons, and the general public. No testimony was heard during committee hearings, and many people who are usually active participants in the process became observers. The four-day session also followed weeks of conference calls among legislative working groups, none of which were subject to the Open Meetings Act.
These closed negotiations and pre-work allowed legislators to set a narrow agenda for a shortened session and even resolve some issues before arriving in Springfield. Originally conceived as a three-day convening to address “must-pass” items, respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and approve a state budget for FY 2021, the session stretched well into a fourth day and night. When the Senate adjourned shortly before 2:00 a.m. on the Sunday before Memorial Day, the General Assembly had passed 22 bills, all of which are expected to be signed by the Governor.
Members approved a number of proposals that specifically responded to COVID-19, whether to ensure continued government functions or to support individuals or businesses whose lives were disrupted by the pandemic. These included omnibus bills on elections (providing an enhanced vote-by-mail program, among other changes) and worker protections (such as extending disability payments for employees with COVID-19 and establishing new criminal penalties for assault of retail workers who are conveying public health guidance). Other measures extend myriad regulations and authorizations that were due to expire if legislators didn’t renew them. Changes were made for emergency governmental operations, healthcare, gaming, liquor sales, and more. Critical for the majority’s budget plan, the General Assembly also authorized borrowing up to $5 billion through a federal credit facility (the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility) to keep services afloat as state coffers are affected by the pandemic and the reduced economic activity that has resulted from the pandemic response.
PROGRAM UPDATES & POLICY CHANGES
An education omnibus bill, SB 1569 (Bertino-Tarrant/W. Davis – Public Act 101-0643) focuses primarily on adjustments made for K-12 schools and students, especially to adjust to the shift to remote learning this spring. At the postsecondary level, the bill relaxes requirements for student teachers, and it requires Illinois universities to accept transferred credits for coursework that was converted from graded to pass/fail, credit/no credit, or satisfactory/unsatisfactory as a result of the pandemic. IBHE is authorized to administer a program of completion grants and competitive grants for public university student support services, although the budget does not fund the program and no other detail is provided.
With respect to ISAC programs, the education omnibus will make one minor change to the AIM HIGH grant pilot program that ISAC administers: It will allow a student to meet the grant’s income qualifications just once, when first awarded a grant, and not apply the income test to recipients when they renew the grant in subsequent years. This was a request from one of the universities, which indicated that a small number of AIM HIGH recipients experienced income changes in their sophomore year that put them just above the legal threshold and would have disqualified them from renewing their grants. Unfortunately, this means that ISAC may not be able to collect recipients’ income data other than for their first year.
Also related to ISAC, SB 1857 (Martinez/K. Burke – P.A. 101-0645) extended the repeal dates of various provisions of state law, including Section 218 of the Illinois Income Tax Act: A tax credit for employers who match their employees’ contributions to Bright Start or College Illinois! will now expire December 30, 2021, rather than 2020.
EMERGENCY GOVERNMENT ADMINISTRATION ACT
The Emergency Government Administration Act (SB 2135 – Sims/K. Burke – P.A. 101-0640) makes numerous changes to allow continued government functioning during a pandemic, including but not limited to:
- temporarily modifying the Open Meetings Act to provide a framework for public bodies to meet remotely. Meetings held on audio or videoconference must be recorded, and the verbatim recordings must be made available to the public.
- temporarily providing exceptions to in-person requirements for notarizing & witnessing official documents.
- extending the deadline for filing Statements of Economic Interest until August 1, 2020.
- creating the Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission to advise the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity on how to revitalize various economic sectors.
- directing the state’s Broadband Advisory Council to study how the state could ensure universal access to free or affordable broadband. (The shift to remote learning has drawn attention to deficiencies in Internet connectivity and their impact on access to education.)
BUDGET AND BIMP
The most significant development for ISAC out of this session is the passage of the budget (SB 264 – Manar/Harris – P.A. 101-0637) and the accompanying piece of legislation known as the budget implementation bill, or BIMP (HB 357 – Harris/Harmon – P.A. 101-0636). While the budget bill authorizes spending levels, the BIMP makes substantive changes to state law that are needed to effectuate that budget plan.
For FY21, ISAC programs and operations will be funded essentially at FY20 levels, with approximately $451.3 million for the Monetary Award Program (MAP), $35 million for AIM HIGH, and flat funding for our other grant and loan repayment programs, as well as flat funding for operations and outreach. Staff currently projects that the MAP grant funding in this budget should enable the agency to serve more than 135,000 students in the coming academic year after allowing up to 2% of the appropriation to be used for agency operations.
The budget also removes unnecessary structural constraints from the FY20 appropriation for the AIM HIGH grant pilot program. These restrictions broke the FY20 appropriation for the AIM HIGH pilot program into two cohorts that did not align with universities’ needs and would have left most institutions lapsing funds rather than using their full appropriations to help attract and retain Illinois students. Other budget highlights for higher education include:
- essentially flat funding for public universities and community colleges.
- flat funding for Illinois Veteran Grant and Illinois National Guard Grant reimbursements to be paid to community colleges through the Illinois Community College Board.
- Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund dollars for public universities ($31 million) and community colleges ($19 million), authorized under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and to be distributed on a formula basis. ($108.5 million is directed to K-12 schools.)
Readers may recall that the Governor’s original FY21 recommendation included increases for MAP, ISAC operations, and outreach, as well as the major step of beginning to honor the state’s moral obligation to pay down the unfunded liability in the College Illinois! Prepaid Tuition Program. That proposal would have devoted $27 million to the program in FY21—contingent on voter approval of the graduated income tax this November—with a plan to continue payments annually for about 14 years. The Governor’s original FY21 recommendation was set aside in April, once it became clear that the pandemic and the efforts to contain it would drive up state costs and reduce revenues.
The fact that the final budget of around $42.9 billion is mostly at last year’s levels (with some increases for areas related to health, safety, unemployment, and economic development) is thanks to a combination of federal funding that’s already been approved, anticipation that additional federal funding for states and cities is likely, and, as previously mentioned, authority to borrow from a Federal Reserve facility if that additional federal grant funding does not materialize.
It’s worth noting that this budget bill may not be the final word for FY21 spending. Unexpected shortfalls and surprise costs for the state could still occur. In tough times, past governors have frozen spending or directed agencies to reserve a portion of their appropriations, and past General Assemblies have authorized mid-year budgetary rescissions. To provide oversight of any budget management measures the executive branch may take, and to provide a venue for collaboration with the Administration, the BIMP establishes a new Legislative Budget Oversight Commission to which the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget will be required to report regularly. The Governor has said that if there’s no new federal funding for states and local governments in the near term and the graduated income tax proposal doesn’t pass, then the Administration will work with this new Legislative Budget Oversight Commission and the full General Assembly to identify solutions for addressing any financial gaps.
Finally, among other items, the BIMP also creates a new Commission on Poverty Elimination and Economic Security, to be staffed by the Department of Human Services. ISAC is not an official part of this new body, but staff will stand ready to work with its members as they learn about and make recommendations regarding policies and programs that can help stop the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Access to affordable, high-quality post-secondary education options can be a key component in these efforts, as the bill language recognizes.
To view a report listing all bills that passed both houses during the spring legislative session, click here.
Currently, the General Assembly is next scheduled to meet November 17th. While the fall Veto Session could be especially active due to the limitations that prevented bills from moving this spring, the number of scheduled days has not been extended, and both the agenda and manner of meeting could be affected by any future resurgence of the virus or any positive developments in preventing or treating it. Plans are expected to adapt as conditions and guidance continue to change.
Adding to the uncertainty about when the body might reconvene have been the events of recent days and weeks. Following the recent, violent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Illinoisans and other Americans have engaged in both peaceful protests and greater unrest. Some areas, particularly in and around Chicago, were subjected to property damage and looting. Members of the House Black Caucus (Representatives Kam Buckner, Curtis Tarver, and Lamont Robinson as of this writing) have requested that a special legislative session be convened to take up policy issues that Representative Buckner describes as “related to the unrest in the Black community, specifically community-police relations, law enforcement accountability, and economic development.” Other members of the Caucus, including State Senator Kimberly Lightford, have also called for such a session in public addresses. Policymakers are now working to determine what measures would be considered if such a session is convened, and when this could occur.