Friday, October 30, 2009

Veto session wrap-up and goodbye

By Bethany Jaeger
This will be my last post as Illinois Issues Statehouse bureau chief. I am moving on to the private sector to be a management consultant with a Springfield-based firm. Thank you for reading and and for sharing a string of unbelievable experiences with me during the past four years.

That said, the legislature completed its annual fall veto session and won't be back until January 12. After that week, it's not scheduled to be back until early February. Read a summary of substantive measures below.

Campaign finance
SB 1466 Individuals, businesses, unions, associations and political committees would be limited in the amount of money they could donate to candidates each election cycle, under a measure approved by both chambers along partisan lines. Legislative leaders and political parties, however, are only limited in the amount they can contribute to candidates in primary elections, not general elections. While reform advocates considered the limits on top political party officials as a compromise and a starting point, Republicans denounced the bill as “business as usual” by consolidating political power in the hands of the few.

In addition to contribution limits, which would be applied on a graduated scale depending on the entity donating and on the candidate’s race, the reform package also aims to improve transparency and enforcement. Candidates would have to report contributions and expenditures four times a year, as opposed to the current twice a year. Donations of $1,000 or more would have to be reported within two to five business days year round. The Illinois State Board of Elections would gain new ability to conduct random audits and investigate potential violations. A task force would study the effectiveness of the implementation of the new law, as well as the feasibility of public funding of political campaigns. Read more details in last night's post.

Recall amendment
HJRCA 31 As part of the fallout from the impeachment of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, voters will be asked on the November ballot whether to change the state Constitution to give them the power to remove a sitting governor. Placing the referendum on the ballot required legislative approval, which was received in August. At least 60 percent of voters in the 2010 general election would have to vote “yes” to amend the Constitution. If approved, then individuals seeking to remove a governor in the future would have to gather a certain number of signatures (15 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election) before voters could be asked whether to remove the sitting governor. Also, 20 House members and 10 Senate members from both political parties would have to sign off on a recall proposal from citizens.

MAP grant funding
SB 1180 Gov. Pat Quinn restored $205 million to Monetary Award Program, which offers financial aid to nearly 138,000 low-income college students. As part of more than $2 billion in budget cuts this fiscal year, Quinn initially did not fully fund the so-called MAP grants to cover an entire school year. The administration authorized spending for only one semester, creating panic among higher education students who relied on the grants. Quinn toured the state to pressure the legislature to approve restoring the funding, and the General Assembly complied in October. However, neither the governor nor the legislature approved a way to pay for the $205 million needed. Quinn said he would seek new revenue sources after January, when fewer votes would be necessary for approval. The move comes on the heels of an updated projection that the state will collect nearly $900 million less than anticipated.

Legislative pay raises
SB 2090 Legislators last spring approved a measure that would change the way legislators get pay raises and would require them to take four unpaid furlough days, as well as forfeit their annual cost-of-living raises this fiscal year. Quinn changed the measure to permanently end automatic cost-of-living raises. The Senate overrode the governor’s change. If the House does the same, the original changes would take effect. If the House does not agree to override the governor’s changes, the entire bill would die so that none of the changes would take effect.

Cemetery oversight
SB 1471 All cemetery owners, managers and employees, including those who are hired to trim trees or maintain cemetery grounds, would have to register with the state and carry identification cards to prove their clearance to work on site. Owners, managers and all employees who had direct contact with customers also would have to go a step further by becoming licensed by the state and subjecting themselves to criminal background checks. The bill is in response to regulatory gaps exposed during in the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal last summer (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13). Bodies buried in the historic African-American cemetery in Alsip were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an alleged scheme to resell gravesites. The bill would consolidate all regulatory oversight to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and require cemetery maps, plats and burial records to be maintained and publicly available. Family burial grounds, inactive cemeteries and cemeteries smaller than 2 acres would be exempt to the new rules.

Cook County governance
HB 4625 Cook County Board members would need fewer votes to override a board president’s veto. If signed into law by the governor, overriding the Cook County Board president would require a three-fifths majority rather than a four-fifths majority, or 11 out of 17 votes rather than 14 votes. It would be effective immediately, contrary to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s wishes that it would be effective after his current term ends in December 2010.

HB 4624 An effort to repeal Cook County’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase failed during veto session. Board President Todd Stroger enacted the sales tax hike from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent in February 2008. Estimated to generate about $400 million for county coffers, the tax has been criticized for making Chicago’s total sales tax rate one of the highest in the nation. County board members have repeatedly tried to repeal the tax increase over Stroger’s veto but have failed to meet the four-fifths majority required.

Free rides for seniors
SB 941 All senior citizens, regardless of income, will continue to receive free ridees on mass transit systems throughout the state. An attempt to roll back the program started by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, failed to advance in the Senate. The bill would have ended the free rides for seniors age 65 and older other than for those who are low-income and qualify for the state’s Circuit Breaker program, and it would have reportedly saved $37 million for cash-strapped transit agencies in the Chicago area.

Governor’s budget address
HB 1409 Legislators denied the governor from moving his annual budget address to March, which he requested to give more time for his new budget director, David Vaught, to assess the state’s fiscal status. The governor must propose a budget in February, unless the legislature changes the date.

GOP leadership
SB 600 The Illinois Republican Party will not have to change the way it elects its State Central Committee members, which are internally elected. A measure to change the system to allowing the public to elect committee members failed to gain the supermajority of votes needed in the House. Fewer votes would be needed if the issue came up again after this month.

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