Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Legal grounds

The Illinois legislature continued a trend by ignoring the governor’s requests and, instead, focusing on some hot-button issues that grab headlines before the November elections. Gov. Rod Blagojevich called a special legislative session for today to focus on education funding reform, but not a peep was heard during proceedings. “Today is a joke. No agenda. No bill. No plan,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. The legislature has nothing to do when no legislation is proposed, added Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Here are two other items that grabbed the spotlight:

A legislative review panel unanimously rejected Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s idea to move about 140 state jobs from Springfield to Harrisburg, three hours apart. But the vote isn’t binding, and the governor maintains that he intends to move the jobs as an economic boost to the southern Illinois town.

But the bipartisan, legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s six-hour hearing last month and the “pounds of evidence” generated might not go to waste, says Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat chairing the commission and author of the law setting a review process for closing state facilities. The legal and economic data provided as a result of this process could be used as evidence in court.

Legal challenges could come from the state legislators representing the Springfield area, as well as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 or the local Teamsters union representing the affected employees in the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Public Safety.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin adds that the unanimous vote by the commission demonstrates that the public review process works and that it sets a precedent for future moves. “We’re already hearing rumors of other moves, and I think this is just as important as the next one or the one after that,” Davlin said after the committee vote. “I think it’s obvious that this is what this commission was formed for, to take a look at the economic impact. And I think they spoke overwhelmingly.”

The panel voted 12-0 to recommend that the administration not move the Division of Traffic Safety from Springfield to Harrisburg and that it, instead, look for alternative locations within the City of Springfield that would be cheaper than its current lease.

“Does this decision legally inject or confirm what the administration does to the point where it can stop the administration from doing it? According to the law, the answer is no,” Schoenberg says. “However … given the overwhelming volume of evidence that we heard on the economic and legal issues associated with this proposal, I personally think it would be unwise and contrary to the public’s interest.”

Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican on the commission, said the process has highlighted questions about the fiscal merit, the political motivations and the human impact on the employees.

The administration, however, is looking at other evidence to the contrary, suggesting the move will save money and help out an economically depressed area. Here’s the governor’s statement, provided by e-mail this afternoon: “We will be moving forward with the geographic relocation of IDOT’s Division of Traffic Safety to Harrisburg, as previously mentioned. We’ll be working with the employees who do not choose to relocate, within the terms of their contracts, to find positions for them in Springfield. We will follow all appropriate timelines and guidelines as we move forward.”

Watch this blog for more about legal questions surrounding the governor’s executive authority.

But as part of a checks and balances system established by the state Constitution, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability may be unable to issue binding recommendations, Schoenberg said. What that means for the IDOT proposal, he said: “The facts of the case point heavily towards the commission’s recommendation. Ultimately, if the executive branch chooses to go in a different direction, there may be someone who takes an exception with that.”

No pay raises
The Senate finally agreed with the House to reject granting about $1.1 million in pay raises to legislators, executive officers and top agency officials. But they still got a 3.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year.

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Sens. Donne Trotter and Kwame Raoul, all Chicago Democrats, voted present. The remaining 47 senators on the floor voted to reject the raises recommended by the Compensation Review Board. Raoul voted present because, as he said during floor debate, the board was formed to take the issue of legislative pay raises out of the legislature’s arena. “It should not be my decision as to how much I am compensated.”

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson called the Compensation Review Board a “cover” that fails to take the issue out of the legislative purview. “State government is in shambles. Nothing is getting done … It’s just not the time for anyone in state government to get a pay increase.”

In the balcony, a group of people wearing turquoise T-shirts visited to urge legislators to refund $43 million in budget cuts affecting substance abuse and treatment services.

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