Friday, April 05, 2013

Return-to-session preview

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers return from a two-week break in the legislative session to begin the slog through the final two months before the May 31 adjournment date. They have plenty to consider in the coming weeks:

Pension changes 
Before the House went on break, the chamber took an important vote on changes to state employees’ retirement benefits. They approved House Bill 1165 on a vote of 66 to 50. The bill would cap the amount of salary on which retirees could earn the compounded 3 percent cost of living adjustment [COLA] at $25,000. Anyone earning more pension income would receive a flat COLA of $750 annually. Under the proposal, retirees would not be eligible for a COLA until they have been retired for five years or they reach age 67, whichever comes first. The bill also would apply to current retirees who are now receiving COLAs. Supporters of pension changes said this was perhaps the most difficult vote on the issue taken so far. The House has already approved legislation that would cap pensionable salary at the Social Security wage base, which is $113,700 in 2013, or the employee's current salary, whichever is greater, and a bill that would increase the retirement age for employees younger than 46. Employees from 40 to 45 would see a one-year increase, employees 35 to 39 would see a three-year increase and employees 34 and younger would see a five-year increase.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said those components, potentially along with some other provisions that have been up for debate recently, would likely be part of comprehensive legislation yet to come. “I think we’re in a position to finalize the preparation of the bill and then move a bill from the House to the Senate that treats all aspects of the problem,” he said.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who has been leading the push for pension changes in the House, said she and Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, her counterpart on the issue in the other chamber, have spent the two-week break trying to form a picture of what might be in the final plan. “When we last voted to changes to the COLA, the speaker talked about how the next step would be to put together a comprehensive package,” she said. “So I have put together a list of things that I think we need to be considering.” But Nekritz said it is too soon for her to pin down what may actually end up in that final plan or when it may be up for a committee hearing or floor vote. “At this point, I don’t anticipate that that would happened in the next two weeks, but I've been wrong before.”

Same sex marriage 
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments related to same sex marriage last week, and longtime observers say the court may opt to rule portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. If that happens, couples in states that have same sex marriage could become eligible for the federal benefits currently available only to heterosexual married couples.

Illinois U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, announced his support of same sex marriage this week. Kirk, who suffered from a debilitating stroke last year and has been working hard at recovery, said his personal experience paved the way for his stance. “Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back — government has no place in the middle,” Kirk said in a prepared statement.

Legislation to legalize same sex marriage in Illinois has passed in the Senate, but Madigan said it is about a dozen votes shy of the support needed for it to clear the House.

Concealed carry 
A federal court ruled the state’s ban on the concealed carrying of firearms unconstitutional and gave Illinois a deadline for approving legislation to regulate it. The House has followed a similar process on this issue as it has on pensions. However, the chamber does not yet seem close to agreement on any final comprehensive plan for concealed carry. Expect to see more debate on the topic, as well as other gun related issues, such as bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, in the coming weeks.

Medical marijuana 
Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang thinks this might be the session that a bill to legalize the use of marijuana to treat chronic medical conditions might gain the needed backing to pass in the House. A House committee approved House Bill 1 in March, and Lang said the legislation is gaining support. He says the measure is just a couple votes shy of being passed. Lang has said many times that if every lawmaker who told him they supported the idea would cast a vote in favor of the plan, he would have far more support than the majority he needs. He has called medical marijuana bills for three separate floor votes in the House, only to watch them fail. But he is dealing with many new lawmakers this time around, so perhaps it is Lang’s year. The Senate has approved medical marijuana legislation in the past.

Gaming expansion
Expect efforts to pass another gaming expansion plan in the final months of the scheduled spring session. Lang and Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, who have backed other expansion plans, say they would like to try again. Lawmakers approved two gambling bills in recent years, only to have them vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn. The newest proposal contains many of the provisions that were in those two bills, but it also has stricter regulations and a ban on campaign contributions from casino owners, which Quinn has called for many times. But the bill has a wild card provision: It would legalize some forms of online gambling, which would fall under the supervision of the Illinois Lottery. The lottery currently sells tickets online, but allowing online gaming such as Internet poker would be a huge gambling expansion. Residents would be able to place bets from their computers or even their smart phones. Two other states, Nevada and New Jersey, have approved such online gambling. The idea is new, and Quinn has been careful not to be too critical of the legislation in public. However, as the negotiations move in, it is possible this component could make him shy away because he has said he opposes “top heavy” bills that would make gambling in the state too readily available. At one point, the governor was even shying away from putting slot machines at horse racing tracks, an idea he seems to have softened to if the state revenues earned are spent on education.

Budget
As lawmakers debate these and other issues, they will also be working to craft a budget for the next fiscal year. That plan will likely contain some controversial cuts. Spending pressures such as pension costs and health care expenses are growing, and competing interests will be vigorously battling over resources for Fiscal Year 2014.

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