Thursday, February 28, 2013

Senate approves federal Medicaid expansion

By Meredith Colias 

The Illinois Senate approved a measure to expand Medicaid coverage beyond mothers and children to low-income single adults as part of the federal health care reform law.

Senate Bill 26 would expand Medicaid eligibility to an estimated 350,000 adults who do not currently qualify for Medicaid. Adults from 19 to 64 earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level would now qualify. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act calls for coverage to be extended for those making 133 percent of the federal poverty level. However, the feds are allowing states some wiggle room, so in practice, the coverage will be extended to those making 138 percent, which was $31,809 for a family of four and $15,415 for a single person in 2012.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said the expansion would be better for providers such as hospitals, local townships and health care clinics that currently are not reimbursed for providing health care services for uninsured adults. She said it would shift individuals now without health insurance away from using hospital emergency rooms as a costlier last resort for injury and illness. “We can get them up front into care coordinated programs…make sure they are getting the preventative health care they need to stay healthier, which is a much better system when you actually get people care they need,” she said.

Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Chicago Democrat, said the expansion is important for vulnerable citizens of the state, such as those who “were asked to bear the brunt” of the Medicaid cuts last year. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs of the Affordable Care Act for the first three years. Afterward, the state will be responsible for 10 percent of the total cost per year. The bill has specific language allowing Illinois to opt out of the expansion if the share of the federal government's payment falls below 90 percent, and the state has to pick up more than 10 percent of the total cost.

No Republican voted in favor of the legislation. They said they were concerned it was a commitment the state could not afford, and would force newly eligible participants to choose Medicaid over other options, such as buying insurance in the online marketplace that is another component of the Affordable Care Act. "At some time, we have to understand that we have to take responsibility" for its cost when the federal government stops footing the full bill, said Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican.

Minority Leader Christine Radogno said that Illinois should do more to negotiate the terms of the expansions with federal officials before agreeing to sign on. Arkansas recently struck a deal with the United States Department of Health and Human Services that will allow that state to spend some of its Medicaid dollars to buy Medicaid-eligible residents insurance in the online exchange. “What I think we lose by getting on more quickly than we need to is any leverage to work with the federal government to make the program fit better for Illinois,” Radogno said.

Steans said she was confident that proper safeguards were built into the law to avoid a risk to the state budget. “We are going to have control over this program as we want,” she said. She said it is more important to change how the current costs are paid and said governors throughout the country are also embracing the expansion. “We pick it up in [the budget now], it doesn’t get any federal matching dollars … Folks are coming in and getting this care [anyway],” Steans said.

 She added, “It just makes total economic sense, as well as it’s the right thing to get people more health care coverage.” The measure now heads to the House.

For more on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, see Illinois Issues September 2012.

More test votes coming on pensions and guns

By Jamey Dunn

Votes to gauge lawmakers’ sentiments on several pension proposals today produced little information, as Republicans refused to take part in a process that they called a political game.

Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has sponsored several pension reform proposals recently, presented four amendments put forward by House Speaker Michael Madigan, and the House resoundingly rejected them all. The amendment that received the most support, five “yes” votes, would prohibit cost of living adjustments [COLAs] for retirees if the pensions systems were less than 80 percent funded. The systems are currently funded at 39 percent. The least popular amendment, which would have moved the retirement age to 67, received only one favorable vote, and that came from Madigan, himself. The other two amendments would have eliminated COLAs entirely and would have required employees to contribute an additional 5 percent of their salaries toward pension costs. There was little debate on any of the amendments. However, House Minority Leader Tom Cross rose to give a lengthy speech explaining why Republicans refused to engage or vote on the amendments. “Today, we’re going to go through the charade of acting like we are going to do something about it, and it’s nothing but a joke,” he said on the House floor. “It’s like this is the dysfunctional family with the alcoholic, and we think if we ignore it, it will go away, while he or she wrecks the car, destroys the family finances, causes problems at home. And we think, well it will just go away. We’re not even addressing the problem today. And somewhere, someday, somehow, we’ve got to accept the fact that we have a challenge on our hands. And we have to do [something about] it in a comprehensive way.”

Cross praised Nekritz for her separate efforts to craft a comprehensive bill. “She’s a leader. She stood up, taking on and fighting folks that have been natural allies of hers, and she’s to be commended for what she’s done and what she’s doing and what she wants to do.” Cross and Nekritz sponsor House Bill 3411, which they unveiled yesterday. Cross said the measure, which has bipartisan support in both chambers, should be a starting point for negotiating a bill that can pass. “We need to sit down — the four [legislative] leaders with the governor — quit the B.S. and get a bill with 60 votes, 30 in the Senate and 60 here, and send it to the governor’s desk.”

Nekritz said she preferred her and Cross’ proposal to the amendments offered by Madigan, which were generally harsher on state employees and retirees. But she said that today’s votes did illustrate the levels to which lawmakers are not willing to go when it comes to reducing COLAs, hiking employee contributions and increasing the retirement age. “We don’t have 60 votes on [HB3411] yet. And we have to engage in a process that will get us there. And maybe this isn’t exactly what we would all want, but we needed to shake things up. We needed to do something a little different than we’ve been doing because, as Leader Cross said, we’ve been working for three years to get to a point where we have a bill that can get 60 votes here,” Nekritz said on the House floor. “We all need to find something we’re for, and if this is a process that can get us to something that we’re for, then let’s go ahead with it. If it’s some other process, I’m open to that, too. But we have to get to something that we’re for, and each of you has to engage in that process of getting to yes.”

Marengo Democratic Rep. Jack Franks called on the party leaders to convene a "committee of the whole," which consists of all members of the House, and put all other issues aside until the chamber approves a bill with changes to the pension system. “I would ask that instead of being a pawn in the process, that instead, we take back the process. And I know this is unprecedented, but we’ve never faced this type of problem before.”

Cross said he would agree to such a move, but the idea did not go over well with Madigan. “The last thing I think the House of Representatives needs is another hearing. How many hearings have we had? How many bills have we offered? How many times have people withdrawn bills and ducked and bobbed and weaved? So a committee of the whole is really the craziest idea,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.

Despite the unenthusiastic response to today’s exercise, which was similar to the treatment that concealed carry amendments got on Tuesday, Brown said lawmakers should expect the process, dubbed Weekly Order of Business, to continue. He said that there will likely be more of them on both pensions and “gun safety issues.” Under such orders, lawmakers are asked to take roll call votes to adopt various amendments, which each contain a single provision. However, no final action is called on the bill after amendments are adopted or rejected. “The strategy is to test the gambit of ideas. ... Test every idea that’s out there. You’ve heard people complain over the years about not being able to vote. Well, here’s a chance to vote.”

He also said the language in Cross and Nekritz’s bill could be moved straight to the floor, skipping over a committee hearing. “I think there’s some interest in maybe just discharging that bill and sending it to the floor and see who wants to vote on it,” Brown said. “Don’t rule anything out.”

State and union leaders reach deal on new contract

Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and the state’s largest public employee union have reached a tentative deal on a new contract for state workers.

Negotiations over a new contract stretched on for more than 15 months. The state’s contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 expired last June. The contract was extended until November, when Quinn refused to extend it further. Employees have been working without a contract since then.

The union and Quinn’s administration announced the deal for three-year contract today, but AFSCME said it does not plan to make the details public until the union’s members have a chance to review the agreement. “At a time when the state is facing unprecedented financial challenges, this agreement is fair to both hard-working state employees and all taxpayers of Illinois,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “I want to thank the women and men who have stayed at the table for more than a year for their commitment to reaching an agreement.”

Union members still have to approve the new contract. According to a news release from AFSCME, the ratification process will start at work sites next week. “AFSCME is very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that protects our members’ standard of living, and is fair to them and all Illinois citizens, even in these very challenging economic times,” AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer said in a prepared statement.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Supporters hopeful about new bipartisan pension bill

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers who have been spearheading recent pension reform efforts have introduced yet another plan they say could garner strong support from Republicans and Democrats.

The changes to benefits for current employees in House Bill 3411 are identical to a bill Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz and Sen. Daniel Biss introduced in December. Biss, an Evanston Democrat, was serving in the House at the time. “Everyone was working in good faith. Everyone was pulling in the same direction, but fundamentally, we were never able to get a bill that a critical mass of both Democrats and Republicans could support,” Biss said at a news conference to unveil the legislation today. “We had a bill that had a lot of Democrats and a few brave, or maybe foolhardy, Republicans, and then we had a bill that had a lot of Republicans and a few brave, or maybe foolhardy, Democrats. And we all knew that there was a way of meeting in the middle that could put together both coalitions at once, and I think today we’ve found it.” Biss introduced identical language to HB 3411 in his chamber as Senate Bill 35. The legislation would:
  • Increase employee contributions by 2 percent of their salaries. The increase would phase in over two years. 
  • Allow cost of living adjustments [COLAs] on only the first $25,000 of a retiree’s pension, or on only $20,000 for those who receive Social Security benefits. COLAs would not kick in until a retiree turns 67 or five years after retirement, whichever comes first. 
  • Increase the retirement age for employees younger than age 46. Employees from age 40 to 45 would see a one-year increase, employees 35 to 39 would see a three-year increase and employees 34 and younger would see a five-year increase. 
  • Limit the amount of pensionable income to the Social Security wage base, which will be $113,700 in 2013, or the employee's current salary, whichever is greater. 
  • Guarantee that the state make required annual payments to the pension systems. 

Biss estimated that if the measure were approved and upheld by the courts to go into effect by July, it could shave $2 billion off the state’s pension payment for the next fiscal year. It would reduce the unfunded liability by an estimated $28 billion and fully fund the systems by 2043.

A new component of the proposal would place all employees of schools outside of Chicago, university and community college employees hired after January 1, 2014, into a so-called hybrid plan that has a defined benefits component and a defined contribution component. Schools, colleges and universities would be responsible for the cost of these plans and could offer an optional employer match of 3 percent to 10 percent of an employee’s pay for the 401(k)-like component of the hybrid plan. It is the hybrid plan for new workers that proponents point to as the compromise that will help them build support. Schools and colleges will take over the cost of retirement benefits for future employees, but the measure does not contain the cost shift of future benefits for all employees, which was strongly opposed by many Republicans. “So at the end of the day, the state, for these two systems, is out of the pensions business,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. “We think that is the wave of the future. It’s the way that many other states have gone and obviously the private sector. And it’s the only way we think as a state we can sustain a pension system and take care of our employees at the same time.”

A statement from union leaders called the plan “a step backwards” in the debate over pension reform. “Like the previous approach, HB 3411 continues to focus on unfair, unconstitutional benefit cuts that erode the value of retirees’ pensions. Now, it also creates a hybrid 401(k) plan that would harm retirement security for a new generation, even though this feature does not substantially address the state’s unfunded liability. Employees like teachers, state university personnel, and police officers already do not receive Social Security, and more than half of their retirement would be at market risk under a hybrid proposal like HB 3411,” The We Are One Coalition said in a news release. “Traditional defined-benefit pensions simply work better than defined-contribution plans — even hybrid plans. Defined-benefit plans are more efficient at providing retirement income. They generate better returns, and they diversify holdings and spread risk more effectively. Moreover, ongoing costs for defined-contribution plans exceed those of defined-benefit plans.”

The bill comes the day before the House is expected to consider several pension amendments from House Speaker Michael Madigan. Amendments filed by Madigan would:

However, the House is not expected to take a final vote on any of these proposals. Tomorrow’s session will likely be similar to Tuesday’s session that focused on concealed carry, when House members voted on several amendments but did not pass a bill.

Lobbying battle over same sex marriage heats up in the House

By Meredith Colias

An Illinois House committee advanced a same-sex marriage proposal late this evening, but its sponsor said he would not call the bill for a floor vote this week.

The House Executive Committee approved Senate Bill 10 on a 6-5 vote.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, the bill’s sponsor, said he was upbeat about its chances for passage, even though the bill may face a tougher challenge than it did in the Senate. “I think it will look very good on the full floor,” he said. Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, said he was optimistic and he thinks growing public opinion for same-sex marriage statewide would play an important role in pushing the final vote. "Every day that goes by, there's more and more support for this issue,” he said. “If they vote against the freedom to marry, they are going to be on the wrong side of history." Public opinion for support on same-sex marriage has been growing steadily in the state. A poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute between taken between January 27 and February 8 showed 45.5 percent of Illinoisans favored legalizing same-sex marriage, up from 33.6 three years prior.

Opponents testifying, however, took a notably sharper tone than they did during Senate debates, citing religious objections and the possible detrimental effects on children with same-sex parents. Ralph Rivera of the Illinois Family Institute said before the hearing that members of both parties opposed the bill, and he was confident the measure did not have enough support to reach that point. “I don't see the votes. ... The numbers aren't there for them,” he said.

No Republican committee members voted in favor of the bill. East St. Louis Democratic Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson Sr. voted against it, and Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, said he may not vote in favor of the proposal when Harris calls it in the House because of his religious objections and feedback from his district. The measure needs a minimum of 60 votes to pass the House. Senate Bill 10 passed the Senate on Valentine’s Day, 34-21, but with only one Republican vote. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has said he would sign the measure into law if it passes the General Assembly.

House feels out concealed carry proposals

By Jamey Dunn

Over the course of seven hours today, Illinois House members went on the record on various provisions that could make up a final plan to allow concealed carry of firearms. Pension changes may get the same treatment later this week.

In December, the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s ban on carrying firearms in public is unconstitutional. The court gave The General Assembly 180 days to pass a law to regulate carry. The court’s opinion said the state could set reasonable restrictions on carry, such as training requirements for licenses and banning guns in certain places.

Now, the House is trying to wade through the potential components of a plan. Lawmakers were faced with 31 amendments to House Bill 1155 today dealing with various components of concealed carry, including where guns would be allowed and what kind of licensing system that state might have. Debate lasted for about seven hours, and lawmakers voted in favor of 10 amendments. Amendments that were approved would:
  • Prohibit concealed carry in schools, libraries, government buildings and on public mass transit. 
  • Bar guns from child care facilities, hospitals and mental health facilities. 
  • Ban carry in gaming facilities, at amusement parks and sporting events. 

Lawmakers rejected amendments that would have banned guns at places that dispense alcohol, public gatherings, such as fairs, and on university and community college campuses. Rep. Brandon Phelps, who has sponsored several concealed carry bills in recent years, said that the amendment that dealt with universities did not adhere to a previous compromise made with the universities. “We had a deal. A deal is a deal, especially in this General Assembly.”

Republicans complained about the unorthodox process, which called on the full House to vote on complex and controversial amendments. Typically, such amendments are first vetted and approved by a committee before reaching the floor. However, none of the votes cast today were  final action, and HB 1155 might not be the final concealed carry bill. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to push them into votes that could later be used against them in future elections. “I don’t think this is going anywhere. I really don’t. We’re playing games,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. But others said they saw today’s events as a kickoff to the debate over carry. “People are going to get excited about some of these amendments, but I believe this is the beginning of a process. And I hope everybody understands that,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican.

House members approved an amendment that contains concealed carry legislation similar to HB 997, which Phelps introduced earlier this year. His proposal would require applicants to have training and a shooting test to obtain a license. The application fee for a license would be $85, and the Illinois State Police would be required to issue licenses to those applicants who were eligible. The proposal would ban guns from several locations, including schools and bars. It would also allow universities and community colleges to prohibit guns on campus. “We believe we have a reasonable bill that complies with the court’s decision and directions. We should have one standard for our state.”

Phelps said language that would allow the state police to use discretion when issuing licenses could lead to cases of discrimination. “We believe that a bureaucrat should not dictate who gets a permit or [does] not get a permit.” Phelps warned that if lawmakers cannot get concealed carry legislation passed, there would be no restrictions after the court’s deadline is up in June.

Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski of Riverside said that today’s session was useful for getting members to grasp the complexity of the issue and getting a feel for where their preferences lie. “I think we needed this particular day to ensure that people were aware of the issues that we face on this. Everyone assumes that we can just pass a bill and this will all figure itself out, but there’s so many ... factors that go into this and how we balance protecting public safety with the constitutional right to carry a weapon, so we needed this for people to start thinking about the issue.” He said the votes on the amendments banning guns were instructive about what proposals could receive support in a final bill. “We may not be able to put a restriction on what people do in a public way. We may only be able to regulate schools and mass transit and parks and things. So that’s my takeaway.”

As the hours ticked by, several amendments were passed over without a vote. Zalewski sponsored an amendment that would have allowed the police to use discretion when issuing licenses but did not call the provision for a vote. He said the arguments over more rigid language that the state “shall issue” concealed carry permits and his more permissive “may issue” language came up during debate over Phelps’ amendment. Phelps and other concealed carry supporters believe that “may issue” language would not meet the requirements in the federal court’s ruling. Zalewski disagrees. He said that just because 67 House members voted in favor of Phelps’ plan does not mean it will be the final language. “I think that it’s important to note that that bill didn’t get 71 votes. We’ve always operated under the assumption that we’re going to preempt home rule here. And if that’s the case, then it needs a 71 [to] 36 majority.”

During the debate, Republicans complained that Democratic leaders plan to address proposed changes to the pension systems for state employees in a similar way this week. Zalewski said he thinks the process could be even more useful for addressing pension reform. “Thursday, we’re doing the same thing on pensions so that will be instructive,” he said. “On pensions, everyone talks a really nice game, but no one’s actually had to vote for something [on the floor] yet. So we will find out if people are really wiling to raise contributions, and we will find out if people are really willing to limit [cost-of-living adjustments]. ... Forcing people to the table and forcing them to take hard votes, I think it’s helpful. We were bogged down, so we need to move the ball a little bit.”

Friday, February 22, 2013

Corrections begins awarding 'good time' off inmates' sentences

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Corrections has begun awarding inmates time off of their sentences under a good-time credit law approved last year.

“After careful review, the department has begun to provisionally award supplemental sentence credit to approximately 12 eligible inmates. These provisional awards will become final awards of sentence credit near an inmate’s parole date. The department continues to review inmate files and will award credit to eligible low-level inmates as appropriate after careful and thoughtful review,” said a written statement from the DoC. So far, no inmates have been released early under the program.

 In 2009, the Department of Corrections instituted a policy dubbed MGT Push, which waived the a longstanding waiting period and allowed inmates to apply their credit immediately. This decision was made behind closed doors and was not publicized. After the Associated Press reported on the program, the fallout plagued Gov. Pat Quinn as he was running for the governor’s office in 2010. Quinn pulled together a group of staff members and experts who released a report in 2010 suggesting reforms that should take place before early release was reinstated. However, Quinn dropped the issue, and the program remained suspended for years while the state’s prisons faced overcrowding.

But after the General Assembly approved legislation creating a new program for awarding non-violent prisoners time off their sentences for good behavior, Quinn signed the bill last summer. “We worked it out with the legislature. It was long in coming. A judge did a study of the whole system and recommended a number of reforms. The legislature took that study, put it into law. I signed it into law, and we’re carrying it out,” Quinn said earlier this week. “We’ve got to follow the blueprint that is outlined in the law, and I think we will do very well if we go forward right with that.”

The department is referring to the time off, as “supplemental sentence credit (SSC).” The credit can shave up to 180 days off a sentence. Inmates must serve 60 days before becoming eligible for program. According to a news release from DoC: “The file review includes a comprehensive examination of an offender’s current holding offense(s) as well as any criminal history and disciplinary record. Programming, educational courses, assignments and any other supporting evidence that could show an offender’s progression towards rehabilitation will also be reviewed.” After credit is awarded, the department can revoke it if an inmate has disciplinary problems.

Requirements for the program are listed on the department’s website. However, awarding of the credit is at the discretion of DoC. “It is important to note that even if an offender is potentially eligible for an award of SSC, the offender should not and does not have an outright expectation to receive an award,” the website states. DoC says it will not be able to project who will receive credit under the program, and it will not respond to inquires about potential eligibility. “Because of the many factors the department intends to consider for each potentially eligible offender, it is impossible for the department to project whether or when any specific offender will receive an award of SSC credit. It is also not possible for the department to respond to inquiries concerning an offender’s likelihood of receiving an award of SSC due to the department’s policy that prevents the disclosure of confidential master record file information and criminal history.” However, DoC says it will notify inmates who get credit, and the credit will be reflected on their profiles on the DoC’s website. The department is also required to notify local law enforcement at least two weeks before the parole date of any inmate who receives time off his or her sentence under the program.

House to focus on guns next week

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is urging lawmakers to approve legislation regulating the concealed carry of firearms after a federal court denied her appeal of its ruling.

In December, a panel of judges from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Illinois' ban on carrying guns in public unconstitutional. The decision gave the General Assembly 180 days to pass concealed carry legislation. Madigan asked for the entire court to reconsider the case, but her request was denied today. “Although the 7th Circuit rarely grants rehearing en banc [by all of the judges], it was important to ask the full court to reconsider its opinion. Significantly, in today’s decision, four of the 7th Circuit judges have provided a clear framework to guide the legislature in drafting a new law. With the 180-day deadline still in place, it is critical that the legislature continue to work to enact a law that will protect public safety,” Madigan said in a prepared statement.

Judge David Hamilton wrote in his dissenting opinion that the court's ruling was the first time a federal appeals court has struck down a law barring public carry of a firearms. “In so many public settings, carrying and using firearms present lethal risks to innocent bystanders. Yet when people go about their daily lives in public places, they have no choice about whether to consent to the dangers posed by firearms in public. We can all choose whether to visit homes where firearms are present,” Hamilton wrote in his dissent. “To illustrate the dangers posed by lawful use of firearms in public, consider a deadly confrontation on the streets of New York City in August 2012, when police confronted an armed man who had just shot and killed another man. The police officers were well-trained in both how to shoot and when to shoot and not shoot. The officers fatally shot the gunman, but the officers’ many shots also wounded nine bystanders.”

The denial comes as the House is preparing to debate gun control next week. House Speaker Michael Madigan has called for “Weekly Order of Business” to begin next week focused on gun issues. (House Rule 31, Page 50 line 13) The move is a call for the House to focus on a single topic, and it begins next Tuesday. “It will be a time to consider gun safety issues,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. He said the official designation allows lawmakers and interested parties to prepare. However, it does not change legislative procedure. “The steps you take to pass a bill or amend a bill would be the same.” The House has already held two hearings on the topic of concealed carry and has a hearing on assault weapons scheduled for next Thursday.

Some gun control advocates say they do not plan to fight against carry because they concede that the court ruling means it is coming to the state. Mark Walsh, campaign director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said his organization's opposition to carry “has been well-documented over the years.” But he said at a hearing in Springfield this week, “We are now working under a court order to pass legislation regulating some form of concealed carry.” Walsh and others are pushing for restrictions such as a requirement that gun owners report lost or stolen guns, restrictions on where guns can be carried and legislative language that allows law enforcement officials to use discretion when issuing permits for carry. Walsh said he now hopes to “use this court order as an opportunity to save lives.

A representative from Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office indicated at the hearing that unless lawmakers passed concealed carry legislation, the state’s attorney would continue to prosecute people under the current law, even after the court’s deadline. “The lower federal courts, either the district courts or the courts of appeal, cannot tell the Illinois Supreme Court how to rule or whether or not that law is constitutional. The only court that can resolve that split is the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Paul Castiglione. But Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said at a Chicago hearing today said she acknowledges the court’s ruling. “Of course we will be respectful of the decision made by the 7th Circuit Court.”  Preckwinkle said, however, that she wants Madigan to continue to fight the ruling in court. “I would hope that the attorney general would continue to pursue this matter in the federal courts.” Gov. Pat Quinn also said lawmakers should observe the federal appeals court's ruling and approve concealed carry legislation before the June deadline. “A federal court order is a serious matter. I take it seriously. I think we need to comply with it,” Quinn said.

Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who has sponsored concealed carry bills in recent years, said, “Today was another victory for law-abiding gun owners.” Phelps has said his proposal, House Bill 997, is a compromise that will ensure concealed carry is well-regulated. The legislation requires training for permits and does allow some areas, such as schools, businesses and universities, to bar guns from their premises. The language in the bill does require that the Illinois State Police issue licenses to applicants who are qualified. However, there is a process through which local law enforcement officials could object to applications. “Probably some pro-gun advocates would say we have too many restrictions,” Phelps said.

Phelps said he does not know what to expect next week. But he said that supporters of concealed carry would likely not back legislation that contains other gun control provisions, such as an assault weapons ban or a requirement that gun owners register their firearms. “I just don’t see  how any pro-gun legislator is going to be for something like that because the ruling only specifies concealed carry.”

Brown said the Weekly Order of Business session would focus on multiple “gun safety” issues.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Plan to regulate fracking has broad support in the House

By Jamey Dunn

After a bipartisan bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing stalled last year, supporters think they have a better chance at success with a new plan.

Hydraulic fracturing, which is commonly referred to as fracking, is achieved by pumping water mixed with sand and chemicals through a well into rock that holds a carbon fuel, such as oil or natural gas. The water creates pressure, which fractures the rock or opens up pre-existing cracks. The sand holds the cracks open so the gas and/or oil can be extracted. It has been done since the 1930s. But recently, fracking has been coupled with horizontal drilling, which allows gas and oil companies to drill down into the earth and then permeate rock along a horizontal line, which is sometimes miles long. The marrying of the two technologies has allowed for projects that are much larger in scale.

The combined practice is not specifically regulated in Illinois, but many lawmakers, environmentalists and regulators agree it is coming to the state. Two Illinois rock formations, the New Albany Shale in the southeast and the Maquoketa Group Shale in the north, could potentially hold carbon fuels. Energy companies across the nation have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease mineral rights for land above these formations, mainly in southern Illinois. “We don’t have regulations in the state of Illinois, we don’t have laws that will deal with horizontal fracking,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Curry. She said that fracking could start in the state at any time without a bureaucratic system to regulate it or bar certain practices.

 House Bill 2615 has a broad coalition of supporters, including Republicans, Democrats, environmental groups, unions and representatives of the coal and natural gas industry. The bill would create a permitting and regulatory system for horizontal fracking. It would not apply to vertical fracking wells. The measure would:

  • Set standards for the cement casings that are put into wells to prevent leakage of fracking fluid.
  • Require water testing before and after hydraulic fracturing wells are constructed.
  • Require disclosure of chemicals used in the process.
  • Set standards for the disposal of water used for fracking.
  • Prohibit hydraulic fracturing near certain sensitive sites and water sources, including schools, churches and health care facilities.

 If water pollution were detected near a fracking wells, it would be the owners’ responsibility to prove that it was not caused be the well. “We have crafted a piece of legislation, which first and foremost protects our water supply and the communities and families of southern Illinois but allows an industry to develop in a responsible manner for the creation of thousands of jobs and the potential for tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the state of Illinois,” said Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who sponsors the bill.

Willow Hill Republican Rep. David Reis, who also sponsors the measure, said that fracking revenues could help bolster the state’s struggling budget. “This is historic from an economic standpoint. We know we have to put the safeguards in place, and we’ve done that with this [bill]. But the revenue that this is going to generate for the entire state of Illinois through income taxes and severance taxes — that we’re still going to negotiate — reoccurring sales taxes is going to be maybe one of the things we need to get out of our financial challenges that we face in this state.”

Environmental groups that worked on the bill say they do not support the practice, which has vocal detractors in other states that already have horizontal fracking operations, coming to the Illinois. “In the environmental community, we have a lot of concerns about what fracking is going to bring to Illinois, and when we look at some of the controversies that have happened in other parts of the country, there’s a real need for us to prepare for that,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. But they say fracking in Illinois may be inevitable, and they want to make sure that there are regulations in place when that day comes. “We understand that the industry is coming to Illinois ... and I think we all understand that our current set of rules and regulations and laws are not up to the task of looking at the potential impacts from this industry.”

But those who support a moratorium on fracking disagree. “Fracking is not inevitable,” said Liz Patula, coordinator of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE). Senate Bill 1418 calls for a ban on horizontal fracking and the creation of a task force to study the issue. Patula called the move a “common sense” approach. “The idea of just writing a regulatory bill out of fear, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Patula said SAFE has several concerns with the bill. “The idea that the bill is written on so-called best practices in other states — well, that hasn’t exactly worked in other states.” She said that any fracking regulation should allow for local controls, including local bans on fracking. SAFE plans to do a comprehensive analysis of the legislation in the coming weeks. Patula said there is also worry that the state lacks the funds and manpower to enforce the proposed regulations. The Department of Natural Resources would be responsible for much of the permitting process. The legislature recently passed a funding package for DNR, which included an increase to license plate fees, because the agency lacked the funds to keep up with maintenance of the state’s parks.

“Whatever is written, how could it possibly be enforced?” Patula asked. SB 2615 does not address the fees that would be paid by licensees. Bradley said the need for additional funding and manpower to regulate the new industry would be a consideration when negotiating such costs. “We’re going to have to figure out in the process of coming up with permits and applications. We’re going to have to make sure that they have sufficient funding in order to process the increased amount of work.”

 Bradley said he thinks horizontal fracking could start in Illinois by the end of the year. “The pressure is on for the state of Illinois." He said he hopes to move through the process soon and not wait until the end of the spring legislative session to get it passed.

Gov. Pat Quinn supports SB 2615. “Today’s proposal is good news for southern Illinois and our entire state’s economy. This legislation has the potential to bring thousands of jobs to southern Illinois, while also ensuring that Illinois has the nation’s strongest environmental protections,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “I am committed to creating jobs and economic growth in every part of Illinois and always making sure our water and natural resources are protected for future generations.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

House misses deadline on doctor licensing fees

By Meredith Colias

The state agency that licenses doctors says it needs budget relief to ensure that a new crop of doctors coming to the state to complete residency training will receive licenses by the time they start this summer.

Lawmakers failed to address a shortfall in a state budget fund for licensing doctors in time for a deadline today for medical students nationwide to decide where they would like to complete their residencies. Danny Chun, spokesman for the Illinois Hospital Association, said he was concerned the issue could deter prospective medical students from coming to Illinois. “We would hope these medical students still hope to choose Illinois,” he said.

Dr. William Werner, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, said it was unlikely that medical students would reject Illinois because of licensing issues. Students usually rank their residency choices on where they would get the best training for their specialties, rather than the state, he said. Some heads of teaching hospitals were concerned, but “I’ve not heard a lot of concerns” that programs will fail to attract good candidates, Werner said..

But there is worry that the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the state agency that approves doctor licenses and investigates medical malpractice complaints, does not have enough money and staff to ensure that licenses are approved for medical students before they are scheduled to start their residencies in July. Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said money was needed to restore staff the department recently cut from 26 to eight. The reduction in staff has prolonged the processing time for a medical license application from about 15 business days to close to six months.

Werner said excessive application delays need to be resolved by April and called the matter “unacceptable”. “You can’t expect a young person to delay their training that long. This has to be solved by the spring, so residents can get their licenses,” he said.

An Illinois House committee today approved Senate Bill 622, which would transfer $6.6 million from the Local Government Tax Fund to the fund that pays for doctor licensing and increase three-year medical licensing fees from $300 to $750. The money from the local tax fund would be paid back by 2015. Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie told the committee that approving the measure “would be an indication to medical students across the country that Illinois is going to solve the problem.”

Manuel Flores, the acting secretary of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said the long-term viability of the fund should be examined with the fee structure. “[Administrative] costs are going to continue to rise,” he said.

 “The one thing Illinois isn’t last place in is our hospitals,” said Rep. Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican.

James Tierney of the Illinois State Medical Society said a fee increase is necessary but not to the $750 figure that Currie proposed. The society has said it would agree to increasing the fee to $500 every three years. He said doctors should not have to pay for a problem created when money from the fund was swept and spent in other areas of the budget. The measure “really amounts to nothing more than a tax on physicians,” he said.

Lawmakers face a slew of pension proposals

By Jamey Dunn

 A new proposal for state employee pensions would make the temporary income tax increase permanent to cover pension costs.

Skokie Rep. Lou Lang, a member of House Democratic leadership, pitched House Bill 2375 today. He said that all the other pension plans that have been up for consideration violate the constitutional protection of state workers’ retirement benefits. “I am not going to vote for a pension bill that I think is unconstitutional. This is the very first proposal on the table in all this time that is constitutional,” Lang said. “I think this debate has to start with a constitutional piece of legislation. Can we negotiate things? Of course we can. Can we talk things through? Certainly we will. But this is a good start to putting something on the table that will resolve the problem of the pension system.” Lang’s bill would make permanent the temporary personal income tax increase, which was passed in 2011, and dedicate the revenues to paying down the state’s almost $100 billion in unfunded pension liability. The tax increase is scheduled to start phasing out in 2015. Lang's proposal would guarantee annual pension payments from the state and restructure the so-called ramp, the state’s plan for paying off the unfunded liability. Lang said that under his plan, pensions would be 80 percent funded after 50 years.

The measure would also increase the retirement age to 67 and phase in over six years employees' contribution of an additional 3 percent of salary. Any money from the tax increase that is not needed for the annual contribution would be refunded to taxpayers. Lang does not yet have actuarial numbers for his plan. But he says estimates that starting in 2020, there would be at least $1 billion in funds for rebates. “There was an expectation by some taxpayers that we would be ending the additional 2 percent income tax increase. This is my way to say to them, ‘I’m sorry you’re going to have to share some sacrifice with us for a little longer, but I’m going to do my best to get as much money back to you as I can.’”

The bill calls for money currently being used to pay off pension bonds, which were issued when lawmakers and governors opted to borrow instead of making the annual pension contributions, to pay down the unfunded liability once the bonds are paid off.

The idea comes from a proposal by West Chicago Republican Rep. Mike Fortner. HB 2365, which Fortner introduced yesterday, calls for the pension bond revenue to shift to the liability once the bonds have matured. It also would require employees to contribute 8 percent of their salaries, which is the amount participants in the State University Retirement System currently pay. The proposal would also cap pensionable salary and offer an optional self-managed defined benefit plan. Such a plan is currently offered to university employees. “It draws a certain percentage of people who for various family reasons and fiscal reasons in their household find that it works better for them to do that. It’s purely a choice. That’s constitutional,” Fortner said of the self-managed plan. “It’s not as aggressive of some of the other ones, but I am confident it’s constitutional because we have a long history of doing it.”

 Fortner says his bill would “bring the rate of growth of the pension payments to a level that matches the rate of our natural revenue growth without a tax hike.” He says his plan would fully fund the pension systems by 2045. Both Lang’s proposal and Fortner’s proposal would include judges' pension systems. Previous proposals up for consideration did not. Sponsors of other plans have said that they did not want to create a conflict of interest for judges who might rule on the constitutionality of any pension changes that became law.

Lawmakers also have a union-backed proposal before them for the first time in the form of legislation. Senate Bill 2404 would require employees to pay an additional 2 percent of salary, phased in over two years, and guarantee that the state makes its required annual contribution. “The [union] coalition considers the introduction of SB 2404 to be the beginning of a discussion that the unions intend to see end with an agreement on a fair and constitutional bill that, when passed, will help Illinois get back on solid financial footing and ensure the participants on the state pension systems receive the pensions they have been promised,” said a statement from the Illinois Education Association.

But House Minority Leader Tom Cross does not support either Lang’s plan of the union-backed bill. “Leader Cross is not in favor of Rep. Lang’s proposal. He doesn’t believe that hardworking taxpayers in Illinois would be in favor of keeping their income taxes at a high level to pour that money into a broken pension system. We do not believe that this bill fixes our pension problem, which is the goal,” Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, a Cross spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. “He also does not favor SB 2404. Leader Cross, [Northbrook Democratic] Rep. [Elaine] Nekritz and others are continuing to work on a comprehensive plan that will fix our pension problem — those details will be coming in the near future.”

Nekritz, who has tried to shepherd several versions of pension reform through the House, said she is continuing to negotiate pension legislation and is meeting with new legislators to educate them on the pension problem. She said negotiations are also ongoing. “While they knew it was bad, maybe they didn’t know it was this bad. And so the solutions, while they seem really difficult, are in fact the solutions that are needed to solve that big a problem. And I think we’re getting them to understand that.” Nekritz has her own bill, HB 98. Her plan would fully fund the system by 2043.

“I think there are a number of ideas that are out there that are interesting to look at,” Gov. Pat Quinn said today. However, he is generally sticking by his preference of Senate Bill 1. Senate President John Cullerton proposed SB1 as a compromise. It contains a proposal that was previously sponsored by Nekritz and being considered in the House during the lame duck session. 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 a proposal that Cullerton says is constitutional 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. 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.

“I think that’s the right vehicle,” he said. “I think SB 1 understands that there are different concepts, but you can put them in one bill that can get the job done. ... There may be refinements, that’s part of the legislative process in both the House and the Senate, and people may have a new idea or two that could be useful, and if that’s the case, we put it in.” Quinn said of Lang’s proposal to extend the tax increase to pay off pension costs: “I really don’t feel that solving the pension problem is ... a revenue issue. I think we have to deal with it on a comprehensive basis, so it’s not just about revenue. It’s a lot more than that.”

But Lang said that even if a pension plan is signed into law and survives a court challenge, it is likely that the state would not be able to afford employee retirement costs without continuing the tax increase. “Even if one of the current reform plans on the table can reduce our annual pension payment from $6.5 billion to, let’s say, $4 billion, the inconvenient truth is without the income tax increase, we don’t have the $4 billion,” Lang said. “To pretend that Illinois can pay for even a reformed pension system without a portion of the current tax increase money is to whistle past reality.”

Jesse Jackson Jr., Sandi Jackson plead guilty to federal crimes

By Maureen McKinney

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife pleaded guilty today in federal court in what prosecutors said was a scheme to use $750,000 in campaign cash for such personal expenses as a $43,350 gold-plated Rolex watch, flat-screen TVs, a cruise and more than $60,000 at restaurants, nightclubs and lounges.

Jackson, 47, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements, while his wife, Sandi, a 49-year-old former Chicago alderwoman, pleaded guilty to one count of willingly filing a false tax return, according to news reports. Between 2005 and 2012, Jackson spent almost $584,000 on about 3,100 purchases made with a campaign credit card, according to federal prosecutors.

The Jacksons used campaign cash to pay down personal credit cards and for more than $30,000 in personal airfare expenses. Jackson Jr. spent $17,163.36 at tobacco shops and collected elk heads from Montana and memorabilia from Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix and Martin Luther King Jr. One of the expenses cited was $466 dinner for two. Federal prosecutors contend that Jackson Jr. directed that false and misleading reports be sent to to the Federal Elections Commission from August 2005 to July 2012.

The former congressman from Illinois' 2nd District will be sentenced on June 28 and faces a maximum of five years in prison. A 17-year veteran in Congress, Jackson resigned shortly after his victory in the November election, citing health issues and the ongoing federal investigation. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he had been on leave since June of 2012.

“For years, I lived off my campaign. I used money that should have been for campaign purposes for personal purposes,” Jackson said in court, according to news reports. In explaining his decision to plead guilty, Jackson said, “I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers’ time or their money.

“I’m guilty, your honor,” Jackson said.“Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down, OK?” he said outside the courtroom, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

According to the newspaper, “Jackson’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, told the judge he expected to make a substantial presentation at sentencing regarding the serious medical conditions that Jackson faces that could be mitigating factors.”

“That’s not an excuse; that’s just a fact,” Weingarten said outside the courtroom, speaking about Jackson’s mental health.

According to the Chicago Tribune: “Washington defense attorney Stan Brand, the former general counsel of the House of Representatives, said … that Jackson Jr.’s case involved the largest sum of money he’s seen in a case involving personal use of campaign money.”

Brand told the newspaper, “Historically, there have been members of Congress who either inadvertently or maybe purposefully, but not to this magnitude, used campaign funds inappropriately.”

 “A reliable liberal, Jackson voted with the Democratic caucus 97 percent of the time,” according to the Washington Post. “He joined House Democrats in pushing for the impeachment of George W. Bush over his handling of the Iraq war, opposed the 2008 financial industry bailout and fought to abolish the Electoral College and for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing high-quality public education for all U.S. citizens.”

Sandi Jackson is scheduled to be sentenced on July 1.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hearing raises questions about concealed carry deadline

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois House hearing on concealed carry of firearms today stirred up uncertainty over the need for lawmakers to pass legislation by the summer.

UPDATE: Gov. Pat Quinn said lawmakers should observe the federal appeals court's ruling and approve concealed carry legislation before the June deadline. “A federal court order is a serious matter. I take it seriously. I think we need to comply with it,” Quinn said.

A 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that the state’s ban on carrying firearms in public is unconstitutional. In the opinion, the court gave the legislature 180 days to “craft a new gun law that will impose reasonable limitations, consistent with the public safety and the Second Amendment as interpreted in this opinion, on the carrying of guns in public” before it declares the current law unconstitutional. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has requested that the full court reconsider the case. However, since that December ruling, lawmakers have been negotiating under the assumption that if they did nothing, the state would become a concealed carry free-for-all after that deadline in early June. “What you essentially will have is that you will have very few restrictions on where you can go. If you have a [Firearm Owners Identification] card in your pocket, you will not be required to have training. You’re not going to be limited to a handgun. ... I think a lot of things happen, and I don’t think a lot of those things are necessarily good,” said NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde. He said that is why he and supporters of concealed carry have been trying to negotiate a bill.

 But Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s doesn’t see things that way. “After 180 days, anyone who decided, for example, to walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago carrying an AK-15 would be subject to arrest and prosecution for violating the [Unlawful Use of Weapons Act,]” said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Paul Castiglione. He said the Cook County state’s attorney’s office intends to enforce the Illinois Unlawful Use of Weapons statute, which outlaws carrying guns in public, after the deadline, unless lawmakers change it or the Illinois Supreme Court finds it unconstitutional. “The lower federal courts, either the district courts or the courts of appeal, cannot tell the Illinois Supreme court how to rule or whether or not that law is constitutional. The only court that can resolve that split is the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The Illinois Supreme Court is currently reviewing another carry case, People v. Aguilar. “The real trigger for when this committee and this legislature has to act, I submit, is if and when the Illinois Supreme Court ever decides that the [Unlawful Use of Weapons] statute is unconstitutional.”

But backers of concealed carry disagree. “We don’t have 180 days from today; that was 180 days from December, should the ruling stand. This isn’t like pensions that you can kick the can down the road forever. ... When the clock runs out, if the legislature has not done anything, then those statutes are deemed unconstitutional,” Vandermyde said.

 Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti, a former prosecutor, said he does not agree with Castiglione’s take on the appeals court ruling. “My view of it would be that your office would not have to right to process Unlawful Use of a Weapon cases [after the deadline.]” But Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, who chairs the committee holding hearings on concealed carry, said that the Cook County state’s attorney’s office could be correct. “I do feel like there is some question as to that now. There has been some legal research done that would indicate that Mr. Castiglione is right. I think we need to do a little bit more checking into that and get a definitive answer.” She said the committee will continue forward with its efforts. The next hearing is scheduled to be held in Chicago on Friday. However, Nekritz added, “It certainly is something that will be critical to informing the debate.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Same-sex marriage legislation heads to the House

By Meredith Colias

The Illinois Senate gave same-sex marriage proponents something else to celebrate on Valentine’s Day, approving a measure to legalize gay marriage.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said, “The freedom to marry for all same-sex couples is a fundamental right.” Senate Bill 10 passed with 34 senators voting yes, 21 voting no and 2 voting present. Two senators did not cast votes.

Opponents argued the measure would not do enough to protect religious institutions if it is signed into law. The prior version of the bill already exempted religious institutions such as churches, mosques, synagogues and non-denominational ministries from being required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. In an effort to address their complaints, Steans added an amendment today that said that “sanctuaries, parish halls, fellowship halls and similar facilities” also would not be required to open their doors to same-sex marriage ceremonies or celebrations, such as receptions. The bill still requires businesses, health care facilities, educational organizations and social service agencies to follow the state’s existing anti-discrimination laws. Steans said that under such laws, private parochial schools and private clubs have “total control” over their own property. She called arguments that churches may still somehow be forced to participate in same-sex marriage a “red herring.”

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, voted against the measure, saying the bill was too confusing for religious institutions to know how they would be exempt from its requirements, especially for facilities used for multiple purposes. He said religious leaders would ask the questions that Steans called a “red herring.” “Fear of what may happen will cause churches to one degree or another to pull back” from community outreach, Righter said.

Other critics centered their opposition directly on the issue of granting marriage rights to same-sex couples. “They don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us,” said Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Lebanon Republican. Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, noted how he “personally evolved” on gay marriage, saying the sky would not fall with passage of the measure. “We are going to go about our ways in the same way we are now,” he said.

 Opponents also called the bill a distraction from the state’s continuing pension crisis. “You have spent months [considering this] while the ship is sinking,” said Sen. Tim Bivins, a Dixon Republican. Steans responded to critics, saying the General Assembly was capable at looking at both issues.

One Republican voted for the measure. Sen. Jason Barickman, a Champaign Republican, said he voted for the measure once he was satisfied it adequately protected religious organizations. “What I was concerned about was doing the right thing,” he said.

Opponents said they were not surprised by today’s vote, but they see the House as the real battleground. “We had expectations it could pass the Senate. The House is always our stronger suit, and we are going to work on that,” said Ralph Rivera, legislative liaison for the Illinois Family Institute. Steans said today’s vote “sends hopefully a lot of momentum over to the House.” The House bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, said the successful Senate vote was a sign there would be support for passage in the House. “Now is the time to get it done,” he said. The legislation will need at least 60 votes to pass the House.

Gov. Pat Quinn praised its passage in a prepared statement and urged a successful vote in the House. “Full equality for all people is right for Illinois,” he said.

Senate approves fee increase for doctors

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois doctors would pay more for their licenses under legislation passed in the state Senate today. Supporters of the increase say the entity responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors in the state is dangerously underfunded.

Under Senate Bill 622, the license fees paid by doctors would increase from $300 every three years to $700 every three years. The last time the fee was increased was in 1987. According to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the fund has been operating with a structural deficit in recent years. The department has cut staff responsible for administering licenses from 26 employees down to eight. “This measure will provide the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation medical disciplinary unit the necessary funding that it needs to be able to provide the consumers of the state of Illinois the protection to help maintain the integrity of the medical profession and also to allow the agency to process licensing as fast as we can.” James Tierney of the Illinois State Medical Society said that doctors are open to a fee increase to $500 every three years. But because part of the of the fund depletion can be traced to millions in fund sweeps under previous budgets, he said the money that was swept should be put back, and doctors should not have to pay for it. “The medical profession stands ready to pay a fee that is sufficient to fund the licensure and discipline process,” he said. “In our view, it is the sweeps that have caused the current depletion in the fund that demands ... immediate attention.”  For more on the issue and a broader look at fund sweeps, see Illinois Issues April 2012.

SB 622 calls for a $6 million transfer from the Local Government Tax Fund to the Illinois State Medical Disciplinary Fund, which is running low. Starting in 2014, the money would be paid back out of the licensing fund. When all the money is replaced in 2018, the fee would go down to $500 every three years. Senate President John Cullerton said that the transfer from the local government fund is not expected to cause a delay in revenue for municipalities.

“There’s a real crisis in the state of Illinois,” said A.J. Wilhelmi, senior vice president of government affairs with the Illinois Hospital Association. He said that medical students across the country must decide by Wednesday where they will go to complete their residency training. He said some are holding off on  choosing Illinois because they are worried about the state’s ability to license them.

Cullerton said he understands why the Medical Society is frustrated over the fund sweeps, but he said that their fund was not the only one hit under past budgets. “So we’re talking about ... a $200 difference for a three-year period, which is a relatively small amount of money each year, less than $70. That’s what we’re fighting over. It’s the principle. I get it.” But he said something must be done to ensure that the IDFPR can license doctors and take disciplinary action when there is wrongdoing. He called the bill “a reasonable compromise.”

The House is considering House Bill 193, which would increase fees to $750 for three years. A House committee approved the plan last week, but Cullerton said the issue cannot wait. “I have no idea what’s going to happen over in the House, but in the meantime, we can’t just sit by here in the Senate and not do anything.”

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of HB 193, said she is willing to negotiate, but she is concerned that the increases in Cullerton’s bill may not be enough to ensure that the IDFPR can properly license and monitor doctors. “I think it’s going to leave the department without the ability to do the job we have asked it to do.”

The Senate today also quietly approved HB 156, which allows Gov. Pat Quinn to present his budget address on March 6 instead of February 20, when the Senate will not be in session. The legislation passed with no floor debate and only two votes in opposition. The House passed the bill last week, and Quinn is expected to sign it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Utilities look to lawmakers to settle regulation dispute

By Jamey Dunn 

Utility customers across Illinois could see a spike in their bills if a measure that a Senate committee approved today becomes law.

Senate Bill 9 would essentially override a ruling from the Illinois Commerce Commission because lawmakers say that the commission misunderstood some of the details in the smart grid legislation, which became law in 2011 when the legislature overrode Gov. Pat Quinn's veto. “It was felt by many in the General Assembly that we had a clear piece of legislation, and yet the ICC misinterpreted it,” said Senate President John Cullerton, who sponsored the bill. “It’s just reenacting the bill that we intended to enact in the first place.” The ICC ruling could cost Commonwealth Edison an estimated $100 million annually, and Ameren was ordered to reduce its rates by just under $50 million. The utilities want the money back, plus interest. And they say that they would have to downsize their plans to invest in the state’s power infrastructure without it. “We find ourselves at a point where we need some clarification in order to continue on,” said Anne Pramaggiore, chief operating officer of ComEd.

Ameren and ComEd are committed to investing more than $3 billion in the grid over 10 years as part of the smart grid plan. Under the law, ComEd is required to create 2,000 new jobs, and Ameren is required to create 450 jobs over the same time period. Pramaggiore said that ComEd has already created 700 new jobs under the plan. The utility has also installed 500 “smart switches” that help to prevent power outages and completed 500 projects to strengthen the grid against storm damage. But she says the money that the ICC denied the utility would hurt its efforts to upgrade the power system. “Without it, we are stalled in these programs. We can’t proceed forward and continue on and ramp them up as we intended.”

Richard Mark, president and chief executive officer of Ameren, agreed. He said that Ameren has reduced its capital spending by $30 million and has put off hiring 100 additional workers.

‘‘In this instance, the commission went forward with some decisions that apparently were not what the General Assembly intended for that language to say. And today they are taking action to begin to correct that and to make modifications to get that implementation down to what they had originally intended,” said ICC Executive Director Jonathan Feipel. He said the ICC’s role is to interpret the law as it is sent to the commission. “The commission in deciding these cases went through literally thousands and thousands of pages of evidence and legal briefs, and interpreting very complex statute is what the commission does. So these commission orders were then absolutely based on record evidence and legal briefs and the state of the law at the time.”

Proponents of SB 9 say it will allow the utilities to make upgrades, which are intended to create savings for customers in the long run. But opponents say those savings are an unknown, and the immediate result would be higher bills with no real benefits for customers.

“The people on the line to pick up the cost of this drafting error is the Illinois consumers. What were looking at is both a retroactive rate increase... and it applies interest, as well,” said David Vinkler, associate state director for AARP Illinois. He said that if the bill is approved, the cost to consumers may not be that great, but he said it adds up when considered along with other rising utility costs, especially for seniors on fixed incomes. “It may not end up being a whole lot per bill. You may be talking $2 to $5 per bill. The problem is that there are people that $2 to $5 is too much. You’ve got this sort of death by a thousand cuts.” Vinkler said that the Ameren and ComEd’s appeal to lawmakers undermines the regulatory role of the ICC. “We have a Commerce Commission for a reason. They’re doing their job. [Ameren and ComEd] keep on running back the to General Assembly because it’s a better venue for them.”

For more on smart grid, see Illinois Issues July/August 2011.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Simon pitches plan to increase college graduation rates

By Jamey Dunn

A new policy paper from Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon focuses on making college more affordable and taking steps to increase graduation rates.

The state has adopted a goal set by President Barack Obama of 60 percent of working-age adult residents earning a college degree by 2020. In 2012, 41 percent of working age adults — those between the ages of 25 and 65 — held a degree. “For the ‘60 x 2025’ goal to become a reality, students must be ready for advanced study, must have access to high-quality post-secondary programs, must be able to afford college costs, and must persist through those programs to completion and credential attainment,” says the paper from Simon, who toured the state’s 12 public universities last fall.

 “We need to make sure that our high school students are ready for college and complete certificates and degrees on time and with less debt,” said Simon, whom Gov. Pat Quinn has dubbed his “point person” on education reform. “The return on educational investment is proven for graduates seeking living-wage jobs and a state seeking high-quality employers. College is worth it.” Graduation rates at Illinois’ public four-year universities vary greatly. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign had an 83 percent graduation rate between 2009 and 2010 for first-time, full-time students who attended for no more than six years. Illinois State University in Normal had the second best performance, with a 69 percent graduation rate. Meanwhile, Northeastern Illinois University had a rate of 20 percent, and the lowest performing school for graduation rates, Chicago State University, saw just 14 percent of students in that category graduate in 2009 and 2010.

Simon focused on the cuts to state funding for higher education and the tuition increases that followed. According to data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education cited in the report, state support of universities decreased by 27.6 percent between 1998 and 2013, and support of community colleges declined by 24 .9 percent during the same time frame. In the current fiscal year’s budget, funding for higher education was the lowest it has been in 10 years. In her white paper, Simon calls for Illinois to make higher education and financial aid to students funding priorities, “even in light of current financial constraints.”

She advocated dual-degree programs, which allow students to lock in tuition costs at a four-year university while they earn an associate's degree at a partnering community college. The degree would then transfer to the university, and under the state’s Truth in Tuition law, the student would pay the same tuition rates a freshmen at the university paid when he or she started in community college. The plan also calls for limiting most bachelor’s degrees to 120 credit hours and allowing students a chance to earn credit while taking remedial courses, which typically do not count toward their degrees. The paper calls for campuses to adopt  “one stop shops” for student services, a single location where students can access assistance, such as academic counseling, financial aid advisement and health care. The plan also outlines less sweeping measures, such as offering textbook rentals and online options for classroom materials and installment payment plans for tuition and fees.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Quinn signs spending bill

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a spending bill today that will avert layoffs in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and restore funding to mental health providers. But opponents said it is too costly and was rushed through the legislative process.

The Senate approved House Bill 190 today. The measure contains about $1.5 billion in spending. The Department of Children and Family Services will get $25 million. Without the money, DCFS says it would have to lay off two-thirds of its staff. The measure also restores $12 million that lawmakers said was supposed to go to mental health services but did not because of a budgeting error. “As a result of today’s action, hard-working employees at the Department of Children and Family Services will continue their critical work of protecting vulnerable children who have been abused and neglected,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in a prepared statement.

The law also calls for more than $700 million in capital construction funds for roads, bridges schools and other projects. Republicans were critical of some of that spending, calling it “pork.” They said that Democrats moved the bill through both legislative chambers too quickly. The House approved the measure on Tuesday. “One of the things we see around here on occasions is, when we rush ourselves, mistakes get made, and I think this is a classic example of that occurring. There are some pieces in here in this package that I think everybody in this chamber can support. But when we rush through ... we see mistakes made,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy. Republicans were also upset that money was taken from the Road Fund for costs other than construction, such as employee health insurance.

But sponsor Sen. Dan Kotowski, an Oak Park Democrat, said some of the funding, such as the money for DCFS, could not wait. He said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been meeting about the issue. “These discussions have been ongoing for the past few months.” He pointed out that the bill is not new spending and instead draws from the governor’s budget vetoes, previously budgeted construction projects and money in various state funds. Kotowski pointed to a fiscal analysis, known as a note, on the legislation, which says: “The bill provides for no new revenue sources, nor does the bill require any additional state spending. This bill does not directly have any significant fiscal impact. The supplemental appropriation to the Department of Central Management Services for group insurance was expected to be included in the Fiscal Year 2013. Therefore the fiscal impact to the General Revenue Fund is negligible. Supplemental appropriations provided from other state and federal funds are provided on the basis of the availability of moneys in those funds.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Quinn lays out challenging legislative agenda in State of the State address

By Jamey Dunn and Meredith Colias 

Illinois lawmakers hope to tackle a number of complicated and controversial issues in the new legislative session. In today’s State of the State address, Gov. Pat Quinn weighed in on several of the topics on their agenda.

Gun issues 
Quinn renewed his call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. “Today, we all weep over the senseless violence in our communities. But as elected officials, we’re in a position to do something about it. We have life-saving work to do. We cannot wait for another tragedy to happen before we take action,” he said. While the governor did not describe all the provisions he would like to see in a concealed-carry bill, he did make it clear that he wants limits on where residents carry guns. “We must ensure that guns are kept out of everyday public places because guns don’t belong in our schools, shopping malls or sports stadiums. And we must make Illinois safer by strengthening background checks and requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns.”

In December, a federal court gave Illinois 180 days to approve concealed-carry legislation. Attorney General Lisa Madigan appealed the ruling, but for now the deadline looms. “He does want a limited bill. But he needs to start getting specific because the clock is still ticking on the 180 days,” Rep. Brandon Phelps said of Quinn. Phelps introduced House Bill 997 last week. His legislation would bar guns from certain places, such as government buildings and schools. But he said Quinn’s limitations go to far. “I just don’t see us agreeing to just a sidewalk-carry bill as he wants. I just don’t see that.”

Quinn called on counties to submit mental health records to the Illinois State Police for Firearm Owner Identification Card background checks. “For years, counties across our state have not been reporting their mental health records to the Illinois State Police. This year, we need every county to step up and do its part to ensure mental health records are updated in real time.” A recent audit found that the state police were struggling with issuing FOID cards in a timely manner. Phelps said that the FOID system must be repaired to properly administer concealed-carry in the state. “They need to get that corrected, and we need to help with that.” Under his bill, those wishing to carry would apply for a permit that would cost $25. However, he said the permit fee may increase to help cover the costs of the permitting system. “We started somewhere because we didn’t want anybody not to be able to afford it because of their Second Amendment right to carry. but we can negotiate that. I think it will be moved up. I really do.”

Phelps is working with Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul to try to negotiate a concealed-carry proposal that can pass through both legislative chambers. “We’ve agreed to gather parties in the room and have a discussion where we can have a respect for the Second Amendment as it has been interpreted by the [U.S.] Supreme Court and other courts below it, and at the same time recognize that we have a problem with gun violence,” Raoul said. “I think the two things are not inconsistent: wanting to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners, who mean no harm to anybody [and] who want to participate in sportsmen activities or own a weapon for self protection, and trying to stop a flow of guns to people who we all know will do harm with them.” Raoul said that polarizing rhetoric has stood in the way of compromise on gun issues in the past, but he said that he and Phelps hope to “start the discussion without vilifying anybody on either side of the debate.”

Chicago Democratic Rep. Edward Acevedo, who sponsors a ban on assault weapons, said that he hopes to link concealed carry and an assault weapons ban into an overarching approach to gun control. But both Phelps and Raoul said they are not interested in taking that approach. “Those are two separate issues, and that’s what we want to treat them like,” Phelps said. Quinn and Acevedo share similar views on assault weapons. “Of course, we must abide with the Second Amendment. But there is no place in our state for military-style assault weapons designed for rapid fire at human targets at close range,” Quinn said in his speech today. “It’s not about hurting the average sportsman or hunter, or its not about trying to take away the Second Amendment; it’s an issue of public safety,” Acevedo said. “These are weapons that are made for war.”

Minimum wage increase 
 Quinn urged lawmakers to increase the minimum wage from the current $8.25 hourly rate to $10 an hour over the next four years. Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who sponsored a bill last session to increase the minimum wage, said she has been in talks with supporters and opponents since last spring. She said she hopes to bring a bill to a Senate committee next month. “We have a lot of new members, so I’ll be sitting down talking to my colleagues and finding out what they can support,” she said.

Lightford said she is glad that Quinn highlighted the issue in his address. “It’s wonderful to have the governor’s support. Hopefully, that can also help our efforts.” But business groups are adamantly opposed to the increase and vow to rally a strong opposition effort. “We think it’s just a disastrous proposal,” said Todd Maisch, vice president of government relations for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He said that a minimum wage increase could hurt job growth in the state. “They’re two issues that are really related. Employers simply don’t have stashes of cash that they have got in the back of a vault somewhere that they’re ready to hand out to people. This is more money that goes to wages for employees they now have and make[s] it that much harder to add any more employees or reinvest in the business and create more jobs on down the road.”

Both Quinn and Lightford argued that those working full-time jobs should make enough to support themselves. “We need this because we need families to thrive. We need to not have people work 40 hours a week and still live in poverty,” Lightford said.

Same-sex marriage 
 “Today, civil unions are the law of our state. And nearly 5,200 couples across 94 counties have joined in a civil union. Now, it’s time to take that next step in achieving full equality. Marriage equality is coming to Illinois,” Quinn said.

Of all the issues the governor mentioned in his speech, this one has the most momentum. A Senate Committee approved same-sex marriage Tuesday, and supporters hope to pass it in the chamber by Valentine's Day. “The time for marriage is now,” said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois.

Pension costs 
Quinn called pension reform the “toughest of issues” and called on lawmakers to pass pension changes to keep the costs from cutting into other areas of spending, such as education. “The pension squeeze is draining our ability to teach our students. Our children are being shortchanged. And in the end, that shortchanges our economy, too.” Union leaders said Quinn was presenting a false choice between pension costs and other state services. They argue that there are other options for addressing the state’s unfunded liability than the current plans up for debate, which they believe are unconstitutional. “The governor's claim that the choice is pensions-or-pencils is deeply unfair. We must work together to adequately fund public education and solve the state’s funding crisis. Teachers and other education professionals share no fault in the problem but are willing to share in the sacrifice, and to simply balance the budget on their backs is wrong. Finding a fair and constitutional solution will take courage from everyone involved, including the governor,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Quinn again threw his support behind Senate Bill 1, which is sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton. “I urge all of you to be part of the solution. And while refinements may come, Senate Bill 1 is the best vehicle to get the job done. Hard is not impossible,” Quinn said. Cullerton believes 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. SB 1 contains a version of a pension reform plan that was up for consideration in the House during the lame-duck session at the end of the last General Assembly and the measure that passed in the Senate. Cullerton has said he wants the Senate plan tacked on in case the Illinois Supreme Court rejects the House proposal, which he believes is unconstitutional. If that happened, the court could instead consider the Senate proposal.

House members on both sides of the aisle voiced concerns about the SB 1. Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, who has sponsored several pension reform bills in the House, said that the savings are uncertain under that proposal, which allows employees a choice, because there is no way to know which they will pick. “The pension problem is driven by math and by numbers, and a solution has to also be driven by math or by numbers,” she said. Nekritz called for an actuarial analysis of the potential savings under the measure. “I think members deserve that before they would vote on something.” House Republican Leader Tom Cross brushed off Quinn’s backing of SB 1. “He’s endorsed, I think, just about every pension bill that’s been out there. He’s been pretty outspoken on the need to do pension reform. ... The fact that he’s talking about that [bill] doesn’t mean that other ideas are not on the table because he’s embraced a bunch of different ideas.” Cross is working with Nekritz to try to find a compromise that can pass in the House. He said it is the job of lawmakers to pass the plan they think is best instead of sending multiple options to the courts. “[Our] first obligation ought to be: Pass a bill that [we] think solves the problem, and then the courts will decide.”

Some lawmakers said they were not impressed with Quinn’s speech. They said it lacked details and did not place enough emphasis on the state’s budget problems. “He didn’t even hardly mention the budget. He needs to get focused. We’re in a fiscal crisis,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat. “I don’t think his speech was very well-received, but we’ll see.” A House committee chaired by Bradley has already begun the process of creating revenue estimates. The House has based its budget on those types of estimates in recent years. “We’re not talking about it. We’re actually doing it. So we’re going to continue down that process. To the extent that to the governor’s office wants to take part in our bipartisan efforts to do that, then we welcome the help. But we’re moving forward.” Several legislators accused Quinn of using the State of the State as an informal launch for a 2014 reelection bid. “You can tell he’s running for governor again because that was nothing but a political speech,” Phelps said.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno agreed. “By and large, I think it was more of a campaign kick-off speech than anything else.” But in a news conference after the address, Cross and Radogno demurred on several issues, including gun control and same-sex marriage. “There are going to be some things in here you like; there are going to be some things you don’t like,” Cross said of Quinn’s speech. “I think we need to focus on the big issues like the pensions so we have a vibrant — someday — a vibrant economy and businesses that want to stay here and come here and expand here. The elephant in the room, the only issue that matters right now -- everything flows from it -- is the pension debate.”

Other legislators said Quinn did well, giving what is basically a ceremonial speech meant to set the tone for the session, but they hope he will provide more decisive leadership in the coming months. “I thought the governor spoke well and from the heart about a lot of issues that are on his mind,” said Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang. “I’m not sure I heard a lot of specifics. I’m not sure we heard a lot of specific plans on how he proposes to move Illinois forward in these areas. And I am not sure that he provided the leadership in this speech that I hope he will later provide. I do know this: He’s and honest man. His heart is in the right place. He wants to succeed. But he’s going to have to grab on a little stronger to the reins of government if he wants to lead this General Assembly to where he wants us to go.”

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Senate takes another shot at same-sex marriage

By Meredith Colias

Supporters of gay marriage are a step closer to bringing legislation to a Senate floor vote by February 14.

A Senate committee voted 9-5 today to approve Senate Bill 10, which would legalize gay marriage. The same committee approved a similar measure during the lame-duck session of the last General Assembly, but it lacked support to pass the full Senate. Senate President John Cullerton told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that he wants the Senate to pass a bill by Valentine’s Day.

Rev. Susan Anderson-Hurdle, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, testified in support of the measure. She told the committee, “Those of us who do believe in marriage equality should have the right to perform marriage ceremonies.” Hurdle said it is important for the state to protect religious freedoms without discriminating against same-sex couples “based on the religious beliefs of others.”

Critics said the bill did not do enough to protect some churches’ religious rights. Pastor Keith Williams of the Cornerstone Christian Fellowship Church in Country Club Hills said he opposes the measure as a “morality issue.” He told the committee, “We have to draw a line…to what the [Bible] says.”

Sponsor Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said the measure does not require religious institutions to perform same-sex marriages. Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said churches have been living under civil unions without facing widespread legal challenges from gay couples. “The sky is not falling with this measure,” he said.

Steans, who sponsored the bill that failed in January, says she is “cautiously optimistic” that she has enough support for its passage and hopes to call the bill in the Senate sometime next week. “You never know until you are actually pushing those buttons,” she said.