Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rep. Nekritz: "This feels like this could be it" for pension changes

By Jamey Dunn 

A key player in the Illinois House said a new proposal from Speaker Michael Madigan could be the pension change legislation that goes the distance in the House.

“This feels like this could be it,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has sponsored several pension bills and has been at the center of the push to change public employee retirement benefits and cut costs in the system that is underfunded by about $100 billion. The newest pension proposal is presented in an amendment to Senate Bill 1, which was Senate President John Cullerton’s preferred plan. The amendment would replace Cullerton’s plan with a language that is similar to House Bill 3411, a proposal from Nekritz that has bipartisan report. Among other things, HB 3411 would have capped the amount of salary used to calculate benefits and limited the amount of pension income considered for Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs).

Madigan plans to present the amendment in the House pension committee scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday. Nekritz, a Democrat from Northbrook, said Madigan’s hands-on approach is one of the reasons that she thinks this plan could pass in the House. “It’s a Speaker Madigan bill, and he is the sponsor, which I think is an important statement about his engagement in this,” she said. Nekritz said that because of procedural constraints, the bill would not come up for a floor vote Wednesday, but a committee vote is expected.

Some of the components of the new proposal are the same as the previous plan. The amendment to SB 1 would:
  •  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. 
  • Require employees to contribute 2 percent more of their salaries. The increased contribution would be phased in over two years. 
The new plan also has some tweaks:
  • Pensionable salary would be capped at $109,000, the limit that is currently used for Tier Two employees. HB 3411 called for a higher cap at $113,700. The cap would increase at the rate of one half of the Consumer Price Index that is set for urban consumers. 
  • The amount of pensionable salary that would be eligible for COLAs would be based on the amount of time employees worked. For each year of employment, $1,000 (or $800 for employees who receive Social Security benefits) of pension income would be eligible for COLA. For example, if an employee worked for 30 years, then $30,000 of their retirement benefit would see an annual COLA. 
The proposal contains a guarantee that the annual payments will be made into the pension systems. It aims to fully fund them by 2044. The bill does not contain a shift of pension costs to schools outside of Chicago, public universities and community colleges. It also does not create a Tier Three for newly hired employees. Nekritz said that she thinks Madigan opted not to address the cost shift because it is unpopular lawmakers outside of Chicago. She said it may have been removed to bring in more support for the bill, but she said that the issue should be revisited in the future.

The amendment to SB 1 also includes an eight-page preamble that lays out the case for the need to reduce retirement benefits, which are protected by the state’s Constitution. Nekritz and others have argued that the situation is so bad that the courts should give the state special powers to cut benefits and make other changes to save the systems. Those interested in predicting some of the points the state might make in a legal argument to defend unilateral pension changes could take their hints from the language, which describes the state’s budgetary turmoil and the steps that have been taken to try to reach fiscal stability. “The state's credit rating has consistently worsened in the assessment of all three major ratings agencies, the state's backlog of unpaid bills has not grown smaller, and the various non-discretionary and formula-driven expenses whose growth has created the lion's share of the problem are projected to continue unabated. Under the current payment schedule set in Public Act 88-593, the pension payment especially is expected to grow extremely rapidly until Fiscal Year 2045,” the bill says. “Consequently, the coming months and years will necessarily see much more action by the State to achieve fiscal stabilization. If these steps toward fiscal stabilization do not include pension reform to restrain the growth of the annual pension payment, the result will be devastating and dramatic cuts to education, public safety, and transportation.”

The legislation goes on to say that without such changes to pensions, the state would struggle with meeting other obligations described in the Constitution. “The impact of such actions on the Illinois economy, and on the health, safety, welfare, and educational development of the people would likely be extremely severe. This harm could include significant economic contraction, which would in turn exacerbate the underlying fiscal challenge, resulting in a downward spiral of standard of living and likely leading to an eventual inability of the state to meet its short term statutory and Constitutional responsibilities.

Unions leaders say the proposal is clearly unconstitutional. “Our coalition has said time and again that we oppose unfair, unconstitutional pension cuts. Public workers and retirees should not be punished for a problem politicians created,” said a statement from the We Are One Coalition, which includes public employee unions and teachers' unions. “While we want to work together to solve the pension problem, the amendment filed today by the House speaker represents the same illegal approach to slashing hard-earned life savings protected by the Illinois Constitution. Should it become law, we believe a successful legal challenge is all but certain, with the bill saving nothing and the state’s budget problems made worse.”

While the House is considering Madigan’s plan, Cullerton says he is still negotiating with union leaders to craft a compromise in the Senate. “We’re still negotiation with the unions to try to get the unions to be for a bill. That would be very helpful. We are prepared, I would say, [to] soon -- in the next week or so -- to move ahead with votes. ... It’s all about getting something passed,” Cullerton said. He noted that the Senate rejected a proposal from Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, who has partnered with Nekritz on the efforts to pass pensions changes. That bill is similar to Madigan’s proposal. However, it would have sifted pension costs for future employees to schools.

Cullerton believes that lawmakers cannot change pension benefits unilaterally without offering them something in exchange. His version of SB 1 contained a proposal similar to HB 3411, but it also contained a backup plan that Cullerton said would kick in if the courts find the House proposal unconstitutional. Cullerton’s proposal would offer employees a choice, sometimes referred to as consideration, between access to retiree health care or a compounded COLA. Cullerton said that any plan resulting from negotiations with the unions would also have some sort of consideration. He noted that having union support of any plan would not necessarily make it constitutional, and individual employees would still be free to challenge it in court. “That just makes it easier to pass it. There still could be a lawsuit, sure. Anybody could sue.”

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Quinn plans to sign off on funding for home health care

By Meredith Colias 

Seniors will be able to rely on funding to continue to pay for state approved in-home care through June 30.

The Senate passed House Bill 207 and HB 2275, twin measures to provide an influx of $173 million needed for the Illinois Department of Aging to cover costs for its Community Care Program for the remainder of the fiscal year and streamline costs as the number of seniors covered by the program continues to grow. Both bills passed the Senate unanimously on 54-0 votes, with five members not voting. The bills now go to Gov. Pat Quinn for his signature. His office said he would sign both into law.

The Community Care Program provides funding to service providers that dispatch caretakers for qualified seniors to take care of everyday tasks such as laundry, groceries, bathing and dressing. The 85,000 seniors enrolled in the program have to qualify under economic guidelines. Some are also of varying nationalities who do not speak English as a first language, and in-home care workers provide a cultural touchstone for them. About 70 percent of those in the program are enrolled in Medicaid. Changes to the Medicaid system approved by lawmakers last year would have tightened requirements for the program and reduced costs, but the federal government denied the state’s request to alter eligibility for Community Care.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsors the bills, said the program “takes care of elderly residents in their homes rather than institutions,” which are much more expensive. The Department of Aging estimates it pays about $8,000 for a caregiver to check in with seniors in their homes but would pay about $32,000 for round-the-clock care at a nursing home. HB 207 provides $173 million the Department of Aging says it needs to continue to pay service providers who care for qualified elderly within their homes.

Without the funding, department officials have effectively been unable to pay service providers since mid-March. Advocates told the General Assembly that smaller providers likely would not be able to operate without resuming payments from the state. The department said the extra money was needed because it was under-appropriated in the current fiscal year. After FY 2014, which begins July 1, the state will not allow the department to push off expenses into the following fiscal year. Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, applauded the move and said the Senate should “not allow these bills to accumulate under the radar.” HB 2275 puts restrictions on workers by using GPS devices to track them to ensure they are properly going to clients’ homes and sets limits for the amount of time workers can claim they took to perform individual tasks.

Scott Vogel, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, said the union restrictions in HB 2275 are reasonable to obtain funding for caregivers.

Gun control advocates zero in on priorities

By Jamey Dunn

As the debate over concealed carry continues in Illinois, gun control advocates are setting their priorities.

Last week, the Illinois House rejected two concealed carry proposals — one restrictive plan favored by some gun control advocates and one more permissive proposal backed by the National Rifle Association. The Senate is still working to reach a bipartisan agreement, but negotiations have reportedly hit some snags. A federal court gave lawmakers until early June to pass legislation regulating the carry of firearms in the state.

Those lobbying for gun control hope to see a more restrictive carry law. “We call on lawmakers to use this opportunity to pass the strongest possible gun laws in this country. A law that limits guns in paces like schools and stadiums and government buildings and public transportation for heaven’s sake — a law that mandates strong training requirements and for permit holders to have an awfully good cause for being issued one,” said Bishop Christopher Epting of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. “We must balance the Second Amendment with the rights we have to live in peace and free from fear of another life lost to gun violence.”

But many also see the court’s order as an opportunity to put in place some restrictions that they call “common sense” safety measures, which they say would make it easier for law enforcement to track guns and could help to quell the rampant violence in Chicago. The city had more than 500 murders last year, and 87 percent of the victims died from gunshot wounds. “Every time I talk to a legislator, the number one question I get is Chicago. How is this going to stop what’s happening in the city of Chicago?” said Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “That’s the reason we’ve put together an anti-trafficking proposal looking at things like universal background checks, reporting of lost or stolen firearms, dealer licensing and titling guns like cars or some point of sale reporting, so we actually know where that gun is supposed to be.”

Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon said the focus of gun control advocates must be on measures they believe will do the most to make neighborhoods safe. “We’re not ready to back down. We have a long list of things that we want, and I’m going to ask you to remember just one thing: Let’s always focus on our ultimate objective. We want our neighborhood to be safer; we want our kids and our families to be safe. Anything we do has to make sure we make progress on that front. We might not get everything we want, but we’re going to get safer neighborhoods. We’re going to get safer communities. Our families will be safe; our children will be safe,” Harmon said as he addressed a crowd that had come to Springfield to lobby lawmakers.

Sen. Dan Kotowski, former executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said he is focused on three provisions he thinks can find broad support. He said that this spring, he is most interested in passing legislation that would require background checks for all gun sales — currently they are not required for private sales — and would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. He also said he wants to work to fix systemic problems with the reporting of mental health records to the Illinois State Police, which licenses gun owners. “If we were to move forward on those three basic initiatives, I think that would be a positive step forward,” he said. “If we’re making the determination to allow people to carry loaded, concealed handguns in public places, when the vast majority of the public is clamoring for reasonable measures which prevent people from getting access to guns who are criminals, who are mentally ill or who are threats to the community, we need to have a proper balance.”

Gov. Pat Quinn supports all three of those measures. The governor has also been vocal about his desire for bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines since a mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer. “The legislature needs to get significant reforms adopted into bill form that come to my desk beyond just concealed carry. That’s not enough,” Quinn said. During a recent gun control rally, which drew family and friends of victims of Chicago gun violence to the Statehouse, Quinn recalled several high-profile shootings. “We're here to save lives. We don’t want people being shot down in a movie theater or a church or a political rally in Tucson, Arizona, or going to first grade in Newtown, Connecticut. Or, or even in our own state. In DeKalb, Illinois, on Valentine's Day five years ago, a gunman [came] into a classroom and killed five students. Five good men and women. I went to each of their funerals. We’re tired of going to funerals.”

Quinn failed to mention the violence in the city, but Daley said that was all right. “We talk about mass shootings all the time and pointing to Connecticut and pointing to Colorado because we have that actually happening in the city on a weekend,” she said. “So paralleling the two of them actually makes a lot of sense in trying to explain it.”

Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said he appreciates Quinn’s relentless public support for gun control, even if some of the things the governor wants are not at the top of his list this year. “Yes. I think we have to pick what’s feasible to get passed right now. As you know, I’ve advocated for the limitations of high capacity ammunition magazines in the past,” he said. Kotowski sponsored a ban that passed in the Senate in 2007, but the bill languished in the House. “I think those are more long- term,” he said of the magazine ban and assault weapons ban. “But right now, what can we do immediately?”

Mary Kay Mace, mother of Northern Illinois University shooting victim Ryanne Mace, said she hopes that the debate on concealed carry sheds light on the problems with safety measures that are already in place. “What I hope happens is that people become aware of how shoddy our background check system is,” she says. “I think that people just assume that the laws that we have already on the books are working well, and they are not.”

Some lawmakers who advocate for gun owners’ rights also support a few of Kotowoski’s priorities. Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsors the NRA-backed concealed carry proposal, called the mental health records reporting system a “travesty” that he says he wants to help fix. He said increasing the fees for concealed carry permits in his bill to $100 could help address the problems. He also supports universal background checks for all gun sales. However, Phelps does not favor requiring gun owners to report firearms that are lost or stolen. He also does not think that gun control measures should be tacked onto concealed carry legislation. “Now’s not the time to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Daley said that as advocates focus on their priorities, they should remember that no single change will stop the violence. “One thing we like to make clear is that we don’t [work] under the notion that all of these laws are suddenly going to stop all the violence. Gun violence is a very complex issue, and there are a lot of factors that go into it  — economy, where people live, all of that — but what we can do is, we can enact laws that are going to help law enforcement and that are going to cut back on crime that’s taking place — gun violence that is taking place.”

Mace said that she is hopeful about the potential for compromise. “I think that we have more common ground than a lot of people realize. I think that the extremists are loudest on both sides.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Department of Corrections seeks more funding for current fiscal year

By Meredith Colias 

After projected savings from prison closures fell short, the Illinois Department of Corrections is asking for more funding for the current fiscal year.

The department is seeking $41.8 million in supplemental appropriations to cover its costs for FY 13, which ends June 30. According to Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget office, the department had to spend $30 million it had not included in its budget to keep the Dwight and Tamms Correctional Centers open through a legal fight with public employee unions. Agency officials estimate that running the two prisons cost the state about $62 million per year and that the department did not save the full amount projected from prison closures because court challenges delayed the closings for several months. Both prisons are now closed.

The department also prematurely estimated it could save $19.2 million by stopping guards from collecting 15 minutes of overtime while they stood through the morning roll call. Department officials said during a budget hearing today that they were unable to realize those savings, and they now need to reconcile how to cover that cost.

Other problems, such as overcrowding, continue to plague the prison system. Inmates at minimum-security prisons are being housed in bunks in prison gymnasiums. A department spokeswoman said the agency is doing the best it can under difficult circumstances. “It’s a temporary dorm setting. Obviously, we have no control over the inmates that we receive into the system,” said Stacy Solano.

Anders Lindall, spokesmen for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, said the prison closures only added to the problem, with 49,000 inmates in prisons built for 32,000. “I don’t think from the beginning it was credible to claim that closures would save money,” he said. “They didn’t turn those thousands of inmates loose. They transferred them to other facilities, and they had to transfer staff [and still pay] to safely incarcerate them,” he said.

Three inmates have been murdered in the Menard Correctional Facility this year. A report released today from the prison watchdog group the John Howard Association says that inmates complained about the dangers of putting multiple prisoners in one cell. “Several older inmates reported that they had trouble with younger and aggressive cellmates. Additionally, housing inmates with long-term sentences alongside inmates with short-term sentences can be problematic. This was the situation of the inmate who was allegedly murdered by his cellmate in January 2013,” said the report. The authors of the report noted some positive developments at Menard since the association’s 2011 monitoring visit. “Menard has made several improvements, including reducing its segregation population, notably of inmates suffering from mental illnesses; attempting to isolate and reduce lock downs by housing inmates by aggression levels; and working with staff to strengthen communication and accountability.”

“We take every assault as seriously, no matter to what degree, extremely seriously,” Solano said. The department has reviewed security procedures and is aiding prosecution efforts, she said. “That sends a message to staff and inmates that we are not going to stand for this.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

Legislative roundup

By Jamey Dunn 

The Illinois General Assembly had a busy week, as the House worked toward its Friday deadline for final votes on bills that originated from the chamber.

Sex Education 
The House approved House Bill 2675, which calls for curriculum standards for sexual education that would emphasize abstinence but also teach students about contraceptives and using condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The curricula would be for middle schools and high schools, but local districts would not be obligated to use it. Parents could also opt not to allow their kids to attend sex education classes.

Abuse and neglect reporting 
Lawmakers voted in favor of HB 948, which is an effort to address problems in the system for reporting abuse and neglect of disabled adults. The Belleville News-Democrat uncovered problems with the system and found that the Office of the Inspector General Department of Human Services did not follow up on reports connected to the deaths of more than 50 people. The office claimed that “the dead are ineligible for services.” (George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer, the reporters who uncovered the department’s practices penned an overview of their findings for the October 2012 Illinois Issues.) Under HB 948, the Department of Aging will create a system and standards for responding to allegations of abuse and neglect. The legislation creates a multi-disciplinary advisory panel that would assist with response.

Workplace violence 
The House voted in favor of HB 2590, which allows employers to obtain orders of protection against employees who commit an act of violence at work or threaten individuals in the workplace. The order would bar the person from returning to the workplace.

Child Support 
Under HB2843, which the House approved, parents who get lucky at Illinois casinos or racetracks and owe child support could see their debt deducted from their winnings. The racetrack or casino would be required to hold out the child support owed and send the money to the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. In exchange, the casino or racetrack would be paid a fee of the lesser of either 4 percent of the winnings or $150.

Guns and pensions 
The House voted down HB 1296, which would have barred the state’s pension systems from investing in firearm manufactures.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 1587, which would regulate the use of unmanned aerial drones in the state. The bill would require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants to use drones over private property and would ban them from using drones equipped with weapons. The legislation contains exemptions for emergency situations. Drones could also be used to photograph traffic accidents and crime scenes.

Concealed carry 
The House rejected two bills this week to regulate concealed carrying of firearms. Supporters of concealed carry in Illinois are pushing for a “shall issue” licensing system that would require the state to give permits to applicants who meet the requirements set out in the law. But earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear a challenge to New York’s “may issue” law. That statute allows law enforcement officials to deny applicants who may be qualified on paper for a license if they think the applicants present a danger. A “may issue” amendment came before the House on Wednesday, and members voted 31 to 76 against adopting it to a bill. On Thursday, HB 997, a more permissive “shall issue” bill, fell seven votes short of passage. Those who are working on concealed carry in the Senate expect to present legislation in the coming weeks. A federal court overturned the state’s ban on carrying firearms in public and gave lawmakers until June to pass legislation regulating carry.

The House is not scheduled for session next week. The Senate is scheduled for session from Tuesday through Thursday, which is the deadline for passing bills that originate from that chamber. Senate President John Cullerton warned there will probably be long hours next week. While lawmakers are trying to get their legislation out of each chamber before the voting deadlines, there are always ways around those deadlines for more controversial bills, such as employee pension changes, concealed carry and same sex marriage. As the adage goes, no legislation under the dome is every truly “dead.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Another concealed carry plan fails in the House

By Jamey Dunn

For the second time in two days, the Illinois House voted down a concealed carry bill.

A federal court struck down the state’s ban on concealed carry of firearms and gave the state a June 9 deadline to pass legislation to regulate carry. If there is no law regulating carry when that deadline hits, the court could opt to allow what many are calling constitutional carry, which would let anyone with a Firearm Owners Identification Card carry a gun anywhere in the state.

House Bill 997 (Amendment 9) needed 71 votes to pass because it would supersede the control of local home rule governments. It received only 64 “yes” votes.

The measure is a “shall-issue” bill that would require the Illinois State Police to issue concealed carry licenses to all qualified applicants. However, the legislation would allow local law enforcement to contest an application if they can demonstrate that applicants are a danger to themselves or others.

“A lot of people probably don’t want to hear this, but this is probably the strictest shall-issue bill in the country,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsors the legislation. Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, said he tried to compromise with those who are concerned about concealed carry by increasing the amount of time that permit applicants would have to spend in training and upping the fees of the permits. Under his proposal, $30 out of every $100 permit fee would be dedicated to fix the state’s troubled Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) system, which does not receive most mental health records from county officials. Phelps called the current system a “travesty.” The measure also would increase penalties for violating the restrictions in the legislation.

But those tweaks could not bridge the deep divides on gun issues, which many lawmakers acknowledge are driven by regional differences.

“Clearly, we do simply come at this from different perspectives,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy. On Wednesday, the House soundly rejected Cassidy’s more restrictive “may issue” bill, which would have required applicants for permits to demonstrate a need to carry a firearm. It also would have let sheriffs, who would issue the permits under her proposal, use their discretion when deciding who could and could not carry. Opponents of such a model say it allows for unequal treatment and could let some counties essential opt out of concealed carry by denying the bulk of applications received.

Cassidy said she respects the desires of people in more rural communities who view guns as tools for hunting and protection. But she said lawmakers must also consider gun violence in some parts of Chicago, where young people are shooting each other in the streets. “The only hunting that’s happen in my neighborhood is of young men. More guns are not the answer to our gun problem in Chicago. Please. Let’s get to the table. Let’s get a solution that respects the differences between our communities. There is a solution, and there is time. This isn’t soup yet.”

Proponents of Phelps' bill said concealed carry could help protect residents of high crime areas, where criminals already have guns. “Wouldn’t it be nice for them to wonder if everybody had a gun? That’s the real deterrent,” said Rep. David Reis. He said of criminals who already illegally use guns: “You’re never going to control them. You control them by having an armed society.” Reis, a Willow Hill Republican, said people in other parts of the state need to carry guns to ensure their safety when the police cannot come quickly enough. “For us in rural areas, [it is] 20 or 30 minutes before a sheriff can get to our house or to our fields where we’re working.”

When the bill failed Rep. Will Davis, a Chicago Democrat who voted against it, called out a similar sentiment to Cassidy’s remarks. “It’s not soup yet; not yet,” he said, and was met by calls of “it’s close” from supporters.

But Phelps was not so optimistic. “It might be the last chance. I don’t know what else we can give on.” His bill would preempt local control, which would bar local governments from putting their own carry laws in place. He said he does not plan to compromise on that issue. “There should be one uniform law that everybody knows about,” he said. Phelps said it would be too much to ask traveling gun owners to keep track of different laws across counties and cities throughout the state. “We think that you could make law abiding gun owners criminals.”

Phelps said lawmakers need to wake up to the reality of the court ordered deadline. “It better get real here soon because that's June 9th,” he said. If he and others on his side decide to leave the negotiations, he said, there would not be enough votes to pass legislation in the House. “If we walk, there’s not going to be a bill.

House approves additional funds for home health care for seniors

By Meredith Colias

The Illinois House approved a temporary fix in an attempt to solve a $173 million funding shortfall for a program that provides in-home services for the elderly.

The Community Care Program in the state Department of Aging administers services including adult day care and pays providers to help its elderly clients at home with everyday tasks such as errands, groceries and bathing. It is estimated the yearly costs to care for elderly in their homes are about one-fourth the cost of paying for someone living in a nursing home.

Pending the potential influx of money, Department of Aging Director John Holton confirmed that the agency does not have the funding in its budget to pay providers until next  fiscal year’s budget funds become available on July 1. To cover that shortfall, the House approved a supplemental appropriation that will keep the program operating through the remainder of this fiscal year.

Jacquie Algee, director of relations for Service Employees International Union health care, said the House vote was a positive development, since 85,000 people depend on services paid for by the state. “We’re really pleased that [they] did the right thing, in our opinion,” she said. If the measure passes the Senate and is signed into law, she said, providers dependent on payments from the state “should be in a good place.” A similar issue could also arise in Fiscal Year 2014 because the department is scheduled to use about $142 million of that year’s budget to pay off expenses from FY 2013.

 Rep. Patricia Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, said dealing with unbudgeted expenses was less than ideal because the state was forced to divert money from a plan to pay past Medicaid bills that were matched by the federal government. “Those are all pressures above the line. How are you going to pay for that?”

 Because demand for the Community Care Program is expected to grow in the years to come as the elderly population grows, other lawmakers are looking for ways for the program to cut its future costs. House Bill 2275, sponsored by Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, hopes to avoid a similar situation in the future by prohibiting the department from pushing off bills onto the next year’s budget unless approved by the comptroller and governor.

The legislation would also restrict the amount of hours that employees are allowed to claim for tasks such as doing laundry and be subject to GPS tracking to make sure they are actually going to homes to take care of clients. “All of the levers in the bill need to be pulled in order for this to work,” she said of the efforts to cut costs. It is necessary to make sure the services can still be provided, she said. “If we don’t pay these bills, what is going to end up happening is the doors of community care providers around the state of Illinois are going to close, and seniors will have nowhere to go except for a nursing home,” she said.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Concealed-carry supporters hope for vote on Thursday

By Jamey Dunn

Supporters of concealed carry of firearms hope to pass a bill on Thursday after the House today rejected a proposal similar to a more restrictive system used in New York state.

The chamber voted 31 to 76 today against adopting an amendment to House Bill 831 that would give local law enforcement officials discretion when issuing licenses to carry firearms in public. Supporters of concealed carry in Illinois are pushing for a “shall issue” licensing system that would require the state to give permits to applicants who meet the requirements set out in the law. But earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear a challenge to New York’s “may issue” law. That statute allows law enforcement officials to deny applicants who may be qualified on paper for a license if they think the applicant presents a danger. Those who would like a stricter law took the court’s action as a sign that Illinois should go for a “may issue” model. But today’s vote encouraged gun rights advocates. “Now more than ever, the ‘may issue’ should be completely off the table because it was really evident that they are a long way from passing a ‘may issue,’” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat.

He said he plans to call legislation for a floor vote tomorrow that is similar to House Bill 997, a concealed carry bill he introduced earlier this legislative session. “We’ve got to have something done,” he said, citing the June deadline a federal court gave lawmakers to pass concealed carry. If there is no law regulating carry when that deadline hits, the court could opt to allow what many are calling constitutional carry, which would let anyone with a Firearm Owners Identification Card carry a gun anywhere in the state.

The New York law also requires applicants to provide a reason for their need to carry in public. Such a provision was in the proposal voted down in the Illinois House today. “Our communities are different. Since you’re establishing danger distinct from other members of your community, it would be unique to your community,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the sponsor of HB831. Under the legislation, sheriffs would determine whether an applicant made the case for needing to carry a firearm. “In each community, the sheriff is going the have the best understanding of the questions of personal safety in the community.” After a sheriff signed off on an application, it would then go the Illinois State Police for another round of scrutiny.

Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, said the bill was an effort to balance constitutional rights with public safety and recognize that geographic areas of the state have different issues with guns. Supporters agreed. “The court said that it was legitimate for us to impose a balancing act to set the rights of people to be safe from guns that are out of control against the rights of people to be able to protect themselves,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie. She said the measure that the House considered today “does exactly that.” Currie said during floor debate, “If you want Illinois to be the wild West, I invite you to vote against” the amendment.

But opponents say the proposal would be a way to effectively exempt Chicago from concealed carry. “Downstate will probably be more liberal with their concealed carry permit, versus Chicago and Cook County,” said Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti. “I believe this is just really an end (run) around what the 7th Circuit [Court of Appeals] has stated we should do.”

Phelps said he has worked compromise into his legislation, which was being drafted late tonight. Under his previous proposal, the state police would issue concealed carry licenses, but sheriffs could contest applications. Phelps said he also plans to give that option to Chicago city police. Phelps said he also plans to increase the fee for licenses from the $25 fee in his first iteration of the plan to $100 and call for $30 from each license to go to a special fund dedicated to repairing the state’s troubled FOID card system and ensuring that county mental health records are reported to the state police. He said training requirements would also be increased from four hours in the original bill to 10 hours and would include a live ammunition test. “We’re offering a lot of things,” he said. “This version of what we’re going to try to run tomorrow is a combination of about four bills that we have had in the time that I have been here.”

Phelps said supporters of his plan believe it is a “last chance” to get a compromise before the deadline runs out. “I don’t know if there’s another chance to pass anything. I think that there’s a lot of people who are going to say, ‘Look, we tried. Let’s just go off the cliff. Let’s do constitutional carry.’” He said a lot of House members who have never voted in favor of a concealed-carry bill are afraid of that happening. “I’ve got a lot of people who are interested in voting for this that never have before because they don’t want constitutional carry.”

But gun control advocates cautioned not to read too much into today’s vote. They said they knew the support wasn’t there yet, but they think they can find backing for a bill that allows Chicago some local control. While lawmakers must get something done, they say, it isn’t crunch time yet.

“I don’t think we should just rush to do something because we’ve got a deadline,” said Coleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “We need to make sure that whatever we’re going to do will respect people’s 2nd Amendment rights, while also keeping people safe.” She said gun control groups have not had “true negotiations” in the House but are working with lawmakers in the Senate on a proposal. “I do think there’s promise that we’ll find something that will end up working,” she says. “We’ve been willing to negotiate from day one.”

Phelps said he would spend the evening lobbying House members. He thinks he is very close to having the 71 votes he needs to pass his bill tomorrow. “This is the closest we’ve ever been.”

House approves medical marijuana after years of rejecting the idea

By Meredith Colias

Patients with debilitating illnesses may soon be allowed to buy medical marijuana legally in Illinois.

After years of rejecting plans to legalize medical marijuana, the House narrowly approved House Bill 1 on a 61-57 vote today. The measure now advances to the Senate. If it passes that chamber, Gov. Pat Quinn said he would be “open minded” but would not commit to signing the bill.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said stricter restrictions in the current measure helped to persuade some representatives who had not voted for legalization in the past. “This is not about getting high,” Lang said. The measure was designed to “better provide health care to people who desperately need this product,” he said. Lang told the House his priority was to assist patients in chronic pain. “I know every single one of you has compassion in your heart,” he said. “This is the day to show it.”

The measure would implement a four-year pilot program legalizing medical marijuana from 2014 through 2018. Patients at least 18 years old applying for a medical marijuana card through the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) would have to prove they have one of 33 serious or chronic conditions specifically listed in the bill, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease or cancer. IDPH is authorized to add to the list in the future. Applicants must show they have an established relationship with their doctor who approves the use, and they would have to submit medical records for verification. Both patients and their caregivers, who must be 21 or older, would be subject to background checks. If a patient's or caregiver's card is revoked, he or she would not be allowed to reapply for a new one later.

The measure would allow patients 2.5 ounces of loose marijuana per a two-week period, unless a doctor certifies to the state a patient might need more. Each registered patient would have the purchase entered into a database, which would be monitored to prevent a patient or caregiver from obtaining more than the approved quota.

Growing, selling and distributing medical marijuana would only be done by personnel in facilities approved and administered by the state, built away from schools and day care centers. Potential employees would have to be at least 21 and would subject to state and federal background checks and fingerprinting. Twenty-two growing centers would be set up, one in each state police district, with 60 dispensary centers across the state. Dispensaries would be registered with the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and growers would have with the register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Past proposals from Lang would have allowed private individuals to grow marijuana on their own.

The measure also includes everyday restrictions. Marijuana smoking in public would not be allowed. Landlords would have the option to refuse to allow marijuana smoking, employers could punish employees coming to work under the influence and patients would still be subject to DUI laws if pulled over and tested by police during a traffic stop.

Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, said he was satisfied the bill was regulated “from seed to sale” and voted for it. Several supporters during the floor debate cited people they knew who could have benefited from access to medical marijuana.

 Rep. JoAnn Osmond, an Antioch Republican,  said with visible emotion that she changed her vote to yes because of a friend with cancer whom she did not allow to use marijuana once when he lived with her. “Sometimes I regret that because I know it might have helped him,” she said.

Opponents were concerned that legalizing medical marijuana would have unintended consequences. “Even if I vote no, I still have compassion. Every state that has implemented this has had problems,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. Bost said marijuana could not be effectively legalized only for its intended medicinal usage. “Don’t try to piecemeal it like this,” he said. Others said the move was the first step in possible future efforts to legalize the drug for recreational use, as Washington and Colorado have done recently.

Lang said his only motivation was to aid people who are critically sick. “Some of these people are going to die. Why would we say to them, 'You can’t have a product your doctor wants you to have?'” As the bill advances to the Senate, Lang said he hoped it would have a “strong vote."

The Senate approved a medical marijuana bill in 2009, but the makeup of the chamber has changed since then.

House considers early childhood education

By Meredith Colias

The Illinois House today considered legislation that could shape the early childhood education of some students in the state.

The chamber approved House Bill 2762, which would require children to start school if they are going to turn 7 any time during the school year. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, said clarifying the starting time for school-age children would help elementary schools enforce truancy laws in cases where parents take advantage of the fact that the state technically does not require their soon-to-be 7-year-old child to attend school. Scherer said parents sometimes tell truancy officers that  their children are not “really truant.”

Opponents of the bill said a parent should have the final say about when they believe their child is ready to attend school. “At this point in the child’s life, the parent can make a very wise decision based upon what they know on the maturity of the child,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. Bost said the measure is “forcing the situation where we, the state, feel that we are better than the parents themselves.” Scherer said the cost of the change would be difficult to estimate because it is uncertain how many affected children are not attending school. “There’s just no way of knowing until we actually we do it,” she said. Senate Bill 1307, which would move the school age from 7 to 5, could also soon come up for a vote in that chamber.

A House committee today considered the pros and cons of requiring kindergarten for all school-age children. House Bill 2405 would require all districts to provide kindergarten classes for the entire school day. More than 85 percent of school districts already offer full-day kindergarten classes to students, according to the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Paula Corrigan-Halpern from Voices for Illinois Children said that because the Common Core curriculum being introduced in Illinois schools will require children to show a broader array of learning as they progress, it is important for them to be better academically prepared early on. “There are going to be skills that kids have to master in kindergarten,” she said.

Low-income and disadvantaged children would potentially benefit the most from the proposal because they tend to be most affected academically if they do not start school at an early age. They can enter school less ready to begin subjects such as reading and math because they typically have lower vocabularies and less developed cognitive skills than their peers from higher-income homes. Better-educated parents are usually more prepared to know how to encourage their children’s early cognitive development, giving them an academic advantage when they actually enter school. The State Board of Education (ISBE) estimates that 49 percent of Illinois students live in poverty, according to a recent analysis.

 A main issue with the proposal for full-day kindergarten is the potential cost. An ISBE spokeswoman said the board does not have an estimate on the cost of extending full-time kindergarten statewide, although she said the money to implement it would potentially come from General State Aid. Laura Farr of Chicago Public Schools, which is beginning a similar initiative, estimated the citywide program would cost about $15 million and affect 30,700 children. Farr said providing early childhood education is “an essential part of getting kids a learning base.”

Mike Chamness of the Illinois Association of School Administrators said the decision to offer kindergarten classes should rest with local districts. Because the state is prorating General State Aid further from 89 percent in FY2013 to 82 percent in FY2014, he said districts could not afford to pick up the cost. “There are a lot of good ideas out there, and those good ideas cost money,” he said. Chamness said districts are already struggling with how to deal with budget cuts from the state, and many are in the process of cutting further programs and potentially laying off staff. “It’s like holding a dam: You plug a hole and another one bursts open,” he said. “That’s what local districts are facing right now.”

The committee chairwoman, Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, said she supports the idea, but said lawmakers would have to resolve the money question. “It’s almost child abuse if we don’t do it,” she said. “It’s just a question of money.”

Quinn looks to lawmakers for construction borrowing

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is pushing lawmakers to approve more borrowing for capital construction projects before the legislative session is scheduled to end next month.

Quinn hopes to roll out a $12.62 billion capital construction program over the next six years. “We’ve got to make sure we invest in these important assets that we have. We have major railroads criss-crossing Illinois, major highways, and we also have local roads that are very very important to our commerce and to the people of Illinois to get to school, to shop, to go on vacation. We want to make sure we have a 21st century transportation program,” Quinn said. Projects include revamping the Circle Interchange in Chicago, repairs to I-74 in eastern Illinois and two new bridges over the Mississippi River — one from East St. Louis to St. Louis and one to connect the Illinois Quad Cities with Iowa. The proposal also calls for construction on the Illiana Expressway connecting northern Illinois and northern Indiana. The plan would also make upgrades to mass transit across the state and includes projects to help unsnarl congested freight traffic.

According to IDOT, $9.5 billion would be spent on highways over the next six years. More than 70 percent of that would go toward maintenance work on existing infrastructure “That’s important because our system is aging. We built the system in the late '50s early '60s for the most part. Some of it’s even older than that,” said Anne Schneider, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation. Schneider said more than $2 billion would be spent next fiscal year under the plan. 

While some of the projects will be administered on a pay-as-you-go basis, Quinn also needs the General Assembly to sign off on some borrowing. For the plan to move forward, legislators must authorize $2.7 billion in bonding. Quinn is looking for lawmakers to approve borrowing for projects associated with the capital plan known as Illinois Jobs Now, which was originally approved in 2009, but he also wants to add new projects. “We need to get the legislature to approve the final segment of our Illinois Jobs Now program that covers our transportation,” Quinn said. It would be the last round of borrowing associated with the capital bill, but Quinn said he would like to see more construction in the future. “I’ve talked to our legislature leaders and I think they understand how important it is that we complete that. But we also, I think, need to have a debate between now and the end of May about more capital, more investment in capital, more opportunity to issue bonds to continue the program. We’d like to have more financing so that we can do this program and more like it.”

But Quinn cautioned that lawmakers should first approve changes to the state’s pension systems to try to address the more than $90 billion unfunded liability. “Pension reform is paramount. This is the issue that we must address and resolve between now and May 31, and we can,” he said. “I think we can get this done and done in a way that resolves it so that we can address ... gaming or more capital in order to build more jobs. Those are things that need to be done as well. But we’ve got to do pensions first.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

House votes to treat most 17-year-old felons as juveniles

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House voted today to allow some 17-year-olds charged with felonies to remain in the juvenile justice system, where they could have access to more rehabilitative services.

Lawmakers already had opted to move 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors into the juvenile system. Juvenile justice advocates wanted all 17-year-old offenders, except those who commit felonies that are automatically transferred to adult court, to fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile system, but they met resistance from some legislators. The change that applied only to  misdemeanors, which went into effect in 2010, was the compromise that lawmakers settled on. Now many of the same players are trying to get the law changed to include felonies.

“Several years ago, we said that youngsters accused of misdemeanors would stay in juvenile court. The effect of that act has been to reduce the number of young people in state detention facilities and local detention facilities, as well,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, sponsor of House Bill 2404. Under the bill, crimes that are automatically transferred out of the juvenile system, such as murder and many gun violations, would still go to adult court. “I think it’s time for us to treat young people as young people because as we know they really are young, and their minds aren’t fully formed and their judgment is not always as mature as we would like it to be.”

The move was recommended by the Juvenile Justice Commission, which was tasked with studying the potential change under the law that moved 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors into the juvenile system. “It is counterproductive and cruel to impose the lifelong collateral consequences of felony convictions on minors who are likely to be rehabilitated. Illinois can achieve better long-term outcomes for 17-year-olds, public safety and the state economy by expanding juvenile jurisdiction,” the commission’s report stated. “In doing so, it is critical to ensure the juvenile justice system is robust by adequately funding and supporting diversion, probation and community-based services, as well as the public educational, health and human service infrastructure upon which many at-risk youth must rely.”

 Opponents argued that 17-year-olds are grown up enough to face the current penalties if they commit felonies. “I think it sends the wrong message. There are a lot of sophisticated 17-year-olds out on the street, and I know that because I’ve prosecuted them. They’re not children,” said Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican. Reboletti said that if the Senate approved the amendment and it is signed into law, gangs would use teenagers to commit felonies, knowing that they would end up in juvenile court. “As soon as this bill passes, gangs will use 17-year-olds to do more of the dirty work,” he said.

 Others voiced concerns about the outcomes from the state’s juvenile justice system, citing the large number of offenders who are released from custody and end up back in juvenile detention centers. “Our juvenile justice system here in the state of Illinois is failing miserably,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. A 2011 report from the Juvenile Justice Commission found that more than half of youth imprisoned by the Department of Juvenile Justice would eventually end up back behind bars in either the juvenile or adult system.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration. For an in-depth look at the issue, see the upcoming May Illinois Issues.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Supreme Court inaction on concealed-carry limits could affect Illinois legislation

By Jamey Dunn

Top Illinois Democrats say lawmakers should look to New York’s strict concealed carry law as a model when working on the issue in Illinois.

The U.S. Supreme Court today opted not to hear a challenge to New York’s law, which gives law enforcement officials broad discretion when issuing concealed carry licenses and requires applicants for licenses to provide a reason for their need to carry in public. The New York law says the state “may issue” a license to qualified applicants.

Supporters of concealed carry in Illinois are pushing for a “shall issue” licensing system that would require the state to give permits to applicants who meet the requirements set out in the law. But those in Illinois who support a more restrictive approach say lawmakers should take note of the court’s decision today.

 “The New York law dealing with concealed carry is, I think, a model for other states like ours, and that’s something I think that the legislature should take to heart as they go through his process right now of dealing with this issue,” said Gov. Pat Quinn.

A federal appeals court ruled the state’s ban on the carry of firearms in public unconstitutional and gave lawmakers until early June to pass concealed carry legislation. Quinn is calling for bill that would allow for very limited carry. “I think that we need to have very tight restrictions on any kind of concealed carry law in our state. Concealed carry is having a loaded weapon concealed on your person in a public place, and obviously that can be very dangerous. And so, we have to make sure that we have the proper restrictions and limits similar to what New York or some other states like Massachusetts and California have enacted.” He again urged Attorney General Lisa Madigan to appeal the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling on concealed carry.

Madigan said she is still considering an appeal, but that lawmakers should note that the clock is ticking on the court-ordered deadline. “It will obviously influence our continued review of the situation here in Illinois, but everybody who is in the legislature, as well as the governor, should recognize that they’re still under the 180-day deadline imposed by the court, and they need to continue to work on this. If they can come to a compromise on some sort of bill, they should because otherwise, you have this situation where we really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Madigan said that no matter when she were to file an appeal, there would not be enough time for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. But she said legislators should pay attention to what the Supreme Court did today. “The legislature now can look up and say a ‘may issue status’ is something that at this point is constitutional, and so that should have an impact on the discussions and debates that are going on under the dome,” Madigan said. “What we have now are at least some parameters of what that might be. So we know it can be a ‘may issue.' We’re obviously hopeful that the legislature listens to the court.”

Lawmakers who support fewer restrictions on carry disagree. “It has no bearing on us,” Harrisburg Democrat Rep. Brandon Phelps said of the Supreme Court opting not to hear the New York case. He said he is two or three votes away from the support he needs to pass a bill with a “shall issue” permit requirement,and expects a vote on such a bill in the next few weeks. Phelps, who has sponsored concealed carry bills in recent years, said he is still negotiating some components of the plan, such as how many hours of training would be required for a carry license. “I just don’t think that they have the votes for ‘may issue.’ A lot of people in Chicago, the anti-gun groups, would like to have a ‘may issue’ because it’s more restrictive. But I don’t think a lot people want a bureaucrat or the governor or somebody like that to dictate who gets permits or not.”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

DHS bogged down by big caseloads

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Human Services is struggling to provide services as some workers face caseloads of more than a thousand people.

Michelle Saddler, the agency's director, said that the department is understaffed. “Many of you have probably heard DHS is behind or DHS has a backlog,” she told a House human services budget committee today. “We at DHS overall need more realistic staffing.” The department is asking for $3.6 billion for fiscal year 2014, the same amount proposed under Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget. DHS is expected to spend more than $3.2 billion this fiscal year. The department was cut by almost $150 million under the current fiscal year’s budget.

Linda Saterfield, director of the division of family and community services at DHS, said some of her caseworkers have caseloads as big as 2,600. “If you calculate that out, that leaves that worker less than 45 minutes over the course of a year to serve that family.” The average caseload in the division, which administers such core safety net programs as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, averages more than 900 cases per worker. That compares with the year 2000, when the average was just under 250 cases per worker. Saterfield said that one in four residents are served through one of the division’s programs. “Our caseload has grown dramatically, but our staffing levels have reduced so much that we are unable to adequately meet the needs for services,” she said.

Kevin Casey, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities at DHS, said there are about 11,000 people with developmental disabilities waiting for services in Illinois. He said the wait time can be up to four years. “It really is a struggle to understand how they get from one day to another at times,” Casey told the committee. He said the department does have a plan to reduce the number of people on the wait list over the next few years. Casey told committee members that he would later calculate what it would cost to address the wait list immediately. “It’s a choker of a number. It would take a good deal of money to serve everyone on that waiting list.”

Theodora Binion, acting director of the Division of Mental Health at DHS, said that more than 80 percent of people in need of mental health services are not receiving them. “Eighty percent of the people who need mental health services aren’t getting them? Something fundamentally is wrong with that system,” said Rep. David Leitch, who serves on the committee. Leitch said that he thinks lawmakers should prioritize mental health funding over other requests the department might have. “To overlook this, to me, is quite a crisis. I think we should as a committee take a very hard look [at it] before we add a lot of new employees at DHS and do some of the other things.” Binion said steps are being taken to serve more people through managed care programs. “I think that there are plans afoot to increase the capacity.” (For more on the lack of funding for mental health care in the state, see Illinois Issues March 2013.

One factor in the department’s struggle to administer services to people in need is increased demand. “One in three people in Illinois are living in poverty or teetering on the edge of poverty,” said Samantha Tuttle, the director of policy for the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. The alliance is an anti-poverty organization that tracks statistics across the state. Tuttle said the state is not doing enough to combat poverty growth. “Illinois has taken steps backwards in addressing poverty, and it shows.” She said recent cuts in virtually every area of human services have given the poor few places to turn. “Taken together, they’re really a dismantling of our safety net system that helps mitigate the experiences of people living in poverty and moves people out of poverty.”

While the DHS is asking for a funding increase, in part to pay for additional staffing, Saddler said she is aware that lawmakers are facing big budget issues. “We understand that we are all under the pressure of the large pension crisis and that that must be dealt with.” Saddler said the department is doing its best during a difficult time to care for Illinoisans. “If DHS cannot be run on a culture of caring, then who can? Every time that we find that we’ve done something that’s not caring, we pick ourselves up and try again.”

Home health care providers lobby for funding to cover shortfall

By Meredith Colias

Social service advocates say agencies providing in-home care for seniors could be at risk if additional state money is not set aside to pay them.

The Illinois Department of Aging notified service providers in a letter March 7 that it would soon run out of money to fund the Community Care Program for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Providers say that $173 million is needed to properly fund service through the end of Fiscal Year 2013. Kimberly Parker, the Department of Aging's spokeswoman, said in an email it was “common knowledge” the legislature did not give the agency enough money to continue to pay providers through the entire fiscal year and that administrators are hopeful additional money could be found. She said that so far, providers have continued to administer services, but without more funding, payment would likely be delayed until the start of next fiscal year.

The program serves mainly lower-income seniors who apply for assistance through the state for home-based long-term care assistance, with everyday needs ranging from preparing meals and running errands to dressing and bathing, according to the agency's website. The program helps to care for an estimated 80,000 senior citizens in the state. Aside from at-home providers, it also helps to pay for background checks for at-home caregivers, adult day centers that watch elderly clients during the day and a program designed to preventing elderly spouses from being burdened by their spouses in-home care and falling into poverty. To qualify, Illinois residents must be at least 60 years old, the state must determine that they need long-term care and they must have less than $17,500 in assets aside from their home, car and furniture.

 Helping senior citizens remain in their homes is preferable for the state from a financial standpoint, since the Department of Aging estimates the costs would be as much as four times higher to pay for an individual placed in round-the-clock care in a nursing home. The Department of Aging estimates 96 percent of the money it receives from the General Revenue Fund goes to the program. The department says the program was underfunded last fiscal year, as well. Part of the reason why the program is facing a shortfall is because it had to use some of the money it received this year to cover last year's costs.

Jacquie Algee, executive director of relations for Service Employees International Union health care, said smaller providers that primarily rely on the state for their operations are most at-risk if the additional funding is not found. “It’s been a problem because it happens every year,” she said. The Illinois Association of Community Care Program Homecare Providers estimates that one-third of its members depend heavily on funding from the Department of Aging and would not be able to continue operations for more than 30 days without it.

Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn, said the governor supports restoring the funds to the department, although Pallasch was unsure where money would be diverted from in the current budget to continue funding. “It’s up to the legislature,” he said.

House votes to eliminate lieutenant governor's office

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House today approved a constitutional amendment to eliminate the lieutenant governor’s office.

If approved by the Senate, HJRCA 18 would appear on the ballot before voters in the 2014 general election. If voters approved the proposal, the position would be eliminated in 2019. Supporters pitched the idea as a cost saving measure. “It is a luxury that we can no longer afford,” said Rep. David McSweeney, who sponsored the amendment. The budget for Lt. Gov. She Simon’s office for the current fiscal year is $1.8 million. Under Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget, the office would get $1.75 million.

Opponents said that the state needs a lieutenant governor to step in if the governor cannot fulfill the duties of the office. They pointed to just a few years ago when lawmakers impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and removed him from office. Quinn was sworn in to the governor’s office the same day that the Senate voted to boot Blagojevich. “The lieutenant governor does have some duties. First of all the lieutenant governor sits on several boards the lieutenant governor has some state duties this constitutional amendment doesn’t deal with those in any way and so there would be a hole in the law,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat. “Secondly and maybe more importantly it wasn’t too long ago in this state that we sent the governor packing and when we did that we had a lieutenant governor in place that took over with a reasonable system under the law to make sure that the duties of the governor were transferred to an appropriate person.”

Lang added as he spoke on the House floor: “I would urge you to think carefully about the role of the lieutenant governor—yes minimal under our statute, yes minimal under our constitution—but nevertheless we’ve just gone through a time in Illinois’ history when I think it’s been important that we had a lieutenant governor.”

 McSweeney said that the attorney general could easily step into the governor’s office if the need were to arise again. “We are cutting basic social services. It’s a travesty. We have 8 billion to 9 billion of unpaid bills. How can we justify spending $2 million on this office when the attorney general is capable of taking the responsibility?” he said. “This is a message that we are serious about cutting spending. It will show the voters that we’re finally willing to eliminate an office.”

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said that Simon doesn’t oppose the idea of giving voters a choice about the office. But she is against its elimination. She said Simon has cut during her time in the post. “In these tough economic times, Lt. Gov. Simon has made it her mission to do more with less for the taxpayers of Illinois. She has voluntarily cut her budget by more than 12 percent the past two years and gives back a portion of her salary each year,” Simon spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in a written statement. “Simon is working hard to improve the quality of life for Illinois residents as the state’s point person on education reform, an advocate for victims of domestic violence and our military families, and she is leading the effort to preserve our rivers.”

 Simon has announced that she will not be seeking reelection in 2014, saying she wants a chance to do more for the state. “Serving as Lieutenant Governor has given me an opportunity to advocate on important issues that affect our state but it is time for me to do even more,” Simon said in a prepared statement when she announced she would not run for lieutenant governor again. “I want to serve the people of Illinois in a role where I can have an even greater impact.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gaming board airs compliants over gambling expansion

By Jamey Dunn 

Members of the Illinois Gaming Board faced a chilly reception when they appeared before a state Senate committee today to present their concerns about a gambling expansion bill currently being considered.

“Thank you for being here today. It’s about time. We’ve waited for a long time for this meeting to take place. I’ve heard myself being criticized on TV, radio, everywhere else by you, judge, but it’s the first time we’ve had a meeting. So I appreciate you showing up,” Sen. Terry Link said to Aaron Jaffe, a former judge and now chairman of the gaming board. Jaffe has publicly bashed gambling proposals backed by Link in recent years. Link is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1739, which would allow five new casinos statewide, including one owned by the city of Chicago. The bill would also allow slot machines at horse racing tracks and online gambling that would be administered by the Illinois Lottery.

Jaffe focused most of his complaints about SB 1739 on the plans for the Chicago casino. The measure creates the Chicago Casino Development Authority, which would own the casino. The authority would then contract with an operator that would run the casino. Jaffe said that he is concerned that the legislation is not clear on what entity would have regulatory power. He said the gaming board, which polices all the other casinos in the state, would have the ability to provide oversight in the same way for the proposed Chicago facility. Under the bill, the city’s license could not be suspended or revoked. The operator’s license, however, would be subject to the same scrutiny as the state’s 10 other casino licenses. But Jaffe said that he was worried that the Illinois Gaming Board and the Chicago Casino Development Authority would eventually end up in in a legal battle if there is disagreement about oversight. “I don’t want to be in the position of having to go through court battles with the Chicago authority because there’s conflict in our rules.”

Senate President John Cullerton said during the hearing that supporters of the expansion intend for the bill “to create a situation where [you] have the same authority that you have over every other casino in the state over Chicago.”

Jaffe said that he does not oppose Chicago getting a casino. But he said there could be unintended consequences associated with a city-owned casino, something he says does not exist elsewhere in the United States. “There can be conflicts that pop up that we will never dream about now,” he said. In addition to his complaints about the Chicago casino, Jaffe said the bill is too large and poorly written. “It contains so much junk in it from top to bottom,” he said. “It’s a Christmas tree bill. It’s something for everyone.” He said the board is not prepared to take on the task of vetting such a large expansion. “If you want that bill, properly enacted and properly regulated, we probably would need 300 more bodies,” he said. Gaming board officials said the board is understaffed by about 100 people and would need those positions filled, plus 300 more employees to administer to proposal.

Supporters argue that the measure will bring economic development to depressed areas, add more than $1 billion in revenue to the state’s struggling budget and help to prop up the state’s struggling horse racing industry. Link said that Jaffe and the board should have been working with him on the bill instead of complaining about it publicly. “If you had a problem with this bill you or your staff should have been in my office...and asking me ‘what can I do to improve the bill.’ And I would have listened to you.”

 Jaffe said he would be willing to sit down with lawmakers to talk about the bill. But judging from the exchanges at today’s hearing, that could be a contentious meeting. Jaffe and committee members from both sides of the aisle traded barbs, and at few points things became heated between Jaffe and Link. “I don’t want to be insulting today, but I just think what you’re saying is preposterous,” Jaffe said.

Link responded, “Well, I think what you’re saying is beyond that.”

Part of the tension may stem from a provision in Link’s bill that would remove all the members of the gambling board. Gov. Pat Quinn would be free to reappoint them if they fit the bill’s requirements for board members. But Link said tonight that he does not plan to pass a bill with that component, and he plans to remove it from the bill when it is up for another committee hearing next week. Quinn today reiterated his support for the current board. “I have a lot of respect for the gaming board. I’ve put people on there that are upstanding and will get the job done for the public. Anything that lessens their independence, I think is very dangerous.”

He also rehashed his longstanding worries about the oversight of a Chicago casino, which he says he supports. “I think we have to be exceptionally careful in places like Chicago, where we must have over all the time so that we don’t have wrong people in gambling doing bad things.” But Quinn said he is “not excited” about allowing online gambling, which SB 1739 would also do. “This whole subject of Internet gaming, we’ve got to be careful here. This has to be analyzed very carefully. We just can’t pass things willy-nilly. It doesn’t have the proper review. It just was thrown in there at the last minute, and I don’t think that’s healthy. I think when it comes to gambling, you always have to be careful. I think everybody in Illinois knows that.”

State police say they need more funding for concealed carry

By Meredith Colias 

The state police say they will need additional money and staff to oversee a new concealed carry law in Illinois.

In December, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated an Illinois law banning residents from carrying concealed guns. The law was the only one in the nation. The court gave the state 180 days to pass new legislation. In addition to their other duties, the state police approve Firearm Owner Identification [FOID] applications for prospective gun owners. Under legislation currently being considered, the state police would also issue concealed carry permits. Under the proposals, applicants would pay fees for their permits, creating a funding source for administering the program.

Hiram Grau, director of the Illinois State Police, estimates his agency will need at least 60 staff members and a minimal $25 million in additional funding to devote to administering a concealed carry system in the state. “While our numbers and personnel are dwindling, our responsibilities are growing,” Grau said during an Illinois House hearing today.

Rep. John Cavaletto, a Salem Republican, said he wanted to help the state police as much as possible, but money is tight under the current budget situation. “When you're dealing with X amount of dollars, X amount of dollars is all you've got,” he said.

The Illinois State Police is asking for nearly $383.6 million for Fiscal Year 2014 operations. The number is down slightly from the $383.8 million the state police estimates it will spend in FY 2013. Grau said he planned on instituting three new cadet classes. He estimates seven to nine cadets from a class of more than 40 would be used to police some high crime areas in cities such as Chicago and East St. Louis.

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Suburban administrators say transportation cuts hit classrooms

By Meredith Colias

Suburban administrators struggling to cover transportation costs say they cannot bear deeper cuts next year.

Angela Smith, an assistant superintendent in the Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202, told a House committee that reducing the money the state pays for regular school bus costs to her district will only force it to look for cuts in other parts of her budget, such as staffing and basic programs. She said cuts to the state transportation reimbursement should not give lawmakers a false sense that teachers and students would not be impacted. “It’s going to affect the classroom, there’s no way around it,” she said.

Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a cut to regular transportation funding that is almost as large as his proposed cut to General State Aid. Under his plan, aid would be cut by $150 million, while the money the state gives schools to transport kids would be reduced by about $145 million. Quinn’s cut would take transportation funding from $206 million in the current fiscal year to more than $60 million in Fiscal Year 2014. However, the House education budgeting committee has led the way on the state education budget in recent years, and its proposal could be different from what the governor has pitched. “There are going to be cuts. We are experiencing enormous challenges here,” said Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican and a member of the committee.

At the same time the transportation budget is expected to decrease, more school districts statewide are struggling to cover costs. The state board of education is estimating two-thirds of school districts will run a deficit in the next fiscal year. Both Smith and Tom Leonard, superintendent of Barrington Community Unit School District 220, said they were concerned with safety issues and were straining to figure out how to transport students over larger areas in their districts as efficiently as possible. Districts are not able to charge parents to make up the difference for busing their children because it would also reduce their share of General State Aid. Districts have taken measures such as spreading bus stops out farther from each other in an attempt to streamline costs as much as possible. “We’re stretched that to the point where there’s not very much [more] that can be done,” Smith said.

“We are trying to be efficient. More cuts will lead to stranger things,” Leonard said. Smith said the “easy” and “hard” options have already been taken in many district’s budget. “All that’s left are the really hard things,” she said.

Rep. William Davis, who chairs the committee, said that he is sympathetic to the cuts. He said that he plans to advocate for new revenues as he has in past budget years. “We do understand what cuts do,” he said. Davis, a Homewood Democrat, suggested that administrators could lobby their own suburban representatives, most of whom are Republican.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Return-to-session preview

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers return from a two-week break in the legislative session to begin the slog through the final two months before the May 31 adjournment date. They have plenty to consider in the coming weeks:

Pension changes 
Before the House went on break, the chamber took an important vote on changes to state employees’ retirement benefits. They approved House Bill 1165 on a vote of 66 to 50. The bill would cap the amount of salary on which retirees could earn the compounded 3 percent cost of living adjustment [COLA] at $25,000. Anyone earning more pension income would receive a flat COLA of $750 annually. Under the proposal, retirees would not be eligible for a COLA until they have been retired for five years or they reach age 67, whichever comes first. The bill also would apply to current retirees who are now receiving COLAs. Supporters of pension changes said this was perhaps the most difficult vote on the issue taken so far. The House has already approved legislation that would cap pensionable salary at the Social Security wage base, which is $113,700 in 2013, or the employee's current salary, whichever is greater, and a bill that would increase the retirement age for employees younger than 46. Employees from 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.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said those components, potentially along with some other provisions that have been up for debate recently, would likely be part of comprehensive legislation yet to come. “I think we’re in a position to finalize the preparation of the bill and then move a bill from the House to the Senate that treats all aspects of the problem,” he said.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been leading the push for pension changes in the House, said she and Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, her counterpart on the issue in the other chamber, have spent the two-week break trying to form a picture of what might be in the final plan. “When we last voted to changes to the COLA, the speaker talked about how the next step would be to put together a comprehensive package,” she said. “So I have put together a list of things that I think we need to be considering.” But Nekritz said it is too soon for her to pin down what may actually end up in that final plan or when it may be up for a committee hearing or floor vote. “At this point, I don’t anticipate that that would happened in the next two weeks, but I've been wrong before.”

Same sex marriage 
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments related to same sex marriage last week, and longtime observers say the court may opt to rule portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. If that happens, couples in states that have same sex marriage could become eligible for the federal benefits currently available only to heterosexual married couples.

Illinois U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, announced his support of same sex marriage this week. Kirk, who suffered from a debilitating stroke last year and has been working hard at recovery, said his personal experience paved the way for his stance. “Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back — government has no place in the middle,” Kirk said in a prepared statement.

Legislation to legalize same sex marriage in Illinois has passed in the Senate, but Madigan said it is about a dozen votes shy of the support needed for it to clear the House. (Go here to read selected Illinois Issues coverage of the issue on the state and federal level.)

Concealed carry 
A federal court ruled the state’s ban on the concealed carrying of firearms unconstitutional and gave Illinois a deadline for approving legislation to regulate it. The House has followed a similar process on this issue as it has on pensions. However, the chamber does not yet seem close to agreement on any final comprehensive plan for concealed carry. Expect to see more debate on the topic, as well as other gun related issues, such as bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, in the coming weeks.

Medical marijuana 
Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang thinks this might be the session that a bill to legalize the use of marijuana to treat chronic medical conditions might gain the needed backing to pass in the House. A House committee approved House Bill 1 in March, and Lang said the legislation is gaining support. He says the measure is just a couple votes shy of being passed. Lang has said many times that if every lawmaker who told him they supported the idea would cast a vote in favor of the plan, he would have far more support than the majority he needs. He has called medical marijuana bills for three separate floor votes in the House, only to watch them fail. But he is dealing with many new lawmakers this time around, so perhaps it is Lang’s year. The Senate has approved medical marijuana legislation in the past.

Gaming expansion
Expect efforts to pass another gaming expansion plan in the final months of the scheduled spring session. Lang and Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, who have backed other expansion plans, say they would like to try again. Lawmakers approved two gambling bills in recent years, only to have them vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn. The newest proposal contains many of the provisions that were in those two bills, but it also has stricter regulations and a ban on campaign contributions from casino owners, which Quinn has called for many times. But the bill has a wild card provision: It would legalize some forms of online gambling, which would fall under the supervision of the Illinois Lottery. The lottery currently sells tickets online, but allowing online gaming such as Internet poker would be a huge gambling expansion. Residents would be able to place bets from their computers or even their smart phones. Two other states, Nevada and New Jersey, have approved such online gambling. The idea is new, and Quinn has been careful not to be too critical of the legislation in public. However, as the negotiations move in, it is possible this component could make him shy away because he has said he opposes “top heavy” bills that would make gambling in the state too readily available. At one point, the governor was even shying away from putting slot machines at horse racing tracks, an idea he seems to have softened to if the state revenues earned are spent on education.

As lawmakers debate these and other issues, they will also be working to craft a budget for the next fiscal year. That plan will likely contain some controversial cuts. Spending pressures such as pension costs and health care expenses are growing, and competing interests will be vigorously battling over resources for Fiscal Year 2014.

Monday, April 01, 2013

DoC still working out policy for former Tamms prisoners

North segregation wing at Pontiac Correctional Center
By Jamey Dunn

Inmates who were transferred from a now-shuttered super-maximum security prison in Tamms  remain in relative isolation at the Pontiac Correctional Center with no immediate possibility of rejoining the general prison population.

The Tamms Correctional Center closed in January, and most inmates were transferred to the maximum-security facility in Pontiac. Pontiac Warden Randy Pfister said that for many of the prisoners, this was not their first time at Pontiac. “Many of the ex-Tamms offenders had already spent time at Pontiac Correctional [Center]. They’re very familiar with Pontiac Correctional Center,” he told reporters after leading them on a tour of Pontiac last Friday.

On the day of the visit, Pontiac held 1,948 inmates. According to the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, Pontiac is designed to hold 1,800 inmates. The Department of Corrections lists the prison’s capacity 2,152. It costs almost $32,000 to house a prisoner at Pontiac for a year. Pfister estimated that about half of the men serving time at Pontiac will be behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Former Tamms prisoners fall under two general categories. About 50 of them are in disciplinary segregation at Pontiac. Pfister said that serious infractions of the rules in the prison system, such as assaults or possession of contraband, land inmates in long term segregation. Inmates who rack up more than a year of segregation are typically transferred to Pontiac to serve their disciplinary time. “Violate the rules or the policies or procedures of the Department of Corrections; basically it’s the same as if you break a law on the streets.”

The former Tamms prisoners in segregation live under the strictest conditions at the facility. They spend the vast majority of their time and take all of their meals in small cells by themselves. The cell doors are covered in Plexiglas and metal grating. The addition of Plexiglas is one of the infrastructure changes made specifically for the former Tamm’s prisoners. Reporters were not allowed on the wings where the “worst of the worst” of former Tamms inmates are housed at Pontiac. “The North segregation [where former Tamms prisoners are held], it’s a different atmosphere,” said Frank Turner, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 494. Turner, who is a corrections officer at Pontiac, said prisoners in other cell blocks have more incentive to exhibit good behavior because they have more opportunities to earn rewards.

The inmates in North segregation are allowed five hours of recreation time a week. They take that in large rust-colored metal cages in the prison yard. Segregation prisoners are not allowed to bring anything into the cages, dubbed recreation pods by DoC. There is a pull-up bar, and Pontiac staff said prisoners often exercise or yell back in forth to prisoners in other pods when they are in the yard. There is a system at Pontiac for stepping down segregation prisoners to less restrictive conditions, but Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for DoC, said that no former Tamms inmates have been placed under a different security classification than their status was at the super-max prison. Pfister said some inmates in segregation at Pontiac should never be returned to a general prison population because of the dangers that they present and their inability to follow the rules.

Cell in North cell house where Tamms prisoners reside
About 160 of the former Tamms inmates fall into a category called administrative detention. Those inmates are held outside of the general prison population because of safety and security concerns. One possible reason why an inmate might be placed in administrative detention could be gang ties that are causing rivalries or disputes in the general population. Many of the former Tamms prisoners who fall into this category get to take yard time with up to five other inmates. That means they can play games, such as basketball. When reporters entered Pontiac on a warm spring day last week, several former Tamms inmates where doing just that on courts that are surrounded by high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. They joked with reporters and greeted them.
Recreation pods where segregation inmates get yard time.

Inmates in administrative detention typically get more time in the yard than those in segregation Pfister said they can spend up to nine hours a week outside. Administrative detention inmates are reevaluated every 90 days to determine if they still need to be separated from the general population. However, DoC  has no plan in place for integrating any of the former Tamms inmates. Solano said that DoC is developing a policy to transition Tamms inmates back into the general population, but has no timeline for when that might happen. She said former Tamms inmates could earn additional privileges at Pontiac if their 90-day evaluations are positive.

Basketball courts where some former Tamms inmates play.      
Laurie Jo Reynolds, founder of the group Tamms Year Ten that was pushing for reforms at the prison but now supports its closure, said that DoC’s administrative detention policy was one of the group’s major concerns when it came to Tamms. She said prisoners under the classification could find themselves at Tamms with no explanation for how they got there because the prison intelligence that sent them there was classified and often flawed. “The thing about going to Tamms was there were no clear criteria. It was very unclear why people were at Tamms.” But she said, “At least people who were in segregation at Tamms knew why they were in segregation.” She said those in administrative detention did not have due process to challenge their status. Reynolds said those in administrative detention now are generally experiencing better conditions than at Tamms, but they still have no way of knowing when they might return to the general inmate population. “There’s way less men in administrative detention over at Menard [Correctional Center], but it’s the same situation over there.” While a few former Tamms inmates were sent to Menard, the majority of them ended up at Pontiac.

Former Tamms prisoners in both categories are restricted on how they can move around the prison when they are out of their cells. The warden said the prison is using a combination of security protocols pulled from rules applied at Tamms, under Pontiac's current segregation policy and on the former death row at Pontiac, which now houses Tamms inmates that are in administrative detention. He said former Tamms prisoners are always accompanied by a guard when they are moved, and a prison sergeant is always nearby.

Cell doors for segregation inmates from Tamms.
Pfister said that so far, the former Tamms prisoners have not made life much more difficult at Pontiac. “Other than that mass hunger strike, we have had absolutely no issues. There’s been no ex-Tamms offenders involved in any violent assaults or involved with any thing out of the ordinary that doesn’t occur here with regular segregation inmates,” he said. Several of the former Tamms inmates joined some Pontiac inmates in a hunger strike shortly after they arrived at Pontiac. The Tamms inmates complained that they were being treated differently from the other Pontiac prisoners.

Among their demands, they asked that private property that they had in Tamms be returned to them. “Many of the issues were property issues,” said Pfister. “Because we got over 100 of them in a two-day period, it took us a little while to get their personal property.” Segregation inmates from Tamms also asked that the Plexiglas be removed from their cells, a request that has not been accommodated. “We totally opposed that because those men were in Tamms, and they were not behind Plexiglas, and they were fine,” said Reynolds. Tamms Year Ten was not associated with the hunger strike, but the group is working to ensure that former Tamms prisoners do not encounter discrimination in their new placements at other prisons. She said that she thinks that Pfister is doing his best to treat former Tamms prisoners like the other inmates at Pontiac. However, she said there is also the possibility that inmates might have an issue with individual guards. “I really did fully believe that he was treating everyone the same. I really think that is his whole mantra in life.”

Pfister said of the inmates in his prison: “We just deal with them professionally and respectfully and treat them like a man. They’ve already been judged; that’s not our job.”

The warden said that the hunger strike has ended, but he said some prisoners held out for a long time. “I think the longest one was just under 50 days,” he said. Despite the hunger strike, Reynolds said that much of the feedback from inmates and their families after the move to Pontiac has been positive. “This is [a] very good experience that you’re seeing our guys having and that the family members are happy about.” She said that there was concern that DoC employees might take out their frustration over the recent prison closing on Tamms inmates. “We were so terrified that these guys were going to go there and be really treated badly, and they would act out, and there would be a lot of tension.” But Reynolds said the reality at Pontiac is very different. “The staff and everybody was so nice to the parents, they were just in shock.” She said the visitation process at Pontiac is much easier for families to negotiate. For Tamms visits, they have to mail in paperwork and undergo a screening each time. Often, they would make the trip to the prison in the state’s southern tip only to be turned away. “The Tamms visitation policy was such a circus of nonsense that they put family members through.”

Reynolds said she has major concerns about the isolation polices at Pontiac, but she said for former Tamms inmates, just getting to eat an orange, smell the grass and see the sky on a regular basis is an improvement from their lives at the super-max facility. “They’re having sensory experiences at Pontiac. They weren’t having them at Tamms.”

Pontiac's visiting room. Inmates are not allowed contact with visitors.
Prison workers did not have much to say about the Tamms inmates creating any specific new safety problems. They said they are most concerned with the overcrowding in the system that is being exacerbated as Gov. Pat Quinn’s closes corrections facilities. Quinn says the facilities must be closed to cut costs as Illinois struggles to find fiscal stability. Nearly 150 staff members from the recently closed Dwight Correctional Center for Women were scheduled to start work at Pontiac today. Turner said that housing two inmates in a cell has become more widespread at Pontiac, and it can lead to more violence. “I know that there’s more than a handful of fights inside those cells with the double celling. We’ve been fortunate here that we haven’t had anybody killed as they have in Menard,” he said. Three Menard inmates have died recently, and a former Menard prisoner has been charged with murder in one of the cases. “When you start jamming segregation high-aggression inmates together like that, when you have no room to move them around as in Pontiac — we don’t have the ability to move inmates around a lot because we do not have the bed space — it’s going to create a problem sooner or later,” Turner said.

He said that the crowding at other prisons also makes it difficult to execute inmate management policies. “We’ve got 33,000 beds, and we’ve got 49,000 inmates. You know, the math doesn’t add up. And they’ve announced that they’ve got six institutions that we’re putting cots in the gymnasiums. The writing’s on the wall. If you’ve got more inmates than you’ve got beds, there’s going to be a problem.” He said the conflicts that result from overcrowding at lower security levels mean that more inmates will likely rack up segregation time and potentially be sent to Pontiac. At some point, he said, there just wouldn’t be any more room at the higher security level prisons for more dangerous inmates. “You’re going to have to take inmates that don’t fit the criteria at a lower institution because you don’t have enough beds at the higher security level.” Turner said the additional staff from the Dwight closure will help to take some pressure off guards at Pontiac, who he says have been working a high level of overtime. “Unfortunately they’re closing a facility. That’s taking beds away. That doesn’t make any sense.”

For more on the debate surrounding the closure of Tamms super-max prison, see Illinois Issues June 2102. 

Illinois Issues also toured a minimum security prison in Vienna. You can read about that facility at the Illinois Issues blog.