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Governor’s Budget Address
Rauner says pension, health overhaul needed to balance state's budget

SPRINGFIELD — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said Wednesday he could balance the Illinois budget and cut taxes by $1 billion provided the Democratic-controlled General Assembly agrees to make massive changes to the pension system and health insurance benefits for state workers.

Besides again advocating for a constitutionally questionable overhaul of employee pensions, Rauner told lawmakers during a budget address that he wants to shift retirement costs to local school districts and dictate health insurance benefits for state workers.

The first-term governor, who is facing a tough re-election bid, said pension and health expenses consume 25 cents of every dollar the state doles out.

"The simple truth is this: We have to change the way we manage pension costs and group health expenses," Rauner said. "If we don't, our finances will continue to deteriorate, our economy will remain sluggish and our tax burdens will stay high and keep rising."

The overall pension revamp would save $1 billion a year, Rauner said. Although he wouldn't count on that money in the 2019 budget that begins July 1, it ultimately would allow him to drop the income tax rate from 4.95 percent to 4.7 percent, he contended. It's likely to face a court challenge as past proposals have because the Constitution prohibits promised pensions from being "diminished or impaired."

Of more immediate concern to Democrats was the pension cost-shift plan. They called it a massive property tax increase — something Rauner has railed against for years — because school districts will have no other choice for taking on the huge cost.

Reassigning responsibility for the employer portion of teacher pensions to school districts would reverse a yearslong practice of the state picking up the tab for all districts outside Chicago and was even extended to that city as a matter of fairness in last summer's education-funding package. A sponsor of that plan, Sen. Andy Manar, said the shift would reverse the entire reason for the funding-formula changes — more equity in how the state pays for education.

"The governor's proposal appears to spend hundreds of millions of dollars but doesn't result in greater equity because of that cost-shift provision that he's proposing," the Bunker Hills Democrat said. "That would shift those pension obligations onto local property taxpayers."

One of Rauner's toughest budget critics, Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, said the plan would severely hurt human services, although she acknowledged it would balance a budget.

"This is the closest the Rauner administration has ever come to a real, balanced budget, which I appreciate," she said.

Rauner proposed his $37.96 billion blueprint which he claims would leave a surplus to be put toward billions of dollars in overdue bills. However, all require approval from Democratic legislators with whom he's feuded for years. A two-year stalemate without a budget — which created the huge bill backlog — finally broke last year when Republican lawmakers crossed over to override Rauner's budget veto and implement an income tax hike from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent.

The group health insurance changes would mean union employees would no longer be able to bargain for health care, which Democratic lawmakers are almost certain to oppose.

Rauner defended the ideas, saying giving local schools the responsibility for paying teacher pensions gives local taxpayers "plenty of incentive to lower costs."

House budget expert Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, said the budget plan requires lawmakers to "turn their backs on the middle class" by cutting services and implementing a "pension scheme" that would take $1 billion away from classrooms.

"Throughout Gov. Rauner's time in office, progress has been made only when legislators agreed to work together without him," Harris said. "If the governor is finally sincere in his desire to be a part of this process, he'll find willing partners in House Democrats."

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Governor's Budget Address
Bryant, Schimpf 'encouraged' by $8.3 million allocated to Murphysboro re-entry center


SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed giving $8.3 million to the life skills re-entry center in Murphysboro under his fiscal year 2019 budget plan, a jumpstart for a facility that will help jailed offenders get back to work.

“Some 28,000 offenders are released into our communities each year,” Rauner told lawmakers on Wednesday in his annual budget address. “Nearly half return to prison within three years. The rates of recidivism are too high. Jobs are a key antidote.”

Rauner says pension, health overhaul needed to balance state's budget

SPRINGFIELD — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said Wednesday he could balance the Illinois budget and cut taxes by $1 billion provided the Democratic-controlled General Assembly agrees to make massive changes to the pension system and health insurance benefits for state workers.

The former youth center is reopening after being closed in 2012. Inmates with three years or less remaining on their sentences can apply to be transferred to the center if they’ve had a clean record while locked up.

The governor’s proposed budget requires local school districts and state colleges and universities to pick up a greater percentage of their teacher retirement costs, shifting the burden of funding pensions away from the state. Rauner said the reforms are necessary to balance the budget and make Illinois “an economic powerhouse of the Midwest.” He also proposed cutting health insurance benefits for state workers.

Rauner told lawmakers that the plan would amount to a $1 billion tax cut.

“The people of Illinois are taxed out,” he said.

But it’s not clear whether local governments would have to raise property taxes to offset their new expenses under the governor’s proposal.

Nonetheless, State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said the governor’s proposal was a starting point for budget negotiations, with “tools to work going forward.”

“There were some positive things for Southern Illinois, in particular the $26 million that will go specifically to Murphysboro and Kewanee,” Bryant said. Kewanee, in Henry Country in northern Illinois, also has a life skills-entry center.

Bryant was an advocate for re-opening the Murphysboro facility.

“It’s very encouraging to know that money is not only in this year’s fiscal budget but is also proposed for next year’s,” Bryant said.

State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, said the facility is an important economic driver for Jackson County. “There is a new class of corrections employees that are being trained to work in that facility,” he said. “I was very happy to hear the governor talk about the success of those facilities.”

The address is the first since a budget deal last year that ended a two-year stalemate.

The governor proposed $181 million in funding for Southern Illinois University Carbondale, about the same as the current fiscal year. That’s down from $201 million the university received in fiscal year 2017.

Married more than 40 years, hear this couple's love story

HERRIN — Edith Ahrendt swore she would never marry again.

Two marriages and two children and not yet 40, she just wasn't interested in settling down for a third time.

That changed one night when she was at a "parents without partners" event and she met Donald Ahrendt.

“You remember,” she asks Donald. “I was going there with a girlfriend and you popped in there.”

He asked her for a dance and this was the start of their courtship. He was 43 years old. She was 40.

“Although I was dating somebody else at the same time,” she said, adding that he didn’t know. Still, she always took his dates as the priority.

“He was my favorite,” Edith said.

These dates sparked a new love that has lasted more than 40 years. Edith describes Donald as her "most wonderful husband."

Throughout their life together they have lived and traveled all over the country — they stayed 12 years in Arizona caring for four members of Donald’s family before coming to Carbondale 20 years ago to care for Edith’s daughter, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple, — Edith, 87 years old, and Donald, 90 — now lives in Herrin as residents of the The Villas of Holly Brook assisted living facility.

In the last five years, Edith said Donald has begun showing signs of dementia — his long-term memory is great, she said, but he struggles to remember other things.

She holds back emotions as she talks about seeing the love of her life change so drastically. The man she believes whole-heartedly is the best she has ever met struggles at times to hold on to their reality together.

The example she gave comes from their dining hall — she said he often wants to pay for their meals. She’s told him over and over that the food is included with their rent, but he insists.

Edith said she has given him a $20 bill to keep in his wallet.

“He tries to give it to the girls and most of the time the girls will give it back to me,” she said. “Those kind of things are tough.”

Other times he forgets key events in his own family members' lives.

“He misses his parents and he will want to know if we can go see his parents,” Edith said.

“Then I have to explain to him that they passed away and I’d love to go see my parents, too,” she said. Not without a sense of humor, she also makes sure he remembers they aren’t spring chickens, either.

“We are next on the list, because you’re 90 and I’m 87,” Edith will tell Donald.

She gets frustrated with him sometimes.

“I lose patience with him and I pray every night to give me patience,” Edith said, disappointed that she doesn’t always keep her composure.

She said when Donald is “in his mode where he can’t remember anything, he asks me the same questions over and over.” That's when she struggles.

“If I’m tired, and even if I’m not tired … I lose patience and sometimes I yell,” she said, adding that sometimes he does, too.

“We get along pretty good,” Donald breaks in.

In her bedroom, Edith points to photographs on the wall. All of their children are there and even some photos of their own parents — family vacations and happy times frozen from decades ago.

“That’s us right there in the middle,” she said, pointing to their only photograph of their wedding — Donald in a wide-lapelled double-breasted suit looking to his bride in a white, knee-length gown.

“That’s what I check him with, with his mind once in a while. I’ll say ‘Don, where is our wedding picture,’ and it takes him a while to look around,” Edith said.

Their wedding wasn’t the most formal of affairs — with three previous marriages between them, they kept it simple that go around.

“Now we’ve been married almost 48 years,” Edith said.

“How long,” Donald asks her.

“48 almost, honey. In June it would be 48 years,” she reminds him. June 6, to be exact.

This photograph reminded her of that day and meeting her in-laws.

“I actually met his parents on our wedding day,” Edith said.

“Do you remember? They drove up from Florida?” she asks Donald.

She asks him that a lot — “Do you remember?”

Edith said it's hardest not being able to talk to Donald about the small things in their life. A trip to see her son the next day is something she said he just wouldn’t remember.

Still, she tries to keep him as active and stimulated as she can — they walk their own trash out of the apartment, do some of their own laundry and she has chores for him each day. She makes sure he makes their beds each morning.

“I tell him if he doesn’t make it perfect I’ll have to call his (drill instructor) and his (drill instructor) won’t like that,” Edith said — Donald served in Europe during World War II as a member of the Army.

Edith said nurses tell her these types of activities are good for Donald.

Though she found him later than she might have thought, Edith still feels blessed to be with Donald, even despite the hardships in recent years. Donald’s memory may have gotten fuzzy, but hers hasn’t.

“This man is the most wonderful man that I could ever imagine,” she said. “I think he’s the most honest, reliable person I have ever met.”

Paul Schimpf