Thursday, November 29, 2012

Senate panel OK's bill to give illegal immigrants temporary driver's licenses

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois Senate committee today approved a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants access to temporary driver's licenses.

Senate Bill 957 would give immigrants who are in the country illegally a chance to get temporary Illinois driver's licenses. Such licenses are already available in Illinois to immigrants who lack a Social Security number but have proof that they are in the country legally. The legislation would extend the licenses, which are valid for three years, to immigrants who cannot provide documentation of legal status. Proponents say the measure would make the state’s roadways safer and allow immigrants to purchase legally required insurance. “I think that while the issue of immigration is being debated on the national level, in the meantime we care about the safety of our highways in the state,” said Senate President John Cullerton, who is sponsoring the bill.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, Jr. said the measure recognizes the reality that an estimated 250,000 immigrants are driving in the state without licenses or insurance. "These people are not going to be deported. They’re here, and they need to get to work.” He said that those drivers would be safer if they are tested on driving skills and given the eye exam required to obtain a license. “All drivers on the road are safer when they are trained, tested, licensed and insured.”

Curran said the bill would “ease the burden on jails and courts” and policy that have to deal with immigrants picked up for driving without a license. “Ultimately, law enforcement would rather go after the bad guys.”

The licenses would only be available to residents who can prove they have lived in Illinois for a year. Sponsors say that provision is meant to prevent immigrants from neighboring states coming to Illinois to obtain licenses. The licenses would have a different appearance than standard driver’s licenses and could not be used for identification or commercial driving. After three years, holders could reapply for another temporary license, and there is no limit on the number of times they could reapply. If a driver with one of the licenses does not have legally required liability insurance, his or her license would no longer be valid.

Esther Corpuz, regional vice president of governmental and community affairs for Vanguard Health Systems in Chicago, says the provision would also help those in the medical community because often, undocumented patients do not have any form of identification. “In the case of first responders, this is a big issue, making sure that we know who we are caring for.”

However, Sen. Dale Righter said Corpuz’s statement highlights a problem with the proposal. While the bill says that the licenses cannot be used as identification, in practice, they likely would be. “The bill specifically states that the permits will not be used to identify who the person is. ... It can’t be used for identification. Period,” said Righter, a Republican from Mattoon. “That’s one of the catch-22s in the bill. You want to use it to find out who you are dealing with, but that document is not supposed to be used to find out who you are dealing with.”’

Corpuz said, “At the end of the day .. .in emergency situations, we need to know who we are caring for.”

 Bloomington Republican Sen. Bill Brady, who said he helped draft the identification provision in the bill, said it was intended to keep the licenses from being used for specific transactions that involve government regulation or security concerns. He says the restriction is in the bill “so the document could not be used falsely for the purchase of firearms, boarding airplanes or voting.”

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said that if the bill becomes law, legislators should monitor the system and watch for fraud or misuse. However, with the lack of federal immigration reform to guide states, she said the bill is necessary. “We’re placed in this situation because of the inaction of the federal government,” she said. “I think we have taken steps to ensure that there is as little fraud as possible. ... It may not be perfect, but I think the time has come.”

Supporters say they expect the bill to be called for a floor vote in the Senate next week. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Radogno hangs onto leadership spot

By Jamey Dunn 

Despite daunting losses in November’s general election and a challenge from among her ranks, Republican Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont will hold onto her leadership position when the new General Assembly is seated in January.

Senate Republicans held an informal vote at a dinner this evening. The official vote will come after the new legislature is sworn in next year, but the outcome is traditionally determined before the issue is brought up on the Senate floor.

After Senate Republican candidates lost big in the election, Lebanon Sen. Kyle McCarter started publicly angling for the leadership job. But he failed to gain the needed support in the Senate Republican caucus, which will only have 19 members in the new General Assembly.

House Republicans voted last night to retain Minority Leader Tom Cross.

Lawmakers keep busy on the second day of veto session

By Jamey Dunn

During a busy veto session day today, lawmakers voted to override Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget vetoes, approved a bill that would require publicly traded corporations to share some tax information with the public and passed a resolution that could bar the way for pay raises for public employees.

Budget vetoes
The Senate voted to override some of Quinn’s changes to the budget they approved in the spring. Quinn signed the budget sent to him by the General Assembly, but he vetoed $19.4 million that was included to run the state’s only super-maximum security prison, located near Tamms, and the $21.2 million included to operate a women’s prison in Dwight. In addition to the prisons, he plans to close three transition centers meant to help inmates reenter society. Quinn also cut $8.9 million for a youth prison in Joliet and $6.6 million for a youth prison in Murphysboro. The chamber approved putting funding back for the corrections facilities.

“Our prison population is at an all-time high, our prisons are severely overcrowded and our staffing levels are down,” Sen. Gary Forby, who called for the override, said in a prepared statement. Tamms is located in Forby's district. “I hope that today’s Senate vote sends a clear message to the governor that he needs to stop fighting us on this issue. He needs to use these funds to manage the overcrowding of our prison system and ensure the safety of employees and inmates.”

The governor has been lobbying lawmakers to uphold his changes. “I had to make those vetoes in order to have money for the Department of Children and Family Services, and also because we can’t be spending millions of taxpayer’s dollars on prisons and juvenile justice camps that are half empty and in one case totally empty,” Quinn said. “The concept that we’re going to keep open Murphysboro, which is a juvenile justice camp, at a cost of millions of bucks and then take away money from neglected and abused children is I think really upside down. So I hope we prevail. We have two [chambers], and we’re going to fight hard in both places to uphold my decision.” The bill will now go over to the House.

Quinn is under no obligation to spend the money even if the General Assembly votes to restore it. However, he cannot spend the money elsewhere, such as on DCFS costs, without the approval of lawmakers.

DNR funding 
After a failed attempt at the end of the spring legislative session to approve revenue to fund the state’s struggling Department of Natural Resources, the bill passed in the Senate today. Senate Bill 1566 would increase vehicle registration fees by $2, which would bring the cost of registration for a standard passenger vehicle to $101 annually. The proposal would also allow the DNR to charge out-of-state visitors park entrance fees and charge all visitors access fees for certain park features, such as beaches and horse trails. A previous plan of charging entrance fees for all park visitors was scrapped in lieu of the proposed increased vehicle registration fee. “If you live in Illinois and you have an Illinois plate, it’s open season. Go to any park you want to,” Hutchinson said of the plan the last time it was up for a vote. The measure has already passed in the House, and a Quinn spokesperson said the governor plans to sign the bill.

Republicans who opposed the bill said that the Quinn administration chose to underfund DNR and spend the money on other programs.

Corporate tax info 
The Senate approved Senate Bill 282, which would require publicly traded corporations doing business in Illinois make some tax information public.

Senate President John Cullerton, who sponsors the bill, says that the measure is meant to help legislators make more informed tax policy decisions. “It’s not a gotcha to the business community. It’s actually something that helps us have a better tax structure.”

Under the proposal, corporations would submit tax information such as their incomes, tax liability and tax credits they receive to the secretary of state. The information would not be made available to the public until two years after the information is filed. At that time, it would be available to the public through a searchable online database.

Leaders of business organizations have balked at the idea of having to release information they say is private. “I think tax information is proprietary and confidential and should not be publicly released,” said Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers Association. “The reaction from the business community ... has been pretty reflexively negative,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy. He said that he recognizes that Cullerton is not trying to hurt businesses, but he said, “I think at its core it sends the wrong message.” Murphy called on Cullerton to compromise with businesses.

Cullerton said business groups have not come to him with any suggestions for compromise so far, but he said he hopes that might change. “Sometimes, people’s willingness to negotiate increases after it passes one chamber.” The bill has an influential House sponsor in Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie and also has the support of Quinn.

Cullerton said he is open to changes being made to the bill in the House. “If there is some reason why some of these things that we’re asking to be disclosed should not be, and there’s a rational basis for that, I can take it out.”

State workers pay raises 
The House approved a resolution stating that it will not include money for state employee pay raises in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, which takes effect in July. House Speaker Michael Madigan, who sponsors House Joint Resolution 45, said it is “a clear message from the House, to both the negotiators, both sides, that we don’t see room for salary increases. We just don’t see it.”

Quinn is currently negotiating a new contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Quinn said today that he told the union there is no money for raises under the new contract. “I honor the workers all the time. I have never said anything other than I really appreciate their public service. At the same time, if the state has these severe financial challenges, we’re all going to have to realize that that’s the reality and we’re not going to be able to have raises.” Union officials say the resolution undermines collective bargaining.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said the union has offered to forgo pay increases in 2013 in exchange for concessions from the state. “In reality, state employees have voluntarily done more than anyone to help the state close its budget gap — agreeing in 2010 and 2011 to unpaid furlough days, wage deferrals, health plan changes and other concessions that saved the state more than $400 million, and offering in the current round of negotiations to accept no pay increase in 2013 as part of a comprehensive settlement,” Lindall said in prepared statement.

Assault weapons ban 
The Senate also voted to override a veto that Quinn used to tack an assaults weapon to another bill.

SB681 would allow Illinois gun owners to purchase ammunition from in-state dealers through the mail. However, after a mass shooting in Colorado movie theater in July, Quinn used his veto pen to attach a ban on semi-automatic rifles, high-capacity magazines and .50-caliber guns onto the bill. Many lawmakers agreed that Quinn overstepped his authority by hijacking a bill that is at best tangentially related to the issue. “If the governor wants to do that, then he probably needs to find someone who introduces that bill and then we have a discussion about that bill,” said Okawville Republican David Luechtefeld, who sponsored SB 681. If the House also votes to override the veto, the underlying legislation would become law.

Quinn plans to keep pushing for a ban. “In the past six months, our nation experienced two violent shootings with an assault weapon in everyday settings: A gunman used a semi-automatic assault weapon to kill six worshipers at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Illinois also lost one of its own, Petty Officer 3rd Class John Larimer, in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre with an assault weapon that left 12 dead. As the governor has said, there is no place in Illinois for weapons designed to rapidly fire at human targets at close range,” Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said in a prepared statement. “A statewide ban on assault weapons is good public safety policy, and we will vigorously pursue this cause.”

The House has canceled its session for tomorrow, but the Senate is scheduled to start its session at 10 a.m. 

Quinn: There is no money for pay raises

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn said today that Illinois does not have the money to give public workers raises under the contract their union is currently negotiating with the state.

 “We’ve already told the union in the negotiations that there’s no money for raises,” Quinn said. He said he supports a House resolution that would urge lawmakers not to approve money for raises in the fiscal year 2013 budget. “It’s just common sense. The piggy bank is not there to be giving out raises. We have many bills to pay. We have this pension challenge, and so the notion that we would be giving out raises is not in the cards. And so it’s better for everybody, the executive branch and the legislative branch, to let the government employee union know what the facts are.”

 “HJR 45 unnecessarily limits the rights of workers and undermines the state employee collective bargaining process that has worked without disruption in Illinois for 40 years,” Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in a written statement. “This resolution and continued false statements by the governor and his administration wrongly blame hard-working public servants for the state’s budget problems. Men and women who care for veterans and the disabled, protect children from abuse and keep our communities safe have earned middle-class wages, and Pat Quinn’s actions to terminate their union contract while trying to drive down their standard of living is an attack on the middle class.”

 Lindall said the union has offered in negotiations with Quinn to forgo raises next year as part of a “comprehensive settlement.”

 “We’re negotiating now,”  Quinn said of the new contract. “I really hope we can come to a fair deal for everybody,”  Quinn opted last week not to extend the union’s previous contract, which expired in June. However, workers are staying on the job without a contract, and the terms of the expired contract remain in place under state law.

Quinn also defended Squeezy the Pension Python, a character in an online video produced by the governor’s office to inform the public on growing pension costs. The cartoon snake has been mocked by some political commentators. Quinn said the character is a “creative” way to explain the issue to the average Facebook or Twitter user. “In the world of social media, you’re trying to connect to folks who maybe aren’t all that political. That’s maybe 98 percent of the people. They don’t live and breathe politics every day, and we’ve got to get beyond the sphere of just people on the inside. The issue of the pension reform really affects everybody, the amount of money we spend on our schools and our public safety and helping veterans, all of that is getting squeezed by this pension challenge.”

Lindall said that video inaccurately characterizes the issue. “The governor’s pension website is misleading to the public. Rather than pretending that the pension debt is the cause, when in fact, it’s a symptom of the state’s unfair tax structure — and instead of comparing retirees to snakes — a worthwhile education effort would explain what’s truly needed: a guarantee that politicians won’t skip pension payments going forward; and adequate revenue to maintain vital services while the state pays the pension debt.”

Quinn today declined to comment on a plan under consideration in the House to borrow $4 billion. The measure, House Bill 6240, is sponsored by Chicago Democratic Rep. Esther Golar. “I haven’t seen that bill. I have to look at it,” Quinn said. In the past, he has pushed the idea of borrowing billions to pay off some of the state's overdue bills.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

House resolution could mean no pay raises for state workers

By Jamey Dunn

State workers may not get a raise next fiscal year if lawmakers stick to a resolution approved by a House committee today.

House Joint Resolution 45 says that the General Assembly will not approve funding in the fiscal year 2013 budget to pay for any raises that could come out of the collective bargaining talks currently being held between Gov. Pat Quinn and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, the state’s largest public employee union.

The resolution does not legally bind Quinn from striking a deal to give workers a pay raise, but if passed, it would send a message that lawmakers are unlikely to include the money for a raise in next fiscal year’s budget. “It’s very straightforward. It simply expresses the opinion of the House concerning the amount of money that should be spent pending [a] collective bargaining contract,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan, who sponsors the amendment. The measure also states that it would be “policy of the state of Illinois” that the size of the state’s workforce will not be part of collective bargaining, meaning that promises to skip or lessen layoffs could not be used as bargaining chip in negotiations. Again, this provision would not legally bind Quinn or governors following him.

The legislature effectively blocked pay increases for AFSCME members last year by not including the money for them in the budget. Gov. Quinn canceled the raises, saying that his hands were tied by the budget approved by lawmakers. The issue is still playing out in court. Although resolutions are not legally binding, the House has also stuck to recent budget resolutions that capped general spending.

Lawmakers in favor of the resolution say that because the legislature approves the budget, the General Assembly should have some say in the spending associated with union contracts. “We’ve put our input in, which is we don’t have additional money. So if you make promises regarding additional money, the state does not have the ability to keep those promises,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat.

But union officials say that the legislature is undermining the collective bargaining process. “Our union has negotiated contracts with Democratic governors, with Republican governors, in good fiscal times and in bad fiscal times. And the current collective bargaining process, uninterrupted, has allowed for contracts that are fair both to the workforce and to taxpayers,” said Joanna Webb-Gauvin, legislative director for AFSCME Council 31.

She said that the resolution could “destabilize labor relations” in Illinois. It appears that negotiations over the contract are already on shaky ground. Quinn decided last week not to extend the contract, which expired in June. However, workers are staying on the job without a contract and the terms of the expired contract remain in place under state law.

 “We are very much aware of the state’s fiscal condition. No one is more aware of the state’s fiscal crisis then our members who have been on the front lines suffering under shared sacrifice for the past decade,” said Webb-Gauvin. “Our members and their salaries did not cause the fiscal crisis, and passing this resolution won’t solve it.”

 “This resolution does not attack state workers,” said Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican.  “We understand the job that they do. We understand the hard work that they do. I do not feel that it is an interference into the collective bargaining process.” He said that lawmakers, who are wrestling with difficult budgeting decisions, need to convey the reality of the state’s dire fiscal situation. “We should have a voice.”

The resolution passed out of committee with no opposition. Bradley said it could come up for a floor vote in the House as early as tomorrow.

Corporate tax info could become public knowledge

By Jamey Dunn

Some Illinois lawmakers want to look at corporations’ income tax bills, but business groups say it would violate their privacy.

Senate President John Cullerton said he plans to call Senate Bill 282 for a floor vote this week. The measure would require publicly traded corporations that do business in Illinois to share tax information, such as their incomes, tax liability and tax credits they receive. The information would not be made available to the public until two years after it was filed with secretary of state. At that time, it would be available to the public through a searchable online database.

Cullerton and the bill’s House sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, said at a news conference today that lawmakers need the information to make informed decisions about tax policy. “So we have to educate people on where we get our money and where we spend our money,” Cullerton said, “because when we have tough times like we’ve had, people just say, you know, 'Cut the waste,' and, you know, 'Get rid of the fraud.’ Well, fine. But in the meantime, we’ve got to balance a budget, and so being able to know where the money comes from is really important.”

Business groups say sharing such information could expose them to their competitors. “You may have two publicly traded companies that make the same kind of product. If one of those companies is having tax problems and the other one is not, that’s a huge competitive advantage for knowing that,” said Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

The measure would apply to all corporations that do business, such as selling products in the state, not just those that are based here. Cullerton said it is unlikely that the bill would spur any businesses to leave the state because they would still have to disclose the information if they wanted to conduct business in Illinois.

Community groups backing the bill argue that in tight times, all decisions that affect revenue deserve scrutiny. They say that some corporations are not pulling their weight when it comes to paying taxes. “This information is crucial for us to responsibly balance our state budget in way that ensures a better future for all of us. Our state simply cannot afford to excuse two-thirds of its corporations from paying their fair share without even knowing if they can afford to do more,” said Tony Pierce, board president of Bloomington-based Illinois People’s Action.

The Illinois Department of Revenue estimates that two-thirds of corporations in Illinois do not pay any corporate income tax. However, they do pay other taxes, such as sales and property taxes. “Let’s face it: There are very very few taxpayers in Illinois who don’t try and minimize their tax bill. I certainly do it. I’ll admit it. I take all those exemptions, and corporations, they want to pay what they owe but not anything more,” said Todd Maisch, vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Camber of Commerce. “Especially coming out of the great recession, when we had a number of prominent Illinois businesses [that] only still exist because they were able to go through banks, it’s not surprising that you would have a fairly large number [of business that do not pay income tax].”

Currie and Cullerton both said that the measure is not an effort to increase the tax rate on corporations but an attempt to make lawmakers and the public more informed. “Two words are very popular in politics these days: transparency and accountability. Senate Bill 282 fits that profile,” Currie said. “Public policy makers can’t make good public policy if they don’t know what’s going on.”

However, Currie said that if the information shows that companies making big profits are not paying corporate income taxes, “maybe we should say that their full share is not zero.”

Business organizations say that if the proposal becomes law, it would send a message that the state is not friendly to development. “Will people go ahead an pick up and move their companies or move out of Illinois market because of this?” Maisch asked. “You know, I don’t know. There is a cumulative effect. Think about all the things that have happened, and this is one more thing that points in the wrong direction. ... The most likely impact is the invisible investment that didn’t happen.”

If SB 282 passes in the Senate, it will then go to the House for consideration.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Quinn wants help from lawmakers to move special election date back

By Jamey Dunn

Voters in Illinois’ Second Congressional District will soon be headed back to the polls to choose a replacement for Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned from Congress last week.

Jackson has been struggling with health problems, including bipolar disorder, and is the subject of a federal probe into potential misuse of campaign funds. He resigned last Wednesday in a letter to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. "For seventeen years, I have given 100 percent of my time, energy, and life to public service," he writes. "However, over the past several months, as my health has deteriorated, my ability to serve the constituents of my district has continued to diminish. Against the recommendations of my doctors, I had hoped and tried to return to Washington and continue working on the issues that matter most to the people of the Second District. I know now that will not be possible,” Jackson wrote.

Gov. Pat Quinn today announced that a special primary will be held on February 26, 2013, to coincide with local primary elections that are already scheduled for that day.

Quinn chose March 19, 2013, for the general election to fill the seat. However, he said he would like to change that date to April 9, 2013, when local primary elections are already scheduled. State law requires that the special election be held 115 days after the governor files a writ of election with the county clerks of counties participating in the special election. Quinn said he hopes to work with the General Assembly to change that requirement and move the date so that a separate election does not have to be held. “This special election will be carried out in a manner that is fair to the electorate and as economical as possible for taxpayers,” Quinn said in a written statement. “By holding the special primary and general elections on the same days as existing contests, we can save significant taxpayer dollars and ensure the people of the Second District can make their voices heard.”

Former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, whom Jackson defeated in the March primary election, has announced plans to run for the seat. Approximately 420,000 registered voters live in the 2nd District, which stretches across Cook, Kankakee and Will counties.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

AFSCME will continue work without a contract

By Jamey Dunn 

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Pat Quinn has canceled Illinois government's contract with the state’s largest public employee union. But leaders of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 say the governor’s decision will have little effect in the short term.

The state’s contract with AFSCME ran out in June, but both sides agreed to extend it while negotiations continued. The union and the Quinn administration have been working for about a year to try to hammer out a new contract. But the Quinn administration told the union this week that it would no longer extend the expired contract. “Gov. Quinn has cut state spending down to 2008 levels and proposed closing empty or half-empty, very expensive state facilities that are no longer needed. After decades of mismanagement, the state is behind on $8 billion dollars of payments to vendors, including social service agencies. And the state’s pension shortfall has risen to $96 billion – the worst of the 50 states,” Abdon Pallasch, a Quinn budget spokesman, said in a written statement. “During 11 months of bargaining, the state has extended the contract three times and made significant efforts to compromise. But the government employees' union, which has not offered a single proposal to deal with retirement health care, continues to seek millions of dollars in pay hikes the taxpayers can’t afford to give them. It has refused to recognize the extraordinary financial crisis squeezing the state.We are committed to securing a fair contract that is affordable to the taxpayers during these tough economic times.”

Union officials say that the end of the contract does not mean a government shutdown or employees losing pay or benefits because they say all the terms of the contract also exist in state law. They do, however, argue that the move will hurt employee morale and make it more difficult to reach agreement on a new contract. “While AFSCME is committed to reaching a fair agreement, Pat Quinn seems intent on heading in the wrong direction,” Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a written statement. “Our union wants constructive engagement, but the governor is choosing confrontation instead.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Vote on licenses for undocumented drivers could come next week

By Jamey Dunn

Senate President John Cullerton said he hopes to get legislation allowing undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses through his legislative chamber next week.

The idea has been around for years, but a growing collation, which includes Republicans, Democrats, law enforcement officials, religious groups and business leaders, seems to feel that now is the time to get bill through the General Assembly. Supporters say the measure will make the state’s roads safer because thousands of immigrants currently driving without licenses would have a chance to pass a driving test and become insured. “We want to ensure that all immigrant drivers, including [the estimated] 250,000 undocumented drivers currently unable to obtain a driver’s license, will be able to take that test to buy insurance and obtain that license,” Cullerton, who plans to sponsor the bill in the Senate, said at a Chicago news conference today.

Gov. Pat Quinn said he plans to sign the measure if lawmakers approve it. Quinn said he wants to see the bill passed during the lame-duck session before the new General Assembly is sworn into office in early January. “We have a coalition, a broad coalition of lots and lots of different people and organizations from all across Illinois, who believe in this cause. And we want to pass this bill through the House and Senate. Hopefully in the next couple months—before January 9—it will arrive on my desk, and I intend to sign the bill.”

Backers of the proposal include former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and current Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. “It is a piece of legislation that is morally fair, economically sound and politically smart,” Edgar said. The former governor has been urging Republicans to rethink hardline stances on immigration after the country saw high Latino voter turnout for the general election earlier this month and Democrats won big in Illinois. He said license legislation would be a good “first step” toward updating immigration laws to make them more “realistic.” Edgar and Topinka have historically backed proposals to allow undocumented residents to obtain licenses or certificates allowing them to drive. “This has just been a long time in coming. It’s about time,” Topinka said today.

 “It’s so important in our society that you’re able to drive, and we know that whether [they] have a license or not, people will drive,” said Edgar, who also has served as Illinois' secretary of state. “I think it’s extremely important that people are tested before they drive. It’s extremely important that people have insurance if they’re going to drive.”

Cullerton, who is a longtime advocate for road safety measures and sponsored the state’s seatbelt law, said that the measure is primarily about highway safety. “Our insurance premium will go down, the crashes on our highways and the fatalities will go down. And we will have a record of people who are stopped for traffic violations. And so it’s really a highway safety measure in my mind. It obviously has some other benefits. It’s very symbolic but it’s also very practical.”

But Lawrence Benito, chief operating officer of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the proposal would mean more to immigrant families than simply becoming legal drivers. For some undocumented immigrants, it could mean the difference between being deported and staying in the country. “For families, for parents who are taking their kids to school, to the local grocery store, or to drive to work, this is an important piece of legislation,” he said. “A routine traffic stop should not end in the deportation or destruction of families.” Benito said that traffic stops are the interactions with law enforcement that most frequently lead to eventual deportation.

Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that states should not extend services such as driver’s licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. “They shouldn’t be provided with the benefits that come along with being legally present in the county and the state.” She said that offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants would encourage illegal immigrants to come to the state.

Williamson agreed that the recent election has made politicians take note of the growing number of Latino voters. “Republicans in Illinois and nationally are feeling pressure to appeal more to Hispanics.” However, she said, Latino voters are interested in more than just immigration. “The economy, education, health care, all of these other issues rank ahead of immigration for Hispanic Americans.”

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Comptroller: Money for some state programs will run out before the end of the fiscal year

By Jamey Dunn

A new report from the Illinois comptroller’s office predicts that the state budget will not cover costs through the end of the fiscal year.

In her quarterly report, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka predicts that lawmakers will likely feel compelled to increase spending before June 30, the end of Fiscal Year 2013. “As it stands, underfunding is likely to lead to pressure to increase appropriations later in the fiscal year, as it did last year to fund the state’s child care providers.” Lawmakers voted near the end of FY 2012 to increase spending on child care because money for the program ran out and most wanted to avoid abruptly cutting off funding to providers. The report forecasts that money for employee health insurance, as well as some programs in the Department of Aging, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Child and Family Services, would run out by spring. Topinka wrote that any supplemental funding approved from the General Revenue Fund would throw the budget out of whack, but she said that without additional spending, the amount of bills that would be pushed over into FY 2014 would grow significantly.

However, Topinka warns that if the money is spent without corresponding cuts or revenue increases, the state will not be able to speed up its payment of bills, either. “One thing is certain: Payment processing delays will continue for the foreseeable future,” the report said. “However, the magnitude of the delays and the overall outlook for the state’s fiscal condition will be contingent on the action of the state agencies and the General Assembly throughout the remainder of the fiscal year.” Topinka pegged the backlog of bills as of the end of October at $6.5 billion. Topinka said the state is on track to spend $5 billion in FY 2013 revenues to pay bills from the previous fiscal years.

She said that if no major budget changes occur, the backlog at the end of the current fiscal year would likely be larger than backlog at the end of FY 2012. Revenues from individual and corporate income taxes grew over the quarter, while money from sales tax dipped. But the report said that sales taxes were on the rebound at the end of October. Topinka also noted that more gambling revenue would be coming in the near future because Illinois has started granting video poker licenses to bars, restaurants and other approved establishments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Business group calls state pension problem "unfixable"

By Jamey Dunn

The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago called the state’s troubled pension system “unfixable” in a memo sent to its members today.

The group’s leadership claims that it is no longer possible to preserve the state’s pension system with the benefit levels currently offered and that proposals that have recently come up for consideration in the legislature would not go far enough toward solving the problem. “While a number of pension reforms have been proposed in the General Assembly, these are half measures at best. Whether they involve token reductions in cost-of-living adjustments, locking in billions of dollars in unfunded retiree health care obligations or other scenarios, these ‘reforms’ are either inefficient or stand to make our state’s fiscal scenario even worse,” the memo stated.

The committee offered four changes to benefits that its leaders said must be included in any “meaningful” pension reform. The memo proposed eliminating all cost-of-living increases for current and future retirees, capping the level of salary that can be used to determine benefits, increasing the retirement age to 67 and shifting the state’s portion of the cost of retiree benefits for educators to K-12 schools outside of Chicago, universities and community colleges over 12 years. The memo said that the four proposals would not fix the problem, but would “slow the bleeding.”

The proposals cut deeper into benefits than any provisions recently up for consideration in the legislature and presumably would also do more to cut pension costs. Some of them mirror past proposals but go one step further. For example, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed increasing the retirement age to 67. But under his plan, the increase would be phased in so those close to retirement when it took effect would not be affected. The committee’s proposal does not include such a phase-in. The plan does not meet what many, including Senate President John Cullerton, see as a constitutional requirement to that prohibits any reduction in pension benefits. Cullerton has said he believes that consideration must be offered for any benefits cut. That is why Senate Bill 1673, which is the bill that lawmakers were debating at the end of the spring legislative session, would have given employees a choice between keeping cost-of-living increases based on compounded interest or state-subsidized retiree health care. There are many who believe even such a consideration violates the protection of pension benefits in the Illinois Constitution.

The Civic Committee based its assertion that the system is “unfixable” upon an in-house actuarial analysis, which it is not releasing publicly at this time. However, in a separate letter to Gov. Pat Quinn, the group’s leaders said that the political climate was also a factor. “We base that statement on more than just the overwhelming numbers. The magnitude of the unfunded obligations, combined with the total lack of political courage to rectify the situation, leads us to believe that our pension systems can no longer be salvaged sufficiently to meet their current obligations.”

“Millionaire CEOs want to slash the modest retirement savings earned by middle-class public servants like teachers, police, nurses and caregivers,” Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in a written statement. “Regrettably, that’s not news. But it is disappointing that the Civic Committee’s letter to the governor is alarmingly fact-free: No mention that the pension debt was mostly caused by politicians who skipped required payments even as public employees always paid their share. No mention that retirees rely on an average pension of just $32,000 a year, with nearly 80 percent not eligible for Social Security.”

Meanwhile, Quinn and House Minority Leader Tom Cross said they have been meeting about pension reforms and are optimistic about passing a bill before the new General Assembly is seated in January. “It’s not a mystery to anybody that we need to fix it. I think the sooner the better. I hope it’s done and believe it can be down in a bipartisan collaborative manner. We had a good meeting the other day, and I hope we can move forward over the next couple months,” Cross told reporters in Chicago.

Quinn danced around the issue of shifting pension costs to schools — the major topic of disagreement between Cross and Chicago Democrats. “Well, I don’t think you should just emphasize one part of it,” Quinn said. “I anticipate over the next couple months we’ll have quite a bit of discussion to iron out the fine points and get it done.” Quinn has been a vocal advocate of the cost shift in the past.

 Cross said reductions to cost-of-living increases would likely continue to be a target of those looking to cut pension costs. He also said a change to the retirement age is on his list as a potential component of a reform package. “I think we would agree that the [cost-of-living adjustment] is an area where we can save some significant amounts of money. I think that is probably one of the big big areas where you could do that. I think you can impact when people retire. You can impact through the amount of the [cost-of-living adjustments] ... when people get it.”

Former Dixon comptroller enters guilty plea

Rita Crundwell pleaded guilty in federal court today to embezzling more than $53 million from the city of Dixon when she served as its comptroller.

Prosecutors say that since the 1990s,  Crundwell has been funneling money sent from the state to the city into a phony bank account and then using it to fund a lavish lifestyle that included trips, multiple residences, and a horse breeding business. Crundwell pleaded guilty to one charge of wire fraud, and prosecutors reportedly expect that she will receive 15 years and 8 months to 19 years and 7 months in prison, but the defense is seeking 12 years and 7 months to 15 years and 8 months. She will remain free until her sentencing, which is scheduled for February 14.

Crundwell still faces 60 fraud charges in Lee County.

“Rita since the day of her arrest has worked with the government to accomplish the sale of her assets, including her beloved horses, all with the goal of hoping to recoup the losses for the city of Dixon,” Paul Gaziano, Crundwell’s attorney, told reporters in Rockford after she entered her plea. “I think the people of the city of Dixon ought to know that.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro told reporters that Crundwell’s actions constituted “one of the most significant abuses of public trust I’ve ever seen in Illinois.”

The city of Dixon, which has a population of 15,511 according to the U.S. census, has already begun selling  Crundwell’s property to try to recover some of embezzled funds. However, Dixon Mayor Jim Burke said that many of her possessions are not available for sale until the federal case is resolved.

“We were very pleased that she had this guilty plea,” he said. “Lord only knows how long it would have gone on.”

He said the trade-off for residents is that Crundwell will likely get a reduced sentence for her cooperation. However, he said that more sales — such as an online auction of her jewelry, which has an estimated value of more than $500,000 — would proceed and bring some of the stolen revenues back to the town, “which will put people around here in a better mood, I’m sure.”

For a comprehensive look at this case of embezzlement, which has made national headlines, see the current edition of Illinois Issues.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Republicans look for lessons from last week's defeats

By Jamey Dunn

After suffering serious losses in last week’s election, Illinois Republicans agree that they have lessons to learn from their defeats. However, what those lessons are depend on whom you talk to.

Many Republicans have taken notice that the demographics in Illinois and across the nation are not shifting in the party’s favor. “What I think we have seen in Illinois is kind of the realignment politically of this state, and it’s something that the Republicans have to really worry about because our base really was the suburbs. That’s really what got us the margin to offset Chicago. That’s not there anymore. In fact, it many not even be Republican anymore,” said former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican.

Edgar has been arguing for years that the party must reach out to Latinos. He notes that he and former President George W. Bush both enjoyed some support from Latino voters because they did not take hard lines on immigration policy. “Unfortunately the congressional Republicans took a different approach a few years ago, and I think cost us any support out of the Hispanic community. And I think [failed Republican presidential candidate] Gov. [Mitt] Romney demonstrated that he went the wrong way on that issue, and it hurt him on Election Day.”

Edgar said that some Republicans must change their thinking on immigration to survive politically. “Besides the politics of it, it’s just the right thing to do. We have 10 [million] to 12 million people here who have been here for years undocumented. We need to deal with that. We can’t deport them. And these people contribute.” According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of exit polls, Latinos made up 10 percent of the national electorate for last week’s election. That number is up from 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004. This year, 71 percent of voting Latinos supported President Barack Obama.

“The Republican Party should be a party that appeals to Hispanics,” said John Tillman, chief operating officer of the Illinois Policy Institute. The institute describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank devoted to promoting “free market” ideas and policies. Tillman penned a an opinion piece, "Four Lessons from Election 2012," which can be found at the conservative blog Illinois Review. “I think Republicans are perceived to be hostile to immigrants. I don’t think its true because I’ve talked to enough to know it’s not true.”

Republicans and others seem to agree that the party needs to work on recruiting better candidates who can win in a general election. “It’s not enough to win the primary. You’ve got to win the general election, and you’ve got to find candidates who will be able. Not to sell out your principles, but that can appeal to more than just a bunch of white males. I think we have tendency as a party, we talk too much to each other, and a lot of our folks, they just watch Fox News and they listen to [conservative radio show host Rush] Limbaugh. I think they don’t have an accurate view of the world. So hopefully they have learned,” Edgar said.

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science with the University of Illinois Springfield, said House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno may need to be more hands-on when it comes to scouting candidates and backing them in the Republican primary election. While they may give some financial support, both leaders tend to stay out of the bulk of primary fights and do not typically step in to vocally back a candidate.

Tillman said Republicans need to look beyond familiar faces. “The [Illinois] Republican Party establishment is too focused on recruiting talent on who you know and what relationships you have. Republicans need to broaden their thinking and try to find talent from outside of the party establishment.”

Some say the party's problem is messaging. Sen. Kyle McCarter, who is considering challenging Radogno for her leadership seat, said his caucus should have taken a stronger stand on controversial issues such as budget cuts and pension reform. “As Republicans, we can’t just say, ‘No.’ We’ve got to put some detailed plans on the table that really show how we as a state can get out of this fiscal mess.” Senate Republicans have come together to back a budget plan that they put down on paper, but McCarter said they should have introduced the plan as legislation. “I think it’s something that we should have done in this last session. We should have put that in bill form on the table,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, the leadership of the Republican Party has been much too risk-averse.”

While many blame the new legislative map drawn by Democrats as the primary factor for the sweeping Republican losses, McCarter said it’s more than that. “I don’t think the map is a good enough excuse. There’s two other factors, and that’s money and message, and I think we came up short in both of those,” he said.

Redfield said McCarter has demonstrated that he can bring at least one of the two to the table. “Clearly, McCarter is ready to go. He got conservative money funneled through him [in the 2012 election cycle],” Redfield said. Turning to potentially more conservative leadership might help Senate Republicans find campaign money in the short-term, but it could also make it more difficult to reach those growing demographics that Republicans are currently falling flat with. “It is maybe not the best self-awareness in terms of where the party needs to go to rebuild.”

Dan Proft, a talk show host with WLS radio in Chicago, said that Illinois Republicans do not have a clear platform on many issues that are most important to voters, such as education. “Blame Democrats, and we’re for the opposite of what they’re for. Well that’s not good enough, clearly,” he said. “What’s the Republican Party vision on K-12? Education is important. What is your vision, and how does that compare with the Democrats in charge?”

While he said that Republicans should not refuse to cooperate for the sake of obstruction, Proft, who made a failed bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, said that the current legislative leaders should have gotten better deals on some of the bipartisan plans they agreed to. “They take bread crumbs and really become co-conspirators in bad public policy,” he said. “The approach is not to be the junior partners to the Chicago Democrats.”

Tillman agreed. “The Republican caucuses have been too focused on trying to make bad Democrat policies marginally better rather than having a clear brand-distinguishing alternative vision that they promote vigorously.” He was critical of Republican legislative leaders for their compromises with Democrats. “In terms of the Republican caucuses, with the Democrats having a supermajority, if leaders continue the pattern of seeking a seat at the table rather than providing a clear party-in-exile alternative, the rank and file members, investors and grassroots activists must demand changes. Regardless, the status quo is untenable,” Tillman wrote in his opinion piece.

 But Radogno defended her ability to compromise, especially on the recently approved Medicaid reform package. The set of laws is expected to reduce the state’s Medicaid liability by more than $1.5 billion. The deal included $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase and a provision that allowed Cook County to grow its Medicaid program in anticipation of the expansion that will kick in under the Affordable Care Act. Those two components of the plan were in stand-alone bills, and Republicans were able to vote against them without sinking the entire compromise.

“For Sen. Radogno, I think if the Democratic majority put forth a good idea, then she will be willing to support a good idea,” said Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh. She said Republicans were able to back Medicaid cuts and reforms that they have been proposing for years. And now, she said, Radogno and others will keep the pressure on Gov. Pat Quinn to ensure that those ideas are implemented.

However, Schuh said proposals to increase taxes, borrow or make spending decisions that would make it difficult to allow the income tax increase to sunset as planned would continue to be nonstarters with Republican leadership in the Senate.

Schuh said that the 19 Republicans who are left in the Senate should not spend their terms sitting on their hands to make a political point. “The one thing to remember is, obviously, our numbers are low, but remember in so many legislative districts in the state of Illinois, 46, 47, 48, 49 percent of the people believe in the message of low taxes, less spending and reining in big government, and those people deserve to be represented.”

Edgar said those who point to the compromises made by legislative leadership as a cause of Republican losses last week are dead wrong. “Most people don’t really know who did what in the legislature. They know the final product,” he said. “If anything, I think the Republicans would be far better off to look like they are willing to reach across the aisle. I think that’s what people want. People don’t want more polarization. If the right wing still thinks that, they didn’t learn anything from this election. They haven’t been out there talking to ordinary folks.”

 He added: “I don’t think you can blame Cross and Radogno. The problem is, they had terrible districts and they didn’t have the money. People give to who has power, and we didn’t have the power.”

But Edgar does see a possible bright spot in the future for the party. “The governor’s race in Illinois in two years is huge for the Republican Party. If we can win the governor’s office back, then we have a viable two party system in Illinois,” he said. “But we’ve got to make sure that we have a candidate who not only appeals to Republicans but who also appeals to independents and thoughtful Democrats because you’ve got to have those. There [are] not enough Republicans in the state to get elected dog catcher. You’ve got to go out and get people who don’t view themselves as Republican. That means that you’re going to have to make sure the candidate appeals to the center.”

 Edgar warned that Republicans should not look at Quinn’s low public approval ratings and assume they have the governor’s race in the bag. “I think we have an opportunity, but it’s only an opportunity -- no guarantee. We’ve got to get our act together.”

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Illinois Republicans search for reasons for election losses

By Jamey Dunn

After suffering crushing electoral defeats on Tuesday that left Democrats with veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, Illinois Republicans are left trying to sort out the causes for their big losses.

The new legislative map drawn by Democrats, along with voters turning out to support President Barack Obama in his home state, did not do Illinois Republicans any favors. But many agree that the party faces more challenges that cannot all be attributed to the new map.

“Obviously, the Democrat map performed as the Democrats intended,” said Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “They designed the map to ensure victory, and under the process in place in Illinois, that’s how it works.” Schuh noted that in recent decades, the party that draws the map has always picked up seats in the first race under new legislative districts. She called Tuesday’s results a continuation of that trend.

However, Schuh said that Radogno does think the party needs to take a hard look at itself and the way it does business. “The Republican Party and its elected officials need to examine everything. We really need to step back and learn lessons from this election cycle.”

Republican state Treasurer Dan Rutherford also said that the map played a role. “But that’s not the only reason. The other reason is that the Republican brand is damaged.”

Dan Proft, a talk show host with WLS radio, agreed. “We don’t have a brand. The brand doesn’t exist, and to the extent it does exist in people’s minds, it’s not a brand that a lot of people are buying.” Proft, who made his own failed bid for the Republican nomination in the 2010 governor's race, said that some of the Illinois Republicans who were defeated on Tuesday were solid candidates but “lost under the weight of the Illinois Republican Party’s brand.” He said the party has fallen into a campaigning rut that has lasted more than a decade. “Republicans have quite literally run the same campaigns in the same way with the same messaging for the better part of the last 15 years.”

Rutherford said that litmus tests on social issues are hurting the party brand. Rutherford, who was the only Senate Republican who voted in favor of Illinois’ civil unions law and describes himself as pro-life, said that Republicans should not have to conform their beliefs on social issues to be considered good members of the party. “There are good-quality Republicans that are pro-choice.” Rutherford said it is Republican fiscal policies that resonate. “Where we will earn the right to once again govern is by defining ourselves with regard to taxes, debt and spending.”

Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Lebanon Republican, said that taking the emphasis off social issues was a mistake the party made in this cycle. “We should take another lesson, and that is that running from positions on social issues didn’t work, either,” he said. “Our Republican leadership in the Senate instructed a number of our candidates to not get close to, and not take a stand on, social issues. People want to know where you stand. They don’t necessarily need to agree with you on every, issue, but they need to trust you.” McCarter said he is considering challenging Radogno for the Senate minority leader position.

Another problem facing Republicans is changing demographics. Minority groups, which tend to vote Democratic, are growing. Nationwide, Republicans struggled to connect with female voters. “Part of the generic Republican problem is that the electorate is changing,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. He added, “African-American and Hispanic voters make up a larger percentage of the electorate in Illinois than they do nationally.”

Rutherford attributed his 2010 win in the race for his current office to his efforts at targeting minority voters. “I think a great part of success is just showing up, and then two things when you are there are: Don’t be a scary Republican; and two, being sensitive to the fact that they care about the same things that I care about,” he said. “They want a safe neighborhood. They want to have a job and they want reasonable taxes. And I think that’s the common denominator.

Proft said the party’s lack of support from Latino voters stems from something bigger than any single issue, such as immigration. He said it comes from a perception that the party does not care about the Latino community. “What the Latino voters seem to be saying is that: ‘Republicans don’t like me. They’re not interested in me, so I’m not interested in them.’”

Redfield said that unless there is a change of course, things could only get worse for Republicans. “If the demographic changes continue through this decade that we saw last decade, then the map is probably going to get more difficult than what we’ve seen this year.” He said it is all but impossible for the party to take back the majority in either chamber in 2014. “If they pick up 10 seats in either chamber, they are still short of the majority.”

He said the losses might also make it more difficult to raise campaign funds. “People want to give money to winners, and they want to give money to people who have access to power.”

Redfield said the party would need to invest in 2014 to protect incumbents who had closer-than-expected races this time around. “It’s just a very difficult task to figure out where they’re going to spend their money and how much defense do they need to play. And whatever defense they play means less money for playing offense.”

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Stars align for big Illinois Democratic wins

By Jamey Dunn

Not only did Democratic incumbents facing competitive races for the General Assembly hang onto their seats yesterday, Illinois Democrats emerged from the election with veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

“Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan have to feel pretty good about their new muscle today and their new recruits,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In the General Assembly that will be sworn in in January, Democrats will hold 71 House seats to the Republicans' 47, and 40 Senate seats, shrinking the Republican Senate caucus to 19 members. This means that if legislative Democrats unify behind a bill, not even Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto pen can put a stop to it.

When asked if the majorities weakened his power, Quinn told reporters in Chicago today, “not at all.” He noted that the Democrats are a diverse bunch who come from all areas of the state. “I think it’s important to see that the Democratic Party made great inroads in suburban communities, and I think that’s helpful for our democracy in Illinois. It’s not just one party in one part of our state.” Quinn was not a public face on any legislative campaigns, perhaps because of his abysmal public approval rating. An October poll from the Chicago Tribune pegged the governor’s approval rating at 26 percent. However, he claimed some credit today for Democratic victories. “I helped a lot of the folks who won yesterday, and I’m very happy they won. I think we have the opportunity to have a progressive majority in Illinois to make reforms that are necessary and overdue.” When asked what “progressive reforms” he would like to see happen, Quinn said his focus is on pension reform, economic growth and jobs. He would not give a direct answer to questions about the possibility of the new majorities giving a boost to issues such as same-sex marriage or gambling expansions. When Democrat Sam Yingling, who beat Republican Rep. Sandy Cole in the 62nd Illinois House, is seated in January, he will be one of four openly gay House members.

Schaumburg Democratic Rep. Michelle Mussman, Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, Peoria Democratic Sen. David Koehler, Rushville Democratic Sen. John Sullivan, Alton Democratic Sen. William Haine and East Moline Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs all faced aggressive Republican challenges, and all will return in the next General Assembly.

Even ousted former Rep. Derrick Smith will be returning to the Statehouse. Smith was booted after being arrested on charges of taking a bribe just a week before the primary. However, he won the Democratic nomination for the 10th Illinois House District. On Tuesday, Smith handily beat challenger Unity Party candidate Lance Tyson — despite Tyson’s backing from several prominent members of the Democratic Party, including Quinn.

Democrats also rolled back the Republican wave that gave the GOP control of the state’s congressional delegation in 2010. Republicans picked up five seats that year, but Democrats were able to capture five of the six seats that were in play this time around. Democrats picked up victories in the Chicago suburbs, where Tammy Duckworth beat Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh in the 8th Congressional District, Brad Schneider defeated U.S. Rep. Robert Dold in the 10th and former Democratic Bill Foster beat current U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican, in the 11th Congressional District. Democrat Cheri Bustos won the 17th Congressional District over Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling. In the southeastern part of the state, Democrat Bill Enyart prevailed over Republican Jason Plummer in the 12th Congressional District.

Republicans will likely retain the seat in the 13th Congressional District, currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson, who is retiring at the end of his current term. While Democrat David Gill has yet to concede to Republican Rodney Davis, unofficial results show that Davis is up by more than 1,200 votes.

Many are attributing the Democrats' big wins in Illinois to their drawing of the new legislative map. Because they hold both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, Democrats were able to draw new state legislative and congressional districts without input from Republicans. “The map has got a lot to do with it, I think, undoubtedly,” said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.  Mooney added that enthusiasm for President Barack Obama in his home state might have brought more Democrats out to the polls. Jackson agreed. “To me, the huge difference between [20]10 and [20]12 is the size and shape of the electorate.” He said the backlash over the Affordable Care Act and the rise of the Tea Party brought out populations that are more typically Republican, such as white and older voters in 2010. “It was kind of a totally different snapshot demographically.” He said Tuesday’s race brought out an electorate more like the one that sent Obama to the White House in 2008.

But Mooney said that not all the success could be attributed solely to the map or Obama’s coattails. He noted that Democrats picked up some state legislative seats that were not explicitly drawn as Democratic districts. “If a candidate just worked hard, and if you’ve got a lot of time to walk and knock on a lot of doors, that can have an impact in an open seat race.”

Still, many veteran Statehouse watchers did not expect the sweeping nature of the Democratic victories in Illinois. “I’m surprised that almost all of the contested races tilted ultimately to the Democrats. You can expect that in Chicago, but I did not [expect it] across downstate,” Jackson said.

“It’s just [that] all the stars were in alignment for them, and everything broke their way,” Mooney said of Illinois Democrats. “Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug. And they were certainty the windshield this time around.”

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election night

I will not be posting on the blog tonight because I am hosting a live webcast called The Count 2012. Tune in for returns and analysis from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The show will focus on state legislative and Illinois congressional races.

If you are looking for print and/or localized coverage, here are some sources:

Lee Enterprises 

Chicago Tribune 

Chicago Sun-Times 

The State Journal-Register

WUIS will have local coverage, as well as national NPR coverage.

Check back here tomorrow for analysis of the results.

Congressional races to watch

By Jamey Dunn

With several congressional seats in play, big money has been thrown into Illinois races and big-name politicians are making pitches for candidates as part of the national battle over the U.S. House.

U.S. House Races

8th District 
U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, a Republican from McHenry, may lose his seat to Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth from Hoffman Estates. The race has been close, but Duckworth, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has pulled ahead in the polls in recent weeks.

10th District
U.S. Rep. Robert Dold, a Republican from Kenilworth, is running for reelection in a highly Democratic district created under the recent remap. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who is recovering from a recent stroke, has come out in support of Dold and appeared in a campaign ad. Dold faces Democratic candidate Brad Schneider, a businessman from Deerfield. Kirk was able to hold his U.S. House seat in a similar district for years before he ran for U.S. Senate.

11th District 
Kirk also appeared in an online video to throw his support behind Republican U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert of Hinsdale. Former President Bill Clinton voiced a robocall in support of Democratic challenger Bill Foster, a scientist from Naperville. Foster served previously in the U.S. House after being elected in 2008. He lost his seat in the Republican wave of 2010.

12th District 
Bill Enyart, a Democrat from Belleville, if facing off against former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Jason Plummer from Fairview Heights. Plummer, a naval officer who works for his family’s lumber and hardware store chain, had an early lead in the polls. But according to some recent polling, Enyart, former head of the Illinois National Guard, appears to have bounced back. Those who have been keeping tabs on this race expect it to be close. “When it’s very close, it all comes down to which side does a better job on turning out their troops, and I’m not clear what the prospects there are,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Both Kirk and Clinton have recorded robocalls to support their partys' candidates in the race. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, who is retiring this year, held his seat in this area for more than 24 years.

13th District 
After U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson announced his plans to retire, Republicans chose Rodney Davis, a former staffer for U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, to run in the district. David Gill, a doctor from Bloomington, won out in the Democratic primary. John Hartman, an Edwardsville resident and chief financial officer of a genetic research company, is running as an independent. This has been a close race, but some observers are predicting a Davis win. “Davis should win because I think he is a much better fit for the [demographics of the] district,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

17th District 
U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling of Colona won his seat with backing from the Tea Party in 2010. Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos of East Moline is a former news reporter and East Moline City Council member. This is another close race, with Schilling leading in recent polls.

Jackson predicts that Illinois Democrats will make some gains in Congress, but he predicts that those victories will not turn be enough to place the party back in control of the U.S. House. “I think Democrats are likely to pick up about three of the contested five [seats]. There are five for sure, maybe six, [seats in play],” he said. “But that won’t do it to take back the House.”’

Redfield agreed. He said that Democratic map makers in Illinois may have helped the party have a shot at more congressional seats, but many other states had Republicans in power for redistricting. “There are states where the Democrats are at as much of a disadvantage as the Republicans are here, in terms of who drew the map.” Jackson also cautioned against seeing these races as just about the new map. He points to downstate races, such as the 12th District and the 13th District, where Democrats are putting up fights but in no way have a lock on the seats. “The ability to draw that map, though, is still just a marginal benefit,” he said. “It still didn’t make it a sure win for the Democrats.”

President Barack Obama is obviously favored to win his Democratic-leaning home state over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Redfield and Jackson both said it is unlikely that either candidate will have powerful enough coattails to decide down-ticket races. However, Jackson said that the presidential race has set the tone and issues for negative ads in congressional and state legislative races. “Everybody gets blasted by being associated with Obama or being associated with Romney,” he said. “It’s just a constant litany of the national ads adapted to the local races.”

Monday, November 05, 2012

State legislative races to watch

By Jamey Dunn 

Illinois Senate Races

District 36
The race between Sen. Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline, and Moline Republican Bill Albracht, a retired Secret Service agent, has become one of the most closely watched battles in the General Assembly and one that many say is too close to call. Jacobs has trailed in some recent polls, but Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said he is not discounting the power of incumbency, or the fact that Jacobs is the son of a popular retired legislator, former Sen. Denny Jacobs. “It’s hard to know whether people will come home in terms of the name recognition and all of that with him,” Redfield said.

 59th District 
 Republican Mark Minor, a pastor from Ewing, is challenging Sen. Gary Forby, a Benton Democrat. Forby has been pushing back against Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed closure of corrections facilities in his area. Most incumbent Democrats seem to be avoiding the unpopular governor from their party. However, Forby appears to be one of the only Democrats out there using the governor’s low favorability rating as a plus for his own campaign. “Quinn is a minus for everybody except Forby. He seems to be winning by running against the Democratic governor,” Redfield said.

46th District
 Peoria Democratic Sen. David Koehler and Republican Pat Sullivan, a Peoria businessman, have spent almost $1.7 million total in their race. “I think Koehler is all right in the 46th [District], but [Republicans] certainly have spent money there,” Redfield said.

48th District 
The most expensive Senate race is also one of the most closely watched. Democrat Andy Manar from Bunker Hill is chairman of the Macoupin County Board and former chief of staff for Senate President John Cullerton. He is running against Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy, a Republican. The two have spent nearly $2.5 million, and the race could break the all-time spending record for a state Senate contest.

28th District 
Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski has faced a tough race against Republican Jim O’Donnell, a Park Ridge businessman.

Illinois House 

96th District 
Democrats had hoped to carve out a downstate House seat with this district, which includes parts of Springfield and Decatur, and it seems that they may succeed with candidate Sue Scherer, a teacher from Decatur. Scherer has been somewhat cagey with the media and has come under fire for her connections to House Speaker Michael Madigan. Despite the criticisms, she appears to be leading her opponent, Republican Dennis Shackleford, a Rochester businessman.

10th District 
Former Rep. Derrick Smith, who was ousted from the House after being arrested on bribery charges, may be returning to that chamber in January. Smith was arrested a week before the primary election but still won the Democratic nomination by a wide margin. Democratic leaders had hopped he would step aside. After he refused, many backed third-party candidate Lance Tyson. But recent polling shows the Chicago lawyer trailing Smith.

52nd District 
The most expensive House race is a face off between Barrington Hills independent Dee Beaubien, the widow of the late Rep. Mark Beaubien, and Republican David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills businessman. Rep. Mark Beaubien, who died in June 2011, was a Republican known for crossing the aisle. Dee Beaubien said she ran because she was concerned about what she saw as the party’s shift to the extreme right. She has taken campaign funding from Democrats but has not said which party she would caucus with if elected.

56th District 
Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, who has been a rising star among House Democrats, is facing a heated challenge from Johnathan Greenberg, a rabbi and advocate from Northbrook. Nekrtiz has backed budget cuts and spearheaded recent efforts at pension reforms. She is in a tight race against the self-described moderate Greenberg, who got his start in politics as Democrat.

Redfield said he does not expect Republicans to take the majority in either chamber. He said many Democratic incumbents who were facing tight races have pulled ahead in recent weeks. However, he said that state legislative races are difficult to gauge because unlike national races or races for Congress, almost all of the state-level polling is partisan and conducted by the candidates’ campaigns. “The best polling is the campaigns, but sometimes campaigns lie to themselves.”

Constitutional amendment 
Illinoisans will also decide whether the state should change its Constitution to make it more difficult to pass increases in pension benefits for state workers. The constitutional amendment that will appear before voters would require a three-fifths vote by the General Assembly to enhance public employee pension benefits. The amendment has been drawing fire lately and has found few supporters outside of the legislature. For a breakdown on what the amendment does and the arguments for and against it, see the current Illinois Issues. 

A legal challenge also has been launched that would have a judge set aside the results of the vote on the proposed amendment. The plaintiffs argue that the wording on the ballot is unclear and could confuse voters. The instructions include language about a constitutional convention, which lawmakers say they did not intend to appear on the ballot unless voters have the option to call a convention. Voters do not have that option this year. For more on the lawsuit and instruction language, see the Illinois Issues blog.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Unintended ballot language could sink proposed amendment

By Jamey Dunn

Thousands of Illinois voters have already gone to the polls for early voting, but their choice on a proposed constitutional amendment could be set aside because of language  that lawmakers did not intend to appear on the ballot.

Last May, legislators approved House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 49, which creates a higher threshold for approving increases in public employee pensions. Currently the legislature can approve such benefits with a simple majority. But if voters approve the amendment that appears on the general election ballot, then a three-fifths majority would be required to pass any pension sweeteners.

But a lawsuit that seeks to nullify the results of the vote on the amendment claims that the ballot instructions given to voters are confusing.

The language in question was approved as part of a piece of legislation that made news for another reason. Senate Bill 3277 allows contribution caps to be tossed out if outside groups spend large amounts to try to influence voters during a campaign. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill in July, and the provision has already been applied in a current legislative race where a political action committee spent more than $100,000. 

The new law also changed the so-called notice language, which appears on the ballot with the proposed amendment and seeks to explain to voters what their actions could mean in terms of changing the state’s Constitution. The new language says:

The failure to vote this ballot may be the equivalent of a negative vote, because a convention shall be called or the amendment shall become effective if approved by either three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election. (This is not to be construed as a direction that your vote is required to be cast either in favor of or in opposition to the proposition herein contained.) Whether you vote this ballot or not you must return it to the election judge when you leave the voting booth.

But voters are not deciding whether the state should hold a convention. Unless there is a push by the legislature for a constitutional convention, the question whether to hold one automatically appears before voters every 20 years. Voters opted not to have a convention when they were asked in 2008. “The language just makes no sense because they are two very different questions?” said John Bambenek, who filed the lawsuit to toss out the election results on the amendment question. “There is no way a convention is going to be called, no matter how you vote.” Bambenek, a Republican, is challenging Sen. Michael Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat, in the upcoming election. He said that he filed the suit, along with a dozen voters, when people started coming to him asking him about the confusing language. It is too late to get the question removed from the ballot, but Bambenek hopes to persuade a judge to set aside the results. “If you are going to ask the voters to do something, what they see on the ballot should be correct.”

“It is confusing. It is introducing right out in front of the voters the idea of a constitutional convention. I’m absolutely floored [that it was included in the ballot language],” said Ann Lousin, a law professor at the John Marshall Law School and a member of the research staff during the 1970 constitutional convention. “I think a mistake obviously occurred, and it could confuse voters.” She said the issue might have been caused by a drafting error when the legislation was written.

However, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said lawmakers never intended for both the words “convention” and “amendment” to appear on the ballot. Instead, she said, legislators assumed that the amendment language would be used in situations such as the current one, when an amendment is up for consideration, and the convention language would be used when voters must decide whether a convention should be called. “If this is a call to convention, tell them this. If this is a proposal to amend the Constitution, put in this,” said Currie, who sponsored the bill. But instead, both scenarios made it on the ballot.

Ken Menzel, deputy general counsel for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said that the board signed off on the language sent to them by Secretary of State Jesse White's office. White spokesman David Druker said that the secretary of state's office serves as a pass through and simply takes the language approved by lawmakers and gives it to the election board. “The board of elections gets the question from us, which we get from the General Assembly," he said. Menzel noted that the language appears on the ballot exactly as it does in the new law. “It just got reproduced exactly like the statute says it shall be,” he said. “We don’t always know what [the legislators] intend.”

Currie said she has not read Bambenek’s lawsuit and would not speculate about the possible outcome of the case. However, she said lawmakers might have to revisit the ballot language in the future to avoid more confusion and potential legal challenges. She said that legislators made the changes to let voters know that if they simply skip the ballot questions, it could have the same result as voting “no.” “We thought we were clarifying it,” Currie said.

The notice language has nothing to do with the content of the underlying amendment and would have appeared on the ballot regardless of the subject matter of the amendment. Lousin, who has spoken out in opposition to the amendment itself because she said it leaves the door open to potentially unforeseen legal challenges, warns would-be conspiracy theorists not to read the problem with the notice language as anything more than a simple mistake. “You do not normally have to look for people to be venal. Just look for people to be stupid, and that usually explains things.”

Lousin said there were plenty of chances to catch the mistake. “The state of Illinois through its various agencies, the legislature, the secretary of state’s office, the State Board of Elections, has put some stuff on the ballot that the voters will be confronted with that could be confusing.” But now that it is on the ballot, she said, finger-pointing does little good. “‘Somebody should have said, ‘What convention?’” Lousin said. “It should have been caught. It should have been, but you know, what can we do now?”