Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lt. Gov. Simon enters race for state comptroller

By Jamey Dunn

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon kicked off her campaign for state comptroller with a series of evens throughout the state today.

Simon announced in February that she would not run for lieutenant governor again. At the time she said, “I want to serve the people of Illinois in a role where I can have an even greater impact.” Since then, political observers have speculated about which constitutional office she would seek. “Because I want to shine a light on corruption, blow the whistle on waste and be the fiscal watchdog that we so desperately need, I am running for comptroller,” Simon said today.

Simon has served as a prosecutor and worked as a law professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She served on Carbondale’s city council and made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of the city against incumbent Brad Cole in 2007. She served on an ethics commission chosen by Gov. Pat Quinn to make reform recommendations after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.

Quinn picked Simon as his running mate after Scott Lee Cohen, a pawnshop owner with a checkered past, was pressured off the ticket. Cohen won the primary as a relatively unknown candidate, but allegations of drug use and domestic violence sunk his hopes of being a candidate in the general election. The state Democratic State Central Committee voted in Simon, the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, as his replacement. In her role as lieutenant governor, Simon has focused on education policy, college affordability, rural issues and recently concealed carry of firearms.

Quinn will pick his running mate for his current bid for governor. Under a new law, all the candidates will pair up with their choice for lieutenant governor and run as pairs in the primary. The law, which will be used for the first time this race, came after the Cohen fiasco.

Simon could face a primary challenge: Will County Auditor Duffy Blackburn has voiced interest in the comptroller’s office. If Simon makes it through the primary, she will likely face a difficult race against incumbent Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who has also served as a legislature and the state’s treasurer. Topinka unsuccessfully challenged Blagojevich for the governor’s office in 2006. So far, Topinka has Simon outgunned on fundraising with $805,000 to Simon’s $272,000 at the end of the second quarter.

Though Simon lacks solid financial experience on her resume, she says there is more to the job of handling the state’s checkbook than being a whiz with numbers. “It’s time for a comptroller who provides not just accounting but accountability,” Simon said. “Voters need someone they can trust. That’s why I’ve held myself to a higher standard. I don’t accept contributions from state contractors, state employees or their spouses, and I don’t take contributions from my own staff.” Simon said she would adhere to the same policies as comptroller.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Legislative leaders sue over pay freeze

By Jamey Dunn 

Democratic legislative leaders filed a lawsuit today to halt Gov. Pat Quinn’s move to suspend lawmakers’ pay until a pension reform bill is passed.

Quinn used his veto pen earlier this month to strike out the money for lawmakers’ pay from the budget. At the time House Speaker Michael Madigan’s public reaction to Quinn’s decision was not negative. He noted that lawmakers had made much effort to try to get pension legislation passed. “The governor’s decision follows my efforts, and I understand his frustration. I am hopeful his strategy works,” Madigan said in a prepared statement. Senate President John Cullerton called Quinn’s splashy strategy “unproductive.”

Today, both leaders are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Quinn claiming that his move to cut off paychecks is unconstitutional. In a letter to lawmakers, they called Quinn’s action “purely political” and an “unconstitutional attempt to coerce the legislature to comply with his demands.” The suit says that if the governor were allowed to cut lawmakers’ pay, it would break down the separation of powers between the branches of government because any governor going forward could hold paychecks hostage to extort votes from legislators.

“If the governor’s line-item veto is upheld, the independence of each member of the General Assembly will be forever compromised. Any governor will hold a trump card over a co-equal branch of government, attempting to bend the members of the General Assembly to his or her will with the threat of eliminating their salaries, which for some legislators is their only source of income,” the complaint says. “In this particular instance, Gov. Quinn has stated that his dispute with the General Assembly is over the lack of pension reform legislation. Next time, it may be gun control or abortion rights or tax policy.”

Quinn defended his veto again today. “My action to suspend the appropriation for legislative pay is clearly within the express provisions of the Illinois Constitution,” he said in a written statement. Quinn also is not taking a paycheck.

The Illinois Constitution does address the salaries of lawmakers, as well as those of constitutional officers and judges. The document says that salaries cannot be changed during their terms. From the legislative article: “A member shall receive salary and allowances as provided by law, but changes in the salary of the member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”

However, the Constitution also states that the governor may “reduce or veto any item of appropriation in a bill presented to him.” Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said last week that she did not have the authority to pay lawmakers with out the appropriation, which Quinn had vetoed. She said that the only way legislators would get paid is if they voted to override the veto or a judge ordered that they get their checks.

Madigan and Cullerton likely do not want an override vote because continuing in the standard process would be tacit acknowledgement that the veto was legitimate and constitutionally sound. “The purpose of this lawsuit is to protect the independence of the legislature and preserve the separation of powers. It is our hope that the court will remedy this constitutional violation and that future governors will not feel empowered to use such coercive tactics,” they said in their letter.

Quinn said that instead of focusing their efforts on a lawsuit, lawmakers should be working on formulating changes to the pensions system that can pass in both chambers. “Today's lawsuit filed by two members of the Illinois General Assembly is just plain wrong. If legislators had put forth the same effort to draw up a pension reform agreement that they did in crafting this lawsuit, pension reform could have been done by now. Instead of focusing on resolving the state's pension crisis — which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars a day — legislators have chosen to focus on their own paychecks and waste taxpayer time and money on this lawsuit. Legislators should not be rewarded for an endless cycle of promises, excuses, delay and inertia on the pension problem.”

Members of a special committee that is working on pension reform say they are making real progress. However, they say that it may be mid-August or later before the have a proposal to present to the General Assembly at large. Barring immediate court action, lawmakers will miss a their first paycheck under the veto this Thursday. Credit Union 1, which serves state employees, has offered to loan lawmakers half of their $68,000 monthly base salaries for 60 days. Non-members would have to join the credit union and would be charged interest on the loans.

Quinn said he plans to fight the issue in court. “I will defend the interest of Illinois taxpayers in the courts. Nobody should be paid until the pension reform job gets done for taxpayers.”

Union leaders took the lawsuit as a chance to remind lawmakers that public workers’ pension benefits are also protected by the state's Constitution. “Today, legislative leaders sued over the constitutionality of Governor Pat Quinn’s line item veto of legislators’ salaries. We remind lawmakers that the entirety of the Illinois Constitution must be upheld for all citizens, including public employees and retirees — teachers, police, nurses, caregivers, and others — whose modest pensions are protected in Article XIII, Section 5,” said a written statement from the We Are One Coalition. The coalition called on lawmakers to support the union-backed proposal, Senate Bill 2404. “Legislators take an oath to support this constitutional provision — just as they promise to support all constitutional provisions equally. Lawmakers must not cherry-pick or apply a double standard in determining what parts of the Constitution should be defended. They shouldn't adhere to the Constitution only when it's convenient.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Topinka says she cannot pay lawmakers

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said today that without intervention from lawmakers or a judge, she cannot pay legislators.

Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the money for lawmakers pay earlier this month, saying that they would not get their paychecks until they pass “comprehensive” changes to public employee pension systems. Topinka, who is responsible for cutting checks for the state, sought a legal opinions on whether Quinn could eliminate lawmakers’ wages. She said there were “conflicting” opinions among her legal team, but Attorney General Lisa Madigan advised Topinka that she cannot issue checks unless legislators vote to override the veto or a judge orders her to pay up.

Lawmakers are due to be paid again on August 1. Quinn has also asked that he not be paid. Topinka said the opinion is based on the case of AFSCME v. Netsch, in which a court ruled that the comptroller could not pay state workers without an appropriation. “This situation is different in that it involves two coequal branches of government,” Topinka said at a Chicago news conference today. “The distinction may well be considered by the court down the line, but at this point and time, the attorney general has advised that these payments cannot be made without an appropriation or a court order. Those are the only two ways we can do this.”

Topinka said she hopes the situation comes to a quick resolution because she believes Quinn’s veto sets a “serious precedent.” While Topinka can do nothing about Quinn’s move, she said she disagrees with it. “I think we’re on some really dangerous ground here,” she said. “This is no way to run a government. Threats of blackmail and inertia may be good theater, but it makes us look ridiculous and it takes away from our ability to get things done. So I think it’s time for leaders to lead.”

Quinn told reporters in Chicago today that he had no doubts that he has the authority to use a line item veto to remove lawmakers’ pay from the state budget. “It’s crystal clear the governor has this authority,” he said. “They’re not going to get paid until they enact fundamental pension reform, and I’m not going to take a salary either.”

However, Quinn cannot just undo the veto if lawmakers pass a pension bill. They would have to vote to override his veto, which Quinn has said they will have “his blessing” to do once a pension plan is on his desk. Of course, they could opt to vote on their pay before that time, or any member of the legislature could sue and let the courts sort it out.

Members of the conference committee that is working to craft a pension bill that can pass in both chambers told the State Journal-Register this week that they may not have a proposal ready until mid-August. “It feels like weeks left,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz.

“I would hope that they could move with dispatch, but I understand their need to study everything they’ve got to study,” Quinn said today. “The bottom line is, we’ve got to get this done, and no one in the legislature is going to get paid unless they get the job done when it comes to pensions.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Obama keys Illinois speech on renewing the middle class

By Jamey Dunn

GALESBURG  —  President Barack Obama kicked off a speaking tour today meant to shift focus to economic issues in Galesburg, which has had its own economic ups and downs in recent years.

Obama delivered his speech at Knox College, a private school that he visited eight years ago as a U.S. senator. The White House played up the history as the president coming full circle on his push to strengthen the middle class. And the middle class was clearly the target for the president’s speech.

“So eight years ago, I came here to deliver the commencement address for the class of 2005. Now, things were a little different back then. For example, I had no gray hair or a motorcade. Didn't even have a (tele)prompter. In fact, there was a problem in terms of printing out the speech because the printer didn't work here, and we had to drive it in from somewhere. But it was my first big speech as your newest senator,” Obama recalled. “And I came here to talk about what a changing economy was doing to the middle class and what we as a country needed to do to give every American a chance to get ahead in the 21st century.”

Today, Obama focused on the insecurity that many in the middle class feel as jobs have disappeared in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. “In the period after World War II, a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity. Whether you owned a company or swept its floors or worked anywhere in between, this country offered you a basic bargain, a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement, and most of all, a chance to hand down a better life for your kids,” Obama said. “But over time, that engine began to stall, and a lot of folks here saw it. That bargain began to fray.”

He also painted a picture of what he described as growing inequity and a declining opportunity for Americans to improve their economic standing. “So the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family's incomes barely budged. And towards the end of those three decades, a housing bubble, credit cards, a churning financial sector was keeping the economy artificially juiced up, so sometimes it papered over some of these long-term trends,” he said. “But by the time I took office in 2009 as your president, we all know the bubble had burst. And it cost millions of Americans their jobs and their homes and their savings. And I know a lot of folks in this area were hurt pretty bad. And the decades-long erosion that had been taking place, the erosion of middle-class security, was suddenly laid bare for everybody to see.”

While the economy in Illinois has slowly improved since that bubble burst, at 9.2 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is higher than the national rate of 7.6 percent. The Flash Index, an economic indicator produced by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, reached its highest level in May since 2007. “While the economy continues its long, slow recovery, there appears to be considerable optimism that growth will continue and accelerate during the last half of 2013 and into 2014,” said economist J. Fred Giertz of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Knox County’s unemployment rate is lower than it has been in recent years. In May the county rate was 7.7 percent. Even before the recession, the county’s unemployment rate was higher than much of the rest of the state. In January 2004, it was 9.4 percent. It peaked in January 2010 at 12.1 percent.

Children play in the street as they wait for the president's motorcade to pass.
The declining unemployment rate implies that things may be improving in the Galesburg area, but  people who live here say many are underemployed. “There’s a lot of people working two different jobs and that. They’re just surviving on those jobs. They’re menial jobs. We heard young people that say, well, they were probably fortunate that they got a job at McDonald's. ... There’s a lot of them that can’t find work,” said Donovan Tucker, a retired Galesburg resident. Tucker worked as a senior design draftsman in the product engineering department at the Maytag plant, which was closed in 2004. The work went to a new plant in Mexico. Before the closure, Maytag was the biggest employer in Galesburg. More than 1,000 jobs were lost, but a study from Western Illinois University estimated that the economic impact of the closure cost the area more than four times that many jobs. Tucker remembers when then-state Sen. Obama addressed plant workers in Galesburg. Obama went on to tell the stories of Maytag workers in his stump speech while running for the U.S. Senate. However, the workers’ union was critical of his fundraising ties to top Maytag investors and ended up backing Hilary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary. 

Tucker, thinking back to his time at the plant, said, “I saw a lot of changes out there over the years.” He said he was shocked when Maytag moved the jobs to Mexico. “I woke up a lot of mornings thinking. ‘Was that a nightmare or what?’”

Local politicians say Galesburg was the appropriate stage for Obama to start his economic tour. “Galesburg was the right place to deliver this. His whole message is that we need to do something to really stabilize the middle class because that’s the future of America. He laid out an aggressive program,” said Peoria Democratic state Sen. David Koehler. “I think what’s new and different is his sense of urgency. He knows that he has no more elections; he’s got a little more than 1,200 days left in his presidency. Certain things he’s going to do as president that he can do, but he also has to reach out and work with Congress. So I think this is really an appeal to the Republican moderates as well as his own party, the Democrats, to roll up their sleeves and really get something done.”

Obama focused on four things that he said are cornerstones of a solid middle class: job growth, access to education, home ownership and secure retirement. While the president appears to be positioning the economy squarely in the center of his agenda, he said that other issues are still on his to-do list. “Now, of course, we'll keep pressing on other key priorities. I want to get this immigration bill done. We still need to work on reducing gun violence. We've got to continue to end the war in Afghanistan, rebalance our fight against al-Qaida. We need to combat climate change. We've got to stand up for civil rights. We've got to stand up for women's rights,” he said. “So all those issues are important, and we'll be fighting on every one of those issues. But if we don't have a growing, thriving middle class, then we won't have the resources to solve a lot of these problems. We don't have the resolve, the optimism, sense of unity that we need to solve many of these other issues.”

Ryan Hickey, who is from Galesburg and will start his sophomore year at Millikin University in Decatur in the fall, said he was glad that the president addressed the growing cost of higher education. Hickey, who sang the national anthem before the president’s speech, is studying acting. He said that Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage could help him if he ends up waiting tables before he gets his big break. “The points that he hit were, I think, what our country needs right now.”

Obama called for an end to the partisan gridlock in Congress and said he planned to use his executive powers to do what he could to put his agenda in place. “Now, in this effort, I will look to work with Republicans as well as Democrats wherever I can. And I sincerely believe that there are members of both parties who understand this moment, understand what's at stake, and I will welcome ideas from anybody across the political spectrum. But I will not allow gridlock or inaction or willful indifference to get in our way,” he said. “That means whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I'll use it. Where I can't act on my own and Congress isn't cooperating, I'll pick up the phone. I'll call CEOs. I'll call philanthropists. I'll call college presidents. I'll call labor leaders, I'll call anybody who can help and enlist them in our efforts because the choices that we, the people, make right now will determine whether or not every American has a fighting chance in the 21st century.”

 U.S. House Republicans from Illinois, however, were not moved by the speech. “Today, President Obama made his 19th pivot back to what has always been most important to Americans, jobs and the economy. With its 9.2 percent unemployment rate, full-blown budget crisis and sky-high taxes, our shared home state of Illinois is an example of government making all the wrong economic choices. However, no amount of presidential pivots and speech making will change the fact that too many Illinoisans are out of work. It doesn’t have to be this way,” said a written statement from Rep. Peter Roskam, Rep. Rodney Davis, Rep. Randy Hultgren, Rep. John Shimkus, Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Rep. Aaron Schock. “House Republicans have never strayed from our focus on creating jobs and strengthening our economy. We are developing a tax reform package for individuals and businesses that would increase American competitiveness in the global economy. We have passed a jobs and skills training package, approved the Keystone XL Pipeline, acted to protect families and individuals from a costly health care law and put forth a plan to permanently fix our student loan crisis. These proposals would immediately and demonstrably boost the economy and set the foundation for long-term growth. We agree with the president: Too many Americans are struggling in today’s economy, and we stand ready to work.”

Tucker said he felt optimistic after hearing the president’s speech. “He’s very positive all the time. I wish he could be able to convince the others to work with him to get things done.”

Monday, July 22, 2013

Quinn approves key piece of federal health care plan

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois took a major step today toward implementing federal health care reform law when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a substantial Medicaid expansion.

Senate Bill 26 will expand Medicaid coverage to individuals who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $15,860 for adults and $21,408 for couples. This expansion of Medicaid benefits to childless adults, who were previously ineligible in Illinois, is a key piece of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Quinn said he wanted to be sure to sign the bill before President Barack Obama makes a visit to Illinois on Wednesday.

“So we can tell him we got the job done,” Quinn said in Chicago today. “This is essentially implementing the Affordable Care Act. Some call it Obamacare. I call it ‘I do care.’ And this is the way that we, the people of Illinois, are going to get more health insurance coverage for at least 342,000 of our neighbors. I think that’s really an important objective, that all of us have decent health care for everybody.” Quinn's administration estimates that 342,000 people will be covered under the expansion by 2017.

The new Illinois Medicaid population will be able to enroll in October, and their coverage will kick in on January 1, 2014.

The Affordable Care Act, as originally written, would have required all states to make the expansion or risk losing their federal reimbursements for Medicaid. But the United States Supreme Court viewed that as an overreach and ruled that states had the option to forgo the expansion without the penalty. Illinois is one of 24 states, including the District of Columbia, that moving is ahead with the expansion. Six states are still debating the issue, and 21 states have no immediate plans to expand. (For more on the Supreme Court ruling and the Medicaid expansion, see Illinois Issues September 2012.)

The federal government will cover the cost of the expansion for the first three years. Then the federal match is scheduled to taper down to 90 percent by 2020. Illinois officials estimate that the state will receive $12 billion in federal funds under the expansion by 2020. Chicago Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored SB 26 and serves on the Senate’s budgeting committees, said the federal money will cover some medical costs currently being covered by the state. “It replaces what the state is paying for now, what local governments are paying for right now and really all the uncompensated care that hospitals are having to do. So this is going to help every single hospital throughout the state of Illinois.” She said that more than $200 million in spending from the state’s general revenue fund would be replaced by the federal match. “This is in my view very strongly both fiscally and morally the right thing to be doing.”

Steans said that most of the people who will be able to get Medicaid coverage are employed. She said the expansion will make health care accessible for people all over Illinois. “Sixty percent of these folks have jobs ... but low-income jobs that don’t provide affordable health care,” Steans said. “It’s every single part of the state where we have people who are going to be newly eligible here. It’s critical for downstaters, for our suburbanites, for the city of Chicago. It’s everywhere.”

Chicago Democratic Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, said the expansion will bring coverage to traditional underserved residents, such as those living with mental health issues. “From the perspective of a legislator trying to meet a need, trying find a medical home for our constituents, this legislation today is the game changer.” (For more on how the expansion could affect mental health care in the state, see Illinois Issues March 2013.)

Julie Hamos, director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said the expansion is not just about getting more people coverage, it’s about making sure they have efficient and effective care that will make them healthier overall. “The Affordable Care Act and the promise of the Affordable Care Act is not just about putting a health insurance card in everybody’s pocket. It’s about redesigning the health care delivery system, and we are very hard at work doing that to create coordinated integrated delivery systems that will really serve the clients,” she said. “The promise of the Affordable Care Act is to get better health outcomes for all the people in Illinois and the country, that’s the most exciting part. That’s the work still ahead of us.”

But opponents of the expansion are concerned that it would further damage an already troubled system. Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, said such a large expansion would redefine the nature of the program. “Medicaid was supposed to be a safety net for the poor, but when you add 25 percent of the population onto Medicaid, then it is no longer a safety net. It’s become so bloated and so expensive to run that the poorest of the poor can’t get access.” Stagnant reimbursement rates have led to some health care providers opting to not serve Medicaid patients.

Dabrowski said there could be access problems after the expansion. He said that the problems with health care in the state should be solved through the insurance market instead of through a “top down” federal plan that grows state programs. “There are legitimate problems that need to be handled,” he said. “We should fix those problems and attack those problems directly but not totally turn upside down the private market in order to reach those problems.” He said that by deciding to implement the expansion, the state is taking on future responsibility for residents who could instead buy insurance in the online marketplace that also comes along with the Affordable Care Act. SB 26 would roll back the expansion if the federal matching rates decline. But Dabrowski said that once the benefits have been given out, it is unlikely that lawmakers would support reducing them. “Most state governments have a hard time taking away any benefits they have given.”

Supporters say that the state should not pass on a golden opportunity to offer health care to a group that currently has few options and often seeks costly treatment in emergency rooms. “One would wonder why we wouldn’t want $12 billion of health care that is 100 percent match[ed by federal funds],” Feigenholtz said.

 “That’s an important fundamental right that everyone has. It’s not a privilege to have decent health care, it’s a fundamental right,” Quinn said.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Madigan encourages investigation of ex-Metra chief's clout claims

By Jamey Dunn

In the wake of the legislature’s inspector general announcing an investigation into whether Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to use his clout to influence Metra personnel decisions, Madigan has issued a letter denying any wrongdoing

Alex Clifford, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago suburban commuter rail service, claims that Madigan asked that a Metra employee be given a raise. Clifford said he was pressured by members of the Metra board to give Patrick Ward, a Madigan donor and then-Metra employee, a pay increase and to promote another employee. Ward now works in Gov. Pat Quinn's administration at a job for which Madigan recommended him. Clifford said at a hearing this week that he thinks Madigan’s actions were “a character flaw, both ethically and morally.” But since neither the raise nor the promotion were given, he does not think that “the law was broken.”

Madigan sent a letter today to Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer and members of the General Assembly’s Legislative Ethics Commission saying he encourages the investigation and that his office will cooperate. “I have reviewed the facts surrounding the issue, and I am confident that my actions were not inappropriate or violative of any applicable law or ethical rule,” Madigan wrote. Homer has said he plans to investigate Clifford's claims.

Clifford also says other lawmakers tried to influence Metra hiring practices and that the board mishandled contracts while he was on leave for treatment of thyroid cancer. RTA board members deny that they pressured Clifford, who left earlier this year with a more then $700,000 settlement that also came with a confidentiality agreement. They say Clifford only raised such concerns after it became clear that his contract with Metra would not be renewed. “I deny Mr. Clifford’s allegations, but out of an abundance of caution, immediately forwarded all of his claims to the inspector general,” Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran said in a written statement. “I have never intervened with Metra’s staff regarding any jobs or contracts. The board attempted a fair and unbiased review process for Mr. Clifford that was upended by his threatened legal strategy, which resulted in the settlement.” The Regional Transportation Authority is auditing Clifford’s severance deal.

The Metra board is bringing in former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, who led the investigation against former Gov. George Ryan, to look into Clifford’s claims and make recommendations for tightening the agencies hiring and contract policies. Collins is scheduled to report his finding to the board at a public hearing in 90 days. “Patrick Collins has an unquestioned reputation for integrity, honesty and fighting corruption,” O’Halloran said. “I look forward to an unflinching report which makes recommendations that help the agency restore confidence with riders, taxpayers and the communities we serve.” UPDATE Monday July 22: Collins will not be heading the investigation because of a potential conflict of interest tied to his law firm Perkins Colie. “I am personally disappointed that Patrick Collins cannot undertake this endeavor,” O’Halloran said in a prepared statement. “I felt he would have done an excellent job. I remain committed to interviewing other lawyers with outstanding reputations and investigative skills, and to once again ask the board for its approval.”

 Meanwhile some lawmakers are calling for the ousting of the entire Metra board. “I've seen enough. ... It's time to blow up the board at Metra,” Sen. Kirk Dillard told the Daily Herald last weekend. “It's not just hiring — it's on-time performance, mechanical breakdowns and a bad rollout of the fare increase.” Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican is also running for governor. Marengo Democratic Rep. Jack Franks called for the board members’ resignations after none of them showed up to testify before a legislative committee last week. “They have no business being in the public trust.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Madigan's announcement ripples the political pond

By Jamey Dunn

Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s decision to seek reelection instead of running for governor will have a ripple effect on the state’s political landscape.

Of course, Madigan decision not to run will affect the governor’s race. The popular attorney general has done well in the polls and was expected to be the front runner if she jumped into the governor’s race. Madigan announced yesterday that she would run again for her current office. In her written statement she cited her father Michael Madigan’s position as House speaker as one of the reasons for her decisions.

“For the last several months, I have considered the best way to continue serving the people of Illinois. Deciding whether to seek reelection or to run for governor has not been easy. I love my job as attorney general and continue to be excited about the important work we are doing and what we can do for people and families in the years ahead. I considered running for governor because of the need for effective management from that office and the frustration so many of us feel about the current lack of progress on critical issues facing Illinois,” Madigan said. “Ultimately, however, there has always been another consideration that impacts my decision. I feel strongly that the state would not be well-served by having a governor and speaker of the House from the same family and have never planned to run for governor if that would be the case. With Speaker Madigan planning to continue in office, I will not run for governor.”

Gov. Pat Quinn has said in the past that a Madigan in the governor’s office and a Madigan as speaker would be a conflict of interest. He did not reiterate that opinion today when asked about Lisa Madigan’s decision. Instead, he praised her service as attorney general, the job she has held since 2003. “I think it was well-said,” Quinn said in Chicago today of Madigan’s statement.

With Madigan out of the way, Quinn’s only challenger is former White House chief of staff Bill Daley. Daley served as chief of staff under President Barack Obama and commerce secretary under former President Bill Clinton. Despite his connections to national politics, most Illinois probably know him best from his family ties. He is the brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the longest serving Chicago mayor to date, and son of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the second-longest serving mayor.

Quinn's comments today indicate that he may try to present Daley, who has also worked as a lawyer and a banker, as a rich insider while paying up his own populist credentials. “I think I’m quite a bit different than Bill Daley. He has a better tailor than I do.” Quinn said of himself: “I’m a people person. I think that anybody who has ever worked with me in public life knows that I interact with everyday people. I’m not going to be a champion of millionaires — everybody knows that. I fight hard for folks who don’t have lobbyists, who don’t have political action committees, who aren’t in high places, but they’re the heart and soul of Illinois.”

But when it comes to campaign funds, so far Quinn is Mr. Moneybags. According to campaign filings due yesterday, he raised $1 million between April 1 and June 30 and has $2.3 million to spend. Daley has raised more than $796,000. “I think that they understand we’re doing a good job,” Quinn said of his donors. “I think we ran a campaign in 2010 in a pretty tough environment and I won the primary won the general election. That’s what’s going to happen next year, too.”

Meanwhile, Daley has painted Quinn as an ineffective leader. “General Madigan's decision not to run now gives voters a clear choice between a proven leader who gets things done and a governor who can't seem to get anything done,” Pete Giangreco, spokesman for the Daley campaign, said in a written statement in reaction to Madigan’s announcement Monday.

Both candidates were likely happy to learn that Madigan is opting out of the race. Both face their own unique challenges in the Democratic primary: Quinn his unpopularity and Daley his unfamiliarity among voters outside of the Chicago area. “Daley has to go out and make public opinion, and Quinn has to change it,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

At face value, Madigan’s decision seems to most benefit Daley, who can now paint himself as the only alternative to a governor many in the state dislike. However, he is an as of yet unproven candidate. If Daley was to fall in his face, all Quinn would have to do is step over him to secure the Democratic nomination now that Madigan is out of the picture. “It may be a huge plus for Quinn if Daley crashes and burns,” Redfield said.

For the Republicans, Redfield says Madigan’s decision may give all the four candidates a slight morale boost. “This may add a little bit of energy on the Republican side in general for the governor’s race because everybody sees a clearer path to being governor,” he said. But he cautioned, “If the Republicans eat each other alive and beat each other to death, so that it’s the last man standing, it may not make that much difference.”

Some members of the legislature may now be planning to stay put. “Where we thought we were going to open up a bunch of musical chairs here, open up a bunch of seats, it really kind of freezes everybody,” Redfield said. House Minority Leader Tom Cross had said he was weighing a run for the attorney general’s office if it were open. Now that it is not, he may need to work to soothe a caucus after many members have been vying behind the scenes to replace him. But since no clear successor exists, it appears likely he will hang onto his leadership position. “I think Cross probably maintains his leadership role, but again, that’s dependent on nobody becoming a viable alterative that can really bring everybody together,” Redfield said.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul was also considering a bid for Madigan’s office if she left. Raoul has been at the center of the two premier legislative debates of the spring session, concealed carry of firearms and finding a solution to the public employee pension crisis. He is chair of the conference committee that is working to draft pension legislation that the group hopes can pass in both chambers. Raoul publicly sparred with Quinn in recent weeks over Quinn’s attempted rewrite of concealed-carry legislation and the governor’s move to suspend lawmakers' pay until pension changes are passed. While the two agree on many policy points, Raoul has taken issue with Quinn’s leadership style. The populist moves that Quinn is playing up for the governor’s race are the decisions that are putting him at odds with lawmakers. Raoul called Quinn’s veto of lawmakers pay unconstitutional grandstanding. “Listen, I like the governor. I like the governor, but I just don’t like the communication I have experienced over the last few weeks,” he said after a recent conference committee hearing.

With Madigan out of the governor’s race, the Illinois political rumor mill is churning at full speed and spitting out names of potential Democratic candidates, Raoul among them. He says he weighing his options. But a gubernatorial bid from Raoul might risk his status as a rising star in the Senate for a long-shot bid at higher office. “He’s for sure going to be in the majority and for sure going to be an important player in the Senate,” Redfield said. He said that Madigan’s decision not to run could open the door for another Democrat to join the race, but he can’t think of an obvious candidate. “I’m hard-pressed to think who that would be. Is there an opportunity for someone who is not a white male from Chicago? Sure. But I don’t know who that is,” he said. “A state legislator is at a huge financial deficit in terms of being able to put together a campaign — not having name recognition, not having any kind of statewide network, not having any kind of statewide fundraising in place.”

 Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon was also reportedly mulling a run for the attorney general’s office. Several Chicago media outlets have reported today that she will instead announce a bid for state comptroller in the near future. She will be challenging incumbent Judy Baar Topinka, which could be an uphill climb, especially considering that Simon’s fundraising totals have been lackluster so far. “She needs to have a clear field [in the primary] and the support of the Democratic Party,” Redfield said about Simon. “Once you get into the general [election], then obviously the party is going to help you.”

Madigan’s bombshell announcement Monday will no doubt have a lasting impact on Illinois politics — for one thing it indicates her powerful father isn’t going anywhere — and the outcomes of the 2014 general election. But the results are nearly impossible to see as campaigns are just beginning to kick off. Perhaps Quinn said it best when asked today if he was taken aback by Madigan’s announcement. “I’m not surprised about anything in Illinois politics.”

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lisa Madigan will not run for governor

By Jamey Dunn

Attorney General Lisa Madigan has made her much awaited choice for the 2014 election. She will run again for her current office, in part because her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, plans to keep his current position.

As it did in 2010, speculation was running rampant that she would make a bid for the governor's race. For months, she has not made a public appearance without the topic popping up, and other Illinois politicians have been holding their breath waiting to see what Madigan would do. Several state lawmakers' names have been floated as potential candidates for attorney general if she were to leave the office to run for governor.

But Madigan said today in a statement released by her campaign that she plans to stay put. “For the last several months, I have considered the best way to continue serving the people of Illinois. Deciding whether to seek reelection or to run for governor has not been easy. I love my job as attorney general and continue to be excited about the important work we are doing and what we can do for people and families in the years ahead. I considered running for governor because of the need for effective management from that office and the frustration so many of us feel about the current lack of progress on critical issues facing Illinois,” Madigan, who has served as attorney general since 2003, said in a prepared statement. “Ultimately, however, there has always been another consideration that impacts my decision. I feel strongly that the state would not be well-served by having a governor and speaker of the House from the same family and have never planned to run for governor if that would be the case. With Speaker Madigan planning to continue in office, I will not run for governor."

At this point, her move leaves Gov. Pat Quinn facing Bill Daley in a Democratic primary and a four-way race on the Republican side of things.

“General Madigan's decision not to run now gives voters a clear choice between a proven leader who gets things done and a governor who can't seem to get anything done,” said a statement from Pete Giangreco, spokesman for the Daley campaign. “Bill Daley looks forward to laying out a clear agenda to improve the lives of people across the state.”

Republican primary officially a four-way race

Sen. Kirk Dillard today jumped into the 2014 gubernatorial race.

In recent months Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, made it no secret that he planned to run, but he officially kicked off his campaign today with a series of news conferences throughout the state. Dillard now joins three other Republican candidates in the race: businessman Bruce Rauner, State Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Sen. Bill Brady.

Dillard and Brady faced each other in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, which Brady won. Brady went on to lose the general election to Gov. Pat Quinn. Brady announced in June that he would make his third run for governor. “It’s time to finish the job we started four years ago,” Brady said at a Springfield stop on his campaign launch tour of the state. “Illinois can grow and prosper again. It starts with putting the right leadership at the top. There’s a lot of work to be done, and it is time to finish the job we started.” Brady made the case that his failed bid for governor helped to make him the best-known candidate out of the four Republicans. He also said that he and his team had “learned” from the defeat.

Dillard served as chief of staff to former Gov. Jim Edgar, and it seems likely his campaign will play up his experience. Edgar, who endorsed Dillard in 2009, has said that he would likely back Dillard if the state senator chose to run again. A new ad on Dillard's campaign website describes him as “more tested” and “better prepared” than his opponents. “He doesn’t need to go on a listening tour of the state; his entire life has been a listening tour. He’s heard the people of Illinois, and he knows what to do,” the ad says. The line appears to be a shot at Rauner, who took a listening tour of Illinois before announcing his own bid for the governor’s office. Rauner has already raised more than $1 million and has substantial private wealth to tap. He is expected to outspend his Republican opponents.

In Chicago, the first campaign stop of several that Dillard is making across the state today, he pitched himself as the Republican who can “win a general election” and go on to be an effective leader afterward. “It's not just enough to elect a Republican governor,” he said. “You have to be someone who can work with Democratic legislators.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Quinn to lawmakers: No pay until you pass pension reform

By Jamey Dunn

After threatening that there would be “consequences” if lawmakers did not pass pension reform this week, Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto pen today to cut the funding for their pay.

“Admittedly, this is a drastic measure, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to get a wake-up call to the members of the General Assembly that the people of Illinois are tired of excuses. They’re impatient with the fact that the taxpayers pay when the General Assembly doesn’t do its pension reform job,” Quinn said at a Chicago news conference today. He used a line item veto to remove the money for legislator’s pay and stipends from a budget bill.

A special committee is working to produce a compromise, and Quinn set yesterday as the deadline for that committee to produce legislation. He wanted lawmakers to vote on a bill while they were in Springfield yesterday to take up concealed carry legislation. Members of the committee say negotiations are going well. However, they are waiting on savings projections from each of the public employee pension systems so they can be sure of the impact of the changes they are considering.

“I think that the conference committee has made good progress. I don’t think that the governor’s actions today are part helpful in achieving the goal,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz, who serves on the committee. The group expects to get some of the savings projections on Friday and should have them all by next week. In the meantime, she said committee members continue to meet and work together. “The committee has not been shy about being in touch with each other seven days a week.” Nekritz said that Quinn’s move today is counterproductive because it puts the focus on the back and forth between Quinn and lawmakers instead of on the task at hand. “We’re talking about this rather than talking about pension reform.”

But Quinn said today that lawmakers continue to ignore the deadlines he sets for them and that there always seem to be excuses for not agreeing on changes to the state’s underfunded pension systems. “Over and over again, they blew through the deadlines, ignored those deadlines and didn’t put a bill on my desk. Up until now, the only ones who have had to pay when pension reform was not put on my desk by the General Assembly have been the taxpayers of Illinois,” Quinn said. “The state’s credit rating has been downgraded several times, due in part to the fact that there has been no progress on pension reform. These downgrades have led to higher interest rates when the state borrows for things like capital construction projects. They must have that alarm bell ringing in their ears, and the best way to do that is to hit them in the wallet.” Legislators’ next paychecks are scheduled for August 1. Quinn has also volunteered to forgo his own pay until he signs pension reform legislation. Quinn said that once lawmakers eat their vegetables on pension reform, they can have their paycheck desserts. “When they get their pension reform job finished, they’ll have my blessing on getting their pay.”

Because of the failure to pass pension changes, Quinn has accused lawmakers of not doing their jobs, which they take an oath to fulfill. But some lawmakers think that pension proposals that unilaterally cut employee benefits are unconstitutional. “I have voted against bills that I have felt are unconstitutional,” said Rep. Lou Lang — who voted against House Speaker Michael Madigan’s preferred proposal, Senate Bill 1. “One of the very first things you say in your oath of office is that ‘I will uphold the Constitution of the state of Illinois.’ ... We have a responsibility to fix this, but we have a responsibility to fix it credibly and constitutionally.”

Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, has put forth his own bill, which would extend the temporary income tax increase to help pay off the nearly $100 billion unfunded liability. His plan would also increase the retirement age and require employees to contribute more of their salaries to their retirement benefits. The bill has failed to gain any traction in the legislature. Lang agrees with Nekritz that the committee must know what savings any plan they propose would yield. “We can’t just pick a bunch of concepts and throw them together and say we solved the problem without knowing if we solved the problem,” he said.

Lang does not think Quinn’s move will make the process go any faster. “The issue of whether we get paid or not is not going to move to many legislators from point A to point B. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s silly. I think it’s political. But most importantly, I think it will not have the desired impact.” He said that instead of making threats and laying down punishments, Quinn should become more hands-on in the process and more specific about what he wants. Quinn has yet to present his own pension legislation and declined an invitation to appear before the conference committee this week. He instead sent his budget director, Jerry Stermer, who would not go into detail about what sort of proposals the governor would prefer. “You’re left with the impression that he’ll sign any damn bill that comes to his desk, and that’s not good government either,” Lang said. He said Quinn should treat the General Assembly, his coequal branch of government, as a partner with which to solve a problem. “He can be part of the fix, or not part of the fix. So far, he has not been part of the fix.”

Senate President John Cullerton agreed that the pay cut would not help the situation. “Lawmakers have worked hard this session. That work included passing a balanced budget, paying off hundreds of millions of dollars in old bills, cutting their own pay and numerous, serious bipartisan efforts to enact comprehensive pension reform,” Cullerton said in a written statement. “The governor’s actions today are as unproductive as yesterday’s arbitrary deadline. Responsible leaders know that unworkable demands will only delay progress.”

While many lawmakers predictably had a negative reactions the Quinn’s move, he did have some on his side. Oak Park Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski took to Twitter with his support for Quinn’s action. “What governor in our state's history has ever volunteered to suspend his own pay? Way to lead Gov. Quinn,” he wrote.

Madigan put up no protest to Quinn’s plan. “I have been working for many months to pass real, comprehensive pension reform. During the first Democratic caucus of this General Assembly, I admonished our members that doing nothing or passing only a half measure on pension reform was not an option,” Madigan said in a written statement. “This issue must be solved in order to put Illinois on a more secure financial path. I, along with Rep. Nekritz, [House Minority] Leader [Tom] Cross and the members who supported House Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 1, have been the only lawmakers willing to take a difficult vote that would lead to solvency in our pension systems. The governor’s decision follows my efforts, and I understand his frustration. I am hopeful his strategy works.”

The General Assembly could vote to override Quinn’s veto, but Madigan would have to call the House back for that to happen. Cullerton said yesterday that he would consider overriding any budget vetoes from Quinn.

Cross had a  fairly lukewarm response to Quinn's announcement. “We’ve been committed and working on comprehensive pension reform for years. We will continue to work on a solution and to get it accomplished as soon as possible. We’ve filed bills, participated in committees and worked with both sides of the aisle. This session, we helped pass a comprehensive bill out of the House,” said a written statement from Cross’ office. “The governor’s action today is certainly not a traditional approach, but it is a strategy to come to a conclusion on pension reform. We remain committed to get the job done.”

Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who is responsible for cutting the state’s checks, said she is concerned about the legality of Quinn’s idea. “This morning, the governor notified my office of his intention to eliminate the salaries and stipends of members of the General Assembly,” she said in a written statement. “While I understand and appreciate the governor’s focus on pension reform, real questions have been raised about the legality of his action. Specifically, Section 11 of our state Constitution states that ‘changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.’ Therefore, I have requested a legal review, which should be completed before lawmakers are scheduled to receive their next paychecks on August 1, 2013.”

Whatever the outcome, Nekritz said the committee will continue with business as usual. “My motivation to work on this issue is not tied to my paycheck. And I think I’ve demonstrated my willingness to put in the time and effort necessary to get things done,” she said. The group has agreed on a number of ideas, which they presented to the pension systems for the actuarial savings projections. Nekritz, who has been a key player on the issue for some time, sees this agreement on a framework by members of both chambers and both parties as a milestone. “It does feel different to me because we’ve never had all four caucuses agree on anything,” she said. “That is a place we’ve never been on this issue.”

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Quinn strikes out on concealed carry and pensions

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois became the 50th state to legalize carrying concealed firearms after lawmakers voted to override Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of legislation today.

Things got off to a quick start this morning as the House voted 77 to 31 to override the veto with no debate. But the Senate took its time, considering a bill that contained some of the provisions Quinn added to House Bill 183 with his veto pen. Quinn called for several changes to the bill, including banning guns in any establishment that serves alcohol, eliminating a provision that prevents home rule governments from setting future gun laws and limiting licensees to carrying one gun.

The Senate approved a bill with some of the less controversial aspects of Quinn’s veto. HB1453 would have allowed schools and other places that are listed in the bill as no-carry zones the option to forgo posting signs letting the public know that guns are not allowed. It also would have required that concealed carry licensees immediately notify police officers if they are carrying a weapon during a traffic stop or other interaction and streamlined reporting of some mental health records. Supporters called the changes reasonable. Senate President John Cullerton said that as the sponsor of the bill, he chose suggestions from Quinn that could find broad support in order to reach the three-fifths vote threshold they would need to go into effect immediately. “I wanted to see if we could make these corrections today ... and hope that we can continue to have dialogue,” he said.

However, the House rejected that bill. The sticking point seemed to be the provision that would relax the posting requirements for areas where guns are banned. Opponents argued that licensees might forget when they enter an off limits area that guns are banned there. They said a reminder in the form of a sign would help keep them from inadvertently breaking the law. “I think we’re setting up our constituents to fail” if signs are not posted, said Mundelein Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who worked on carry negotiations and pushed for many of the changes Quinn proposed in his veto, backed the override today. “ I support the elements offered by the governor’s amendatory veto,” he said. But he said as negotiations over the bill went on, those ideas were rejected. And he said because a federal appellate court set a deadline for lawmakers to pass a carry law, he had to accept that. “The 7th Circuit [Court] has made clear that there is no more time. We are here on July 9th [the day of the court’s deadline], and if the members of this chamber have the interest of public safety at their heart[s], they would vote to override. Because if we do not override today, at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, July 10th, there are no restrictions upon people who want to carry handguns in the public way.” Raoul laid out one of the most extreme possible scenarios if a law were not in place. “Somebody could walk into a school tomorrow, if we don’t override, at three [or] four times the intoxication level that we bar people from driving with a handgun with a 20 bullet-magazine in it and it will not be in violation of the law.”

Other proponents of an override urged lawmakers to stick to the deal that was struck on the compromise bill they approved during the spring legislative session. “It’s a very very difficult issue; people genuinely disagree on how this should be handled. I think the bill that passed respects Second Amendment rights, but it also has very reasonable restrictions in it,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno.

Lawmakers who support stricter gun laws said that allowing people to carry guns in places that serve alcohol is in appropriate and dangerous. “We train and we test people when they get a driver’s license and we expect them to be exemplary drivers,” said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat. “But let’s look at the statistics of how many DUIs there are, and how many people are killed because of DUI. I don’t think that was their intent when they went and got educated and trained to get that license. But it happened because alcohol and driving don’t mix.”

Others raised concerns that licensees will be able to carry as many guns and ammunition magazines as they want. “I think it’s unnecessary for an individual to have four, five six, seven unlimited weapons on them at any time,’ said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat.

Those in the pro-carry camp were in a celebratory mood today. “It's just a huge victory for Illinois gun owners and law-abiding gun owners,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored HB 183. “It’s been a long time coming. ... This is just a good day for the law abiding gun owners being able to exercise their Second Amendment rights.”

But Illinois gun owners cannot celebrate by carrying their firearms in public tomorrow. The Illinois State Police have 180 days to put a system in place and begin accepting carry applications. The standard application process is set at 90 days. A five-year license will cost $150, and licensees will be required to pass a background check and undergo 16 hours of instruction, including live-fire training at a gun range. Licensees will have to take a two- to three-hour refresher training course when they renew their licenses. Law enforcement officials have the option to object to concealed-carry applications. If in application is contested, it will go before a review board.

Phelps said today that he wants to remind everyone in the state that they must go through the legal process to carry. Despite the law, he said that people are likely already carrying weapons in Illinois. State’s attorneys in several counties across Illinois have said that they will not prosecute people with valid Firearm Owner Identification cards, who carry guns in public. “There are going to be people in Illinois ... in some of those counties that the state’s attorneys said they aren’t going to prosecute, that will be carrying — that will be carrying as of probably right now. I’ve had phone calls already [and they] said, ‘Guess what? I’m carrying.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s illegal. You’ve got to have a license.’ But they’re actually doing it.” Phelps said that the state police need the time to get the carry licensing system going, especially since the FOID card system has experienced long wait times in recent years.

While it was a good day for gun rights advocates, as Phelps put it, “It’s not a good day for the governor.” Quinn issued his veto last week and pushed for it at several high-profile events since. He has been bashing lawmakers for producing a bill that he says put politics above public safety and claiming that the public is on his side when it comes to gun control. He was clearly frustrated at a news conference after both chambers adjourned today. “Well, today was a bad day for public safety in Illinois,” he said. He said of HB 182: “It’s very, very important that we protect the people. I think the legislation ... does not do that. It has shortcomings that will lead to tragedy. That’s why I acted on the amendatory veto.” Quinn said he plans to continue to push for the changes that he put forth as separate follow-up bills.

Phelps, who does not support any of the governor’s proposals, said Quinn may have had more luck if he would have tried to pass follow-up legislation in the first place instead of issuing a veto that drastically changed a bill, which was the product of months of negotiations. “The governor grandstanded on this. He went around the whole last week trying to grandstand politically on this issue. He was wrong. He should have signed it. I think he’s probably embarrassed right now because he looks weak and he looks irrelevant.”

Quinn took another hit today as lawmakers completely ignored the deadline he had set to change public employee pension systems. Quinn gave a conference committee three weeks to work out a compromise bill, which he wanted lawmakers to vote on today. The committee did not produce a bill. Members said they needed more time to get cost savings projections from actuaries working with the state’s public employee pension systems. Quinn has been making public threats that lawmakers would face “consequences” if they did not do something “comprehensive” on pensions today. “When you don’t have your work done on time, that’s a situation where there are consequences, and there will be,” Quinn said in Chicago over the weekend. Even after both legislative chambers adjourned and members hit the road today without passing pension legislation, Quinn would not divulge what those consequences might be. “We’ll give them until midnight. I think it’s important that they have the full amount of time.”

Cullerton, who appointed three members of the committee, said today that he does not know when the group will produce legislation. “It’s going to take awhile. You have actuarial studies that you have to get back on any proposed change to a bill. And they take weeks to get, and the governor knows that. So as soon as we get an agreement, we’ll come back in, and we’ll try to pass a bill.” Rumors have been circulating around the Statehouse for days that Quinn might use his veto pen to cut money for legislative salaries out of a budget bill he has yet to sign. Quinn has approved all the other budget bills for the new fiscal year, which began on July 1. His representatives refuse to comment on the rumor, saying only that the bill is “under review.” Raoul, who is chair of the committee, dismissed Quinn’s threats today. “If he’s going to do that, he ought to look at the line item that pays his salary, as well, because he didn’t come to the conference committee meeting to participate.” Raoul invited Quinn to a committee hearing yesterday, but the governor sent a member of his staff in his place. “I think that’s a childish game of tit for tat, particularly when you know that the deadline you set is impractical.”

Monday, July 08, 2013

Quinn blows off committee that plans to blow his deadline

By Jamey Dunn

Members of a committee working to hammer out a pension reform compromise say Gov. Pat Quinn’s public threats about the deadline he set for them tomorrow are “counterproductive” to their work.

After the legislative conference committee on pension was formed at the governor’s request last month, Quinn gave the members three weeks to produce a pension bill. Tomorrow, their time is up. Committee members say they have no plans to present legislation tomorrow. The governor has not said what he will do if lawmakers blow the deadline, only that there will be “consequences.” Quinn told reporters in Chicago today: “It’s time for the General Assembly to put a pension reform bill on my desk. They have had one excuse after another for the last two years. It’s time for them to do their job. If they don’t do their job by tomorrow, there will be consequences.”

Both chambers of the legislature will be in session tomorrow to take up Quinn’s amendatory veto of concealed carry legislation. Despite the governor pushing the issue at several public events over the last few days, sponsors say they are confident they can find the votes to override Quinn’s changes.

Conference committee chair Sen. Kwame Raoul said the group has agreed to use a proposal from professors at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois as a framework for their proposal. The plan would swap the current 3 percent compounded annual COLA, which is the largest cost driver in the pension systems, for a COLA that is tied to inflation. Under SB 2591, which a Senate committee took testimony on this week, the COLA would be one-half of the adjusted Consumer Price Index from the previous year. That means that in times such as recent years, when inflation has been low, retirees would receive small COLAs or sometimes no COLA at all. But in years when inflation is high, retirees would get larger COLAs. Employees would also have to contribute 2 percent more of their salaries to their retirement benefits. However, Raoul said that the ideas the committee is considering are not identical to that plan.

Members of the committee say they are making progress, but they need estimates of cost savings, which are provided by actuaries working for the pension systems. “We have been working methodically to try to break from the process that has led to stalemate,” said Raoul, a Chicago Democrat. “What we dream of — of having bipartisanship and working in bicameral manner — we’re experiencing that on this conference committee, and that’s worthwhile in itself. But we have to solve the problem.” Without those numbers, they say they cannot have a clear picture of what the cost savings from a proposal might be. The group has agreed on several potential components of a plan, which they have sent to the systems for number crunching. Once they get the estimates back, they plan to choose from the list as a menu of options that can be pieced together. “You don’t want to do these things without having it actuarially scored. It would be irresponsible,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for us to just propose something by July 9th.” Raoul said the estimates are expected to be completed next week. He said the group might need to get another round of projections once they have a final plan together.

While Quinn talked tough in Chicago today, he declined an invitation from the committee to testify in Springfield. After a bill-signing event in Chicago, Quinn traveled to Springfield and was working in his office during the hearing. He sent instead Jerry Stermer, the director of his budget office. Stermer has been working with the committee as Quinn’s point man on pension changes. While members grilled Stermer about the deadline today, they said that they would have rather put the screws to Quinn. “What is more important for him today? ... He made a choice to send you instead of coming himself,” Raoul said. Raoul’s letter to Quinn gave him the option of sending someone to represent him. “I hate that you’re the person that has to be here instead of the governor himself.” Many of the members of the committee echoed Raoul’s statements, saying Stermer had worked well with the group so far.

Stermer would not get specific about what sort of plan the governor would like the see come out of the committee process. “The governor’s proposal has been and continues to be: We need a comprehensive solution that stabilizes these systems and enables the systems to actually pay the pensions of the people who have earned them, will erase the unfunded ability, get to 100 percent funding and end the squeeze on the major obligations of state government,” he said. He parroted these components as a response to questions from the committee so many times that his repetition eventually drew laughter from the public audience.

Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, noted that many members of the two chambers had very different ideas about what constituted comprehensive changes to the pension systems, and these differences lead to gridlock. Both the House and Senate approved their own pension plans during the spring session, but each failed to pass the plan that came over from the other chamber. Murphy said that if the governor does not get specific on components or at least the amount of savings he thinks are needed, “how do we know whether the plan solves the problem [in his eyes]?” Raoul agreed. “It is important to get a sense from the gentleman who is going to sign the final bill as to what he perceives as fixing the problem.”

Stermer would also not give specifics about what consequences lawmakers face after they miss tomorrow’s deadline. He only said that one of the consequences would be that they would have to explain it to their constituents. Quinn has yet to sign one budget bill, House Bill 214, which is the spending authority for several state programs and agencies. It also contains the funds for state  lawmakers' pay. There has been speculation that he will veto the funds for legislator’s paychecks. This would force them to either present a pension bill or override his veto. An override would make great campaign fodder for any potential opponents wanting to claim that lawmakers put their own interests ahead of taxpayers by returning to Springfield to approve their own pay without a pension agreement. A spokeswoman for the governor declined to comment on the rumors, saying only that the bill is “under review.”

Committee members argued that instead of pushing their work ahead, Quinn’s deadline and bluster could put a strain on the negotiations. “We all have that goal, and I think it would behoove all of us to behave in a fashion that would move us toward that goal,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. Raoul said that Quinn’s prodding is not making the committee rush, but that members do understand that the situation is urgent. “The conference committee is working. We’re not going to finish our work by tomorrow. Whatever, the governor’s consequences [are], that’s fine. We’re going to continue to working whether or not there is a consequence tomorrow.”

But those working for Quinn point out that as lawmakers have failed to get the job done, the unfunded liability has grown to nearly $100 billion, and Illinois has paid the price through higher borrowing costs after being slapped with several credit downgrades. They say the governor is tired of hearing excuses from lawmakers about why pension reform cannot be passed. “He made it very clear to the members that they had three weeks to forge a compromise. It’s their responsibility to do so,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. “What exactly is there to give taxpayers any assurance that lawmakers will enact comprehensive pensions reform and finally resolve this problem?”

Raoul said the group is getting two different messages from Quinn: the sound bites for the media and their own interactions with Stermer. Quinn’s office made some suggestions that actuaries are also working on. The estimates on Quinn’s proposals will not be complete until July 12. “The reason that I invited the governor was because there was a bit of an inconsistency as to what was being said from his office publicly and the work that Mr. Stermer, the representative of his office, was doing privately. So you want to know which is which. Am I wasting my time with Mr. Stermer and having these discussions? Should I be listening to ... Brooke Anderson? Who’s telling the truth here? The only person who could resolve that — you know, the buck stops at the governor.”

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Pension committee will miss governor's deadline

By Jamey Dunn

A committee trying to craft a compromise plan to change public employee pensions will not meet its deadline set by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Quinn gave the legislative conference committee, which lawmakers voted to create during a special session in June, until July 9 to come up with comprehensive changes to the state’s pensions systems. But committee chair Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said during a Chicago hearing today that the group will not be done with its work by next week. He said that it would take longer than that for actuaries from the state’s pensions systems to complete analyses done on the plans and determine how much they would save. “We take serious the governor urging for us to get this down as soon as possible, but based on our conversation with the actuaries ... there’s no way to get them done by July 9.”

Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, dismissed Raoul’s statement as an excuse. She said lawmakers have been working on the issue for years and have all the information they need to present a plan. “We’ve been providing estimates, working with the actuaries and having these discussions for two years now. The people of Illinois are tired of these excuses and the lack of urgency,” she said. “The governor’s deadline stands. This is an emergency.” Anderson declined to provide details about what the governor’s plans to do if the committee fails to meet the deadline.

Illinois faces a nearly $100 billion unfunded pension liability, and lawmakers from both chambers reached an impasse about how to best address the problem. Public employee retirement benefits are protected by the state’s Constitution, and lawmakers are looking for a proposal that can hold up in court but also can create the savings they say are needed to stabilize the system. The committee is taking testimony on various proposals. Today it heard from groups whose stances on the issue are at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said that lawmakers should look at the pension liability in the same way they would consider any other debt the state owes. The money is owed to the systems because General Assemblies in essence borrowed from pension funds — by not making the needed payments — to cover the operating costs of the state instead of cutting the budget or raising the needed revenue. Martire said that the state’s system of raising revenue, which includes a flat tax on income and taxes very few services, has lead to years of budget gaps. “It’s that structural deficit that has in fact very much created the unfunded liability,” he told the committee today.

Martire’s plan for getting the pension systems back on track involves no reductions in employee benefits. “There’s actually a path available to the state that is clearly constitutional [and] will work.” Instead he wants to change the way the state pays off its pension obligation. Currently, the Illinois is working under what is known as the “ramp,” a back-loaded payment schedule intended to fund the systems at 90 percent by 2045. The center argues that the state should instead shoot for a goal of 80 percent funded and make flat payments over a longer period of time. “This is one of those situations where we’ve run up this debt by not following actuarial procedures for 60 or 70 years. It’s very hard to try to cram a repayment of it into 30 years.”

Those payments would still be pretty steep, so Martire and others suggest deferring some of the cost by changing the tax structure, such as extending the sales tax to some services or putting a graduated income tax into place. The state’s flat income tax in also built into the Constitution, so that last option could be very difficult politically. Ron Baiman, an economist representing the Chicago Political Economy Group, called for ending some corporate tax breaks, such as oil subsidies and credits for manufacturing within the country. He also proposed imposing a tax on certain financial transactions. Baiman said lawmakers should view the benefits promised to public workers in the same way it does making payments to bondholders. “Why are contracts for bondholders sacrosanct but contracts for workers are not?”

While Baiman and Martire argued that the state’s revenue structure is the root cause for the pension problem, Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, said that the state’s retirement benefits structure is unsustainable. He said cutting benefits would only be a temporary fix, and the system instead needs a complete overhaul. “This is not just about cutting costs. If it was, we would just cut like crazy and more on. This is about cutting costs but [also] solving a problem,” he said. Dabrowski proposed moving employees to 401(k)-like defined contributions plan, much like the one currently offered as an option to employees of state universities.

He said retirement plans such as the state’s current system, which pays out guaranteed benefits to employees from the time of retirement until their deaths, have been imploding in recent years in both the public sector and the private sector. “Politicians and private corporations have not been able to control defined benefits,” he said. “At some point, we should wake up and say something is wrong with the plan.”

The institute argues that all benefits that employees have earned to date are protected by the state Constitution, but future benefits are up for grabs. Dabrowski said that going forward, employees should contribute 8 percent of their pay, and the employer would chip in 7 percent of pay. The money would be invested and benefits would be determined by how well those investments did. Unlike the current structure, which leaves the investment choices up to the various pension systems, employees would have a say in controlling their portfolios. “We believe that all workers should have retirement freedom by controlling their retirement accounts.”

The proposal does include some cuts for immediate cost savings. The retirement age would be increased based on sliding scale based on years of employment. New employees would have to wait until age 67 to retire. Cost of living adjustments [COLAs] for retirees would be frozen until the system was fully funded, which the institute projects would happen by 2045. “COLAs are very important to get under control because it’s the young teachers of today that are not going to get a pension because of the [COLAs] that are being paid out [to retirees] today,” Dabrowski said.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Lawmakers to take up Quinn's concealed carry veto on day of court deadline

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn had harsh words for lawmakers today as he revealed his proposed changes to a compromise concealed-carry bill lawmakers approved in May.

 “I think this is an example of a situation in Illinois where the legislature passed a bill in a hurried way at the inspiration of the National Rifle Association, contrary to the safety of the people of Illinois,” Quinn said today at a Chicago news conference. “Fortunately our Constitution — adopted by the people in a referendum — gives the governor an opportunity to propose important changes that protect the public safety.”

A federal court overturned the state’s ban on concealed carry of firearms and gave lawmakers until early June to pass a bill regulating carry in the state. Both legislative chambers approved House Bill 183 on the last day of the spring session. Attorney General Lisa Madigan sought an extension of the deadline to give Quinn time to review the bill. Illinois now has until July 9 to put a carry law in place.

House sponsor of the bill Rep. Brandon Phelps has moved to override Quinn’s changes, and the House plans to begin session at 11 a.m. on July 9 to consider the veto. “He just put one more hurdle in there before the July 9 deadline that we’re going to have to overcome,” Phelps said. Supporters of the original House Bill 183 will need the support of three-fifths of the members of both chambers to reject Quinn’s changes. If all those who voted in favor of the bill the first time around also vote to reject the veto, then HB 183 will become law without Quinn's changes.

“There are serious flaws in this bill that jeopardize public safety of the people of Illinois.” Quinn said today after he used his amendatory veto power to make multiple changes to HB 183.  Quinn's administration also launched a website that describes his tweaks to the bill.  He proposed removing a provision that would bar home rule governments from setting future restrictions on guns, such as assault weapons bans. “Home rule is a very important part of life in Illinois. It allows local communities to adopt laws and ordinances that benefit their community, and that principle ought to be upheld.” Quinn said the provision is unrelated to concealed carry. “This provision was inspired by the National Rifle Association; it has nothing to do with concealed carry. It’s part of their agenda, no doubt about it, but we don’t need the NRA telling us how to keep people safe in the state of Illinois and our local communities.”

Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, said the prohibition on future ordinances is meant to keep local laws from springing up after carry goes into effect. He said that if that occurs, gun owners would likely not know what each locality had passed and might inadvertently break laws as the travel in Illinois. “We do not believe in a patchwork of laws when you are traveling from town to town in the state. The average, law-abiding gun owner is not going to know when driving through those towns what’s expected of him or her.”

Home rule units that do not have bans on assault weapons would have 10 days after the bill becomes law to enact such a ban. “Those home rule municipalities have had forever to pass some form of assault weapons ban,” Phelps said. He took issue with the governor characterizing the bill as a product of the policy desires of the NRA. Phelps has worked closely with the NRA on previous versions of concealed carry, even sponsoring legislation drafted by the organization in the past. But he says HB 183 is a compromise bill that was worked out by lawmakers without interest groups at the table. “The NRA was never in the meeting. They don’t necessarily like the bill. There’s some things they like in there, and there’s some things they don’t like. There’s some things the city of Chicago likes and some things they don’t like. That’s how you get a compromise.” The NRA was neutral on the legislation and avoided making public comments. However gun control advocates noted that the group is rarely mum on any legislation concerning firearms, let alone one of the most important gun-related measures in recent history.

Quinn’s changes would limit those with a carry license to carrying one gun and one ammunition clip that holds no more than 10 rounds. The bill as written would allow licensees to carry as many guns and rounds as they wanted. Under HB 183, business owners who do not wish to allow guns on their property would be required to post a sign. Quinn wants the law to be the other way around. “The presumption ought to be that no guns are allowed in these places, and if the [property] owner wants to have guns, then they should have to have a sign that says, ‘Guns are welcome here.’ It shouldn’t be a burden on private property owners to put a sign otherwise.” Quinn was critical of wording in the bill that allows for carrying guns that are “mostly” concealed. “This isn’t concealed at all,” he said. He proposed changing the wording to clarify that weapons must be fully hidden from view.

The governor also wants to strike a provision that would allow gun owners to keep their firearms locked in their cars if their employers do not allow guns on site. Quinn said that employers should be allowed to ban guns anywhere on their property to reduce the potential for workplace violence. Quinn’s rewrite would also ban the carry of guns in any establishment that serves alcohol. HB 183 only bans weapons in establishments where alcohol makes up half of the gross sales. “Guns and alcohol don’t mix, and I think it’s very important that the legislature understand that message from the people of Illinois,” he said.

Both of the last two issues were provisions that gun control advocates vocally opposed in HB 183. They applauded Quinn’s move today. Coleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said her organization accepted the court ruling and tried to work with lawmakers to get “comprehensive” carry regulation. But she said that the process did not result in a satisfactory bill. “A flawed bill was passed. Thankfully, our state’s top elected official, Gov. Quinn has our back.” She said that SB 183 “goes too far,” but Quinn’s proposed changes would alleviate most of her group’s concerns with the bill.

Phelps has already filed the paperwork to override Quinn’s veto, which he dismissed as a political move. “This is 100 percent political pandering to one area of this state, Cook County and Chicago. That’s all he’s doing. He’s totally disregarding the General Assembly.” He said the governor has refused to take his calls since the bill passed. “That just shows you how much he thinks of the General Assembly,” Phelps said. “I thought maybe out of respect of each of the bill’s sponsors [he would] to try to work something out.” Phelps said Quinn should have signed the bill and then presented his own legislation with any changes he thinks are needed.

Both Phelps, and Sen. Gary Forby, the Senate sponsor of the bill, are confident that lawmakers will vote to override Quinn’s veto next week. Quinn has also threatened to call lawmakers back for a special session to take up pension reform, so there may be more than one session day next week. “This doesn’t come as a shock to anyone. We knew this governor was going to make this political. If he had concerns about the bill, maybe he should have been more involved when lawmakers spent months working on it. Instead, he makes major changes to the bill after it passed both the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities. Just doesn’t seem very democratic to me,” said Forby, a Benton Democrat.

 Quinn today reiterated his opposition to allowing concealed carry in the state at all. “I felt that [court] ruling was wrong then; I still feel it’s wrong. It’s not been appealed.”

Attorney General Lisa Madigan still has the option to appeal the ruling, but a statement from her office today said that she plans to wait to see what lawmakers do with the veto. “That's the last step in the legislative process after the governor amendatorily vetoes a bill. Our office will continue to monitor the progress on the legislative front before making a final decision about the state’s legal options.”

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who worked on the negotiations surrounding concealed carry, said he supports many of the changes that Quinn proposed. However he said they were not politically possible. Raoul in particular supported a ban on guns in all places where alcohol is served, but during negotiations, he acknowledged that he might not be able to get all the components he wanted passed. “I wanted the provision that the governor is suggesting to add through amendatory veto, but it was a deal breaker with regards to negotiations.” He said he has not yet decided how he will vote if the veto override is called in the Senate. He voted "present" on HB 183.

“The governor has within his powers the ability to weigh in. I share some of the sentiment of the governor with regards to some of these public safety issues,” Raoul said. But he said that the end product approved by the legislature had some strong protections, especially when coupled with other gun safety legislation sponsored by Raoul. When lawmakers passed the carry bill, they also approved legislation that requires gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons and gun sellers to confirm that purchasers in private sales can legally own firearms. “I don’t fault him, but we have to realize the reality of the circumstance of what a legislature is and how you negotiate within it,” Raoul said.

Quinn said today in response to critics who have accused him of swooping in with demands at the 11th hour after lawmakers spent months negotiating the bill: “I don’t believe in compromising public safety. I don’t believe in negotiating public safety.”

Monday, July 01, 2013

State ended fiscal year with $6.1 billion in unpaid bills

By Jamey Dunn

As its 2014 fiscal year begins today, Illinois still has a stack of $6.1 billion in unpaid bills.

The backlog will be smaller than the $7.5 billion in bills the state owed when FY 13 began last July. However, state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka estimates that the backlog will grow to $7.5 billion by August. The state ended the FY 13 fiscal year with 73,184 unpaid bills. The oldest bill was from June 2013. Those bills make up about half of the estimated $6.1 billion. Topinka said the rest are sitting at state agencies and have not yet been sent to her office.

Abdon Pallasch, Gov. Pat Quinn’s assistant budget director, said that a bump in the backlog heading into the last half of the calendar year is “cyclical” and to be expected because the bulk of the state’s revenues come when people pay their income taxes in the spring. However, he said that recently, the backlog has experienced a “steady downward trend” as more than $1 billion in unexpected tax revenue — dubbed the “April surprise by Quinn’s camp — allowed the state to pay off old Medicaid bills and bring in matching federal funds. “Part of the focus is to tackle the backlog of bills brought on by under-appropriations of state programs by the General Assembly. That backlog had risen to $9.1 billion in 2012. But thanks to the governor's cost-cutting and focus on paying the back bills, that backlog is down to $6.3 billion and on track to go down to $5.9 billion by the end of FY14,” Pallasch said. “Passage of comprehensive pension reform would greatly aid the governor's efforts to keep bringing that number down. A one-time infusion of $1.3 billion in tax receipts in April also is aiding the effort.” A one-day special session on pension reform in June produced little results, and Quinn has given lawmakers until July 9 to reach a compromise. A conference committee comprising members of both parties and both chambers is meeting to try and craft pension changes that can pass in both the House and the Senate.

Topinka said the additional revenues helped to get some bills paid, but it really only made a small dent in what the state owes to vendors, schools and service providers. “Make no mistake, the ‘April surprise’ is history,” Topinka said. “That windfall allowed us to aggressively pay down bills and provide some relief to vendors, but it did nothing to address the state's systemic budget problems.” She stressed that the state must come up with a comprehensive plan to address its backlog. “Despite years of hand-wringing about state finances, nothing has changed. We continue to force businesses, hospitals, schools and service agencies to wait months on end for promised payment from the state. It is unconscionable and further highlights the importance of keeping spending flat and restoring our fiscal integrity.”

Quinn has supported borrowing billions to pay down the backlog and essentially refinance the state’s debt to vendors at a lower interest rate. However, Topinka has been a vocal opponent of the idea, likening it to taking out a credit card to pay off other debts. In recent years Quinn backed off the borrowing idea as it has consistently failed to get the needed backing to pass in the legislature. He and Democratic legislative leaders have instead opted to slowly chip away at the state’s backlog each year.

The state has faced billions in unpaid bills for years.  For more on that, see Illinois Issues March 2010.