Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Politics, politics, politics

By Bethany Jaeger
Dark shades blocked the sunshine from entering a packed committee room at the Capitol Wednesday, when a nasty political storm between Senate Democrats exposed reasons the legislative process has been so frustrating the past few years.

It’s interesting that the Democrats easily approved a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive income tax, potentially affecting taxpayers statewide. Yet, they spent two hours personally attacking each other while debating a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to kick them out of office in a recall election. The threat of losing office strikes a deep nerve.

Recall of elected officials
Constitutional amendment 28 The two-hour debate about a recall provision to the state Constitution was, at times, laughable at the same time it was inappropriately personal and egotistical. It’s all rooted in political vendettas and perception of power. More than once, Senate President Emil Jones Jr. had heated exchanges with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who publicly stated that the Senate was “up to shenanigans” and intended to kill the recall measure. Jones said that was wrong and disrespectful and called for an apology, which he never got. At another point, Sen. Iris Martinez, assistant majority leader from Chicago, said she would lead a recall effort against the Democratic sponsor, Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, because he supported her opponent in the last election.

Although dramatic, the back-and-forth banter did raise an important question: Which officeholders should be eligible to be recalled? The version that won House approval last week includes statewide officeholders — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer — as well as individual legislators. But it does not include judges and local officials.

Sen. Rickey Hendon and Sen. Donne Trotter, both Chicago Democrats, are changing the measure to include judges and local officials.

Franks, Quinn and Watson said after committee that they believed — and that it would be perceived — that the changes were intended to bog down the measure so that the recall provision wouldn’t have enough time to be approved by both chambers before May 4. Constitutional amendments must be approved by then to appear on the November ballot.

Trotter flatly denied that perception, saying, “I did not pick up this bill to kill it.” He added that he intends to make the bill “better” and that there’s a “sense of unreadiness” to advance the measure. That’s especially because the House sat on it from August until last week and left little time for the Senate to consider it.

So Trotter held the measure in committee, meaning it has to move through both chambers in the six session days scheduled before May 4.

Progressive income tax
Constitutional amendment 92 – The state income tax would change from the current flat rate — 3 percent for individuals and 5 percent for businesses — to a progressive rate that would increase with income levels. Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat and sponsor of the measure, described Illinois’ flat tax as an “obstacle” to addressing the state’s long-term problems of debt and retiree health care obligations. Sen. Michael Frerichs, a Gifford Democrat and co-sponsor, said the proposal is about “tax fairness.”

But the constitutional amendment would not set new tax rates or income guidelines. Those would be up to legislators to debate and put into law once voters approved the change to the state Constitution.

Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican, opposed the idea of going to the voters right now for that reason. “We’re putting this question that has very broad implications to a body and a government right now that people don’t have confidence in, and they have no control over the outcome of this process once it starts,” she said.

Business groups oppose the measure.

Ethics reform
HB 824 The Senate committee unanimously approved a measure to ban so-called pay-to-play politics, or trading campaign contributions for state contracts. Like a House version (HB 1) that received unanimous support last year, the Senate measure would prohibit businesses from donating to political campaigns of officeholders whose offices grant the contracts. It also would ban political contributions to candidates for the office that would grant the contract, as well as contributions to statewide political parties that can fund the officeholders. Stronger disclosure provisions would require companies with state contracts worth more than $50,000 to report political contributions to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Sen. Debbie Halvorson, a Crete Democrat and congressional candidate, has taken some heat in the press for not allowing the House version to move in the Senate. She said during committee, “Our frustration has been that nobody believes that anybody really wants true reform, which is absolutely not true. We want it. We’re going to get it.” She said she believed this version could win approval by both chambers.

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson of Greenville wasn’t so confident, saying politics between the two chambers could prevent any ethics reform from being enacted. Radogno, the deputy minority leader, added that a more comprehensive measure that includes pension reforms also sits dormant even though it already worked through the House and the Senate. But it can’t move to the governor’s desk until the Senate approves the same language as the House.

Harmon said the House sponsor, Rep. John Fritchey, indicated they could compromise to ensure both chambers approve the same language. That wasn’t enough for Radogno. “The issue isn’t about compromise,” she said. “The issue isn’t about coming up with a good bill. Both chambers have done that independently. The issue is procedural and the gamesmanship that’s going on there, where we keep lobbing bills — all good bills — back and forth across the rotunda.”

Smoking in casinos
SB 2707 Illinois’ riverboats would be allowed to let patrons smoke inside for five years under an exemption to the statewide smoking ban, as approved by the Senate committee on a vote of 7-6. Minority Leader Watson, the sponsor, said the exemption would help riverboats recoup millions of dollars lost after the smoking ban took effect. When riverboats lose money, the state collects less gaming tax revenues. Opponents argue that the decrease in gaming revenues is rooted in the slowing economy, not an effect of the smoking ban.

Reorganization of state agency functions
Executive Order 801 A Senate committee rejected Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s executive order that would combine functions of three more state agencies, intended to save about $121 million. He previously consolidated the procurement and human resource functions of the revenue and the corrections departments but drew criticism from labor unions, which fear more consolidations would result in job losses and loss of services.

Politics of health care
By Patrick O’Brien
A House committee approved a universal health care plan yesterday, but the proposal may have more to do with politics than policy and appears to have little chance of advancing.

The measure, HB 311 called the Healthy Illinois Act, seems headed for debate in the full House, however. House Speaker Michael Madigan and Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie added themselves as sponsors to the measure Monday.

Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican, said today that the issue is being used to put lawmakers on the spot before the November elections. “All of the sudden we find the speaker as cosponsor of this bill. It could be that they’re covering themselves with the public.”

Madigan previously criticized fellow lawmakers for not being able to make tough political decisions and cast tough votes. Health care has become an important issue this year, and efforts by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to expand the state’s programs have met resistance from courts and from lawmakers.

The health care plan that advanced out of committee Tuesday, however, would constitute a much larger expansion of health care than the governor’s proposals. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers, a Chicago Democrat, would abolish private ownership of for-profit hospitals.

Nicholas Skala of Physicians for a National Health Plan said the plan would combine taxpayer money with employer contributions and a payroll tax to fund the system. The cost is unknown, but supporters said it would help lower costs and eliminate administrative waste. The system would absorb all health care spending in the state, which was last measured at $64 billion in a 2000 study.

After sitting on the measure since last January, Flowers said she brought the proposal to the committee because of health care horror stories in her district.

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