Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Redistricting tweaks head to the governor

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers approved changes today to the method they will use to draw legislative districts for future elections. Meanwhile, other reform efforts planned for the last days of the General Assembly's session have not yet taken shape.

If signed by Gov. Quinn, the redistricting measure would add provisions to the process to protect minority voters. Democrats say the measure is an attempt to avoid watering down the influence of a bloc of minority voters by splitting them up into multiple districts.

However, Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the House sponsor of the Senate Bill 3976 , said that “all the constitutional, federal statutory [and] state constitutional requirements” that those drawing districts are tasked to consider, such as making each district as equal in population as possible, would take priority. Once those requirements are met, she said, those drawing the map “ought to, where possible, protect the rights of minority voters by creating crossover districts, coalition districts or influence districts where it is possible.”

The bill also requires four public redistricting hearings throughout the state. Republican opponents said hearings were not enough to give the public input. They said some hearings should be required after proposed maps are drawn, so voters can provide the legislature with specific feedback.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, said there will likely be more than four redistricting hearings, and Currie agrees. Raoul called House Republicans hypocritical for complaining about the bill when they voted against a constitutional amendment he proposed last spring that would have changed the entire process and included more public hearings.

“It’s not a ceiling. It’s a floor. It says we have to have at least four hearings in separate parts of the state, so the people of the state of Illinois, in separate parts of the state, can have a voice in this process.”

Currie said: “The four is the floor. We can have many more, and 10 years ago [when the current map was drawn], we did.”

Republicans were critical what they see as Democrats rolling back transparency provisions in their most recent plan. “This [bill] doesn’t mandate hearings on the proposed map, such as was done in the proposed [constitutional] resolution. So it seems to me it moves backwards in transparency,” said Rep. Jil Tracy, a Mt. Sterling Republican.

A $4 billion borrowing plan to make the state’s pension payment for this fiscal year emerged from a Senate committee today without Republican support. Senate Bill 3514 passed as a piece of the budget plan in the House in May after contentious debate. Senate President John Cullerton said the measure would keep the state from missing this year’s payment, which he said would cost the state billions in the long run.

Cullerton has been holding the bill in committee, saying it would need bipartisan support to pass in his chamber. Democrats have enough members to pass the bill, which requires a three fifths majority, but according to Cullerton, not the votes. UPDATE: Cullerton told reporters he now has the support for the borrowing plan, and he intends to call it for a floor vote this week.

Republicans said they would not vote for borrowing plan unless it was part of a comprehensive plan, which included reforms such as changes to the state’s Medicaid and worker’s compensation programs.

“Our position is the same as it was last spring … while at some point in the context of a comprehensive financial plan, we are willing to consider some form of borrowing. We aren’t to that point just yet.”

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said she thinks both parties are working well together. However, she wants to see some results of the recent reform efforts, which have been under way for the last few weeks in both chambers, before any Republicans will vote for borrowing.

House Speaker Michael Madigan is backing a constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult for legislators to increase public employee pension benefits in the future. If the legislature, governor and voters approved the amendment, lawmakers would have to get backing from three-fifths of the members of both chambers to pass any expansion of pension benefits.

Opponents said current legislators should not tie the hands of future lawmakers when it comes to pension benefits for state workers. The measure passed through committee with only Democratic support.

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