Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Concealed-carry bill introduced in the House

 By Jamey Dunn

Rep. Brandon Phelps introduced a concealed-carry bill today and says he hopes to pass legislation before a court-imposed deadline requires the state to allow residents to carry firearms in public.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in December ruled the state’s ban on concealed-carry unconstitutional and gave the General Assembly 180 days to pass carry legislation. The court’s opinion said lawmakers have the right to put restrictions on carry, such as requiring training for a license and limiting the places that guns are allowed. The decision came from a panel of three judges, but Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked the full court, 10 judges, to reconsider the case. So far, however, the 180-day deadline continues to stand. Phelps and others believe that if legislators do not get something passed by that deadline, there will be no restrictions on carrying firearms in the state. “Here’s the deal: The clock is still ticking,” Phelps said. “If I was an anti-gun group, I would want to hurry up and get something passed.”

Phelps, who has sponsored several versions of a concealed-carry bill throughout the years, said he introduced a bill this session because he wants to negotiate in good faith. “We filed a bill to show people that we do mean what we say about working on this issue.” Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, said his new legislation, House Bill 997, is similar to House Bill 48, which failed to get the needed support to pass in the House in the spring of 2011. “Now’s not the time to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Under the new proposal, applicants must be 21 years old and hold a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card. They would be required to undergo four hours of training on topics including: “basic principles of marksmanship, care and cleaning of handguns and laws relating to the justifiable use of force.” They would also have to pass a live fire exercise with a certified instructor. A database of applicant information would be accessible to law enforcement officials. Statistical information about licenses issued by demographics, such as race, age gender or geographic location, would be available to the public. However, information about specific applicants would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

If an applicant met all the requirements in the bill, the legislation requires that the Illinois State Police issue a license within 30 days of receiving his or her application. The state police would be able to consider objections from local law enforcement when processing applications. Those applicants who were granted licenses would be able to carry a loaded or unloaded handgun either concealed or openly in public and while in a vehicle. The measure prohibits guns in certain areas, such as state and federal buildings, and bars firearms at college campuses and schools. Some of those places, such as schools and campuses, could opt to allow concealed-carry if approved by school authorities. Business owners could choose not to allow guns inside their establishments.

The bill would preempt home rule, so it would apply across the state, including in Chicago. The proposal would bar home rule units of government from limiting the number of guns a concealed-carry permit owner could have or requiring that they register the guns they own.

Meanwhile, a group of freshman lawmakers joined Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon today to announce a new working group that will focus on guns. “Issues about firearms often have regional rather than partisan splits, and your perspective as to where you come from in the state often has an influence on how you look at these issues, so that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to convene this group of folks from across the state to be able to learn what those regional perspectives are, to be able to be fully informed,” Simon said at a Chicago news conference.

Simon said the group plans to meet with mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, teachers, school administrators, victims of gun violence, gun rights activists and gun control supporters. Members of the group will also learn how to use a firearm at the Sparta World Shooting Complex and get a lesson on gun safety from the state police. She said the panel does not plan to produce legislation but to help create an informed dialogue on the issue. She said the group would especially focus on the subject of concealed carry. “It’s something that this group will likely have to vote on, and I think as a group we’ve decided that we want to contribute to a fully informed conversation on this issue. This is an issue where people often get driven into one side or another, and we miss some opportunity where we all have common interest,” Simon said. “We’re not targeting putting out a report. We’re not targeting putting out a bill. We’re targeting making the legislative process an effective one. We’re targeting making sure that people from different perspectives understand those other perspectives.”

Lawmakers from throughout the state have joined the diverse group. The panel includes a former federal prosecutor, former school board members, a veteran of the Iraq War, a former Illinois Department of Corrections employee, a conservationist and a mayor. Orland Hills Democrat Rep. Michael Hastings, who served in the United States Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said he has a FOID card and is a gun owner. “I know the detrimental effects that weapons can have when used improperly, and I want to ensure that the legislation that we pass provides for guidelines and rules for gun owners that provide for safe and effective use of firearms if and when conceal and carry is passed.”

Hillside Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who earlier this week stepped down as school board president for Proviso Township High School District 209, said he opposed concealed carry during his campaign for the General Assembly. “Being from Cook County, this is a very serious issue for us. The city of Chicago had over 500 murders last year. So I’m here willing to listen, but I’m also here willing to offer some ideas on how we can address some serious statistics that we are dealing with in the city of Chicago.”

Simon said she is targeting new lawmakers in part because they have yet to act on any legislation related to gun control. “I think you’re the perfect group to be working on this. None of you have cast a vote in the General Assembly on any kind of gun issue, and it’s a great opportunity to do that bipartisan work and to really be leaders.”

Phelps said he is interested to hear what Simon’s group has to offer on concealed carry, but he also said they should listen to lawmakers like him who have been trying to reach a compromise on the topic for years. “I just think they would want to hear from people like us who have been working on this bill for a long, long time,” he said. “We’ve had our own working groups for a long time. And we’ve got one now, but it’s not hers.”

For more on concealed carry, See Illinois Issues March 2012. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

While Congress eyes immigration policy, Illinois has set its own agenda

By Jamey Dunn 

As President Barack Obama and members of Congress begin a push toward federal immigration reform, Illinois has begun taking steps to address the practical matters associated with the state’s large population of undocumented immigrants.

As expected, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill into law yesterday that will allow immigrants who are living in the country illegally access to temporary driver’s licenses. Those applying for the licenses must provide proof that they have lived in the state for one year. Proponents say this requirement will prevent immigrants in other states from coming to Illinois to get licenses. The licenses available to undocumented immigrants will be temporary and have a different appearance than the state’s standard driver’s licenses. They will not be valid as a form of identification for other purposes, such as boarding a plane or buying a firearm.

Proponents frame the new law as a public safety initiative. “This law will make the roads of Illinois safer for all of us. It requires that you pass a vision test, the written test and the road test,” Secretary of State Jesse White said at a Chicago event yesterday. White said his office would make efforts in the coming months to educate the public about how to obtain the licenses. He said that he plans to start issuing the licenses in October. “I look forward to issuing the first driver’s license on October 1 of this year.”

When the measure was up for debate in the legislature, opponents argued that the requirements for the licenses were licenses were too slack, opening up the potential for fraud. Many said that applicants should have to be fingerprinted in order to get a license. They also argued that it is not up to states to address immigration policy. “We are ... engaging in activities the U.S. government should be taking [on] themselves,” Rep. Dwight Kay, a Republican from Glen Carbon, said when the bill was debated on the House floor. Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said the state should not “provide privileges for people who are not citizens here.”

A push for immigration reform is kicking off this week at the national level. A bipartisan group of senators plans to unveil a proposal today. Obama is scheduled to give a speech on the topic tomorrow in Las Vegas. The Senate plan reportedly will include increased efforts to secure the border and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain are both part of the group that came up with the proposal, and both took to the Sunday morning political talk shows yesterday to discuss it. “We are committed to a comprehensive approach to immigration that we can live with,” Durbin told Fox News Sunday. McCain was blunt about the political incentives for Republicans. “Look at the last election,” McCain said Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.”

McCain also said, “We can’t go on forever with 11 million people living in this country in the shadows in an illegal status.”

 Quinn pointed to the bill he signed yesterday and the Illinois Dream Act, a bill he signed in 2011 that allows undocumented students access to privately funded scholarships, as steps that could become models for national policy. “Comprehensive immigration reform, here we come in the United States of America,” he said. Chicago Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, who sponsored both pieces of legislation, said that access to driver’s licenses is a step, but more needs to be done to address immigration. “This achievement — while wonderful — it is just another mile marker in the journey to securing the American dream for all people,” Acevedo said. “This bill is not just about driver’s licenses, it’s about equality for all.”

Some Republicans crossed the aisle to support both the Illinois Dream Act and the new law that will allow access to driver’s licenses. Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno said that the lawmakers on the federal level could look to the negotiations on the driver’s license bill as an example of how to achieve broad support on immigration legislation. “We had the opponents and the proponents all come together. Everybody gave a little bit,” she said. “I hope that we can take this model on this bill in this state and apply it nationally to get something done that so desperately need to be done.”

Friday, January 25, 2013

Quinn pushes pension 'compromise' as state's bond rating is downgraded

By Jamey Dunn

As the state’s credit rating takes another hit, Gov. Pat Quinn has thrown his weight behind a pension reform proposal backed by Senate President John Cullerton.

Standard & Poors downgraded the state's bond rating from an A to an A-, which means Illinois could pay more interest on the $500 million in general obligation bonds it plans to sell next week. S&P also gave Illinois a “negative” outlook for the future.

 “The downgrade reflects what we view as the state's weakened pension funded ratios and lack of action on reform measures intended to improve funding levels and diminish cost pressures associated with annual contributions,” S&P credit analyst Robin Prunty said in a written statement.

The report from S&P said the state could face a further downgrade if there is no progress on pension reform. “While it is unusual for a state rating to fall into the 'BBB' category, lack of action on pension reform and upcoming budget challenges could result in further credit deterioration, particularly if it translates into weaker liquidity.” The report said that the outlook could move to stable if lawmakers address the underfunding of the pension system, reduce the backlog of unpaid bills and address structural budget issues. However, the analysts at S&P appear doubtful that all of that can be accomplished. “We believe there is limited upside potential for the rating in the next two years, given the size of the accumulated deficit and the liability challenges Illinois faces, but will evaluate the state's progress in addressing key budget and pension challenges.”

After having no luck trying to get pension changes through the House during the lame-duck session earlier this month, Quinn today called on lawmakers to support Senate Bill 1. “We’re concerned obviously at all times about our credit rating,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago. “The credit rating agencies aren’t going to give us better marks until the legislature deals with Senate Bill 1 and gets the job done. And that’s really — I think — the message that the credit rating agencies are screaming at the top of their voice[s]. I’ve heard, and I think members of the legislature need to pay attention, as well.”

Cullerton opposed legislation under consideration in the House during the lame-duck session because he said it is unconstitutional. “The Constitution says you can’t unilaterally pass a law taking away people’s pension benefits. You have to ask them to do it contractually,” Cullerton said on the last day of the lame-duck session. He believes that to pass constitutional muster, some consideration must be given to workers for any reduction in their benefits. Legislation that passed in the Senate last year would have asked employees to choose between their compounded-interest cost-of-living adjustments or state-subsidized retiree health care. “Their bill unilaterally takes away people’s rights in exchange for nothing. That’s why it’s unconstitutional.”

Cullerton has pitched SB1 as a compromise. It contains the proposal that was being considered in the House. That provision would temporarily freeze cost-of-living increases, require higher contributions from employees, put a cap pensionable salary and include a guarantee that the state makes its annual required contribution to the pension systems. The bill also tacks on the proposal that Cullerton believes is constitutional. If the Supreme Court were to rule the House plan constitutional, it would become the law. But if the court rejected the House proposal, the Senate version could then be considered.

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who spearheads the issue in the House, said she is open to the idea of a bill that combines both concepts, but she thinks SB1 is not quite there yet. “I’m all for compromise and for finding a way to work this out,” she said. “The challenge is making them work together in a way that we can present a fair case to the Illinois Supreme Court on both.”

Even if a compromise that combines the plans can be reached, there is no guarantee that the court would rule either plan constitutional. The S&P report today took a pessimistic tone about Illinois realizing any pension savings in the near future. “While legislative action on pension reform could occur during the current legislative session and various bills have been filed, we believe that legislative consensus on reform will be difficult to achieve given the poor track record in the past two years. If there is meaningful legislative action on reform, we believe that there could be implementation risk based on the potential for legal challenges, and it could be several years before reform translates into improved funded ratios and budget relief.” Nekritz said of today’s credit downgrade: “We had to think if we didn’t take action, that this would happen. It’s distressing to me.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Legislator seeks to limit lame-duck sessions

By Jamey Dunn

While supporters of controversial legislation dealing with gun control, pension reform and same sex marriage had little luck during the recent lame-duck session, one legislator is pushing to make it more difficult to get bills passed in the weeks before a new General Assembly is sworn in.

Sponsors of legislation have until March 31 each year to pass bills with a simple majority. After that date, they must find a three-fifths majority in each chamber if they want their bill to go into effect within a year. Bills that pass with a simple majority cannot take effect until June 1 of the next year. However, legislative leaders often call lawmakers into session for a few days or weeks before a new General Assembly is to be seated. Because that happens in January, the clock has been reset, but the new legislative session has not yet started. That allows legislators who are not returning in the new General Assembly, known as lame ducks, and lawmakers who have just won reelection and have a few years until they face another election to vote on proposals that are often controversial. That legislation also does not have to wait a year before taking effect. The time is informally called the lame-duck session.

This year’s lame-duck session was not particularly productive. But in January 2011, the General Assembly voted to increase income taxes on individuals and businesses and end the death penalty in Illinois. “Every two years there seems to be more activity in a short amount of time in the first week of January than there is in the true session,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, who filed House Bill 195 today. The proposal would require a three-fifths majority for bills passed in January before a new legislature is sworn in. Durkin said the measure closes a “loophole” that has been used by for years to ram bills through the process at the end of the two-year legislative session. Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said that the problem with the lame-duck session is that lawmakers leaving office might be less influenced by the desires of their constituents. They also might be concerned about their future employment after they are no longer serving in the legislature. Many lawmakers go on to lobby their former colleagues on behalf of influential interests and industries such as utility companies and charitable organizations. “These two factors, a lower standard [for the passage of bills] and decreased constituent accountability, play into the appeal of using the lame-duck session as a way to move otherwise highly controversial legislation,” Durkin said. “Are there things I would like to see pass? Of course; however, I feel strongly that these proposals should be properly vetted through the legislative process.”

Durkin said he thinks the lame-duck session also adds to the temptation to put off difficult votes. “It’s the summer, and people are saying, ‘We will take care of [that] in the lame-duck session.’”

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the practice of looking to the lame-duck session to as a time to pass big bills is a relatively new one. He said it started when the legislature's fall veto session began to expand to include more than just the governor’s vetoes. “When they wrote the 1970 Constitution, they assumed that we’d come back for a couple weeks and do some vetoes and go home. They couldn’t imagine the fall legislative session, which it has morphed into,” he said. “It was exceedingly rare in the '70s and '80s to do anything in veto session other than vetoes. I mean it happened, but generally the legislature came back a day ahead of time [before the swearing in of new lawmakers] and might clean up a little bit of ceremonial stuff in January.” Redfield said legislative action from the veto session started to spill over into January, and now the lame-duck session, which usually takes place over several days in January every two years, has become a fixture.

Redfield said now that legislative leaders have the lame-duck session as an option, it would be hard to turn back the clock. “It’s been way too useful a mechanism in previous General Assemblies. We’ve gotten pretty used to that possibility sitting there,” he said. “I think strategically, you don’t give anything away when you are in the majority.”

Durkin noted that Republicans have taken advantage of the lame-duck session when they held majorities, too. Durkin, who took office in 1995, said that after then-House Speaker Lee Daniels lost his Republican majority, he used the lame-duck session to pass bills before the new Democratic majority was seated. “And I’m sure I voted for a few of those things,” Durkin said. However, he said that Illinois now faces a public opinion crisis along with its fiscal one. “The public’s perception of legislative process is horrible, and at some point we need to be honest with ourselves and our constituents about what we are doing.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

DCFS faces massive layoffs if additional funding is not approved

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers hope to get additional funding approved for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, but if they fail, the department will lay off two-thirds of its staff in a few months. 

When Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed money for prisons and other state corrections facilities from the budget approved by the General Assembly, he called on lawmakers to put that money into DCFS to prevent hundreds of layoffs. The same budget cut nearly $90 million from DCFS. Legislation to put some of that money back never made it to a floor vote during the January lame-duck session. The measure up for consideration contained other budget items that met opposition. However, Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored the bill, said she thinks there is support for passing an additional $25 million for the agency early in the new legislative session. “I do think there’s general agreement on the DCFS funding,” she said. Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, the former chair of the House Human Services Budgeting Committee, agreed. “I think that there is a relatively strong commitment to do this.”

If the money does not come through, DCFS plans to lay off nearly 2,000 employees this spring. “The answer to the what-if questions is that if the budget cuts are not restored, that sometime in March or thereafter we will have to lay off about two-thirds of our staff statewide,” said Dave Clarkin, a spokesman for DCFS.

DCFS currently has about 600 investigators; Clarkin said the agency hopes to avoid laying off any of them. “It’s a primary responsibility of the department. It is something that by statute can’t be outsourced or done by anybody else,” he said of the investigators’ work. The department is restructuring its staff in an effort to put more than 100 additional investigators on the front line.

The possibility of mass layoffs comes after a year when DCFS saw in increase in abuse- and neglect-related deaths, and a spike in the number of downstate abuse cases. According to DCFS, neglect or abuse played a factor in 90 deaths last year. The department is still investigating 60 other cases. “Once those investigations are closed, we will have seen the highest number of deaths we have seen in Illinois in 32 years,” Clarkin said. “Child abuse generally and sex abuse in particular are both on the rise.” From July 2012 to October 2012, the department's abuse hotline received 25,348 reports of suspected abuse, compared with 24,053 during the same period in 2011. Last year, 35 downstate counties had abuse and neglect rates of more than double the statewide average. Cook County had rates just below the state average.

Suffocation by neglect was the leading cause of death in cases the department investigated in 2012. The second leading cause was abuse, and the third was inadequate supervision. “Most deaths occurred when parents, ignoring the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and safety experts, slept with a newborn or infant in their bed, rolling over on the child in the night and smothering her or him. In other instances, parents ignored safety warnings and allowed a newborn or infant to sleep with a blanket, on an adult mattress or couch, or on their stomachs, suffocating the child,” a prepared statement from DCFS said. Clarkin said the department is making efforts to educate the public on the proper sleeping conditions for newborns, as well as ways to prevent child abuse and neglect in their communities.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New General Assembly, same old issues

By Jamey Dunn and Meredith Colias 

As the 98th General Assembly was sworn in today, legislative leaders reminded members new and old that they have difficult work ahead.

“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me,” sang Molly Durand, Senate President’s John Cullerton’s niece, at the end of the inaugural ceremony in the Senate. It may be a new day and a new General Assembly, but lawmakers face familiar issues such as pension changes, same-sex marriage and proposals regarding guns. “As we move forward in good faith and good comradeship, the issues haven’t changed that much. The nature of the issues hasn’t changed that much. They remain terribly contentious and terribly divisive,” House Speaker Michael Madigan told new House members.

Cullerton introduced Senate Bill 1 today, which he has dubbed as his compromise with the House on pensions. Cullerton believes recent proposals put forward by Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz and more than a dozen other House members are unconstitutional. Those in the House backing pension changes were unable to find the support needed to pass a bill during the lame-duck session. Cullerton says he is willing to call the House proposal for a vote as long as lawmakers also approve a plan that he believes is constitutional. His plan would be a backup option if the Illinois Supreme Court were to shoot down the Nekritz bill. SB 1 contains both proposals. Nekritz plans to introduce the House plan again in the new legislative session, and Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, who until recently was a House member working on pension reform with Nekritz, said he plans to introduce the House proposal in the Senate. “The people of Illinois have put great trust in us and are counting on us to be bold while facing significant challenges ahead,” Nekritz said. “That work is never easy. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it falls short. Trust me, I know. Just look at House session yesterday.”

Gov. Pat Quinn said today of the failure to pass pension reform in the General Assembly's lame-duck session: “It was disappointing, but you know, in high school I ran long distance. So this is a long distance run to get pension reform, and you've just got to keep running until you get to the finish line.” He said is “optimistic” that Cullerton’s bill can pass in the Senate. “Then, we’ll get it over to the House, where we have obviously a lot of work still to do, but I think we made some progress in establishing good relationships, and ultimately there’ll have to be some compromises in the House in order to get a bill passed there.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan called the pension problem “the most serious problem facing the state of Illinois today.” He said in a speech today: “It’s an extremely difficult issue because in order to achieve some improvement .. .part of the solution would be to tell people that there will be a change in the promised benefit that they will receive in their pension.” Madigan said those who are serious about solving the pension problem must find a solution to what he described as the “free lunch” of the state paying most of the employer costs of pensions for schools outside of Chicago, public universities and community colleges. The cost-shift, which would eventually require downstate schools to pick up the full employer costs of retiree benefits, became a point of gridlock in previous negotiations among the legislative leaders. Madigan had said he would temporarily back off the issue during the lame-duck session to try to get a bill passed .

House Minority Leader Cross, who opposes the cost shift, also emphasized the need for pension changes when he addressed the House. “We need to understand and accept that if we do nothing, a variety of not-so-good things happen.” All four legislative leaders said they hope to address similar issues, such as getting the state's budget in order and paying bills in a timely manner.

Many other issues that were the focus of the recent lame-duck session also will likely become the key debates during the new session. Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris and Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who unsuccessfully pushed for a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, plan to introduce new legislation and continue their efforts in the new session. Quinn also renewed his call for a ban on assault weapons. “I’m optimistic that very quickly, we can address marriage equality with the new legislature. I think we have to address the assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, I think that’s imperative, and I think pension reform. Those are three issues that I think right away the new legislature is going to have to come together and focus on,” Quinn said.

While the Democrats will have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, that does not mean they will be able to easily pass any legislation leadership wants. “We may all call ourselves Democrats on this side of the chamber, but we hold a wide array of opinions and represent very different districts,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul in his speech to nominate Cullerton for another term as Senate president.

“We represent 4 million people collectively on this side of the aisle. We have ideas. We have principles, and we have microphones. And if microphones don’t work, we have soap boxes,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said of her 19-member Republican caucus.

Cullerton warned Democrats that just because they have large numbers does not mean they can avoid casting difficult votes. “My advice is to enjoy today and celebrate with your families, but you must know tough decisions and votes await us in the weeks and months ahead.”

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

No pension reform for the 97th General Assembly

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House and Senate adjourned their two-year legislative sessions today without approving a pension reform measure, dashing the hopes of those who were striving to get legislation approved during the General Assembly's lame-duck session.

“We didn’t quite get there, so we are going to regroup and start up again,” said Northbrook Democrat Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who sponsored a pension reform proposal a committee approved yesterday but that was not called for a floor vote. She said there is no single component of reform that is holding it up. “It remains a range of issues that members are concerned about. Look, when you’re impacting people’s retirement security, it’s a tough vote, and people have a lot of different concerns about it. It would be great if we could have one thing we could focus on and get it corrected, but that’s not the way this works.”

In what many described as a Hail Mary attempt to get something done on pension reform, Gov. Pat Quinn pushed the idea of creating a special pension commission with the power to create a plan that would become law unless the General Assembly intervened. Under a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 1673, a special commission appointed by the legislative leaders would be required to present a plan by April 30 that would ensure that the pension systems were 100 percent funded by 2045. The proposal from the commission would become law unless both chambers voted to reject it.

“We have to take extraordinary action to help break the gridlock,” Quinn said when he testified in favor of the plan before a House committee today. Quinn said that failure to act would eventually result in the state’s bond rating being downgraded yet again. “We have to understand that this is an emergency.” Quinn compared the idea to the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission, a federal entity that was created to recommend military bases for closure after it become clear that regional interests were making it all but impossible for Congress to approve closures. If the bill would have passed, Quinn said he would have signed it and then no longer would have been a part of the process. The bill would not have required that the governor sign off on the commission’s proposal.

But detractors questioned the constitutionality of such a plan, and it was not called for a vote in the House. “I myself thought that his late proposal was perhaps not the very best public policy pronouncement. I think there are constitutional questions about it,” Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie said after the House adjourned. Nekritz said she sponsored the measure, which Quinn brought to her, because she thought it deserved consideration. “Clearly, some dynamic needs to change. We have been working at this a very long time, and it’s been challenging to get the necessary votes on the bill, obviously. An idea to sort of shake that up, I think we had to look at that,” she said.

Currie said that those who have been working on pension reform should not take the days events as a failure. “It’s not as if any of this is new. This is very very tough. And I think there’s going to be no matter what we do if we do something there will be constitutional challenges,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed that we didn’t get it done today. I am embarrassed we haven’t done anything so far, but I am encouraged that we, as of yesterday, seemed really to have a renewed focus renewed energy renewed effort on the whole issue of pensions.”

Nekritz and newly sworn in Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, said they each plan to introduce a pension reform plan in their respective chambers when the new legislative session starts tomorrow. “It’s not at all back to the drawing board,” Biss said. “We feel like we had tremendous momentum yesterday. We still have tremendous momentum today, and we want to carry that forward.” He said the legislation they plan to file would be nearly identical to a proposal, House Bill 6258, which more than a dozen House members brought forward in December. The plan a House committee approved Monday was based on that proposal. But Biss said he and Nekritz want to return to the initial legislation because he said it is a “good negotiation platform.” He and Nekritz both emphasized that they are open to changes to the legislation, and no ideas are off the table. “This issue is tough and complicated, and different people have different challenges with it, and so it’s really a matter of cobbling that majority together one vote at a time. And we’ll learn as we work with these new members one at a time what those issues are. And we hope it will be easier, and we know it won’t be very easy. But we know it can be done,” Biss said.

Senate President John Cullerton believes that the framework for HB 6258 is unconstitutional. “The Constitution says you can’t unilaterally pass a law taking away people’s pension benefits. You have to ask them to do it contractually,” Cullerton said. He maintains that some consideration must be given to workers for any reduction in their benefits. A plan that passed in the Senate would have asked employees to choose between their compounded-interest cost-of-living adjustments or state subsidized retiree health care. “Their bill unilaterally takes away people’s rights in exchange for nothing. That’s why it’s unconstitutional.”

However, Cullerton said he would be willing to call a bill that he believes is unconstitutional as long as it is approved in tandem with a plan that he thinks is constitutional. “I said that I would support that bill and work to pass it in the Senate as long as they had a backup.” Cullerton called on the House to pass a fail-safe proposal that was approved by the Senate. He said  if the Supreme Court were to rule the House plan constitutional, it would become the law. But if the court rejected the House proposal, the Senate version could then be considered. He said he plans to introduce a new Senate bill tomorrow that covers all the pension systems except judges. He said that bill would not include a controversial cost shift of the entire employer portion of pension benefits to downstate schools, public universities and community colleges. “For us to pass a bill which is unconstitutional and to pretend like we did some kind of reform with no backup, only to have it thrown out a year later — a year of lost time of trying to fix the pension system — to me is cynical.”

The 98th General Assembly will be sworn in tomorrow.

Quinn to sign bill allowing undocumented immigrants access to driver's licenses

By Meredith Colias

Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated he will sign a bill into law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary driver's licenses.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Democrat from Chicago, framed the measure as a matter of public safety. “It’s a commonsense bill that seeks to improve the safety of our roads and ensure that all motorists can be trained, tested, licensed and insured,” he said.

Senate Bill 957, which passed the House today, 65-46, and the Senate in December, would allow an estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrants without Social Security numbers living in Illinois to obtain temporary driver’s licenses valid for three years. Applicants would be required to take vision and driving tests and carry valid car insurance. Drivers caught without insurance would have their licenses revoked. To obtain a temporary license, an applicant would need to show a passport or consular identification documents and provide proof that they have lived in the state for at least one year. Opponents said the measure does not contain enough safeguards against fraud because it would not require applicants to be fingerprinted or provide a tax identification number to obtain the license and would reward those already breaking immigration laws. Acevedo acknowledged the fingerprinting concerns and said he would be willing to work with opponents on future legislation.

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, was concerned that undocumented immigrants from outside the state would find a way to falsify documents and skirt the residency requirement. That is something he said has happened in New Mexico, a state that currently offers licenses to immigrants who are in the country illegally. “We have no idea how long they’ve lived here,” he said of potential applicants in Illinois.

Supporters said that they think the residency requirement is stringent enough to keep residents of other states from getting Illinois licenses. However, Nathan Maddox, senior legal advisor for Secretary of State Jesse White, acknowledged the office would not be able to determine at the time of application if an undocumented driver had previously committed an offense, like a DUI, out of state. Applicants who have already been suspended from driving in Illinois would have to start serving their suspension once they obtained a license regardless of when they committed the violation.

 Others argued that the state should not address immigration, which is a federal issue. “We are ... engaging in activities the U.S. government should be taking [on] themselves,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, a Republican from Glen Carbon. Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said the state should not “provide privileges for people who are not citizens here.”

 While the bill had several Republican detractors, it did receive bipartisan support. House Minority Leader Tom Cross said he believed technical issues cited were not sufficient to oppose the bill. “We have a number of folks in this state ... that are here illegally, and we need to address it,” he said. Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican, said he thought the bill was imperfect but voted in favor of the measure. “What I focus on is public safety. … The reality is it’s a start,” he said.

"People come to this country for the American dream. We can offer them that today,” Acevedo said on the House floor. The bill will take effect 10 months after receiving Quinn’s signature. “Illinois roads will be safer if we ensure every driver learns the rules of the road and is trained to drive safely,” he said in a prepared statement.

Quinn calls for more compromise to get pension reform done today

By Jamey Dunn

With the prospects for passing pension reform in the next 24 hours dwindling, Gov. Pat Quinn called on lawmakers to work out a plan that can make it through both chambers before the new General Assembly is seated tomorrow.

“We’re trying to get to a bill that we can enact that will make things better for the people of Illinois,” Quinn said this morning. While Quinn would not say the votes aren’t there for any of the bills currently being considered, including a plan approved by a House committee yesterday, he did say more compromise is needed. “I feel, when you talk to members of both houses, that more compromises are necessary before we get to a solution that can move us forward.”

Quinn did not throw his support behind any specific proposal as his preferred plan. “People of good faith have different ideas, different concepts, different structures, and I respect all of those,” he said. “I really feel that it is important to have a vote on some sort of structure that moves us forward.”

Nor was he willing to concede defeat. “I’m going to work all day with all the members of the House, and then the Senate is coming in later. I think we owe it to the people to work all day on coming up with a structure that moves us forward. We cannot run in place.” A spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton said senators continue to be on “standby” awaiting House action.

Quinn warned that inaction on pension reform would damage the state’s economy and lead to a downgrade in the state’s bond rating. “We cannot allow our state economy, the Illinois, economy, to be held hostage by political timidity. We have to be bold. We have to do things that are difficult. We have to take on the challenge of our time and meet that challenge.”

Monday, January 07, 2013

Time running out on pension reform

By Jamey Dunn

As the clock ticks on the final days of the two-year legislative session, sponsors of a pension reform bill work to try and line up votes before the new General Assembly is seated on Wednesday.

A House Committee approved Senate Bill 1673 today.The legislation would:
  • Freeze cost-of-living adjustments for six years. 
  • Increase employee contributions by 2 percent of salary. 
  • Phase in contribution increases over two years. 
  • Cap pensionable salary at the salary employees are earning when the bill goes onto effect or the Social Security wage base, whichever is more. 
  • Include a guarantee that the state makes its annual required contribution to the pension systems. 

Once the cost of living increase returns, it would only apply to the first $25,000 of retirement incomes and would not be awarded until employees turn 67. “The choice is clear. The time is now to end the excuses and say yes to reform for our pension systems,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz as she presented the bill in a committee today. But that choice has been delayed for at least another day. The House adjourned this afternoon without taking up the bill. Nekritz and other supporters, including Gov. Pat Quinn, continue to lobby House members to try to find support needed to get the measure through the chamber.

 House Minority Leader Tom Cross supports the legislation and emphasized the need to approve pension changes to avoid another downgrade of the state’s bond rating. “If we do nothing in the next couple days, it is inevitable that we will be downgraded.” Cross said if lawmakers fail to act before the current session ends, “our reputation continues to diminish.”

Supporters of the plan say that it must be approved to address the state’s billions of dollars in unfunded pension liability and bring down pensions costs, which are starting to crowd out other areas of spending. “It’s clear that the state cannot devote exclusively to pensions such a large portion of its budget and still maintain the functions of state government,” said Lawrence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based organization that has been a major advocate for pension changes.

However, union officials argue that measure does not represent a shared sacrifice but instead seeks to solve the problem entirely at the expense of employees and retirees. “This $95 billion liability is money that has been earned and is owed to active and retired employees. It’s not something they are going to earn in the future. It is something that is already earned and is already owed,” said Henry Bayer, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. The Senate is not in session but a spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton said members have been put on “standby” to return to take up any legislation that the House might pass tomorrow. But the measure may not fare well in the Senate because it lacks Cullerton’s support. He wants the House to pass a version of pension reform that the Senate approved during the legislature's fall veto session or to  incorporate provisions from that proposal into whatever legislation representatives approve. 

The House is scheduled to return at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Vote on licenses for undocumented drivers pushed to Tuesday

By Meredith Colias 

An estimated 250,000 undocumented drivers are one step closer to an opportunity to obtain a temporary driver’s license, but a floor vote on the bill was pushed to the last scheduled day of the current legislative session.

Under Senate Bill 957, which was approved by a House committee today, immigrants lacking Social Security numbers or documents to prove they are in the country legally would have to show a passport or consular identification documents and provide proof of residency for one year.  The proposal would require undocumented drivers to take a driving test with the state. Licenses would be revoked for drivers who do not subsequently obtain insurance. Secretary of State Jesse White’s office estimates the measure would cost $800,000 the first year and $250,000 to maintain each year after.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Edward Acevedo, told the committee that it would make roads safer by ensuring that undocumented drivers could be “trained, tested, licensed and insured.” Acevedo, a Chicago Democrat, said the licenses could not be used as a form of identification for other purposes such as buying firearms or alcohol or boarding an airplane. Applicants would be required to pay $30 for the temporary license, which would valid for three years and available for renewal.

Hanover Chief of Police David Webb said the proposal is an important safety step but is concerned that its security safeguards would not be strict enough. Webb and other law enforcement officials say applicants should be fingerprinted or required to provide a federal tax identification number before obtaining a license. “Without these basic public safety and homeland security safeguards, this bill is unsafe,” he said.

 License holder’s pictures would then be entered into a facial recognition database, but opponents were concerned that facial scan technology could be prone to error. “I think the integrity of the system is compromised if we don’t know who these folks are,” said Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican.

Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said requiring fingerprinting to obtain a temporary driver's license might deter some undocumented drivers from applying for fear of being turned over to the federal immigration service for deportation. “It is a major concern to the community,” he said.

Acevedo said he plans to call the bill on the House floor a floor vote on Tuesday.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

House to take another shot at pension reform tomorrow

By Jamey Dunn

Supporters of pension reform in the House say they are still hopeful that the chamber can approve a plan before the current legislative session ends on Wednesday.

A House committee is scheduled to take up Senate Bill 1673 at noon tomorrow. Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz said the bill scheduled for a hearing tomorrow would be similar to the plan that legislative leaders were negotiating over the weekend. The plan would:
  • Freeze cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for six years. 
  • Increase employee contributions by 2 percent of salary. 
  • Phase in contribution increases over two years. 
  • Cap pensionable salary at the salary employees are earning when the bill goes onto effect or the Social Security wage base, whichever is more. 
  • Include a guarantee that the state makes its annual required contribution to the pension systems. 
Once the cost of living increase returns, it would only apply to the first $25,000 of retirement incomes and would not be awarded until employees turn 67. A controversial cost shift, which would require schools outside of Chicago, universities and community colleges to eventually pick up the full employer cost for employee pensions, has been temporarily set aside in an attempt to clear the way for the passage of this plan.

Nekritz said the bill she plans to present tomorrow may have some “tweaks” as House leadership continues to try to hammer out a deal. She refused to predict the odds of getting the bill approved in the House and Senate but she said she thought it could clear a committee vote tomorrow. “This has been so fragile at every step along the way that if we can get it through committee, great. And then if we can get it off the floor, great. But I think we’re still making our way through all that.”

Senate President John Cullerton has made it clear that he believes employees must be offered consideration for the reduction of their benefits. He supports a plan that would ask employees to choose between keeping their state subsidized health care or losing their compounded interest rate COLAs. Employees that chose to keep their compounded COLAs would also see their pensionable salaries frozen at the current level.

However, Rep. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, said the argument can be made that the public policy benefit of keeping the pension systems soluble outweighs the constitutional protection of retirees' benefits. “I think it’s important that the General Assembly speak with one voice about how big a solution is needed. Otherwise, we’ll muddy the question before the courts,” he said. Union officials blasted lawmakers today for leaving them out of negotiations over the proposal currently on the table. “We are extremely disappointed that Governor Quinn and legislative leaders have shut out the voices of workers and retirees in their latest talks on pension legislation. Instead, once again, Illinois politicians are preparing to use unconstitutional schemes to ruin the retirement security of hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans while ignoring the state's revenue problem,” said a statement from the We Are One Coalition. The group has already threatened a lawsuit if the proposal is approved and signed into law. “If the General Assembly rams through last-minute legislation that violates the Illinois Constitution, we are prepared to sue to protect the hard-earned benefits of teachers, caregivers, corrections officers, university employees and others.”

Nekritz said that House members working on the issue have met with union leaders. “We’ve met with labor. I would characterize it as an impasse. And so we’ve met, but I think that we’re not likely to come to any agreement.”

The Senate is not in session, but Cullerton did tell members that the chamber could return on Tuesday to take up any legislation the House might pass. When asked if the uncertainty of a Senate return has complicated efforts to put votes on the bill in the House, Nekritz said, “There isn’t any aspect of this that doesn’t complicate it right now.”

Tax transparency and assault weapon ban appear stalled

By Jamey Dunn 

A proposal that would require publicly traded corporations to share some tax information with lawmakers was shot down by a House committee today, and the chamber is also unlikely to take up an assault weapons ban before the new General Assembly is sworn in on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 282 would require publicly traded corporations that do business in Illinois to share tax information, such as their incomes, tax liability and tax credits. 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. Proponents said lawmakers need the information to make educated decisions about tax policy. “This is about providing us with good information, so as we are making policy tax policy, we have a pretty good idea of what we’re doing,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie. The measure passed in the Senate during the fall veto session.

 But those opposed say the measure is a violation of privacy. They say that competitors could use such information to get an edge. “The linchpin, one of the pillars of a volunteer tax system, is confidentiality,” said Tom Johnson, president emeritus of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois.

One lawmaker who voted for the bill described it as an “overstep” but said he thinks legislators need more information when making decisions about tax laws. “From my own personal experience, one of the big frustrations that we’ve had in this committee is that we can’t get the information we need in order to make tax policy,” said Rep. John Bradley, the chair of the House Revenue and Finance Committee. He said he voted in favor of the bill to send a message that lawmakers need to know more about what businesses pay in taxes,“so that we can do a better job figuring out what we are up to when it comes to creating tax policy in this state.”

Illinois legislators probably will not consider a ban on assault weapons before the current legislative session ends on Wednesday. “We are not going to be proceeding on the legislation regarding the assault weapons ban, and I think that will be the case for balance of the 87th General Assembly,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, chair of the House committee that was scheduled to take up the weapons ban today.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Democrats set aside potential roadblock to pension reform

By Jamey Dunn 

Democratic leaders in Illinois have agreed to table a controversial component of pension reform proposals, potentially opening the door for a renewed push when the House returns for its lame-duck session.

Gov. Pat Quinn announced today that he and House Speaker Michael Madigan are willing to back off the so-called cost shift,which has been a sticking point in negotiations. “He indicated that he was willing to defer any discussion on the cost shift regarding pension reform until a later date,” Quinn said of a recent conversation with Madigan. He said Democrats are not abandoning the idea; they are simply acknowledging that it was holding up progress on pension reform.

There are several versions of the cost shift. but they all would produce the same result: public schools outside of Chicago, universities and community colleges would eventually pick up the tab for their employees’ pensions. Chicago Public Schools currently pays for most of the employer costs of its workers’ retirement, and legislators from the city argued that it is unfair that the rest of the state does not. Also, they said school districts need to have some skin in the game because they now set the benefits that state government ends up paying. Under the proposal that was up for consideration, the state would be responsible for the state’s estimated $96 billion unfunded liability and schools would take over the future costs gradually over several years. But Republicans and some downstate Democrats say the shift would increase local property taxes because schools would not be able to afford the cost. The also say they are concerned that if the pension investment funds do not perform as expected, schools could be on the hook for future unfunded liability.

 Quinn called the willingness to set aside the shift a “major step forward” in negotiations. “I think we’re on the eve of collaboration where people of good faith of both parties — Democrat and Republican, House and Senate — come together and do what has to be done for the common good,” Quinn told reporters in Wheaton today. He encouraged members of the General Assembly to look to the hard-fought compromise that was recently struck in Congress over the fiscal cliff. “I think we saw in Washington [D.C.] with the debate over the fiscal cliff that people, in order to solve a problem, oftentimes have to make reasonable compromises, make changes in their original position in order to get an outcome that benefits the public. It was bipartisan in Washington the other night, and it’s going to have to be bipartisan in Illinois in the next few days.”

Quinn shared few details about the reform plan that is currently being negotiated with legislative leadership from both parties. “We’ve been working on this really pretty feverishly over the last several weeks,” he said. “There were some breakthroughs concessions and compromises, and that’s sort of how it is in life, you know. You’ve got to sometimes concede this or that for the time being at least and move forward.” However, he did say that workers could expect to see their contributions increase and their Cost of Living Adjustments decrease under the proposal. He also said he is confident that it will survive a constitutional challenge. “It’s a very carefully balanced plan.”

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz said that the plan would likely be inserted into Senate Bill 1673, which is scheduled for a hearing on Monday morning. Negotiations are continuing over the weekend, and Nekritz is optimistic. “I think the momentum is continuing to build,” she said. Nekritz added that she thinks it is possible to get a plan approved before the new legislative session begins next week. While Nekritz is encouraged by the new development on pension reform, she said that she thinks a compromise on the cost shift is not out of reach. “I still think that the cost shift is the right policy goal. I feel that very strongly,” she said. “I still think we could have found a middle ground on the cost shift.” Setting that issue aside, she said, “was not my decision.”

Republicans are also speaking positively about the newest plan for tackling pension reform. “Not everyone agrees with all the nuances. We don’t know the numbers yet for the bills, but my gut is telling me this is moving in a really significant direction in regards to getting this thing shored up once and for all,” said Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican. She said she hopes that both chambers can approve it. “We’ve got a new set of legislators coming in, and it’s a complicated process. And to start this over again is really not necessary. We know what we need to do.”

Republican House Leader Tom Cross said that leaders will continue to talk through the weekend, and a measure that House leadership from both parties agree on could emerge by Sunday or Monday. The House is scheduled to return for its lame-duck session on Sunday. Cross cautioned, “I don’t bet on pension reform anymore because I have lost that bet in the past.” But he said he is “cautiously optimistic.” Cross said that if the legislature can pass a bill that substantially reduces employee benefits, and therefore reduces the cost of their retirement that would be passed on to schools, Republicans might be open to revisiting talks about a cost shift. “A strong benefits package reform bill diminishes in a lot of ways the potential damage that a cost shift presents.”

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Gay marriage and gun control bills struggle in the Senate

Gun control measures and legislation to legalize same-sex marriage both stalled in the Senate today because they lacked the support to pass on a floor vote.

Same-Sex Marriage
By Meredith Colias

The Senate sponsor of a bill legalizing gay marriage said she hoped it could come up for a floor vote as soon as Tuesday. However, Senate President John Cullerton said such a vote would be unlikely.

Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago, said supporters of House Bill 4963 were not present today to cast their votes on the floor. The measure was approved by a Senate Committee, but Cullerton said Steans would not get another crack at passing same-sex marriage legislation unless it is first approved by the House, which is scheduled to start its lame-duck session on Sunday. “Maybe we will see you next Tuesday. I would once again reiterate that it’s not likely, but there’s that outside possibility because the House will be in session,” Cullerton told members when the Senate adjourned tonight. The Senate session scheduled for tomorrow has been canceled.

Steans told the committee that her proposal would provide “a basic civil right” to gay couples, while allowing exemptions to protect religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage.

Springfield Roman Catholic Bishop John Paprocki said the measure “would radically redefine what marriage is for everyone” and would not do enough to protect religious institutions that oppose same sex marriage. Opponents questioned language in the bill they believed would require religious institutions to rent out their facilities to gay couples against their wishes. “The consequences of redefining marriage will be broader based,” Paprocki said .

Steans said the measure would require religious institutions to treat everyone equally when renting out certain facilities that are available to the public but would not require them to marry gay couples or let them use the sanctuary. Steans said such protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation were already part of other laws.

Ralph Rivera of the Illinois Family Institute said that he and others would oppose the bill on principle regardless of the exemptions it contained. But he said legislation approved in committee today was “not about gay marriage. It’s about forcing the church to accept it or be punished.”

Other religious leaders spoke in favor of the bill. Rev. Vernice Thorn of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said her support for gay marriage drew from her own religious beliefs. “I believe this to be a justice issue, but I also believe … it’s a faith issue.”

Although no Republicans on the committee voted in favor of sending the bill to a floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Christine Radogno said it had the “potential for bipartisanship” if Steans were willing to do more to protect religious groups that “truly believe this is not the right thing to do.” Steans said she was open to meeting with opponents to try to work out a compromise on the religious protections in her proposal.

Gun Control

By Jamey Dunn

Advocates for two gun control proposals were also disappointed today in the Senate.

House Bill 1263, which would ban several types of assault weapons, including semi-automatic firearms and high-caliber rifles, and HB 815, which would outlaw ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, were not called for floor votes today because Democratic leaders said they did not have the support to pass. “I think it’s just an issue of some of the people who would be voting for the bill are not present today,” said Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, who sponsors HB815.

“It is clear that we will need bipartisan support in order to take floor votes on gun safety and marriage equality this week. We will take some time to work on these important issues to advance them in the near future,” Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, said this afternoon in a prepared statement.

“I think people are generally supportive of the concept [of the high-capacity magazine ban],” Kotowski said. “There’s a couple areas that they need to be educated about — the components of the bill. And once they are, they are usually OK.”

Opponents say that both bans would trample on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. Todd Vandermyde, chief Illinois lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said the bans would outlaw “components and parts of some of the most commonly used firearms in the country.”

Gov. Pat Quinn has been vocally pushing for both measures since a mass shooting in a Colorado theater last summer. “We’re pleased to see progress being made on both fronts,” Brooke Anderson, a Quinn spokeswoman, said about Senate committees approving both gun bans as well as a bill to legalize same sex marriage. She said of the gun control measures specifically, “As the governor has made clear, this is something that we are going to vigorously pursue this year, and we’re going to continue work on it.”

Sen. Heather Steans’ bill to legalize same sex marriage passed in a committee today, but she saw another Senate panel reject a plan to approve additional spending for construction and the Department of Children and Family Services. The plan would have reallocated money from Quinn’s vetoes and allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to spend unused state and federal funds.

However, the measure would also draw from money from the sale of the state’s 10th casino license that was promised to horse racing tracks in 1999. Steve Brubaker, a lobbyist for the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, said the money is supposed to be spent on purse races and operations at the state’s tracks. “This is certainly a departure from what we thought the money was going to be used for. We thought we would have access to that revenue.”

McHenry Republican Sen. Pamela Althoff said the capital projects, which include school construction, are worthwhile. But she said lawmakers have to stop tapping into funds that have been committed elsewhere each time the need for new spending arises. “I just think it’s inappropriate to break our word once again when we made those promises.”

Kotowski, who also worked on the budget deal, was not willing to concede that it or his gun control measure would have to wait until a new legislature is seated next Wednesday. “I think we’re just going to see what we can do. ... We may have an opportunity to get something done on Tuesday, but we’ll see.” But Cullerton put a damper on hopes that the Senate will be back before the current legislative session ends next week. He said that the Senate might meet again on Tuesday, but only if the House, which begins its lame-duck session on Sunday, approves legislation that the Senate needs to consider. “I don’t anticipate that, but it’s possible,” Cullerton said. He said lawmakers could continue to work on same-sex marriage and gun control issues in the new legislative session.

Cullerton said of the Senate’s lame-duck session actions, “We just really finished up the normal business that we needed to finish up.” He told lawmakers as he announced an end to work for the day, “We still have tremendous challenges to face in the next session.”

Senate approves bill that would bar some state workers from union membership

By Jamey Dunn 

Some state workers would be stripped of their union memberships under a measure approved by the Illinois Senate today, but a hold has been put of the bill for further negotiations before it is sent to Gov. Pat Quinn.

Senate Bill 1556 would bar state employees in managerial positions from being members of a union. Quinn has been pushing the bill for some time because he argues that recent growth in union membership has left few in government who are representing the state’s interests as managers.  “Our state has more [workers] belonging to a union than any other state in the union. I believe in the right to collectively bargain, but you also have to have some people in management,” Quinn said in 2011.

The House has already approved the measure (as well as a similar version in 2011 that the Senate did not take up), and Quinn is expected to sign it, but he will not have the chance to ratify it just yet. Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, who has been negotiating with unions over the proposal, put a procedural hold on the bill by filing a motion after it was approved in the Senate. “He has been the chief negotiator on this bill for three years. Even as we passed the bill, he was still identifying ways to work with the unions on a resolution. Filing the motion grants more time to do that,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton.

Cullerton, who sponsors the bill, said that even after the provisions of the legislation go into effect, Illinois would continue to be “one of the most heavily unionized” states in the nation. “It’s the basic concept of allowing us to have management not be in the union,” Cullerton said during debate on the Senate floor. “It will help the governor manage the executive branch.”

Union officials say the bill is another way for Quinn to circumvent the collective bargaining process. “In November, Pat Quinn became the first Illinois governor to terminate a union contract. His signature on this bill would make Quinn the first to strip collective bargaining rights from thousands of his employees. It is deeply disturbing that the governor refused our union's good-faith efforts to address these matters through negotiations,” Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in a written statement. “The only possible reason for Quinn's action is to leave workers without the protections of a union contract in an attempt to intimidate them or replace them with political patronage hires. It is the latest anti-worker, anti-union blow from a governor bent on scapegoating public employees.”

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Senate committee advances gun control bills

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois Senate committee approved two gun control measures today, after recent tragedies brought the debate over firearms to the forefront of national attention.

House Bill 1263 would ban several types of assault weapons, including semi-automatic firearms and high-caliber rifles. House Bill 815 would outlaw ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Gov. Pat Quinn has been calling for the passage of such bans since last summer, after a shooter killed a dozen people and injured more than 50 others in a Colorado movie theater. But the nationwide focus on the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut—which took the lives of 20 students and six staff members—seems to have given the measures some momentum.

“These military-style weapons have no use in our street and cities across Illinois. ...  Assault weapons have been used in three mass killings in our country in 2012,” said Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “The killings need to stop, and passing a ban on the sale of these weapons is a great first step in stopping the senseless violence.” Under the legislation, those who owned the guns before the law goes into effect would be able to keep them, but they would have to register the weapons with the Illinois State Police.

Opponents say the ban is a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy. Jay Keller, executive director of the Illinois Firearms Manufacturers Association, called the Sandy Hook shooting “an incomprehensible, haunting horror.” But he said that banning guns is not the answer, and lawmakers should instead take a comprehensive look at the issue by evaluating the state’s mental health system and considering the value of violent imagery in entertainment such as video games. “We all want answers, preferably simple ones. Unfortunately there are none. This issue is a complex issue, and banning certain firearms will not solve it.” Keller said the bans would eliminate jobs by driving weapons manufacturers out of the state. “So I can stay here and pay you all [taxes], but I can’t do business here. The manufacturers will not stay here.”

Representatives from the National Rifle Association argued that the two bills step on the Second Amendment rights of gun owners and fly in the face of recent court rulings guaranteeing them access to guns, as well as the ability to carry weapons in public. Todd Vandermyde, the National Rifle Association's chief Illinois lobbyist, said the measure is much broader than the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. “I have never seen a piece of legislation that tramples on so many court decisions,” he said.

But Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, who sponsors the high-capacity magazine ban, said the legislation is not meant to take away guns, just to make them less lethal in the hands of potential killers. “We are addressing the fact that there are more people who can be shot in a period of time, and I call that lethal,” he said. “If you are a law-abiding gun owner, I don’t know what you have to fear here.”

The bills could come up for floor votes as early as tomorrow.