Wednesday, April 30, 2014

House committee approves funding for Obama's presidential library, again

By Caitlin Rydinsky

A House committee today once again approved $100 million in capital funding for President Barack Obama’s future presidential library and museum after  questions were raised ethics surrounding a previous vote.

The proposal passed at a hearing earlier this month with a 9 to 0 vote, with no Republicans present. The Democratic chairman of the committee used a procedural move to have a vote without the full committee present. After the details came to light, Republicans demanded another vote on House Bill 6010, which is sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Today the bill was approved with no Republican support. Republicans questioned using state funding for the presidential library when the construction of previous libraries was funded by private donations. For example, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum raised $200 million in private funds and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum raised $250 million through private donations. “I’m just curious about what precedence this sets,” said Rep. Joe Sosnowski, a Republican from Rockford. He said that the state should wait to see how much private funding would be received before pledging a specific amount.

“This is a big building. It would be located in the state of Illinois. It would be an international tourist attraction and would be named after the son of Illinois, who became president ... of the United States,” said Madigan. “We are all here to support this. We did it for Abraham Lincoln here in Springfield. We can do it for Barack Obama in Chicago.”

The Obama Presidential Library opened up competition between states to bid and seek the library. Geographic touchstones from the president’s life, such Chicago, where he lived with his family before moving to Washington, D.C., Hawaii, where he was born, and New York, where he attended Columbia University, are considered top contenders. Universities in Chicago, such as the University of Illinois Chicago, University of Chicago and Chicago State University, are all interested in housing the library.

Madigan did not have an estimate of the potential revenue that would be generated by the library, but he said it would be an educational opportunity for children and bring national and international tourism to the state. Estimates from the city of Chicago indicate that the library could bring 55 million visitors by 2020. The projections are based on attendance at the Lincoln presidential library.

Madigan said the funding for an Obama library is no different than the $120 million in state funds offered for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Republicans argued that it is not a fair comparison because the Lincoln Library is run by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, where all other presidential libraries fall under the National Archives and Records of Administration.

When asked if the money for the library would take away from other projects already appropriated with capital funding, Madigan said, “If I were a Republican, I would say new growth, but I am not a Republican, so I would have an open mind.” Madigan said he plans to work with both chambers in to gain votes to have the legislation pass and is “prepared to work to find money.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two constitutional amendments fall flat, while two others move forward

By Jamey Dunn

Two legislative efforts to get proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot failed today.

The push for a constitutional amendment that would allow a graduated income tax fell flat today. To meet the deadline to get the amendment on the November ballot, the Senate would have had to have approved it today. Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, who is the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 40, said he had the votes in his chamber. But Harmon of Oak Park said he did not want to call upon his colleagues to take a tough vote if it seemed that the measure had no chance of passing in the House. “I have said from the get-go, I want to make sure the reception in the House is a warm one, and we want to make sure we have the votes lined up in the House,” Harmon said today.

Opponents of the amendment dub it a tax increase because graduated rates, which are in a separate bill, proposed by Harmon and other backers, assume that the temporary income tax rates would become permanent. The amendment itself would not affect rates but would only allow for a graduated income tax. Currently, the state’s Constitution calls for a flat tax. Supporters of the plan filled the capital rotunda today, chanting, “We want a fair tax.” Harmon lobbied House members and called on the Senate not to adjourn when it broke for committees in the afternoon, giving him more time to try to round up the votes needed. But in the end, it was not enough and the Senate adjourned this evening without taking a vote on the amendment.

The proposal faced an uphill climb in the House from the beginning of session. Republicans have been outspokenly opposed to the plan and it would have needed support from every Democrat in the chamber to pass. Marengo Democratic Sen. Jack Franks signed on to a resolution opposing a graduated income tax, and House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters recently that the amendment was far from having the support it needed to pass in the chamber.

Meanwhile, a proposal from Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno to impose term limits on constitutional officers failed to get the support needed to make it out of committee today. Radogno said that her position on term limits has “evolved” over time as she has become frustrated with conditions in Illinois. “The public is clamoring for change. They want new ideas. They want new faces,” she said. Democrats on the committee chided Radogno for introducing the proposal so close to the deadline to get amendments on the ballot. Radogno filed her resolution last week. Additional session days would have to have been scheduled to meet the necessary timeline if the amendment had moved forward. But Radogno said that if Democrats were interested in passing it, there was still enough time left.

Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner is backing a push to put a constitutional amendment for legislative term limits on the ballot through a citizen initiative. The Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits, which has Rauner as its chairman, plans to turn its signed petitions in tomorrow. Yes for Independent Maps, a group spearheading a citizen initiative campaign for an amendment that would change the way legislative districts are drawn in the state, plans to turn in its petitions on Thursday. If the signatures are approved by the State Board of Elections, both proposed amendments would likely face court challenges before they would reach the ballot.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Senate waiting for House support on graduated income tax vote

By Jamey Dunn

Democratic leaders in the Senate do not plan to move forward with a graduated income tax proposal unless there is indication that plan could pass in the House.

Senate President John Cullerton said that he is supportive of the proposed constitutional amendment. But he said he plans to “wait and see” what the House does on the issue because it likely has less support in that chamber. A spokesperson for Cullerton later clarified that he would consider a vote if there was indication that the House would approve the measure.

Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, who sponsors the amendment, reportedly planned to call it for a vote this week. Supporters of the amendment are almost out of time. For Harmon’s Senate Joint Constitutional Amendment Resolution 40 to make it to the ballot under the current legislative schedule, it would need to pass in the Senate tomorrow and in the House on Thursday. The final deadline to approve constitutional amendments is May 4, but as of now, both chambers are scheduled to wrap us session this week on Thursday.) Harmon was not available for comment.

Constitutional amendments require the backing of three-fifths of both chambers. House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters last week that a progressive income tax amendment was “significantly short” of the support needed to pass in the House. The proposal has no public support from Republicans, so all the Democrats in the House would have to vote for it. Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, is a cosponsor of a resolution opposing a graduated income tax. There is a graduated income tax amendment in the House, too. But it is not as far along in the process as the Senate amendment after it failed to make it out of the House Revenue and Finance Committee in March.

Cullerton said today that his chamber would also take a wait-and-see approach on extending the current income tax rates. “We have two different budgets that we are contemplating.” Cullerton said one version includes an extension of the current rates. The other would allow the tax increase to begin its sunset in 2015 and would require substantial cuts. He said that since Madigan is still working to get the votes for it in the House, a tax rates extension should start in that chamber. “We will wait and see which of the two budgets we have to work with.” When asked if Democrats could vote in favor of the cuts that would be needed to allow the income tax rates to go down, Cullerton said: “It will be difficult, but we have to pass a budget.”

As lawmakers head into the last month of spring session, which ends at midnight on May 31, Cullerton says he hopes that the support can be mustered to pass an increase in the state’s minimum wage. He said that he thinks there is broad backing among voters for such and increase. “Now, the question is whether or not we have the votes for it here.” Madigan said last week that he is also still working to round up the votes needed to pass a minimum wage increase. A possible plan B of putting the issue to voters through a nonbinding referendum has also been floated. If the majority of voters cast a ballot in favor of a minimum wage increase as part of an advisory referendum, it would not actually change wages in the state. But the results of such a vote might help those in favor of an increase in their lobbying efforts. “We’re going to try to see if we can pass the bill, and if we’re short maybe we need to get public input through a referendum question. That would be an alternative if we don’t have enough votes to pass it,” Cullerton said.

Friday, April 25, 2014

What to watch: budget edition

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers have had a two week break from the capitol, but they are scheduled to be back in session on Tuesday. As those who watch the legislature closely know, the action typically doesn’t truly get geared up until this point. But soon enough we will be immersed in the blur of activity that is May at the Statehouse. Here are some things to watch for on the budget front.

The General Assembly has until midnight on May 31 to approve a budget with a standard majority. After that time, any bills passed require a three-fifths majority to have an immediate effective date. Crafting a budget is not going to be easy this year. The temporary income tax approved in 2011 is set to begin its phaseout in the second half of Fiscal Year 2015. For months, heads of state agencies, lobbyists, public university presidents and others have come before budget committees to lay out what they say would be the dire consequences of the cuts that would be needed if the tax rates drop. Mass layoffs, facility closures, threats to public safety, spikes in K-12 class sizes and deep cuts to programs that provide care to seniors or children, have all been cited in the doom and gloom presentations. 

Meanwhile, Republicans argue that the state’s budget outlook is being framed as worse than it really is. They say that Democrats are pushing a doomsday version of the budget to lay the ground work for making the temporary income tax permanent. “The Democrats’ approach this entire spring has been to try to create as dire a picture as possible,” said Palatine Sen. Matt Murphy. “You can make it a lot more plausible that you can fund core services and still allow the tax rate to go back down as the Democrats promised it would, but they don’t want people to see that. They don’t want that argument out there because they want to continue to get the money that they’ve been getting.” Democrats passed the increase without Republican support in 2011. It seems likely that if the want to extend the rates, they will have to go it alone again. House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters this week that the votes aren’t there to pass it in his chamber. He said that extending the tax would be a “difficult role call.” “Every person in the legislature is going to be called upon to make a budgetary decision — either a reduction budget or an as-is budget or a slight-increase budget,” Madigan said. “And they’ll be called upon to vote for the money to support the budget that they want.”

Gov. Pat Quinn advocated for extending the current rates in his budget address. He also wants to give homeowners a $500 tax credit that he has dubbed property tax relief. Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton quickly backed the governor’s call for keeping the current rates.

A potential extension of the income tax rates is not the only tax talk legislators are going to have in the coming weeks. The sponsor of a proposal to allow the state to have a graduated income tax has said he plans to call his proposal for a vote next week. Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon’s Senate Joint Constitutional Amendment 40 would overturn the current provision in the state’s Constitution that requires Illinois to have a flat income tax. The plan would not set the rates for such a tax, but Harmon and other supporters have issued proposed rates framework. If the amendment makes it through both chambers, it would appear before voters on the general election ballot. But that seems unlikely. Harmon may be able to get the amendment through the Senate, but Madigan said that it is “significantly short” of the support needed to pass on the House. Two constitutional amendments — one that would voters from discrimination and another that would strengthen the role of victims in the judicial process — have already been approved by lawmakers and will appear on the November ballot.

Proposed tax changes relating to business in the state could also be on the way. A House committee has been focusing on the tax climate faced by Illinois businesses. The group has been taking testimony on the issue for months, but has yet to publicly present any ideas.

Before the break, a Senate committee approved a plan to change the way that the state funding is doled out to schools. Senate Bill 16 would focus more heavily on the financial need of districts. The proposal would also eliminate the individual block grant that is given to Chicago schools, something Republicans on the committee have supported. The plan would also require more spending transparency at the district level. The committee debate became heated when Republicans accused sponsor Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, of rushing the process. The Illinois State Board of Education is working to produce numbers that would show how the changes in SB 16 would affect each school district. Republicans say that they do not want to vote on the plan until they have that information.

Manar said that lawmakers from both parties agree that the current funding formula does not work. “The idea that we can have a few premier school districts in the state that exceed every expectation ... and have an incredible number that lag behind and call that a win in the state system is not a win in my book.” The ideas behind the legislation came from a report complied by a bipartisan committee that spent more than a year considering the topic. However, Republicans say they were not involved in drafting SB 16. Manar hopes that there will eventually be bipartisan support for the bill. He says he introduced it when he did to spur debate. “We could have waited until the last week of May, negotiated behind closed doors, popped a bill out and then had a vote. That’s not the way to do this,” Manar said. 

A gaming expansion always seems to be on the table as the end of spring session nears. But getting it done is a difficult task. Putting together a bill that will make all the powerful groups involved happy, or at least not irate, is a balancing act, so is figuring out how to spread around the potential revenues in a way that will please or at least appease lawmakers. And even when gambling expansions have passed, Quinn has vetoed them. This time around, the governor has made some positive comments about expanding gambling. “You’ve got to have strong ethical standards, and I think they need to be enforced, and it has to be done by the independent Illinois Gaming Board,” Quinn told reporters in early April. “I think we have kind of ironed that out. I think we’re on the right path.” The governor has said in the past that he would not support an expansion unless the revenues went to fund education. 

Blue Island Democratic Rep. Robert Rita is sponsoring a bill that would allow for the creation of new casinos, including one in Chicago, and slots at horse racing tracks. However, when compared to past proposals, Rita’s bill would scale back the number of slot machines racetracks could have. Rita has another version that would only create a Chicago casino. The racing industry opposes both. It also seems that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will not throw his weight behind a Chicago casino plan at this point. Emanuel is echoing past statements from Quinn, saying that he will not focus on a casino until the city’s underfunded pension systems are addressed. The General Assembly already approved changes to the systems for city workers. Emanuel also wants changes to stabilize the systems for teachers, police officers and firefighters. Before they passed changes to the state’s pension systems, Quinn warned lawmakers not to be distracted by the “shiny” object of gaming legislation.

Check back for a guide on bills to watch as legislators make the final push toward the end of spring session.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Legislative inspector general calls for laws targeting patronage and clout

By Jamey Dunn

Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer is leaving the job at the end of June. On his way out, Homer is making the case for ethics reforms in the state.

Homer sent a letter to lawmakers this week urging them to enact stronger ethics laws geared toward preventing patronage hiring practices and giving teeth to the office of legislative inspector general. He cited recent scandals, including students being admitted into the University of Illinois after lawmakers and other influence wielders intervened on their behalf and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s apparent influence on hiring at Metra.

Homer, who is a former state representative and a former judge, said there is nothing wrong with lawmakers advocating for their constituents. But he says that all constituents should get the opportunity, not just campaign donors or the well connected. “When insiders can lay claim to political spoils, people without political connections are denied equal opportunities for government jobs or admission to public universities. Moreover, taxpayers lose when public funds are expended for expensive legal settlements, investigations and attorney’s fees associated with scandals that arise from such activities,” Homer said in a prepared statement.

He called for state agencies and public universities to keep a list of hiring and admissions requests made by lawmakers and other officials. The list would be open to the public. Metra informally kept such a list, but it was only released to the public after a task force seeking to reform the agency reported its existence. Metra released the documents, dubbed the "patronage files" by the task force, this week under a Freedom of Information Act request. The task force called Madigan a “prominent participant” in patronage hiring at Metra over the last 30 years.

At Madigan's request, Homer investigated his involvement and found no violation of the law. The investigation was closed earlier this month. Homer said he could not comment on any specific investigation, but he did have this to say at the time: “Although I can recommend new laws to address what I believe to be inappropriate conduct by legislators, enforcement actions are limited to violations of existing laws and rules.”

Homer also recommended more transparency from his office. He said that the inspector general should be able to release more information from investigations and that the current confidentiality requirements mean that some finding of misconduct from lawmakers never see “the light of day.” He renewed his call for penalties to enforce conflict-of-interest provisions for lawmakers. Currently, the code of conduct for lawmakers is “intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced by disciplinary action.” Homer said the lack of penalties makes it difficult for his office to go after misconduct. “The absence of penalty provisions undermines our ability to investigate, expose and prevent abuses,” Homer said.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

To spend or to cut?

By Jamey Dunn

A group representing business leaders called for Illinois to spend more on early childhood programs on the same day a conservative think tank presented a plan to cut the state’s budget.

Ready Nation/America’s Edge is a national nonprofit that promotes early childhood education as a way to strengthen the economy. Today, the group released a study which claims that every $1 invested in early childhood programs creates $1.94 in economic growth. The study says that if Illinois provided preschool to all families in need who wanted it, the expansion would create 15,000 new jobs in the sector and 4,000 jobs in other areas of the economy. The proposal would cost the state an estimated $630 million.

Business leaders who support the group’s message say that investment in early childhood education now will produce the workforce they will need in the future. Lisa Savegnago, who is president of Nameplate & Panel Technology in Carol Stream, says that preschool is where children start to learn “creativity, critical thinking and the ability to collaborate in teams,” which are all skills that she is looking for in employees. She said that access to preschool would also help businesses immediately by giving their workers a viable option for childcare. She said that a lack of access to childcare leads to more absenteeism from parents and higher employee turn over rates. “When you take all of this into account, it’s not difficult to see why employers see it as their business to care about early childhood education,” she said.

Sean Noble, who works in the group’s Illinois office, said that the organization is calling for a $25 million increase in early childhood spending for the Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The main funding source for early childhood programs avoided a reduction during the current fiscal year but suffered deep cuts over the previous four fiscal years. Noble says that $25 million would help get such programs back on track. The number is in line with budget recommendations from the Illinois State Board of Education and Gov. Pat Quinn.  Noble says the group is advocating that the state continue to increase funding in the coming fiscal years. While the group agrees on putting more money into early childhood education, Noble said there is no consensus on how to pay for it. The Illinois members of Ready Nation/America’s Edge are not backing any particular revenue source. Quinn called for an extension of the temporary income tax increase to fund all levels of education.

Members of the group said that they recognize that the state is in a tight fiscal situation, but they say the data indicates that cutting early childhood education is counterintuitive at a time when Illinois is in need of economic growth. “It’s staggering to me to see this report and how we can benefit from early childhood education,” said Collinsville Mayor John Miller.

You can read the group’s report here. Also, Illinois Issues Managing Editor Maureen Foertsch McKinney wrote a column for the current issue of the magazine about the long-term costs of cutting early childhood programs. 

Meanwhile, the Illinois Policy Institute released a plan today to cut the state’s budget and allow the temporary income tax increase to sunset as scheduled in the current law.

That tax is set to begin stepping down in 2015. The group is calling for several sweeping changes including:

  • Eliminating additional education funding for school districts that have property tax caps or spend property tax on local development through tax increment financing districts. 
  • Eliminating additional funding for poor students in districts that have affluent local tax bases Eliminating revenue sharing with local governments 
  • Reducing the state’s payroll by 10 percent and ending automatic cost of living pay increases for state workers 
  • Shifting the future pension benefits of public employees into a 401K-style program 
  • Means testing for pension cost of living adjustments (COLAs) 
  • Giving Medicaid patients a subsidy to purchase insurance in the private market 
Many of the group’s proposals are highly controversial and some have been floated before. For instance, when Gov. Pat Quinn proposed reducing the portion of income tax revenues that local governments get, governors from all over the Illinois descended on the Statehouse to lobby against it. Quinn quickly backed away from the idea.

The institute’s more natural political allies, Republican lawmakers, may balk at some of the ideas presented here, too. Suburban lawmakers with property-tax wealthy school districts will likely not support the education funding proposals. How to handle the funding for schools that have local property tax caps and tax increment financing districts was also a hot-button issue as a bipartisan group of senators evaluated ways to revamp the state’s current school funding formula.

The Policy Institute seems undaunted by the tough political road many of their suggestions would face. Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the institute, said in a written statement accompanying the report: “Tax relief is in the immediate future and Illinois needs bold leadership that will make sure it happens. Sunsetting the tax hike is more than a promise — it’s the law. And it can be achieved.”

You can read the full report here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Proposed ban on plastic microbeads could be model for other states

By Caitlin Rydinksy,

A bill approved last week by the Illinois Senate that would eliminate plastic microbeads found in hygiene products could become a national model for states looking to phase out the material.

Microbeads are small plastic particles, made of polyethylene or polypropylene, found in items such as body and facial scrubs and some toothpastes. After use, they are washed down the drain and released into waterways. The beads are so small that they make it through the filtration process at water treatment plants. They cause harm when fish and other aquatic life confuse them with food because of the resemblance in color and size to the microbes that they eat. Because they are made of plastic, which is not biodegradable, the particles do not dissolve once they are released into the environment. They float through the water or sink to the bottom once they have absorbed surrounding pollutants.

Researchers have found them in waterways, oceans and, overwhelmingly, the Great Lakes. The 5 Gyres Institute, a group that studies the global effect of plastic pollutants, found beads within the lakes. Early testing, which looked at Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie, shows Lake Erie had more than two times the amount sampled within some areas of the ocean. The results of the study have spurred manufacturers to act. “Most of the major manufacturers that were presented with the research of the high abundance of these particles in the Great Lakes surface water responded by voluntarily phasing out plastic particles in their products and looking for alternative formulations,” said Olga Lyandres, research manager of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based environmental organization. The alliance worked with The 5 Gyres Institute on the lakes study.

“Plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their exfoliating properties and excellent safety profile,” said the Personal Care Products Council in a prepared statement. “However, our industry shares a common interest with other stakeholders in protecting the environment, and we take questions regarding the presence of plastic microbeads in our waterways very seriously. While we believe plastic microbeads in personal care cleansing products represent a very small contributor to the overall plastic found in the aquatic environment, our industry is demonstrating leadership on this issue by publicly announcing plans to phase out the use of these ingredients.”

The study found remnants of other plastics including pieces of plastic bags. But the amount of microbeads and the fact that they are easily identifiable allowed researchers to point to a specific cause of pollution and request that companies transition to more environmentally friendly substitutes. Although many high profile companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, have already started phasing out production of the beads, The Alliance for the Great Lakes is lobbying for Senate Bill 2727 to hold the companies to that promise.

States surrounding the Great Lakes and some coastal states, such as New York and California, have also considered bans. Those who negotiated SB 2727 say it could serve as an example for those states because it gives the industry years to find a substitute for the beads and allows retailers to continue selling their current inventory. Scrubbing products that do not contain microbeads have various other abrasive materials, such as silica, ground nutshells, rice, sugar or salt. SB 2727 calls for a ban on products containing the beads to begin in 2017 and a ban on the sale of such products by 2018. Mark Denzler with the Illinois Manufacturers Association said a phase out takes time. “You have to change the line production and get additional products for what you’re going to use,” he says. “So, really the debates are set on timelines when manufacturers have to stop producing it, and retailers have to stop selling it. That negotiation was sort of easy to accomplish.”

Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored the bill, said that cooperation from the manufacturers has helped the measure gain broad support. The measure passed with no opposition in the Senate. “We phased it in to make it so the companies have time to handle it appropriately, but they really worked with us and we got to an agreement. So I think we probably pass it [in the House] as it got out, unanimously, here,” she said.

 Results from the testing of Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario waters will be released later this month, but those close to the research predict the findings will be similar to the other lakes. While the industry, environmentalists and lawmakers are working together to phase out the beads, those already in the waters cannot be removed because of their small size. “Well, once they are in the water, they are there to stay,” said Lyandres. “They are very difficult to capture once they are released.”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Two proposed constitutional amendments make it to the ballot

By Jamey Dunn

When voters take their ballots in November, the will be faced with two proposed constitutional amendments. One is intended to protect victims’ rights, while the other would bar discrimination against voters.

Efforts to put a victims’ rights provision onto the state’s Constitution have been underway for years. Different versions of the measure have been approved by both chambers in the past, but failed to make it to the ballot. Sponsor Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said the amendment approved today made it all the way through the General Assembly because supporters struck the proper balance between the rights of defendants, the rights of victims and the power of prosecutors. “It’s been a long haul for the victims in getting to this point. It’s nice that it’s finally coming to fruition,” said Steans.

The amendment will give victims legal standing in the judicial process. They would have the right to be notified about certain steps in the process, including if their personal information has been requested by the defense. The amendment would also require that judges consider the impact on victim’s and their families, along with all other factors, when making decisions about granting bail and the release of a defendant.

The other amendment approved by the Senate today would prohibit denying the right to vote based on a person's race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation, income national origin or religion. Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who sponsored the measure, said that he went to Florida in 2008 and 2012 to volunteer during the presidential elections. “I watched 80 [-year-old] and 90-year-old people, largely of African American and Hispanic descent, wait nine hours to simply cast their ballot to exercise their right to vote. While in other parts of Florida, people were able to vote right away,” he said. Raoul said his mother, who was 82 at the time, had to wait five hours in line to vote in 2012. He said that his proposal would help protect Illinois voters from facing such a situation.

While the amendment does specifically ban requiring voters to present identification to vote, Raoul said that it is his intent to prohibit such laws if they are geared toward discrimination. “If you cast a yes vote for this, you’re casting a yes vote to discourage voter i.d. laws.” Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter said that voter identification laws could be enacted in a way that would prevent fraud without being discriminatory. “We should have a voter i.d. that does not discriminate, that provides the i.d. for them them and brings fairness to all the voters,” says McCarter, who abstained from voting on the proposal. Both amendments received broad bipartisan support in both chambers but will still need approval from voters to become a part of the Constitution.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Quinn bashes Rauner for Cellini statement, stays mum on Blagojevich

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn took a swipe at Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner today after a former Republican powerbroker, who was convicted on a corruption charge, made positive statements about him.

William Cellini and Rauner attended a Republican fundraiser in Springfield yesterday. Cellini told reporters that it was the first time he had seen Rauner speak, and called him “impressive.” When asked if he planned to vote for Rauner, he said, “I've been a Republican all of my life, and he's the Republican candidate.” Cellini was convicted in 2011 of attempting to extort a Hollywood producer into giving former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich a $1.5 million campaign contribution. Cellini served less than a year in federal prison.

 “I think he’s now a convicted felon, and I certainty don’t want to have anything to do with him personally, and I think anybody who aspires to this office should stay clear of him and should make that crystal clear to the people of Illinois,” Quinn said an unrelated news conference today.

A statement from Rauner’s campaign said that he “obviously renounces” any endorsement from Cellini.

Quinn, who served as lieutenant governor under Blagojevich, was asked today about his own ties to the impeached former governor, who is currently doing time in a federal prison after being convicted on corruption charges. “I’m not going to get into any politics,” Quinn responded.

Quinn looks to lawmakers for new capital plan

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn said today that he plans ask legislators to provide ideas for a new state capital construction plan.

Quinn said that he intends to ask the four legislative leaders to put together a special committee that would try to tackle the capital issue. He said he envisions a group of about 10 people. He said that the committee would operate much like the conference committee, which helped to break a stalemate on pension reform last year. The current five-year capital plan, which was approved in 2009, is nearing an end. The plan is funded through revenues generated by video poker machines in bars, truck stops and restaurants throughout the state and various increased fees and taxes. A new plan would likely require new revenues. “It is important to realize that the funding from the five-year [capital] plan that we adopted is, through this year, very strong, but in the future we’ve got to enhance it,” Quinn said in Springfield today.

Quinn would not point to any potential funding sources today. “We’ll engage with them very quickly,” he said of the committee. “There’s a lot of ideas. I think we need to explore each and every one.” But he said that he would not back any proposal to increase the tax on gasoline. “I think that’s a depleting resource. I think that using the gas tax to fund our future would not be a wise idea. I’m not for that.” At this point, the governor is not pushing for a bill to be approved by the end of the spring session. A member of his staff said lawmakers would likely be working on the issue throughout the year. However, the governor does want something in place to avoid a gap between the current capital bill and the next.

Quinn’s comments came at a news conference to unveil the Illinois Department of Transportation’s annual six-year plan. The $8.6 billion construction plan is focused on maintenance of the state’s existing infrastructure. IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider said that almost three-fourths of the spending would go toward maintenance. “This is a fiscally responsible program. We are not putting something out that the Department of Transportation and the state of Illinois cannot afford,” she said. The plan will be funded with almost $7 billion in federal money and $1.16 billion in existing state funds. The rest of the money will come from local sources and the last of the funds allocated for roads and bridges in the existing capital plan, dubbed Illinois Jobs Now! by Quinn. Go to IDOT’s website for a partial list of the projects covered by the six-year plan.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Chicago pension changes pass in both chambers

By Jamey Dunn

The General Assembly today approved legislation to address the funding shortfall in pensions systems for Chicago city workers.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to stabilize the two systems fell flat last week, but sailed through the House and Senate today. The key factor that helped spur action was the removal of a provision that would have authorized city council members to approve a property tax increase. The new version of Senate Bill 1922, which is sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, allows the city to pay for the plan with property tax money or any other available revenue.

Gov. Pat Quinn is running for re-election on a budget plan that would extend the current income tax rates instead of allowing them to sunset. The potential upside to his plan for some Illinoisans is that is would also offer a $500 annual credit for homeowners that Quinn has billed as property tax relief. Quinn made negative comments about the highly unpopular tax at most public appearances lately. Needless to say the governor opposed Emanuel’s push for a property tax increase blessed by state lawmakers. He panned it yesterday by calling it a “lousy tax” and saying that the proposal was “a sketch” not a clear plan.

But Emanuel described the proposal to reporters in Chicago as: “an honest compromise between leaders of organized labor and the city to secure the pensions; secure it in a way that city can afford it and make sure that to the 61,000 people who have come to relay on it, that it will be there.” Under the measure, workers would be asked to contribute more toward their retirement and would see reductions to their cost of living increases. Retirees would not get increases in 2017, 2019 and 2025. However, retirees with pension payouts of less than $22,000 annually would receive a minimum of 1 percent increase each year and would still get an increase during the skipped years. “If you do nothing, these plans are loosing money everyday. They’re going to go belly up within a decade,” Emanuel says.

As the legislation made its way through the process today, Quinn was unwilling to say whether he supported the bill. “I have to see the final bill. I’ll take a look at it. That’s what I do with all bills.” He did tell reporters that he was encouraged by the removal of the property tax components. “I think they got the message yesterday that [the] provision in the bill was not the way to go, and I’m glad they recognized that.” However, Quinn conceded that the city would have to find money somehow to cover the cost associated with the plan. “If they have any kind of pension reform, they need to have revenue to pay for it, but there’s many different creative ways to do that.”

Republicans in the House backed the plan, saying that it has to be done. “If we do nothing—we already have the roadmap for that. It’s called the city of Detroit,” said Elmhurst Republican Dennis Reboletti. “We can’t let the city of Chicago fail. And if the aldermen there chose to do nothing or choose to raise taxes, that’s their business.” The systems are governed by state law, so the General Assembly must sign off on changes. However, the revenue component of the plan can be handled at the local level. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin echoed that sentiment. “Doing nothing is not an option,” he said during floor debate. “We can’t ignore the fact that the city of Chicago is the economic engine of this state.” 

Senate Republicans did not see the issue the same way. They called on the Democrats in their chamber to put the breaks on the legislation, which they say moved too quickly. “It will be here in two weeks, and we’re happy to partner with you, but it must be a true partnership,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. Senate Republicans say they want to know what the plan is to deal with the city’s other underfunded pensions systems for teachers, firefighters and police officers. “What’s the plan? The place is on fire up there,” Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy said. Murphy said that members of his party are worried that they city might look to the state’s coffers to bail out those systems.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said that it is unrealistic to wait around for an omnibus bill that addresses all the systems because different bargaining units are working out their own negotiations with the city. But he said that if the city can work out a deal with labor, like his bill, lawmakers should approve it. “It’s irresponsible for us not to act when...labor and employer, labor and the city, has come to the table [on this bill],” he said. Raoul said that 31 out of the 34 bargaining representing those affected by the plan have offered no opposition to the bill.

Speaker Madigan had a busy day on the House floor today as the chamber also approved a constitutional amendment that he is sponsoring. House Joint Constitutional Amendment Resolution 52 prohibits denying the right to vote based on a person's race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation, income national origin or religion. Madigan said the amendment sends the message, “that in Illinois we believe that every legal voter should be treated equally and have the ability to vote for the candidate of their choice.”

Durkin also backed the speaker’s amendment, but others on his side of the aisle panned it as unnecessary. “This is a constitutional amendment looking for a problem,” said Rep. David Reis, a Republican from Willow Hill. Reis is a sponsor of legislation that would require voters to present identification at the polls. Madigan describe such requirements as “voter suppression” during the debate of his amendment.

If the Senate approves the proposal, which seems likely, it will appear before voters on the November ballot. While Madigan has not shared any ulterior motive for the amendment, some see the proposal as geared toward brining out the Democratic base for the general election.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Quinn says gaming expansion talks "on the right path," pans Chicago pension plan

By Jamey Dunn 

Gov. Pat Quinn today weighed in on some issues potentially facing lawmakers this spring session. The governor had some positive comments about a possible gambling expansion but criticized Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to address the underfunded pension systems for city workers.

Quinn has been viewed as the roadblock to long-proposed racetrack and casino gambling expansion in the state. While the governor signed off on allowing video poker in bars, truck stops and restaurants across Illinois as part of funding for the capitol construction plan, he has twice vetoed gambling expansions for casinos and horse-racing tracks that have been sent to his desk. But he told reporters in Chicago today that he thinks some progress has been made on the topic. He said that he would not support any gambling expansion unless it has strong ethics rules and oversight from the Illinois Gaming Board. A proposed Chicago casino, which would be owned by the city, has been the target of Quinn’s scrutiny. He says he backs the idea, but so far has not liked the way lawmakers have proposed structuring the oversight of a city casino. “You’ve got to have strong ethical standards, and I think they need to be enforced, and it has to be done by the independent Illinois Gaming Board,” Quinn said today. “I think we have kind of ironed that out. I think we’re on the right path.” The governor has also said in the past that he would not support an expansion unless the revenues went to fund education.

Quinn said he is willing to meet with those supporting an expansion bill and then said he thinks the “issue could come up this year.”

The governor had less than positive things to say about Emanuel’s proposal to reduce the city’s $19.5 billion unfunded liability for its workers pensions. The plan would ask employees to pay a larger portion toward their retirement benefits and reduce their annual cost of living adjustments. The city would also increase local property taxes to bring in an additional $50 million per year for five years beginning in 2016. Pensions for police, firefighters and teachers are not included in the plan. If those systems are added in, the city’s unfunded liability is more than $29 billion.

House Speaker Michael Madigan is sponsoring the measure, which passed in committee but failed to make it to a floor vote last week. As part of his budget proposal for next fiscal year, Quinn pitched a plan to offer property tax relief to many homeowners while extending the current income tax rates. Today, Quinn said he was not impressed by the mayor’s proposal. “I wouldn’t call a bill; I would call it a sketch. It kept changing by the hour,” he said. Quinn said he wants to see a “comprehensive” proposal to address the shortfall in the city’s pension systems, but he would not offer specifics. “If they think they’re just going to gouge property taxpayers, no can do. We’re not going to go that way,” he said. “Chicago has to address its own situation with respect to pension reform, but I think they need to be a whole lot more creative than I have seen so far.”

 Emanuel has pitched the concept as a hard-fought compromise worked out with unions. However, some labor groups do not support the bill. “We finally have a model that brings both reform and revenue together,” Emanuel told reporters at a different Chicago news conference today. “It was never anyone’s intention to have Springfield deal with that. That’s our responsibility. But I do believe, to actually give the 61,000 workers and retirees the certainty they deserve, you need reform and revenue. And we’ll deal with our responsibility.” The city’s pensions are governed by state law, so the General Assembly must approve any change. However, the city can increase the property tax on its own. A major sticking point in getting the bill passed is whether the increase will be included in the legislation. State lawmakers do not want to take the hit for a tax increase they believe should be approved at the local level. But unions want the security of knowing that the revenue would come with the benefit reductions instead of counting on city officials to approve the tax increase after their members’ benefits have already been cut.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Statehouse roundup

By Jamey Dunn

There was plenty going on at the Statehouse today, and it’s only the first week of April. A House committee approved a bill to reform Chicago’s pension system for city workers; a group of Democratic senators filed legislation that would make sweeping changes to the way the state funds schools; and the Senate voted in favor of allowing children with epilepsy to use medical marijuana. Here’s a rundown of what happened:

Chicago pension changes 
Two days after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented his proposal to stabilize the city’s pension systems for workers, a House committee approved the plan. It would ask workers to contribute more to the system and would reduce their cost of living increases. The city would increase local property taxes to bring in an additional $250 million in property taxes. The legislation is intended to cut the city’s unfunded pension liability of $19.5 billion in half over 40 years. The General Assembly must approve the plan because the city’s systems are governed by state law.

While Emanuel says he has union support for his plan, not all labor organizations are on board. John Cameron, political director for AFSCME Council 31, called the plan “clearly and indisputably unconstitutional.” Senate Bill 1992 seemed to be set up to move quickly thought the legislature today. House Speaker Michael Madigan popped his amendments onto the bill shortly before the hearing, and the Senate held its own hearing shortly after the House panel voted. But the House adjourned before taking a vote. Republican leaders said that they could not support the proposal because they had not had time to digest its contents, and they said that they would rather see a plan that included the city’s retirement systems for police, firefighters and teachers, too. “We careen from one crisis to the next,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “Absent a long term plan, I couldn’t advise our caucus to be in favor of this.” But supporters said that the city is talks with with those groups, too. “You can say we’ve piecemealed, but they’re different entities,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul. “This is about solving a very serious problem that impacts the city of Chicago. ... This is a product of negotiations. It’s been indicated that other negotiations are ongoing and things don’t just come to a point of resolution magically at the same time.”

Medical marijuana for epilepsy
The Senate approved SB 2636, which would allow children with epilepsy access to marijuana as a treatment under the state’s medical cannabis pilot program. Some families have found that a liquid form of the drug helps control the disease in children with frequent seizures. Parents say marijuana oil has helped their children, who may have hundreds or thousands of seizures a day,  to cut the number down to just a few. Last month, an Arizona judge ruled that two parents in the state could continue treating their son with the drug. Parents of epileptic children are pushing for legislation similar to SB 2636 in other states.

Campus smoking ban
The House approved SB 2202, which would ban smoking on public college campuses. The measure would apply to all university property and would let universities decide what the penalty would be for those who violate the ban. Opponents to the proposal argued that smoking policy decisions should be left to university trustees.

Education funding 
After a committee spent more than a year scrutinizing the way the state distributes funds to schools, Democratic lawmakers unveiled a proposal to revamp the education funding formula today. Bunker Hill Democratic Sen. Andy Manar, who chaired the committee, said that currently only about 44 percent of the state education spending is doled out based on local need. He said SB 16 would change that so financial need would come into play when distributing about 90 percent of funds. The proposal would also eliminate the individual block grant that is given to Chicago schools, something Republicans on the committee have supported. The plan would also require more spending transparency at the district level. Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford said that the debate around school funding has to move away from focusing on which districts would be funding “winners” and which would lose out on funds. “We all win. We all win. All the school districts win when dollars are going to the areas that need it the most,” she said.

Manar agreed. “The idea that we can have a few premier school districts in the state that exceed every expectation ... and have an incredible number that lag behind and call that a win in the state system is not a win in my book.” Both said that they were introducing the bill now as a jumping point for debate. “We could have waited until the last week of may negotiated behind closed doors, popped a bill out and then had a vote. That’s not the way to do this,” Manar said. “I’m hopeful that we will have a bipartisan set of cosponsors on this bill.”

Republicans in the Senate said that they had not been invited to today’s press conference and that they had not seen the 400-page bill until it was filed last night. “We welcome the discussion of fair education funding. We believe Illinois school children deserve every opportunity for a quality education — in every school in Illinois,” said a statement from Senate Republicans. “Our 2013 look at school funding found Illinois’ current funding formulas to be outdated, skewed to benefit Chicago and not performing as designed by law. We are reviewing the legislation just filed. At first blush — we have dozens of questions and comments to contribute to the discussion as it is reviewed in the Senate and perhaps the House of Representatives. We want educators, superintendents, schools boards and other education professionals to have that opportunity as well.”

Constitutional amendment for victims’ rights
Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang has been pushing for years to get rights for crime victims enshrined into the state’s Constitution. The House today approved his constitutional amendment to do just that. The amendment is part of a crowded field of efforts to get changes to the document before voters. House Speaker Michael Madigan is sponsoring two amendments. One would prevent discrimination against voters in the state and another would charge a 3 percent income tax surcharge on income over $1 million. The revenue from the additional tax would be used to fund education. Both of Madigan’s amendments have been approved by House committees. There are also two separate pushes to put amendments on the ballot through a citizens initiative. One, which is spearheaded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, would impose term limits on legislators. The other, which is backed by a well-funded committee, would change the way the state draws its legislative maps by taking the task out of the hands of lawmakers.