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Sunday, May 1

May 2005 - Legislation/Social Policy: Capital Update

Sandy Mills, EdD, ACSW, LCSW, Legislative Consultant

I would like to begin this column by saying thank you to Rene Hunt, NASW legislative intern from UIUC who had to withdraw from school due to serious health problems. Rene was a fantastic asset to the legislative team and we hope that her health improves so that she can be back with us next spring and complete her MSW.

 As expected, the 94th Illinois General Assembly filed a record number of bills by their deadline dates this spring. Nearly 7,000 bills were filed, with the 118 members of the House outdoing the 59 member Senate by nearly double. In March the legislature went home for a two-week spring break and returned to chambers on April 6th. As the chambers exchange bills, we will be able to tell just which ones have real staying power.

 The highlight of the session is the large budget deficit facing the state and the threat of cuts to several social service programs. Even though not all agencies were cut, a shuffling of program priorities has left many advocates scrambling to try to restore their special programs. As we do not prioritize the many programs important to our members, NASW had to remain firm in our stance to advocate for enhanced revenues and stay out of the “cutting wars”. We joined the A+ campaign, which is advocating a restructuring of the state income tax. The goal is to bring more fairness to both the income and property taxes of Illinois citizens. Those who were among the participants at NASW’s well-attended Lobby Day in February had the distinct pleasure of once again listening to Ralph Martire’s superbly articulated explanation of the Illinois budget deficit. Mr. Martire is the Director of the Center for Tax and Budget Priorities. He advocated for two companion budget bills, which NASW also supports. The bills are SB 750 sponsored by Senator James Meeks (I-Chicago), and HB 750 sponsored by Representative David Miller (D-Calumet City). Though these progressive tax reform bills are not expected to pass this session, it is hoped that they will begin a dialogue that will help voters and politicians see the crucial need for change in the Illinois tax structure.

 House Speaker Michael Madigan, understanding the importance of fixing the State’s structural deficits, has been holding informational forums around the state. He is also attempting to get citizens involved through listening to their ideas for solving the budget crises. Many NASW members are attending the forums in their area and some, like NASW Board member, Dr. Kathy Wehrmann, First Vice President, have even testified at the hearings. In an attempt to balance the budget, Governor Rod Blagojevich has proposed reducing the retirement benefits for future state employees (SERS) and for future members of both the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) and the State University Retirement System (SURS). This controversial proposal has become a difficult sell for the Governor and his staff.

 Your legislative team is tracking numerous bills of interest to the profession and the populations served by social workers. A few of the most active bills are summarized below.

 HR 220 is a resolution introduced by Rep. William Delgado (D-Chicago). It sets up a task force composed of social workers, social service agency representatives and state administrative agencies. It’s purpose is to study the costs and benefits of direct Medicaid payments to social workers, as well as increasing the agencies and settings in which the mental health services of LCSWs can be reimbursed to the agencies. NASW Illinois has worked with Rep. Delgado and Rep. Beth Coulson (R-Glenview) for over five years to accomplish this. Despite nearly unanimous passage of three separate bills that could have allowed this type of reimbursement, we were unable to get a hearing on the bills in the Senate due to the application of a large fiscal note and opposition from IDPA. Rep. Delgado and NASW worked with IDPA to agree to establish a task force to help determine if the cost is as high ($17-23M) as the state estimates. It is hoped that a pilot project may result from the task force study.

 HB 1343, also introduced by Rep. Delgado, is a bill providing loan forgiveness to social workers and human service workers who enter public child welfare. HB 1343, which has already passed the House and moved to the Senate, is subject to appropriations. Therefore, even if it does pass the Senate and the Governor signs it, it may not be immediately operational due to the state’s fiscal crises. It is good, however, to have a loan forgiveness bill on the books for social workers.

 HB 59, sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) in the House and Senator Deana Demuzio (D-Carlinville) in the Senate, would remove the sunset date from a mental health parity bill which was passed several years ago. The passage of HB 59 would allow for the continued insurance coverage of several of the most severe mental illnesses on parity with physical health care coverage. If the bill does not pass, the current law will terminate (sunset) and insurance providers will no longer be required to cover the illnesses on parity with physical health care. NASW is optimistic about the passage of this bill.

 To receive updates and action alerts on these and other bills of interest to social workers, be sure that you are a member of NASW’s Legislative Educational Advocacy Network (LEAN). Contact Gary Kenzer at 312.236.8308 ext.114 or check out the state chapter NASW web site at http://www.naswil.org. You can also look up bills, learn more about your state legislators, and even listen to live debates at http://www.ilga.gov.

 NASW is holding two policy forums on health care. The first is in Edwardsville at the SIUE campus on April 18th and will feature Linda Reene Baker, senior fellow at the Paul Simon Institute for Public Affairs at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Linda is the immediate past Secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services. She and a panel of responders, including Rep. Jay Hoffman and Senate Minority Leader, Frank Watson and Tracey Williams, Division of Mental Health, will discuss regional and statewide Health Care Access and Disparities. NASW will offer a second policy forum on mental health at the fall conference in Chicago. This forum will feature social workers, Illinois State Senator Chris Radogno and Louanner Peters, the Governor’s Deputy Director for Human Services. Check the NASW web site or contact Chapter Executive Director, Joel L. Rubin for more information on these forums.

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