Thursday, February 25, 2010

Democrats preview redistricting plan

By Jamey Dunn

Senate Democrats previewed their plan for redistricting today after Republicans unveiled their proposal last week.

Democrats have not drafted their proposal as a piece of legislation yet, but the held a news conference today outlining some of the details that they expect to include.

Under their plan the legislature would draw the new map. If they chose to de-nest the districts, not have the same districts for the Senate and the House, then each chamber would draw its own map and pass it with a three-fifths vote. If they decided to stick to the current nested system, then the General Assembly would create one map that would pass as a bill and require the governor’s signature.

If the legislature cannot agree on a map, or maps, by June 30, 2011, a commission, appointed by the legislative leaders would get the job. The leaders would each appoint seven members to the 14-member commission to create a map for approval by the General Assembly. If that doesn’t work, the Democrat’s plan mirrors the Republican one in the creation of a special master to draw the map. That master would be chosen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and a justice of the other party.

The major difference between the parties' plans is who draws the first map. In the Democrat’s plan the legislature does it, while in the Republican plan it is a commission appointed by the leaders. This is the point on which it seems neither side is willing to compromise.

“The Democrat plan leaves the power in the hands of the General Assembly to draw the districts in which they will be running. The Democrat plan allows the General Assembly to pick its voters in very district as opposed to the voters picking who will be in the General Assembly,” Mattoon Republican Sen. Dale Righter said.

However, Democrats said that a commission appointed by legislative leaders would not take the power away from the General Assembly, and a larger group is needed to ensure diversity is represented in the process. “Is it weakening the power of the legislative leaders to give them the opportunity to appoint two members of the redistricting commission each?” Chicago Democrat Sen. Kwame Raoul, chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, said. “I think there’s more ability to embrace the diversity of our great state if you have 177 voices involved in the process.”

Redistricting, while possibly a tad esoteric to the average citizen, has a large and lasting impact on future elections and the makeup of the General Assembly. It has already spurred controversy and partisan debate. Expect that to continue as the process is reconsidered.

“For me to sit up here and tell you that I am going to somehow depoliticize the redistricting process, I am not going to do that, that would be untrue. If I were to sit up here and tell you that my hope at the end of all this is not that the Democrats have the majority, that would be disingenuous,” Raoul said. “But what we do want to do is we want to shed some sunlight on the process. We want to take the chance out of it…We want to get public input.”

Raoul said Democrats hope to introduce their Constitutional amendment next week.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Senate approves moving primary date back

By Rachel Wells

The Illinois Senate today approved a measure that would move the primary election date from the first Tuesday in February to the third Tuesday in March.

Carlinville Democrat Sen. Deanna Demuzio, the sponsor of SB 355, said the March date would counter problems such as low voter-turnout, difficulty finding available election judges and lack of time to properly vet candidates, as seen in the February 2010 primary.

Some senators said an April or May date – when the weather likely would be more agreeable and retirees serving as election judges would not be wintering in warmer states – would better solve those problems.

Republicans warned against moving the date with one candidate in mind again. The General Assembly moved the primary date up for the 2008 primary, when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was running for president. “It’s a little embarrassing for some of us to stand up and say it’s appropriate to move a public process for one political candidate,” said Mattoon Republican Sen. Dale Righter. “I hope we don’t make this mistake again. “

Demuzio said she would be open to considering a later date but emphasized the importance of tradition.

“This particular bill … goes back to that traditional date that we’re all familiar with and our constituents are familiar with, and hopefully the sun will shine on that particular date,” Demuzio said.

Senate approves GA scholarship reforms

By Rachel Wells

If individual legislators don’t want General Assembly college tuition waivers handed out anymore, they can start by forfeiting their own, Senate President John Cullerton said today as the Senate passed reforms to the program.

Every year, each member of the legislature is allowed to give one or more students a total of four years’ tuition waivers at a state-supported university. The scholarships have been under scrutiny in the media after reports that some legislators might be using the waivers to leverage or reward campaign contributions. The waivers have also been called an undue burden on state universities, which foot the bill for them and aren’t receiving adequate state funding in the first place.

The reforms proposed in SB 365 include the option for legislators to forfeit their allotted scholarships. Under the measure, scholarship recipients and their family members could not have contributed in the previous five years to the member granting the award and would not be eligible to receive a waiver at a university until they have been accepted as a student. The bill would also require the recipient to reimburse the appropriate university if discovered he or she failed to honestly disclose his or her contribution history with the corresponding representative.

Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said the measure was “meant to address the perceived abuses of the process” of granting the waivers. In the face of accusations that the reforms are merely a public relations move, some senators said the scholarships do help some residents who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

“We want to produce quality constituents out of our districts. I see nothing wrong with this amendment. I think that our General Assembly scholarships is a plus for our constituencies,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat.

“Here we are hearing from many people that the only thing the state can do is raise taxes, and yet these scholarships are a cost to the state,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said. The Lemont Republican said that over six years, 8,000 scholarships shorted the university system $50 million dollars. “I have a very difficult time going to my constituents and saying we’re continuing these kinds of practices … just send us more money.”

Radogno had proposed SB 3652, which would eliminate the General Assembly waivers, but the bill stalled in a legislative committee.

“To the extent that anybody gives them out, it cost shifts onto those families who have to write those tuition checks,” Radogno said. “Just having people decline giving them out does not solve the problem.”

Other senators said that if elimination of the General Assembly scholarship is to be considered, all other tuition waivers should be considered, as well, because the legislators’ waivers account for only part of universities’ waiver problem.

Quinn releases budget numbers

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn’s office spelled out today the shortfall and cuts that could come with next year’s budget.

Quinn put his numbers up on a Web site at noon and is accepting suggestions online from legislators as well as the general public. The move was part of a measure that passed earlier this month allowing Quinn to give his budget speech March 10 instead of February 11.

“This budget, this reality budget, does not show any change in the income tax. So this budget shows what we face with the status quo,” Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, said.

Quinn is proposing more than $2 billion in cuts. Vaught said such cuts would bring the projected budget deficit for the end of fiscal year 2011 down from $13.5 billion to $11.5 billion.

About $1.5 billion of the proposed cuts would come out of education. According to Vaught, $922 million of that would come from K-12 education funding, and most of the rest would come from higher education.

“If you are going to cut $922 million K through 12, it’s going to affect general state aid. … You just can’t get a big enough number without doing that. I’m an old school board member myself. That’s a tough cut,” Vaught said.

Some Chicago-area schools are considering teacher layoffs. Vaught said there will likely be more layoffs to come. “More and more districts are going to face [the] reality [of layoffs] in a recession,” he said. “The districts have until April first to give their layoff notices. … They’re going to have to tighten their belts and face up to this.”

He said that $500 million in cuts to social services would also be needed and added that cuts to health care spending are more difficult to make because the state receives matching funds from the federal government for its Medicaid spending. “In the past, you have seen health care spending in Illinois go up by about 7 percent a year, and we’re coming in flat. So even though the number looks flat, we’ve really cut spending there,” Vaught said.

Vaught said there are several possible estimations for how much an income tax increase could alleviate the problem. “It depends on what the General Assembly decides to act on. The numbers varied last year. You can get three or four or five billion from an income tax depending on how you structure it.”

Vaught said the intent of releasing these numbers, besides soliciting input, is to show people what the budget would be like without an income tax increase. “These are preliminary numbers to show the reality of the situation that we’re in now. And absent other action, these are the kind of figures that we’re going to have to deal with. I am sure we will hear more from the governor. He’s no shrinking violet on the need for a tax increase,” he said.

While the proposed cuts will upset many throughout the state, Vaught added that he hopes releasing them to the public will result in some real solutions. “What we want people to do, besides feeling the pain and understanding the reality, is to help us find a solution. People can find solutions to these problems if we get some help.”

Plan to eliminate lt. gov advances

By Jamey Dunn

Whichever candidate becomes lieutenant governor may be the last person to fill the job.

A legislative committee passed a proposal today for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the office.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said eliminating an office with a nearly $2.1 million budget and few duties, other than replacing the governor if he or she is unable to serve, makes sense when the state is strapped for cash.

If the lieutenant governor’s office were eliminated, the attorney general would be next in the line of succession for the governor’s job. That could result in a shift in party power in the highest executive office when a governor of one party could be unable to serve and an attorney general from another party then stepped into the job.

Republican committee members said they supported the amendment in theory but added they did not want to fill up the ballot with constitutional amendments passed by the legislature and crowd off voter initiative amendments that reach the ballot through petitions signed by voters.

“Politically, it’s possible that if you don’t like an amendment to the constitution that is being circulated by the voters, [you could] fill up the ballot with three questions amending three articles and exempt any voter initiative out there to amend the Constitution, and that is my concern,” said Rep. Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican.

The Illinois Constitution does limit amendments proposed by the legislature to only three articles of the Constitution. For example, the lieutenant governor amendment would apply to the Executive Article, the amendment that would allow voters to recall the governor that will appear on the ballot in the general election will apply to the Suffrage and Elections Article. So if Madigan’s proposal passes, the legislature will only be able to place an amendment to one more article on the ballot in November.

However the section of the Constitution that applies to initiatives sets no such limits on amendments presented by voters. Initiatives can only amend the Legislative Article of the constitution, but the document does not limit the number of initiative amendments that can appear on the ballot.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross made what is perhaps a more pertinent argument in a letter to Madigan that the legislature should address the redistricting process before lawmakers use up all of their opportunities to place amendments on the November ballot.

When asked whether his proposed amendment was a response to the scandal over Scott Lee Cohen winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, Madigan said he has been considering the measure for about six months.

As for replacing Cohen, he said the statewide Democratic committee plans to hold an open hearing where applicants can present their credentials, and then the committee would vote to choose a candidate in a public meeting. He said there is no timeline planned for the hearing, but the committee has an organizational meeting planned for March 15 .

Free rides for some seniors may be over

by Rachel Wells

Free rides for some seniors may end if the Illinois Senate approves a bill the House passed today.

HB 4654 would roll back a policy initiated by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich that allowed free mass transit rides for anyone 65 or older, regardless of income level.

If the bill becomes law, low-income seniors would still qualify for free rides, and all other seniors would qualify for half-fare.

“Thirty percent of seniors will continue to ride for free,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Suzanne Bassi, a Palatine Republican.

The rollback is expected to provide the Regional Transportation Authority – including Metra, the Chicago Transportation Authority and PACE – an additional $37 million for operations.

“There is no free ride if there’s no bus,” Bassi said, referring to the transportation system’s recent budget problems.

Opponents of the rollback measure said some seniors wouldn’t qualify for low-income free rides but still have limited incomes and need the free fare. They also argued that the free rides encouraged otherwise isolated elderly people to go out into their communities.

Proponents of the bill argued that if the free-ride cut couldn’t be implemented, then more difficult cuts, such as cuts to education or social services, will be almost impossible.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Budget numbers tomorrow, cuts later

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn plans to release preliminary projections for his budget tomorrow. The numbers will be posted on the Internet, and legislators, as well as the general public, will have the opportunity to make suggestions on the Web site.

Republicans criticized the idea and said they doubt putting suggestions online will lead to their input being considered.

“The frustration is, we all weighed in last year and said things that needed to be done, and every single one of those was rejected,” Rockford Republican Sen. Dave Syverson said.

Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, laid out some of the numbers for legislatures this evening. At the end of the current fiscal year, the budget deficit will be about $6 billion. Vaught said the estimated deficit by the end of next year will be $13 billion.

He said that money coming in from the three largest revenue sources, - personal income tax, corporate income tax and sales tax - is projected to increase by about $500 million for the next fiscal year. This fiscal year, the total is about $16 billion. However, Vaught said the loss of federal stimulus funds next fiscal year will more than cancel out the gain.

Vaught said the state will have to make cuts, increase taxes, seek help from the federal government and use strategic borrowing to close the budget gap. He added that Illinois is “beyond a situation where we can do what we call efficiency cuts. … We’re at the point now where the cuts are very real. They involve the reduction of services, and they involve pain in many communities.”

Primary election changes considered

By Rachel Wells

After a primary election that resulted in low voter turnout and a lieutenant governor candidate stepping aside amid scandal, legislators are considering some changes to the state’s election process.

HB 4964 would move primary elections from the first Tuesday in February to the third Tuesday in March – the date used before the General Assembly changed it for the 2008 presidential election.

“This is the date that we had lived with for many, many election cycles, and I think that given the experience of the voters and candidates in the February election, it is a good idea to move it back,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.

HB 5820 – a bill pairing the lieutenant governor and the governor as running mates before the primary – also passed through committee but not without opposition.

“It’s different, of course, than other ideas that are being floated, [including] one to abolish the office entirely. I think this is a better approach, frankly,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and House assistant majority leader.

The way the lieutenant governor is chosen has come under scrutiny after candidate Scott Lee Cohen, a pawnbroker accused of domestic battery, won the Democratic primary and then stepped aside amid a media storm over his past. The Democratic Party now gets to choose its candidate.

Another proposal, from House Speaker Michael Madigan, calls for a constitutional amendment abolishing the lieutenant governor position altogether.

“Who do you think Gov. Blagojevich would have picked? Harris?” asked Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat, referring to the former governor’s chief of staff, John Harris, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud. “You’re saying that whoever the governor is would have the right to choose his or her successor.”

Lang said voters could consider that fact when choosing their candidates. “[The measure] would solve the problem of – as you heard recently – of candidates not being vetted by political parties, which of course they had no responsibility to do in the first place. But this will solve that problem.”

Campaign finance reform back under debate

By Jamey Dunn

Legislators are revisiting one of the most hotly contested issues that came out of negotiating the campaign finance reform bill last year.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, proposed limits on direct contributions from political parties to candidates during the general election. The two bills are similar, but Steans’ has higher limits.

Reform groups say the lack of such caps is the biggest loophole in the state’s campaign finance law. The sponsors of both bills say public perception is an important factor. They say even if candidates do not feel beholden to a legislative leader for channeling large chunks of cash into their campaigns, this common practice sends the wrong message to citizens. Steans and Radogno also agreed that limiting the amount of money a party and legislative leaders can give to candidates will encourage those candidates to seek support from their constituents instead.

“I think it’s a philosophical and practical and perception issue,” reform activist Peter Bensinger told a Senate committee.

Democratic members of the committee disagreed, saying that as long as the parties and caucus committees are allowed to spend as much as they want independently from the candidates, a right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, limits on direct contributions will just drive the parties to spend the same money in a different way.

Senate President John Cullerton said the proposal was based in “fiction” and would drive party spending into a “world of independent expenditures” because committees would just spend money on campaign ads and mailers for candidates instead of giving the money directly to them.

“What about a coordinated expenditure [where the party works with the candidate] is so morally inferior to an uncoordinated expenditure [where the party spends the money as it chooses on behalf of the candidate]?” Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat asked.

Radogno said just because the state cannot limit independent expenditures doesn’t mean that it should rule out other reforms.

Spending limits for primary elections were included in the law that already passed. Harmon said legislators focused on primaries because if a leader wanted to try to control a legislator by threatening to withhold campaign funds, it would most likely happen in the primary election. Once a candidate makes it to the general election, the leader would not risk losing a seat to the other party.

Cullerton said that the purpose of political and caucus committees is to help its party members campaign. “The reason why the caucus committee was formed was to elect the majority of their members to the General Assembly.”

The bills will be up for more debate tomorrow, and Harmon, the committee chair, said there will be a vote. Check back for more details.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nursing home scandal spurs reform plan

By Rachel Wells

Legislators may consider proposals to reform the way long-term care is administered in Illinois, following a report released today from the Illinois Nursing Home Task Force.

Gov. Pat Quinn created the task force in October, after the Chicago Tribune revealed incidents of violence in nursing homes with mixed populations of the elderly and mentally ill younger adults. The task force report includes 38 recommendations for better screening of mentally ill patients, higher treatment standards and expanded options for home and community-based care.

In the report, task force chairman Michael Gelder said a focus on “recovery, therapeutic care, and adequate appropriate housing in the community” will reduce the number of younger residents living alongside the elderly in nursing homes.

“There’s a lot in [the report] that’s really, really good,” said Wendy Meltzer, executive director of the nursing home advocacy group Illinois Citizens for Better Care. She was especially pleased with the recommendation for minimum staffing levels. “The single greatest [guarantee] of nursing home quality is enough educated and trained staff to take care of the residents. If you don’t have that, nothing else matters.”

According to the report, Illinois' minimum staffing levels are lower than those recommended by the federal government and are often lowest in nursing homes with higher minority populations.

While she’s encouraged by the report’s emphasis on transitioning mentally ill patients into more residential and community-based treatment programs, Meltzer said she’d like to see the same amount of emphasis on such programs for the elderly.

The Healthcare Council of Illinois, a nursing home trade group, also applauded the task force’s efforts but said in a news release that the recommendations didn’t quite meet expectations. The group had hoped for more attention to enhanced continuing education, standardizing admission and discharge criteria, stepping up ongoing psychiatric assessments and developing individual plans geared toward independent living.

Both Meltzer and the Healthcare Council said they’ve been working with legislators to draft bills including some of the recommendations. A phone call placed with Gelder was not immediately returned.

Supreme court says no pension for Ryan

By Jamey Dunn

Former Republican Gov. George Ryan will not receive any of his pension benefits from the time he served as an elected official in Illinois.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled today that Ryan is not eligible for the benefits he earned as a Kankakee County official, state legislator and lieutenant governor. Ryan was convicted on corruption charges in 2006 and is serving his sentence in federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He is due for release in 2013.

Ryan was convicted of fraud, racketeering, lying to the FBI and tax violation. All these charges are based on crimes he committed as secretary of state and governor of Illinois. His lawsuit contended he should still receive pension funds from the offices he held that were not connected to his conviction. Five of the six Supreme Court Justices did not agree.

The court's opinion, written by Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said, “Although Ryan held multiple public offenses over the course of his time in the [pension] system, all of those offices were in service to a single public employer — the state of Illinois.”

The ruling is based on the notion that although Ryan may have had different jobs, he broke the law and betrayed the trust of a single employer. Just because he did not do that in every job he held, the court said it does not mean that employer should now have to pay him a pension. “As the victim’s of Ryan’s crimes, the taxpayers of the State of Illinois are under no obligation to now fund his retirement.”

Justice Anne Burke, a Democrat, wrote the only dissenting opinion. She said that the court contradicted earlier rulings that allowed officials to keep pensions from public jobs even after they had been convicted of wrongdoing in another office. Burke said that there must be a connection between the crime and the job to take pension benefits away.

“I understand the very human impulse to want to punish Ryan for his wrongdoings by depriving him of all of his pension benefits. However, while I sympathize with such impulses, our constitutional obligation is to follow the law, not our personal preferences,” Burke wrote in her opinion.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Republicans propose redistricting plan

By Jamey Dunn

After the 2010 census, the time will come for Illinois to redraw its legislative districts. Republicans unveiled a constitutional amendment today to change the way the state undertakes the complicated and highly political process.

Currently, it falls to the legislature to draw and approve a map that the governor must sign. If a deadlock occurs and lawmakers do not produce a map by June 30 of the year after the census, the choice is made by a commission of four Republicans and four Democrats named by the legislative leaders. If the commission cannot reach a compromise, then each party nominates a ninth member. The secretary of state then randomly selects — this is where the infamous drawing a name out of a hat part of the process comes in — one of the two proposed candidates to cast the tie-breaking vote.

The original intent of that seemingly arbitrary final solution set it in the 1970 Constitution was to force a compromise between the parties. Framers of the plan thought that surely no politicians would roll the dice on such a random winner-take all way of dividing the districts. However, legislators have gone with this option almost every time.

“The way we do it in the state of Illinois makes absolutely no sense. … We are picking legislative boundaries and ultimately deciding who may represent you based on the flip of a coin or picking a name out of a hat,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross said.

Republicans partnered with the Fair Map Group to promote the proposed amendment. Under the measure, a commission with nine members would draw the map. The leaders would appoint four of the members, and the commission would chose its ninth member.

Legislators would vote up or down to approve the map but could not make changes. If the legislature rejected the map, the commission would draw a new one. If that one didn’t go over either, the commission would have to pick one of the two.

If the commission could not settle on a map, then the judicial branch would get involved in the process. The chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and a justice of the other political party would appoint a “special master” to make the decision.

The Fair Map Group is collecting signatures to get the amendment on the November ballot through a voter’s initiative. Jan Czarnik, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said the group wants a backup plan in case the legislature does not pass an amendment. “If we were sure that the legislature would do this, we wouldn’t be out collecting the signatures that we are collecting. We would like to see the legislature do this. ”

Czarnik said she is optimistic about getting the amendment on the ballot one way or another. “Voters are literally pulling the clipboard out of our hands to sign the petition,” she said.

Both Czarnik and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno agreed any proposal that would allow the legislature to draw the map would not be a genuine step toward reform.

However, some Democrats disagree.

“The legislature would get the first crack at drawing the map,” Chicago Democrat Sen. Kwame Raoul said of a redistricting proposal Democrats plan to roll out next week. Raoul, the chairman a Senate redistricting committee, said a nine-member commission could not represent the diversity of the state as well are the General Assembly could.

Raoul accused the Fair Map Group of not seeking input from Democrats and minority advocates. He said he felt shut out of the process of drafting the proposed amendment.

“I couldn’t get any specific answers as to what minority groups had been consulted for this plan that’s supposedly so protective of diversity. It would seem that, if we are speaking transparency and openness, that such groups would be consulted before the proverbial train had left the proverbial station,” he said.

Czarnik said that Raoul did not follow up with her organization on the issue after the Senate committee hearings. However, Raoul said that when he asked about the plan in December, after hearing about it in news reports, he was told that it was too late to make any changes.

Raoul said the Democrats’ plan will “mirror many of the principles” of the Republican proposal. He said it is similar to an amendment that passed in the House in 2008 and was based on recommendations from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

Legislators say slow down on managed care

By Rachel Wells

A proposed pilot program that would affect about 40,000 elderly and disabled Illinoisans could save the state $200 million over five years, but that’s not reason enough to rush into things, legislators said today.

The program in question is Gov. Pat Quinn’s Integrated Care Pilot Program, which outlines changes to some Medicaid fee-for-service plans for residents in DuPage, Kane, Kankakee, Lake and Will counties and suburban Cook County starting as early as October 2010. The program – focused on wellness and prevention – would offer incentives to medical providers based on patient health outcomes.

HB 5086, sponsored by Aurora Democrat Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, would halt the program before it begins and create a task force to analyze its merits.

“The bill supports an inclusive and transparent planning process,” Chapa LaVia said. She said those affected by the pilot program were not asked for input early enough in the development process. “It could be a great program. Just allow us to sit at the table so we can help, so we can [share] our concerns, why we have concerns with what the [proposal] shows.”

Administrators at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services said affected citizens and advocacy groups have been a part of the process all along, but to address their concerns, the state must now choose the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) that would run the program.

“We have been aggressively pursuing input from groups since September, and in more recent months we’ve been [asking] them, ‘What are the outcomes you want to see?’” said Theresa Eagleson, Healthcare and Family Services administrator.

Eagleson said programs that seem to worry stakeholders the most – like long-term care – won’t start right away; advocacy groups and others will continue working with the selected HMOs as the Integrated Care Program gets under way.

But advocacy groups for the disabled say the managed care program would result in less consumer choice and a prioritization of cost savings instead of individuals’ health and well-being.

“The managed care system that the administration has proposed goes against our vision for Illinois. In fact, it takes us backward,” said Barbara Pritchard with Campaign for Real Choice in Illinois. “The managed care system is a medical model. Rather than seeing people with disabilities as individuals who have unique needs, managed care seeks to provide the least expensive services.”

Eagleson and fellow administrator Jim Parker said overall cost savings would be the result of best medical practices.

“The HMO is on the hook for the cost … so if people need a specialist, they’re going to get it because they don’t want to pay the cost of an exacerbation,” Parker said. “If you apply all the economic incentives in the right way, the system will behave in the way that’s best for the patient.”

Medical providers would receive incentives for fewer hospital readmissions, but that end is best met by sending the patient to a scheduled follow-up visit with his or her primary care physician who can intervene before an emergency arises, Parker explained.

The system would work better for patients, Parker and Eagleson said, because it can now include networking technologies that keep a patient’s multiple providers up-to-date on what each has done or encountered with a specific patient.

While fears also include fewer choices for patients, Parker said choice is already limited in the Medicaid system now covering the affected patients.

“We firmly believe that in some circumstances being in this integrated care network will give them better access to some services, not less,” Parker said.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


By Jamey Dunn

Behind closed doors ...

The Illinois Senate held a private meeting today to hear how the state’s financial and economic situation compares with the rest of the nation.

The National Conference of State Legislators presented the Senate with a report saying Illinois is not alone in its economic downturn and sizable budget gap. While the state’s situation is dire, representatives from the conference said Illinois is not among the worst of the worst states, economically speaking.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said legislators did not learn anything during the so-called joint caucus that they weren’t already aware of.

So, the most controversial topic to arise out of the meeting became the meeting itself. Both press and critics questioned the legality and ethical implications of the entire Senate holding a private meeting to discuss affairs of the state, a move called unprecedented by longtime Statehouse observers.

Legislators said the subject matter was fairly innocuous, and the press was briefed at a news conference after the meeting. They said that the closed-door policy helped them feel comfortable to have a bipartisan exchange.

“We were just trying to allow for members of the Senate to ask candid questions. … We have five senators who are running for other offices who are all candidates right now in the general election,” Senate President John Cullerton said. Minority Leader Christine Radogno signed off on the closed-door meeting, as well.

Cullerton said he had “no regrets” about closing the meeting. However, he added, “since everybody seems to be pretty upset about it — it’s not that big of deal — we just won’t do it anymore."

And in the open

A heated exchange erupted in a committee hearing today after Senate Democrats merged two borrowing bills into one.

A plan to borrow $250 million to capture matching federal Medicaid funds and start paying medical providers more quickly is now tied to a measure that would allow state universities to borrow money to fund their operating budgets. Both proposals are intended to address the issues of the state’s millions in overdue bills.

The short-term borrowing plan passed the House with Republican support, including approval from Minority Leader Rep. Tom Cross. It went on to stall in the Senate amid rumors that it lacked Republican support in the chamber.

A proposal to give state schools borrowing power grew out of a request from Southern Illinois University. As of early February, the state owed public universities more than $735 million. In order to keep budgets afloat, most Illinois schools — Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois are not included in bill — have asked to borrow in anticipation of the state payments. According to the bill’s sponsor, Chicago Democrat Sen. Donne Trotter, schools would be responsible for their loans, and the debt could not be held against the state.

Glen Poshard, president of SIU, said the university system has been struggling to make its payroll. “SIU is in a very unique position in the state of Illinois. We are the second largest university but the only large economic engine for southern Illinois,” he said.

Republican senators said today that they support the plan to let schools borrow but are opposed to the state taking out another short-term loan because they say no plan has been offered for paying the money back.

They accused the Democrats of playing political games by putting the two proposals up for one vote as SB416. Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, called the meshing of the proposals “an ill-arranged marriage” that “creates concern” for legislators such as Righter, whose districts contain universities.

“By putting these two together, you’ve endangered the universities because you’ve now upped the number of votes that they have to get in order to get this latitude,” he said

The university proposal would only require a simple majority vote, while the short-term borrowing needs a three-fifths majority. Now that they are in the same bill, the three-fifths majority will be needed.

Trotter said that the state is late paying its bills to both the universities and medical providers and is putting both sectors at risk. “Why not just have one bill. … The need is there for both of those entities to get funds, and this is a way to do it.”

The merger is clearly a way to pressure Republicans who may want to back a popular bill that keeps universities’ doors open but do not support short-term borrowing. The Democrats are betting that the university proposal will be the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of state borrowing go down for some Republicans.

House wants a say in Thomson sale

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn may have to ask for permission from the General Assembly if he wants to sell Thomson prison to the federal government.

President Barack Obama’s administration proposed a plan in December to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Thomson as part of the president’s plan to close the controversial prison that houses terror suspects in Cuba.

HB 4744 passed in the House today with bi-partisan support. It would require legislative approval for the sale of any state property worth more than $1 million.

“Properties worth more than $1 million, like the Thomson Correctional Center, should not be sold in the dead of night by administrative procedure, but in the light of day with legislative approval,” said Crystal Lake Republican Rep. Mike Tryon, the bill’s sponsor.

But Rep. Jim Sacia from Pecatonica, a vocal opponent of the bill and one of few Republican supporters of the plan to sell the prison, said that the measure amounts to nothing but political posturing. “I just can’t get over how people make this a partisan issue,” he said.

Sacia, whose district is near Thomson, said legislators are sacrificing job creation and economic growth for an area with double-digit unemployment rates to “take a shot at President Obama.”

Opponents of the sale have said that Illinois should reopen Thomson to help take pressure off the state's overcrowded corrections system. Sacia said that he has been trying every avenue to do just that since he got into office eight years ago, but the money just wasn’t and still isn't there. “If we couldn’t afford to open it then, don’t you dare get on your high horse and tell me we can afford to open it today,” he said.

Tryon said legislative approval for such a sale is a reasonable request when comparing Illinois with the rest of the nation. “Other state legislatures are required to approve similar transactions in their respective states, and there’s no reason it should be any different in Illinois.”

To become law, the bill still has to pass in the Senate and then get approval from Quinn. The governor's staff declined to comment. However, if Quinn wants the sale to go through, odds are he would veto the bill, so, the measure may not have a shot at passing until the legislature's veto session next fall.

Telecommunications rewrite on the horizon

By Rachel Wells

Rebuild the state’s Telecommunications Act and new jobs will follow, one industry group predicts.

The Illinois Technology Partnership, a coalition of business, technology and telecommunications organizations, today called on the General Assembly to modernize the regulatory legislation. The Act was first drafted in 1985 and updated in subsequent years but not enough to keep pace with new technologies according to the partnership.

“Since that time significant advancement in technology has been made, but the legislation is still focused on the regulatory climate in 1985,” said Lindsay Mosher, ITP executive director. “The act is focused on copper line and wire line technologies when the rest of the world has moved over to fiber optic and mobile.”

Mosher, who was backed by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and several technology-based businesses, said new companies are passing over Illinois in favor of states such as Indiana and Ohio, which have already addressed their telecommunications frameworks.

Mosher wouldn’t specify what changes she thinks are needed to modernize the act.

Sen. Michael Bond, a Grayslake Democrat who heads the Telecommunications and Technology Committee, agreed the act needs updated.

“That is a top priority this session,” Bond said. “If you look at the current telecom act, it’s really a mid-80s sort of act.” He added that technology these days – cellular phones and Internet-based phone service, for instance – can be unrecognizable from that available more than 20 years ago.

Bond said conversations with interested parties – such as cable, wireless and traditional technology companies – will start next week, and he hopes to push a few related bills through the legislature this spring. What exactly that legislation will include is still an unknown, but he said it will require balancing the interests of both the telecommunications industry and consumers.

Bond expects much of the early conversation with industry representatives to focus on free-market strategies, while dialogue with consumer groups will likely center on vulnerable populations – those without ready access to high-speed wireless Internet and those, like the elderly, who are unlikely to switch to newer technologies.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Board of elections may provide primary info

By Jamey Dunn

Voters may soon look to the State Board of Elections for information on candidates in primary races.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, said that her bill, which would require the board of elections to create voter guides for the primary, is not a direct response to this month’s election and noted that she filed the legislation in January.

However, she did say the election, with its tight races and low voter turnout, underscored the need for voters to be more informed about the candidates. She said including primary candidates in the voter guides — which contain basic information submitted by each candidate — that the board of elections now provides for general elections would be a good start.

“It’s a starting place for voters who want to know more — to figure out that there is a crowded field and who looks like a candidate I might want to support,” Currie said.

The Republican primary race for governor, with a field of six candidates, has yet to produce a winner. Sen. Bill Brady from Bloomington leads Sen. Kirk Dillard from Hinsdale by about 400 votes. Counties finish the count of all their absentee and provisional ballots today, but Dillard said he is not making a decision about concession until the votes are officially reported to the board of elections next Tuesday.

Two relatively unknown candidates won their parties’ nominations for lieutenant governor. The Republican candidate, Jason Plummer, is 27 years old, and some have questioned his experience. The former Democratic nominee, Scott Lee Cohen, announced he would step aside last week after allegations of domestic violence in his past created a storm of controversy. Currie’s fellow Democrats have since been criticized for not properly vetting Cohen.

HB 4842 passed in the House with no opposition today. If it passes in the Senate and is approved by the governor, the board of elections would have to add primary races to the voter guides it already publishes on its Web site. The races the board is required to include are for the presidency, U.S. Congress and statewide constitutional offices.

Daniel White, a spokesman for the board of elections, said that adding more entries to the guide should not add cost because it is published online and the candidates are responsible for submitting their information.

“We’re looking at it in terms of providing another tool for voters. … It certainly would be a good place for voters to begin taking a look at the candidates,” he said.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Budget address moved back to March

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn will be give his budget address next month instead of next week.

Quinn signed a bill today that bumps the date for the address back from next Wednesday to March 10.

Quinn will post general fiscal information on a Web site by February 24. He will accept suggestions about the budget from the legislature and the public via the Web site. Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, said the governor hopes to allow for more participation in the process, as well as make it more transparent.

Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, said he is worried that local governments will not have enough time to plan their budgets because of the delay. He said school districts, which will lose millions in stimulus funding in the 2011 fiscal year, could be especially hurt by the decision.

“That makes it more difficult for providers, and especially school districts who face other statutory deadlines, to make the decisions that they need to make. ... We need the information as soon as possible, and this puts off what is an inevitable bleak picture,” he said.

Eddy added that while he supported making the budgeting process more open, he said he thinks the real intent of the bill is to push difficult decisions to a later date.

“It’s just an attempt to put off and deflect the responsibility for this to others rather than assuming the leadership role. Present a budget in a timely manner so others can make decisions that are appropriate regarding services that they can provide at the local level.”

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, said that moving the address back a few weeks will not have a negative effect on the process. “It’s not unusual. Many governors over the years have asked for this opportunity. …We’ve certainly had budget addresses later than March 10. I think this legislature can do its job under the timetable this bill proposes.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan said that after a hard-fought primary election, it is understandable that Quinn might need a little more time.

“This is a reasonable request from a governor who has just come through a contested primary election, where the difference between he and his challenger was one point. So obviously his attention has been somewhat diverted because of the elections,” he said.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Senate moves to postpone budget address

By Jamey Dunn

A proposal to give Gov. Pat Quinn some extra time to work on his budget address has become the first partisan budget showdown of the session.

The Senate approved HB 2240 this afternoon. If approved by the House, the legislation would move the budget address from February 17, which is currently required by law, to March 10.

The bill would require Quinn to make some budget information available to the legislature and the public via a website by February 24. That information includes:
  • Total revenue for fiscal year 2010, including estimates for the remaining months.
  • Total spending for fiscal year 2010, including estimates for the remaining months.
  • Estimated revenue for fiscal year 2011.
  • The state’s obligations, such as interest on debts and pension payments, for fiscal year 2011.
Legislators, and anyone else in the state, could then use the website to make suggestions regarding the budget until March 10.

Senate Democrats said that they approached the governor’s office to request more transparency and input in the process. They tout the bill as an unprecedented cooperative approach to budgeting.

“We’re going to have, for the first time, the two major points. We’re going to have the information about how much money we’ve brought into this state so far this year and where we spent it. That’s never been officially reported,” said Senate President John Cullerton, the sponsor of the bill. “Secondly, we are going to have the official starting point for next year. We’re going to know how much money the governor says we have available to us and how much our obligations are for next year before he comes up with his budget.”

However, Republicans said the transparency measures were only included in the bill as an excuse to buy Quinn more time. “There’s a lot of good ideas in here, but when you boil it all down … this really is nothing more than window dressing to justify putting off the budget address. The fact of the matter is, there’s really nothing new that couldn’t have come out this week or last week,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said. She added that moving the address back would unnecessarily "compress" budget negotiations into a shorter time period.

Cullerton responded by saying the budget will be completed on time, and the process will actually begin once Quinn starts receiving input on the website.

“I think this is going to be a dramatic change. We still have to pass a budget by the same day. …We’re going to meet that deadline. We’re actually going to try to get out of Springfield three weeks earlier than we have in the past. And we’ll still have enough time to have [appropriations] hearings,” he said.

Republicans said that because the state is in a fiscal crisis, Quinn should be prepared to give his address on time. “This is now anarchy. This is fiscal anarchy,” said Aurora Republican Sen. Chris Lauzen. “If the governor does not know what he is going to say, on schedule, then we are truly lost.”

Blagojevich pleads not guilty

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty today in Chicago at his arraignment on new federal charges.

After leaving the courthouse, Blagojevich addressed reporters. He called on prosecutors to publicly play all taped conversations they have relating to his corruption case.

“I challenge the government. If you are on the side of truth and justice, as you say you are, and if this was a crime spree like you claim it was, then don’t hide behind technicalities. Play the tapes,” he said. Blagojevich’s lawyers filed a motion that would allow them to play as much of the tapes at the trial as they choose.

Blagojevich’s trial is set for June.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Public universities looking to borrow

By Jamey Dunn

Some state universities are turning to a plan that would allow them to borrow to fund their operating budgets. The bill was originally written just for Southern Illinois University, and less than a month ago many other public universities said they were not considering the option. But, after trying to budget around millions of dollars in late payments from the state, other universities are looking to jump on to the legislation.

“The members of the Senate from southern Illinois from both parties are in favor of the bill because it provides Southern Illinois University with a mechanism to avoid the damage that closing its doors would cause,” Alton Democrat Sen.William Haine, the sponsor of the bill, said. He said that the plan would not rely on bonding but would instead allow universities to borrow against the money that the state owes them. He likened it to an “emergency” line of credit. The decision to borrow would be left up to each institution’s board of trustees.

Haine pointed out that community colleges already have the power to borrow to fund their budgets. They have property tax revenue to use as collateral for loans.

Haine said that Western Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University have expressed interest in being included in the legislation. “University of Illinois is not on the bill. They’re not against the bill. They’re just ok where they are,” Haine said.

Dave Steelman, director of governmental relations for Western, said the school is considering seeking borrowing power.

“Joining the bill would be done very very reluctantly. We don’t think we should be at this point in the first place,” he said.

Steelman added that universities are concerned that the bill might be seen as a partial solution to the state’s overstretched checkbook, and it could slow down payments to them even more. “We all have horrible mixed feelings about having the bill out there to begin with…There are some legislators that will say, well [universities] can just go and borrow.” However, Steelman said the schools considering the plan are also trying to keep from closing their doors mid-semester.

Calls made to Eastern and Northern to confirm their interest in the plan were not returned. UPDATE: Eastern Illinois University President William Perry confirmed that Eastern is planning to seek borrowing power.

Haine says the bill will be amended to include other schools, and he hopes to get it called for a vote this week.

Meanwhile, university leaders called on the state at a Chicago news conference today to develop a payment schedule for doling out money to higher education—and to stick to it.

“No amount of cutting and sacrifice can make up for the absence of hundreds of millions of dollars in state appropriation payments. Without full funding of our appropriations in a timely manner, we will be forced to take even more drastic actions that will diminish the educational opportunities of our students and our service to the people of Illinois,” a news release from Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois said. The group sent a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes asking them to commit to a payment schedule.

“The comptroller’s office would love to pay every bill as it arrives at its door. Unfortunately, revenues are lower than the governor and legislature projected and the state is continuing to spend more money than it takes in…We do our best to balance all the needs with the limited resources that are available. We’ve tried to work with the universities to address payment emergencies as we have with those who provide goods and services across this state who are waiting months and months to be reimbursed,” Hynes spokeswoman Carol Knowles said in an email.

Less good-time credit for DUI offenders

By Rachel Wells

Some DUI offenders could face longer prison times if legislators succeed in limiting their eligibility for good behavior time off.

Under HB 4776, prisoners convicted of aggravated driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol would accumulate no more than 4.5 days of good behavior time off for every month of incarceration. Previously, the 4.5-day limitation applied only to DUI offenders who had caused someone’s death.

“We have to provide significant and severe penalties to people who cause great bodily harm and disfigurement as well,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat. “[This will] strengthen our laws and be just one more tool that we can use out there in our communities to convince people that they should not get into their cars when they’re drunk.”

The measure, approved on Tuesday by the House, stems from northern suburb law enforcement recommendations, Lang said, but a recent early release controversy probably helped it gain momentum. In December, the Associated Press revealed that the Department of Corrections had released offenders, some of them convicted for violent crimes, after they’d spent only a few weeks in prison. The secret program was called Meritorious Good Time Push, or "MGT Push."

“I think, yes, the ‘MGT [Push]’ issues that are out front and center probably helped people realize that we need to do this, but I’m fairly sure that this bill would have passed anyway.” No House members voted against the bill.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Democrats must pick new lt. gov candidate

By Rachel Wells

Now that Scott Lee Cohen’s tumultuous run for public office is over, party members must choose a replacement lieutenant governor candidate for the Nov. 2 Democratic ticket.

Cohen, a pawnbroker who was accused of domestic battery, announced his withdrawal from the race Sunday evening at a Chicago tavern.

The Democratic State Central Committee is charged with selecting the new candidate and may wait to do so after the State Board of Elections certifies election results, said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker and party chairman Michael Madigan. The number of Democratic ballots cast in each committee member’s congressional district determines the weight of his or her vote in the selection process. Those numbers aren’t official until March 5. Whether the committee chooses a candidate before or after that date, Brown said the process would be “incredibly transparent.”

While leaders will likely aim for a quick decision, “what’s important is that they have the best candidate – that they look at all the options, all the alternatives,” Brown said.

In a Chicago news conference this morning, incumbent gubernatorial candidate Pat Quinn said he wants a running mate with “progressive values,” but the process of identifying him or her should be a team effort. Phone calls placed to Quinn’s campaign this afternoon were not immediately returned.

Brown would not speak to the topic of potential candidates. Speculation has included Madigan-endorsed Chicago state Rep. Art Turner, who came in second in the primary, or possibly a downstate candidate to better round out the Democratic ticket. A phone called placed with Turner’s campaign was not immediately returned. Waukegan Sen. Terry Link, East Moline Rep. Mike Boland, Elmhurst electrician Thomas Castillo and Chicago Sen. Rickey Hendon were also lieutenant governor candidates in the primary.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A look back at recount and the lt. gov's office

UPDATE: Scott Lee Cohen stepped down as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Sunday evening. The Illinois Democratic party will chose his replacement. Check back in the coming days for more updates.


By Jamey Dunn

Illinois laws relating to recounts may soon be implemented in a state race for the first time since they were passed.

While state Sen. Kirk Dillard from Hinsdale has not called for a recount yet, he is not giving up, either. He said he wants to wait until all the votes are counted before he decides. Dillard is vying with Sen Bill Brady from Bloomington for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

"All of the votes aren't in, and there could be between 5,000 and 10,000 votes still out there," Dillard said at a Chicago news conference today.

The last time a candidate requested a recount was in the 1982 governor's race. Republican candidate Jim Thompson led Adlai Stevenson III by a little more than 5,000 votes. Ron Michaelson, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections from 1976 to 2003, said that gap worked out to less than half of a vote per precinct at the time. “It was an incredibly close election. Probably the closest general election in the history of Illinois,” he said.

Instead of making a decision on Stevenson’s request, the Illinois Supreme Court found the recount law unconstitutional, leaving Stevenson with no recourse. Thompson became governor. The legislature changed the law, and it became what we have today.

“The law was fixed, but for state races, it has really never been used since then,” Michaelson said. He added that Dillard does not have to make up his mind about recount right away. “We’ve got a little time for everybody to figure out if they want to pursue it."

Michaelson pointed out that depending on the final numbers, other candidates also could ask for recounts. “Literally, even today, votes are still being counted,” he said. Concessions do not legally bind anyone to dropping out of a race. However, he said he doesn’t think it likely that anyone who has already conceded will ask for a recount.

Winners in all the races will not be declared until the votes are certified on March 5. Candidates then have five days to request a discovery recount.

Candidates can choose up to 25 percent of precincts for consideration, and they must foot the bill for the discovery recount. The Illinois Supreme Court then decides if the results warrant a sate-wide recount. If the Supreme Court gives the go ahead, the burden of cost then falls on the state.

Dillard said he doesn't think waiting to make a decision will hurt party unity. On the contrary, he said it is a plus for Republicans that the party has two candidates to carry its message.

Lieutenant governor

By Rachel Wells

Walker/Hartigan, Stevenson/Fairchild, Blagojevich/Quinn, and now Quinn/Cohen: Governors in Illinois, with a few exceptions, run a streak of less-than-happy lieutenant governor pairings.

So, while shocking, the latest pairing of incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn -- historically portrayed as a squeaky clean reformer -- and political newcomer Scott Lee Cohen -- a pawnshop owner accused of domestic battery -- isn’t entirely surprising. It’s history repeating itself, and we should have seen it coming, a few political observers agree.

“It could have been avoided,” said Mike Lawrence, retired director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “When the current Constitution was enacted in 1970, it allowed the General Assembly to determine that the governor and lieutenant governor could be nominated jointly. The legislature has never followed up on that.”

Soon after the Constitution was ratified, alarm bells should have sounded in 1973 with the election of Neil Hartigan and Dan Walker, Lawrence said. As an anti-organization candidate, Gov. Walker clashed with Lt. Gov. Hartigan, a Chicago Machine ward committeeman.

Another warning that has since become infamous came in 1986. Although a slew of candidates organized by extremist Lyndon LaRouche Jr. failed to file complete petitions, the Democratic party, whose banner they were running under, put up no protest. The candidates, including eventual lieutenant governor nominee Mark Fairchild, were not seen as threats. To political onlookers’ surprise, Fairchild won the primary and was automatically paired with powerful former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III. Rather than partner with Fairchild, Stevenson ran under a specially minted party banner but lost to Republican Jim Thompson.

“It was a nightmare for the Democratic Party,” said Michaelson, the former director of the Illinois State Board of Elections. “Of course, the Republicans swept everything.”

“There was a wake up call in 1986, and the General Assembly continued to sleep,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s absolutely irresponsible that something wasn’t done about this a long time ago.”

Lawrence said tying the two positions together for the primary would be ideal. If the legislature doesn’t take action, Lawrence said, the lieutenant governor’s seat should be eliminated and the line of succession reorganized. Either way would help ensure a smooth transition if the governor became unable to serve.

Constitutional convention delegate Dawn Clark Netsch, now a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, said there was discussion in 1970 of eliminating the position, but the idea didn’t gain enough traction. “Probably the argument most made was [the lieutenant governor’s seat] provided another opening … for allowing people who maybe were not part of the establishment … another place for them to get their feet wet,” Netsch said. But, “I think it’s not that useful in that respect. We’ve got enough state elective offices. It certainly does lend itself to occasional problems, like now.”

“I can’t remember why we were not able to pass it after the ‘86 fiasco,” said Netsch, a former state comptroller and Democratic nominee for governor. “I’m sure there are political motivations, but I honestly don’t know what they are.”

Reaction to the 1986 race wasn’t about changing election policy, though, Michaelson said. “Most of the conversation revolved around the ineptness of the Democrats during the primary season.” Between blaming of the media and the party organization for not exposing Fairchild’s flaws, election policy didn’t get enough attention to effect change. The scandal over Cohen’s nomination is panning out in a similar way. Time will tell if it will move past finger-pointing to statutory change.

Besides the Quinn-Cohen situation, the 2010 primary had the potential for other tumultuous pairings because Republican lieutenant governor candidate Matt Murphy unofficially ran with governor candidate Andy McKenna. Former Gov. Jim Edgar on Thursday explained the problems at a post-election analysis:

Edgar insisted that a governor should have confidence in his lieutenant governor for the position to be at all functional.

In the same forum, David Yepson, current director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, called both Cohen and young Republican lieutenant governor nominee Jason Plummer “a bullet in a chamber.”

“Apparently nobody was paying attention to the office of lieutenant governor, and that allowed people to just go their own way and allowed somebody to put enough money (into the race),” Netsch said. “I think they’re going to be paying a little more attention (now). Of course, I thought that in 1986.”

Michaelson expects to hear more talk of abolishing the lieutenant governor seat. “The state is in a terrible position, but I don’t think it is because there is no lieutenant governor ”

Forsyth Republican Rep. Bill Mitchell is the sponsor of a constitutional amendment to eliminate the lieutenant governor's office. He said the fact that the office has been empty since Quinn became governor shows that it is unnecessary.

“I can think of no compelling reason to keep the office,” Mitchell said. “That being said, I think that recent events make my legislation all the more important.”

UPDATE: Voters would also have the chance to eliminate through constitutional amendment the lieutenant governor position, under a resolution introduced by House Speaker Michael Madigan February 10.

If lawmakers approve HJRCA 50, the measure could appear on the Nov. 2, 2010, general election ballot. The bill calls for abolishing the position in 2015 and would make the Attorney General next in line for the Governor’s seat.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Blagojevich indicted, again

Federal prosecutors indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich a second time today.

The eight new charges in the indictment do not allege any new criminal behavior. The indictment upholds all the previous charges but also alleges that Rod Blagojevich, Rob Blagojevich and former chief of staff John Harris’ actions violated additional laws.

Prosecutors hope to ensure that an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling relating to some of the original charges will not delay Blagojevich’s trial

Michigan asks for locks to be closed, again

By Rachel Wells

Michigan is once again asking for Chicago-area navigational locks to be closed immediately to protect Lake Michigan from Asian carp.

The U.S. Supreme Court already dismissed the matter once, despite Michigan’s claims that the invasive and ecologically damaging fish would destroy its lake-based industries.

In the new filings, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox pointed to DNA test results that were previously omitted. The tests showed evidence that Asian carp had likely advanced to Calumet Harbor. Cox also alleged that the estimated economic costs of closing the locks were exaggerated in earlier court documents.

The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to consider permanent lock closure. February 19 is the deadline for interested parties to file positions on the case.

Republican primary in retrospect

By Rachel Wells

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, the lone downstate candidate, Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, reaped the benefits of Chicago-land vote-splitting, former Gov. Jim Edgar said Thursday at a post-primary election analysis during a Thursday luncheon event in Springfield.

Starting with Jim Ryan’s decision to enter the race, Edgar addresses the Republican primary in the video below:

Throughout the primary campaign, Edgar said, Brady stood out as the only downstate Republican candidate against Adam Andrzejewski and Sen. Kirk Dillard, both of Hinsdale; Andy McKenna, Dan Proft and Jim Ryan, all of Chicago; and DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom, who dropped out of the race but remained on the ballot.

He compared the situation to 1991, when Carol Mosely Braun took the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination after a three-way battle between Braun, incumbent Alan Dixon and political unknown Al Hofeld. The campaign scene turned negative between Dixon and Hofeld, with Braun relying on a chaotic but positive campaign. Braun took the majority of Chicago and pluralities in suburban Cook County and the collar counties. While Dixon was a downstater, Hofeld’s attacks and a general anti-incumbent mood left the two-term senator with only 49 percent of the downstate vote. Braun took 20 percent and Hofeld took 31 percent.

In Edgar’s opinion, negative campaigning played a role in McKenna’s defeat, too.

As of Thursday afternoon, Dillard was only a few hundred votes behind Brady and had not conceded. McKenna conceded Thursday afternoon. Edgar endorsed Dillard for the nomination last fall.

Edgar and David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, spoke Thursday on a number of election-related topics including: Republicans and the Hispanic vote, polling, voter turn-out, the U.S. Senate race and party unity. Check back over the next several days for more post-primary coverage and commentary from Edgar and Yepsen.

Thursday's event was sponsored by the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Supreme Court strikes down med-mal caps

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled today that caps set by the legislature on how much money juries can award victims of medical malpractice are unconstitutional.

The 2005 law limited jury awards for pain and suffering at $500,000 for doctors and $1 million for hospitals. The court upheld a Cook County Circuit Court’s ruling that the law violated the separation of powers between the branches of government. In essence, the court said the General Assembly cannot limit the decision-making power of juries when it comes to awarding money for pain and suffering because it was one branch of government, the legislature, encroaching on the power of another, the judicial.

“It doesn’t matter if somebody thinks it’s a really good idea, or some people thinks it’s wise or some people think there might be something good coming out of it. If it encroaches upon … the three separate branches of government … the [Illinois] Supreme Court is the ultimate decider of whether that violates the Constitution,” said Keith Hebeisen, former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

This is the third time the court has found caps on damages unconstitutional.

Hebeisen added the caps created a “one-size-fits-all limit,” and it is impossible for the legislature to determine what is fair without considering the merits of each individual malpractice case.

The law also contained some insurance reforms that were struck down because of a provision that said if part of the statute were found unconstitutional, all of it would be void. Patients' rights advocates and trial lawyers say the reforms should be put back through new legislation.

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, said that any legislator who supported the caps should now support restoring the insurance reforms.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said that he would probably support putting some of the reforms back in place. However, he said that bringing back the insurance reforms on their own will not go far enough to lower the cost of medical malpractice insurance for doctors. He added that Republicans are considering proposing a constitutional amendment to make the caps work.

Supporters of the caps say the rising costs of medical malpractice insurance, due in part to lawsuits, was driving doctors out of the state.

“We had a crisis before we passed this bill, so we are going to react and come up with some ideas where we think we can get back to finding a way to keep doctors in Illinois,” Cross said.

Advocates for medical professionals said the ruling will weaken Illinois’ health care system and make it more difficult for Illinois citizens to find treatment.

“Overturning this law further strains our state’s already-ailing health care system,” Dr. James Milam, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, said in a news release. “Losing medical lawsuit reform heaps even greater pressure on patients and doctors. Something has to give.”

For further background on the topic, see an article written by former bureau chief Bethany Jaeger in 2004.

Quinn says Cohen must explain his past

Gov. Pat Quinn said at a news conference in Chicago today that his Democratic running mate, Scott Lee Cohen, "has a lot of explaining to do."

“It’s imperative that the lieutenant governor candidate speak up quickly… and completely about very serious matters that I think all of us are concerned about.”

Cohen was charged with domestic battery in 2005. The charges were dropped when Cohen’s then-girlfriend did not appear in court. The police report alleges that Cohen pushed the woman against a wall and threatened her with a knife. Cohen denies the allegations. In the same month as the alleged incident, the woman pleaded guilty to an unrelated prostitution charge, and Cohen has said that he was unaware that she was a prostitute.

“It was a difficult time in my life. I was going through a divorce, and I fell in with the wrong crowd. I was in a tumultuous relationship with the woman I was dating. We had a fight, but I never touched her. She called the police, however, she never came to court, and the charges were dismissed. I realized this relationship was not healthy for me. I ended it, and we parted amicably,” Cohen said in a written statement.

Quinn said he found out about Cohen’s past yesterday morning. Cohen, a Chicago businessman, was the surprise winner of the Democratic primary. He has no prior political experience and his campaign was almost completely self-funded.

Quinn said that Cohen should be given the chance to explain his past, but if the issue becomes too much of a distraction, he should drop out of the race.

“If the explanations are unsatisfactory, if the conduct is inappropriate, the only way to go is to step aside.”

Since Cohen's past was brought to light, rumors have been swirling that Quinn's campaign may try to pressure him off the ticket. Quinn denied this and said he thinks Cohen will "do the right thing."

Hynes concedes

By Jamey Dunn

Comptroller Dan Hynes conceded the Democratic nomination for governor to Gov. Pat Quinn this morning.

“Well, the people have spoken. And the votes have been counted. … We rose up but fell just a little short,” Hynes said at a news conference in Chicago. He said he called Quinn this morning to congratulate him.

An emotional Hynes pledged his support to Gov. Pat Quinn. He said after ethics scandals and financial turmoil, the state needs unity and should “choose peace.”

In reference to a competitive primary that produced attack ads on both sides, Hynes said: “It’s true that we had a few disagreements in this campaign. But that’s what happens in a spirited discussion about our future”

Hynes choked up while thanking his friends and family. He called on Illinois officials to work together and give Illinois a government “that just does the simple things that make our lives better.”

Quinn had already claimed victory in the primary. A call to his campaign was not immediately returned. UPDATE Quinn echoed Hynes' call for party unity at a news conference in Chicago this morning.

“The primary is over. Primaries are always difficult for everyone…but when it’s all over it’s like a family. We put aside differences.”