Thursday, November 07, 2013

Veto session is over, or is it?

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers approved the spending to set up the state’s concealed carry of firearms permit today, but other issues such as pension reform, tax breaks for corporations and enhanced penalties for gun offenders will have to wait.

The House adjourned abruptly this morning after a procedural move blocked a bill to increase mandatory sentences for drug crimes. Senate Bill 1342 would increase the mandatory minimum sentence for felons or gang members caught carrying a gun without a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card to four years. The proposal would require those convicted of the crime to serve 85 percent of their sentence.

Sponsor Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, removed a provision that would have applied to first-time offenders and in doing so was able to get the support of the National Rifle Association. But members of the black legislative caucus opposed his bill. Chicago Democratic Rep. Kenneth Dunkin used a House rule to block the bill from being called for a vote because the budgetary impact of the measure was not made available to lawmakers through a formal process known as a note. “I filed the note on behalf of the Illinois legislative black caucus for those of us in the House and the Senate,” Dunkin said. We have expressed time and time again that we have some basic problems with this mandatory minimum — that it’s too all encompassing, it takes in way too many people unnecessarily. The collateral damage is going to be overwhelming, and it’s going to wrap up too many innocent citizens. All we simply wanted to do was to make sure that the bill went after the bad guys.”

After the notes were filed and the information was not immediately available, House Speaker Michael Madigan quickly adjourned the fall session. Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored the state’s new concealed carry law, has been working on the bill with Zalewski. He said he was not exactly surprised that the bill did not move forward today because he said many Democrats told him they had reservations about it. “The speaker said that we’re not doing it today, more or less. ... We spent so many hours working on this and we had a deal. Now we’re not doing it today at all. So we’ve got to come back in December, hopefully we’ll call it then.” Several House members mentioned as they exited the chamber that they expect they might return in December to take up public pension legislation.

Zalewski, who has partnered with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to push for the proposal, blamed the Illinois Department of Corrections for not providing details of how the measure would affect its budget and prison population. The IDOC opposed the bill because officials said the department did not have the money or capacity to house the population in crease it would cause. “The Department of Corrections knows how much the bill costs. It’s their basis for their opposition of the bill. Yet they couldn’t walk down to the House clerk’s office and file it in time,” Zalewski said.

A spokesman for the department said the changes to the bill yesterday made it difficult for them to recalculate the impact quickly enough. “This is a very complex piece of legislation, and every time the sponsors file amendments changing provisions of the bill, there is substantial work and analysis that must be done to determine the impact of the changes,” Tom Shaer with IDOC said in an email. “Amendment 5 was just added to this bill yesterday afternoon. IDOC has had staff analyzing the impact of this amendment since that time. We have tremendous respect for everyone in this process and are obligated to furnish them with accurate information and thorough, well-researched projections.”

Members of the black caucus say they want to address the violence in a more holistic way that includes investments in education and rehabilitation programs. “There is a way to do both of these things. To make sure that the people that need to go into prison go into prison but that we also deal with the 40 percent of people who are there for nonviolent offenses, who need to be in cheaper alternative programs that give them a better chance and a shot at life. While also making sure that the folks who need to be there, and that’s felons and gang bangers, actually end up in prison — in a prison that has room for them to be there,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell. “I think that the mayor and Rep. Zalewski are trying to do the right thing, but the how really matters.” Some caucus members added that they were concerned that some of the previous felonies that would make offenders eligible for the mandatory minimum sentence were nonviolent offenses, such as shoplifting. They also said they would like to see a time limit, so that a crime that occurred a decade ago would not make someone eligible for a mandatory minimum sentence.

Zalewski said he has been working to negotiate the bill and that some who are opposed will never support the concept of mandatory minimum sentences. “I’ve negotiated on this bill for six weeks. ‘No’ is always going to be the answer for some people. You saw it today. You saw an unwillingness to have a debate about public policy and public safety. And [opponents] resorted to tricks because the votes were there. That’s what happens in this building sometimes.” But members of the black caucus disagree that the bill would have passed if called for a vote.

Meanwhile the Illinois Senate approved a supplemental spending bill worth about $50 million. The largest chunk of that, almost $34 million, is for implementation of the concealed carry licensing system. Only about $500,000 of the spending in the bill comes out of the General Revenue Fund. House Bill 209 does not include the $112 million that would be needed to give state workers back pay. In 2011, lawmakers did not appropriate the money for contractual raises for state employees, but a judge ordered the state to pay the increases with interest. House Speaker Michael Madigan has said that state agencies should work within their current budgets to find the money for the pay. Sen. Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline, voted in favor of the bill, which received broad bipartisan support. But he said that lawmakers would eventually need to approve the money for workers. “I just think it’s important that the Senate knows that we owe this money and at some point in our career, in our lives, we ought to pay it.”

With the House adjourning after less than an hour spent in session today, many issues were left without resolution. Supporters of tax break plans for Archer Daniels Midland Co. and the newly formed Office Max Inc. saw no urgency to call those measures for a vote in the Senate when it became clear that the House would not vote on them today. ADM is looking to move its headquarters from Decatur and is considering Chicago, among other options. Office Depot Inc., the product of a merger between Office Depot and Office Max, is choosing between Naperville, Office Max’s current headquarters, and Boca Raton, Fla., where Office Depot is based.

The House also did not take up a bill that passed in the Senate yesterday to restore Medicaid dental benefits to adults. Chicago Democratic Rep. Monique Davis said that she thinks that the House will likely approve that bill early next year. “I think it’s going to pass. I think it’s going to get a lot of support. We’ll get it when we first come back in January. We’ll be able to do that because that will be one of the first few days we can do that.” If lawmakers wait until January on some issues, they will need fewer votes to achieve an immediate effective date on legislation. “Don’t think because we’re not on that House floor that people aren’t working. People are working,” Davis said. Some issues may not have to wait until January. House Speaker Michael Madigan has said that he hopes lawmakers will hold a session to vote on changes to the state’s public pension systems. Legislative leaders met on the issue last week and say they feel progress was made. They sent components of a plan to the pension systems to get cost savings estimates. Those projections usually take about 10 days to produce.

Having another potential shot at a legislative session soon may give those who could not get their bills passed during veto session another bite at the apple. However, knowing that they could be back at the Statehouse in the near future, lawmakers may have deflated some issues by taking urgency out of the situation. Why take the controversial vote today that can be pushed off for another month? Still, with the historic passage of same-sex marriage, approval of a supplemental appropriation bill, and both chambers passing changes to the pension system for Chicago Park District employees, this veto session was more eventful than many in recent memory.

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