Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lawmakers pass gaming expansion

By Lauren N. Johnson

Illinois may be getting five more casinos, and horse racing tracks in the state could soon begin installing slot machines under a proposal that lawmakers sent to the governor this evening.

Senate Bill 744 (amendments 1 through 7), sponsored by Democratic Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan and Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, which passed with a narrow vote of 30-27 in the Senate, would allow new casinos in Chicago, Park City, Rockford, Danville and an unnamed south suburb of Chicago, along with video gaming at seven Illinois racetracks and additional gaming stations at existing casinos.

Private companies would own the five new casinos, with an exception for one in Chicago, which would be owned by the city of Chicago but operated by a private company. The Chicago casino would have 4,000 gaming positions, and the other four new casinos would start off with 1,600 gaming positions each.

“We need help for our horsemen, we need to help to save the industry of the horsemen, we need to help to save the racetracks. This legislation is going to do it,” Link yelled during floor debate in the Senate.

New and existing riverboats would be allowed to increase their gaming positions up to 1,600 and up to 2,000 after January 2013 and would also receive some tax breaks. If the legislation is signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, both sponsors hope the casinos will begin operating this year.

Link said the bill would raise at least $1.6 billion in “up-front” revenue from licensing fees, which would go toward tackling the state’s unpaid bills owed to vendors, service providers and schools. He said he expects additional tax revenues from the casinos to be $760 million to $1 billion annually for at least the next five years. “There may be a casino or a racino in one, or somebody’s area, but we all will benefit from it,” he said. Along with paying down overdue bills, the revenue would be spent on capital construction projects. Link said $32 million in initial revenue would be dedicated for foreclosure prevention, compulsive gambling programs, soil and water conservation, park districts, local and county fairs and agricultural interests downstate.

Although Link called the revenue estimates “conservative,” Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, called the $1.6 billion figure “unrealistic” and said that tax incentives for newer casinos could cause existing casinos to lose revenue. He said new casinos would cost the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin 28 percent to 35 percent of it current revenues. He said the casino made $428 million in profits in 2007, but they dropped to $275 million in 2010.

Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago said the proposed locations for the new casinos outside of Chicago are close enough to Illinois' borders that they will draw gamblers in from other states instead of taking profits from Illinois' existing casinos. “It will keep people from going to other states to gamble. And it will bring and attract people from other states into our state to do what people want to do,” Cullerton said.

Robert Molaro, a former Illinois House member and current lobbyist for the horse racing industry and specifically the Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero, said, “The tax breaks…will allow our existing river boats to market where they may not be able to market.” He said with additional revenue, riverboats would be able to gain and manage up to 2,000 positions. “The revenue estimates are definitely there,” Molaro said.

Members of the horse racing industry say that casino owners and operators need tax incentives to afford additional gaming positions at their establishments. “The owners of these boats are the ones taking the risks,” Molaro said.

Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Action Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, said increased gaming positions and casinos would increase addiction among Illinois residents. “Anytime you open it up and you make gambling more available and you make it more acceptable, then people who would not ordinarily go to those casinos will.”

In the past week, Quinn said he would not sign legislation that he found to be “top-heavy.”  “We can’t have a top-heavy proposal in Illinois on gambling that’s going to make us the Las Vegas of the Midwest. …Gambling sounds good if you say it fast. There are a lot of proposals out there that when you look at them, you wonder how much money indeed they are going to raise.”

However, today, the last day of the spring legislative session, a spokesperson for the governor said Quinn, who also previously opposed slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, remains open to proposals that could raise revenue, create jobs and protect funding for education.

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, who sponsored the bill in the House, said he does not think he will have to personally lobby Quinn to sign the bill. “Thousands of people are going to be faxing, and emailing, and calling to tell him it’s the right thing to do, and he ought to sign this bill. I am certain the mayor of the city of Chicago, [Rahm Emanuel,] will be calling.”

Senate Democrats send congressional map to Quinn

By Jamey Dunn

Senate Democrats sent a proposed map of congressional districts to Gov. Pat Quinn, while Republicans decried the process as partisan and unfair to the state’s Latino community.

Democrats lost five congressional seats in the last general election, and Republicans accused them of drawing the new map with an eye for targeting Republicans' electoral victories. “The people at the ballot box said they were immensely unhappy with what was going on in Washington, [D.C.,]” said Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. He said Democrats are trying to nullify “ballot box decisions” made by “real people.”

Dillard complained that only one Latino congressional district was drawn, saying he thought Democrats could have created two if they had not “substantially [diluted] Latino representation” in some areas. Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, sponsor of the map, said, “We’ve listened to advocacy groups from various Latino communities.” He said no group called for two Latino congressional districts. “We have followed traditional redistricting principals in coming up with this map.”

Republicans characterized the process of drawing of the map as partisan and lacking transparency. However, Senate President John Cullerton said the creation of a congressional map was much more transparent than it was 10 years ago, when state lawmakers let congressional incumbents draw their own districts. “The problem was that it was the incumbents getting together doing their own deal,” he said. Cullerton pointed to the current 17th District as the “most amazing, snakelike gerrymander that has nothing to do with the Voting Rights Act.” Cullerton also noted that for the first time, voters had a chance to look at the proposed state and congressional maps online.

He said the current map splits 31 counties and “looks all crazy,” while the proposed map splits 18. “If there’s any odd shaped districts, it’s because of the Voting Rights Act,” Cullerton said. “It’s politically fair, and you’ll see that bear out in the next 10 years.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Budget headed to Quinn

By Jamey Dunn

Senate Democrats approved the House’s budget proposal today along with a plan to try to push House members to tack additional spending onto the budget bills they have already approved.

The House budget plan that the Senate sent to Gov. Pat Quinn today would cut about $2 billion from the governor's proposed spending levels, according to one of its sponsors, Sen. Dan Kotowski.

However, the Senate also approved $431 million in additional state spending that now awaits a vote in the other chamber. House Bill 2189 (Senate Amendment 1) would restore some education cuts the House made by directing an additional $212 million to the State Board of Education. Kotowski said the bulk of the money, about $151 million, would go to general state aid for K-12 schools, which would be reduced by about 4 percent under the House’s proposal. Kotowski said schools would also see some funding restored for a program to reduce class size and for free and reduced-cost lunches for children. Money also would go back to intervention programs for failing schools. The Houses plan already restored Quinn’s controversial cuts to transportation funding for schools.

The Senate proposal would also funnel some money to human services and Monetary Award Program grants, which Kotowski said the state has already promised many college students. He said the human service programs that would see some funding restored have been proven effective or are vital to the state. Those programs include: addiction treatment and prevention services; meal delivery programs for the elderly; programs to address homelessness; and after school programs. He also said some money had to be returned to implement court-ordered actions. “We’re putting items back in that are truly essential,” said Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat. “We’re going to have a balanced budget. It’s going to be fiscally stable, but it’s also going to take care of core services.”

In a strategic move to try to pull House support onto the increased spending, the “restorations” are included in the same bill that lawmakers must approve to continue spending for capital construction projects next fiscal year.

Republicans accused Senate Democrats of holding the construction projects — which are often popular with voters and create jobs throughout the state — hostage to get more spending passed.

“The one thing you did about jobs in the last five years is the capital bill, and you’re jeopardizing funding going forward on that because you can’t say no to more spending,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican. He added that the spending levels in the Senate Democrats’ plan would lead to lawmakers voting to make temporary income tax increase permanent in the future.

“Capital [construction] is just as important as addressing the fundamental needs of people when it comes to education and health care and human services.” Kotowski said. “What’s the point of building a building if people can’t go in there and get education? … There is no point.”

So far, Quinn is being coy about whether he will approve the plan. He could also choose to make further cuts with his veto pen. “We continue to review the budget bills passed by the House and Senate. Our focus remains on enacting the most complete and well-planned budget for everyone in our state. We look forward to continued work with the General Assembly to address the serious challenges of stabilizing our budget and creating jobs. The governor has been clear since he proposed the budget in February that while we put our fiscal house in order, we must continue to protect core priorities that will benefit the state now and in the future,” Kelly Kraft, spokesperson for Quinn’s budgeting office, said in a written statement.

One plan that some lawmakers hoped would find the state substantial savings in the future is off the table for now. House leaders announced today that a proposal to reduce pension benefits for current state employees needs more work and will not come up for a vote before the fall veto session.

“We are absolutely committed to reforming Illinois’ public pension system for current employees. It must be done to stabilize our systems and address long-term financial issues for both the public employee pension systems and state government. We believe passage of legislation addressing this issue is essential to the state’s well being. … We will convene meetings over the summer to address the issues and concerns that have been raised and work toward a solution in this year’s Fall Veto Session,” said a joint statement issued by House Minority Leader Tom Cross, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Tyrone Fahner, president of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which created the plan on which Cross’ proposal was based.

The House budget bills that the Senate approved are:

Gaming expansion clears the House

By Lauren N. Johnson

A gaming bill that calls for new casinos and video poker at horse racing tracks throughout the state could become the chosen method to pay down a portion of the state’s towering stack of overdue bills.

Senate Bill 744 (amendments 1 through 7) passed in the House today and would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks and the expansion of gaming positions on riverboats in the state. It also calls for new casinos in Chicago, Park City, near Waukegan, Rockford, Danville and a suburb south of Chicago.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said the hope is to get the casinos and horse racing tracks with slot machines up and running within six months. However, the actual construction period would depend on the Illinois Gaming Board.

New revenue gained by the expansion would be used to pay down the state’s backlog of overdue bills and for construction projects. “We have over $6 billion in unpaid bills in the state of Illinois and no way to pay them. People have turned their back on borrowing it. People can’t figure out how to pay it. … You all have vendors and citizens in your communities who are owed money by the state,” Lang said.

Lang said the measure would save horse-breeding and gaming industry jobs lost to other states that could potentially offer larger purses for horse races. Other proponents say the bill would revive local economies in depressed areas of the state. “In my community, at long last, a community on the border, a community that is downstate that cannibalizes no one as it relates to gaming interests,” said Danville Republican Rep. Chad Hays.

The bill would also allow casinos to expand the number of gaming stations at their facilities and allow existing horse racing tracks such as the Illinois State Fairgrounds Racetrack to have year-round racing and slot machines. Gov. Pat Quinn said last week that he was opposed to putting video gaming machines at the State Fairgrounds. While Quinn has been vague on exactly what type of gaming bill he would sign, he has said he could back a Chicago casino. However, he has said he opposes any “top heavy” expansion that increases gaming throughout the state.

Lang said that if the bill ends up on the governor’s desk, it will be difficult for him to veto it, knowing that it could bring in so much revenue to pay some of the state’s backlog of bills owed to vendors, schools, local governments and social service providers.

“Every new gaming position is supported by a large fee,” Lang said, highlighting that the bill would raise at least $1.5 billion in “up-front” revenue from the licensing fees collected for newer provisions added to address the state’s more than $6 billion debt. Lang said he expects the state to bring in $500 million to  $1billion in additional gaming revenues annually after new operations are up and running.

Lawmakers who opposed the bill suggested that some House members may be eager to pass legislation to pay down the state’s backlog of unpaid bills and cast “yes” votes without fully favoring the gaming bill. "Well, I think that's the problem here. I think that we're all eager to pay the bills or to pay human services providers, and so things that we might not ordinarily agree to, we agree to," said Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican, who voted against the bill.

Doug Dobmeyer, spokesperson for the Task Force to Oppose Gambling in Chicago, said, “We don’t think that that is a way that government should raise funds for its operations.” The group supported the tax increase, of which a portion was dedicated to addressing the state’s unpaid bills, but it strongly opposes so-called state sanctioned gambling.

Dobmeyer said more individuals will become addicted to gambling, especially lower-income gamblers who are trying to gain extra money. “It’s the machine that wins; it’s not the individual that plays it,” he said. Currently, there are nine casinos in the state and on July 7, a 10th casino will open in Des Plaines. Lang’s bill would bring the number to 15 throughout the state.

According to the Illinois Gaming Board, Illinois residents who choose to gamble spend $102 on average each month. When asked whether the provision to fund compulsive gambling programs for individuals could address addiction, Dobmeyer said it’s a step, but it may not be enough to alleviate the problem. “It’s a couple Band-Aids,” he remarked.

Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, told reporters that he plans to call the bill for a Senate floor vote Tuesday morning. The Senate approved a large gaming expansion bill in January, but it was voted down in the House.

House approves rate increase plan for smart grid

By Jamey Dunn

The two largest electric utilities in Illinois would have the opportunity to annually increase the rates they charge customers, under a plan approved today by the Illinois House that would require the companies to make billions of dollars worth of improvements to the state’s electrical grid.

Under Senate Bill 1652, Commonwealth Edison, which provides power for much of northern Illinois, and Ameren, which services much of downstate, would be allowed to increase rates up to 2.5 percent a year to pay for work on the existing grid, as well as adding so-called smart-grid technologies. The new features include smart meters that customers can use to track their power consumption and cut costs by reducing usage during peak hours, when energy costs more.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, which rules on rate hike requests from the utilities, would still have the power to review and potentially reject increases meant to fund grid projects. The bill caps the utilities’ profits and sunset in 2017, so legislators would have to reapprove the plan at that time. If a review in 2014 finds that rates have increased by more than 2.5 percent annually, the law would phase out then.

Ameren and ComEd would be signed on to investing about $3.2 billion in the grid over 10 years. The measure also requires ComEd to create 2,000 new jobs through the plan and Ameren to create 450 jobs. If they fall short of those totals, the companies must pay $2,000 in fines for each job, to be spent in part on training and development programs.

Proponents lauded the bill as a boon for the Illinois economy because of the job growth included in the plan, as well as the potential for cutting-edge energy infrastructure to help attract new businesses to the state.

Both Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan have voiced strong opposition to the bill, and Quinn has threatened to veto it if it comes to his desk.

“We understand that electric utility companies must make investments to ensure consumers across Illinois have reliable and safe energy. In fact, Illinois law already requires this investment. But utility companies must not be given a blank check to spend billions of dollars at the expense of the hard-working men and women of our state. They should justify their multibillion-dollar investment plans before consumers are on the hook to pay for them,” Quinn and Madigan said in a joint prepared statement.

The statement goes on to say: “We believe there are ways to encourage greater investment to upgrade the electric grid and create more jobs while protecting consumers. We urge members of the General Assembly to reject Senate Bill 1652 and send a strong message to Commonwealth Edison and Ameren that we care more about protecting the pocketbooks of Illinois families, than the profits of electric utility companies.”

The measure passed with 67 votes in favor and 47 votes in opposition and awaits a vote in the Senate. Supporters will need 71 House votes and 36 in the Senate to override a potential veto from Quinn.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Workers' comp reform fails in the House

By Jamey Dunn

As lawmakers forge into the last few days of their spring session, they may soon be voting on dismantling the state’s workers’ compensation system, as well as putting off paying overdue bills even longer.

The Illinois House today shot down House Bill 1698, a workers’ compensation reform package that supporters said would have saved businesses $500 million to $700 million.

Republicans were critical that most of the savings would come from a 30 percent reduction to the rates that doctors are paid for treating injured employees. Members of the health care community have asked lawmakers to change the reduction to 20 percent.  But House sponsor John Bradley, a Marion Republican, said business groups would have pulled support from a plan that reduced fees any less.

Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican,  faulted Bradley for not budging on the 10 percentage point difference to gain the medical community’s support. “I heard that the medical community, and I heard that the hospitals say … they would agree to a 20 percent reduction in fees. If that were the case, [would] we have then an agreed bill between business labor, the medical community hospitals and any other stakeholders?”

Republicans who cast “no” votes in both legislative chambers also said the plan did not do enough to reform the system. Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the bill Saturday warned that more work would be needed.

“[Opponents say] we’ve never gone far enough, but we’ve never gone anywhere,” said David Vite, president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “Every election, candidates from both parties talk about the jobs climate, talk about helping Illinois business, and when it comes right down to it, they didn’t step up to the plate today.”

Both Bradley and Senate sponsor Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, expressed frustration that months of negotiations with the powerful groups involved in the system — businesses, doctors, organized labor and trial lawyers — did not produce a bill that made it to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk. Quinn has publicly supported HB 1698.

“This is a compilation of months of work with many different parties and many different stakeholders in the workers’ compensation process,” Bradley said. Raoul accused House Republicans of casting their votes to protect campaign contributors in the medical community. No House Republicans voted to support the measure.

Now, passage of a bill to dismantle the workers' compensation system that was written off by many as a negotiation strategy is starting to look like a real possibility. Bradley says he does not plan to call the reform bill for another vote in the House, and Raoul said he plans to call Senate Bill 1933, the so-called nuclear option, for a vote in the Senate as early as tomorrow. He said his intention would be to dismantle the system and eventually replace it with a reworked version. In the meantime, workers' compensation cases would go into the courts. “It is a manifestation of the frustration with the inability to change the system,” Vite said. “The consequences of that and the ramifications, I don’t know that anybody understands at this point.”

Lawmakers also shot down one piece of a proposal today to borrow about $6.2 billion to pay off the state’s backlog of overdue bills. Only 19 senators voted in favor of the bill, one of four measures that make up the borrowing plan. Republicans objected to more borrowing on top of the billions in loans the state has taken out to make the required employee pension payment for the last two fiscal years. Sen. John Sullivan, a Democrat from Rushville, said legislators on both sides of the aisle were reluctant to support a large borrowing package before passing a budget plan. He said he plans to push the issue again when budget legislation starts to gel in the coming days.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee approved HB 3188, which would give the state until December to pay off bills from the current fiscal year. The so-called lapse period normally ends in August. However, the General Assembly voted to extend it for last fiscal year and did manage to meet the later deadline, due largely in part to a one-time cash infusion from borrowing against a settlement Illinois received from tobacco companies.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Senate approves workers' comp reforms

By Jamey Dunn

After months of negotiations among that failed powerful interest groups—and threats from lawmakers to completely dismantle the system—the Illinois Senate today passed a measure to overhaul workers’ compensation.

“It’s a good day for employees in the state of Illinois, for job seekers in the state of Illinois,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, the sponsor of House Bill 1698.

Raoul estimates the legislation would result in $500 million to $700 million in savings for businesses in the state. He said the largest cost cutting provision would be a proposed 30 percent reduction to the fees doctors are paid for treating injured workers.

To avoid what Raoul referred to as “doctor shopping,” employees would be given a choice of doctors from a network chosen by employers and approved by the Illinois Department of Insurance. If workers wanted to pick a doctor outside of the network, they would give up their option to seek a second opinion from another out-of-network doctor. Once workers seek a diagnosis, the bill would require doctors to use American Medical Association guidelines to determine the level of impairment. Arbitrators would then take those guidelines into consideration when making decisions on workers’ compensation cases.

If the bill becomes law, all current arbitrators would be out of a job on July 1. They could reapply but would have to be confirmed by the Illinois Senate. The legislation would apply the same standards of judicial conduct to arbitrators as for Illinois Supreme Court justices and require them to take additional training. They would be appointed to three-year terms but could only spend two years working in the same location to prevent them from forming, as Raoul put it, “cozy” relationships with workers. These provisions were spurred in part by an investigation by the Belleville News-Democrat that found Menard corrections workers have been awarded more than $10 million in workers’ compensation benefits. The claims are currently being investigated by the state.

The proposal would cut off lifetime benefits at age 67 or five years after the injury, whichever comes later. It would also cap carpel tunnel benefits at 28 weeks, Raoul said the current average is 40 weeks.

While Greg Baise, president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturing Association, supports the bill, he said he cannot predict whether the changes will reduce the cost of workers’ compensation insurance for employers.

“It is an epic modernization of an archaic and flawed system. The costs will be reduced by $500 [million] or more. That’s 15 [percent] to 17 percent of the cost in the system today,” said Michael McRaith, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance.

McRaith said the proposal was not “any group’s wish list” but the product of “countless hours [of negotiation] in very warm conference rooms.”

Some Republicans criticized the bill for targeting the doctors for the largest area of savings instead of spreading the pain across other interest groups involved in the system, such as organized labor and trial lawyers. “It appears to me that we’re pitting the business community against the medical community. … I’m disappointed in the fact that we did not come up with a more well-rounded piece of legislation,” said Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican.

Members of the medical community asked lawmakers to reduce the fees paid to doctors by 20 percent instead of 30 percent.

“If you would make the changes that we would ask, you would still legislate a workers’ compensation reform bill that would save employers more than $500 million. But the 30 percent fee reduction that’s in this bill is unreasonable an unnecessarily pits health care providers against business,” said Howard Peters, executive vice president of policy and advocacy for the Illinois Hospital Association. “Even at 20 percent, it would mean that hospitals and physicians and other providers would be leaving hundreds of million of dollars on the table.”

Raoul pointed out that a reform package backed by Republicans that failed would have reduced the fees by 30 percent as well.

Many Republican supporters of the bill characterized it as a “step in the right direction," but said more needs to be done to repair the system. They called on fellow lawmakers not to see the passage of the bill as the end of their work on the system. “Our job is not done here. This may not even be getting to first base,” Brady said.

Other members of the minority party said they did not vote for the bill because they feared that lawmakers would consider the system fixed, when in fact the legislation would not go far enough. Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican, criticized the bill for not including one of the business community’s biggest requests, a requirement that the primary cause of an injury occurred at the workplace, known as causation.

“One simple sentence would make this piece of legislation worthwhile,” Duffy said. “Sometimes not having any bill at all is better than having a bad bill.”

Raoul said the only way to bring causation into the equation would be to eliminate the system altogether and let employers and workers fight it out in court. He is the sponsor of a bill, which passed the House yesterday, that would do just that. However Raoul did not call Senate Bill 1933 for a vote before a Senate committee that approved his workers’ compensation reform bill today.

Raoul said to his bill’s detractors on the Senate floor: “For those of you all who try to minimize this by saying this is just a step in the right direction, that is absolute nonsense. That is absolute nonsense and you know it. This a major reform in the state of Illinois.”

The measure now awaits a vote in the House. Gov. Pat Quinn said yesterday that he supports the bill.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Democratic map on the way to the governor

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Democrats pushed their state legislative map through both chambers today as Republicans decried what they say was a lack of transparency in the redistricting process.

“I believe the map is politically fair, but we certainly recognize that partisan concerns did play a role,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who sponsored Senate Bill 1177 in the House. Senate sponsor Kwame Raoul, also a Chicago Democrat, said nothing the legislature does can escape being part of a political process.

Democrats presented resolutions in each chamber, House Resolution 385 and Senate Resolution 249, that they say explain many of the choices they made for drawing district lines. “They are a number of other factors that go into any redistricting plan, and all of these were considered in balance one with another. The principles include preserving core of existent districts, preserving communities of interest, respecting county, township, ward boundaries — in the sense of making sure that political divisions are taken into account — maintaining incumbent constituent relationships, proposals that came from testimony both oral and written … incumbent requests and respect for geographic features like rivers,” Currie said.

But Republicans faulted the majority party for not allowing time for the public to digest the changes made to the proposed maps. New versions of the maps were posted online after 6 p.m. Thursday. “Where is the public supposed to go to on the final version of this map for input? … How can the general public in a transparent way have input on the final version of this map when it’s filed and we’re voting on it … hours later,” said Hutsonville Republican Rep. Roger Eddy.

Republicans said the resolutions filed in the record today that offer explanation for the maps came too late. “Do you think three hours is sufficient for the people who live in the state to have the foggiest notion about why you drew this map the way you did?” Sen. Dale Righter, a Charleston Republican, asked on the Senate floor.

“I think the point is that we’re providing a narrative at all.” Raoul said. “I think we’re going well beyond what has ever been done.” Both Raoul and Currie argued that the Democrats’ approach to drawing the map was a historic step for transparency. “I think this has been the most transparent, the most accountable, the most open redistricting process in the history of the sate of Illinois.”

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the historical bar for openness in the process was set pretty low. “Compared to nothing, yes, this is more open. There’s no question about it.” Redfield said there were public hearings a decade ago when the current map was drawn. However, he added, “there was more public activity this time around.”

But Redfield said that both then and now, the result is the same: a partisan map that attempts to satisfy the interests of party leadership, incumbents and certain interest groups while not violating state and federal law.
Currie said the map released late Thursday night is not “significantly different” than the maps proposed last week. “But it does represent our effort to make sure that people who brought legitimate issues to us were given an opportunity to be heard.”

After receiving public criticism from many organizations representing minorities, Democrats bolstered the numbers of minority populations in some districts.

“We heard from many Latino groups at the hearings, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They were concerned that some of the districts that had majority Hispanic populations didn’t have enough to make those effective opportunities for Hispanic populations to have an impact on electoral outcomes. So we made some changes to voting age populations in several districts,” Currie said.

The United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) has crunched the demographic numbers on the new map. Josina Morita, executive director of UCCRO said the number of minority majority districts increased under the proposal that passed today. Morita said the number of House districts where African-Americans make up more than 55 percent of the voting age population went from eight under the plan released last week to nine under the legislation passed today, and the number of Senate districts increased from two to three. Hispanic House districts with more than 65 percent of voting age population went up from four to five. Morita said the map also creates three districts where Asian-Americans have the potential for political influence. “Working with the state legislature and over 50 community organizations, we drew a map that creates the first Asian-American influence districts, dramatically increases the number of Latino majority districts and maintains the strong representation African-Americans currently have in Springfield,” Morita said in a prepared statement.

The changes Democrats made may not have been enough to satisfy at least one minority organization. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF, said the Democrats’ original proposal violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of minorities. The group’s current concern apparently is the splitting of the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago into multiple legislative districts. Raoul said the move was made to create stronger Latino districts. According to a release sent out by Senate Republicans, MALDEF is urging Gov. Pat Quinn to veto the map because it “fractures communities of interest and weakens the voting strength of Latino neighborhoods.”

According to the release, Perales said: “We cannot support a map that splits one of the most important Latino communities in Chicago. In our proposed map, MALDEF kept Little Village together, created additional Latino majority districts and ensured the preservation of Black majority districts. MALDEF’s proposed map demonstrates that the Legislature elevated incumbency protection over respect for the Latino community."

MALDEF spokespersons did not return telephone calls seeking to confirm the statement.

Democrats also released a proposed map for congressional districts that apparently is directed toward making up for ground lost in the 2010 election, when Democrats lost several suburban districts. “It’s a much more partisan map than 10 years ago,” Redfield said of the proposal. He said the 2001 map was drawn by the incumbents to protect their seats, compared with the current proposal that is intended to increase Democrats' chances in future elections. “They clearly would like to eventually shift five seats by getting rid of one and taking control of four others.” Illinois lost one congressional seat because of the population loss in the 2010 census. Redfield said there is no guarantee that Democrats in the U.S. House will be able to pick up that lost seat in another state, such as Texas or Florida, which gained congressional districts because of  growing populations.

Quinn would not comment today on whether he will sign the Democrats map proposal for state legislative districts. He only said that he is encouraging lawmakers to be “fair” in the redistricting process.

House approves destruction of workers' comp system

By Lauren N. Johnson and Jamey Dunn

Illinois’ workers’ compensation system, which handles claims filed by injured employees, would be dismantled, and cases would go to circuit courts under a proposal that passed in the Illinois House today.

Senate Bill 1933, sponsored by Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, would eliminate the system and transfer claims currently managed by at least 36 arbitrators in the state to Illinois' court system as of January 1. Bradley, who has been active in efforts to produce a workers’ compensation reform package, said elimination is also “a viable alternative to fix a broken system.” The Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission reported that 55,497 new cases were filed in fiscal year 2009.

“Are we going to take back our state? Are we’re going to take back control of what’s going on with injured workers and businesses in the state of Illinois?” Bradley said. “Or are we going to ratify a system that we all acknowledge is broken? That we all acknowledge can do better — should have done better — and didn’t. Are we going to keep banging our heads against the wall with the same old broken song, or are we going to try something new?”

Opponents voiced concern that the flood of workers’ compensation cases would overwhelm the state’s courts. “Sometimes when we have historical issues that we have to deal with, people are willing to step up and do what it takes, and I don’t expect that the courts will be any different,” Bradley said.

Bradley said he thought his bill had more of a chance of making it through the legislature than a plan to reform the system — House Bill 1698, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul.

Todd Maisch, vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, disagreed, saying he does not expect Bradley’s bill to be called for a vote in the Senate. “I think that Rep. Bradley is being honest and that he’s exasperated with the system. I do believe that he’s being very straightforward with that, and if nothing else, we think this process has really opened legislators’ eyes to the work comp hell that employers have been suffering with for years and years now,” he said.

Opponents of Bradley’s bill, however, favored Illinois’ workers’ compensation system currently in place to the alternative of no designated system. “The tort system in the state of Illinois has had problem after problem. This is not the way to handle it,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, before votes were cast. However, Mt. Sterling Republican Jil Tracy, who was one of only three favorable Republican votes. said,. “I think your solution, which is in a sense a complete overhaul in a reverse manner, actually might be the real solution.”

Raoul said the workers’ compensation issue could be addressed in the Senate as early as tomorrow. His  proposal would make a number of changes, including:
  • Reducing the fees paid to doctors for treating injured employees by 30 percent.
  • Requiring the use of American Medical Association standards when determining workers’ level of impairment from injuries.
  • Creating new rules for the appointment and conduct of arbitrators who decide the outcome of claims.
  • Allowing for the creation of a “provider network” of doctors. Injured employees could pick their doctors, but only from this predetermined pool.
When asked about the future of Bradley’s bill versus his own, Raoul said, “I’ll have two options.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Democrats roll out changes
to their remap proposal

By Jamey Dunn

UPDATE MAY 27, 2011 Democrats released a proposed U.S. Congressional Map late last night. Democrats revealed a tweaked version of their proposal for a legislative map today, while Republicans unveiled a map that they say was drawn without political considerations but which may only serve as fodder for a future legal challenge to a Democratic map.

Republicans say they say they did not look at incumbent legislators' addresses and did not take political data into account, except when drawing districts to protect the voting power of minority groups. In the House, their method led to 17 members of each party being mapped into a district with at least one other incumbent from their party. The balance in the Senate is not as even — four Republicans share districts, compared with 14 Democrats. The proposed Democratic map calls for 19 House Republicans in shared districts and six Democrats. It would put eight incumbent Republican senators in shared districts. No incumbent Senate Democrats share a district under their proposal.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Charleston Republican, said that in the GOP proposal, the ratio of Senate Democrats sharing districts to Republicans mirrors the overall ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the Senate. He also said the population shifts of the last decade are illustrated because lawmakers who would share a district under the map have lost population in their current districts.

Republicans say their map complies with the Federal Voting Rights Act while trying to follow county and municipal borders wherever possible. “The maps … demonstrate that you cannot concern yourself with where incumbents live and not concern yourself with what Republican/Democrat numbers are … and draw a map that is constitutional.”

However, Dr. Leon Finney, co-chairman of the legislative redistricting committee for the African American Leadership Roundtable, said the Republican map “creates an illusion of fairness.” He said while the number of minority/majority districts is important, so is the way they are drawn. He said the plan reminds him of a proposal from the 1991 remap that “packed” districts with African-Americans and diluted their political voice. “Having gone through this in 1991, I am very painfully aware of the need to unpack those districts.”

Republicans and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund both said Democrats’ previous map proposal violated the federal Voting Rights Act and diluted the voting power of minorities.

“The adjusted boundaries we’re releasing today aim to address many of the recommendations brought to our attention during the public review process,” said Sen. Kwame Raoul, chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

MALDEF pledged to unveil a reworked version of its own proposed Latino districts earlier this week, but the plan never materialized publicly. Whether the new proposal goes far enough to satisfy the group’s legal complaints remains to be seen. Several calls to MALDEF throughout the week, as well as today, have not been returned.

Josina Morita, executive coordinator for the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, the group that created a so-called unity map that is backed by a coalition that bridges several interest groups, said the Democrats’ new proposal makes many of the previously proposed minority districts stronger by increasing the percentage of minority residents above voting age. She said “improving the percentages in key areas” was a priority for members of her coalition. Morita said she could not predict whether the new plan would find broad-based support from the groups that unified behind her organization’s proposal. She did say, “All of us would say that this is an improvement, and we feel like this is an accomplishment.”

Some observers have noted that Republicans — who are effectively shut out of the process because Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office — are likely trying to build a legal case against whatever map Democrats eventually approve. Righter acknowledged that today’s proposal from his party could help bolster a future case. “That may depend on which attorney to which you speak,” he said. “There is some belief that this could make a difference in our court challenge, but I’m really hesitant to go beyond that because I am not that embedded in the legalities.” A spokesperson for Senate Republicans said they are reviewing the Democrats' plan, which was posted online after 6 p.m. today.

Pension changes 'tough vote' for lawmakers

By Lauren N. Johnson with Jamey Dunn contributing 

Current state employees may pay more for retirement benefits or be forced to change them if enough lawmakers can bring themselves to cast a vote that even supporters agree will be politically difficult.

“Pension reform is a very uncomfortable conversation,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, noting that the issue would affect the future of many Illinois residents.“Over the last five to six years, Illinois has either not made a full pension payment or has had to borrow to make the payment,” he added, highlighting that this year, lawmakers voted to make the payment.

House Speaker Mike Madigan, who co-sponsors the bill in the House, agreed, “I don’t think there’s any dispute on the facts and the figures. All of these systems are severely underfunded. They all cry for change, for better funding, and this is like a lot of other programs. When you’re out of balance you have two choices: put more money in or reduce the benefit level.”

Madigan said the bill would address both of those issues and would call for dramatic changes to the system. Both leaders stressed the importance of addressing Illinois’ roughly $80 billion unfunded pension liability.

Under Senate Bill 512, employees could pay more to keep their current benefits, move to the “second tier” of the system with a lower level of benefits created last year for employees hired after January 1 or invest in a self-managed option similar to a 401k plan. (See yesterday's blog for a breakdown on what employees would have to pay to stay in "tier one.")

Cross said the five state pension systems – the State Employees’ Retirement System, Teachers’ Retirement System, State University Retirement System, General Assembly Retirement System and the Judges Retirement System – have a funding level at or below 40 percent. His proposal, he said, would reflect the “actual” cost of employee benefits and would stabilize the pension system through the amount employees would contribute, along with the state’s contribution of about 6 percent of pay for employees who will not collect Social Security and about 4 percent of pay for those who will  The percentage of their salaries that employees would have to contribute to maintain their current benefits would be recalculated every three years to reflect the real cost of “tier one.”

Assuming no state employees leave the “tier one,” system, Dick Ingram, executive director of the Teachers’ Retirement System, said over time, that population will age and retire, increasing the cost of benefits paid out. And no new members will be allowed to enter the system and make payments that would help to supplement the benefits of those retirees “The numbers can only go up. They can’t go down,” he said.

Tyrone Fahner, president of the Chicago-based Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, said Illinois’ pension liability and the challenges it presents when trying to balance the state budget has a negative affect on the business climate. “The root of the problem in Illinois is the unfunded obligations that have accumulated in our state pension funds,” said Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general. The present pension liabilities once the obligations for retiree health care were included would amount to $30,000 per Illinois household.

“It is the single most important issue facing the state. It dwarfs all other issues because we cannot talk about school funding, we cannot talk about social services … unless until we’ve addressed this problem,” said Fahner, whose group’s proposed solution was the basis for Cross’ bill.

Opponents say the Illinois Constitution guarantees pension benefits for current employees. “These workers have made their contributions that have paid in, and deserve and adequate retirement,” said Michael Carrigan, president of the AFL-CIO. “To make these workers the scapegoats to bring forth so-called reform is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

Carrigan, who represents at least 900,000 union workers in the public sector, said the fault for the current condition of the pension system lies with the state and not with individual workers. “Whether it’s a corporate tax break or new programs for decades and decades, these tax breaks and programs have been paid in part by putting off or ignoring pension payments due to the workers,” Carrigan said.

Ken Swanson, president of the Illinois Education Association, said that since 1990, members of TRS contributed $12.7 billion to the system. "It has been said that 95 percent [of the public] are paying for five percent [of state employees]. It should be remembered that in the 30 some years of periodic underfunding of the pensions, the state has used our pension systems as a credit card. One hundred percent of those 95 percent actually received that benefit because they got more state government services then they were paying for in taxes. So our pension systems have been used as a credit card, and everyone benefited from that," said Swanson, who added that 97 percent of Illinois students are educated by his members.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said a further reduction of pension benefits would make it more difficult for schools to recruit new teachers and hang onto the staff they have now. “At a time when the General Assembly has made bold steps in the area of education reform, you’re considering a policy that would a profound negative impact on the ability of school districts to attract and retain the best and brightest of the teaching profession.”

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan said he would also face problems recruiting employees, and he expects that many of the 20 percent of U of I employees who are eligible for retirement would likely retire to avoid the change. “There’s a high probability if this goes through, they’ll get the hell out as fast as they can.”
Hogan said a reduction in pension benefits would come on the heels of furlough days, which resulted in reduced pay for employees. “ A pension cut like this, a change like this, would amount to another pay cut, and a substantial pay cut.”

Last year, lawmakers passed in one day changes to retirement benefits of employees hired after January 1 this year. Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the proposed changes for current employees would be a more difficult vote because the plan has received more media coverage, and members of both parties are feeling pressure from teachers and state workers in their districts. “It’s a tough vote politically because it’s a lot easier to say my opponent is anti-teachers than it is to drag out the actuarial tables and talk about long-term pension funding,” Redfield said.

Cross’ plan did not include judges' pensions. He said members on both side of the aisle have asked him to include judges and that he plans to add the judges' pension system to the legislation with an amendment when the bill comes to the floor. It will be judges who will likely decide the fate of the plan if it is signed into law because unions will challenge its constitutionality in court. Cross said he is unsure if he has the votes to pass the bill and could not predict if when it would be called for a floor vote. “That’s going to be up to the speaker,” he said. Madigan declined to comment about the bill after this morning’s committee hearing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Legislators start final push on big issues

By Jamey Dunn and Lauren N. Johnson

With less than a week before their adjournment deadline, Illinois lawmakers are making final attempts to get several large proposals passed in the last days of regular session.

Pension benefits
House Minority Tom Cross submitted his proposal today to reduce future retirement benefits for current state employees. According to Cross' spokesperson, Sara Wojcicki, he plans to present his amendment to Senate Bill 512 in a House committee tomorrow morning. Under the proposal, current employees would be able to keep the benefits they have already earned. But starting July 1, 2012, they would have to pick one of three plans that call for larger contributions or reduced benefits. Employees could stay in their current defined benefits plan, but their contributions would increase:
  • State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) State employees who will also receive Social Security benefits currently contribute 4 percent of their salaries. Under the proposal, they would have to pay 9.29 percent. Members of SERS who do pay into Social Security now contribute 12.5 percent of their pay. They would have to kick in 18.91 percent under the proposal.State Employees’ Retirement System Alternative Plan Members of the alternative SERS system, which includes workers with potentially dangerous jobs, such as prison guards, and who also have an earlier retirement age, contribute 8.5 percent of their salaries now, if they also pay into the Social Security system. Under Cross’ plan, they would have to chip in 16.65 percent of their pay. Those who will not get Social Security pay 12.5 percent of their salary now and would have to pay 18.91 percent.
  • Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) Illinois teachers, except Chicago teachers, currently pay 9.4 percent of their salary and will not receive Social Security benefits. Under the bill, they would have to contribute 13.77 percent. Chicago teachers would see their contributions increase from 9 percent of their pay to 12.75 percent.
  • State University Retirement System (SURS) University employees currently contribute 8 percent of their pay. Under the proposed change, they would pay to 15.31 percent.
  • General Assembly Retirement System (GARS) Legislators currently contribute 11.5 percent of their income to retirement benefits. They would pay 24.89 percent under the proposed legislation.
  • Judges Retirement System (JRS) Judges kick 11 percent of their pay into their retirement. Under Cross’ plan, they would pay 34.04 percent. Lawmakers reportedly considered leaving judges out of the plan, but according to Wojcicki , they will be included in Cross’ proposal.
The amount that employees would have to pay to stay in their current benefit plans would be recalculated every three years.

Under Cross' amendment, employees could also opt to move down to “tier two” of the system — which was passed by legislators in one day during last year’s legislative session — and applies to all employees hired after January 1 of this year. Or they could choose to participate in a self-managed plan, similar to a 401K. Under the self-managed plan, employees who would collect Social Security would contribute 6 percent of their salary, and those who would not would contribute about 4 percent. The state would match those contributions

Employees who chose the old benefits could opt to switch when the rates they must pay are refigured every three years. If they left the so-called tier one plan, they could not return to it but would keep all the benefits they earned under it.

Senate President John Cullerton has said he believes changes to current employee benefits would be unconstitutional. However, he has vowed to call the bill for a floor vote in the Senate if it passes in the House.

A Senate committee today approved a plan to borrow about $6 billion spread out through four proposals to pay down the state’s unpaid bills to vendors, schools, hospitals and local municipalities.  “In some instances, those bills are months and months old; in some cases they are over a year old. So, a tremendous backlog of unpaid bills,” said Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat who is backing the legislative package.

Sullivan sponsored four Senate bills that make up the plan and total $6.17 billion:
  • SB 342 would pay $1.5 billion owed to state vendors, non-governmental entities and private businesses. Sullivan said vendors have had to take out lines of credit, cut jobs and reduce their services as result of late payments or nonpayment.
  • SB 343 would address payments owed amounting in $1.1 billion for health care providers whom the state contracts with for its group health insurance programs.
  • SB 344 would restructure debt for private businesses waiting to be paid their corporate tax refunds by paying $800 million to the sector.
  • SB 345 would provide the largest amount of money from the state to school districts, universities, community colleges and local units of government, amounting in $2.7 billion. Schools say that have had to make layoffs and cut programs as result of unpaid bills from the state.
Sullivan said his plan would pay off the bonds over the next seven years using money from the recent income tax increase. It would cost the state about $804 million in interest. “Even though it’s slightly different from the variation that we proposed three weeks ago, we think it makes a lot of fiscal sense and economic sense,” said Gary Plummer, president of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, a group that suggested a similar plan almost a month ago. “It will allow the state to make good on past due bills owed for goods and services provided by agencies and vendors in good faith throughout the state.”

Although, the plan differs from an earlier borrowing proposal by Gov. Pat Quinn that called for borrowing $8.7 billion to be repaid over 14 years, Kelly Kraft, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said Quinn has remained flexible with his proposal and supports Sullivan’s plan. “Overall, when you’re dealing the budget, it’s a negotiation process, so there’s give and take throughout. So this is something that we do talk about with legislators, as well as the budget,”  Kraft said. “We just want to come up with the best plan for everyone.”

However, the plan will need Republican support in each chamber to get the required super majority needed for the state to borrow. Senate Republicans, who have opposed additional borrowing, agree that individuals and businesses owed by the state should be paid in a timely matter but suggest that there are other ways to address the backlog. Sen. David Luechtefeld, an Okawville Republican, remarked: “Yes, you want your money, but it’s not going to be too long before those bills are going to go right back up because there’s no way to pay them anymore. We’ve borrowed too much.” Cullerton said Senate Democrats are looking for the Republican backing needed to pass the borrowing plan. “That will take some time,” he said.

House members are supporting a new version of a controversial proposal that would allow utility companies to raise rates while also requiring them to invest in infrastructure, as well as a proposal to build a coal plant that would utilize carbon emission reducing technology.

SB1652 would allow Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, the state's largest electric utilities, to increase customers’ rates by up to 2.5 percent annually and would require both companies to invest a combined $3.2 billion  in infrastructure to upgrade the existing electric gird and add so-called smart grid technology. Unlike in previous incarnations of the plan contained in House Bill 14, the Illinois Commerce Commission, which currently has to sign off on rate hikes, would decide on the increases.

The measure would also require utilities to meet benchmarks for customer service and reliability. The ICC would monitor the progress, and the utilities would face fines if they failed to meet the goals. The ICC would also review rates in 2014, and the entire bill would sunset in 2017, meaning lawmakers would have to approve it again.

David Kolota, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said the changes to the proposal are encouraging, but he said the customer-service benchmarks may be set too low.

On the policy front, on smart grid policy, it’s definitely a significant step forward,” said Kolota, whose consumer advocacy group opposed the original plan. “All [the previous plan] said was, ‘We’re going to do smart grid.’ It was like one sentence.” He said he is concerned that the rate cap is only in place until 2014. “We certainly wouldn’t want to see a situation where consumers are soaked and suddenly get hit with a significant rate increase.”

Orland Park Democratic Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that the changes will not be enough to please all stakeholders. “I don’t pretend that these changes are everything some of our colleagues wanted.”

Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat who sponsors the bill in his chamber, said the benefits that customers will see in future savings, as well as in more reliable power, are worth the up-front investment of higher rates,which sponsors estimate will average about $3 per household each month. “You can’t base this off price. That’s kind of silly. We’re dealing with hundred-year-old technology, and if consumers want something to work, they’ve go to pay for it. And the fact is, it costs money, and you know there’s nothing for free. My cable bill went up $10 a month last month nobody even asked me if they could raise it,” Jacobs said.

The changes were not enough to win the support of one vocal opponent, Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “A day after winning a $156 million rate increase, ComEd just can’t help itself. Today, their legion of lobbyists continue to push legislation that will require consumers to fund billions more in guaranteed profits. This new proposal is just more of the same — a plan that hits consumers where it hurts the most — their wallets,” Madigan said in a written statement. The ICC approved a ComEd Rate increase yesterday. Gov. Pat Quinn, who vowed to veto the earlier version of the plan, declined to weigh in on today’s proposal.

“If you want to vote in this General Assembly, run for the office,” Jacobs said in response the Madigan’s opposition.

Meanwhile, the attorney general did throw her support behind an attempt to resurrect a plan to help Tenaska Energy build a “clean-coal” plant near Taylorville. Paul Gaynor, chief of the Public Interest Division of the attorney general’s office, said that the Tenaska plant is a better investment for Illinois utility customers, calling the plan rate neutral. Energy generated by the plant would initially come at a greater cost, but supporters say that a provision giving the Illinois Power Authority more flexibility in purchasing power would result in savings that could negate any substantial rate increase.

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, one of the House sponsors of SB 1653, said she hopes to get the plan through both chambers before the end of the regular session on Thursday.

Senate President John Cullerton said that the House and Senate are working to bring their proposed budget numbers in line and that a vote could come over the weekend. He said the Senate will likely come down to the House’s revenue estimate, which is $1 billion less than the estimate contained in the budget proposal passed by the Senate. Echoing House Speaker Michael Madigan, Cullerton said revenue that comes in beyond the estimate could be used to pay off overdue bills.

Workers' compensation
A House committee approved SB1933, which would repeal the current worker’s compensation system. House Democrats, including Speaker Madigan, have threatened to destroy the current system if stakeholders cannot agree on a reform package. The legislation would force any worker's compensation claims into the courts. The bill is sponsored by Marion Democratic John Bradley, who has been working on negotiations. Bradley said that the passage of the bill was not a indication that talks had fallen apart, but said he wanted to keep all options open. Cullerton said, “I think we’re really close to an agreement on workers’ comp — an agreement on workers’ comp among a number of the stakeholders.”

Cullerton also said he expects some changes to the Senate Democrats’ proposed legislative map to surface tomorrow and that the proposed map of congressional districts would come sometime after that.

Tomorrow is expected to be a busy day for the legislature. Check back for updates.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Democratic legislative map may face legal challenges

By Jamey Dunn

A legislative map proposed by Illinois Democrats would violate the rights of Hispanic voters, according to one Latino legal organization.

A representative of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) said the map Democrats have proposed for the Illinois House doesn’t do enough — according to federal law — to ensure that the growing number of Latino voters in the state will have enough political voice. “We believe that [House Bill 3760] does not create a sufficient number of districts for Latino electoral opportunities to comply with the Voting Rights Act,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF. A House committee approved the bill today along partisan lines. A separate but similar proposal by Senate Democrats was held in committee. Chicago Sen. Kwame Raoul, sponsor of his chamber’s Democratic map, said he wants to give Republicans and other interested groups time to review the plan and proposes changes.

Perales said that the biggest problem with the proposed map in the House can be found on the south side of Chicago, where she says it both splinters some Latino populations into several districts and packs others together “in a way that is diluted and denies Latinos an opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.”

She said the map proposal creates three districts on the south side of the city with Latinos making up 65 percent or more of the voting age population, while MALDEF has identified five potential Latino majority districts in the area. Perales cited case law that she says determines that creating a 60 percent  to 65 percent Hispanic district is one way to ensure that districts in the Chicago area would give Hispanics a chance to elect the candidates of their choice. She said her organization believes that Latino majority districts require more than 50 percent of the population to be Latino for several reasons, including lower voter registration than some other groups and undocumented members of the population who are counted in the census but cannot vote.

Perales said the group plans to release its own map of the Chicago area, the second it has put forth. “We feel that it’s important to provide alternatives in order to demonstrate that there’s more than one way of complying with the Voting Rights Act. … There’s no magic that a particular line be in one place or the other. The goal here is to create Latino majority districts that offer the opportunity to elect,” Perales told the committee.

When asked whether MALDEF would sue if the current map is the one that becomes law, she said, “We don’t announce litigation.” However Perales did say that “MALDEF has been very engaged in redistricting litigation in Illinois and in other states.” She said that by waiting until the closing days of the spring legislative session, lawmakers make it more difficult to correct any potential legal problems with the map that outside groups might bring to light. “It is a very legitimate concern when redistricting plans are rolled out, and then hearings are scheduled without sufficient time to analyze the plan fully. We have done what analysis we can.”

When asked whether she thinks House members will incorporate suggestions from MALDEF, as well as other groups representing minority communities, on how to ensure the map complies with the federal Voting Rights Act, she said she cannot predict what lawmakers will decide in the end. “They have their own legal counsel; I’m quite sure they know what they need to do.”

During the hearing, Republicans joined the chorus of witnesses who said that Democrats were moving the process along too quickly and not supplying the public with enough information.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of the House map, said that the Democrats' map fulfills all the proper legal requirements. “It’s all a balance. It’s all trying to take into account a variety of factors. … I think we’ve done a very good job of trying to meet the basic principles of redistricting,” Currie said.

"We don’t have anything to show that to us, that those factors have been balanced,” said Rep. Mike Fortner, a West Chicago Republican and the minority spokesman on the House Redistricting Committee. “This is an action that will have an impact for the next decade on the state of Illinois.”

Currie encouraged Republicans to present their own map. As of yet, the minority party has presented no concrete plan to draw the legislative lines. “I don’t anticipate that we’re necessarily going to vote tomorrow. I’m keeping my powder dry and my options open.”

Republicans tried to pin witnesses down on legal issue,s such as what population thresholds would be needed to ensure that minorities have influence in a given district. Allan Lichtman, a history professor for Washington, D.C-based American University who advised Democrats on their current proposal as well as the process in 2001, said no answers can be applied across the board. He said that figuring out whether a district has been drawn to give a minority population a voice involves many factors, including the voting history of the district and minority group as well as the location of the district.

Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said Republicans are trying to build a case to challenge in court whatever map Democrats ultimately approve. “There’s not much political strategy because the Democrats have the votes and the governor’s chair. It’s all about building yourself a record in terms of court challenges. … If the Republicans are going to get to an alternative map, it would probably have to be through some kind of federal court challenge.”

Redfield said Democrats' actions in the coming week will likely determine whether minority groups eventually sue  over the final map. “The question is whether [MALDEF’s statement on the proposed map] is a negotiation strategy, and there’s some kind of accommodation, or whether or not they’re at an impasse.”

He added, “The assumption is we’re going to be in the courts. It’s just a question of who the plaintiffs will be.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Craft brewer bill headed to governor

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House approved a bill today aimed at solving a legal dispute over beer distribution, but some small brewers say the measure would stifle growth in their industry.

A federal judge ruled that Illinois must revamp its policy for beer distribution, which only allowed in-state companies to self distribute, on the grounds that it discriminated against out-of-state sellers. As a result of the lawsuit filed by Anheuser-Busch Inc., the court gave lawmakers until May 31 to revamp the system or no brewers would be allowed to distribute their own beer.

Senate Bill 754 would allow small breweries, both in Illinois and outside the state, that produce less than 465,000 gallons or 15,000 barrels a year to get a permit to distribute up to 232,500 gallons or 7,500 barrels of their own product in Illinois. The measure passed with no opposition in the House. It passed in the Senate earlier this month and now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn.

Lawmakers said they tried to strike a balance to protect small brewers while barring large companies from cornering the market by allowing them to branch out into distribution. The Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, which supported the bill, argued that if large brands were able to get into the distribution market, they would have no reason to sell any beer other than their own. “If [Anheuser-Busch] is allowed to own distributorships, the ability for craft brewers, new imported brands and new domestic brands will have a reduced access to market. Independent distributors provide an avenue for those products that brewery-owned distributors won’t,” Bill Olson, president of Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, said in a prepared statement.

However, some craft brewers say the bill sets the limit too low for the amount of beer a brewery can produce and be eligible for a self-distribution license. "Once again, the beer distributors are spending money to get their way in Springfield, and consumers are losing as it is gets harder to put local beer on the shelf and on tap" Josh Deth, owner of Revolution Brewing in Chicago, said in a written statement.

The Illinois Craft Brewer’s Guild holds up for comparison the production levels of Goose Island brewery, which was recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch. According to a statement on the guild’s website, the Chicago-based brewer produced about 130,000 barrels of beer last year. During negotiations over the measure, the group backed a production limit of 60,000 barrels.

“Once you go beyond the level of 15,000, you are not in the category of craft brewer,” Spring Valley Democratic Rep. Frank Mautino, sponsor of the bill, said during debate in the House.

The guild also took issue with a provision that would require brew pubs, bars and restaurants that brew their own beer to have a brewing operation at a second location to be eligible for a craft brewer's license to distribute their beer.

Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat and a lawyer, voted in favor of the bill but warned that it likely would not put a stop to legal disputes over distribution rights. “I don’t think that this is going to settle the litigation which has taken place throughout this state with regards to this issue, and I don’t think that ultimately this is going to settle this issue. And I would just caution … anyone [who] thinks that because of passing this bill that this issue is being resolved. … I don’t think any of us should kid ourselves as to what the long-term impact of this is going to be.”


Redistricting, Mayor Emanuel's effect on the state, pensions and more are on the agenda for this week's program. Jim Leach (WMAY-AM/Springfield), Andrew Thomason (Illinois Statehouse News) and David Dahl (Illinois Radio Network) join moderator Jamey Dunn (Illinois Issues Magazine). A production of WSEC-TV/PBS Springfield.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Senators hear feedback on remap plan

By Jamey Dunn

Minority groups had mixed reactions to the Senate Democrat’s proposed legislative map as reform organizations called today for more time and information to review the plan.

Senate Democrats released their proposal for new legislative districts on Thursday and held their first hearing for public feedback on the map today in Chicago. Since Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor's office, they have the ability to control the process of redrawing legislative boundaries, which happens every 10 years after new census data is released.

Juan Rangel, chief executive officer of the United Neighborhoods organization, endorsed the map on behalf of the Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting. “We believe that the proposed map fairly balances changes in population and the stakes other communities have in the Illinois legislature,” Rangel said. “Revising the current district boundaries is a tremendous assignment with many moving parts.”

Members of the coalition were encouraged by the treatment of the Chicago neighborhood of South Lawndale, also known as Little Village, near Cicero, which was at one time split into four Senate districts. Under the Democrats’ plan, the predominately Latino community would be represented by one state senator.

However, the Hispanic community known as Back of the Yards, located on the south side of the city near the former location of Chicago’s storied stock yards — now an industrial park — would be split in half under the plan. “We are now asking you to allow us to be one voice in the eyes of the legislature,” said Jose Alonso, speaking on behalf of the Committee for a Unified Back of the Yards. “We are really only talking about blocks here. We’re not asking for a new district. We’re talking about blocks.”

C.W. Chan, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said his organization was happy to see that Chinatown was relatively intact in one district under the map. He said about 90 percent of the community would be in the same district, though he noted, “We’re not getting everybody in.” Chinatown, which was split among five Senate districts under the last remap, according to the Asian American Institute, has become a high-profile example of a community of interest that has had its political power diluted. “Ten years ago, Chinatown was the most convenient victim of redistricting,” Chan said. He joined other representatives of the Asian American community in asking the committee to reconsider their proposal to split up some Asian communities in northern Cook County.

Overall, several representatives of the Latino community said lawmakers had not done enough to create more Hispanic majority and influence districts in light of the 32.5 percent Hispanic population growth in Illinois according to U.S. Census data.

“Our analysis indicates that Latino residents are being shortchanged by the current proposals,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum. She said more districts could have been created on the south side of Chicago, with Latinos representing over 65 percent of the voting age population. “They do not have to come at the expense of African-American majority districts.”

Members of several minority organizations said they continue to support the so-called Unity Map created by the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations.

Reform groups told lawmakers that they need to do more to inform the public about their methods for drawing the map, including releasing demographic and political information about the districts, as well as explanations for why the lines were drawn as they were under the proposal. Whitney Woodward, policy associate for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said legislators had months to analyze such information when drawing the map and said the public needs more details and more time before lawmakers take a vote. “We don’t see any reason to believe that the map released Thursday has put community interest above political interests.”

She called the fact that the public has not seen a proposal for a U.S. congressional map “unacceptable.”

“The public has not been invited to sit in the audience, let alone at the table,” Woodward said. “We know that you can do better than offering an unexplained map and two premature hearings.”

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, the chair of the Senate Redistricting committee, said Senate Democrats plan to present a resolution explaining their proposal. Senate and House Redistricting committee have a joint hearing scheduled in Springfield at 9 a.m. Tuesday.  “We will take all comments and suggestions under advisement in the coming days,” Raoul said.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Legislative roundup

By Lauren N. Johnson

While Illinois lawmakers did not vote on some of the large and controversial issues that are looming in the closing days of the spring legislative session, such as workers’ compensation reform and changes to retirement benefits for current public employees, they sent several other bills to Gov. Pat Quinn.

FOID cards
The names and information for at least 4 million firearm owners in Illinois would be exempt from inspection, copying, or being released by the Illinois State Police for purposes of criminal investigations, under House Bill 3500, sponsored by Rep. Richard Morthland of Cordova and Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, both of whom are Republicans.

“Every state police director, regardless of political party, over the last couple of decades has opined that from a law enforcement perspective, it is a bad idea to release the names of firearm owners ID holders,”  Dillard said.

The measure came after an opinion by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in favor of releasing the names. “I do not understand for the life of me why would we give a map to allow criminals to systematically pick and choose and burglarize our homes and farms,” Dillard said.

Gov. Pat Quinn told reporters today that he agreed with the position of the Illinois State Police on firearm owner identification cards, stating the names should not be released, but Quinn would not comment on whether he supports this specific bill.

DNA testing
House Bill 3238, sponsored by Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, and former Rep. Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat, would require DNA testing of those arrested for crimes including first degree murder, home invasion and predatory and aggravated sexual assault of a child or an adult, and would mandate that the specimens must be provided within 14 days after an indictment or sentencing.

Lawmakers and state officers, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan, say requiring all registered sex offenders to provide a DNA specimen in cases of violent crimes would strengthen the state’s DNA database and further help clear those who were wrongfully convicted.

The bill would also require automatic disposal of the DNA – taken during the case – if the arresting charges were dismissed or if the individual was acquitted.

The bill passed the Senate with little opposition. It passed the House in April.

Financial advisory panel
Senate Bill 2149, sponsored by Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat, and Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, would allow financially struggling school districts – except Chicago Public Schools – to petition the State Board of Education to request a financial oversight panel step in to help with their budgets. “It takes several parts of the school code dealing with financial oversight and existing panels and kind of puts them all in one place and gives them some additional authority,” said Eddy, who also is a school superintendent in Hutsonville.

Racial and ethnic impact
Chicago Democrats Sen. Mattie Hunter and Rep. La Shawn Ford sponsored Senate Bill 2271, which would create a racial and ethnic impact research task force to determine ways to measure the potential impact of proposed legislation on minority groups. The group would also would propose a system to collect data on the racial and ethnic identity of individuals arrested by state and local law enforcement.

Disparities commission
House Bill 1547, sponsored by Chicago Democrats Rep. Monique Davis and Sen. Mattie Hunter, would creates a panel called the Commission to End the Disparities Facing the African-American Community to study and recommend ways to address racial inequality in the state.

The bipartisan commission would consist of 24 lawmakers and advocates for African-American rights involving education, health care services and employment. It would submit a report to the legislature and governor by December 31, 2013. Commission members would not be paid.

The bill passed both chambers, but some Republicans such as Sen. Kyle McCarter of Lebanon had a problem with the number of commission members, . “This is my project, not your project,” said Hunter, who took offense to Senate Republicans’ demands that she cut the number of unpaid commission members. The bill returns to the House to wait for a concurrence vote.

Good Samaritan
House Bill 1549, sponsored by Rep. Jil Tracy, a Mount Sterling Republican, and Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, a Joliet Democrat, states that anyone with CPR training in accordance with the standards of the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association who in good faith provides emergency care to someone in need of resuscitation would not liable for civil damages. The Senate must concur with the legislation before it can head to the governor’s desk.

Unpaid tax refunds
Senate Bill 1741, sponsored by Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, and Sen. David Luechtefeld, an Okawville Republican, would require the Illinois Department of Revenue to allow individual taxpayers or corporations that are owed unpaid taxes refunds from the state to credit the money the state owes them against future tax bills.

Lawmakers in favor of the bill say it is  overdue  and clarifies confusion among businesses and schools in the state of whether they will be paid on time.

Rep. Jil Tracy, a Mount Sterling Republican, said she had a similar bill, HB 2914, which addressed the same problem. “We had so many people call my district office and complain that the state was not allowing them to use an offset for taxes overpayment; instead they would have to pay their taxes on time, even though the state of Illinois owed them quite a refund,” said Tracy.

The Senate must vote to agree to changes made in the House before the bill can be sent to Quinn.