Sunday, May 31, 2009

Down to the wire

By Jamey Dunn and Bethany Jaeger, with Hilary Russell contributing
Some of yesterday’s moving parts actually started revolving around each other late in the day Thursday. The Illinois Senate approved two major revenue enhancements, one a sizable tax hike and another a major gaming expansion. That immediately put the onus on the House, which was in the middle of trying to advance an “insurance budget” to fund agency programs at bare bones levels.

Income tax increases and education funding
The momentum started in the Senate. Democrats tweaked a bill that was intended to address education funding, which would include an income tax increase of 2 percentage points for individuals. It would increase from 3 percent to 5 percent. Different versions of the measure have long been presented by Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, but never found the support to pass. However, a looming deadline and $7 billion budget deficit this fiscal year has created new possibilities for an old concept.

One difference this time around is that the plan would only raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.8 percent to 5 percent, a much smaller increase than previously sought. It also would expand the sales tax to include services.

Senate President John Cullerton said the tax restructuring would help solve some of the chronic budget woes, but the plan would still come up $2 billion short of what the state needs to fully fund pensions and to maintain current spending levels. A vote for the tax plan, he said, inherently would be a vote for $2 billion in budget cuts.

House Bill 174 (the "new 750"), would provide some targeted tax relief. It would raise the personal exemption and increase the earned income tax credit over two years to protect low-income residents. It also would provide property tax relief, which attracted Democratic Senators.

Over time, the tax plan would funnel more money into education and higher education, something Meeks wanted for years to address funding disparities between school districts throughout the state.

Republicans opposed the tax increase and sales tax expansion, describing it as a mistake during a recession. Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said: “There’s a lot of different ways we can go at this if we go line-by-line through this budget, and I know because I’ve done it. This will cause more Illinoisans to lose their jobs, without a doubt.”

The bill passed with only Democratic votes. Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, gave an emotional speech about making his last-minute choice to vote for the bill. He said he had been praying about his decision and cast the vote that he knew would make his family proud. He said he had been telling leadership that he would vote “present,” but he changed his mind during floor debate. After the vote, Kotowski encouraged some House Republicans to follow suit.

Cullerton said that passing the bill in the Senate may help House Democrats feel safer about changing their minds. However, he said that the bill would need Republican support to pass. “When one chamber starts and passes a bill, they see that we’re still walking around — we’ve got a different version of what the governor has — that there’s a way to do this. So I think it’s a good start.”

But Gov. Pat Quinn is still backing the income tax proposal that has been introduced in the House. “I think the [temporary income tax] plan we have here in the House is probably the one we’ll have to go with. It’s straightforward. It’s pretty simple. It’s for two years. And the whole idea is for at least at this time to hold off dire catastrophes.”

Momentum to consider alternative revenue sources continued with a Senate vote to expand gaming by adding four new facilities, including new gaming facilities in Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford and Danville. Existing gaming facilities, including horse tracks, also could start operating more slot machines. Senate Bill 744 would generate at least $150 million upon issuing the licenses, according to Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat. Once the new facilities were up and running and the economy improved, he said the package could generate up to $1 billion a year.

Building new casinos and riverboats has been tried numerous times in the past few years, and similar proposals haven’t advanced in the House. But, Link said: “They need money and here’s a good way to give them money. So I think it's future is a lot better tonight.”

Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican who would receive a gaming facility in his district through Link’s bill, said the state may need an income tax increase. Then again, he said: “When you’re drowning and a life preserver floats by, your impulse is to grab it. When you have a community that’s so desperate for investment and jobs, you turn to things you normally wouldn’t even consider. I would support the riverboat. I don’t have the luxury to say I don’t.”

Bare bones budget
The so-called “insurance budget” advanced by House Democrats as a back-up plan would fund state agencies at about 80 percent of the level they were funded at last year, which would be about 50 percent of the governor’s proposed budget.

Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie tried early in the day to advance a temporary income tax increase. That wasn’t gaining enough votes. So late Saturday night, Currie tried to at least approve the “insurance budget” to keep the lights on, so to speak. Without it, agencies would be funded at 32 percent of Quinn’s proposed budget.

But after word spread that senators approved an income tax increase across the rotunda, several House Democrats started to peal off support for a bare bones budget. Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and vocal advocate of human services, urged fellow lawmakers to hold off on a bare bones budget to “continue to fight for more solutions.”

Currie said she would prefer either version of an income tax over a bare bones budget, but it was a way to ensure something landed on the governor’s desk just in case chaos ensued Sunday, the last day of the regularly scheduled session.

If all else fails, Currie said she would call the bare bones budget again before Sunday’s midnight deadline. Here’s what it would do:

On the revenue side:
  • Sweep $356 million from dedicated funds four times throughout the year.
  • Refinance debt to get a 4 percent interest rate and save $600 million next year, saving $237 million over the life of the bonds.
  • Along with tapping into federal funds and starting other efficiencies, it would generate about $1 billion.
On the spending side:
  • State agencies could receive lump sums at half the funding level proposed by the governor.
  • The administration would have to figure out how to spread the money around and to cut certain grant programs.

House approves recall provision

By Jamey Dunn, with Hilary Russell contributing
Illinois voters could have the chance to vote on whether they want authority to boot the governor from office, thanks to a measure that passed the House Saturday.

The House approved a similar effort last year after frustration from then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s alleged corruption scandals. But it stalled in the Senate.

This year’s measure, Constitutional Amendment 31, would allow voters to cast their ballots on whether they want to change the state Constitution to include a so-called recall provision.

Many said that the provision should include the ability to recall all constitutional officers. Franks said he would like to add that later, but in the wake of the alleged Blagojevich scandal, he wanted to give voters a way to address corruption in the governor’s office.

“I firmly believe if we’d had it during the last administration, we’d have used it,” he said. Franks added that he thinks the legislature would have never removed Blagojevich from office had he not been indicted.

Gov. Pat Quinn Quinn said a recall provision would make the legislature accountable because if a corrupt politician had to be removed, the General Assembly would have to sign on to the effort, along with voters.

The requirement to have legislators sign off on recall drew the most ire from Republicans. They said that making voters get lawmakers’ approval takes the power away from the people.

Republicans said they want Franks to hold the bill and negotiate some changes. Franks’ measure would not need to be approved until six months before the general election to get on the 2010 ballot. But Franks said it could be called in the Senate after the midnight deadline Sunday, when the legislature adjourns.

Here are some numbers associated with the recall process laid out in the bill:
  • A governor must be in office for 6 months before the recall process is started.
  • 20 House members and 10 Senate members from both parties would have to sign off on an initial recall proposal from citizens.
  • Once legislators approved the measure to put the question on the ballot, individuals seeking to remove the governor would have 150 days to round up the signatures to put the question of whether to remove the governor before voters. They would need a number of signatures equal to 15 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. For instance, Franks said the number of signatures currently needed would be 750,000 based off of the 2006 election.
  • There must be at least 25 different counties with 100 signatures each.
  • This version of the bill would only apply to the governor’s position, and it contains new safeguards intended to prevent abuse of the power. These new aspects came under fire from House Republicans.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Two-tiered pension plan stalls

Gov. Pat Quinn's proposal to provide less generous pension benefits for future teachers and state employees has been held and is unlikely to advance in the state legislature before the May 31 deadline.

Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat sponsoring Quinn's proposal in his chamber, said today that the governor asked for more time to negotiate with public employee and teachers' unions, both strong opponents to the two-tiered proposal. See background here. Harmon held HB 2643. Another version is SB 1292.

The proposal also would have allowed Quinn to skim the state's payment into the five public employee pension systems for teachers, lawmakers, judges, university employees and state workers. Illinois is scheduled to pay nearly $4 billion into the systems next fiscal year, but the amount that the state will actually pay is part of ongoing budget negotiations between the governor and the four legislative leaders.

They continue to meet behind closed doors this evening as they try to hash out an operating budget that's projected to have a nearly $12 billion deficit by the end of next fiscal year. We'll have more as soon as possible.

House Dems paint picture without tax hike

By Bethany Jaeger, with Hilary Russell contributing
House Democrats maintain that without Republican votes, an income tax increase is likely to fail. And the back-up plan isn't pretty.

House Democrats did advance a two-year income tax increase and a phased-in earned income tax credit for low-income families this morning. Senate Bill 2252 would net about $4.5 billion for state coffers, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said in committee. The personal tax rate would increase from 3 percent to 4.5 percent, while the corporate rate would increase from 4.8 percent to 7.2 percent, ending in 2011. The earned income tax credit would phase in from 5 percent to 7.5 percent the first year, followed by an increase to 10 percent the second year. It would be permanent after that.

Without new revenue, House Democrats could resort to sweeping money out of dedicated funds and refinancing debt as the only new revenue sources for a total of about $4.5 billion, according to Assistant Majority Leader Frank Mautino. That would result in state agencies getting about 80 percent of their annual budgets, and only about half of the grants for community services would get funded.

“So it’s not a partial budget,” Mautino said after committee. “That’s how much money is approved, and that’s how much they will get.”

Currie said during committee that the state is more than $7 billion out of whack today. And even if a temporary income tax increase generated $4.5 billion, the General Assembly would still have to curb spending.

“If anybody thinks this is a way to duck out of our responsibility to tighten our belts, the answer is, it doesn’t make it. But it will help prevent the kinds of disasters that real people face if we don’t do something to stem the tide.”

The lack of new revenue, she said, would result in a 68 percent cut across the board for state agencies. That would affect everything from childcare programs for low-income working parents to services for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill.

All Republicans in the committee voted against the tax increase and sided with business groups, which argued that the proposal would give Illinois the second highest tax rate in the country and further discourage businesses from investing in this state. Todd Maisch of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce added that the income tax increase would not address the deeper problem. “Between pensions and government-funded health care, if you don’t do anything to address those issues, you’re going to be back here in two years still needing another tax increase,” he said during committee. “The drivers of the costs are going to outrun the revenues you’re going to get from the tax increase.”

Rep. Mark Beaubien, a Barrington Hills Republican, said Illinois has gone down the road of a temporary tax increase before. “I think the citizens know where that’s going to go in the future.” The General Assembly levied temporary income tax increases twice in the 1980s. The 1989 increase was made permanent under then-Gov. Jim Edgar.

Meanwhile, the House committee also advanced a measure that would intend to soften the blow for retailers if the state increased the sales tax on cigarettes by a $1 over two years, as proposed in SB 44. Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, sponsored SB 415 in response to retailers' concerns, which we wrote about before. It would only take effect if the cigarette tax increase were approved.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Too many moving parts

By Bethany Jaeger, with Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell contributing
Plan A failed before it even got to the House floor for an official vote Friday.

Democrats said they don’t have enough support for a temporary income tax increase without Republican votes, so rank-and-file legislators were sent home early while leaders met to hammer out Plan B behind closed doors. Meanwhile, different plans to expand gaming and restructure state taxes to change the way the state funds education were floating around in the Senate. But that chamber went home early, too, leaving many legislators to see the May 31st adjournment date slipping away as no combination of revenue and spending options appear within reach.

House Democrats emerged from a closed-door meeting this afternoon with reports of competing priorities. Rep. Monique Davis of Chicago described it this way: “Some people want a tax increase. Other people don’t want a tax increase. Some people want a smaller tax increase. Others want it a little larger. Some don’t want to bypass the pension payment plan. Some people want to make the pension payment. So we’re absolutely all over the board.” She said House Speaker Michael Madigan is letting his members decide. “I think speaker’s doing what he does and that’s let everyone make up their own minds and their own decisions, but we’re going to have to realize what those decisions mean.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said Democrats don’t need GOP votes. They could do it on their own. “They’ve got 70 votes — 70 votes. Does anybody in this building think that if the speaker really wants to do this, he can’t do it? Everybody knows that if the speaker wants to get something done, he puts 60 votes on.”

Even if a majority of Democrats or Republicans agreed to raise the state income tax, the General Assembly would still have to cut spending, according to assistant Majority Leader Frank Mautino of Spring Valley.

But they can’t agree on where to scale back, either. That’s partially because Democrats say one of the only places left to cut is from the part of the budget that provides grants to community services, including everything from programs for AIDS patients to after-school clubs. But individual legislators don’t want to stop funding projects or programs in their districts.

“The state budget has become this mosaic of all these individual grant programs that even in times of crisis, we can’t move away from,” said Rep. Marlow Colvin, a Chicago Democrat, adding in frustration, “so it’s ridiculous.”

Mautino added: “There have been uncomfortable votes in the General Assembly, but never a hard vote. Any vote you make this year, someone gets hurt.”

House Democrats do agree that lawmakers can’t balance the state budget solely but cutting spending. “We don’t have enough money for a full year at the levels there at this year,” said spokesman Steve Brown.

Among the alternative plans being considered is minimizing the budget to reflect the level of revenue available. That would include approving lump sums of state funding to agencies, which would then have to decide how to spread the money around to keep the lights on and the doors open until the money ran out. It’s expected that they would have to return to the Capitol to ask for more money early next year.

“I see leaving Springfield with a budget that reflects exactly what we have and what we’re willing to vote for in revenue,” Mautino said, later adding, “We’re just all trying to find something that will keep services running and provide the least amount of pain possible because there’s going to be pain — no matter what we do.”

Across the rotunda, Sen. John Sullivan, a downstate Democrat, said as the day progressed, it appeared more likely that the legislature would resort to a budget based solely on revenues available. But he wasn’t happy about it. “If we go past the 31st without a full budget being passed, all we’ve done is put off the inevitable,” he said. “We’re going to have to come back at some time and face reality.”

Both chambers will resume business Saturday, potentially, with Plans B and beyond.

Medical marijuana may have to wait for vote

By Hilary Russell
Despite two victories this week for legalizing medical marijuana, the bill probably won’t get a floor vote in the Illinois House before the May 31 deadline for the spring legislative session, according to its sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie.

The bill passed out of a House panel last night. The Senate approved SBill 1381 the previous day. See background here.

But medical marijuana is taking a back seat to the state budget and whether it will include income tax increases, which could come up for a vote this evening.

If the medical marijuana bill isn’t called by Sunday, Lang said he could try again when lawmakers return from their summer break. “This bill is only difficult because people want to turn it into politics,” he said. "There are many people on this floor who have said to me, ‘It’s a really great idea, and I think it would help a lot of people, but I can’t vote for it.’”

Campaign finance limits one step closer

By Jamey Dunn, with Bethany Jaeger contributing

A bill intended to reform campaign finance in Illinois that passed through the Senate yesterday is expected to come up for a vote in the House today.

It appears to be a compromised version that could get enough votes to pass both chambers. However, Gov. Pat Quinn’s support of the bill went against the recommendations of the Illinois Reform Commission, which he created.

None of the major reform groups in the state support the bill. Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, described HB 7 as “phony reform” filled with loopholes.

Canary’s organization partnered with a large coalition called Change Illinois to advocate for reforms that mirror the federal system of campaign contribution limits: $2,400 limit on individuals, $5,000 limit on political committees, business and unions and a $30,000 limit on legislative leadership. The Illinois Reform Commission recommended the same limits.

Quinn said that enacting contribution caps for the first time in the state would be a historic change, even if they were more lenient than recommended by his commission. “This is a new world for Illinois,” he said shortly after he and House Speaker Michael Madigan testified in favor of the bill before a House committee this morning.

Madigan said that federal limits were too low and forced candidates to spend too much time trying to find multiple donors to contribute small amounts of money. He also said that they benefit incumbents who have an established list of donors that they could ask for cash.

Some aspects of the bill that Madigan outlined before the committee include:
  • Limited in-kind donations of advertisements, yard signs and people to knock on doors from businesses and labor unions supporting candidates.
  • Unlimited in-kind contributions for legislative leadership or statewide political parties.
  • Fines for violations of election rules would be increased. The Illinois State Board of Elections would be able to audit candidates and committees only if they missed two consecutive reporting deadlines.

Most of the new provisions would not take effect until January 2011, after the next general election. Madigan said that it was designed to keep the next election fair because candidates that started fundraising under the old rules would have an advantage over those who started under the new ones.

The Illinois Democratic Party also would be prohibited from offering support to a candidate in the primary immediately after the bill became law. Yesterday, Senate President John Cullerton said the Democratic Party voluntarily would abide by the new provisions before the law were enacted.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said she would like to see the same restriction applied to the Republican Party, but it was not included in the bill because Republicans were cut out of negotiations.

The provision actually could help Quinn because it would keep Madigan, chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, from using the party to support his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is considering challenging Quinn in the Democratic primary for governor in 2010. When asked if he had compromised by accepting a less lenient cap on contributions in exchange for a ban on the Democratic Party's involvement in the primary, Quinn said, “Slate-making by the Democratic Party and using party resources in a primary has been a stock and trade for many decades.” He added: “I think this is a good step for reform and openness. It empowers everyday people who want to run for office. They don't have to run in machine politics. I think this is a very good reform.”

Speaker Madigan echoed supporters by calling it an imperfect bill but the result of compromise. “We don’t represent in this bill that there will be a complete shut down of money being spent for campaigns,” he said, “and we don’t represent that this bill is perfect. We don’t represent that it satisfies everybody. We do represent that it is a significant step forward for the state of Illinois.”

Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican, responded, “Some of us have a disagreement on how big of a step it is.”

Shortly after HB 7 advanced through committee, House Republicans tried to push a measure, HB 24,which would mirror federal limits. It’s similar to recommendations from the Illinois Reform Commission. However, the GOP was unable to get the support needed to have the bill called on the floor for a vote.

“We will have an ethics bill presented in this House later today that fails the people of the state of Illinois miserably,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. Check back for updates on the bill.

Texting bans head to the governor

By Hilary Russell
Drivers would be banned from texting while driving if Gov. Pat Quinn signs HB 71 into law. It passed both chambers, most recently in the House by a vote of 96-25. Quinn has 60 days to approve or veto it before it automatically becomes law.

Rep. John D’Amico, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored HB 71, which prohibits the use of cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), portable computers or any device that allows users to write, read and send an electronic message.

The bill does, however, exclude global positioning devices built into cars, as long as the devices are used only for getting directions. The bill also excludes law enforcement, emergency vehicle operators and drivers reporting emergencies. Commercial vehicle drivers also would be allowed to use electronic devices, provided they’re no larger than 10 inches by 10 inches.

Drivers also could use electronic devices as long as they are hands-free or voice-activated. And they could still pull over and text while parked on the side of the road.

Cell phones banned in school and construction zones
Another bill that passed both chambers would ban the use of cell phones in school speed zones and construction zones. The House approved HB 72 by a vote of 96-21.

The bill, also sponsored by D’Amico, would allow construction workers to use wireless phones. And using cell phones during emergencies would be exempt from the ban.

As good as it gets?

By Jamey Dunn

A measure that would limit campaign contributions advanced through the Senate today. Supporters tout it as a historic first step towards reform, while opponents say it’s filled with loopholes that would preserve the status quo.

“I see holes in this that you could drive a Mack truck through,” said Sen. John Jones, a Mount Vernon Republican.

Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said HB 7 is not perfect because it is the result of long and difficult negotiations. “It does an awful lot more than I thought we would be able to do when I started this process a few months ago,” he said.

The bill includes:
  • $5,000 limits on contributions from individuals.
  • $10,000 limits on contributions from corporations or labor unions. 
  • $90,000 limits on transfers from statewide political parties.

The measure did not win support from numerous government reform groups, including the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a conglomeration of powerful groups called the Change Illinois. It also was opposed by Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission on principle, said Commissioner Patrick Collins. The commission wanted a lower limit on donations and real-time disclosure of campaign contributions year-round. House Bill 7, on the other hand, would only require real-time disclosure during May, the height of the legislative action and budget negotiations. Otherwise, candidates would file campaign contribution reports four times a year.

Many Republicans stood in opposition, as well, and identified one “hole” in the legislation as creating a new category of committees, called constituent services committees. Under the measure, legislators would have a separate fund to pay for maintaining their offices and assisting people in their legislative districts. Contributions to the fund would be capped at $5,000. The money could not be used for campaigns.

However, Kent Redfield, a political scientist who runs the Sunshine Database to track campaign contributions, said money from the new special “constituent services” fund could be used to hold events for constituents that would actually be thinly veiled campaign efforts.

Good government advocates also didn’t like how often people could donate to each candidate. For instance, Harmon’s bill would allow individuals to donate up to the $5,000 limit every calendar year, as opposed to every election cycle. Opponents said the annual cycle would favor incumbents. Redfield said the annual cycle would benefit politicians who could start fundraising in office well before their next races. Yet, he said challengers would probably not be as successful starting early without an office and name recognition backing their efforts.

The most hotly contested aspect of the bill was the lack of limits on in-kind contributions from statewide political parties to candidates. For instance, the Democratic Party of Illinois could only donate $90,000 in cash, but it would still be able to give unlimited amounts of airtime for advertisements, yard signs, mailers and manpower to knock on doors to its candidates.

“That’s the big loophole,” Redfield said, adding, “it’s codifying the status quo.”

Redfield also said that limiting campaign contributions from lobbying groups might force legislators to seek contributions elsewhere, particularly their statewide political party leaders.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who testified in favor of the bill before a Senate committee Thursday, said it was good enough to move the public interest forward, but it was not perfect. He called it the “best we can do at this time.”

Harmon said HB 7 was the only version that could pass both chambers.

Collins, former assistant U.S. prosecutor, said legislators told him that the measures couldn’t be changed because they were tightly negotiated between the legislative caucuses, and any changes could kill the bills. Commissioner David Hoffman, inspector general for the City of Chicago, added that it was a convenient way of saying that no one really knows what would happen if changes were made, but they won’t take the chance to find out.

Sen. Minority Leader Christine Radogno also criticized the process and said that Republicans had been shut out of negotiations.

Harmon said that the issue could be revisited outside of “the pressure cooker” of a looming deadline and budget negotiations.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

FOIA rewrite passes both chambers

By Bethany Jaeger
All public bodies could be held to much higher standards when withholding documents and other information from the public. Legislation to strengthen the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and its enforcement will be sent to the governor’s desk. The House and Senate approved SB 189 with only one person voting against it.

The measure is part of a series of government reforms approved by the General Assembly in response to two consecutive governors being targeted by federal corruption charges. It’s also one area targeted by Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission.

We’ll have more about how the commission and the legislature have worked together — or not — soon. But the FOIA revisions demonstrated one area where all interested parties made compromises.

The negotiation process wasn’t exactly smooth, however. One week ago, the Illinois Press Association deemed a draft of the proposal “worse than existing law.” But the new version contained within SB 189 won “enthusiastic” support from the association.

Commissioner Hanke Gratteau said the FOIA revisions represent a “giant step forward” for transparency in government. They also would narrow the number of exemptions that allow public bodies to withhold otherwise public information, and the law would have stronger teeth with the addition of a so-called public access counselor and the ability to level civil penalties for noncompliance.

A representative of the Illinois Municipal League, however, said lawmakers would start to find out soon after the bill became law that it would place a heavy burden on local governments.

If signed into law by Quinn, a specialized lawyer would monitor and mandate the release of public information. The public access counselor is housed in the Illinois attorney general’s office, which would gain significant power by being able to subpoena information. The counselor would be able to issue binding opinions about whether public bodies, in fact, must release the information being requested.

The process also would get faster. Public bodies would have to reply to requests within five business days, as opposed to the current seven days. And if a public body denied a request, the public would have to take fewer steps and less time to appeal that denial.

“It used to be request, denial, appeal, denial. Now it’s just request, denial, and you’re ready to go,” said Don Craven, interim executive director of the Illinois Press Association. “So we shortened the process.”

Not all of the association’s recommendations made it into the final version, according to Craven. For instance, the association wanted final reports or documents prepared by consultants or independent contractors to be made public. Craven said that suggestion refers back to former Gov. George Ryan’s administration, when the state hired a private firm to issue a report about the economic impact of bringing Boeing Corp. to Chicago. The firm prepared a final report, gave it to the governor and the court held that a FOIA request was exempt because the report was “pre-decisional,” despite being the final report that guided policy, Craven said. Such reports, as well as internal staff analyses, remain exempt from the FOIA.

Some legislators expressed concern about a change to the personal private exemption. Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff, said the reforms clarify the standard of a “clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.” For instance, employees’ electronic time sheets — when they’re officially on the state’s clock — is public information and should be subject to the FOIA. However, if an employee clocked out to go to a doctor’s appointment, the reason for clocking out would be redacted.

Here are some other highlights of the final version, which would become law if the governor signs SB 189:
  • Courts could decide to impose a fine ranging from $2,400 to $5,000 for public bodies that intentionally failed to comply with FOIA. And if a public body waited too long to reply to a request, then it couldn’t charge a copying fee or rely on the exemption that says the request was “unduly burdensome.”
  • Courts would be required to award attorneys’ fees to individuals or entities who had to file a lawsuit to force a public body to release public information. Current law permits courts to do so but does not force them.
  • Public bodies could still redact, or black out, information from public records, but they’d still have to provide the rest of the information.
  • The bill does include a higher standard for proving a public body’s denial of a request.
  • Public bodies would have to designate specific employees to complete training about the FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.

Medical marijuana bill advances in the House

By Hilary Russell
The Illinois Senate made history last night by approving a bill that would authorize the limited use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The measure advanced again tonight when a House committee approved the same measure by a vote of 4-3.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said SB 1381 could be called in the House as early as tomorrow. Lang sponsored another version, HB 2514, which has the same intent but different restrictions. He said he’d try to advance the version sponsored by Sen. Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat, because it already cleared one hurdle by passing the Senate.

Lang said he would only call the bill for a full House debate if he felt sure he had enough votes for it to pass. “I am not a legislator that does test votes,” he said. “I am not going to run this out to the floor and have people vote on this pro and con. If there’s a vote taken on this bill, it will be when I think I can pass it.”

Opponents maintain that marijuana is a gateway drug and will lead to drug addiction and be accessible to children. Republican Rep. Patricia Bellock of Hinsdale said one reason she objects to the bill is because marijuana is an illegal drug. Most law enforcement agencies in the state also oppose this legislation.

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Greenville Republican, said there will be no way to know how many plants patients have in their homes. The bill calls for a 60-day supply of the drug, or two ounces of dried cannabis sativa and three mature flowering plants. See background here.

Haine and Lang maintain that the bill’s language is very strict and clear. Anyone who violated or abused the law would face criminal punishment.

The next step is for the bill to be called on the House floor and debated by the full chamber. We'll have more if that happens.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Recall returns, other reforms coming

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
The legislature continues to advance measures that would try to prevent the alleged wrongdoing by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich from going on long enough for a federal indictment to intervene.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and longtime Blagojevich critic, revived his effort to change the state Constitution so voters could “recall” elected officials. The effort failed last year. This time, however, he’s calling for a constitutional amendment that would only focus on allowing voters to recall the governor, not other statewide officeholders or legislators.

Franks called it a first step and said that recall should only be used in extreme situations, describing recall authority as a “nuclear option” to remove corrupt or inept officials. He pointed to 18 other states that have some version of a recall provision, but it’s only been used twice in recent history, the most recent in California in 2003.

The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing tomorrow morning. We’ll have more then.

Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat, also is sponsoring a measure to increase transparency in the way the governor appoints people to boards and commissions. While Gov. Pat Quinn’s office already published a Web site listing all appointments, Garrett’s bill, SB 1602, would aim to increase transparency, prevent conflicts of interest and “ensure the process isn’t dominated by political insiders.” She referred to several Blagojevich appointments involved in the ongoing federal investigation of using public office for private gain.

Both Franks and Garrett said the legislature continues to advance reform measures not addressed by Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission. Franks said the panel did good work, “but by no means is it all inclusive or the only reasonable voice.”

The commission did not make a specific recommendation, for instance, about whether to let voters recall elected officials. Commissioner Patrick Collins previously said the group only gave recommendations that received unanimous support, and recall was not unanimous but deserved additional consideration.

One area the commission did make specific recommendations was campaign finance. While last week’s attempt to debate so-called contribution limits soured, another attempt could be made as soon as tomorrow. Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, went as far to say he expects some form of contribution caps to pass both chambers tomorrow. The process is expected to start with a Senate committee hearing in the afternoon.

Harmon has been negotiating a compromise with lawmakers and the Illinois Reform Commission. He said there is “if not broad agreement, at least broad acceptance” of $5,000 contribution limits for individual donors. That’s a more lenient limit than the $2,400 cap recommended by the commission. But the bigger sticking point, according to Harmon, is whether to limit the amount statewide political parties can donate to their candidates.

But a statement from House Speaker Michael Madigan today made it seem as though that issue may be close to a resolution among Democrats.

A public TV program called Illinois Lawmakers reported that Madigan said he and Senate President John Cullerton have come to an agreement on capping the amount of money political parties can transfer to candidates’ campaign committees. Both leaders have withheld their support of the idea in the past.

“We are moving in the right direction.” Madigan said. “There should be caps on contributions. There should be caps on transfers between committees.”

FOIA rewrite advances
One area where lawmakers did strike a compromise with competing versions is strengthening the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.

The Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Attorney General expressed disappointment with a watered down version last week, but both enthusiastically supported the version that won House approval today. “This bill did not have everything we wanted, but we were very happy with this bill,” said David Porter, spokesman for the Illinois Press Association.

Senate Bill 189 would increase the standard for public bodies to proving a requested document is exempt from the law. It also would shorten the time public bodies would have to respond to requests from seven business days to five.

One major change is that a certified “public access counselor” would have authority to review and determine whether documents should have been released under the FOIA, and he or she would be able to subpoena documents. The counselor could go as far as issuing binding opinions to resolve disputes and sue to enforce those opinions.

We’ll have much more in the next few days.

House challenges idea to skim pensions

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
The General Assembly should fully fund the state’s contribution into the public employee pension systems, according to a measure approved by the House today. But the move contradicts Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to short the pension payment to free up some money that could help fill a $7.4 billion budget deficit next fiscal year.

Today’s floor debate over SB 1186, sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, pitted the need to repay long-term debt against the immediate decline in state revenues. Gov. Pat Quinn proposed skipping about $2.3 billion in payments next fiscal year. Madigan today essentially took that option off the table — for now — saying he and the governor have a “legitimate difference of opinion.”

Next fiscal year, which starts July 1, is the last year of a so-called “ramp-up” payment that is part of a statutory schedule to force the state to gradually fund its share of the long-term pension obligations. Next year’s payment is supposed to exceed $4 billion. But the deficit is projected to reach at least $7.4 billion, according to Madigan.

The speaker said the bill to force full payment reflects that there was little support for a partial payment (102 members voted in support of full payment). But it also simply reinforces existing statute. The entire House GOP supported full payment. Fourteen Democrats, on the other hand, voted “present.” Several said that making a partial payment would free up more than $2.2 billion that could help fund safety net services during the economic recession.

Madigan laid out the revenue picture with and without a full pension contribution, which could bolster his argument that the state should increase the state income tax to balance the budget and pay its bills. Here’s Madigan’s break down:
  • $16.9 billion – The amount already approved by the House to fund basic state operations and employee contracts. (It’s not yet approved by the Senate.)
  • $3.5 billion – The amount left over to dole out to state services.
  • $10 billion – The amount needed to fund the rest of Quinn’s proposed spending plan.
  • $7 billion – The amount that would have to be cut to balance the budget without an income tax increase.

But even with an income tax increase of 1.5 percentage points, as proposed by Quinn, the state would only garner about $3.7 billion. Legislators would still have to cut nearly $3 billion more to achieve a balanced budget.

Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said that the cuts that would be needed without a tax increase could be more than most lawmakers want to consider. “I don’t know if any of us have come to grips fully with what cuts of that magnitude would mean to people who live in our districts,” he said. “We’ve got pages and pages and pages of potential cuts, and they will hurt real people. And we’re trying to balance that.”

Harmon added that the Senate Democratic Caucus sees the pension payments as part of the larger budget negotiations. “Obviously, we’d all like to make the full pension payment. It’s just a question of the competing needs and the limited revenue available. It’s within the context of the overall budget development, not a stand alone issue.”

Republican Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine disagreed that Democrats are looking at the bigger budget picture, which he said could lead to a piecemeal approach and, ultimately, mistakes. “It’s almost like they’re doing these things in a vacuum,” he said. He suggested short-term borrowing as a way to fully fund pensions and avoid an income tax increase.

The legislature could always do what it did last year: approve an unbalanced budget and force the governor to cut programs over the summer. There are many ways this scenario could play out.

Meanwhile, Quinn’s effort to enact a two-tiered system that would provide less generous benefits to newly hired teachers and state employees has stalled but is still in negotiations behind closed doors.

Medical marijuana bill passes Senate

By Hilary Russell
Photo by Hilary Russell
The board read 28 eyes, 30 nays and 1 present when the bill was called for a vote. As Senators watched the neon numbers go up, down and up again, the room began to fill with chanting. At 29 votes, just one shy of the number needed to pass, one Senator was visibly worried. Then, at the last second, the votes changed to 30. The bill had passed.

Applause and gales of laughter broke out once the votes were confirmed.

Sen. Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat, sponsored SB 1381, which would allow terminally ill patients to enroll in a three-year pilot program and permit the use of marijuana without fear of criminal punishment.

 "This is major step and a victory for common sense,” Haine said.

Haine’s bill would allow an individual to get a prescription from his or her primary care physician for a 60-day supply of marijuana, or two ounces of dried cannabis and three flowering plants. See the background here.

The Illinois Department of Public Health would oversee the program and ultimately determine how many plants and dried ounces constituted a 60-day supply. The bill also designates that a primary caregiver, who is registered with the department, to grow and or purchase the marijuana for the patient.

The plant’s medical effects versus its benefits are greatly debated because it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is classified federally as an illegal drug.

But for patients who have chronic or terminal conditions, the drug, supporters say, has been a lifesaver because it helps to ease nausea and increase appetite.

Some lawmakers in support of the bill spoke on a personal note.

Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat with multiple sclerosis, said passing this bill was the right action to take. “We are talking about people here that are not looking to abuse a drug,” she said. “To sit here and say that this drug has the potential to be abused, therefore, we should not be voting in favor of this bill … well, then go home and empty out your medicine cabinet because all your pain medications and all your sleep medications have the potential to be abused.”

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, moved the room to silence as he spoke about a recent visit with his mother. Raoul said she suffers from a variety of ailments and, as a result, her doctors have prescribed her multiple drugs to treat one issue while prescribing others to offset side effects. “This is a bill about compassion for those who are suffering,” Raoul said. Having recently lost his father, Raoul noted, “pharmaceuticals had no answer for the pain he had to go through. So we can make this a political issue, but this is about compassion.”

Opponents fear if the bill becomes law, it would pave the way for drug addiction and open a can of worms the state doesn’t have the time or resources to deal with. Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, opposed the bill, saying he thought there were too many loopholes. One of his main concerns is that the bill does not require patients or their caregivers to have background checks.

“The bill would allow people to grow and possess cannabis. Those folks are not subject to a background check,” Righter said. “This bill does not require law enforcement to be involved in the administration program at all, and I think that’s a fatal flaw.”

Haine said every dispensary would be required to go through a background check, but the patients are the ones responsible for the caretaker. “It’s a bit offensive to demand everyone go through a background check,” Haine said. “If the patient is not qualified, the doctor will not sign the recommendation. We delineate the diseases [that qualify] and demand extensive corroboration from the doctor.” He added that if the privilege were abused, the prescribing doctor’s license would be on the line, too.

Now the bill moves to the House, where Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, will sponsor it. But with only four days left before the spring session is scheduled to end, Haine said he suspects the bill would wait to be called until the annual fall session or even later.

Lang said: “I’m going to try to move it as far through the House system as I can and as quickly as I can and do a head count. This morning, I did not have enough votes to pass the bill.”

He added that now there are 30 senators who voted for this bill, which means there are 60 representatives for those senators. “So maybe now they’ll feel that they have some political cover and will feel OK to vote for the bill.”

Don’t expect GOP support

By Hilary Russell, with Bethany Jaeger contributing

Democrats had the past six years to prevent the deficit facing the state, according to Senate Republicans. And the GOP Caucus says it’s unwilling to concede on raising income taxes to fix the problem.

“We offered suggestions year after year after year about how to deal with it, and we were rebuffed at every turn,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, adding that raising the income tax would create rather than solve problems. “It would put us in a very non-competitive situation with other states, and we would be one of the highest flat rate taxes. If the corporate rate were to go up by a similar amount, then we would be the highest in the world.”

She said the feeling among Senate Republicans is that the Democrats created the mess and, therefore, need to do their own housecleaning. And they can do it without Republicans because the majority party has 37 members, seven more than needed to approve an income tax increase.

Senate President John Cullerton, however, said yesterday, “I don’t think we have 30 Democrats.” The Senate Republicans also do not support shorting the state’s payment into the public employee pension system. Doing so, Radogno said, contributed to the ongoing budget problem and would worsen it.

Reforming state government also is running into a few hurdles. Last week, Radogno sponsored SB 350 on behalf of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission. It would limit campaign contributions to $2,400 for individuals and $5,000 for corporations. It also would limit the amount statewide political parties could donate to their targeted candidates to $30,000.

While Radogno said Republicans are willing to compromise on the number of the campaign contributions limit, the cap on transfers from statewide political parties is a different story. “The fundamental reform has to include leadership committees, and that’s where we can’t compromise. Either they’re in or they’re or out, and, in our view, they must be in.”

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its spring session on May 31, although the unresolved issues surrounding an operating budget and a reform package could toss the session into “overtime.” That would mean that all legislation approved after May 31 would need an extra majority of votes, giving Republicans a seat at the table — and a part of the blame — whether they wanted it or not.

Overtime or not, Radogno said her caucus remains calm. “It’s always an interesting last week. My guess is if there’s a sense of panic of might be on the other side of the aisle.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Civil union bill advances

By Hilary Russell

The fight to legalize civil unions in Illinois won a small victory today when it advanced out of committee by a vote of 4 to 2. Whether it will be called for a vote on the floor, though, remains to be seen.

Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would afford heterosexual and homosexual couples the same legal rights as married couples.

Currently, whereas a spouse would typically have the right to serve as a power of attorney in medical decisions, a person in a same-sex relationship would not.

The bill would not legalize same-sex marriage, which, depending on the state that the couple resides in, affords the same state and federal rights as a heterosexual married couples.
Harris wouldn’t say how many votes he has secured or if he’s close to calling the bill in the next few days, considering the legislature is scheduled to wrap up the spring legislative session.

“We continue to count votes in the House,” Harris said. The problem, he said, is that opponents fear giving rights to same-sex couples would open the door to same-sex marriage. “It appears that people have a concern with the intermingling of religious and civil marriage, but the vast majority of people believe that all couples deserve basic rights.”

While one victory took place here, the California Supreme Court today ruled that civil unions will remain legal, but same-sex marriages remain illegal since voters enacted a ban in November 2008. Fifty-two percent of voters supported Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Proposition 8 materialized with a ballot drive, but opponents of the civil unions claim that it takes more than voter initiative to change the state’s Constitution. Changing the state’s Constitution requires two-thirds of the General Assembly to approve that the question be placed on the ballot in the general election. Then a majority of voters must ratify the change.

For more context about what is happening in other states, see the National Conference of State Legislatures

Prepare for revenue vs. spending showdown

By Bethany Jaeger
The General Assembly has five days until the constitutional deadline of May 31 to approve a state operating budget, and there are only three days until Senate President John Cullerton wanted to adjourn so everyone could go home by this weekend.

Things are still pretty fluid in the Capitol, with lots of options being discussed but few commitments being made to any of them.

“There’s Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and, so far, we have not seen B nor C,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, budget negotiator for Senate Democrats.

Plan A includes funding basic portions of the budget to keep the lights on and to secure federal stimulus funds regardless of whether the legislature approves an income tax increase. And that plan, approved by the House last week, wouldn’t fulfill spending obligations for state programs and public employee pensions. House and Senate Democrats are circulating lists of programs that would not be funded under the core budget plan, forcing members to rank programs that could be cut or not.

Those lists are leading up to the plea for a state income tax increase, but for that to happen, Democrats need Republican support. Senate President John Cullerton said he doesn’t believe his caucus has 30 votes necessary to approve an income tax increase, leading him to turn to Republicans. The GOP, however, doesn’t want to approve an income tax increase unless the General Assembly first tries to trim spending and make existing programs more efficient, including instituting managed care policies and other Medicaid reforms.

Sen. Dale Righter, a deputy Republican leader from Mattoon, said, “To say that there isn’t any waste in state government is to say, ‘I agree with the last six years of Rod Blagojevich’s budgets,’ and I don’t think any of them want to say that.” He added that constituents want comprehensive reforms that affect every dollar the state spends, not just a percentage of it. He said enacting a half-year budget would unlikely include any reforms.

“Once you support that and put that into law, then you’ve locked that in place. And you’ve said, ‘OK, there’s nothing we can do about that spending.’ And I don’t think that’s the message we want to send.”

As Democrats and Republicans consider their options behind closed doors tonight, consider this breakdown of general revenue versus spending and the large gap between the two, according to Democrats.

Spending side
  • Legislators are working with about $23.8 billion to dole out, including federal stimulus funds.
  • The House last week approved $16.9 billion to keep the lights on and to secure federal stimulus funds, leaving about $6.9 billion to split among state programs.

Revenue side
  • According to Senate Democrats, the state would need an additional $4 billion just to get to last year’s funding levels (a.k.a. a zero-based budget).
  • And then it would need between $2 billion and $4 billion to pay the state’s full share into the public employee pension systems.
  • That means, according to Trotter, that budget negotiators anticipate needing up to an additional $8 billion to get up to last year’s funding levels and to fully fund the pensions.
  • Shorting the pension payments is always on the table. Making a minimal payment, however, would not pay down the compounding liabilities.
  • So is approving a temporary budget that would distribute the money on hand but would not be enough to get through the year. Cullerton said he opposes the idea of a half-year budget.
  • Gov. Pat Quinn also has proposed a two-tiered pension system so that newly hired teachers and state employees would earn less generous retirement benefits. While the administration suggests long-term savings would result, teachers’ unions strongly disagree and point to a report by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

Friday, May 22, 2009

If not today, Thursday?

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
The day that was supposed to be “Ethics Day” in the General Assembly came and went with confusing and dramatic developments that sent lawmakers and reformers back to the drawing table, with less than nine days left in the legislature’s regularly scheduled spring session.

And the legislature took Memorial Day weekend off, returning to Springfield Tuesday. And they still hope to adjourn May 29, although the actual deadline isn’t until the 31st.

Gov. Pat Quinn started the day by saying he doesn’t intend to sign a $26 billion infrastructure program until the legislature sends him an operating budget and a series of government reform measures. But movement on a significant portion of the reform measures is delayed until the day before Senate President John Cullerton hoped to adjourn.

Campaign contribution limits, for instance, were supposed to be debated today in the Senate. But a string of misunderstandings and tension-ridden conversations resulted in no action.

The Senate did agree with the House and approved two of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s measures. If signed by the governor, they would revamp the way the state buys products and services and shine more light on investigations into corruption within state government. Senate Bill 51 addresses procurement, while Senate Bill 54 addresses state employee ethics laws and lobbyist registration. The Senate did not, however, approve Madigan’s “fumigation” bill to terminate up to 750 employees appointed by former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan.

The governor’s Illinois Reform Commission did present the first of its major proposals, which also happened to be a rather complex and controversial topic of state-level prosecution of public corruption cases. Only one of nine provisions won Senate approval today.

A visibly frustrated Collins held an impromptu news conference after a Senate hearing. “That’s not the process that we were promised,” he said after the votes. “We did not get enforcement reform today.”

According to Collins, the package was designed to give state prosecutors more ‘tools” to investigate corruption. The commission also sought greater penalties for such crimes. The amendment that met the most opposition would have expanded state’s attorneys’ authority to record conversations, including giving them power to wiretap telephones, with a judge’s approval.

Collins also advocated for making it harder for someone convicted of public corruption to get off with just probation, unless he or she cooperated with the investigation.

One attorney opposed the idea because he said it would take sentencing powers away from judges. Attorney Robert Loeb joined the Illinois Bar Association in opposing all of the commission’s the ideas because he said they would create extreme penalties for some minor offenses. He added that many aspects of the proposals already are covered by existing law.

Sen. Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat who voted “present” on all of the proposals, said that he was hesitant to greatly expand the powers of state’s attorneys because they are elected rather than appointed and might use political power to target opponents.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said he worried about giving greater eavesdropping powers to state’s attorneys because there are 102 of them throughout the state, challenging consistency in training and enforcement.

The only provision that won approval was crafted by Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat. It had no opposition.

Collins said while the legislators complained about not having enough time to consider the commission’s proposals, they approved Kotowski’s provision the same day it was filed.

Kotowski designed the measure to strike at the heart of Blagojevich’s alleged wrongdoings: his political campaign fund. The measure, which won Senate approval this afternoon and now heads to the House, would punish an individual who was convicted of public corruption the same as if he or she were a convicted drug dealer. The person would be subject to forfeiting property, assets or political funds.

“If you commit the act of corruption and graft, you’re going to lose your property, you’re going to lose your campaign fund, you’re going to lose anything that you acquired as a result of that,” Kotowski said.

Kotowski added that the commission’s enforcement provisions include rather far-reaching reforms that could take time to educate legislators and the public. “I’m not giving up on this stuff,” he said, adding that the ideas could be negotiated and brought up during the legislature’s annual fall session. “It’s not everything that we want to accomplish, not by any stretch. But it’s a really good first step, and I am excited about that.”

Campaign finance
The debate about campaign contribution limits has been bumped back to May 28 at the request of Collins, who said he needed time to negotiate an agreement between competing bills. “We’re at different places,” he said during his second Statehouse news conference of the day.

The commission proposes limiting individual donations at $2,400, while other proposals would limit them to $5,000 or $10,000. The commission also wants to limit large transfers of money from statewide political parties to their candidates. A Democratic proposal would not limit such transfers.

“Hopefully we can close that gap in the next few days,” Collins said. “And if we don’t, we’ve been assured many different ways with a lot of witnesses that we will get an up-or-down vote on the [commission’s] bill.”

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno has sponsored two different versions (a $10,000 limit and a $2,400 limit on behalf of the commission), none of which have been called for debate. She said it sounded as if Democratic leaders were trying to “run out the clock” on campaign finance limits. “I think there are people who want the status quo to continue, and those would be the people who have the majorities in this institution right now, the Democrats. They don’t want to change it.”

Senate President John Cullerton disagreed and said leadership was trying to five the commission’ time to negotiate bills. “These issues are not simple black and white issues. They require a lot of nuance.”

Efforts to strengthen the understanding and enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act are still in the works, although the Illinois Press Association and attorney general’s office expressed dissatisfaction with some water-downed versions. The Illinois Reform Commission is still trying to negotiate and could try to advance a revised measure Thursday, as well.

FYI: Here's the Illinois Reform Commission's full report.

Quinn wants high-speed rail for Illinois

By Hilary Russell

The capital plan that recently passed both chambers was missing something that Gov. Pat Quinn said would put Illinois on a path to a more progressive mode of transportation.

Quinn said it was an oversight for lawmakers not to include money for high-speed rail in the $26 billion infrastructure program. Of that, $1.5 billion was not yet earmarked. Quinn said in a Statehouse news conference this morning that he wanted at least a portion of the remaining money to go to high-speed rail.

The General Assembly has nine days to approve a second installment of the capital plan, as well as an operating budget and governmental reforms. “I think it’s important to understand that if we’re going to get this done, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves in the next week to make this happen,” Quinn said.

High-speed rail would address the economic, energy and environmental crises facing the state and the nation, said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association based in Chicago. It would create jobs, help reduce reliance on motor fuel and reduce air pollutants.

One reason Quinn and a large group of bipartisan legislators want money to be designated for high-speed rail is because it could capture a portion of the $8 billion federal stimulus money available to invest in such transportation. The stimulus package would provide an additional $5 billion in grants over the next five years to kick-start high-speed rail development. To capture a federal match, the state must contribute about $400 million to high-speed rail projects, according to Quinn’s administration.

The first route would travel from St. Louis to Chicago at speeds up to 110 mph. It is being touted as an affordable, environmental alternative to driving or flying with the luxury of shorter travel times.

Hannig said the transportation department has a first-of-its-kind agreement with Union Pacific Railroad to draft a blueprint of the Chicago-St.Louis route, which the team would take to Washington, D.C., as a model and a way to compete with other states for additional stimulus funds.

Chicago to St. Louis would be the first but not the last request, Hannig said. Other routes could include Chicago to Milwaukee, Cleveland and Des Moines.

Haven't crossed the finish line, yet

By Bethany Jaeger

Gov. Pat Quinn confirmed that he could wait to sign a major capital construction package that recently passed both chambers until the General Assembly sends him an operating budget and ethics reforms.

"I don't plan to sign anything until we finish our work," Quinn said at a Statehouse news conference this morning, later adding, "I don't want to stop until we reach the finish line."

The major infrastructure program, which won House approval last night, has not yet been sent to the governor's desk. And it still has $1.5 billion left to earmark for projects.

The operating budget has not yet been negotiated. However, the House has approved basic portions of the budget that must be funded regardless of whether lawmakers approve a state income tax increase. The spending would include money to keep the lights on, as well as funding for education and Medicaid, which have to meet federal requirements to capture economic stimulus funds. The Senate is expected to take up those basic portions of the budget soon, but some lawmakers fear that such a temporary spending plan would take pressure off to approve a full-year budget by the end of the month.

Quinn said, "I don't think that would be the best way to go."

Meanwhile, the effort to advance government reforms recommended by the governor's Illinois Reform Commission appear stalled. While committees were scheduled for this afternoon to hear testimony from commission Chairman Patrick Collins, Senate Republicans say that some of the legislation never got assigned to be heard in committee.

According to GOP Spokeswoman Patty Schuh, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno is now sponsoring a measure to establish campaign contribution limits that mirror the commission's recommendations ($2,400 for individuals and $5,000 for corporations). Schuh said it was not assigned to committee for debate this afternoon. Senate Bill 350 also includes a provision that would set a $10,000 limit for donations from a candidate's political party organization.

"Collins is in the building," Schuh said. He and other commissioners "came here today at the request of the Senate president to go over their report."

Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, said committees are scheduled to hear at least a pair of House Speaker Michael Madigan's reform measures that were approved yesterday.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Capital plan passes both chambers

By Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell
Photograph by Hilary Russell

Right: The Illinois House approved a revenue package by a vote of 86-30-1, with opposition mostly objecting to new gaming sources.

The House tonight approved a major capital construction program, wrapping up one of the three major issues that lawmakers seek to tackle before session adjourns at the end of the month. The next step for the bill is approval from Gov. Pat Quinn, but whether that will happen quickly and when projects would begin is still up in the air.

The $26 billion plan will be funded by tax, fee and fine increases. The state will contribute about $11.5 billion, which will leverage federal and local funds. An expansion of lottery ticket sales and legalizing video gaming in bars, restaurants and truck stops will generate revenue for the state’s contribution.

However, House Minority Leader Tom Cross said he does not know exactly when construction would start. “Maybe summer, early fall. But I think even if you don’t have specific shovels in the ground, you’ve got engineers and architects putting plans together,” he said after the program won House approval. “We’ve got some good movement in that mini-capital plan, so there’s some activity out there. Would we all love to see it all tomorrow? Yeah, but it’s not going to happen.”

Some of the proposed revenue sources would not immediately bring in money. Video gaming would require implementing a complicated oversight process. Many establishments already have video poker machines, and some illegally pay out to winners. If the legislation becomes law, the payouts would have to be documented and regulated. Existing machines would have to be replaced or retrofitted to meet monitoring standards spelled out in the legislation. Proponents claim that the new regulation could weed out organized crime that has been perceived to be associated with illegal video poker.

Leasing the Illinois Lottery to a private entity is contingent on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, and the state has no control over how soon, if ever, that will come. Selling lottery tickets online is an unprecedented move. If approved, getting the operation up and running could take awhile.

Legalizing video gaming and the proposed changes to the lottery kept the plan from getting unanimous support. Cross said it was a difficult vote for some members of the GOP caucus. “It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to have a little pain in it. And, there are people that didn’t like it,” he said.

Some Democrats didn’t like it, either. The majority of “no” votes among Democrats came from suburban Chicago lawmakers. Many echoed Quinn’s statement yesterday that the state’s operating budget, which funds government operations, health care, education and social services, should have taken priority over a construction plan.

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat and the only lawmaker to vote “present” on the revenue sources, said he was hesitant to approve what he considered a gaming expansion and the privatization of the lottery. He added that while the legislature found money to build new schools, lawmakers haven’t yet figured out how to pay for the teachers who would work in those schools.

Legislators also expressed concern that Quinn might not sign the capital plan into law until the General Assembly sends an operating budget to his desk. He has 60 days to act before the capital program automatically becomes law. Cross said that Quinn had told him he would sign the bill, but he worries that Quinn could delay the signing.

Regardless, lawmakers expressed relief that both chambers finally approved a long-awaited infrastructure program after consecutive years of false starts.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said: “The state of Illinois has needed an infrastructure bill for a very long time. We need to put people to work, we need to fix roads, bridges and schools and water mains, and I believe this is an economic stimulus package done by the state of Illinois. And it was critical that it passed.”

Now the legislature can turn its focus to the operating budget and government reforms. While some procurement and employee ethics reforms advanced to the Senate today, the Senate also could begin debate about the governor’s Illinois Reform Commission’s proposals tomorrow.

Procurement, ethics, employee reforms sail to Senate

By Bethany Jaeger
The House overwhelmingly approved three measures to shield state contracts from political influence, to shine a light on the secretive process of investigating ethical violations and to “fumigate” the state of political appointees of former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich.

The measures, all sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, now head to the Senate, where more government reforms are expected to be debated tomorrow.

Madigan focused on procurement, employee ethics and political appointees. They received near-unanimous support. Republican Rep. Bill Black of Danville said, “These bills are some of the most important bills we’ve discussed in a long, long time.”

Procurement, SB 51
The speaker’s proposal would not go as far as preferred by Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission when changing the way the state purchases products and services. But Madigan’s goal mirrors that of the commission’s. “This was designed to shut the door on misuse of procurement and to isolate the procurement process and the procurement people from undue influence, especially from the office of the governor,” Madigan said on the House floor.

Rather than create one “procurement czar” in a new state procurement agency, as the commission wanted, Madigan proposed hiring a series of independent procurement officials in a "six-level system" of oversight:
  • Chief procurement officers would oversee procurement for the Capital Development Board, the Illinois Department of Transportation and higher education. The rest would be placed with the state’s main purchasing arm, Central Management Services.
  • Procurement compliance monitors would oversee the procurement process in real time and be able to recommend changes or expose abuses.
  • Independent internal auditors would be placed in their respective agencies, reversing a Blagojevich decision to consolidate them all into Central Management Services.
  • One executive procurement officer in the governor’s office would advise the governor and the procurement officers. The position would end in January 2011, either when Quinn started his first full term as governor or when a new governor took office.
  • The Procurement Policy Board would be strengthened so it could review contracts or bidder information and make recommendations for the chief procurement officers regarding conflicts of interest.

Each procurement officer, compliance monitor and internal auditor would serve a five-year term, pending Senate confirmation. And they couldn’t be fired without a public hearing that determined cause for removal.

The use of sub-contractors would have to be disclosed, CORRECTION: but a provision that would have strengthened the so-called pay-to-play ban so that businesses holding state contracts of $25,000 (instead of the current $50,000) would be banned from donating to the officeholders' political campaign didn't make it into the final version. The $50,000 threshold remains.

“The bill is laced with transparency requirements,” Madigan said. “Our whole intent was two-fold: open up the process — make it more transparent — and insulate the process from undue influence, especially coming out of the governor’s office.”

Employee ethics, SB 54
Blagojevich enacted a law in 2003 that created inspectors to root out corruption or improper political donations from state contractors. But the process of investigating allegations lacked teeth and was cloaked in secrecy, with no way for the general public or legislators to know whether a corruption allegation was investigated or addressed.

“In the past, a lot of this work has been done in the dark,” Madigan said.

So his measure would allow reports of the inspectors to be public record if they found wrongdoing and either suspended or terminated an employee. Some of the information could be blacked out if it would jeopardize an ongoing investigation. And it would change the law so the inspectors could start an investigation based on anonymous tips.

It also would strengthen the so-called revolving door ban to prevent high-ranking officials from accepting jobs with private companies that received significant state contracts from the agency where the official worked. Agencies would have to list all of the employees who would be affected by the ban.

Stricter lobbying regulations would require people who lobby state boards, commissions or retirement boards to register as lobbyists, and all lobbyists would have to abide by stricter disclosure requirements. They’d also pay a higher fee of $1,000, as opposed to the current $350, which is how the state would pay for two inspectors to oversee lobbying activities. Madigan said he would consider reducing the fees for smaller nonprofit lobbying groups down the road.

Employee “fumigation,” SB 1333
At the request of the governor, Madigan reduced his original attempt to force Quinn to fire up to 3,000 employees or commissioners appointed by Ryan or Blagojevich. His measure now would apply to about 750 agency directors and their assistants, who can be hired or fired based on their political affiliations. He also would give the governor 90 days instead of 60 to review each of those employees before they would automatically be terminated.

Also at Quinn’s request “on a very personal level,” Madigan removed a provision that would have fired one of the governor’s longtime friends, John Filan. But that’s with the understanding the Filan would resign as the executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority July 1. “I took the governor at his word,” Madigan said. Filan was Blagojevich’s first-term budget director and former chief operating officer who played an integral role in several of Blagojevich’s controversial budget proposals, including floating $10 billion in pension obligation bonds and skipping $2.3 billion in state contributions in fiscal years ’06 and ’07.

Even without the provision to fire Filan, the bill drew concerns about the separation of powers because the legislature would fire people appointed by the executive branch. “We are, if not blurring those lines, we may actually be crossing those lines,” Black said.

Rep. Will Davis, a Chicago Democrat who voted present on the measure, said: “If [Quinn] wants to fire employees, he should do that and not come to the General Assembly to ask us to do that for him. … It certainly appears like maybe they’re doing him a favor.”

Madigan said the legislature has changed boards and commissions that were appointed by the executive branch before, including when the legislature twice revamped the Illinois State Board of Education and the Health Facilities Planning Board. Madigan added that Quinn “agreed to the bill.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

School funding reform

by Jamey Dunn

Shortly before passing the capital plan, the Senate debated a proposal that would drastically change the tax structure for the state and possibly resolve a pending lawsuit. The bill, which has been considered in different versions for the last seven sessions, would raise the personal income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and expand the sales tax to specific services.

Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, classified some of the services as “luxury,” including limousine rentals, massages and pet grooming. But the bill also includes movies and movie rental, taxis and bowling. It would also double the earned income tax credit to protect low-income families and provide property tax relief for all.

Meeks said the intent of the measure is to create more revenue for Illinois schools and ensure schools receive equal funding because the state would take over most of the responsibility. Currently, school districts heavily rely on local property taxes, so funding can vary greatly among districts depending on how much revenue the local tax generates.

He added that after giving more money to schools and higher education, providing tax relief and putting funds toward capital projects, a large chunk of money (Meeks estimates around $4 billion) would be left over to help plug the state’s budget deficit.

The Chicago Urban League filed a lawsuit last August against the state and the Illinois State Board of Education over the current school funding system. The lawsuit was based on the 2003 Illinois Civil Rights Act and claims that Illinois’ education funding system results in racial discrimination because the student populations of many under-funded schools are predominantly minorities. The Urban League is seeking an injunction, which would force the state to change the system.

Meeks said that it is time for the General Assembly to reform school funding before possibly being ordered by a court to take action. His measure advanced through committee, and he said he plans to call it for a floor vote before session adjourns at the end of the month. “It would be a shame if the court has to mandate Illinois to do what Illinois should have been doing all along,” he said.