Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Statehouse roundup

By Jamey Dunn

There was plenty going on at the Statehouse today, and it’s only the first week of April. A House committee approved a bill to reform Chicago’s pension system for city workers; a group of Democratic senators filed legislation that would make sweeping changes to the way the state funds schools; and the Senate voted in favor of allowing children with epilepsy to use medical marijuana. Here’s a rundown of what happened:

Chicago pension changes 
Two days after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented his proposal to stabilize the city’s pension systems for workers, a House committee approved the plan. It would ask workers to contribute more to the system and would reduce their cost of living increases. The city would increase local property taxes to bring in an additional $250 million in property taxes. The legislation is intended to cut the city’s unfunded pension liability of $19.5 billion in half over 40 years. The General Assembly must approve the plan because the city’s systems are governed by state law.

While Emanuel says he has union support for his plan, not all labor organizations are on board. John Cameron, political director for AFSCME Council 31, called the plan “clearly and indisputably unconstitutional.” Senate Bill 1992 seemed to be set up to move quickly thought the legislature today. House Speaker Michael Madigan popped his amendments onto the bill shortly before the hearing, and the Senate held its own hearing shortly after the House panel voted. But the House adjourned before taking a vote. Republican leaders said that they could not support the proposal because they had not had time to digest its contents, and they said that they would rather see a plan that included the city’s retirement systems for police, firefighters and teachers, too. “We careen from one crisis to the next,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “Absent a long term plan, I couldn’t advise our caucus to be in favor of this.” But supporters said that the city is talks with with those groups, too. “You can say we’ve piecemealed, but they’re different entities,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul. “This is about solving a very serious problem that impacts the city of Chicago. ... This is a product of negotiations. It’s been indicated that other negotiations are ongoing and things don’t just come to a point of resolution magically at the same time.”

Medical marijuana for epilepsy
The Senate approved SB 2636, which would allow children with epilepsy access to marijuana as a treatment under the state’s medical cannabis pilot program. Some families have found that a liquid form of the drug helps control the disease in children with frequent seizures. Parents say marijuana oil has helped their children, who may have hundreds or thousands of seizures a day,  to cut the number down to just a few. Last month, an Arizona judge ruled that two parents in the state could continue treating their son with the drug. Parents of epileptic children are pushing for legislation similar to SB 2636 in other states.

Campus smoking ban
The House approved SB 2202, which would ban smoking on public college campuses. The measure would apply to all university property and would let universities decide what the penalty would be for those who violate the ban. Opponents to the proposal argued that smoking policy decisions should be left to university trustees.

Education funding 
After a committee spent more than a year scrutinizing the way the state distributes funds to schools, Democratic lawmakers unveiled a proposal to revamp the education funding formula today. Bunker Hill Democratic Sen. Andy Manar, who chaired the committee, said that currently only about 44 percent of the state education spending is doled out based on local need. He said SB 16 would change that so financial need would come into play when distributing about 90 percent of funds. The proposal would also eliminate the individual block grant that is given to Chicago schools, something Republicans on the committee have supported. The plan would also require more spending transparency at the district level. Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford said that the debate around school funding has to move away from focusing on which districts would be funding “winners” and which would lose out on funds. “We all win. We all win. All the school districts win when dollars are going to the areas that need it the most,” she said.

Manar agreed. “The idea that we can have a few premier school districts in the state that exceed every expectation ... and have an incredible number that lag behind and call that a win in the state system is not a win in my book.” Both said that they were introducing the bill now as a jumping point for debate. “We could have waited until the last week of may negotiated behind closed doors, popped a bill out and then had a vote. That’s not the way to do this,” Manar said. “I’m hopeful that we will have a bipartisan set of cosponsors on this bill.”

Republicans in the Senate said that they had not been invited to today’s press conference and that they had not seen the 400-page bill until it was filed last night. “We welcome the discussion of fair education funding. We believe Illinois school children deserve every opportunity for a quality education — in every school in Illinois,” said a statement from Senate Republicans. “Our 2013 look at school funding found Illinois’ current funding formulas to be outdated, skewed to benefit Chicago and not performing as designed by law. We are reviewing the legislation just filed. At first blush — we have dozens of questions and comments to contribute to the discussion as it is reviewed in the Senate and perhaps the House of Representatives. We want educators, superintendents, schools boards and other education professionals to have that opportunity as well.”

Constitutional amendment for victims’ rights
Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang has been pushing for years to get rights for crime victims enshrined into the state’s Constitution. The House today approved his constitutional amendment to do just that. The amendment is part of a crowded field of efforts to get changes to the document before voters. House Speaker Michael Madigan is sponsoring two amendments. One would prevent discrimination against voters in the state and another would charge a 3 percent income tax surcharge on income over $1 million. The revenue from the additional tax would be used to fund education. Both of Madigan’s amendments have been approved by House committees. There are also two separate pushes to put amendments on the ballot through a citizens initiative. One, which is spearheaded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, would impose term limits on legislators. The other, which is backed by a well-funded committee, would change the way the state draws its legislative maps by taking the task out of the hands of lawmakers.

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