There are two weeks remaining before the ongoing election concludes, and while it might seem impossible to focus on anything else related to government in that fortnight, it’s important for Illinoisans to look ahead another 14 days to Nov. 17, the start of the General Assembly’s fall veto session.
With plenty of competing priorities – not to mention uncertainty about election results, specifically the income tax amendment – it’s difficult to say what topics will seize the most attention. My vote for what constitutes Illinois’ most pressing problem is the deplorable condition of the unemployment agency.
On Friday, the Better Government Association issued a scathing report about issues plaguing the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Like many others, I’ve looked at the way the state failed its unemployed population since the COVID-19 onset, but the BGA analysis dug deep on the shaky foundation pre-pandemic and began examining what might need to happen to right this sinking ship.
It’s too much to summarize here, but one money quote comes from Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes:
“There was not instability at the top,” he said. “I think what was lacking was everything underneath there. There was great attrition in the rank-and-file employees who were at the front lines of services. There was outdated technology, a lack of investment in technology that had occurred over the last 10 years. That’s really what was lacking.”
In 2010, under Gov. Pat Quinn, there were nearly 2,000 IDES employees. By 2015, under Gov. Bruce Rauner, that dropped to about 1,300. When Gov. JB Pritzker took over in 2019, it was 1,100, and this April, there were 1,041.
Workers alone will not solve the state’s many problems in processing claims – especially the part about actually being able to afford to give everyone enough assistance – but investing in new technology is only prudent to the extent IDES staff can be trained and deployed to use whatever we can afford.
According to BGA, Pritzker wants to hire 226 IDES staffers and the state plans to borrow more than $5 billion to add to the pool of taxes collected from employers to fund benefits. The administration tabled plans to merge IDES with the labor department.
These problems are bigger than the veto session, but they demand attention. Any sitting lawmaker likely spent the last months hearing from scores of constituents who struggled to get payments processed – or even talk to a live body at IDES – and those newly elected Nov. 3 will be inundated soon enough.
The solution will necessarily involve spending more money. That might not be politically popular, but this seems an essential function of state government. Lives and livelihoods are at stake, there’s no such thing as too much urgency.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at email@example.com.