Friday, June 01, 2012

Legislative action

 By Jamey Dunn

Besides passing a budget and considering pension reform, the General Assembly took action Thursday on several other issues.

 Campaign contributions 
Some good-government advocates are urging Gov. Quinn not to sign a bill that they say would roll back recent campaign finance reforms. Senate Bill 3722 would roll back the donation caps that went recently went into effect if a political group inserts itself into a race and starts spending money independently of candidate. The caps disappear if a such a group, known as a political action committee or superPAC, spends $100,000 or more on a local race or state legislative race and $250,000 or more on a statewide race.

“Gov. Quinn can and should veto this bill and protect the campaign finance system reforms he helped enact in 2009,” said Brian Gladstein, executive director of ICPR. "The governor signed the limits bill just a few years ago as part of what he called his 'year of reform.’ If he signs this bill, a lot of the work he did during that year will be for naught."

Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, a sponsor of the bill, said it came in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows such groups to raise and spend unlimited funds as long as they are not working with a candidate. He said that the limits must be lifted so candidates can keep outside groups from hijacking an election.

Early release 
 The General Assembly also sent a bill to the governor that supporters say would help address overcrowding in the state’s prisons. Senate Bill 2621 passed with bipartisan support. The measure would reinstate an early prison release program for inmates who earn good-time credits.

Gov. Pat Quinn suspended the Meritorious Good Time program after an escalated version got him in political hot water before the 2010 race for the governor’s office. The Department of Corrections quietly waived the requirement that inmates wait 60 days to use good-time credits, resulting in some inmates serving only a few weeks of their sentences. The Associated Press exposed the policy, and Quinn faced backlash during the campaign. He shut down all early release programs, and the topic was considered off the table.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a sponsor of the measure, said that the lack of an early release program has led to overcrowding and unsafe conditions in the state’s prisons. “Some of our inmates are living in really quite miserable conditions,” she said, adding that Illinois is in danger of being ordered by a judge to address its crowding problem. California was ordered to reduce its prison population and was left scrambling trying to find solutions in the midst of a budget crisis.

But lawmakers are hoping he will have a change of heart. The proposal would enact stricter regulations on who would be eligible for good time credits, and the governor’s office and the General Assembly would receive reports on all inmates who were released. A spokesperson for Quinn said he plans to review the bill.

Fees for parks
The Senate shot down a bill to fund upkeep of the state’s public parks.

The Department of Natural Resources says there is billion of dollars in deferred maintenance for the state’s parks. DNR says without dedicated funding, park services would slide further, and there is concern about potential closures. “Good luck going to some [parks] that used to be jewels in this state and finding a toilet that flushes,” said Olympia Fields Democratic Sen. Toi Hutchinson, sponsor of Senate Bill 1566.

The bill would have increased vehicle registration fees by $2. It would have allowed DNR to charge fees for usage of certain areas of parks, such as beaches and horse trails. It would also have allowed the department to charge out-of-state park visitors an entrance fee.

Mattoon Rep. Dale Righter said that Democrats have pulled money out of the DNR program to spend elsewhere. “That’s been a policy choice. This wasn’t some irresistible, unchangeable movement that we were faced with, so now we have to go once again and dig even deeper into people’s pockets.” He said they should cut elsewhere and use that money to save the parks. “That’s not right. At some point you just have to say no. Fund the parks. They are in horrible condition.”

Gaming Bill 

By Ashely Griffin 

This year, Gov. Pat Quinn will find legislation to expand gambling on his desk.

Last year, lawmakers passed a gaming expansion on the last day of the legislative session, but Quinn vowed to veto it, so supporters used a procedural method to keep it from reaching his hands. Sponsors say Senate Bill 1849 this year is an effort to address Quinn’s concerns about last year's bill.

On Thursday, SB1849 passed on the Senate floor, 30-26, after gaining approval from the House last week. The measure aims to open five casinos statewide: in Chicago, Park City, Danville, Rockford and in the south suburbs of Chicago. The exact location of the fifth casino would be up to the Illinois Gaming Board to decide. The bill includes slot machines at horse racing tracks but does not allow for slots at the Illinois State Fairgrounds or Chicago airports, which Quinn previously bashed publicly. The bill also aims to reduce the number of gaming positions available from 2,000 in the original bill to 1,600. Casinos currently are allowed 1,200 positions. The Chicago-owned casino proposed in the plan would be allowed 4,000 positions. Lang said the bill clarifies language about the oversight of the Chicago casino, something Quinn had cited previously as a concern. According to Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, the expansion could bring anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion dollars in revenue for the state, based on the economy.

Opponents said Link’s revenue estimates are too large and that such a large gaming expansion would be bad for the state. “This bill gives you more gambling, more revenue, more slots, more casinos, more jobs,” said Sen. Tim Bivins, a Republican from Dixon. “It also gives you something else more. It gives you more bankruptcies, more suicides. It gives you more gambling addictions. It gives you more divorces. It gives you more child abuse. It gives you more child neglect. It gives you more embezzlement. It gives you more domestic violence, more theft. It also gives you more overall crime, more exploitation of the poor.”

 Quinn came out strongly against the bill when it passed in the House. “As long as I’m governor, I will not support a gambling bill that falls well short of protecting the people of Illinois. It is clear that this gaming bill still needs significant improvement,” Quinn said.

 But Link plans try to win support from the governor by introducing a new bill that would bar campaign contributions from casinos and add $75 million to the Monetary Award Program, which helps needy students pay for college. Both are concepts that Quinn has publicly supported.

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