Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaders reach tentative deal on public employee pensions

By Jamey Dunn
and Maureen Foertsch McKinney

The four legislative leaders reached a tentative agreement today on a solution to the state’s pension crisis that reportedly would create a defined contribution plan for public employees, change cost of living adjustments for retirees, raise the retirement age, boost state contributions and save $160 billion over 30 years. Lawmakers are expected to be get details Friday.

“This is the first time the four leaders have come to an agreement. I think that’s very significant and bodes well for getting something done,’’ said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been a key player in the efforts to change the state’s pension systems.

The cost of living adjustment (COLA) for retirees would be based on $1,000 times years of service, according to a Crain’s Chicago Business report. For instance, a retiree who had worked 30 years would receive an annual COLA on $30,000 of his or her pension.

“What we’re doing will benefit long-term low-income workers,’’ House Speaker Michael Madigan said during a news conference after the meeting.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported that the youngest workers could see their retirement age pushed back as much as five years.

A December 3 special session, at which a vote could be taken, was scheduled earlier this week. The pension funds for retiree benefits have an estimated unfunded liability of nearly $100 billion.

Gov. Pat Quinn praised the informal pact. “I commend the legislative leaders — Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Mike Madigan, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin — for their hard work to reach this critical agreement. I also commend members of the conference committee for their work throughout the summer and fall to get us to this point.

Union leaders as a coalition, We Are One, expressed opposition shortly after the leadership meeting concluded. “Unions representing hundreds of thousands of public employees and retirees were not included in the leaders’ talks. If their new plan is in line with what’s been reported from earlier discussions, then it’s an unfair, unconstitutional scheme that undermines retirement security.

"It’s no compromise at all with those who earned and paid for their retirement benefits. In fact, reports suggest the leaders have repackaged Senate Bill 1 and barely bothered to disguise it. On top of this, by expanding 401(k) plans, the leaders will further jeopardize retirement security for the vast majority of public employees and retirees who are not eligible for Social Security.

“If their bill resembles SB 1, we will urge lawmakers to reject it and continue to fight to protect the hard-earned life-savings of Illinois public servants as well as the sanctity of the state’s Constitution.”

Madigan’s plan, SB 1, would not have offered employees a say in their benefit cuts. The proposal would have saved more than Cullerton’s plan by slashing cost-of-living increases, capping pensionable salary, increasing retirement ages for employees younger than 36 and increasing employee contributions to their retirement benefits.

After calls for special legislative sessions didn’t work, Quinn ratcheted up the pressure on lawmakers to approve pension changes when he vetoed the funds for their pay in July. The move did not spur legislative action. Instead, Cullerton and Madigan sued over the pay freeze, and Cook County Circuit Court judge ordered the state to cut the checks. Quinn has appealed the issue to the Illinois Supreme Court, but members of the General Assembly are being paid in the meantime.

If leaders are in agreement, they have come a long way since the end of the spring legislative session, when Madigan and Cullerton each dug in behind two different proposals. Cullerton negotiated a proposal with public employee unions that would have asked them to weigh their pension benefits versus their state-subsidized retiree health care and make decisions that would have reduced their benefits somewhere along that spectrum. Madigan’s legislation passed the House but failed miserably in the Senate. The Senate approved Cullerton’s plan, but Madigan refused to allow a vote on it in the House.

“Obviously, this is a session where we have not enjoyed great success. That’s very obvious,” Madigan said during his annual end-of-session closing floor speech in the spring. Pension reform and other high-profile issues, such as same-sex marriage, had not been resolved. “However, that does not mean that we are going to walk away from our responsibility.”

After the inaction at the end of the spring session, Quinn called for a conference committee made up of members of both parties and both chambers to work together on the compromise. Committee members say they made some substantial progress, but Republicans had concerns about the level of savings that the proposals they were considering might produce. Democrats had reservations about increasing the retirement age and introducing a 401(k)-style option across all the systems. The university retirement system currently has such an option, but some Democrats were concerned that those who support a mandatory move to 401(k) accounts would use a more widespread version of the concept as a way to try to push all retirees in that direction. The negotiations were then kicked up to the legislative leaders.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Illinois House plans one-day session on December 3

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's office sent an email to House members telling them to plan for a legislative session day on December 3.

The communication says that some committee hearings will be held a week from today and that House members should expect legislative session to begin at 11 a.m. next Tuesday. “The House would expect this to be a one day session.”

The four legislative leaders have been meeting to discuss changes to public employee pension systems. A special bipartisan committee has been working on a plan for months. Group members said they made progress but they had yet to reach a deal, so the leaders have picked up the issue to try to craft an agreement. They have not yet, but those close to the issue say they are optimistic. “I think that they are making progress, and I think setting a date is a good sign for a positive conclusion,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekrtiz.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said in an email: “The speaker continued the negotiations he initiated during the final week of the veto session over the weekend with phone conversations with other leaders. He indicated there was continued progress.”

The Senate has not released a plan for a December session. Ronald Holmes, a spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton, said a pension deal has not yet been reached, but a leaders' meeting scheduled for tomorrow “should provide further clarity on a pathway forward.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Some Illinoisans may get to renew canceled insurance plans

By Jamey Dunn

After the rollout of Obamacare got off to a rocky start, some Illinoisans may be able to keep their insurance polices that do not meet the minimum requirements of the law.

The Illinois Department of Insurance announced today that it will allow insurance providers to renew for one year plans sold on the individual marketplace that do not meet the coverage levels required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The new law requires that insurance plans offer a set base level of coverage in 10 “essential health” categories, such as prescription coverage, ambulatory care and preventative care.

President Barack Obama’s administration also announced today that it was extending one of the deadlines to purchase insurance through the online marketplace. Under the original plan, consumers who wanted their insurance to kick in by January 1 were required to make their purchase by December 15. The administration has moved that cutoff back to December 23. The change does not apply to other deadlines. The end of the enrollment period for 2014 is still set for March 2014, and those who are still uninsured at that point would potentially face penalty fees under the individual mandate.

Obama’s previous statements that Americans who like their insurance coverage could keep it after the law went into effect has come under harsh criticism after insurance companies began canceling polices that did not offer the basic coverage required. The Illinois Department of Insurance estimates that 185,340 Illinois residents have been notified that their coverage has been canceled.
In the face of the backlash, the administration has decided to allow companies to renew those plans. State insurance officials in each state must also approve the renewal of such plans. “DOI came to this decision based on the concerns raised by Illinois consumers and the guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” Andrew Boron, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance, said in a prepared statement. “Allowing companies to renew current plans gives consumers more time to evaluate their options and will provide a smoother transition into the health care coverage system envisioned by the ACA.

While Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Oregon, South Carolina, Colorado, Hawaii and Texas have approved the president's  proposal, officials in some states, such as New York, said they do not plan to.

Insurance providers will be able to renew plans, but it is up to the companies to decide whether they will offer renewals. They will also be required to notify customers that they are waiving protections afforded by the new law. The companies must also let customers know they can shop for alternative plans on the online health insurance exchange and may be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase insurance that does meet the coverage requirements.

The online exchange has been plagued with technical problems, and many consumers have been unable to create accounts, let alone find out what plans would cost or what subsidies they might be able to get. Officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say they plan to have the website fully operational for most users by the end of this month.

Check out this Stateline story for a good Q&A on the policy change and a breakdown of how other states are handling it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quinn signs same-sex marriage bill into law

By Jamey Dunn

As Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law legalizing same sex-marriage in Illinois today, supporters clapped, waved rainbow flags, a symbol of the gay rights movement, and cheered in celebration.

 “It’s time to stop planning rallies and start planning weddings. Congratulations,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said at the Chicago event.

 “Today we’re here to celebrate family, commitment, love, courage and community,” said Rep. Greg Harris, the sponsor of Senate Bill 10. “This was a labor of love, and it was a mammoth undertaking.” The Illinois Senate approved the legislation in February, and the House voted in favor earlier this month.

Republican state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said that voting for the bill was politically difficult for many, especially those in her own party. Four Republican lawmakers, including former House Minority Leader Tom Cross, voted in favor of the law. “History, I think, will show that we got it right on this one.” She said the new law means that the state will not discriminate against loving couples who want to start a family, which she said is “a beautiful thing.” Topinka added, “I am available to be a flower girl, and I’ll even waive the fee.”

Speakers at the event acknowledged the historic nature of the day and used the opportunity to call on other states to follow suit. “This new law is an epic victory for equal rights in America. Illinois is moving forward. We are a model for our country. If the Land of [President Abraham] Lincoln can achieve marriage equality, so can every other state in the nation,” said Gov. Pat Quinn. The governor signed the bill on a desk that belonged to the 16th president, who is a favorite source of quotations for Quinn. 

“We’ve realized that to have a forward-moving state, you can’t have backward-looking laws,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “I hope that the leaders across the county follow the lead that we are taking here in Illinois.”

While the day was historic, it was also personal for many. Jim Darby is a Korean War veteran. He and his partner, Patrick Bova, want to be buried next to each other in the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, and Bova said the new law will allow them to be. “We have been together for over 50 years. I can remember so many times when I was celebrating family’s and friends’ anniversaries and thinking how wonderful it would be to celebrate my marriage to Jim. Finally that day has come,” Bova said. “Today is the day when we can look back on our five decades together and say, 'We can finally be newlyweds.'”

As usual, House Speaker Michael Madigan kept his comments short. He thanked those lawmakers who were involved in the passage of the bill and simply said, “I’m very happy to join with everyone in the celebration.”

While it was a time of celebration for many, some opponents also recognized the day. The head of Springfield’s Roman Catholic Diocese, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, presided over “prayers of supplication and exorcism” at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield today. In a statement issues last week, Paprocki called political supporters of same-sex marriage “morally complicit as co-operators in facilitating this grave sin.”

But supporters of the new law say they are moving on. Harris said, paraphrasing Lincoln, “Sometimes we walk slowly, but we never walk back.” The new law will go into effect on June 1. However there is a bill filed that could potentially move up the effective date. Lawmakers will not be able to take action on that bill until after January 1.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

JPMorgan Chase to pay Illinois pension systems $100 million under federal settlement

By Jamey Dunn

As part of a $13 billion national settlement, JPMorgan Chase & Co. has agreed to pay millions to Illinois’ public employee pensions systems for not disclosing the risks associated with some investments.

As part of the settlement, JPMorgan Chase admitted that it the misrepresented the quality of mortgage-backed investments it sold. “Without a doubt, the conduct uncovered in this investigation helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a prepared statement. “JPMorgan was not the only financial institution during this period to knowingly bundle toxic loans and sell them to unsuspecting investors, but that is no excuse for the firm’s behavior. The size and scope of this resolution should send a clear signal that the Justice Department’s financial fraud investigations are far from over. No firm, no matter how profitable, is above the law, and the passage of time is no shield from accountability.”

Under the deal, the bank will pay $100 million to Illinois pension systems that purchased the investments prior to 2009. “We are still cleaning up the mess that Wall Street made with its reckless investment schemes and fraudulent conduct,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a written statement. “Today’s settlement with Chase will assist Illinois to recover its losses from the dangerous and deceptive securities that put our economy on the path to destruction.” Madigan has been working with President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. The group’s investigations spurred this and other settlements from big banks and mortgage servicers. According to a news release from Madigan, JPMorgan Chase will pay $72.4 million to the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS), $16.2 million to the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) and $11.4 million to the Illinois State Board of Investment, which oversees the State Employees’ Retirement System (SRS), General Assembly Retirement System and Judges’ Retirement System (GARS).

The settlement is the largest in U.S. history. It also includes a $4 billion settlement with the Federal Housing Finance Agency and a $4 billion for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of that money will go toward loans the bank is forgiving or giving more favorable terms to borrowers. Some will go to new low-interest loans to borrowers in areas hit hardest by the housing crisis. The funds will also be used to tear down long-abandoned homes.

JPMorgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon said in a prepared statement: “Today’s settlement covers a very significant portion of legacy mortgage-backed securities-related issues for JPMorgan Chase, as well as Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.” The company recently announced it has set aside $23 billion to pay for potential settlements.

Justice Department officials say that the settlement does not absolve JPMorgan employees from future civil or criminal charges. “The agreement does not release individuals from civil charges, nor does it release JPMorgan or any individuals from potential criminal prosecution. In addition, as part of the settlement, JPMorgan has pledged to fully cooperate in investigations related to the conduct covered by the agreement,” a statement from the department said.

Friday, November 15, 2013

DCFS director steps down

Richard Calica, the director of the state’s troubled Department of Children and Family Services, announced today that he is stepping down from the agency because of health concerns.

According to a news release from Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, Calica, who has been diagnosed with cancer, has resigned his position. DCFS Chief of Staff Denise Gonzales is now acting director. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve under Governor Quinn,” Calica, who has served as director since 2011, said in a prepared statement. “This has been the most exciting and rewarding time of my career in child welfare. The reforms that we’ve put in place will maximize this agency’s ability to ensure the safety of children who are at risk of abuse and neglect for years to come.”

Calica came into the job at a difficult time for DCFS. The agency was violating a federal consent decree by having too few front line investigators and had awarded millions of dollars to contractors for work that could not be verified. Calica was a social worker for much of his career and served as executive director of the Chicago-based Jane Addams-founded Juvenile Protective Association. His blunt nature sometime ruffled feathers during his time at DCFS. He oversaw a rebalancing of staff in an effort to come into compliance with the federal court order. That change added 138 new front line investigators and cut caseloads in half. However, DCFS still has its problems. During the last fiscal year, child deaths from abuse or neglect hit a 30-year high in the state, according to an investigation from the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ Chicago.

Calica plans to work with DCFS on its transition to new leadership. “My prayers are with director Calica and his family during this very difficult time,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “Director Calica has taken this agency in the right direction, and he always put the safety of our most vulnerable children first. We are deeply grateful for his dedicated public service, which has saved countless lives.”

Form more on Calica, see this profile from Illinois Issues June 2012.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fewer than 2,000 Illinoisans have picked an insurance plan through the online exchange

By Jamey Dunn

Since the online insurance exchange, a key piece of the federal health care reform law, was launched in October, fewer than 2,000 Illinoisans have chosen insurance plans through the Internet marketplace. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released enrollment numbers today for the insurance exchange, which is an important part of the federal health care law known as Obamacare. The statistics also included state-run exchanges. Nationwide, 106,185 people have selected plans. In Illinois, the number is 1,370. However, 30,901 have completed applications seeking information on coverage for 56,636 people. According to HHS, 11,603 Illinoisans have been deemed eligible for federal subsidies to buy insurance, and 19,447 have been deemed eligible for Medicaid.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a conference call announcing the numbers today that the federal exchange has had 28.6 million unique hits since its launch on October 1. “In every part of our country, Americans are very interested in the affordable health coverage that’s being offered through the marketplace and through Medicaid.” But the website has been unable to meet that demand, and users have been greeted by slow load times and crashes. Sebelius has apologized for the problems and said HHS is “working 24/7” to fix the problems. She admits that things are still not working as well as hoped but said that the goal is to have the site fully operational by the end of this month for the “vast majority” of users. “We are clearly, here on the 13th of November, not where we want to be on the 30th of November.”

The department has sent emails to users who tried to create an account previously, asking them to come back and give it another shot. However, one reporter participating in the conference call said he was unable to create an account when he tried. I was also unable to create an account after trying for more than an hour. HHS staff said that our experiences were isolated incidents, which were not necessarily indicative of the majority of consumers’ experiences with the website. “It is getting better. It’s getting better everyday. So I would urge people to visit the site,” Sebelius said. Contrasting that positivism are the descriptions opponents use to characterize the rollout of the exchange. U.S. Rep. Aaron Shock, a Republican from Illinois, called it an “unmitigated disaster” yesterday. “This was a monumental mistake to go live and effectively explode on the launch pad,” U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, said during a recent congressional hearing on the rollout. House Republicans have voted more than 40 times to repeal the law, and many refused to vote for a federal budget unless Obamacare was defunded or the mandate that individuals get insurance was delayed. That stance led to the more than two-week shutdown of the federal government in October.

Opponents say that if not enough people — especially the young and healthy, who will help to balance out the costs of older people and those with preexisting conditions — sign up, Obamacare could be doomed. “At the current pace, it would take Illinois more than 14 years to reach its 2014 target,” Naomi Lopez-Bauman, director of health policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, said in a prepared statement. “This low level, whether attributed to website obstacles or lack of demand, is a cause for alarm for two reasons. First, if these enrollment trends continue, the exchange will almost certainly face an insurance death spiral, where older and sicker patients are far more motivated to enroll, driving up prices further. Second, the number of people losing their health insurance coverage in the individual and small group markets as a result of Obamacare could leave the state with a higher uninsured rate.”

 But Sebelius said today that there is no cause for alarm. She noted that HHS, state entities and community groups working to educate people about their options under Obamacare and encouraging them to get insured are “only a month into a sustained six-month enrollment and outreach effort.” Sebelius pointed to the enrollment pattern of the Massachusetts state exchange, upon which the federal concept is modeled. Under that state’s plan, many residents waited until later in the enrollment period to sign up. “I think what we saw in Massachusetts is that people visited the site multiple times before they made a decision.” She said that people want to take time to think over their choices, talk to their families and make sure that their doctors will be in the provider networks for their new plans. “We have every reason to expect more people will enroll.” Those who want their insurance to kick in by January 1 must sign up by December 15. The enrollment period ends on March 31. The uninsured face a potential fine after that point under the individual mandate. There are exemptions for religious objectors and those who cannot afford insurance.

Illinois’ exchange is run as partnership between the federal government and the state. Illinois officials echoed Sebelius’ take on the enrollment numbers. “We have consistently urged Illinois residents to take their time getting educated, rather than make an impulsive decision on something as important as health care for themselves and their families,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois (the state's exchange portal), said in a prepared statement. “When is ready to handle more users, we expect to see more website traffic to Get Covered Illinois and significant growth in our enrollment numbers.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Attorney general issues warning about immigrant driver's license scams

By Jamey Dunn

Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is warning Illinois residents to avoid scams related to the state’s new driver’s licenses for undocumented residents.

Secretary of State Jesse White’s office began setting up appointments today for residents who are in the country illegally and interested in obtaining Temporary Visitor Driver’s Licenses. Currently, the only way to apply is by appointment. Applicants must be able to prove they have lived in the state for a year and that they are ineligible for a Social Security number. They will also have to pass the standard vision and driving test. The licenses will look different from standard license and cannot be used for identification for things like buying a gun or boarding a plane. They will cost $30 and expire after three years. Licenses are void if drivers do not carry liability insurance as required by law.

Applicants who make appointments this month and meet the requirements will begin receiving their licenses in December. Madigan said her office has already started to receive complaints from consumers who say that driving schools are asking for $1,000 for a universal driver’s license that they say is valid in most states. She said her office is also getting reports of a scam that claims to expedite the application process for a fee. “The only legitimate place you can apply for a temporary driver’s license is with the secretary of state’s office,” Madigan said in a written statement. “Other people who claim they can help get you a license or get it faster are only trying to scam you out of your money.” She warned residents not to pay any upfront fees to make an appointment to apply for a license and not to purchase a so-called universal license that claims to be valid in multiple states because there is “no such thing.” A news release from Madigan’s office also warns: “Beware of anyone promising to ‘clear your record’ and obtain a TVDL for you immediately. If you have previously had a driver’s license under a false Social Security number or had a DUI conviction in the past, you may still be eligible. ... However, you may need to comply with additional requirements before applying.” The release also notes that a “notario or notary public” is not qualified to issue the license; it can only be obtained from a secretary of state facility.

Applicants can set up an appointment by calling (855) 236-1155 or going to this website. According to the secretary of state’s office, qualified applicants will receive their licenses in the mail 15 to 20 days after their appointments.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Quinn picks school reformer Vallas as running mate

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn announced an unexpected pick for his running mate today — former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas.

Vallas is known as an expert at turning around failing school districts, but along with his managerial choices has come controversy. His firings of teachers and support of charter schools and alternative teaching programs, such as Teach for America, could raise some eyebrows among Quinn’s union supporters. He was superintendent of New Orleans schools as the district tried to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and also served as the head of Philadelphia schools. Vallas made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2001, when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by now incarcerated former-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“I’ve known Paul Vallas for 30 years, and he’s never been shy about fighting for education, reform and opportunities for working people,” Quinn said in a news release officially announcing his choice for lieutenant governor. “We have made great progress these last few years, but serious challenges remain, and our mission is not yet accomplished. Paul is an independent problem solver with a proven record of reform. He will be a strong lieutenant governor for the common good.”

Quinn’s decision to tap Vallas as his running mate comes as a surprise, as many assumed the governor would appeal to his liberal base and might also pick a candidate who was a racial minority. Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul and Stephanie Neely, Chicago city treasurer, were both rumored to be on Quinn’s short list. “It really doesn’t add anything to the ticket electorally. You can’t talk about him as [a draw for] downstate or Chicago or Hispanic voters or African-American voters or suburban voters,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. But Redfield said he remembers Vallas, a key budget staffer in the General Assembly in the 1970s, as “a serious person who cares about policy.” This is the first time that gubernatorial candidates have picked their lieutenant governor candidates under a new law. In the past, primary winners were paired up to run in the general election.

Redfield said while Vallas may not fit the demographic profile many were expecting, he does have a background that could be useful on the campaign trail. “I don’t view it as a negative. It doesn’t expand the electorate in terms of a particular group of voters. It doesn’t solidify the base in terms of a particular group of voters. But it’s certainly a qualified person,” he said.

Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, agreed that Vallas brings some leadership credentials to the ticket. “He’s got serious executive experience,” he said. “It shows that [Quinn] can get somebody on his ticket that’s got a little bit of heft.” Mooney said the pick may reveal more about which Republican candidate Quinn most thinks he will face. He pointed out that the governor might want to tout his running mate’s executive experience in contrast with a less-experienced candidate — such as Republican candidate Bruce Rauner’s choice, Evelyn Sanguinetti. Both Rauner and the Wheaton City Council member are working to cultivate the image of political outsiders. And Mooney notes that any issue union members might have with Vallas would likely be overshadowed by their concerns about Rauner, who was one of a group of deep-pocketed business leaders backing recent education reforms in the state. “The unions are not going to have a problem with Quinn when faced with Rauner.”

But whether Vallas’ experience would be put to use if he were elected is another matter. Quinn is known for keeping his inner circle tight and not seeking outside help on issues. “It’s a question of, will the governor use him and how does it mesh with Quinn’s governing style?” Redfield said. The lieutenant governor’s position has been infamous in Illinois history for being relatively powerless and at times boring. “That position has been a source of frustration for most people who have held it,” he said. “There’s certainly a question of, why did this make sense to Paul Vallas?” Given his record of trying to revive troubled school districts, perhaps he is drawn to a state with so many problems, Redfield said. “If you want a challenge, this is certainly that place to come.” He added that a win would allow Vallas to return to Illinois politics with an eye toward running for a different office down the road. Current Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is challenging Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

“I am honored to join forces with the strongest reform governor in the country,” Vallas said in a news release. “Since taking the oath of office, Governor Pat Quinn has rescued the state of Illinois from the verge of fiscal and ethical disaster following decades of bipartisan corruption. This governor has been getting big things done since he got here. Unlike his predecessors, Governor Quinn tackled the hard issues and has made the right decisions to get Illinois back on track.”

The fact that Vallas is battling for his job in Bridgeport, Conn., is likely a factor. An activist, along with parents of students, sued to have him removed because they say he did not meet the certification requirements for the job. A judge ordered Vallas to step down in June, but the case is pending before the state’s supreme court.

Quinn’s choice of Vallas is certainly causing a lot of waves among political observers today. “If you made a list of 100 people that he might pick, he would not have been on most people’s list of 100,” Redfield said. “It shakes things up. Adds a little drama” to what has been an uneventful governor’s race so far, Mooney says. But Redfield noted that most people outside of Chicago probably have no idea who Vallas is and care little about lieutenant governor candidates in general. Mooney said that lieutenant governor candidates are unlikely to sway voters one way or the other when they are considering their pick for governor.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Veto session is over, or is it?

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers approved the spending to set up the state’s concealed carry of firearms permit today, but other issues such as pension reform, tax breaks for corporations and enhanced penalties for gun offenders will have to wait.

The House adjourned abruptly this morning after a procedural move blocked a bill to increase mandatory sentences for drug crimes. Senate Bill 1342 would increase the mandatory minimum sentence for felons or gang members caught carrying a gun without a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card to four years. The proposal would require those convicted of the crime to serve 85 percent of their sentence.

Sponsor Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, removed a provision that would have applied to first-time offenders and in doing so was able to get the support of the National Rifle Association. But members of the black legislative caucus opposed his bill. Chicago Democratic Rep. Kenneth Dunkin used a House rule to block the bill from being called for a vote because the budgetary impact of the measure was not made available to lawmakers through a formal process known as a note. “I filed the note on behalf of the Illinois legislative black caucus for those of us in the House and the Senate,” Dunkin said. We have expressed time and time again that we have some basic problems with this mandatory minimum — that it’s too all encompassing, it takes in way too many people unnecessarily. The collateral damage is going to be overwhelming, and it’s going to wrap up too many innocent citizens. All we simply wanted to do was to make sure that the bill went after the bad guys.”

After the notes were filed and the information was not immediately available, House Speaker Michael Madigan quickly adjourned the fall session. Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored the state’s new concealed carry law, has been working on the bill with Zalewski. He said he was not exactly surprised that the bill did not move forward today because he said many Democrats told him they had reservations about it. “The speaker said that we’re not doing it today, more or less. ... We spent so many hours working on this and we had a deal. Now we’re not doing it today at all. So we’ve got to come back in December, hopefully we’ll call it then.” Several House members mentioned as they exited the chamber that they expect they might return in December to take up public pension legislation.

Zalewski, who has partnered with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to push for the proposal, blamed the Illinois Department of Corrections for not providing details of how the measure would affect its budget and prison population. The IDOC opposed the bill because officials said the department did not have the money or capacity to house the population in crease it would cause. “The Department of Corrections knows how much the bill costs. It’s their basis for their opposition of the bill. Yet they couldn’t walk down to the House clerk’s office and file it in time,” Zalewski said.

A spokesman for the department said the changes to the bill yesterday made it difficult for them to recalculate the impact quickly enough. “This is a very complex piece of legislation, and every time the sponsors file amendments changing provisions of the bill, there is substantial work and analysis that must be done to determine the impact of the changes,” Tom Shaer with IDOC said in an email. “Amendment 5 was just added to this bill yesterday afternoon. IDOC has had staff analyzing the impact of this amendment since that time. We have tremendous respect for everyone in this process and are obligated to furnish them with accurate information and thorough, well-researched projections.”

Members of the black caucus say they want to address the violence in a more holistic way that includes investments in education and rehabilitation programs. “There is a way to do both of these things. To make sure that the people that need to go into prison go into prison but that we also deal with the 40 percent of people who are there for nonviolent offenses, who need to be in cheaper alternative programs that give them a better chance and a shot at life. While also making sure that the folks who need to be there, and that’s felons and gang bangers, actually end up in prison — in a prison that has room for them to be there,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell. “I think that the mayor and Rep. Zalewski are trying to do the right thing, but the how really matters.” Some caucus members added that they were concerned that some of the previous felonies that would make offenders eligible for the mandatory minimum sentence were nonviolent offenses, such as shoplifting. They also said they would like to see a time limit, so that a crime that occurred a decade ago would not make someone eligible for a mandatory minimum sentence.

Zalewski said he has been working to negotiate the bill and that some who are opposed will never support the concept of mandatory minimum sentences. “I’ve negotiated on this bill for six weeks. ‘No’ is always going to be the answer for some people. You saw it today. You saw an unwillingness to have a debate about public policy and public safety. And [opponents] resorted to tricks because the votes were there. That’s what happens in this building sometimes.” But members of the black caucus disagree that the bill would have passed if called for a vote.

Meanwhile the Illinois Senate approved a supplemental spending bill worth about $50 million. The largest chunk of that, almost $34 million, is for implementation of the concealed carry licensing system. Only about $500,000 of the spending in the bill comes out of the General Revenue Fund. House Bill 209 does not include the $112 million that would be needed to give state workers back pay. In 2011, lawmakers did not appropriate the money for contractual raises for state employees, but a judge ordered the state to pay the increases with interest. House Speaker Michael Madigan has said that state agencies should work within their current budgets to find the money for the pay. Sen. Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline, voted in favor of the bill, which received broad bipartisan support. But he said that lawmakers would eventually need to approve the money for workers. “I just think it’s important that the Senate knows that we owe this money and at some point in our career, in our lives, we ought to pay it.”

With the House adjourning after less than an hour spent in session today, many issues were left without resolution. Supporters of tax break plans for Archer Daniels Midland Co. and the newly formed Office Max Inc. saw no urgency to call those measures for a vote in the Senate when it became clear that the House would not vote on them today. ADM is looking to move its headquarters from Decatur and is considering Chicago, among other options. Office Depot Inc., the product of a merger between Office Depot and Office Max, is choosing between Naperville, Office Max’s current headquarters, and Boca Raton, Fla., where Office Depot is based.

The House also did not take up a bill that passed in the Senate yesterday to restore Medicaid dental benefits to adults. Chicago Democratic Rep. Monique Davis said that she thinks that the House will likely approve that bill early next year. “I think it’s going to pass. I think it’s going to get a lot of support. We’ll get it when we first come back in January. We’ll be able to do that because that will be one of the first few days we can do that.” If lawmakers wait until January on some issues, they will need fewer votes to achieve an immediate effective date on legislation. “Don’t think because we’re not on that House floor that people aren’t working. People are working,” Davis said. Some issues may not have to wait until January. House Speaker Michael Madigan has said that he hopes lawmakers will hold a session to vote on changes to the state’s public pension systems. Legislative leaders met on the issue last week and say they feel progress was made. They sent components of a plan to the pension systems to get cost savings estimates. Those projections usually take about 10 days to produce.

Having another potential shot at a legislative session soon may give those who could not get their bills passed during veto session another bite at the apple. However, knowing that they could be back at the Statehouse in the near future, lawmakers may have deflated some issues by taking urgency out of the situation. Why take the controversial vote today that can be pushed off for another month? Still, with the historic passage of same-sex marriage, approval of a supplemental appropriation bill, and both chambers passing changes to the pension system for Chicago Park District employees, this veto session was more eventful than many in recent memory.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Veto session roundup, Day 2

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Senate votes to restore Medicaid dental benefits

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Senate voted today to restore dental care benefits that were eliminated under recent cuts to the state’s Medicaid program.

Lawmakers approved Medicaid changes in 2012 aimed at cutting up to $1.6 billion in growth from the program. However, those savings have yet to be fully realized, and the state faces a lawsuit from unions over the use of an out-of-state contractor to verify Medicaid eligibility.

One of the most controversial pieces of that legislation, dubbed the SMART Act, was the elimination of dental care for adults except for in emergencies. The change meant that adult Medicaid recipients cannot get a check up or a filling, and basically all the state will cover is pulling a tooth if it gets infected. Supporters of House Bill 1516, which would restore benefits to the same levels as before the 2012 changes, said the cut went too far. “In this particular instance, it is believed that we overacted. And as is the power of this legislative body when we make those egregious mistakes that impacted so negatively on so many of our constituents, I think it’s incumbent upon us to correct them,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, the sponsor of the bill. “Not to just stick with the first thought that this is the only way to skin that cat — to become solvent again. But also let’s do it in a human way. ... The elimination of the adult dental programs certainly was more than just skinning the cat. It was beheading the cat.”

But opponents said lawmakers acted responsibly when they voted to get an unsustainable program under control. “We stepped up and said we’re going to change the program, and yes, that means to some extent we had to take some benefits away,” said Mattoon Republican Sen. Dale Righter. He said that doing that was difficult but necessary because the state was unable to reimburse providers on time. “It’s the reality. We had to spend less money. That means you have to giver fewer things away. You had to reduce the size of the program and reduce the services that were being afforded. Now we come back and we say, 'Well, except for this, and except for this and except for this.'” He added, “We’re either going to control the Medicaid program, or we’re not going to control the Medicaid program.”

Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored the SMART Act, said she wishes the cuts to dental care were never included in the bill. She said that they cost more in the long run because those who cannot get preventative care end up in the emergency room or needing an oral surgeon. “It clearly was a mistake,” she said today. “It may be a cut in the short term to our budget. Long term, it clearly rises costs.”

 Trotter said the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services, which administers Medicaid, has the money in its budget to cover the cost of reinstating the program, which would be about $17 million for the reminder of the current fiscal year. “They are not new dollars that we are coming up with since July 1. It’s dollars that are already in their budget.” HB 1516 gives the department the authority to shift funds to the program. “Can we actually afford not to do this?” Trotter asked. “By not restoring these benefits to the program, we are devastating and decimating the viability of the people that we are sent down here to help.” The measure also would have to be approved in the House to reach Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

House approves same-sex marriage, but couples will have to wait until next year

By Jamey Dunn 

After weeks of speculation about whether lawmakers would vote to legalize same-sex marriage during the fall legislative session, the Illinois House approved the bill today, and it now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn for his signature.

 “Loving same sex-couples will be able to publicly confirm their commitment to each other and join their friends and neighbors in being treated equally in the eyes of the law,” Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, sponsor of Senate Bill 10, said during floor debate today. Harris, who is gay, gave a tearful speech to disappointed supporters after he opted not to call the bill at the end of the regular spring session. “I apologize to families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state,” he said at the time.

Even though Senate Bill 10 was approved today, those families will have to wait a little longer. The law will not go into effect until June 1, 2014. Harris removed the immediate effective date on the bill so that it could pass with 60 votes instead of the 71 that would have been needed for an immediate effective date. The Senate originally passed the bill on Valentine's Day and moved quickly today to approve the changes made in the House and send the bill to Quinn. The governor held a celebration with supporters this evening and plans to sign the bill later this month. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex couples to marry.

Today’s events were more subdued than that last day of the session in May when supporters chanted for the sponsor to call the bill. Harris has been quiet about his intent, and fewer advocates and opponents turned out at the Statehouse. Still, the House public galleries were full, and supporters broke into applause at several points during the debate. Opponents argued today that the measure would infringe upon the liberties of Illinoisans who are opposed to same-sex marriage because of their religious beliefs. “This country was built on freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” said Wheaton Republican Rep. Jeanne Ives. She said that citizens who do not want to provide services, such as photography or floral arrangements, should not have to cater to same-sex weddings. “There’s not protections for people who make their livings by providing the goods and services for weddings.”

Others argued that the rights of county clerks who did not want to issue same-sex marriage licenses because of their religious convictions would be violated. “My conviction happens to be that this is wrong. My conviction is that the scripture is right,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, a Glen Carbon Republican. “Whatever you do with wrong, I think we’ve all known since we were children that you can’t change it. You can’t paint it. You can’t put glitter on it. You can’t dress it up. In fact, you can’t do anything to something that’s wrong to make it right.” But Harris noted that the bill has specific carve-outs for churches and religious groups, and business are already prohibited from discriminating against customers on the basis of sexual orientation under the state’s Human Rights Act.

The holdup on the vote has long been blamed at least partially on members of the Black Caucus who were reluctant to support the measure. Observers speculated that African-American lawmakers feared backlash from some local church figures opposed to the bill. However, the majority of the caucus voted in favor of the bill today. “Jesus loved everyone. He hung out with the prostitutes. He hung out with the common worker, the vagabond, the people who were sick, wealthy individuals. He loved everybody,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, an early African-American supporter of the bill. “So there is nothing in the Bible or the Quran that I believe speaks toward the opposite of that — love.” Several younger African-American lawmakers drew parallels between the civil rights of gay people and the black civil rights movement. “I am voting with a strong sense of confidence because I know that enhancing the civil rights of others does not diminish the civil rights of anyone in this room or anyone in this state,” said Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Peoria Democrat. “Separate but equal in Illinois and in this land is un-American.”

But at least one black opponent to the bill said she was offended by the comparisons. Chicago Democratic Rep. Mary Flowers said that her focus as a lawmakers has been on children’s issues and making sure that people have access to health care. “This is not my issue,” she said of same-sex marriage. “What you do and who you love is your business. It’s your business; I really don’t care. I know about discrimination. I know all about that.” But she said she was upset by those who “injected race” into the debate. “When I was discriminated against, it wasn’t because of who I am, it was because of the color of my skin. But nobody ever asks, and if you don’t ask and don’t tell, no one would care about who you sleep with. That’s your business. ... And I just want to say that homosexuality has noting to do with race.”

She said same-sex couples should instead seek rights and benefits at the federal level. “Here in the state of Illinois, we have given you everything, everything. Quite frankly this is a joke. This debate is a joke here in the state of Illinois because what you want, it’s up to the federal government to give it to you, not the state of Illinois.”

Others said the issue was about the societal benefits of protecting the traditional family structure. “Everyone is free to live how they wish, and this state has no interest in interfering with that. But the state does not have an obligation to sanction every form of living arrangement that is demanding a sanction,” Palatine Republican Rep. Thomas Morrison said. He argued that opening the door to same sex-marriage could result in eventual further changes to marriage, such as allowing polygamy. He argued that the state should have a nonbinding referendum on the issue to determine what voters want. Recent poling has indicated that the majority of Illinois residents support same-sex marriage. However, Morrison said he was uncertain about the “veracity” of those polls. “Real marriage is the building block for humanity,” he said. “This is not a vote about people but about policy. It’s not about individuals or even groups of people. It’s not about those who are homosexual or straight because not even all gays support this bill.”

But the vote was personal for many members, including the three openly gay Democrats in the chamber and one of the three Republicans who voted in favor. Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Republican from Mundelein whose mother in-law is a lesbian, said he was casting his vote, in part, for his kids. “When I think of marriage equality, I also think about them. You see, I believe in voting for marriage equality as the right thing to do. If I vote against this bill, the bill I believe in — I believe it’s the right thing to do — how do I face my children? How do I tell them that there’s something wrong with their grandma? Well, I can’t. And I won’t.” Former House Minority Leader Tom Cross, who is from Oswego, also cast a “yes” vote, along with Downers Grove Republican Rep. Ron Sandack.

Rep. Sam Yingling, a Democrat from Round Lake Beach, talked about his own family before casting his vote. “This issue is simply about family and family values. It’s about your family and about my family,” he said. Yingling has three children with his partner, Lowell. “Lowell and I feel pain when our kids feel pain. We celebrate our kids’ accomplishments and rejoice in their achievements. We strive to make sure that they have every opportunity that your kids have, but we are a family that is treated differently under the eyes of the law. We are a family that does not have the same protections that your family has.”

Chicago Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy recounted a time when her partner, Kelley Quinn, went to the hospital with a medical emergency, and she considered driving an extra hour to make sure she had the proper paperwork to be admitted to see Quinn. “I worried if I would be allowed to see her when I got there,” she said. “I was weighing the risks of going straight to her side or spending another hour in transit to get a piece of paper to prove that we were real.”

Harris said that he and other lawmakers have heard from gay couples whose rights have been questioned under civil unions, and that is why they are not a fair alternative to marriage. “Particularly in times of emergency and crisis, families have been kept apart. Parents have not been allowed to be with their children in emergency rooms or intensive care units. ... Civil unions have proven to be separate and unequal.”

Advocates for same-sex marriage celebrated the vote. “Today's historic marriage vote was a victory for all families and their children,” Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois, said in a prepared statement. “It was a victory for hundreds of clergy who joined forces in support of the law, and for scores of major employers who made the business case for equality, and for parents who just wanted all their children to be treated the same.”

Opponents continued to voice concerns about religious freedoms. “Today’s decision by Illinois lawmakers to change the definition of marriage not only goes against the common consensus of the human race — which understands that nature tells us that marriage is the union of one man and one woman — but it also undermines an institution that is the cornerstone of a healthy society. The optimal condition in which to raise children is a home that includes both a mother and father, since women and men are not interchangeable,” said a written statement from the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “We remain concerned about the very real threats to religious liberty that are at stake with the passage of this bill.”

Veto session roundup

By Jamey Dunn

In addition to passing legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, Illinois lawmakers took up several other issues today.

Budget bill 
The Illinois House voted to approve additional spending for the current fiscal year, but the legislation did not include funding for back pay owed to state workers.

House Bill 209 contains $49.6 million in spending, the bulk of which, $30 million, would be used to implement the state’s new concealed carry law. Most of the money in the bill comes from special funds. Only about $500,000 of general revenue funds would be spent under the measure.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget office has been pushing for the $112 million to pay workers since a judge ordered the state to make good on the raises he initially denied. Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka also called upon lawmakers last week to approve the money for workers because the state is required to pay interest on the pay.

 “They’re still negotiating that. I think we’re going to have to come back. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to address that ... but I guess the negotiations have not gone well to be able to do that. I think that we want to deal with the pension[s] and we want to deal with other things,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Louis Arroyo. “The [legislative] leaders and the [appropriations committee] chairs are not ready to talk about that. [But] sooner or later, we’re going to have to pay for it, because if we’re paying interest on the money we’re incurring more debt. I don’t know how long we’re going to wait.” Arroyo, who is the chair of the public safety budget committee, said he thinks it is likely that lawmakers will be back in session in the near future to deal with other issues and that the back pay could possible be addressed then. “We’re coming back before the year is over,” he said.

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said that lawmakers could indeed be back in session soon if there is a deal reached on public pension changes. Legislative leaders worked through some ideas last week that the pension systems are now analyzing to determine potential savings. Brown said that process would likely take about 10 days. “The speaker and I think, [Senate] President [John] Cullerton and others have said, when that’s done, if there’s an agreement, they’ll reconvene the legislature to take action.” But Brown said Madigan does not intend for there to be a vote on back pay at that time. “I’m not aware of any of that having anything to do with additional spending,” he said. “I am sure there are people out there who think that. I think the governor thinks that, but I’m not sure that there’s much of the legislature that’s subscribers to that idea.”

Brown said he does not think many in the House are interested in approving more GRF spending. “I think the speakers’ view on this other issues is that the agencies were granted lump sums. It’s really up to them to manage that. I don’t think that position has changed. There appears to be some additional revenue. I think the general view of the House has been over the last several years is if there’s revenue that comes in that we don’t know about in May, that ought to go to paying old bills. That ought to be our top priority.”

Quinn is also seeking an additional $40 million to fund the Department of Corrections. That money was not included in the legislation.

The bill was approved with broad bipartisan support. However, several Republicans supporters of concealed carry complained that the money to set up a concealed carry permitting system was tied to other spending that would not have been able to pass on its own. The legislation still needs Senate approval to make it to Quinn’s desk.

Juvenile justice
A House committee approved a bill that would create an independent ombudsman to oversee the Department of Juvenile Justice. The department has entered into a legal consent decree that requires it to improve education, mental health treatment and safety for detainees. Experts who created recommendations for the department found that juvenile detention centers were not offering the education required by law and lacked adequate mental health staffing. Fifteen percent of youth in the state’s system reported, as part of a Justice Department survey, that they had been sexually assaulted by other inmates or staff. Under Senate Bill 2352, the ombudsman would be able to visit detention centers unannounced and meet confidentially with juveniles.

The department supports the legislation. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was neutral on the bill. However, Adrienne Alexander, policy and legislative specialist for AFSCME Council 31, said the union, which represents DoJJ employees, is concerned about where the department will get funding for the new position, given that it is not meeting key missions such as education. “We look forward to details on how exactly it can be done, how it can be funded and how it will be implemented.” Beth Compton, general counsel for the department, said the ombudsman could be a key component to improvements without being too costly. “The ombudsman will be a very important piece at a relatively modest investment.”

Gun sentencing 
Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Chicago Democrat, said today that changes to his proposal to increase penalties for gun crimes have made the plan “narrowly tailored” and would bring down the cost of his proposal.

SB 1342 would require first-time offenders who commit an aggravated unlawful use of a weapon to serve 85 percent of a one-year sentence. Knowingly carrying a loaded gun in public without a Firearm Owners Identification Card can result in an aggravated unlawful use of a weapon charge. A felon or gang member would receive a four-year sentence. The proposal would also bar gun offenders from participating in some programs that can substantially shorten their sentences, such as a boot camp program for offenders.

Zalewski’s original proposal called for 3three years for a first-time offender and five years for felons and gang members. A House committee approved the bill, but Zalewski said he is still working to find the votes to pass it in the House. He faces opposition from the National Rifle Association over the required penalties for first-time offenders. “The sponsor has worked very hard to try to craft a bill, and we just haven’t been able to come to a meeting of the minds on this one issue,” said Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the NRA. He said  lawmakers need to consider recent court rulings that upheld gun owners’ rights to carry firearms in public. “Carrying a gun is no longer, per se, a criminal offense.”

Some Democrats are also opposed to the bill because they say there is no proof that mandatory sentencing would help curb gun violence over the long term. “The rest of the country is getting away from mandatory minimums,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz. “Mandatory minimums do nothing about recidivism.” The Illinois Department of Corrections opposed the bill because officials say the department could not afford the longer sentences. Bryan Gleckler, chief of staff for IDoC, said that the bill would increase the corrections population by almost 3,000 inmates in 10 years and cost the department $71.3 million annually. “We have a system that is stressed and have very, very limited resources to manage the existing population that we have within our custody,” he said. “There’s no capacity to take this additional population on.”

But the plan has support from Republicans who formerly served as prosecutors. Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti helped Zalewski revise the proposal. “I think it’s a pretty thoughtful approach,” he said. Reboletti said is open to more negotiation. However, he said he thinks changes to sentences are needed to deter gun crimes and keep gang members from having a revolving door experience at IDoC only to return to the streets armed. “I don’t know what other alternatives there are.” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, who also worked as a prosecutor before coming to the legislature, has said he supports enhancing sentences for gun crimes.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Some questions for Da Speaker

By Jamey Dunn

For our current issue of the magazine, I looked at the role social media plays in Illinois politics.

There is no denying that social media platforms are an important place to get information if you are an avid consumer of Illinois political news. For example, Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, sponsor of legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, posted this on his Facebook page Monday morning:

Harris does not say what “it” is but his page was soon filled with comments and posts from supporters of his bill. Backers of same-sex marriage have been pushing for a floor vote since Harris declined to call the bill during the spring session because he says there was not enough support to pass it. He has been coy about his intentions since, and this post is the first real hint he has given that he may call the bill this week.

While the role of social media is growing in Illinois politics, one caucus, the House Democrats, does not have a unified social media presence. A look at an analysis of the social media habits in other state legislative bodies from the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates that the lack of a caucus Facebook or Twitter profile is somewhat unusual. Arguably the most powerful figure in Illinois politics, House Speaker Michael Madigan does not have a Twitter account or Facebook page. But with the Internet providing such a tempting public platform for anonymous satire, there is a version of Madigan on Twitter that gives Statehouse observers a chuckle now and then.

Da Speaker is a satirical account that takes a comedic look at what might be going on in the mind of the infamously guarded figure. While the account is not nearly as famous as other parodies — such as the gloriously profane fake Rahm Emanuel profile, @MayorEmanuel — @SpeakerMadigan makes biting topical comments and has some real comedic payoff for those who follow Illinois politics with a laser focus.

For example, this is supposedly how Da Speaker celebrated Halloween:
If you haven't been reading the paper lately, Madigan and Shaw, who is a former television news reporter and president of the Better Government Association, are currently nursing a bit of a media feud over a story that the BGA, in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times, produced about Madigan's campaign workers also holding public sector jobs. The Twitter account often references the Madigan lore that the speaker eats an apple for lunch at the same time every day.

As part of my reporting for the story that appears in the November issue, I asked Da Speaker a few questions via Twitter direct messages. He or she was willing to give some answers.

Q: When and why did you start the account? Were you inspired by any other specific parody accounts?
A: I was entertained by a number of parody accounts and one day it struck me that the speaker was interesting because so many people spend so much time trying to figure out what he's thinking.

Q: Who is your target audience?
A: The people who care what the speaker thinks are the target audience. It'll never be as big as @MayorEmanuel but If the political junkies (and politicians) are laughing, that's good. [By the way], when @mayoremanuel launched, the first thing he did was attack @speakermadigan. Make of that what you will.

Note: Da Speaker had more than 1,400 followers as of today. Those followers include reporters, legislators, lobbyists and communication staffers for Gov. Pat Quinn. By comparison, @MayorEmanuel, created by journalist Dan Sinker, has more than 48,000 followers despite not having a public tweet since 2011. The Twitter account, which was at its most active point when Emanuel was running for mayor, also spawned merchandise and a book

Q: How do you come up with your tweets/ set the tone of the account?
A: I try to keep it in the realm of exaggerated reality. What's the speaker thinking that he'd never say aloud? It's satire. Just for fun. A little edgy at times.  I avoid cheap shots, I hope. I react to the news of the day. The ideas are the sort of smartass remarks reporters make to each other when passing time between stories.

Q: Are you surprised by the reaction/amount of followers? especially since you don't tweet very often.
A: I'm amazed it has gained a following among people who understand politics. It's a great audience. 

Q: Do you plan to continue indefinitely?
A: I’ll continue until I'm no longer amused and/or until someone gets close to identifying me.
Da Speaker gave this in-character sign off: If you'll excuse me, I have business in the lair. You don't want to know.

Since Madigan does not have a Twitter account and reportedly does not own a cell phone, let alone a smartphone, it seems unlikely that he is a fan of his Twitter double. Steve Brown, his spokesman, said he does not know if Madigan is aware of Da Speaker.

“I have no idea,” he said. But he added, “Humor is always in the eye of the beholder.”