Sunday, October 20, 2013

Veto session preview

By Jamey Dunn

Our October issue has a helpful preview of the Illinois General Assembly's fall veto session. (It is only available in the print edition until Nov. 1, when it will become available online.) Many of the issues that could crop up are the same ones left unresolved at the end of the spring legislative session. But there have been some developments and changes since that story was published. Here are some things to watch for as lawmakers return to the Statehouse for veto session this week: 

Public pension changes 
Don’t expect much to happen this week on the most highly anticipated issue. Lawmakers working on a committee to propose changes to the state’s pension systems say they will not have legislation drafted in time for a vote in the first week of veto session. Details of a plan that they were considering went public in August. The plan would toss out the 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living adjustment retirees currently receive. Instead, cost-of-living adjustments would be half the rate of inflation. The rates would have a base level and cap set. The change would likely result in smaller COLAs for retirees, but if inflation goes up, so will the COLAs. Employees would contribute 1 percent less to their retirement benefits. The retirement age would not change. The proposal is estimated to reduce the almost $100 billion unfunded pension liability by $18.1 billion and save the state $145 billion over 30 years.

But some Republicans say the plan would not save enough money. They want to see some tweaks made, including decreasing the base guaranteed COLA, making the cut to employee contributions smaller, increasing the retirement age and offering an optional 401(k)-style plan to employees in all the pension systems. Right now, such a plan is only offered to university employees. The Republican members of the committee had these ideas scored by actuaries to estimate their potential savings and just got the numbers back at the end of last week. “We don’t have a bill that’s written yet. I don’t see us doing anything on pensions in veto next week,” said Naperville Republican Darlene Senger.

Aurora Democratic Sen. Linda Holmes said Democrats on the committee are open to the Republicans suggestions. However, ideas such as adding a 401(k) component or changing the retirement age could be non-starters. “I don’t think that our side really wants to touch retirement age,” she said. Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz said that while there will not be a lot of outward action on pensions, there will likely be a lot of behind-closed-doors meetings taking place this week among legislative leaders and members of the legislature. She says of the Republican proposals: “Personally I supported a bill that had a larger level of savings, so I don’t object to moving in that direction. But we have to find something that will meet everybody’s needs.” She said she hopes the committee will have a final plan to present to the General Assembly by the last week of veto session, which is scheduled to begin on November 5. “That is my fervent hope.” Lawmakers are not in session the last week of October. Nekritz said she thinks it is likely such a plan would get a hearing before a floor vote, but she said it might not be a procedural requirement. She said she would prefer a hearing. But she notes, “I don’t control the gavel.”

Gov. Pat Quinn will likely talk about little else in the coming weeks as he has made pension reform his top priority. He vetoed lawmakers’ pay this summer, saying they should not get it until a bill was passed. However a judge ruled against his veto, and they started getting their checks again in September. The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case and will likely hear arguments in the spring. Quinn is voluntarily not taking a paycheck. He says he will not take his pay until a bill is sent to his desk.

Same-sex marriage
Proponents are optimistic about passing same-sex marriage in the near future, but whether it will happen in the veto session is unclear. Some advocates say they have the votes but are not willing to indicate whom they have brought on board in the House. That makes sense because Republicans who have made their support public have faced protests and are now likely to have primary challengers. To pass as is, the bill would need 71 votes now. But if the bill’s sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, waits until January, the deadline to file petitions to run in the primary will have passed, and the bill would only need 60 votes. He opted not to call the bill at the end of the regular session because he said he did not have the votes, and some House members wanted time to poll their constituents.  Harris, as always, will not share his vote count. But he told the Chicago Tribune that now is the time to legalize same-sex marriage. “It's the right time, and it's the right thing to do” he said. “Momentum is in the direction of this vote.” Supporters and opponents have rallies at the Statehouse scheduled this week.

ADM tax breaks
Archer Daniels Midland announced earlier this month that it plans to move its headquarters from Decatur, where it has been based for more than 40 years. The company says it would keep jobs that are in Decatur now but would move about 100 positions to the new headquarters. It appears that Chicago is on ADM’s short list of potential locations for its headquarters, but ADM is seeking up to $24 million in tax breaks from state government during the next 20 years. The legislation is scheduled for a House committee hearing on Tuesday. Few lawmakers are vocally supporting the proposal, and there are plenty of critics. But if it seems that ADM might really leave the state, votes could line up behind the legislation. However, Quinn has said he will not sign legislation with tax breaks for ADM before changes to the pension systems are approved. “Our number one way to help business is to get pension reform. We need ADM and all of our big businesses to band together, put pressure on the legislature — the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans — to get a vote on the pension reform. That helps everybody. That helps every business. That helps every taxpayer,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago earlier this month. “I think we need to have a moratorium on any special legislation for tax breaks for corporations. We have to focus on pension reform.” But Quinn’s relationship with the legislature after he cut off their pay may be frosty enough that his opposition on any issue could potentially give it a boost.

Gun crime sentencing
Some Chicago leaders, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are calling for the legislature to pass tougher sentencing laws in the hopes of quelling the deadly gun violence taking place in parts of the city. The push comes after a shooting in a park injured 13 people, including a 3-year-old, last month. The National Rifle Association and prison watchdog groups oppose the measure. The watchdog groups worry that longer sentences would strain the state’s already crowded corrections system.

The NRA has illustrated its ability to stop a bill in its tracks many times in the General Assembly. So unless the sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski, can work out a deal with the group, it could be a tough battle. The legislation is scheduled for a House committee hearing on Tuesday. 

Committee Hearings
Several issues are scheduled for “subject matter only” hearings during the veto session. That means witnesses will likely come in to testify and lawmakers can ask questions, but no committee vote is taken on legislation.

  • Gambling expansion It seems unlikely that lawmakers will vote on a gaming bill during the veto session, but there is a House hearing on the topic scheduled for Wednesday. Quinn has not said that he would give a gaming bill the same treatment as an ADM tax break if it landed on his desk before pension reform. However, he has warned lawmakers in the past not get distracted by the “shiny object” of a gambling expansion when he feels they should be working to get pension changes passed. He has vetoed two gambling bills in the past and said last year that he could only approve one if it had strict regulations and the money went to education.
  • Budgetary issues Several House budget committees are holding hearings on potential supplemental appropriations. It is the time of year when agencies tend to come to lawmakers looking to patch budget holes. Union leaders may also be seeking an appropriation for workers’ back pay from raises there were promised but did not receive. Quinn’s budget staff has said that workers should get the money under a new deal the state made with the unions. However, House Speaker Michael Madigan seems less than warm to the idea. Since there are no bills drafted and in committee, it seems more likely that such budget issues might be tackled in January. Quinn may also be reluctant to sign more spending unless pension changes pass.
  • Paint disposal One hearing that may lead to legislation down the road is scheduled for November 4. Lawmakers are looking to create a program to ensure that paint is properly disposed of in the state. Holmes, who sponsors the Paint Stewardship Act, said the committee is seeking input and hopes to get an end product that sellers and industry can agree to. Under such a plan, a small fee would be added to the cost of paint, and the money would be used to set up the program. Holmes cautions that the idea is still in a very early stage and could see major changes as the process continues. “What we want to do is have everyone on board with it,” she said.
  • Retiree health care The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability is scheduled to hold a hearing on state retiree health benefits on Wednesday morning. We will have coverage on the blog.
Committee hearings are also scheduled on the topics of college affordability, performance-based funding for universities and giving underfunded K-12 schools a break from some statutory requirements. There will be a lot going on this week, but time will tell if much actually gets done. All those hearings may be in part window dressing because much of the big legislation will not be ready for prime time until the final week of veto session in November. Lawmakers may also not be too excited to jump onto controversial bills this week when they can always put the votes off for two more weeks. However, if a sponsor thinks the votes are lined up for a bill, he or she will want to call it before anyone has time for a change of heart.


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