Friday, May 18, 2007

Weekly round up

Budget no-no’s
After 15 senators signed a letter opposing a so-called no-growth budget, we’re left asking what the majority of lawmakers would support by the end of the scheduled session (May 31, less than 13 days away)? Their Senate President Senate Emil Jones Jr. reportedly says he also opposes a flat budget, but he hasn’t publicly backed down from his support of the governor’s $7.6 billion gross receipts tax, either. While we know 107 House members voted in opposition to the governor’s gross receipts tax concept, we still don’t know what their leader, House Speaker Michael Madigan, thinks is the most reliable, politically palatable way to bring in more revenue to the state. The House Democrats are expected to hash out their wish lists in a meeting next week. And the governor’s administration still sends daily e-mails about why his “Tax Fairness Plan” would solve the state’s “unfair” tax system.

College loans for immigrants
College-bound students who are immigrants from low- or middle-income families would be eligible for a state grant to help pay for college under a measure unanimously approved by the Senate Friday. The original version failed by one vote earlier this week. Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat, says regardless of legal status, all students should have an opportunity to finance their educations. To be eligible for the annual $5,000 loans, students would have to be an Illinois resident and a citizen or a permanent resident, which requires them to have a visa. They’d also have to have a “B” average and come from a family with an income less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

Sandoval adds the state also should get back into the business of making loans directly to college students. He echoes presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s recent statement that all federal student loans should be under the government rather than through federally guaranteed bank loans, which have been under national scrutiny for potential conflicts of interest lately.

Statewide smoking ban exemption?
Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and frequent sponsor of gaming legislation, said while he voted for the statewide smoking ban, he supports an effort to grant a five-year exemption for casinos that operate on Illinois’ borders. He said they’re at a severe disadvantage to casinos less than five miles over the Missouri or Indiana borders that allow people to smoke. He expects an uphill battle in pushing for the exemption. The effort is starting in the Senate, where it’s already being delayed by a bunch of procedural tactics to prevent the opening the crack to reversals before the actual ban is signed by the governor.

A call for fiscal restraint ignored
Despite Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson’s pleas with legislators to halt to state overspending, the Senate joined the House in approving a measure that would start a pilot project to provide health care for the uninsured in Kane County. The program is designed provide additional health services to people who don’t qualify for any other form of public aid. “We don’t have a revenue problem,” Watson said, urging his peers to reject the idea. “We have a spending problem.”

However, Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat, said recent closing of clinics and the slashing of services used by the uninsured and the underinsured increase the need for drug assistance, diagnostic testing and extra state aid. A lot of Kane County residents use clinics in neighboring Cook County, but Cook County Board president Todd Stroger proposed closing more than a dozen medical clinics and cutting some health services provided by Cook County hospital earlier this year.

HIV testing gains momentum
HIV testing and counseling may soon become a routine part of prenatal care under a measure approved by both chambers. If the governor signs it, all expectant mothers would receive counseling prior to being tested. If she opted out of testing, her refusal would be documented in her medical records.

In another step for HIV testing, the House approved a measure that would make HIV testing a part of annual physicals. Doctors would offer the testing during routine blood tests. Patients would have to consent before being tested. However, refusals would be documented in their medical records. Earlier this session, Ford faced a lot of opposition from AIDS advocacy groups that were concerned that the measure would mandate testing, taking the choice away from patients. The Chicago Democrat compromised.

Prison time for Internet creeps
Sexual predators caught engaging in illicit chats with minors on the Internet would get sent to prison if the governor signs a TEXT measure now on his desk. Such predators would face felony charges for using the Internet to lure underage victims or anyone they believed to be a child. “Unfortunately, sexual predators are using this new technology as a means to gain access to children,” says Rep. Tom Cross in a press release. “This bill will help law enforcement to intervene and prevent meetings before they are arranged.”

Oprah Winfrey Week
Oprah Winfrey will get an entire week of observance in Illinois starting next February’s first week of Black History Month. Both chambers approved a measure to recognize her accomplishments in and contributions to media, publishing, film, philanthropy, education, health and fitness.

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