An “Agreed Bill” That I Don’t Agree With

In April, I was appointed to be a representative of the House Republican caucus on an “Agreed Bill Committee” which is a device used by labor and the business community during negotiations over the critical issue of Unemployment Insurance. By that process, business and labor agree that they will not propose legislation dealing with tax increases or benefit cuts to the unemployment system until both sides have fully negotiated a settlement of the issue. It would then be my role, along with the other members of the Committee to put its stamp of approval on the agreement and work to pass the legislation through the House.

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In an April 23rd letter from representatives of the business community, it was said:

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“Because of the pandemic, Illinois’ UI Trust Fund has a deficit of unprecedented levels. Due to the need to borrow funds from the federal government to pay benefits, Illinois’ General Fund is once again faced with the very real possibility of having to pay tens of millions of dollars year-after-year to pay interest penalties absent an agreement.”

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The letter from the business representatives went on to say:

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“(Previously) Illinois has avoided having to dip into general revenue funds to pay interest as required by federal law because business and labor have always come to closure to solve the problem.”

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Interest began to accrue on this deficit on September 1, and as of November 1, Illinois had accrued almost $9 million in interest on the $4.4 billion that the state is obligated to repay, and that amount is growing by nearly $300,000 per day.

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Illinois received over $8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the federal government. On May 17, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released guidance specifying that states could use ARPA money to restore their unemployment funds to pre-pandemic levels, and many states did just that. The Governor put a crowbar in the state’s wallet and committed $100 million.

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Under current law, the Unemployment Insurance Act (UI Act) has a series of pre-programmed tax increases and benefit cuts which were set to take effect on December 31, 2021.  These statutory changes are described as “speed bumps,” and are incentives to maintain the integrity of the agreed-bill process by imposing pains and penalties on business and labor to keep them at the negotiating table.

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In a telephone conference prior to the just concluded Veto Session, business and labor agreed to postpone the “speed bumps” until July 3rd, 2022, which means that by then an additional $73 million of interest will come due, to be paid by taxpayers out of the General Revenue Fund, with no guarantee that the date won’t be extended even further. Even if the $100 million the Governor allocated from the ARPA money to the fund could be used to pay the interest, it would barely cover the amount due. The extension was passed during Veto Session as part of H.B. 594. I was one of the two “No” votes on that bill.

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What’s really going on here is that the Governor is slow-walking the state’s obligation to repay its debt to the Federal government at a cost to you of $300,000 per day. He’s doing it with the hope and expectation that the Feds will turn around and forgive the debt without using ARPA funds to do so. In the meantime, the Governor will not tell us how much of the $8 billion we got in ARPA funding is left and what’s being done with it. Any money he’s using to prop up programs funded by General Revenue will then become part of the next budget year’s baseline. It’ll be the gift that keeps on giving, at your expense.

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I could not in good conscience lend my support to a process which should have been completed months ago without additional cost to Illinois taxpayers. I’ve had private conversations with members on the other side of the aisle who agree with me but won’t go against the Governor. Since I have no say in the actual negotiations and my continued involvement with the Committee would imply my agreement with the outcome, I’ve sent a letter to the House Republican leader requesting my removal from the Agreed Bill Committee.

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Governor, Stay Home and Do Your Job

The General Assembly recently adjourned its fall veto session without addressing many of the major problems which confront Illinois. Among them:

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  • Illinois has a $4.4 billion shortfall in its Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund which it’s obligated to repay to the Federal government (with interest accruing at a rate of almost $300k per day) or we risk having “speed bumps” imposed in the form of huge tax increases and benefit cuts. Instead of paying off the debt with ARPA funds which we’re now sitting on, the General Assembly irresponsibly chose to delay the implementation of the speed bumps for six months.
  • The Cook County State’s Attorney has declined to charge five suspects caught on camera last month engaging in a deadly shootout. A bill was filed to allow law enforcement agencies to override the State’s Attorney’s rejection of the felony charge if the evidence supporting the charge is clear and convincing. But we left town before any action could be taken on it.
  • Our Legislative Inspector General is resigning at the end of December because she doesn’t think we’re serious about ethics reform. Imagine that! While several outstanding candidates were put forth to replace her, the issue was never brought up while we were in Springfield. Laissez le bon temps rouler!

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Scottish Event Campus

Instead of staying in Illinois and addressing these and other pressing concerns, Governor Pritzker is jetting off to the World Climate Summit in Glasgow to tout the passage of his bright and shiny new energy legislation which will blanket the state with windmills and solar farms as far as the eye can see and transform Illinois from exporter to importer of energy by the end of the decade.

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There’s nothing like going to some upscale locale for a week to preen among the world’s hoity-toity to establish one’s bona fides as someone who’s serious about appearing to care about the little people and the future of Planet Earth. Says the Governor: “People want to come to a state focused on fighting climate change and this is the new leading state in the Midwest in fighting climate change.” You bet, Governor, we’re right behind you, but first why don’t you show us how serious you are by putting a wind farm out in Lake Michigan right off the beach from your lakefront mansion (the one you didn’t remove the toilets from).

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There are almost 1 billion people worldwide who don’t have electricity. Climate change isn’t killing four million Africans a year, it’s the lack of basic necessities powered by electricity. These first-world dilettantes should be having their summit in someplace like Burundi or Somalia where they’d rub shoulders with people to whom light bulbs, clean running water and indoor plumbing would be regarded as a miracle out of Scripture.

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Instead, we’re going to get the same high-minded platitudes and promises to take from the rich and give to the poor that we’ve been getting for who knows how long, and we’re no further along than when Earth Day was first celebrated over 50 years ago. It won’t be any different this time.

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Governor, the problems you need to solve are a lot closer to home.

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How Many Renewable Energy Credits Does It Take To Screw in a Light Bulb?

With the House convening on Thursday to consider energy/climate legislation that’s been negotiated by Democrats, labor unions and environmentalists, I’ve been reading up on what the bill provides and have a few observations and questions.

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First of all, the bill is long on social engineering and very light on the type of engineering that will actually keep the lights on. Along with a laundry list of jobs programs, commissions and task forces, there are programs sprinkled in which will provide grants intended to ease the pain of transition to communities that are losing their coal, gas and (ultimately) nuclear facilities.

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Anyone who’s paying attention will know the major components of the bill that actually affect how we’re going to generate electricity over the next 25 years and keep the lights on thereafter:

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  • Provides roughly $700 million in assistance to Exelon over 5 years for Dresden, Byron, and Braidwood nuclear plants;
  • Increases the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) goal to 40% by 2040 and 50% by 2050;
  • Increases the rate cap on renewables from 2.015% to 4.25%, which will increase the RPS budget from $230 million to more than $550 million per year, to be paid for by Com Ed ratepayers;
  • Includes a Coal to Solar program to repurpose downstate coal sites with utility scale wind and battery storage facilitates (which don’t yet exist);
  • Phases out for-profit coal plants by 2030, and publicly-owned coal plants and cogeneration plants by 2045.  Natural gas plants will be required to close between 2030 and 2045, based on their emissions rates.  All natural gas plants in the State will be required to close by 2045. (This begs a question: Energy can’t be stored; it must be used as it’s generated. At those times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun isn’t shining, how are we going to generate enough electricity to meet demand if we’ve shut down all the coal and gas plants?)

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The bill assumes from the outset that climate change is an existential threat and that Illinois will lead the way in showing the world how we can eliminate pollution from fossil fuels. Try telling that to the Chinese and the millions of people who live in substandard conditions sub-Saharan Africa.

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What we’re faced with is a risk problem, by which I mean that nobody knows what average temperatures or sea levels will be in 50 years, and if they say they do, they’re lying to you. What we’re confronted with is a range of possible outcomes, from 1% to 100%, and by assuming the answer is 100%, we completely take off the table all of the possible mitigations that can either reduce the risks or lessen the outcomes of climate change at acceptable cost, both economic and in terms of liberty. And don’t discount that last point, because government control of energy generation that suffocates innovation and economic growth will ultimately result in government control of its use, as is being seen in California with its rolling blackouts.

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Think of the incredible transformation that happened in the telecommunications industry over the past 30 years, where we went from sending phone calls over copper wires to fiber optic cables made of sand to the wi-fi waves of today. We need to apply the same thinking to energy, from nuclear power to carbon capture and sequestration. Innovation isn’t planned, it happens when people try to solve problems in a system that encourages and rewards problem-solving. How much economic dynamism are we willing to sacrifice by completely shutting an industry down and not giving it the opportunity to innovate?

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And what about nuclear? There’s no discussion about it in the bill other than the $700 million subsidy to prop up Exelon’s aging nuclear fleet, which went online in the mid to late 1980’s and won’t last forever. Nuclear plays no part in the rush to carbon-free energy either as source of base load capacity or as backup power when renewables aren’t enough.

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Nuclear has its problems, and it’s never lived up to its promise of providing cheap and plentiful power. But to a great extent that’s a function of regulatory strangulation and liability concerns. We’re also subsidizing excess capacity. If we can’t sell it on the open market for what it costs to produce, I’m open to the idea of reducing capacity, but until we know how bad a hit we’re going to take with this quixotic rush to our wind and solar utopia, we need to keep our nuclear fleet intact.

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We also need to upgrade it. Our failure to have done so has much to do with public attitudes rooted in the memory of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). Technological advances since then have made nuclear a much more reliable and scalable choice for non-polluting power, and modular reactors would allow power generators to be placed closer to the communities they serve, drastically reducing transmission cost.

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We need a more optimistic and realistic environmentalism than is presented with this bill which once again puts government in the position of picking winners and losers. We have problems, but they will only be solved through technological innovation and dynamism, and S.B. 18 kills that baby in the crib.

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H.B. 4117: Posting Curriculum Online Gives Parents a Glimpse of What’s Being Taught to Their Kids

The past year has seen a tsunami of State government initiatives pointed straight at our public school system. From the implementation of Culturally Responsible Teaching and Leading Standards (CRTL) to mask mandates that put bureaucrats in the position of in loco parentis while ignoring the minimal risk to children of COVID-19, our schools are losing local control to the dictates of a one-size-fits-all State. I’m now getting emails and calls from constituents about the implementation of curriculum centered on such notions as Critical Race Theory (CRT).

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I take a back seat to no one in wanting to stem the rise of politics in the classroom, but I also want parents to be the point persons holding school districts responsible for what’s being taught to their kids.

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Conservatives have long subscribed to the notion that public schools should be subject to local, rather than centralized State control and that state lawmakers ought not infringe on their activities even when the outcomes are not what they’d wish. Ironically, progressives have been more than happy to indulge conservatives’ scruples on this point, voicing uncharacteristic reverence for “local control” over K 12 and the authority of school boards and administrators, knowing that they have such an outsized influence over such measures through the teachers’ unions.

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Parents’ concerns center not only on CRT, but also upon the lack of access to what is being presented to their children as learning material and teaching aids. Illinois law affirms parents’ rights to access curriculum information, but in practice, parents often have limited options to review the materials that are being used in their kids’ classrooms. The Public Act cited here was passed in 1979, and in the 42 years since, very little has changed regarding how that information is conveyed to those entitled to see it. It’s often the case that parents who want to review course materials are required to travel to the school during specified hours, or they are shown only incomplete curriculum frameworks that don’t disclose actual content. Too often, parents find out what is being taught only after their child comes home to tell them about it.

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I recently sent a letter to all of the school districts within the 63rd Legislative District asking for the districts’ policies regarding curriculum review, and the following responses were representative:

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  • Depending upon the materials, they would be made available upon request during school hours. Increasing numbers of materials are available in electronic format (example – licenses for logins). These resources would be handled as appropriate, based on the resource. If a login can be created, it could potentially be shared. Other electronic resources may need to be demonstrated.
  • A student’s parent(s)/guardian(s) may inspect, upon their request, any instructional material used as part of their child/ward’s educational curriculum within a reasonable time of their request…If you wish to review any survey instrument or instructional material, please submit your request to the Building Principal. You will be notified of the time and place where you may review these materials.

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It’s with this in mind that I’ve filed H.B. 4117, which requires public school districts having more than 300 students to post online a listing of all instructional materials used in the classroom, whether it be core textbooks, news articles, digital materials, teacher-prepared reading lists or other resources.

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Parents can already easily go online to the Illinois Report Card to access schools’ financial data, student performance scores, graduation and dropout rates, enrollment processes, and more. H.B. 4117 simply extends the same 21st century access to course content.

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Districts will not be required to copy and upload every page of content. Instead, the bill simply requires schools to simply list the basic information (e.g., title and author or website) to identify each resource, organized by subject and grade. Parents will then have the ability to access these resources for their own review.

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This sort of transparency doesn’t tie teachers’ hands or require any additional pre-approval of materials. It would simply require that the materials be documented. Teachers and administrators may simply post information in a manner as easy and inexpensive as copying the names and links into a Google Doc visible via the school’s website. Teachers are generally expected to submit lesson plans with their material to administrators and are already keeping track of their resources to reuse in future years, so the additional workload would be minimal.

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While some states have successfully passed legislation banning CRT and other politically divisive materials, we must remember that this is Illinois, where the teachers’ unions and progressive members of the General Assembly will certainly not allow such measures to pass here at the State level, and frankly, I don’t want the State to have a dog in this fight. The battle needs to be waged at the district level, and by giving parents the tools they need to see what’s actually being taught to their kids, they can level the playing field and hold school boards and administrators accountable for their curriculum choices.

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**UPDATED X 2** As the CDC Dithers, Schools Twist in the Wind

Last week the board for my local school district met and the main topic on the agenda was the matter of whether students, teachers and staff would be required to wear masks. The board gave a great deal of time to public comments, and many parents took advantage of the opportunity. Except for one parent, all of the comments were in favor of giving parents the choice of having their children wear face coverings.

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In my comments to the board, I said that it has the responsibility to consider more than just the risk of COVID infection among children when fulfilling its role to provide for their education, and I thought it should be a parent’s choice to decide whether his or her child should wear a mask at school. I also challenged parents who argued for choice to think about whether they were doing it for their kids’ sake or whether they were making a political statement. I’ve since received emails from constituents who wanted to know why I spoke out as I did.

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I think it’s important to point out that all flu viruses are coronaviruses, which are very adaptable and prone to mutation. However, it’s also true that as they mutate and may become more contagious than the original virus, statistics are showing that the virus is not more dangerous or likely to kill you. No vaccine is 100% effective, and if you’re vaccinated and are exposed to it, you may get infected. These symptoms are usually mild, manageable, and pass within a day or two. This was the case with the later mutations of Spanish Flu in 1918, the “swine flu”, and will be true of COVID-19. The virus will, as was pointed out in The Great Influenza, “revert to the mean” and become another flu for which vaccines will be developed and which will be another risk that we as a society will take in stride.

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We also have to compare COVID’s danger to children with other dangers. In the United States, extraordinarily tiny fractions of children have died among the millions who have gotten sick. The risk is not zero, and while every death is tragic, we make judgments all the time about acceptable and non-acceptable risks. Every year we go through “flu season” without shutting down schools or resorting to other universal restrictive behaviors. Deaths in automobile accidents could possibly be preventable but trying to stop them all would require rules and enforcement mechanisms that society wouldn’t put up with. How do we measure the harmful effects of what we’re doing to our kids, from isolation to the fear of basic human contact that accompanies the demands of grownups who want to make the world absolutely safe? Those have to be factored in, as well.

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Before the board made its decision, it was announced that just that day, the CDC had issued new guidelines that, because of the rapid spread of the “Delta” variant to the COVID-19 virus, it was recommending that masks be worn indoors, even by those who’d been vaccinated. This announcement was quickly followed by a letter from the district’s insurance carrier that unless this new guidance was followed, the district could lose its coverage, so the decision was put off until next Tuesday. Such is the litigious world in which we live.

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My personal take is that the CDC is being pulled from one side to the other by competing interests which go beyond the need to keep the pandemic from coming back. Otherwise, why make so many inconsistent pronouncements in such short order? This Federal action trickles down to the local level in demonstrable ways such as whether to mask or not. Besides, I certainly don’t want to set a precedent that every time a new variant arises we all go back into lockdown. Nor does this serve to inspire confidence in our public health system. Those who are hesitant to get the vaccine are going to be less likely to do so if they think that even if they do get it, some bureaucrat is going to say that masks are still going to be required.

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That’s not to say that people shouldn’t get vaccinated. The evidence is mounting that the vast majority of new infections is coming from those who haven’t been given the vaccine. I’m not going to ask you to prove to me or anyone else that you’ve done it, but I’m more than a little annoyed that there are some out there who ride on the backs of those who’ve taken the vaccine with the hope that enough will take it to get us to full herd immunity without their cooperation. You aren’t proving anything to anybody and all you’re doing is helping the government slow-walk the process. Regardless of your objections, this thing will be over a lot sooner if you just go out and get the shot, so step up and take one for the team.

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**UPDATE** Of course, there’s no accounting for the hysteria that can be stoked by breathless media reports of possible outbreaks at events where 90% of the participants showed proof of vaccination and another 8% showed proof of a recent negative test. Setting aside for the moment the slippery slope that may come by requiring proof of vaccination for entry, it seems that some people just don’t want our national nightmare to be over.

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Finally, it’s long past time for our Governor to stop hiding behind his pronouncements that he’s “following the science”. His original justification for shutting down the State was to take the pressure off of hospital emergency rooms, and it made sense, but unless we start seeing much higher demand on bed capacity, the fact that the Federal government can’t get its act together is justification enough to open up both our economy and our schools.

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**UPDATE x 2** Well, that didn’t take long. The day after the school board met, the Governor issued yet another Executive Order under the authority of yet another disaster declaration mandating that all schools institute a mask requirement. He’s starting to remind me of this guy.

Posted in COVID-19, Education | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment