Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Session Day 1 roundup

By Jamey Dunn and Rachel Wells

Legislators returned today for the start of their spring session. They will remain in Springfield tomorrow to hear Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address. Session is expected to adjourn sometime tomorrow, and lawmakers do not plan to return to Springfield until after the primary election on February 2. They took action on several bills today, while ignoring other measures on the political radar.

Cemetery oversight
After stalling both in spring session and veto session, a cemetery regulation bill passed in the Senate today.

The measure is a response to the Burr Oak tragedy. Media reports exposed last July that bodies were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an alleged scheme to resell gravesites. (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13)

HB 1188 puts the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in charge of overseeing Illinois cemeteries.

It would require cemetery owners to maintain maps of their plots and create a statewide database that would document every burial and grave location. It would create a system for cemetery owners, managers and customer service employees to register with the state. It also contains a consumer bill of rights and protection for whistle blowers that report violators.

Family plots, cemeteries that have not had a burial in the last 10 years and ones that are less then two acres would be exempt from the new regulations. Religious cemeteries and municipal cemeteries that have fewer than 25 burials over the course of two years would be partially exempt.

Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Democrat, opposed the bill because he said that a partial exemption should be given to small private cemeteries as well. He said many of these operations do not have frequent burials, and they have no tax revenue to bolster their profits. Sullivan said he is concerned many small private cemeteries in his district could not afford to implement the new regulations.

Willie Carter, member of the governor’s cemetery task force and owner of Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, agreed that the new regulations could put an undue burden on operations such as his. “Small cemeteries like mine cannot afford some of the fees that are proposed in this bill,” he said.
Chicago Democratic Sen. Emil Jones III represents the district where Burr Oak is located. He said that some changes would be made later in a supplemental bill because it “addresses some concerns but not all of them.” Sullivan said he hopes to work with Jones and others to help protect small private cemeteries from facing bankruptcy.

Medicaid matching funds
The House passed a borrowing plan that is half of the plan Gov. Quinn proposed in December. Quinn needed Comptroller Dan Hynes and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias to sign on to that proposal. Hynes, who is challenging Quinn in the Democratic primary for governor, was not on board.

SB 1425 would allow the state to take out a $250 million loan to capture matching federal Medicaid funds and start paying some of its overdue bills to medical providers. The state would be able to get back $150 million in matching funds and could then leverage that money for $80 million from the feds. The bill does not include any money for social services providers. Quinn’s original plan had $250 million for social services. Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said that the move would free up general funds that Quinn could then use toward need-based MAP grants for college students if he so chooses.

Tax amnesty
A bill proposed as another possible funding source for MAP grants didn't make it to the floor for a vote on Tuesday. A legislative panel on Monday discussed a tax amnesty measure that would allow individuals and businesses to pay back taxes without penalties or interest.

HB 4622, proposed by Hinckley Republican Robert Pritchard, would be a way to immediately bring in an estimated $100 million. It was proposed to fund MAP grants, but representatives on both sides of the aisle suggested the funds should instead be used to help pay some of the state's health and human service providers.

Race to the Top
Two measures that would help the state’s bid for the competitive federal education grant program Race to the Top, passed through the House:

SB 616 Would broaden teaching certification requirements to include nonprofit programs such as Teach for America.

SB 315 Would base the way teachers are evaluated mainly on student performance. Both moves will help the state score higher on its application for the federal program. Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican opposed the change to teacher evaluations. He said he was concerned that downstate schools would invest more money in the changes than they would potentially get back from the federal grants.

"Meritorious Good Time” reforms
Legislation requiring inmates to serve at least 60 days in state prison before receiving time off of their sentences for good behavior passed in the House. Danville Republican Rep. Bill Black offered the only opposition. He said the minimum stay should exceed 60 days.

SB 1013 would also establish procedures for determining and recording reasons for giving good behavior time and provide notification to prosecutors at least 14 days in advance of a prisoners' early release. The measure is a reaction to December findings that the Illinois Department of Corrections was releasing freshly imprisoned offenders, some violent, after only a few weeks in prison under the secret "Meritorious Good Time Push" plan.

Budget address
Quinn may not get any extra time to craft his budget plan this year. Legislators took no action Tuesday on a bill that would move the budget address from the third Wednesday in February, as is currently required by law, to sometime in March. A similar measure proposed during the fall veto session was never called for a vote.

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