Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 in review

By Jamey Dunn

It was a busy year at the Statehouse as Illinois legislators passed an income tax increase, a significant change to the state’s criminal justice system and reforms to two important state systems, among other bills.

Death penalty 
Perhaps the most pivotal change to come this year was the abolition of Illinois’ death penalty. Because of the state’s checkered past of false convictions, proponents argued that the state could not in good conscience reinstate the death penalty. More than a decade ago, George Ryan called for a moratorium on capital punishment after several death row inmates were exonerated. Ryan also commuted the sentences of 167 death-row inmates to life in prison before leaving office in 2003.

Opponents argued that law enforcement officers need the threat of the death penalty as a bargaining chip when negotiating plea deals or trying to get a confession. Others argued that state should have the option for the “worst of the worst” offenders. “Seven out of 10 of those people on death row when Gov. Ryan commuted their sentences didn’t contest their own guilt,” said Sen. William Haine, a Democrat and former prosecutor from Alton.

Former Democratic Rep. Susana Mendoza said she was conflicted about supporting the abolition because she supported the death penalty, but she said her decision to vote for the repeal came after she put aside her own emotions and acknowledged how flawed Illinois’ system has been. “We’ve come horrifyingly close to executing innocent men, and it could happen again,” Mendoza said.

After taking public feedback, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill and communicated the sentences of all the inmates on death row. The passage of the plan resulted in some savings for the state as well as the elimination of some positions in the office of the state appellate defender's office.

Tax increase 
Early this year lawmakers voted to increase the income tax rate for the first time since 1989. Legislators voted to make that increase permanent in 1993. This year's temporary income tax hike raised the personal rate from 3 percent to 5 percent and the corporate tax from 4.8 percent to 7 percent.

Supporters said that the increase was necessary to get the state’s fiscal house in order. “This mess is a mess that is the responsibility of all of us. … It’s too late. It’s time for us to be adults, face the crisis and figure out together a solution,” said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat. However, Republicans argued that Democrats did not do enough to cut the budget. Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, said that GOP calls for spending cuts have been ignored for years. “The time to be adults was eight years ago, when we were expanding programs,” he said. The measure also includes spending caps for the next four fiscal years.

The limits would be $36.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2012, $37.5 billion in FY 2013, $38.3 billion in FY 2014 and $39.1 billion in FY 2015. If legislators spend more, the tax increases will be nullified.

Worker’s compensation
Worker’s compensation reform was a top priority for all four legislative leaders and the governor at the beginning of the spring 2011 session. Lawmakers approved and Quinn signed a reform package backed by several business groups, but detractors were skeptical about how much money employers would save from the plan. The negotiations over workers’ compensation reform were tense. and at one point the bill’s sponsor — Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat — threatened to call a bill that would have dismantled the entire system.

The legislation that passed in the end reduces the fees paid to doctors for treating employees by 30 percent, creates new rules for the appointment of arbitrators, who decide the outcome of claims, and requires the use of American Medical Association standards when determining workers’ level of impairment from injuries.

Republican opponents to the plan said it asks for too large a sacrifice from the medical community in the form of reduced fees and may not result in substantial savings for businesses. Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said lawmakers should not think their work is done just because they made tweaks to the system. “The political leadership has to appreciate, understand, recognize that workers’ compensation is not a static action. … Even if we make progress in Illinois, that doesn’t mean that other states didn’t do things similarly. There’s a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspect to this.”

Education reform 
Teachers unions, education reform groups, administrators, business leaders and parents' organizations worked together on an education reform package that was generally agreed upon by all groups. The plan changes the way teachers are granted tenure, hired, fired or laid off.

Under the new law, teachers have to receive positive evaluations for three years to receive tenure. Teachers who earn “excellent” reviews in each of their first three years will also earn tenure. Teachers with tenure who receive two unsatisfactory reviews within a seven-year period could have their teaching licenses reviewed by the state superintendent and be required to complete professional development geared toward improving their performance or face having their licenses revoked. Layoffs will no longer be decided on a “last-in-first-out” basis but instead will be determined by qualifications and job performance. Seniority will only be used as a “tie-breaker.” Administrators will be free to hire any candidate for new positions instead of giving preference to teachers transferring within the district. The measure also makes it easier for districts to fire underperforming teachers.

“With this bill, we’re going to ensure that the better teachers stay and the lesser teachers go,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy. Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student performance under the new system that starts to kick in at different times for different schools based on size and student performance level. Most schools must switch to the new evaluations by 2016.

Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat who cast the lone vote against the legislation in the House, said aspects of the bill that apply only to Chicago Public Schools, such as a greater threshold for going on strike that requires the support of a supermajority of voting union members, were discriminatory. “The intentions are good, but the results will not change a thing. I’m not going to be a union buster,” the former teacher and administrator said during floor debate. Unions outside of Chicago will need the support of half of union members to strike. The measure lengthens negotiations required before a strike and would force both sides to release their demands to the public if an impasse is reached.

Smart grid 
The two largest utility companies in the state will be able to increase customers' rates to make improvements to the state's electric grid and add so-called smart grid technologies. The plan allows Ameren and Commonwealth Edison to increase customers’ rates 2.5 percent annually to pay for improvements to the state’s electric grid ranging from basic repairs to poles and lines to cutting-edge technology that could allow utilities to prevent outages and customers to track their energy usage.

The companies are required to invest a total of $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 do not meet those goals, they will be subject to fines.

Doug Scott, chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which signs off on rate increases and will oversee the utilities under the plan, said the bill strips away too much regulation. “In the normal circumstance, our review serves a check to companies to spend money only on the items they are allowed by law. … We think that this bill significantly weakens that check and provides no real incentive for the companies to control their costs.”

Sponsors of the plan say the upgrades will bring economic development and allow the state’s aging grid to keep pace with modern energy demands. “Sometimes we’ve got to do what we’ve go to do,” said East Moline Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs, who sponsored the plan. “If we’re going to have success in the 21st century, we need to have a 21st century grid.”

Gov. Pat Quinn adamantly opposed the legislation and vetoed it once it reached his desk. But the General Assembly overrode his veto in the fall session. 

Tax breaks 
After several businesses threatened to leave the Illinois, lawmakers voted to give tax breaks to some to try and stem job loss in the state. The package will give about $200 million in tax breaks to the CME group, and Sears. The plan contains other breaks meant to help businesses throughout the state — such as an extension of the research and envelopment tax credit and a reinstatement of the net operating loss provision in 2012 for losses up to $100,000. The package also offers tax breaks for individuals in the form of increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit from 5 percent of the federal credit to 10 percent over two years and linking the standard exemption to federal cost of living increases. In total, it is projected to cost about $300 million next fiscal year and $350 million by fiscal year 2014.

Up next 
The passage of the tax breaks passage spurred a call from both sides of the aisle in the House to roll back corporate income tax rates. “I think people at the time of the increase of the corporate tax realized that that was not the route to go,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross said. “Business after business potentially will be coming to the state and looking for relief, and doing it on a per-company basis is not the way to go.”

Expect the issue to get plenty of lip service, and maybe even some action, next year.
Other noteworthy pieces of legislation failed to gain in 2011 the support needed to become laws. However, the sponsors of many such bills say they will fight on. Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, will likely spend some time in 2012 trying to hammer out a plan gaming expansion that can pass in both chambers and gain Quinn’s signature. A plan he sponsored passed in 2011, but Quinn said it was too large of an expansion and refused to sign a bill that would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks. Without the slots for the tracks, Lang could not find the support to pass a scaled back gaming package during the fall veto session. Lang has also vowed to continue to push a bill that would allow the chronically ill access to medical marijuana. He has called various versions of such a proposal but has yet to find enough support to pass the plan in the House.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross has been unable to find the support to pass his plan to reduce pension benefits for current state employees, but he has been able to pass bills to try and reign in what many saw as abuses of the system. With a pension payment that is projected to be $5.3 billion — about $1 billion more than last fiscal year — expect to hear more about potential changes to benefits.

Illinois is the last state to allow the concealed carry of firearms, and a sponsor of a bill that would allow it says it “only a matter of time” before it happens here. The legislation failed in the House this year, but sponsor Brandon Phelps is working to drum up the votes and says he is only “five or six votes away” from House approval. “Forty other states are not wrong, I believe, and it’s not the Wild West anywhere else,” said Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat. There are pending court cases, as well as federal legislation, that could also potentially open up the state to concealed carry.

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