Friday, May 15, 2009

End-of-session preview 2009

The legislature is preparing for a two-week push to accomplish three major issues — the state operating budget, a major construction program and a government reform initiative — for a potential May 29 adjournment. That’s the goal, according to Senate President John Cullerton.

All four legislative leaders met behind closed doors this afternoon to talk about a major capital construction program, which is expected to roll out next week. Earlier in the day, House Republicans held an unprecedented open-door meeting (caucuses usually meet behind closed doors and don’t invite the media) to talk about government reforms with Patrick Collins, chairman of the Reform Commission.

The Senate will come back Sunday evening, while the House is scheduled to return to the Capitol Monday evening. Here's where things stand, as of Friday evening:

Preparation to negotiate details of an operating budget, which is projected to have a deficit between $9 billion and $12 billion, is expected to start in earnest early next week. The process could be a little different than previous years in an attempt to increase transparency, but we’ll have more on that later.

Capital plan
By Jamey Dunn
The four legislative leaders seem to be nearing an agreement on revenue sources for a major infrastructure program. A vote could come next week.

Cullerton said that the money for the plan would come from several proposals and that no one source would dominate. “It’s a combination — it’s a potpourri — of funding sources for the capital bill.”

We wrote about some revenue ideas earlier this week. Cullerton said some of the details could change. He said that beer and not just wine and spirits, as previously mentioned, could be included in a liquor tax increase. He added that a proposal to sell lottery tickets online would have to be cleared with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said that legalizing video gaming and taxing it as a revenue source could actually reduce the number of video poker consoles in the state. She said the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability estimated about 65,000 machines could be operating throughout the state, while one proposal would reduce that to about 45,000. However, the actual number of existing machines is unknown, according to the commission.

“I think the idea is to limit them, not to have them on every street corner,” Radogno said. “I mean, they’re already out there, and we want to make sure that the state’s getting the revenue that we could get from the activity that’s already going on.”

Rep. Frank Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat, already has a video poker measure advancing through the legislature.

That’s the revenue side. The spending side invites a whole new set of complications. “We want to be sure that everyone’s comfortable with the spending before we vote for the revenue side of it,” Radogno said. “So, there’s a lot of detail that has to be worked out there. There’s not gong to be any hidden allocations. No lump sums.”

She said that the leaders have been talking about funneling a large potion of the money through existing programs with established criteria in an attempt to take some of the bickering out of the highly political process.

By Bethany Jaeger
Legislation drafted by Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission is expected to be ready for debate later next week, and campaign finance limits likely are in the mix.

Sen. Don Harmon, an assistant majority leader from Oak Park, has been working with Patrick Collins, chairman of the commission and former assistant U.S. attorney. While some items such as Freedom of Information Act reforms are expected to sail through the legislative process, more controversial items likely would be introduced in competing bills and debated.

Campaign contribution limits are one example. Lawmakers would debate various proposals and take up-or-down votes on each, according to Harmon.

The Reform Commission recommended capping individual donations at $2,400 and corporate or political organizations’ donations at $5,000. But Harmon said the controversy is “not whether there should be campaign contribution limits — but the size.” Some legislators think that a $2,400 cap is too low and that it would require them to spend too much time raising campaign cash in smaller increments.

A $10,000 limit per calendar year, on the other hand, may be a more comfortable level for many legislators, Harmon said. Some Senate Democrats don’t like basing the limit on a calendar year, but, Harmon said, “We need limits that are meaningful, and the calendar year seems to be an understandable measurement and could enhance the likelihood of enforcement.”

Here are some of the contribution limit bills waiting for action:
  • Radogno has proposed SB 1548, a $10,000 limit for individuals, corporations, unions and clubs or political organizations.
  • Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, however, would limit individual donations to $7,500 and corporate donations to $20,000, under SB 2257.
  • Democratic Rep. Harry Osterman of Chicago introduced HB 24, which resembles the Illinois Reform Commission’s recommendations to mirror federal limits: $2,400 for individuals and $5,000 for political organizations.
  • Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, is behind SB 1768, which would establish limits for individuals and political action committees, but it also would cap the amount statewide political campaigns could transfer to candidates at $30,000.

A longer-term proposal, on the other hand, is changing the way the legislature redraws congressional districts. Redistricting is being discussed but not lumped in as part of the end-of-session rush. Reform ideas, which include using a computerized process similar to Iowa’s, are likely to be debated in public hearings throughout this summer or, potentially, a special legislative session in September.

Another controversial issue that could be pushed back is the commission’s recommendation to grant state’s attorneys authority to wiretap conversations as part of public corruption investigations. Federal prosecutors have that power, while state’s attorneys do not (although they can wiretap for other kind of investigations).

A former state’s attorney, Democratic Sen. Bill Haine of Alton, sees red flags in the proposal. State’s attorneys are elected on a partisan basis, while federal attorneys are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Federal prosecutors also answer to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney general, which Haine said provides a checks-and-balances system. “So before we vest local politically elected prosecutors with the vast powers of the United States government, we should have a clear idea of where we are going to draw the line and what the checks and balances are. Just giving wiretapping authority, warrentless wiretapping authority or additional wiretapping authority without looking at how we’re going to have checks and balances on that authority, I think, is a mistake.”

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