Thursday, May 17, 2012

Legislative roundup

While comprehensive pension reform and Medicaid reform plans have yet to emerge in the form of legislation, lawmakers did take up several issues this week.

Minimum wage
Senate Bill 1565 would increase the state’s minimum wage, which is currently $8.25, by 50 cents per year until it reached $10.55. At that point, it would be tied to inflation. A Senate committee approved the measure this week.

Proponents say the increase would ensure that wages keep pace with inflation and would help lift the working poor out of poverty. “If you’re willing to work a 40-hour week, you shouldn’t live in poverty,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who sponsors the bill. Opponents say that small businesses cannot absorb such an increase, and it would instead result in increased prices, reduced hours for workers and layoffs. “We operate on a very slim margin,” Kelly Wingard said. Wingard and her husband own the Wildflour Artisan Bakery & Cafe in Decatur.

Campaign finance 
Senate Bill 3722 would allow candidates in Illinois to ignore contribution limits when outside groups spend money in a race. If an outside group spends more than $100,000 campaigning for a single candidate in a municipal race or a bid for the state legislature, then candidates in that race would not have to stick limits on how much money they can accept from donors. In a statewide race, the threshold would be $250,000 spent by an outside group.

The bill is a response to a recent court ruling that allows political action committees (PACs) to take unlimited contributions as long as their campaign efforts are not coordinated with any candidates. When a group uses funds for campaigning, such as purchasing air time for a commercial, separately from a candidate's effort,s it is known as an independent expenditure. Proponents of the measure, which was approved by a House committee this week, say it would give candidates a fighting chance against PACs, which can collect money without limits. Opponents say it scales back the state’s recent campaign finance reform. They say it would encourage outside groups to spend enough money in a race to free their chosen candidate — along with everybody else in the race — from contribution limits. It heated races, the measure could have the effect of making the state’s contribution limits a thing of the past.

Legislative scholarships 
House Bill 3810 would eliminate the controversial legislative scholarship program, which allows lawmakers to hand out state university tuition waivers to students in their districts. The program came under scrutiny after media reports revealed that lawmakers had awarded scholarships to the children of campaign donors or politically connected families. Supporters of the program say it is an equitable way to distribute financial aid throughout the state and gives opportunities to students who may not have otherwise been able to attend college. The measure also calls for the creation of a task force to assess all other university tuition waivers. The bill has passed in the Senate and a House committee approved it this morning. The House left without taking it up for a floor vote.

Strip club tax 
House Bill 1645 would charge a tax on strip clubs that sell or allow alcohol. Revenues from the tax would go to fund rape crisis centers. Clubs would have the option or paying $3 per customer or a flat rate based on how much money the bring in. Under the measure, which was approved by a Senate committee this week, clubs that make more than $2 million a year would be charged $25,000. Clubs that make between $500,000 to $2 million would pay $15,000 in tax. Those that make less than $500,000 would pay $5,000.

Senate Bill 2888 would bar drivers caught going 31 miles per hour over the speed limit on a highway and drivers caught going 25 miles per hour over the speed limit in an urban area from being eligible for court supervision. The bill was previously approved by the Senate and passed in the House this week. It awaits a decision from Gov. Pat Quinn.

Shark fin ban
House Bill 4119 would ban shark fins in the state. Shark fins are used in a soup that is considered a delicacy in China. But the fins are often harvested in a manner that is considered cruel and leaves the shark to die. Other states have banned shark fins or are considering bans. The measure was approved in the Senate last month and passed in the House this week.

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