Chesney Guest Column: Agreement at the Illinois Capitol happens more often than you think

While it might not seem to be the case, not everything that occurs in our state’s Capitol is contentious. This year the General Assembly sent more than 400 bills to the Governor for his signature. Most of those bills received bipartisan support. Republican and Democrat lawmakers came together to address, among other issues, the teacher shortage, veteran care, and nursing home reform.  I’ll touch on a few of those important pieces of legislation here.

The first of these has to do with improving the lives of the 45,000 Illinois residents living in nursing homes. HB246 implements nursing home funding changes and uses targeted increases as an incentive for nursing home providers to enhance staffing levels and direct care to residents. HB 246 passed both chambers unanimously and awaits the governor’s signature.

In January the Governor signed HB359 creating the Veterans Accountability Unit. Working independently of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the unit is tasked with soliciting, reviewing, and addressing complaints from residents of Illinois’ veteran homes and their families, as well as from visitors, vendors, contractors, and department staff. Any complaints, allegations, and incidents uncovered by the Veterans Accountability Unit will be reported to the Office of the Executive Inspector General for further action. The goal is to identify potential life-safety issues and suggest actions to the Department to ensure proper action is taken to protect veterans in the care of the state.

Legislators worked together to pass HB4680 to make it easier for veterans to access the benefits they earned while in service to our county. We removed the mandate that veterans had to present their military documentation in person to their Regional Office of the Department of Natural Resources to receive their exemption benefits for hunting, fishing, and camping licenses. Instead, they can submit their proof of service documents to their local IDNR office.

The teacher shortage continues to threaten our children’s education. State school officials have reported more than 2,100 vacant teaching positions in Illinois. To manage the shortage, schools have increased class sizes, used long-term substitutes, brought back retired teachers, and combined classes.  But even those strategies are becoming more difficult to implement.

According to a recent study published by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, 88% of school districts reported teacher shortages and 77% indicated the shortage problem was getting worse. Additionally, 96% said they have a substitute teacher shortage. What’s more, 86% indicated they are seeing fewer qualified applicants for open positions.

Even before the pandemic, school districts across the state were experiencing difficulty attracting and retaining teachers. And, its not just full-time permanent educators that are in need, the lack of substitute teachers is also a pressing matter.

Several pieces of legislation aimed at ensuring highly qualified professionals are at the ready to educate our children passed unanimously this year. Some of those bills include:

Increasing the number of days substitute teachers can be in the classroom from 90 to 120 through the 2023 school year. SB3893 helps schools keep qualified education professionals in the classroom even if a teacher is on extended leave. Another bill, SB3907 extends the number of consecutive days a short-term substitute can fill in for a teacher from 5 days to 15 days. Both bills have been signed into law.

Other legislation waives fees for short-term substitute teachers during a public health emergency, cuts the fees for renewing lapsed teaching licenses from $500 to $50, and waives the registration fees for retired teachers who want to renew their licenses. This opens the door to recruiting more retired teachers to fill the gaps.

Finally, HB4798 allows qualified college students in an approved educator preparation program in the State of Illinois who have earned at least 90 credit hours to be eligible to substitute teach.

Each member of the General Assembly comes from a distinct legislative district; we may represent rural, suburban, or urban districts (and sometimes a combination). With 118 House and 59 Senate districts you can imagine at times, there will be competing interests. But there is more to the legislature than battling over the budget or iconic pieces of legislation. The truth is, more often than not, agreement in the Illinois General Assembly happens on a regular basis, the work of the people does get done and important legislation is passed.