Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Warning: Rocky road still ahead

State parks and historic sites would stay open. Substance abuse prevention and treatment services would avoid losing $55 million in state funding and the same amount in federal funding. State funding for human services would return to the levels approved by the legislature in May. The same would apply to the constitutional officers, which could hire back employees already laid off. Mass transit districts would receive more than $36 million in reimbursements for having to provide free rides to seniors and people with disabilities. But there’s a big “if.”

That will happen if Gov. Rod Blagojevich signs a plan approved by both chambers. The House approved the budget restorations earlier this month, and the Senate followed suit on Tuesday. But there’s no telling how long this could take. The Senate could send the approved measures to the governor’s desk right away, or it could wait for whatever reason. And once the governor does get the measures, he still has 60 days to sign them into law, veto them completely or send them back to the legislature with changes. Given the timeline or lack thereof, it’s questionable whether state parks and historic sites will close in October and November as scheduled.

All agree that the ball is in the governor’s court.

Rep. Mark Beaubien, a Barrington Hills Republican and budget negotiator for his caucus, expressed a concern about Blagojevich's next move. “Now he has the ability to take the veto pen and play games and eliminate programs to try to make different people look bad.”

Brian Williamsen, a Blagojevich spokesman, said the governor’s office has to review all of the details and added that it’s too early to speculate on a timeline. Williamsen could not say whether the governor would delay closing parks and historic sites if the House and Senate plan had potential to become law.

The House and Senate agreed to sweep unused money from the special state funds to collect about $221 million, which is included in SB 790. The package also would create a new fund, dubbed the “Budget Relief Fund,” so that the money could not be used for anything other than restoring the budget cuts spelled out in the spending bill, SB 1103.

The 15 votes against the fund sweeps were among Senate Republicans, who said there is no guarantee that the governor will sign the measure and, if he does, that he’ll release the money as intended.

The deal to accept the House’s version of the plan came only after much of the day was spent behind closed doors negotiating an even larger plan that would have increased funding for various programs, but the wish list ballooned out of control and eventually collapsed at the last minute. Literally at the same time, the Illinois Department of Revenue issued new information that revenue projections are coming in lower than anticipated. Income and sales tax revenues, as well as other tax revenues, are coming in below the levels on which this year’s budget was predicated. The difference: $200 million.

That slightly deflates the cushion that the governor has when distributing money throughout the fiscal year. But Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and budget negotiator for his caucus, said the $221 million in budget restorations that advanced to the governor’s desk Tuesday pay for themselves by transferring the same amount from special funds.

Sen. Donne Trotter, the Senate Democrats' budget negotiator, looked to the regularly scheduled fall session in November. “If there’s still an appetite to do more, then we can do more at that time.”

But the question of what the governor would do loomed like a black cloud. “There [are] no assurances — nothing that I can give — other than we know that there is a need, a necessity to get this done,” Trotter said. “And I think that we saw that, at least, in a rare occasion, the entire Senate that is present today voted for it. So we know at least what the legislators would like to see done. … It’s up to him of what he’s going to do otherwise.”

Which message are you sending?
Building on yesterday’s ethics reforms, the state Senate advanced a more sweeping measure that the governor tried but failed to advance through his executive powers. All GOP senators voted in support of the measure, five Democrats voted present and one Democrat voted against it.

Sen. Don Harmon, voted “present." The Oak Park Democrat sponsored yesterday’s successful pay-to-play ban, but he opposed the measure containing the governor’s proposals today because it sends the wrong message. He warned that approving a bill that almost everyone agrees is fatally flawed would undermine the behind-the-scenes negotiations already happening between both chambers and the governor’s office. He said it also could give the impression that the Senate is more interested in claiming that it advanced comprehensive ethics reforms than it is in ironing out the complicated and significant details with the House.

“Let’s negotiate this bill before we start throwing bombs across the building,” Harmon said before the Senate voted to approve the measure.

Fifty senators disagreed with Harmon and said approving the new reforms contained in SB 780 sends a different message: The Senate is ready to enact comprehensive reforms that could help regain the public’s trust during these troubling times. (That message is more likely to sound better on campaign literature landing in voters’ mailboxes from now until the November 4 elections.)

The legislation would enact more limits to political campaign contributions and shine more sunlight on who makes money off of whom. It would prohibit businesses with significant state contracts from donating to legislators and statewide political parties, prevent legislators from working in numerous government jobs as a second source of income, require more disclosure of legislators’ lobbying activities and reform the way the legislature enacts its own pay raises.

Through a news release, the governor applauded the Senate’s action. “This vote sends a message to the people that the tired tradition of double dipping, the fraudulent way pay raises are doled out and the deceitful way legislators who moonlight as attorneys can hide their clout-heavy client list should be a thing of the past.” His news release urged the House to continue the momentum and approve the more sweeping ethics reforms.

The Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based good government group, testified against the legislation last night, saying it was fatally flawed and constituted more “political rhetoric” during the election season. But Cindi Canary, director of the think tank, said she has been working with other legislators and the governor’s office for the past few weeks on the governor’s ethics language.

The Senate president addressed the whole chamber but, at more than one point, seemed to speak directly to Harmon and Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat who also voted “present.” (In the Illinois legislature, a “present” vote is intended to demonstrate opposition a flawed bill but support of the concept.) Both Harmon and Silverstein also happen to be among the names floating around as contestants to be the next Senate president when Jones’ term ends in January.

Jones said senators who oppose SB 780 want to either protect someone else or preserve their fundraising abilities so they can run for higher office. Silverstein later said that Jones’ comments are part of a political game and won’t hurt other negotiations. “But enough is enough,” he said. “You have to stand up for what you believe in.”

The only senator voting against the legislation was Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat who often speaks out against Blagojevich. He repeated earlier sentiments that “the cancer of Illinois is the governor.” Jacobs made the point that the governor’s ethics legislation approved by the Senate today would not target the actions of convicted felon and political insider Tony Rezko, found guilty of 16 counts of federal corruption. It also wouldn’t have stopped another political insider and hefty campaign contributor, Ali Ata, from testifying that he donated to the governor’s campaign in exchange for a high-powered state job.

Sen. James DeLeo, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the governor's ethics bill, defended the measure and said it wouldn’t stop drug dealing or bank robbing, but it would improve the transparency of state government.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pay-to-play ban becomes law

Monday did become Ethics Day. After three years of back-and-forth, the Illinois House and Senate finally agreed and enacted landmark ethics reforms that will become effective January 1. The governor and some legislators already are trying to expand the so-called pay-to-play ban, but that could take just as long as the first effort. In the meantime, Monday’s action is likely to generate a lot of campaign mail as incumbents and candidates enter the home stretch before the November 4 elections.

Meanwhile, as I write this, budget negotiators from both chambers and both political parties are meeting behind closed doors to hash out a plan that would prevent state parks and historic sites from closing this fall, as well as prevent hundreds of state employees from losing their jobs. Whether they will strike a compromise, however, won’t be known until Tuesday, when both chambers will reconvene in another off-season legislative session.

All day Monday, which included multiple special sessions called by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, served as a perfect example of how everything will change in January. In addition to new ethics laws that will affect the governor’s fundraising abilities, January marks the end of Senate President Emil Jones’ reign. Throughout the day, there was an acute awareness that Jones is on his way out of office with numerous individuals interested in taking his place. More on that later.

One set of ethics reform down, more to go
The Illinois Senate agreed with the House to override Blagojevich’s changes to HB 824, meaning new campaign contribution rules will take effect in the new year. Businesses holding state contracts worth more than $50,000 will not be able to donate to the political campaigns of the officeholder who signs the contract.

The Senate president said the new law contained in HB 824 doesn’t go far enough. “It turns hard money into soft money,” Jones said, later adding, “They’ll still be able to give the soft money through the back door.” He meant that instead of donating directly to the officeholder, state contactors will still be able to give money to statewide political parties that turn around and filter the money to the officeholder who signs the contract, anyway.

Jones supports the governor’s proposals, which would expand the so-called pay-to-play ban. The governor’s amendatory veto language was inserted into a new bill. It would:
  • Ban businesses that hold significant state contracts from donating to legislators and statewide political parties, as well as statewide officeholders;
  • Prohibit legislators from working second jobs in any unit of government, with some exceptions;
  • Clarify the process by which legislators vote to accept their pay raises.
The Senate sponsor, Chicago Democratic Sen. James DeLeo, said SB 780 would level the playing field and help legislators avoid the perception that money buys influence.

Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a main force behind HB 824, said it felt odd, but she had to oppose the new measure during a Senate committee Monday evening. She said the more expansive ethics legislation is “not ready for prime time, yet.”

She said she supports the concept but believes the governor’s proposal isn’t the right vehicle for enacting contribution limits on legislators. Banning state contractors from donating to elected officials who have no control over state contracts could invite a legal challenge based on the First Amendment that protects free speech, she said. She also questioned the fallout of prohibiting active state legislators from also working in some public sector jobs but not others. And she said the one aspect that would be ready to go if it were proposed as a stand-alone measure is the portion that would clarify the system of approving legislative pay raises.

Sen. James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat, agreed with Canary and said the governor’s proposals need some more work, but he voted to advance the measure to the full chamber in hopes of working through more changes before a final vote.

Restoring budget cuts
Meanwhile, budgeteers are working behind closed doors in an effort to compromise to restore some of the governor’s $1.4 billion in budget cuts, which are resulting in plans to close 11 state parks and 13 historic sites, lay off hundreds of public employees and drastically reduce state funding for such human services as substance abuse treatment and prevention.

Earlier this month, the House approved two measures that would sweep about $221 million from special funds to plug some but not all of the budget holes. (See the spending portion in SB 1103.)

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and budget negotiator, said the Senate Democrats found $42 million of that $221 million that they would like to spend in a different way than approved by the House. That includes $37 million the House included to reimburse mass transit districts for the free rides granted to seniors and people with disabilities enacted earlier this year. The Senate Democrats would take that out and shift the funding, for instance, to increase the amount of money for college grants through the Monetary Award Program. The House also would restore funding for constitutional officers at 100 percent of the original funding level, while the Senate Democrats would restore them at 75 percent.

Republicans are involved in the budget negotiations. According to Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, the GOP Caucus prioritizes restoring funding for state parks, historic sites and human services. But members argue that it doesn’t make sense to restore funding to the parks and historic sites and then sweep money from the special fund dedicated to the Department of Natural Resources.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Will Monday be Ethics Day? UPDATED

The Illinois Senate will return to Springfield to consider major ethics legislation, presumably in time to avoid a constitutional challenge about when an ambiguous 15-day clock expires.

Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who previously said he would not reconvene his chamber until after the November elections, said in a statement that he now is calling his members back to the Capitol to act on ethics reforms “only at the request of my friend Barrack Obama.”

Here’s the statement from the U.S. senator’s campaign: “Sen. Obama called Sen. Jones [Wednesday] to offer his strong support for the ethics reforms pending before the Illinois Senate and urged him to pass them at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Note that the date has not been set for that regular Senate session; however, the chamber will be back — and so will the House — Monday, September 22 because Gov. Rod Blagojevich called a special session to focus on ethics. But the governor’s proclamation requires the General Assembly to focus on Blagojevich’s version of ethics reforms, which the House already defeated last week.

But, as is common in Springfield, some legislative ideas come back from the dead. Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Collinsville Democrat and Blagojevich ally, has introduced another bill, HB 6699, that would do the same thing as the governor’s amendatory veto of HB 824. The governor wants to clarify the process of accepting legislative pay raises so lawmakers had to vote “yes” on public record, stop legislators from “double dipping” by working in another unit of government at the same time they’re serving in the General Assembly and require more detailed disclosure of lobbying work done by legislators or their spouses. See the background in our previous blog posts.

Cindy Davidsmeyer, Jones’ spokeswoman, said the Senate president last week promised Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, that he could call the unanimously approved HB 824 for a vote to override the governor’s changes. If that happens as expected, then businesses holding state contracts worth more than $50,000 could not donate to the political campaigns of the governor.

But Davidsmeyer said the vote to override the governor’s changes would have to be done in a regular session, which has not yet been set because some Senate members have conflicts with Monday’s special session.

She could only say that the Senate could take up a “variety of issues,” and there’s plenty to choose from. The chamber could consider actions taken by the House last week, including restoring budget cuts so that 11 state parks and 13 historic sites wouldn’t have to close this fall, as well as restoring cuts to human services and state offices that could result in hundreds of layoffs of state employees. The Senate also could consider the governor’s changes to Senate bills, including the another ethics bill, SB 2190. The governor would ban state legislators and officers from accepting political donations from government employees at any level, punishable by as much as a $10,000 fine for each offense.

Obama's campaign followed up with this: "Sen. Obama is pleased that Senator Jones has decided to take immediate steps to move ethics reform forward, and he plans to monitor the bill's progress next week."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pressure builds

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. is under increasing pressure to call his chamber back to Springfield to vote on ethics reforms and budget restorations already approved by the House last week. But the pressure affects him differently than his members, as he's retiring in January. It's the remaining Senate Democrats who feel the most heat.

Jones’ office said Friday that the chamber would not return until the regularly scheduled fall session November 12, about a week after the General Election and about nine weeks after the House overturned Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s changes to unanimously approved ethics reforms and budget cuts. Jones’ decision starts a constitutional debate about when a 15-day clock starts to run before the ethics reform dies in legislative limbo. See more about the constitutional debate in our previous blog.

To demonstrate widespread support for immediate action on the ethics legislation, four constitutional officers — Comptroller Dan Hynes, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias — joined a bipartisan group of state senators in Chicago to urge Jones to call his chamber back into session before the elections. (I listened to the live audio provided in Springfield.)

Hynes said the Senate president has two choices: He can call the Senate back now to give legislators an opportunity to vote on the ban on so-called pay-to-play politics before voters head to the polls, or he can wait until after elections and increase the chance of being sued and to make the electorate feel even more disengaged. We wrote about a potential lawsuit last week.

Lisa Madigan, Illinois attorney general, also urged Jones to act now to avoid a lengthy and costly lawsuit about when the 15-day clock starts to tick. A lawsuit would put her in a tight spot because she would have to defend the state in court.

Members of Jones’ leadership team, including Sen. Debbie Halvorson of Crete and Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan, joined the news conference, along with the Senate sponsor of the ethics bill, Democratic Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park. He said while he agrees with Jones’ interpretation of the state Constitution, the news conference demonstrates that the chamber is ready, willing and able to return immediately to avoid that constitutional challenge.

Senate Republican leaders also chimed in, saying they have supported the bipartisan effort but have opposed the Democratic “roadblock,” meaning Jones. Deputy Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said her Democratic counterparts elected Jones, so they should have some influence in forcing the Senate president’s hand to act now.

Hynes pointed out that the only one who could force Jones to do anything would be the governor, who is unlikely to call a special session of the legislature to override his own veto.

Such good government groups as the Campaign for Political Reform, the Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters also stood beside them. Dawn Clark Netsch, former state senator and state comptroller, spoke on behalf of voters. She said even if Jones is correct in his interpretation of the state Constitution about when the 15-day clock starts, it doesn’t matter to already skeptical voters who want to know where candidates stand before heading to the polls.

We're still waiting to hear from Jones' office this evening.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Senate delays ethics reform

The Illinois Senate does not plan to return to Springfield until its regularly scheduled fall session starts November 12, and there’s a debate about whether that means highly anticipated ethics reforms will die before then.

The House on Wednesday overrode Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s changes to ethics legislation that would ban any governor from accepting political donations from businesses that hold state contracts worth more than $50,000. The Senate must agree to override those changes, or else the whole thing dies.

It gets hairy because there’s a time limit involved. But there’s also an argument about whether the state Constitution requires the Senate to act within 15 days of the House action — or whether the 15-day clock starts only after the Senate convenes session and reads the House bills into record.

Cindy Davidsmeyer, spokeswoman for Senate President Emil Jones Jr., said today that the president’s staff believes the chamber has 15 days once the Senate reads the actions into record, which would not be done until after the November elections.

Article 4, Section 9 of the State Constitution reads:

(c) The house to which a bill is returned shall immediately enter the governor's objections upon its journal. If within 15 calendar days after such entry that house by a record vote of three-fifths of the members elected passes the bill [which the House did with ethics legislation and other bills Wednesday night], it shall be delivered immediately to the second house. If within 15 calendar days after such delivery the second house by a record vote of three-fifths of the members elected passes the bill, it becomes law.

The House delivered the ethics bill to the Senate today. Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said: “We have no comment. It’s up to the Senate.”

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, said this has never happened in the Senate before. By interpreting the Constitution in a “unique” way, she said, the leadership is jeopardizing the ethics reform. Ultimately, the legislation could land in court and further delay the implementation of the contribution limits. “In the meantime, the fundraising machines keep rolling."

Ann Lousin, a 1970 constitutional convention delegate, a former House parliamentarian and a current law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, agrees with the Senate’s interpretation. Although she disclaimed that she has not been a House parliamentarian since January 1975, said she recalls, “The House is not the House unless it’s in session.” It follows, she said, that if the Senate is not in session, then it cannot receive the bills acted upon by the other chamber. She compared it to getting a letter on Sunday, which you can’t actually receive until the post office opens for business Monday.

Charlie Wheeler, longtime Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and current director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said while the more logical argument would be that the clock doesn’t start running until the message has been read into the record, the interpretation could be argued either way.

Someone would have to sue and argue that they’re being harmed in some way by the contribution limits, and he said that most likely would have to be a business that holds a big contract with the state and wants to donate to the officeholder.

What’s clear, he said, is that in the few decades he’s followed state government, these “nitty gritty, ministerial type of questions” never came up because there always was an understood protocol and a certain degree of civility. “In my mind, it’s just another indication of the unprecedented breakdown in the kind of basic cooperation and mutual decency that you need for an organization, and in this case, the organization being the General Assembly, to function smoothly.”

Cindi Canary, director the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, has been one of the driving forces behind the contribution limits. She said she does not intend to “lie down and accept Emil Jones’ rule by fiat.” She said the bill is far from dead. Here’s the rest of her e-mail:

I have consulted with at least half a dozen attorneys today, and they are pretty evenly split on whether the clock starts now or can be delayed until the Senate returns. The only thing that they agree on is that this has never been litigated, so it is a gray area. I, for one, have no interest in seeing this become the test case.

We know that we have a nexus between large campaign contributions and state contracts, and the Senate has it in its power to enact this workable solution tomorrow. After three years of fighting this battle, I don't understand why, when the legislature knows what to do to address a problem, they continue to let politics and ego trump effective government. The bill is far from dead, but it is disheartening that another round of games playing has been proposed by President Jones.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Where's the beef?"

In a whirlwind session Wednesday, the Illinois House restored funding to prevent state parks and historic sites from closing and hundreds of public employees from losing their jobs. It also agreed to let the governor lease the Illinois Lottery as a way to fund a major capital construction program and negated changes that the governor made to unanimously approved ethics reform.

But none of it will happen immediately.

1) It all requires Senate approval — the ethics reform needs that approval within 15 days, or it dies. The Senate, so far, is not scheduled to return to Springfield until after the November elections, but political pressure on Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and his Democratic members is expected to build so that they restore some budget cuts and enact ethics legislation before then.

2) Even if the Senate approves the lottery deal to fund a statewide capital plan, the earliest construction crews could move dirt would be in about 10 months. House Democrats say they want to find out how much money the lottery lease would generate before they made a detailed list of how that money would be distributed.

Budget cuts
About 400 public employees would retain their jobs under a measure approved by most House members. The House would restore about $260 million, which Rep. Gary Hannig said would prevent layoffs in many state agencies and constitutional offices. It also would keep 11 state parks and about 13 historic sites open and restore massive budget cuts to human services. Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and point person on the budget for his caucus, proposed paying for it by skimming “excess” money from dedicated funds, with some exemptions. Such funds as the Asbestos Abatement Fund accumulate money by collecting licensing fees. The House would create a new fund, dubbed the “Budget Relief Fund,” so that the money could not be used for anything other than restoring the budget cuts.

The cuts are rooted in an unbalanced state budget, estimated by the governor’s office to fall short on revenue by $2 billion as approved by the General Assembly in May. So Gov. Rod Blagojevich cut $1.4 billion as he saw fit. So-called fund sweeps have been approved and used before under this administration and previous administrations.

A separate measure approved by the House, although by fewer members, would ensure that Medicaid providers would receive more timely reimbursements from the state, but the $371 million to do so would not be covered by the fund sweeps. Hannig said the House wants to work with the governor to find another funding source for the Medicaid payments. Most of the state dollars would capture federal matching funds.

Lottery for capital
The House approved legislation to let the governor lease the Illinois Lottery to private investors as a way to garner about $10 billion. About $7 billion collected in the first four years would pay for construction projects. The rest would be split among public education and, if profits exceeded $11 billion, help pay down compounding public employee pension debt, said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago. If bids for the lottery lease came in lower than $10 billion, she said, then the sale doesn’t happen. “The whole thing is predicated on the notion that if you don’t get $10 billion, you take your marbles and you go home.”

Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Collinsville Democrat and Blagojevich ally, said the measure does not constitute a capital bill that would create jobs because it lacks the spending portion. “The problem with this is, where’s the beef?” he said on the House floor.

Currie said approving the revenue side of the equation is a major first step and that there’s “no rush” to write the spending side. “I don’t think that it makes a lot of sense to establish a spending plan when you don’t know whether you’re going to have anything to spend. And if you do have something to spend, you’re not likely to see it for the next six or nine months.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the absence of a spending plan is a “political hoax” because it gives House Democrats the ability to distribute campaign literature claiming they approved a capital bill even though the package is incomplete.

Ethics reform
The House rejected Blagojevich’s changes to a unanimously approved ethics measure. As approved, it would ban the governor from accepting political campaign contributions from businesses holding state contracts worth more than $50,000. The governor had expanded the ban to statewide officeholders, individual legislators and state political parties. Read more about the governor’s changes here. Rep. John Fritchey, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the measure, said the governor’s ideas could have merit and deserve consideration, just not as they’re tacked on to an already approved bill without opportunity to revise them. Fritchey filed separate pieces of legislation that would do the same thing as the governor proposed. But by overriding Blagojevich’s changes to HB 824 by a vote of 110-3, the House sent a message that legislators want the so-called pay-to-play ban to take effect as is — and soon. The original legislation also received unanimous approval in the Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

If the Senate fails to agree with the House within 15 days, then the whole bill dies. If that happens, the Campaign for Political Reform could try Plans B and C, said Cindi Canary, director of the Chicago-based nonprofit group. As a last resort, she said, that could involve starting over with a new bill or inserting the language into the ethics portion of a lottery deal.

We’re still waiting to hear from Senate officials about whether that chamber could return to consider the House’s actions within 15 days.

Insurance mandates
The House also rejected the governor’s changes to a few insurance-related bills. If the Senate fails to agree with the House and override the governor’s changes, then the bills die. Two are listed here:

HB 1432:
Insurance coverage of sexual assault services
Originally passed 94-20-0 in the House and 56-0 in the Senate
The House overrode the changes, 77-36, on September 10, 2008

Original intent: It would require insurance companies to pay for treatment of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in addition to other mental health services they already cover.
Governor’s changes: The governor would add treatment and services for sexual abuse victims, as well as for their parents, children, spouses, siblings, domestic or same-sex partners if they die or commit suicide from the abuse.

HB 953:
Insurance coverage of autism services
Originally passed the House 100-7-0 and the Senate 48-4-3
The House overrode the changes, 84-29, September 10, 2008

Original intent: It would expand mandatory insurance coverage of mental health services to also cover marriage counseling or therapy.
Governor’s changes: It would require insurance companies to reimburse families for diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders for children younger than 21. The benefit would max out at $36,000 a year but would be annually adjusted for inflation. Families still would have to pay a co-payment and deductible as usual for their policies, but they could not be dropped from their policies simply because their children were diagnosed with a form of autism.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday follow-up

A few loose ends that we recently wrote about have been tied up today, while few more are about to reopen next week. The Illinois House returns to Springfield Wednesday and Thursday to debate funding for a statewide construction plan and to reverse some of the governor's recent actions.

AFSCME: It’s fair
First, a lot of rallies, meetings and political undertones potentially came to rest Friday as about 37,000 state employees have a new, agreed-upon contract with their top employer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration. Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 vocally opposed increases in their health care costs that they say the administration sought. Months of negotiations led the union to request a mediator to bring the two sides closer together.

The result is a four-year contract that gives members a 15.25 percent wage increase during the life of the contract, and retired employees will retain the pension and health benefits they received under the former contract. However, employees are going to pay more for their health insurance premiums, co-payments and deductibles. Cohen said monthly premiums will increase by $12 twice during the next four years. “The state was asking for huge amounts, and we ended up are what we feel are modest amounts,” Cohen said, later adding: “Our members feel it was fair. When they looked at that contract, it wasn’t everything they wanted, but it was fair.”

He said they didn’t get relief from mandatory overtime, which they expect to intensify as more workers are laid off and the remaining employees do “more with less,” an all too familiar phrase.

The governor’s office also said in a statement that the contract was “fair" for both taxpayers and state workers. "Both sides spent months in negotiations, and this contract is the result of that tireless work.”

AFSCME: It’s unfair
Council 31, however, still disagrees with the administration about a separate issue: closing a once troubled facility for people with developmental disabilities. William A. Howe Developmental Center and the Tinley Park Mental Health Center in Chicago's south suburbs were decertified by the federal government for reports of neglect and other deficiencies. The lack of federal certification means the state no longer receives federal money to operate the facilities. But the Illinois Department of Human Services continued to operate and fund the centers without a federal match. We wrote about the centers, as well as some new plans for caring for people with disabilities, in the June Illinois Issues magazine.

AFSCME opposes shuttering the center because it would leave about 800 employees without their state jobs and benefits. About 600 are AFSCME members, said John Cameron, Council 31 spokesman. Some families also opposed the closing because they fear for the continuity of care for their loved ones with few alternatives. The administration announced that it planned to move residents to other state institutions or to community-based services. Yet, Cameron said, this affects people with high needs of services, and the union questions whether the state has enough capacity to support community-based services that already are under-funded and have long waiting lists.

The Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities said about 15,000 individuals are on a waiting list for such services. However, the council said shutting one door opens another. Instead of placing people with disabilities in more institutions, advocates look to community-based services as a way to improve what they describe as an outdated system. Read more in the organization’s report, “Blueprint for system redesign in Illinois.”

Home for the House days
State Rep. Jim Watson, a Jacksonville Republican and staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, flew home from Camp Pendleton, Calif., today after serving more than six months in Iraq. Watch Illinois Issues magazine print edition to read more about the work he did to help one province establish its first form of representative government, which the U.S. military just handed over to the Anbar Provincial Council on Labor Day.

Watson arrives home just in time for the Illinois House to reconvene in a special session to discuss funding a capital construction program by leasing the Illinois Lottery to private investors.

But even if the House approves a lottery deal — with some modifications to the governor’s original proposal — it still has to go to the Senate, which isn’t scheduled to come back to Springfield before November. And even if the Senate approved a measure to let the governor lease the lottery, then it still would take months to figure out the amount of money it would generate and the amount of money that the state would have to borrow. Only then would the House draft a spending plan for that money, according to Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and deputy majority leader.

But voting on a lottery plan is a first step in that process. Expect the House to include such “safeguards" as requiring the state treasurer and comptroller to sign off on the lottery deal to ensure that it’s a good deal for taxpayers. Hannig also said an ethics portion would “ensure that there’s no temptation to engage in any kind of pay-to-play antics,” and they could limit the amount consultants and lawyers could make from the deal. “Hopefully we can pass this bill next week and send it to the Senate,” Hannig said. “And it isn’t that much different from what they have already passed.”

We’ll see about that.

The House also is expected consider some of the governor’s amendatory vetoes, including the unanimously approved ethics legislation that Blagojevich expanded. And House members could try to approve restoring some of the money the governor cut that resulted in hundreds of layoffs, closed state parks and closed state historic sites. But it would restore some, not all, of the cuts, Hannig said.