Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Veto session roundup

By Jamey Dunn

In addition to passing legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, Illinois lawmakers took up several other issues today.

Budget bill 
The Illinois House voted to approve additional spending for the current fiscal year, but the legislation did not include funding for back pay owed to state workers.

House Bill 209 contains $49.6 million in spending, the bulk of which, $30 million, would be used to implement the state’s new concealed carry law. Most of the money in the bill comes from special funds. Only about $500,000 of general revenue funds would be spent under the measure.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget office has been pushing for the $112 million to pay workers since a judge ordered the state to make good on the raises he initially denied. Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka also called upon lawmakers last week to approve the money for workers because the state is required to pay interest on the pay.

 “They’re still negotiating that. I think we’re going to have to come back. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to address that ... but I guess the negotiations have not gone well to be able to do that. I think that we want to deal with the pension[s] and we want to deal with other things,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Louis Arroyo. “The [legislative] leaders and the [appropriations committee] chairs are not ready to talk about that. [But] sooner or later, we’re going to have to pay for it, because if we’re paying interest on the money we’re incurring more debt. I don’t know how long we’re going to wait.” Arroyo, who is the chair of the public safety budget committee, said he thinks it is likely that lawmakers will be back in session in the near future to deal with other issues and that the back pay could possible be addressed then. “We’re coming back before the year is over,” he said.

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said that lawmakers could indeed be back in session soon if there is a deal reached on public pension changes. Legislative leaders worked through some ideas last week that the pension systems are now analyzing to determine potential savings. Brown said that process would likely take about 10 days. “The speaker and I think, [Senate] President [John] Cullerton and others have said, when that’s done, if there’s an agreement, they’ll reconvene the legislature to take action.” But Brown said Madigan does not intend for there to be a vote on back pay at that time. “I’m not aware of any of that having anything to do with additional spending,” he said. “I am sure there are people out there who think that. I think the governor thinks that, but I’m not sure that there’s much of the legislature that’s subscribers to that idea.”

Brown said he does not think many in the House are interested in approving more GRF spending. “I think the speakers’ view on this other issues is that the agencies were granted lump sums. It’s really up to them to manage that. I don’t think that position has changed. There appears to be some additional revenue. I think the general view of the House has been over the last several years is if there’s revenue that comes in that we don’t know about in May, that ought to go to paying old bills. That ought to be our top priority.”

Quinn is also seeking an additional $40 million to fund the Department of Corrections. That money was not included in the legislation.

The bill was approved with broad bipartisan support. However, several Republicans supporters of concealed carry complained that the money to set up a concealed carry permitting system was tied to other spending that would not have been able to pass on its own. The legislation still needs Senate approval to make it to Quinn’s desk.

Juvenile justice
A House committee approved a bill that would create an independent ombudsman to oversee the Department of Juvenile Justice. The department has entered into a legal consent decree that requires it to improve education, mental health treatment and safety for detainees. Experts who created recommendations for the department found that juvenile detention centers were not offering the education required by law and lacked adequate mental health staffing. Fifteen percent of youth in the state’s system reported, as part of a Justice Department survey, that they had been sexually assaulted by other inmates or staff. Under Senate Bill 2352, the ombudsman would be able to visit detention centers unannounced and meet confidentially with juveniles.

The department supports the legislation. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was neutral on the bill. However, Adrienne Alexander, policy and legislative specialist for AFSCME Council 31, said the union, which represents DoJJ employees, is concerned about where the department will get funding for the new position, given that it is not meeting key missions such as education. “We look forward to details on how exactly it can be done, how it can be funded and how it will be implemented.” Beth Compton, general counsel for the department, said the ombudsman could be a key component to improvements without being too costly. “The ombudsman will be a very important piece at a relatively modest investment.”

Gun sentencing 
Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Chicago Democrat, said today that changes to his proposal to increase penalties for gun crimes have made the plan “narrowly tailored” and would bring down the cost of his proposal.

SB 1342 would require first-time offenders who commit an aggravated unlawful use of a weapon to serve 85 percent of a one-year sentence. Knowingly carrying a loaded gun in public without a Firearm Owners Identification Card can result in an aggravated unlawful use of a weapon charge. A felon or gang member would receive a four-year sentence. The proposal would also bar gun offenders from participating in some programs that can substantially shorten their sentences, such as a boot camp program for offenders.

Zalewski’s original proposal called for 3three years for a first-time offender and five years for felons and gang members. A House committee approved the bill, but Zalewski said he is still working to find the votes to pass it in the House. He faces opposition from the National Rifle Association over the required penalties for first-time offenders. “The sponsor has worked very hard to try to craft a bill, and we just haven’t been able to come to a meeting of the minds on this one issue,” said Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the NRA. He said  lawmakers need to consider recent court rulings that upheld gun owners’ rights to carry firearms in public. “Carrying a gun is no longer, per se, a criminal offense.”

Some Democrats are also opposed to the bill because they say there is no proof that mandatory sentencing would help curb gun violence over the long term. “The rest of the country is getting away from mandatory minimums,” said Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz. “Mandatory minimums do nothing about recidivism.” The Illinois Department of Corrections opposed the bill because officials say the department could not afford the longer sentences. Bryan Gleckler, chief of staff for IDoC, said that the bill would increase the corrections population by almost 3,000 inmates in 10 years and cost the department $71.3 million annually. “We have a system that is stressed and have very, very limited resources to manage the existing population that we have within our custody,” he said. “There’s no capacity to take this additional population on.”

But the plan has support from Republicans who formerly served as prosecutors. Elmhurst Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti helped Zalewski revise the proposal. “I think it’s a pretty thoughtful approach,” he said. Reboletti said is open to more negotiation. However, he said he thinks changes to sentences are needed to deter gun crimes and keep gang members from having a revolving door experience at IDoC only to return to the streets armed. “I don’t know what other alternatives there are.” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, who also worked as a prosecutor before coming to the legislature, has said he supports enhancing sentences for gun crimes.


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