Wednesday, March 21, 2012

House takes up legislative scholarships and eavesdropping law

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House hit the ground running when it returned today after the state’s primary election. The chamber took votes on two controversial issues, with mixed results.

The House approved House Bill 3810, a measure banning scholarships handed out by legislators. The legislative scholarship program has been a target of ire for years after reports that some lawmakers gave the scholarships to the children of campaign contributors and political allies. Rep. Fred Crespo, a sponsor of the HB 3810, said before today’s vote was cast, “A no vote means that you’re enabling unethical behavior.”

Gov. Pat Quinn pushed for the elimination of the program with an amendatory veto last year. But the amended bill was not called for a vote. “I applaud the members of the House for voting to end the legislative scholarship program. As I have repeatedly advocated in the past, scholarships — paid for by Illinois taxpayers — should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need,” Quinn said today in a written statement. “I urge the Senate to pass this legislation swiftly.” Quinn wants the money spent on legislative scholarships to go instead toward the need-based Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) grants. Administrators of the MAP grant program announced today that it has run out of money for the year, and any students who applied after March 14 will not receive assistance.

But many lawmakers argued that the legislative scholarships are a relatively low cost way to ensure that some form of financial aid goes to students in every legislative district in the state. The program costs universities about $13.5 million annually. “This is not a significant cost to the universities,” said Rep. Jim Sacia, who has local superintendents choose the students that receive waivers in his district. Some lawmakers use independent panels to award the scholarships to avoid the appearance of corruption. “What a shame that some of our colleagues have abused this system. This is one of the finest opportunities for young people out there. It gives kids the opportunity to go [to college] who don’t have the financial wherewithal,” said Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican.

Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said that he thinks there is enough support for the bill to pass in the Senate.

The House voted down a measure that would allow citizens to make audio recordings of on-duty police officers. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a sponsor of HB 3944, said that the measure was meant to “level the playing field” because police officers can record suspects — such as a recording made at a DUI stop — while taping a police officer is a felony that can carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. “It would allow a citizen to record a public officer performing public duties on public property,” the Northbrook Democrat said of her bill. Illinois' strict provision in its eavesdropping law applying to public officials has come under scrutiny lately as some high-profile cases have played out in the state’s courts. Several defendants arrested for recording police have said that they had no idea they were breaking the law until they found themselves facing felony charges.

Opponents to HB 3944 said that allowing citizens to record on-duty officers could interfere with police operations. Chicago Democratic Rep. Dena Carli, a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department, said:  “These officers go out there on a daily basis. It’s not a level playing field when we go out there. We don’t know what we’re going to encounter, what we’re going to see, what we’re going to do, if we’re even going to come home.” Nekrtiz has said laws are already in place that would allow police to keep citizens from getting in the way of their work.

Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, voted against the bill, but he said he thinks the issue does need to be addressed. “I think something needs to be done, and I think often times addressing this type of a complicated issue in this body takes some time. I think the effort is there. I think maybe it needs a little more work to be soup.”


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