Friday, October 21, 2011

Veto session preview

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers will likely have a busy veto session as they consider two industry changing plans opposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, components of a budget that Quinn says is forcing him to close several state facilities and other potentially hot button issues.

“The agenda is pretty full. It’s really kind of the fall legislative sessions these days rather than a veto session,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. Several committee hearings are scheduled for Monday, and the session will runs Tuesday through Thursday. It will resume November 8, with an adjournment date scheduled for November 10.

Gov. Pat Quinn laid out what he would like to see changed in the gaming expansion package that lawmakers passed at the end of the spring legislative session. Senate President John Cullerton still has a procedural hold on Senate Bill 744, so Quinn has been unable to do anything but present his list of demands. Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang and Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, the sponsors of the bill, have been pushing Quinn all summer for specifics on what he wants. When he finally gave them this week, the sponsors seemed less than thrilled. Lang and Link agree that if they drafted Quinn’s plan into a bill, they couldn’t scrape up the votes to pass it.

The governor wants to remove a provision that would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks. He does  support the addition of five new casinos, including one owned by the city of Chicago. He also wants to add a measure to address legalization of video poker in some bars and restaurants across the state. When video poker was approved as part of the funding plan for the capital construction bill, Quinn supported allowing local governments to opt out of having it in their area. Now, he wants local officials to vote to opt it if they want video poker. So far, the Illinois Gaming Board has not issued any video poker licenses, and the plan has not generated any revenue for the state. Quinn also wants to take tax breaks out of the bill, which are a sweetener for existing casinos. His plan also calls for a ban on campaign contributions from those holding gaming licenses or managing a casino.

Supporters of the gaming expansion say they are working on a trailer bill with changes that they hope will appease Quinn and say they plan to roll it out in a committee hearing early next week. They say they cannot pass legislation that does not include slots at the racetracks. Quinn said he will not sign a bill that does, and he has also vowed to veto SB 744 if it is sent to him — making the plan to fix the situation with a trailer bill that would tack changes onto the original legislation a shaky prospect. “Somebody may figure out how to pull a rabbit out of a hat that makes Quinn, and [Chicago Mayor Rahm] Emanuel, and downstate [lawmakers] and the horse racing people happy,” said Redfield. “But it would be a neat trick.”

For more on video poker and the challenges it has faced getting off the ground, see Illinois Issues April 2010.

Smart grid
Sponsors of a Senate Bill 1652, which would allow the state’s two biggest utility companies to increase customers’ rates in exchange for investments in the state's electric grid have said they will  try to drum up enough votes to override Quinn’s veto. Supporters say smart grid technology will create jobs, make service more reliable and help some customers save money by allowing them to monitor their usage.

Opposition to the bill includes AARP; the Citizens Utility Board, which is a consumer advocacy group started by Quinn; and Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Quinn has appealed to the public and even set up a website encouraging people to call their lawmakers and tell them to vote against the bill. Quinn and others say it was written by Ameren and Commonwealth Edison lobbyists as a way to lock in the utilities’ profits. “It seems to me that the governor has a right to set up a media campaign and hire lobbyists and do everything that he’s doing,” said Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat and sponsor of SB1652. “But at the end of the day, this comes down to the question, do you want a smart grid or don’t you?”

Lawmakers backing the legislation say they are working on a trailer bill to tighten up customer service and reliability requirements in the hopes of getting some fence sitters’ votes to keep the plan alive. Expect heavy lobbying and public relations efforts on both sides of the issue.

For more on smart grid technology and its potential public policy implications, see Illinois Issues July/August 2011.

Hearings are under way throughout the state about the potential closure of seven state facilities. Quinn announced last month his plans to close the institutions and lay off more than 1,900 state employees. The governor said the budget lawmakers approved in the spring would not fully find state operations, so the facilities must be shuttered to shift money to the core services of the state. Quinn is calling on lawmakers to approve his budget vetoes, many of which, such as a cut to school transportation budget, are generally unpopular with legislators. Quinn is also reportedly working up a list of budget tweaks and cuts he would like to see restored.

Some school officials are looking to lawmakers to find a way for them to get paid. Quinn cut money for the salaries of regional superintendents. The majority of them stayed on the job and have not seen a paycheck since June. Quinn said that local governments should pay them and has a bill in the works to shift the cost. The Illinois Municipal League opposes dipping into local funds. Lawmakers could also vote to override the governor’s veto and restore the money to the state budget. Regional superintendents say they do not prefer one plan over they other; they just want to get paid.

Legislative scholarships
Quinn used his veto pen to try to end a program that has been a source of controversy and scandal for years, but it is unlikely that his changes will ever see the light of day.

Quinn took a bill that would have barred lawmakers from giving scholarships to family members and rewrote it to end the program altogether. He has the support of the bill’s sponsors and has been publicly calling on lawmakers to end the program. However, House Speaker Michael Madigan said Quinn overstepped his constitutional authority, and it is unlikely that the speaker will call the veto for a vote. If no vote is taken, Quinn’s changes and the underlying legislation would die.

Lang, a longtime member of House Democratic leadership, said Madigan has historically been opposed to allowing governors to use their veto pens to make broad changes in the legislation that lands on their desks. “Even if he likes the changes, he has not allowed those bills to be called to a vote because they violate the Constitution.”

Other critical pieces of legislation may come up for a vote in the short time that lawmakers are scheduled to be in session. Legislators may consider a bill that would create the state’s insurance exchange, an online marketplace that is meant to drive down the cost of insurance by encouraging competition. Such exchanges are a key component of the new federal health care reform law. Legislators may also consider a controversial bill that would bring the state in line with a federal plan regarding the punishment and tracking of sex offenders. For more on those topics, see Illinois Issues September 2011 and Illinois Issues blog.  Pension reform working groups that include Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross have been meeting throughout the summer and could potentially produce a bill. For more on the two sides of the pension debate, see this month's Illinois Issues. Cross backed a bill that would diminish benefits for employees hired before other changes to benefits went into effect in January, but it lacked the needed support in the House. “Most people I talk to would be really surprised if [Cross’ plan] moved in the House [during veto session.] Other than if the speaker really just got tired of doing all this and puts it out there so it won’t pass,” Redfield said.

He added: “There are a lot of very heavyweight things to be dealing with. And there’s the context of the budget. … They may not ultimately do anything, but they do have a lot on their plate.”

For more on veto session, see this month’s Illinois Issues.

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