By Jamey Dunn and Meredith Colias
Illinois lawmakers hope to tackle a number of complicated and controversial issues in the new legislative session. In today’s State of the State address, Gov. Pat Quinn weighed in on several of the topics on their agenda.
Quinn renewed his call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. “Today, we all weep over the senseless violence in our communities. But as elected officials, we’re in a position to do something about it. We have life-saving work to do. We cannot wait for another tragedy to happen before we take action,” he said.
While the governor did not describe all the provisions he would like to see in a concealed-carry bill, he did make it clear that he wants limits on where residents carry guns. “We must ensure that guns are kept out of everyday public places because guns don’t belong in our schools, shopping malls or sports stadiums. And we must make Illinois safer by strengthening background checks and requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns.”
In December, a federal court gave Illinois 180 days to approve concealed-carry legislation. Attorney General Lisa Madigan appealed the ruling, but for now the deadline looms.
“He does want a limited bill. But he needs to start getting specific because the clock is still ticking on the 180 days,” Rep. Brandon Phelps said of Quinn. Phelps introduced House Bill 997 last week. His legislation would bar guns from certain places, such as government buildings and schools. But he said Quinn’s limitations go to far. “I just don’t see us agreeing to just a sidewalk-carry bill as he wants. I just don’t see that.”
Quinn called on counties to submit mental health records to the Illinois State Police for Firearm Owner Identification Card background checks. “For years, counties across our state have not been reporting their mental health records to the Illinois State Police. This year, we need every county to step up and do its part to ensure mental health records are updated in real time.” A recent audit found that the state police were struggling with issuing FOID cards in a timely manner. Phelps said that the FOID system must be repaired to properly administer concealed-carry in the state. “They need to get that corrected, and we need to help with that.” Under his bill, those wishing to carry would apply for a permit that would cost $25. However, he said the permit fee may increase to help cover the costs of the permitting system. “We started somewhere because we didn’t want anybody not to be able to afford it because of their Second Amendment right to carry. but we can negotiate that. I think it will be moved up. I really do.”
Phelps is working with Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul to try to negotiate a concealed-carry proposal that can pass through both legislative chambers. “We’ve agreed to gather parties in the room and have a discussion where we can have a respect for the Second Amendment as it has been interpreted by the [U.S.] Supreme Court and other courts below it, and at the same time recognize that we have a problem with gun violence,” Raoul said. “I think the two things are not inconsistent: wanting to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners, who mean no harm to anybody [and] who want to participate in sportsmen activities or own a weapon for self protection, and trying to stop a flow of guns to people who we all know will do harm with them.”
Raoul said that polarizing rhetoric has stood in the way of compromise on gun issues in the past, but he said that he and Phelps hope to “start the discussion without vilifying anybody on either side of the debate.”
Chicago Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, who sponsors a ban on assault weapons, said that he hopes to link concealed carry and an assault weapons ban into an overarching approach to gun control. But both Phelps and Raoul said they are not interested in taking that approach. “Those are two separate issues, and that’s what we want to treat them like,” Phelps said. Quinn and Acevedo share similar views on assault weapons. “Of course, we must abide with the Second Amendment. But there is no place in our state for military-style assault weapons designed for rapid fire at human targets at close range,” Quinn said in his speech today. “It’s not about hurting the average sportsman or hunter, or its not about trying to take away the Second Amendment; it’s an issue of public safety,” Acevedo said. “These are weapons that are made for war.”
Minimum wage increase
Quinn urged lawmakers to increase the minimum wage from the current $8.25 hourly rate to $10 an hour over the next four years.
Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who sponsored a bill last session to increase the minimum wage, said she has been in talks with supporters and opponents since last spring.
She said she hopes to bring a bill to a Senate committee next month. “We have a lot of new members, so I’ll be sitting down talking to my colleagues and finding out what they can support,” she said.
Lightford said she is glad that Quinn highlighted the issue in his address. “It’s wonderful to have the governor’s support. Hopefully, that can also help our efforts.”
But business groups are adamantly opposed to the increase and vow to rally a strong opposition effort. “We think it’s just a disastrous proposal,” said Todd Maisch, vice president of government relations for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He said that a minimum wage increase could hurt job growth in the state. “They’re two issues that are really related. Employers simply don’t have stashes of cash that they have got in the back of a vault somewhere that they’re ready to hand out to people. This is more money that goes to wages for employees they now have and make[s] it that much harder to add any more employees or reinvest in the business and create more jobs on down the road.”
Both Quinn and Lightford argued that those working full-time jobs should make enough to support themselves. “We need this because we need families to thrive. We need to not have people work 40 hours a week and still live in poverty,” Lightford said.
“Today, civil unions are the law of our state. And nearly 5,200 couples across 94 counties have joined in a civil union. Now, it’s time to take that next step in achieving full equality. Marriage equality is coming to Illinois,” Quinn said.
Of all the issues the governor mentioned in his speech, this one has the most momentum. A Senate Committee approved same-sex marriage Tuesday, and supporters hope to pass it in the chamber by Valentine's Day. “The time for marriage is now,” said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois.
Quinn called pension reform the “toughest of issues” and called on lawmakers to pass pension changes to keep the costs from cutting into other areas of spending, such as education. “The pension squeeze is draining our ability to teach our students. Our children are being shortchanged. And in the end, that shortchanges our economy, too.”
Union leaders said Quinn was presenting a false choice between pension costs and other state services. They argue that there are other options for addressing the state’s unfunded liability than the current plans up for debate, which they believe are unconstitutional. “The governor's claim that the choice is pensions-or-pencils is deeply unfair. We must work together to adequately fund public education and solve the state’s funding crisis. Teachers and other education professionals share no fault in the problem but are willing to share in the sacrifice, and to simply balance the budget on their backs is wrong. Finding a fair and constitutional solution will take courage from everyone involved, including the governor,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Quinn again threw his support behind Senate Bill 1, which is sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton.
“I urge all of you to be part of the solution. And while refinements may come, Senate Bill 1 is the best vehicle to get the job done. Hard is not impossible,” Quinn said.
Cullerton believes that some consideration must be given to workers for any reduction in their benefits. A plan that passed in the Senate would have asked employees to choose between their compounded-interest cost-of-living adjustments or state-subsidized retiree health care. SB 1 contains a version of a pension reform plan that was up for consideration in the House during the lame-duck session at the end of the last General Assembly and the measure that passed in the Senate. Cullerton has said he wants the Senate plan tacked on in case the Illinois Supreme Court rejects the House proposal, which he believes is unconstitutional. If that happened, the court could instead consider the Senate proposal.
House members on both sides of the aisle voiced concerns about the SB 1.
Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, who has sponsored several pension reform bills in the House, said that the savings are uncertain under that proposal, which allows employees a choice, because there is no way to know which they will pick. “The pension problem is driven by math and by numbers, and a solution has to also be driven by math or by numbers,” she said. Nekritz called for an actuarial analysis of the potential savings under the measure. “I think members deserve that before they would vote on something.”
House Republican Leader Tom Cross brushed off Quinn’s backing of SB 1. “He’s endorsed, I think, just about every pension bill that’s been out there. He’s been pretty outspoken on the need to do pension reform. ... The fact that he’s talking about that [bill] doesn’t mean that other ideas are not on the table because he’s embraced a bunch of different ideas.”
Cross is working with Nekritz to try to find a compromise that can pass in the House. He said it is the job of lawmakers to pass the plan they think is best instead of sending multiple options to the courts. “[Our] first obligation ought to be: Pass a bill that [we] think solves the problem, and then the courts will decide.”
Some lawmakers said they were not impressed with Quinn’s speech. They said it lacked details and did not place enough emphasis on the state’s budget problems. “He didn’t even hardly mention the budget. He needs to get focused. We’re in a fiscal crisis,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat. “I don’t think his speech was very well-received, but we’ll see.”
A House committee chaired by Bradley has already begun the process of creating revenue estimates. The House has based its budget on those types of estimates in recent years. “We’re not talking about it. We’re actually doing it. So we’re going to continue down that process. To the extent that to the governor’s office wants to take part in our bipartisan efforts to do that, then we welcome the help. But we’re moving forward.”
Several legislators accused Quinn of using the State of the State as an informal launch for a 2014 reelection bid. “You can tell he’s running for governor again because that was nothing but a political speech,” Phelps said.
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno agreed. “By and large, I think it was more of a campaign kick-off speech than anything else.”
But in a news conference after the address, Cross and Radogno demurred on several issues, including gun control and same-sex marriage. “There are going to be some things in here you like; there are going to be some things you don’t like,” Cross said of Quinn’s speech. “I think we need to focus on the big issues like the pensions so we have a vibrant — someday — a vibrant economy and businesses that want to stay here and come here and expand here. The elephant in the room, the only issue that matters right now -- everything flows from it -- is the pension debate.”
Other legislators said Quinn did well, giving what is basically a ceremonial speech meant to set the tone for the session, but they hope he will provide more decisive leadership in the coming months. “I thought the governor spoke well and from the heart about a lot of issues that are on his mind,” said Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang. “I’m not sure I heard a lot of specifics. I’m not sure we heard a lot of specific plans on how he proposes to move Illinois forward in these areas. And I am not sure that he provided the leadership in this speech that I hope he will later provide. I do know this: He’s and honest man. His heart is in the right place. He wants to succeed. But he’s going to have to grab on a little stronger to the reins of government if he wants to lead this General Assembly to where he wants us to go.”