Friday, March 28, 2008

Capital debate in the Capitol

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to host a series of leaders’ meetings at the executive mansion in Springfield starting April 10, according to a letter from former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard. The March 25th letter is addressed to all four top legislative leaders.

Republican Hastert and Democrat Poshard are co-chairing the governor’s coalition to promote his $25 billion capital program, called Illinois Works, and it seems as though they could serve as a much-needed buffer between the governor and the legislative leaders in what’s sure to be a contentious debate about financing the plan.

It’s hard to get excited about that debate. It seems as though Statehouse insiders still feel hung over from last year’s political stalemate, turmoil, disgrace — whatever you want to call it. The situation begs the question of how today’s capital debate differs from 1999, when then-Gov. George Ryan worked with the legislature to approve the last major capital plan in Illinois. That same year, they earmarked 51 percent of the state’s general funds for education and rewrote the state’s gaming law to allow a docked casino in Cook County.

Why could leaders of opposing political parties accomplish all that when today’s Democratically controlled legislature and executive branch have a hard time even meeting in the same room? Personalities, for one. Republican and former Sen. James “Pate” Phillip led the Senate in 1999. The current House Speaker, Michael Madigan, controlled the House then, too. But Madigan and Blagojevich drastically differ in personalities and leadership styles (see our March cover story). It also should be noted that the context of the 1999 debate was a much better economy with higher-than-expected revenues. Today’s revenue picture is much gloomier.

But Ryan himself was quoted as saying in Illinois Issues magazine that working with the legislature was the key. “That’s what government’s about, sitting down to negotiate your differences,” he said in our own Charlie Wheeler column in 1999. “I worked hard for people to cooperate, to make sure we got done what had to be done.”

Stay tuned next week when the legislature will spring back into action after a two-week break. The Capital Development Board will testify about a capital bill during a House committee at the same time Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, is scheduled to hold a hearing about the governor's $1 million promise to the private Loop Lab School.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Democrats target guns

By Patrick O'Brien
House Democrats tried again Wednesday to advance measures designed to curb gun violence.

For instance, if children got hold of their parents’ guns, which they legally owned and registered, then parents could be held responsible under a proposal by Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris. The parents would lose their FOID cards. The proposal passed out of committee along party lines and goes to the full House, though Harris said negotiations with opponents of the bill will continue.

The bill doesn’t require the minor to commit a crime for the parents to have their gun rights revoked. That goes too far for some. The law would apply to children who had a history of violence rooted in mental health.

Harris said the bill responds to past cases involving minors and their parents’ guns that were brought to his attention by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. “It seems to me there is a clear and present danger,” he said in committee.

Todd Vandermyde of the NRA doesn’t think the measure addresses the problem and was troubled by the language, which he said could prevent “children” up to age 21 from lawfully possessing a firearm. Eighteen-year-olds are allowed to own guns in Illinois.

“I think that in some cases they are trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer,” he said. “They’re trying to take rights away when a crime hasn’t been committed.”

Denise Kane, the inspector general who brought the issue to Harris’ attention, said the law intends to keep potentially violent teens from easily accessing guns in their own homes.

She recounted an incident in Rockford where a 14-year-old boy shot and wounded his 15-year-old friend. The boy had previously used his parents’ legally owned guns to shoot another boy with a pellet rifle and had brought ammunition to school. Though the boy had accessed his parents’ guns three times without their permission, the state could not revoke the parents’ right to own guns.

Another measure, sponsored by Rep. William Davis, a Homewood Democrat, failed. It would have ammunition laser encoded to better investigate crimes. The measure was soundly turned away by the committee after representatives of Winchester Ammunition’s East Alton plant said the measure would force it to close the plant and relocate 1,700 jobs out of state.

Watch for the next major front in the annual fight between gun rights activists and many Democrats — the assault weapons ban that waits action in the House. Measures to require firearms training courses for gun owners and a firearm relinquishment amnesty for illegal gun owners may also be heard by the committee soon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Medicaid matters

By Patrick O'Brien
Increases in Medicaid payments to doctors would cost Illinois at least $300 million a year, according to testimony at a Senate committee today. A measure attempts to increase the rate at which the state reimburses doctors at a time when payments already are delayed.

At the same time, Senate Republicans made some noise about the Democratic leadership blocking two bills of Sen. Carole Pankau, a Roselle Republican, from being heard in committee. Both measures seek to tighten requirements for Medicaid. One asks for income verification, and one would make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to receive All Kids benefits, except in emergencies.

Pankau said there was no valid reason for the bills to be blocked and called the move a violation of trust. The move by Senate Democrats was made 20 minutes before a series of witnesses were scheduled to testify in committee.

The increased reimbursements to doctors weren’t met with the warmest reaction, either.

Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, said the measure won’t help pay doctors more as the state struggles to match sagging revenues with increasing demand for health care services. “If there’s no money here to make the payments, even though we owe more money, all we’re going to do to keep up with payments is to slow down the process,” she said.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, said the state already is attempting to expand state-sponsored health care faster than it can afford to, given the state’s current budget deficit. He cited an estimate by the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability that projects a $750 million deficit for the current fiscal year.

Estimates from the commission put revenue growth for the next budget year below $700 million. Increased Medicaid reimbursements, then, could eat up that entire amount if enacted, according to both supporters and opponents of the measure.

Righter also said that as doctors continue to wait for state Medicaid payments, access to health care would get more difficult as doctors stop practicing in Illinois or stop taking Medicaid patients altogether.

The never-ending wait for school construction money
By Bethany Jaeger
Nearly one year ago, legislators thought they were closer to releasing state funds to clear a five-year waiting list of nearly two dozen schools that needed money for major construction projects. Despite receiving legislative approval to do so last year, funding was withheld based on an unexpected “technicality” that was more rooted in politics.

The House again approved a measure that would release $150 million that has been held hostage since 2002. “This is a tarnish and a shame on the state of Illinois, the fact that we’re going on six years now, this state could not keep a promise to the school children in these communities,” said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican and school superintendent.

Rep. Lisa Dugan, the Bradley Democrat sponsoring the legislation, said the measure only deals with the $150 million for school construction, nothing else that could deter the governor from signing it into law.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

Budget hearings
Decatur held the first of 19 regional budget hearings across the state called for by House Speaker Michael Madigan. The meetings could be the start of another contentious budget battle as lawmakers seek to highlight concerns about Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s proposed budget.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Passing the buck

by Patrick O’Brien
The State of Illinois is passing the buck on veterans’ tuition grants to universities, according to testimony at a House committee Thursday. Schools whose bottom lines already suffer from years of reduced funding are being forced to bear the cost of an unfunded mandate, said Rep. David Miller, a Lynwood Democrat and committee chair. That results in higher tuition rates for students as schools try to cover the costs of educating veterans.

A state grant pays for tuition and certain fees at Illinois schools for men and women who have been on active military duty for at least a year. Schools provide waivers for the veterans to attend, and the state reimburses the institution. But the problem is, the grant money often runs out, forcing universities to make up the difference.

State universities are facing a combined shortfall of $22 million because of an increasing number of veterans attending college and the lack of funding from the state, Miller said. The program’s costs have more than doubled in five years. “Instead of being a taxpayer issue, it’s become a user tax on students.”

The Illinois Board of Higher Education reports that the program, the Illinois Veterans Tuition Grant, was budgeted at a little more than $19 million this year. State schools have received $18 million so far.

The program has been budgeted at $19 million since 2004, while the number of veterans returning from active duty continues to increase. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission reports that the deficit has been a problem since at least 2004, when the state was $5 million short on payments for the grant.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education said the program would receive no extra money next year, making six consecutive budget cycles without an increase for the program.

University of Illinois president B. Joseph White said a lack of funding from the state will cost the school $4 million this year to cover the program, even after state money is figured in. Illinois State University president Al Bowman told the committee his school lost $600,000 in tuition that the state didn’t reimburse in 2007, and that number will increase to $1 million this year.

One university official laid the responsibility at the feet of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “It’s the law, but the governor was supposed to provide funding,” said Cheryl Peck, spokeswoman for the University of Illinois at Springfield. Peck said the university took $490,000 from other areas of the budget this year to ensure that veterans’ tuitions are covered.

Like most state institutions in a tough budget year, higher education is feeling the squeeze.

The proposed state budget leaves funding flat for state schools, which actually decreases their funding, according to Rep. Rich Brauer, a Petersburg Republican. Brauer said the 3 percent to 4 percent increase in costs due to inflation will give the schools less money to work with and that most state universities already receive less money than in 2002.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hastert, Con-Con and prison

A powerful lobbyist
By Patrick O’Brien
The task of getting a capital bill passed in Illinois just got a powerful new ally Wednesday. Gov. Rod Blagojevich enlisted former speaker of the U.S. House Dennis Hastert, a Republican, to co-chair a bipartisan group to help pass the governor’s Illinois Works program.

The other co-chair is Southern Illinois University President and former gubernatorial Democratic candidate Glenn Poshard. Poshard and Hastert provide a geographical and political balance to the group, which includes a diverse group of union leaders and several presidents of chambers of commerce.

The strange political bedfellows on the committee highlight the breadth of support for a statewide plan that would fix crumbling bridges, schools and other infrastructure and presumably stabilize a troubled state economy.

The governor’s plan would lease a portion of the Illinois Lottery to fund 65 percent of the $25 billion program, while the other 35 percent would come from bond sales. The reliance on lottery funds has some worried the plan will fail, just as previous attempts to use gambling expansion to fund a capital bill also stalled.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said he’s concerned about the partial lottery sale as a funding source, saying House Republicans are open to other ideas for financing the program. “No one is going to be open to an idea that takes away $700 million from a budget that’s there for general revenue and education. A [budget] hole like that makes it hard to consider.”

Cross also said gambling expansion is a possible funding idea for an infrastructure plan. He recently asked House Speaker Michael Madigan for a meeting of the full chamber to discuss the idea.

Hastert was in Springfield today to be honored with a resolution by the House for his six years of service in the state legislature and eight years as U.S. speaker, the longest term for a Republican in the post.

Con-Con considerations
By Bethany Jaeger
A few blocks north of the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and former state comptroller and lawmaker Dawn Clark Netsch debated whether Illinois voters should call for a constitutional convention, which would allow delegates to rewrite the state charter. The question will be on the November 2008 ballot because, by law, the question has to be posed to voters every 20 years. The last convention was in 1969-1970. (See background in our November and December Illinois Issues magazine.)

Netsch warns against another Con-Con right now for two primary reasons (among others):
  1. Leadership, or lack thereof: "We don’t have constitutional crisis in the state of Illinois. We have a leadership crisis,” she said, adding: "There are no constitutional barriers to resolving the issues that have been plaguing us for the last couple of years. The only thing that is missing is the kind of leadership that brings those issues finally to bear.”
  2. Preparation, or lack thereof: The state has done nothing other than approve a non-binding resolution to prepare and educate voters for the decision (see our June 2007 blog for more). She described a two-year effort by a 50-member committee in preparation for the ballot question in 1988. Nine public hearings across the state and a series of research papers all contributed to discussion beforehand. There's nothing like that this year so far.
Quinn supports the call for a Con-Con to address what he considers inadequate and unfair systems for school funding, a flat state income tax rate and government ethics. “The whole idea of a constitutional convention is to make the voters stronger.”

He said one of the provisions that would do just that would be to allow voters to recall elected public officials. Netsch agreed that the only way a recall provision would be added to the state Constitution is through a convention, considering lawmakers are unlikely to approve a measure by themselves.

Ironically Quinn helped draft recall legislation, which happened to received unanimous approval from a House committee later that afternoon. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, it would amend the state Constitution to allow a recall similar to California’s provision. See a 2006 analysis of recall provisions in other states from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

We wrote about Franks' measure last November. He said it sets a high threshold to avoid rash, politically charged removal attempts. Even if the state Constitution were amended to include a recall provision, he said they would be rare.

Prison closing timeline
Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration proposed closing Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet as a way to save money. (See the Associated Press story here.) Closing a Vandalia prison sparked a session-long revolt a few years ago, and the prison stayed open. This one is bound to be controversial, too, given that the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents the 400 jobs that would be transferred to other prisons.

The Illinois Department of Corrections announced the Stateville plans at a Senate committee hearing last week, but the Illinois legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability could slow those plans per state law. (Lee Enterprises’ reporter Kurt Erickson wrote about it here.)

In a meeting Wednesday, the commission’s executive director, Dan Long, said he sent a letter to the corrections department spelling out the timeline for public hearings and a recommendation for how to proceed with closing of the prison under the state facilities’ closure act. The department said it doesn’t think the act applies because it would only close a portion, not all, of the prison. The bottom line is that if the act does apply to the partial closing of Stateville, then the clock started at the February 28 Senate committee. Public hearings would have to be held between April and June, and the commission would have to offer a non-binding recommendation to the department by the end of June.

Long said this is uncharted territory. If state lawmakers continue to disagree with the department over whether the Stateville idea falls under the state facilities’ closure act, Long said, “I’d venture to guess it’d be another lawsuit.”

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

House action

Moment of silence
By Bethany Jaeger
A majority of the Illinois House reversed its position Tuesday about mandating schools to observe a moment of silence to start each school day. Supporters of the reversal included Democrats and Republicans, who argued that while they can support an appropriate moment of silence, prayer or reflection -- whatever you want to call it -- they don't like the mandate. They'd rather preserve local control to let individual schools decide. Furthermore, they said during floor debate, the moment is undefined and the mandate lacks a penalty for failing to observe the law.

“This bill will take us back to where we ought to be, where school districts on their own, families on their own can decide, students on their own can decide what -- if anything -- they wish to do with this moment in time,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat.

Rep. David Reis, a Willow Hill Republican, suggested erasing the reference to “prayer” and limiting the language to a “moment of silence.” But he suggested leaving it as a state mandate. He voted against the measure.

Rep. John Fritchey, the House sponsor of the legislation, said he expects Sen. John Cullerton to carry the measure in the other chamber. But it could be a tough sell.

“It's very difficult to tread the waters where politics and religion meet,” Fritchey said. “This bill last time was mistakenly characterized as a referendum on religion.”

Smoking ban exemptions
By Patrick O'Brien
The statewide smoking ban survived two direct challenges today as Democrats and most Republicans on a House committee rejected an attempted repeal of the law, which went into effect January 1. The committee also rejected a separate measure that would allow businesses to opt out of the law by obtaining smoking licenses, just as they would obtain liquor licenses.

There was one victory for those looking to alter the law, however. A measure that would exempt hookah lounges and other smoking lounges, provided that they make the vast majority of their money from tobacco and tobacco products, passed. The measure will now go to the full House for debate.

The smoking ban has been the subject of more than a few attempts so far this year, mostly by House Republicans, to make exemptions to the act for private clubs, casinos and other businesses, or to reverse the law entirely. Opponents of the law say the ban hurts business, especially in regions near the Indiana and Iowa borders where there are other casino, restaurant and bar options for customers who smoke.

Watch for Senate action when lawmakers return to the Capitol Wednesday.