Friday, May 31, 2013

Final state budget bills
sent to the governor

By Meredith Colias and Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Senate today approved the last two budget bills that the House sent over. Republicans echoed the same compliant they have had about the other pieces of the budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which was crafted by Democrats from both chambers.

House Bill 214 is general services spending, the General Assembly’s budget and the constitutional officers' budgets. HB 215 is public safety and transportation spending, Illinois Department of Corrections budget, capital construction spending for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' budget. “It’s a responsible budget. We live within our means; we fund key programs; we’re paying down our bills,” said Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski.

Sen. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, called the budget incomplete because it does not contain funds earmarked to pay back wages owed to state workers. “There’s a $140 million hole in this budget out of the gate,” he said.

“We’ll have to come back in the fall for a supplemental” spending bill to cover the back pay,” said Lake Barrington Republican Sen. Dan Duffy. “We should stay down here as long as we have to — all night and all summer if we have to — to come up with a balanced budget to pay down our bills.”

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 2555 and SB 2556, which contain the funding for K-12 and higher education, passed the House on the final day of the spring session and now go to the governor. K-12 education funding has been cut severely since 2009, and Homewood Democratic Rep. William Davis said that he was pleased that unexpected tax revenues allowed general state aid to be held flat for the next fiscal year because the state has an obligation to fund education. “We have to put our money where our mouths are,” said Davis, who chairs the House education budgeting committee.

Even though the K-12 education budget for Fiscal Year 2014 includes more than $6.6 billion in funding, school districts will still have to make due with an 89 percent proration for general state aid and a 64 percent proration for transportation. Funding for bilingual education and early childhood education will remain flat. Republicans criticized smaller parts of the more than $1.9 billion higher education budget, such as $600,000 for a Quad Cities manufacturing center at Western Illinois University. “If you are going to vote for this budget, I get it. But I am not going to support a budget that is a sham,” Macomb Republican Rep. Norine Hammond said.

The dismal state of funding for universities has forced many to delay maintenance, institute hiring freezes and look for other ways to supplement their budgets, including raising tuition. Rep. Chad Hays, a Republican from Catlin, said he is concerned that tuition increases are pricing Illinois schools out of range for average people. “Public education is getting elbowed off the table,” Hays said. “We are pricing the average family out of the higher education arena. The state can't be everything to everyone. We have to figure out where our priorities are.”

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Senate approves legislation
to regulate 'fracking' ventures

By Jamey Dunn

A bill to regulate horizontal fracturing is headed to Gov. Pat Quinn, who plans to sign the bill.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and natural gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking.

Senate Bill 1715 would set standards for the construction of fracking wells, as well as for the storage and disposal of what is used in the process. If fracking chemicals are found in water, it would assumed that it was the fracking well operator's fault, and the operator would be required to prove otherwise.   It also sets fees for permits at $13,500 per well. The measure would set the tax on oil or gas extracted from fracking wells at 3 percent for the first two years of the life of a well and then on a sliding scale based on production.

Senate Bill 1715  has a broad coalition of supporters, including business groups, unions and some environmental organizations, which dubbed it the strictest fracking regulations in the nation. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, permits the agency has reviewed indicate that fracking is already taking place in the state. Supporters also tout the economic development that fracking would bring to struggling southern Illinois economies. At present, the state does not have laws specifically regulating fracking. Democratic Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign told senators tonight that “the choice is between regulated responsible fracking” or the “wild West.”

But supporters of a moratorium say the state should slow down and wait on the results of some studies, that are under way. “There’s still a lot of questions out there that need to be asked. We’re talking about water contamination,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Iris Martinez. “These studies are still pending out there. ... I’m just very scared about the environment. I am very worried about what these reports might have to say about what fracking has done in other states. I think we can wait a little bit when it comes to lives and our environment.”

Frerichs responded by saying that lawmakers must move to regulate fracking now. “It is not between a moratorium and fracking. Fracking has already come into the state.”

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Lawmakers pass concealed-carry compromise, send it to governor

By Jamey Dunn 

After months of back and forth on the issue, the Illinois General Assembly approved a bill to regulate the carry of concealed weapons in the state.

“This is an historic day for law-abiding gun owners in this state because they’re going to get to exercise their Second Amendment right,” said Harrisburg Democrat Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored House Bill 183.

In December, the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s ban on carrying firearms in public, which is the last of its kind in the nation, is unconstitutional. The court gave the General Assembly 180 days to pass a law to regulate carry. The court’s opinion said the state could set reasonable restrictions on carry, such as training requirements for licenses and banning guns in certain places. The deadline set by the court falls on June 9.

When a Senate committee voted down the House’s bill early this week, it seemed that the deadline could come and go without legislation. But lawmakers from both chambers reached a last-minute deal, and both the House and the Senate approved Senate Bill 183 on the last day of the regular legislative session. Under Senate Bill 183, concealed-carry license applicants would have to complete 16 hours of training and pay a $150 fee. The license would be good for five years and permit them to carry in all areas of the state.

Along with the carry bill, lawmakers also sent a gun control measure to Gov. Pat Quinn. Under HB 1189, a resident who sell guns in private sale would have to confirm with the Illinois State Police that the buyer’s Firearm Owner's Identification Card is valid. The seller would call the police and provide the buyer's FOID number for verification. The bill also gives sellers the option of paying a federally licensed firearms dealer to run a background check on the buyer. Gun owners would be required to report lost or stolen firearms to local police within 72 hours.

The degree to which local governments could regulate carry was the biggest point of contention throughout concealed-carry negotiations. The plan preferred by many Senate Democrats would have given the Chicago police commissioner veto power over licenses for carrying in the city. The bill the House approved would have eliminated all local gun ordinances. Opponents of the original Senate proposal said it would give a bureaucrat the power to arbitrarily reject applications. Those who objected to the House plan said that it was a broad overreach, and even it’s own sponsor called it “absolute atomic preemption” of home rule powers.

“The city [of Chicago] said that was unacceptable. We listened to the city yesterday,” said Phelps. In a rare move, the city shared the same stance on the bill as the National Rifle Association. Both were neutral on the bill. “This bill strikes a better balance between the rights of gun owners and the unique public safety needs of Chicago and other municipalities than previous proposals,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a prepared statement. “This legislation will allow Chicago to set its own policies on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines, reporting of lost and stolen guns, and the location of gun shops. It also prohibits carrying loaded guns on public transportation, in our parks and schools, in bars and in government buildings.”

House Bill 183 would leave most local ordinances in place. Chicago’s assault weapons ban would remain. But any local governments that might want to ban assault weapons in the future should act fast. The bill takes that power away from home rule units 10 days after it goes into effect. The measure would waive some local restrictions for carry permit holders. For example, if a home rule government has a high-capacity magazine ban, someone with a carry permit could still carry a gun with a magazine that falls below the ban. The legislation also allows any FOID card owner to transport any gun that is not banned at the state or federal level through any part of the state, regardless of local law. The gun would have to be unloaded and properly stored in a vehicle.

Opponents said that these exemptions go to far. “It’s a reach beyond concealed carry,” said Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford. “Our village ordinances matter, and we need them to stay intact.” The measure bans guns from several places, including parks, schools and public gatherings such as street fairs. Some who voted against the bill in the House said that more places should have been added to the list. “Do you really need a gun at the beach? And where are you going to conceal it at the beach?” asked Chicago Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy. She called on lawmakers to spend more time working on a bill. “It’s not soup. It’s close. It’s brothy, but it’s not soup.”

Democratic Sen. Gary Forby of Benton, who also sponsors the bill, acknowledged there are provisions that those on both sides of the issue do not like. But, he said, that is the nature of compromise. “I think that we got a bill everyone can live with.”

SB 183 had some components of the carry proposal that was originally pitched in Senate, and gun control advocates in both chambers said it made them feel a bit more comfortable with the prospect of concealed carry in the state. “It certainly makes me feel a lot better and others a lot better about what we did with concealed carry,” said Rep. Christian Mitchell, a Democrat from Chicago.

Mahomet Republican Sen. Chapin Rose raised doubts about the state police's ability to handle the volume of calls from buyers checking FOID cards. A recent audit of the FOID division of the state police found it was month behind on processing applications. “Somehow, I’m going to trust that we’re going to call this number and all is well?” he asked. “I don’t trust the state police to get this right.”

But sponsor Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Chicago Democrat, said he is confident that the state police can handle the calls. “This is a common sense reform that state police are equipped to do,” he said. “This is something that makes sense for a lot of reasons within the realm of public safety.” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said that instead of rejecting the bill, lawmakers should work to make sure the problems with the FOID application system are worked out. “If we have a lack of faith in the state police system, then let’s fix it,” she said. “I don’t think we should be quibbling over details that can and should be solved.”

A ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines failed in the Senate today. House Bill 1346 would have banned the sale of magazines that hold 10 or more bullets. The measure would not have required residents who currently own such magazines to give them up. Sponsor Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat from Park Ridge, said his goal was to regulate gun manufacturers, not impede on the rights of individual gun owners. “The gun industry has essentially been able to dictate policy to the American people for too long, for much too long,” he said. “And no one has said to them by law that you need to be held more accountable for what you create. ... We have to figure out a way to limit the damage these weapons can cause.”

 A Senate committee approved the measure after the parents of victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newton, Conn., gave testimony in favor of the plan. Opponents said the bill would not make the state safer. “If I were to make a list of everything that is effective and not effective ... this would be at the bottom of the list of things that are not effective,” said Dixon Republican Sen. Tim Bivins.

Quinn’s office said he plans to review the carry bill. But the governor did release a statement on the failure of the magazine ban. “I met with the families of Newtown, Conn., as did many lawmakers, and we have seen the devastation that high-capacity ammunition magazines have done to families across our nation. “Today, lawmakers had the opportunity to minimize the chance of this unthinkable violence happening in Illinois. “I am very disappointed that members did not pass commonsense legislation that would have no impact on hunting,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. Quinn called for a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on assault weapons in his State of the State address. “I will continue to fight for limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines in our state.”

 Last year, Quinn used his amendatory veto power to tack an assault weapons ban onto an unrelated bill regarding ammunition. It is possible he would make a similar move with either of the bills that passed today. The concealed carry legislation passed with enough votes to override a veto.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

What to watch for on the last day of the legislature's spring session

By Meredith Colias and Jamey Dunn 

The Illinois General Assembly heads toward its final day tomorrow with plenty of issues still to address.

Here some things to watch for …

Same-sex marriage 
With a same-sex marriage vote possibly looming tomorrow, supporters at the Capitol urged lawmakers today to take up the issue before adjournment. Teresa Volpe, who came with her partner and young children, said it was “about the message that is being sent to our family.” Volpe said she wanted to show her children “they are not born into a society of inequality.”

The bill has been dormant in the House since February, when the Senate ushered it through the chamber on Valentine's Day. Since then, its sponsor, Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, has been secretive on its House prospects. Whether Harris has the votes to secure its passage is still unknown. Many undecided legislators are not publicly saying whether they will support the legislation, waiting until the final moment to reveal their intentions. Illinois barely passed civil unions in 2010, 61 to 52, and not all legislators who supported it then may necessarily support same-sex marriage now if the vote is called. President Barack Obama, a former Illinois state senator, waited until later in his presidency to publicly support same-sex marriage. During an appearance this week in Chicago, he urged the House to take up the legislation, Senate Bill 10.

Budget bills 
The House still needs to vote on budgets for K-12 and higher education. Better-than-expected tax revenues are allowing the legislature to avoid cuts proposed in the governor’s March budget next year for general state aid, transportation, bilingual and early childhood education. The legislature’s higher education budget also avoids a 5 percent cut the governor called for, as well.

The K-12 funding is included in Senate Bill 2555.  The higher education funding is included in Senate Bill 2556.

The Senate plans to take up two budget bills tomorrow as well:

  • House Bill 214 is general services spending, the General Assembly’s budget and the constitutional officers' budgets.
  • HB 215 is public safety and transportation spending, Illinois Department of Corrections budget, capital construction spending for the next fiscal year and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources budget. Both have been approved by the House.

Health insurance exchange 
The bill authorizing the “Obamacare” online insurance marketplace exchange passed the Senate and awaits a vote in the House to confirm or reject changes the Senate made that need to be reconciled before the legislation can be sent to the governor. Individuals would be allowed to purchase health insurance plans if they do not receive health insurance through an employer. The exchange is scheduled to begin in 2014. The bill is House Bill 3227.

Speed limit increase
A bill increasing the highway speed limit to 70 mph in most of downstate Illinois has passed both chambers and now heads to the governor. Freshman Republican Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove sponsored the Senate version. Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will, Madison and St. Clair counties would be able to opt out of the increase. The bill is Senate Bill 2356.

Drones 
A bill narrowly defining drone use by law enforcement passed the House, and now the Senate needs to take up changes the House made. The Senate version allowed law enforcement to use a drone quickly to prevent extensive damage to property. The House version rejects that. The bill is Senate Bill 1587.

Pension changes 
The House and Senate appear to have reached an impasse on the issue, but anything can happen on the last day of session. Keep an eye out for an attempt at a last-minute compromise.

Gaming 
Blue Island Democratic Rep. Robert Rita, the sponsor of SB 1739, said today that he hopes to have a final bill tomorrow. It wouldn’t be the end of session without a push for a gambling expansion.

Concealed carry of firearms
Players from both chambers are reportedly meeting on this issue. The two bills from each chamber are not that far apart, so a compromise bill is a possibility.

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Competing plans for pension changes are at a standoff

By Jamey Dunn

Shortly after the Illinois House approved a shift of future pension costs to universities and community colleges, the Senate voted down House Speaker Michael Madigan’s pension reform bill.

With only one day left until the scheduled adjournment of the General Assembly's spring session, it is beginning to seem like a real possibility that Senate Bill 1687, a cost shift agreed to by the universities and community colleges, may be the only movement on pensions this session.

Senate Bill 1687 would shift the cost of employee pension benefits going forward to public universities and community colleges. The shift would start in 2015 and be phased in at a rate of .5 percent of payroll each year. “Every other employer in the country, as they are setting wages and benefits, have to take into account the entire cost of that package from the actual salaries to any retirement and health care packages as well,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who sponsors the bill. Nekritz said that if employee benefits remain the same, the phase in would take about 18 years. “These are people that have never been employees of the state of Illinois,” she said.

In return for their agreement on the cost shift, universities and colleges would get veto power over any pension benefit upgrades approved by the legislature in the future. The bill also loosens some procurement requirements for the institutions. “We fight for our rights and our priorities as local units of government. But we can’t do that unless we are also willing to accept the responsibilities of local units of government,” said Tom Ryder, legislative counsel for the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. But he warned that the issue would likely have to be revisited in the future. “For the next 30 years, there will be some things that will happen that none of us will foresee.”

Nekritz called the bill “part of a comprehensive pension reform effort that’s going on in the Capitol this year.”

But Republicans on the House floor voiced concerns that it may be the only change to the pension systems that is approved this session. “This chamber and the chamber across the way have not found a way to close the deal on pension reform. We talked a good game. We send a bill over; they send a bill over. But today, 24 hours to adjournment, we have not done pension reform in a final way that sends it to the governor’s desk,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross.

Opponents to the cost shift complained that it would lead to tuition hikes and property tax increases. “This is not a free lunch. Taxpayers pay for tuition, and the taxpayers will pay for the property tax increases that can occur here,” Naperville Republican Rep. Darlene Senger said. “If this bill passes, tomorrow morning you are going to have to bond houses looking at our universities and downgrading their bonds.” Sanger said that changes to benefits should come before a cost shift, so schools can be sure of what they are signing onto.

“We’re working on it. I don’t know how to predict that right now,” Nekritz said about trying to find a compromise on overall pension changes. Nekritz and Madigan also hope to work out a similar cost shift deal with K-12 schools outside of Chicago, which pays for most of its own pension costs. But she acknowledged that the negotiations, with many districts and local interests coming into play, would be more difficult.

After the House approved the cost shift, the Senate soundly rejected Senate Bill 1, the comprehensive pension benefit changes approved by the House, on a 16 to 42 floor vote. Meanwhile Senate President John Cullerton’s preferred plan, SB 2404, which has union backing, languishes in that infamous bill graveyard, the House Rules Committee. “I don’t think there’s interest in the House in moving that bill,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.

Supporters of Cullerton’s plan say that model, which offers employees a choice in their benefits reduction, is constitutional. Backers of SB 1 say Cullerton’s plan would not save enough to stabilize the system, which has an estimated $100 billion unfunded liability.

After the Senate vote, Madigan and Cullerton traded barbs through the press, and Gov. Pat Quinn stomped his feet. Madigan told the Chicago Sun-Times that the Senate vote showed “a lack of leadership.” Rikeesha Phelon, a Cullerton spokeswoman, said in response “The speaker and President Cullerton have different leadership styles. Let's leave it at that.”

Quinn released a statement scolding the Senate. “The people of Illinois were let down tonight. Every lawmaker in the Capitol knows what needs to be done. Senate Bill 1 is comprehensive public pension reform. It has already passed the House of Representatives, and it should pass the Senate, too.”

Madigan said he was heading to the Executive Mansion tonight. Brown noted that some progress has been made. He said the pension problem took 40 years to create, and “I don’t think that anybody expects it to be solved overnight.”

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Quinn to sign bill lowering required school enrollment age

By Meredith Colias

Children will soon be required to start school earlier under a bill that passed the Illinois Senate today.

Senate Bill 1307 would push the required starting age for children one year earlier. Currently, children must start school in Illinois by age 7. Starting in the 2014-2015 school year, they would be required to enroll by age 6. A spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn said he would sign the bill, calling it “investment in their future” for schoolchildren.

Parents would have the choice to enroll their children in public school, parochial school or home school. Chicago Democrat Sen. Kimberly Lightford sponsored the bill and said starting children earlier would give them a better chance to excel in school. “We value early childhood education in this state. The earlier they learn,” the better chance they have to succeed later in life, she said. Lightford said the change was not meant to be a one size fits all solution for children. If incoming students were more advanced than the kindergarten level, they could be allowed to start first grade by age 6.

Okawville Republican Rep. David Luechtefeld said the state should not restrict parents’ ability to decide when it is best to start their kids in school. As a former educator, he said he often advised parents to hold their children back if they thought they did not have the maturity yet to spend the day in school. “Holding a kid back is not all bad,” he said. Early childhood education advocates for lower-income children cite the benefits of enrolling them earlier in school. Parents are their children's first teachers and can lay the groundwork for their child's academic success well before their child gets to school. Many lower-income parents work long hours and may lack the resources to prepare their kids properly for school. “I understand that, I really do,” Luechtefeld said. “That is a concern. It's looking at it from a different perspective.” He said good parents should be able to use their good judgment. “I just want to give parents that opportunity,” he said.

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House vote gives fracking bill
a clear path to becoming law

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House today overwhelmingly approved regulations for horizontal fracturing, which supporters say will be the strictest in the nation.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a process used to extract oil and natural gas by pumping water, chemicals and sand into the ground. The water fractures a source rock, allowing gas or oil to escape and be collected. Sand is used to hold the cracks in the rock open. Chemicals are added to the water for a variety of reasons, such as disinfection, lubrication and making the water thicker to keep the sand from sinking. “There are strong requirements and standards regarding water usage, regarding water disposal, regarding water containment,” said Marion Democratic Rep. John Bradley, who sponsors the bill. Senate Bill 1715 would create standards for drilling wells and requires water testing before and after fracking begins. If fracking chemicals are found in water, it would assumed that it was the well operator's fault, and the operator would be required to prove otherwise.

It also sets fees for permits at $13,500 per well. The measure would set the tax on oil or gas extracted from fracking wells at 3 percent for the first two years of the life of a well and then on a sliding scale based on production. Supporters say that fracking will be a boon for the state and struggling economies in southern Illinois. “When the coal mines closed, we lost tens of thousands of jobs downstate,” Bradley said.

The bill has a broad coalition of supporters, including business leaders and environmental groups. The environmental advocates who backed the bill said they would prefer a ban on fracking, but they said it is already happening in the state, and current law would not specifically regulate it. The Department of Natural Resources has reported that according to their permits, fracking is already taking place in Illinois. “While it will not make fracking safe, this is a critical step to make sure that Illinois has some protections to prevent environmental degradation,” said Democratic Rep. Sam Yingling of Round Lake Beach.

Some southern Illinois groups and environmental activist have been leading a loud push back against the bill. They were not involved in the negotiations, and members of those groups have been staging sit-ins this week outside Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, hoping to get a meeting with the governor, who supports the bill, and change his mind. Quinn’s staff met with some of those in opposition, but they did not have a sit down with the governor. Chicago Democratic Rep. Deborah Mell, who cast one of the nine votes against the bill, said she would like to see fracking put on hold for a few years so the results of some high-profile pending studies could come in before the state makes a decision on the issue. “I just hope that we’re not making a big mistake here. I just wish that we could kind of stop the clock a little bit.”

 Champaign Democratic Sen. Michael Frerichs, who sponsors SB 1715, said he expects it to pass in the Senate tomorrow. The Senate approved a fracking regulatory bill last year with no votes in opposition. Quinn plans to sign the bill. “Today’s passage of hydraulic fracturing legislation in the House brings good news for jobs, economic development and environmental protection in Illinois. This legislation will unlock the potential for thousands of jobs in southern Illinois, while ensuring that our state has the nation‘s strongest environmental protections in place for this industry,” Quinn said in a written statement. “Over the past year, we have brought together lawmakers, industry and labor leaders and environmental groups in a collaborative, bipartisan effort to develop the best possible legislation. This approach has not only worked but been praised as a national model for transparency, public participation, environmental safety and economic development.”

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Illinois Senate approves
more budget legislation

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Senate Republicans supported legislation today to spend unexpected tax revenue on the state’s old bills but rejected the rest of a budget plan crafted by Democrats of both legislative chambers.

Education spending, which the Senate approved Wednesday, passed without Republican support, and the vote totals for the rest of the about $35 billion Fiscal Year 2014 budget looked the same today. The one exception was that most of the Republicans in the chamber voted in favor of a measure that would put an unexpected income tax revenue windfall toward the state’s stack of unpaid bills. House Bill 206, the supplemental appropriation that would pay down bills this fiscal year, now heads the Gov. Pat Quinn. The education budget bills — Senate Bill 2555 and SB 2556 — await a vote in the House. The legislation also includes the payments to debt service, employee health benefits and pensions.  “I think it’s a responsible use of the additional billion dollars that came in from income tax,” said McHenry Republican Sen. Pamela Althoff.

House and Senate Democrats crafted the budget this year after cutting Republicans out of talks a few weeks ago. Here’s a breakdown of the bills:

HB 208 is the operational spending for state education agencies, as well as some higher education costs, including student aid.

HB 213 is human services funds and Medicaid spending.

HB 214 is general services spending, the General Assembly’s budget and the constitutional officers' budgets.

HB 215 is public safety and transportation spending, Illinois Department of Corrections budget, capital construction spending for the next fiscal year and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources budget.

The bills give some lump sums to state agencies to allow for flexibility in funding programs and personnel costs. Sponsors said the hope is that agencies can manage spending and meet the requirements of the new public employee union contract, which includes pay raises. However, the proposal does not include funding for previous raises still owed to state employees. Democratic Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago said $60 million is in an escrow account that can be used to start to pay down those wages. But she said she does not know of any immediate plans to pass a supplemental bill explicitly for the back pay. A representative from Quinn’s budget office said during a Senate budget committee hearing yesterday that the administration does not plan to provide all the back pay without a supplemental spending bill because it would likely require layoffs, something Quinn’s office says he wants to avoid.

Quinn and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are backing a spending bill to cover the back wages, but as of today, the bill is sitting in the House, still on second reading. It could not pass in its current from before tomorrow's adjournment deadline. However, the measure could be drafted into a different bill and still make it through by the end of the day tomorrow. “There is strong bipartisan support in the General Assembly for HB 212, the supplemental appropriation to pay wages owed to caregivers, correctional officers and other state employees dating back nearly two years,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31. “Public servants shouldn’t have to wait a day longer for the wages they earned, and Illinois taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay another penny of interest or legal costs incurred by the state’s continued failure to fulfill its responsibility to its employees.” The raises were not paid to workers in 2011 because Quinn said that lawmakers did not approve the funding for them.

Sponsors of the budget plan said that paying off bills this fiscal year with the additional revenues would make next year’s budget less painful. They said the spending for next year fully funds programs and agencies and will keep them from having to budget from crisis to crisis, as has been the case during the past few years. “We should not have any providers getting notices next June that they’re not going to be getting payments,” Steans said. Such notices went out to childcare providers last year and providers of in-home care for the elderly this year. In both cases, lawmakers approved additional spending late in the fiscal year to keep the programs afloat. The budget would reduce many human services operations by 3 percent from Quinn’s proposed budget. Grants would be cut by 1 percent from the budget introduced by Quinn, but many areas, such as community mental health, would be shielded from the reduction. The Department of Corrections would see a $70 million increase that supporters say was needed to avoid further prison closures.

Republicans complained that the rest of the budget does not reflect their priorities and that funding went to programs without proven results. They hit on $1.5 million included for a program that is a perennial target for their criticisms: Grow Your Own Teachers. Republicans said the program, which works to encourage minority residents to become teachers in the state, is too expensive and pointed to historical statistics that show that the bulk of enrollees drop out before receiving teaching certificates.

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge acknowledged the past problems with Grow Your Own Teachers, but noted that it has improved its stats. He said that after the program was unable to show lawmakers that its results justified its spending line, they program was cut and restructured. He said now the graduation and placement stats are better. “When we said to them last year, your data isn’t good enough they came back” with improvements, Kotowski said. “We’re seeing progress as a result of the policy decisions and the changes that we made here as a byproduct of the appropriations process.”

Republicans said the money would be better spent on K-12 education or restoring some of the Medicaid cuts made last year. “Including things like this in this budget undermines the credibility of the budget overall because they lead to the conclusion that the budget is more of a political document than it is an outcomes-based reflection of priority,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

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May 30, 2013 GOPUSA ILLINOIS email is posted at www.gopillinois.com

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Senate passes education budgets

By Meredith Colias 

Illinois Senate Democrats voted today to give education an extra boost by using unexpected income tax revenue to avoid further cuts next year.

Senate Bill 2555 and SB 2556, funding bills for K-12 and higher education, passed on a party line vote. About $155 million is being added to the K-12 education budget to keep the general state aid pro-rated at 89 percent, which is its current level. The House approved the other pieces of the budget yesterday. Democrats from both chambers reached a budget deal this year after cutting Republicans out of talks a few weeks ago.

Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, the sponsor of the legislation, called it a “true, accurate, transparent budget.” Bilingual education and early childhood education funds will remain the same. Transportation will also remain flat, although it has been severely underfunded because of cuts in recent years. At present, the state is only reimbursing schools for 64 percent of their student transportation costs. Under the proposal, the state would fail to meet the recommended per-student funding level for the third year in a row.

Republican lawmakers complained about about the K-12 budget during floor debate, saying their districts are struggling to make do. Currently, two thirds of districts are running deficits. “We’ve done everything we can, and all we do is get cut,” Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter said. “We’ve made every cut we can make.” Democrats were criticized for introducing the bill in advance of the budget implementation bill, which is the final blueprint on how the money is going to be spent. “We haven’t seen the full picture, and yet we are voting here today,” Mahomet Republican Sen. Chapin Rose said.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood, blasted Republican members on the floor who said they are concerned that their districts are missing funding after Republicans have called for budget cuts for years. “You have fought against” increasing education budgets for the last decade, she said. “All of a sudden, you realize you have poor kids in your districts. Now it is touching home.”

The higher education budget approved today lacked the 5 percent cut called for in Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget. Quinn presented cuts to both K-12 and higher education because he said the growing pension costs were putting pressure on other areas. But a windfall of one-time only tax revenues spared both education budgets. “I'm not going to advocate for a budget that cuts for another year,” Kotowksi said.

Rose said that even though higher education is funded at essentially the same level as this fiscal year, universities would continue to struggle because the state is behind on its payments from the current fiscal year. “When you don’t pay people, it really doesn’t matter,” he said.

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Illinois House extends telecommunications law

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House voted today to make some tweaks to the state’s Telecommunications Act and extend the law until 2015.

The law is due to sunset this year. It was last rewritten in 2010, and telecommunications leaders say that it was time for some tweaks. “When it was last rewritten, just to put it into perspective... that was exactly when the first tablet, the first iPad, came out. Now look around; look at how many people have iPads and tablets. ... The pace of change is accelerating,” Paul La Schiazza, president of AT&T Illinois, told Illinois Issues earlier this year as negotiations were taking place. “It’s absolutely clear that regulation cannot keep up with how people are using these technologies and how they are communicating, so I think it’s absolutely overdue to address this again given what’s happened in the marketplace.”

AT&T was seeking rollbacks on the amount of video network capacity that they were required to build, as well as in investments in older copper wire infrastructure, which is associated with traditional land-line telephones. Senate Bill 1664 does the first but not the latter. It also would allow Internet and video service providers the same access to condos and apartments as cable providers. The bill contains the same so-called safe harbor protections that guarantee customers access to land line phones. Telecommunications companies would prefer to focus their investments in broadband and infrastructure associated with newer technologies, but sponsor Rep. Kelly Burke, an Evergreen Park Democrat, said “the industries have worked diligently” with consumer protection groups “to make sure consumers continue to be protected.” The bill also has support from unions and business groups.

Scott Musser, AARP Illinois associate state director, said his organization supports the bill because he says it would “make sure people continue to have affordable, reliable access to their land line telephones.”

The measure would also extend legislation regulating 911 emergency services for a year and create a task force that would work with the Illinois Commerce Commission on a plan to properly fund 911 services. Current funding comes from fees paid by telephone customers, but some call centers are in danger of closing. “We need to extend the 911 act. Without it, 911 as we know it goes away,” said Rep. Don Moffitt, a Republican from Gilson. Moffitt, who headed an Emergency Medical Task Force that held hearings throughout the state, said the issue came up at many of the group’s hearings. “We really need to get to the point of having funds available and increase some funding. ...We have some 911 call centers in the state of Illinois that are on the brink of shutting down,” he said. If call centers close, their duties are taken on by the Illinois State Police.

All House members in attendance today voted in favor of the bill, but some said it would not go far enough to loosen regulations on telecommunication companies as they seek to upgrade the state’s technological infrastructure. “This is a start, but beyond today we must begin immediately to go farther if we want to increase business opportunities investment in broadband and wireless. We must go further than what we’ve done today,” said Mundelein Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. “I want to put those on notice that this is only a beginning, and if you think that this is the end, you have just shut out business in the state of Illinois.”

However, Musser said other states have opted to keep safe-haven requirements in place. “What we know from other states is, in 2012 about 10 other states rejected similar proposals by AT&T, so it is certainly not the case that we’re an outlier here.” He said that right now, cell phone service is too spotty in some areas of the state to expect residents to give up land lines. “Who knows? Maybe in two years cell phone technology is better, and there is access all across the state.” But he said for now, many areas, especially in southern and western Illinois, have inadequate service.

Supporters were optimistic that the measure would help spur economic growth in the state. “The bill removes obstacles for private-sector wired-broadband investment in the state,” said Rep. Arthur Turner, a Chicago Democrat. “It creates jobs to build a network, then it creates jobs through the power of broadband. And it creates jobs in every area of our economy. ... This bill encourages more private sector investment in broadband without a tax credit, without a tax incentive and without taxpayer dollars.” The measure now goes to the Senate. Since the measure has support from groups on all sides of the issue, it will likely sail to Gov. Pat Quinn’s Desk. Quinn signed the similar 2010 rewrite.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

House passes most of its budget

By Jamey Dunn and Meredith Colias

Illinois House Democrats passed several pieces of their budget today as Republicans bemoaned being cut out of the process.

Both higher education and K-12 will be funded at essentially flat levels, compared to the current fiscal year. Human services would see cuts under the plan, but the outlook is not nearly as gloomy as it seemed just a few weeks ago. Sponsors of the various budget bills say that the situation would have been much bleaker if a windfall of $1.5 billion in unexpected revenues had not come in. “In April, there was a large surge because people sold a bunch of assets at the end of [Fiscal Year] '12 in anticipation of capital gains rate changes,” said Rep. Greg Harris, who sponsored the human services budget bill.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said Republicans do not support the $35.6 billion budget proposal, the bulk of which passed today. He said Republicans had been working on the budget, but Democrats stopped inviting his political party to talks in the last few weeks. “When it comes to spending ... the willingness to work with us goes by the wayside, and that is unfortunate,” Cross said. “Clearly we’re not going in the direction that we need to go if we intend to get our bills paid and if we intend to do away with the tax increase.” Republicans said they saw the budget bills for the first time last night.

While Republicans blasted the spending in the proposal, Harris, who took over the human services budgeting committee this year, said this is the first budget in recent years that will fully fund human services. “We’ve made cuts across the board but we’ve retained funding in core community services such as mental health, substance abuse, homelessness programs,” he said. This year and several other times in recent history, human services agencies have had to come back to the General Assembly midway through the fiscal year and ask for more money to avoid the shutdown of programs. “In other years, they’ve not appropriated for a full year, and they’ve always come back for [supplemental spending bills]. ... We wanted to pass something that was fully reflective of the realities of each department’s need,” he said. “I would say woe betide the department that comes back to us with a supplemental [request] this year.”

The budget does not explicitly include the raises promised to state union workers in a new contract. But personnel costs are provided in lump sums, and each agency is left to figure out how to work in the raises. “What we accounted for was their FY 14 raises, and they way we did that was to give our departments maximum flexibility.” A bill that would appropriate back raises, which Gov. Pat Quinn has said he will now give members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union after earlier freezing them, was not called for a vote in committee today.

Some of the unexpected revenue would be used to immediately pay down nearly $600 million in old human services bills. Harris said many of those payments would be eligible for federal matching funds under Medicaid. Some of the additional revenues were incorporated to the revenue estimate for next fiscal year and will be used to defer cuts to education and corrections. Republicans expressed concerns that the additional revenue projected should not automatically be used to increase spending in the budget. “We were conservative a year ago, and it served us well,” Arlington Heights Republican David Harris said.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Louis Arroyo said that the additional money allowed Democrats to funnel $70 million to the Department of Corrections to prevent the potential closure of more state prisons. “I believe there will be no prisons closing,” Arroyo said in a budget committee hearing this morning. “Corrections is going to be OK.” The House approved a public safety budget sponsored by Arroyo today. Higher education is seeing only a slight drop in funding.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin said that higher education would avoid the 5 percent cuts the governor called for in his March budget proposal. The extra funds would give "additional breathing room for some of our communities," Dunkin said. The House higher education budget, which was also approved today, calls for the Monetary Award Program, which provides scholarships to low-income students, to be funded at a level slightly less than what Quinn presented in his budget. The program has suffered cuts in recent years.

The House did not approve its K-12 budget but it is expected to tomorrow. The proposal adds more than $150 million to General State Aid for schools to keep the state's proration at 89 percent of the recommended funding level to schools. The bus transportation budget will be kept at 64 percent of recommended levels for schools. The new budget figures will also keep early childhood education and bilingual education at flat funding, compared to last year's budget.

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Senate committee rejects House concealed-carry legislation

By Jamey Dunn

An Illinois Senate committee killed the concealed-carry bill supported by House Speaker Michael Madigan and approved another plan that faces push back from the National Rifle Association. 

The Senate Executive Committee voted down Senate Bill 2193, which the House approved last week. Under the bill, residents who are eligible to own a gun and are 21 or older could apply for a concealed-carry license. The license would cost $150, and applicants would have to complete 18 hours of training, including live-fire range training. Law enforcement officials at any level could object to applications based on “reasonable suspicion that the applicant is a danger to himself or herself or others or a threat to public safety.” A panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate would rule on the objections.

But the proposal would wipe out local gun laws, including those not directly related to concealed carry, such as requirements to report lost or stolen guns and Chicago’s ban on assault weapons. Senate Democrats on the committee say that is where the bill goes too far. “To preempt every local government from enacting any law or ordinance related to firearms is a remarkable ask,” said Sen. Don Harmon, who voted against the measure. But proponents say the preemption of home rule powers on gun laws is needed because gun owners who are carrying concealed firearms throughout the state might accidentally break the law while travelling because they do not know about local ordinances. “We don’t think it’s fair for law-abiding gun owners to travel through this state not knowing from one town to the next what’s expected of them. If we have one law, everybody knows, and you’re not making that law-abiding gun owner a criminal,” Rep. Brandon Phelps, the House sponsor of the bill, told the Senate Committee today.

HB 183, which the committee approved today, would preempt home rule, but only on issues related to concealed carry. Sen. Kwame Raoul, who sponsors the bill, said the measure would allow residents to transport their weapons under a uniform carry law throughout the state. But some Republicans on the panel voiced concerns that the ability to transport guns under the bill is not clear. Raoul said he is open to spelling out that residents with carry licenses can carry their weapons, loaded or unloaded, in their vehicles while they drive through the state. “Perhaps we could be more explicit,” he said. Other than the preemption issue, the two bills are relatively similar.

A lobbyist for the National Rifle Association said the group is neutral on SB 2193 but prefers it to Raoul’s bill, which he said he has been lobbying against. “There’s a lot of junk in this bill that we would not normally accept. ...We’re not for it; we’re not against it. But given some of the other things that are out there, there’s enough bread on this sandwich to make it choke down,” said Todd Vandermyde. He said he has asked senators to consider it as an alternative to Raoul's legislation, which he described as “a sandwich that just isn’t right to swallow.”

Benton Democratic Sen. Gary Forby that if he were allowed to bring the measure he sponsors with Phelps to a floor vote, he thinks it would pass. “I counted the votes last week. I think I’ve got enough votes ... and I think a bill like this should be voted on,” Forby said. Raoul said that he thinks that the broad preemption under Forby’s bill is the reason that the NRA is not opposing it. He said he has not yet counted votes on his bill and that he is still open to making compromises or addressing opponents' concerns. A federal court gave lawmakers until early June to pass legislation regulating carry in the state.

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Quinn to sign Medicaid expansion

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign a massive Medicaid expansion, which is a key piece of federal health care changes, approved by the Senate today.

Senate Bill 26 would allow people who have a household income of 133 percent of the poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. The federal government will pick up the cost of the expansion until 2017, when the funding drops to 95 percent. In 2020, federal support will drop to 90 percent. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes dubbed “Obamacare” after President Barack Obama by its opponents, allowed states the option not to participate in the Medicaid expansion. (For more on the ruling and the expansion, see Illinois Issues September 2012.) The Department of Healthcare and Family Services estimates that an additional 342,000 residents would be eligible for Medicaid under the bill. About 140,000 more who are Medicaid-eligible but not enrolled will also likely sign up for Medicaid when the federal mandate that requires Americans to have health insurance kicks in 2014.

Republicans spoke out firmly against the bill, saying that it makes no sense to add more Medicaid patients after cutting the program by more than $1 billion last year. “Only in Springfield would we take a program that has been mismanaged and is unaffordable” and add more people to it, said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. “We cannot afford this. Other states have rejected it. We should reject it, too,” said Hinsdale Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard

Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, sponsor of SB 26, acknowledged the state’s budget problems, but she said the expansion is an opportunity to offer health care to people who truly need it and have the federal government help pick up the tab for services that governments and hospitals are paying for now. She noted that several business groups in the state, including the Chamber of Commerce, support the measure.

Some Democrats spoke out against the bill, but not because of the Medicaid expansion. The House tacked changes to last year’s Medicaid reforms that will roll back some of the limits for various populations. However, some members of minority caucuses argued that the cuts should have been reduced even further. “We’re talking about the sickest here in this state and many who were born that way,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter. “My opposition is because it doesn’t go far enough to protect them.” He said recent reductions to state programs for the mentally ill and those battling addiction have left many of Illinois’ poor with no options. Opponents also said that they wanted Medicaid dental care restored. The changes last year cut dental care to emergency services only.

Steans, who sponsored the legislation cutting Medicaid last year, said she did not celebrate the passage of that bill after months of negotiation. “I went into my office, closed the door and sobbed for a very long time.” She said that cutting Medicaid last year was difficult but necessary. She added that she is open to restoring more of those cuts in the future if the state’s budget situation improves. But Steans said that “today is a much happier day” because more people will get access to health care under the Affordable Care Act. Quinn supports the measure and issued a statement today saying he intends to sign it.

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Ban on hand-held cellphones while driving heads to Quinn

By Meredith Colias

Cellphone-loving drivers may soon need to dial down their usage while on the road. Hoping to keep more eyes on the road, the Illinois House is sending legislation to the governor restricting additional types of cellphone usage while driving.

House Bill 1247 would only allow drivers to dial a single button on their phones to call someone. They then would have to use the speaker or a Bluetooth device on a call while they are driving. The state already bans texting while driving.

The House adopted Senate changes giving drivers a break for the first time they are caught using their phone in a prohibited manner before it is added to their driving record and reported to their insurance company. For drivers unable to curb their handheld habits, the fines would gradually increase each time they are caught. The first offense is a $75 fine and it would increase up to $150 fee on the fourth offense.

Opponents have criticized the bill, saying it was an overreach that would go too far in legislating personal habits. They say the bill would be an ineffective way to curb distractions and too difficult to enforce on the road. Marengo Democratic Rep. Jack Franks said that driving with a Wendy’s Frosty is “more distracting than simply being on my cellphone.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Pat Quinn has said Quinn is reviewing the bill.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

House OK's Medicaid expansion

By Jamey Dunn

National politics played out on the Illinois House floor as lawmakers voted to approve a massive Medicaid expansion, which is a key component to federal health care reform.

Senate Bill 26 would allow people who have a household income of 133 percent of the poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. The federal government will pick up the cost of the expansion until 2017, when the funding drops to 95 percent. In 2020, federal support will drop to 90 percent. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes dubbed “Obamacare” after President Barack Obama by its opponents, allowed states the option not to participate in the Medicaid expansion. (For more on the ruling and the expansion, see Illinois Issues September 2012.)The Department of Health and Family Services estimates that an additional 342,000 residents would be eligible for Medicaid under the bill. About 140,000 more who are Medicaid-eligible but not enrolled will also likely sign up for Medicaid once the federal mandate that requires Americans to have health insurance kicks in 2014.

The expansion comes after lawmakers approved more than $1 billion in cuts to the Medicaid program last year and put a moratorium on future expansion. However, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, sponsor of SB 26, said that when the moratorium passed, lawmakers assumed the expansion under the Affordable Care Act would happen because the Supreme Court had not given states the ability to opt out yet. The Medicaid changes made last year are known as the SMART Act. The Illinois House debated the expansion for more than two hours today. “These things don’t come easy. These are big, big measures. This is probably the biggest bill on health care that the Illinois General Assembly will have ever passed,” Feigenholtz said.

Republicans called for lawmakers to skip the expansion because they say they are concerned that the federal funding may not come as promised. “A year ago, we voted to scrub individuals from the Medicaid rolls who no longer qualify because it was the only way to save the program,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican. “Now the majority party wants to add another 500,000 people to Medicaid when we cannot afford those who are currently on Medicaid.” Some urged delaying the vote until the budget picture on the federal level is clearer. “I ask you to defer this decision. We do not have to make this decision now. We can make this decision in veto session or we can make it in next spring session after the [federal deficit reduction] talks have taken place and we have more certainty as to what the figures are going to be and how they will affect the state of Illinois,” said Hinsdale Republican Patricia Bellock, who was a key player along with Feigenholtz in crafting the SMART Act.

Feigenholtz said that she thought that a lot of the reactions from Republicans are driven by the national partisan fight over the president’s signature health care law. The Republican-controlled U.S. House has voted 37 times to repeal the law, but the Democrat-controlled Senate just ignores the repeal bills when they are sent to that chamber. “I think that there has been for a long, long time a drum beat against Obamacare. I think it was a very political drumbeat,” Feigenholtz said. The Illinois Senate has already approved the expansion, but the House tacked on some changes to the SMART Act, so the bill will now go back to the Senate. “There are very minor tweaks in SB 26 when it comes to the SMART Act, the two most notable ones we were sued in court on, and these are ultimately where we feel the settlement will end up,” Feigenholtz said.

She said many lawmakers wanted to see further rollbacks to the SMART Act’s cuts but that she wanted to keep as much of the savings in place as possible. She said some legislators “whose communities were disproportionately affected by the SMART Act were still a little concerned about how it has affected their communities, but at the end of the day, I really believe that this bill, this measure, is really going to be the game changer” for health care in Illinois.

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Legislative roundup

By Meredith Colias 

As the legislature faces votes on pension, guns and gaming, lawmakers are also taking up other bills that affect human services, health care and public assistance for low-income Illinoisans.

Lowering the compulsory school age
Illinois could be on the road to starting children in school earlier. Hoping to cut down on truancy issues, especially in Chicago, the House passed Senate Bill 1307, which would require children turning 6 during the school year to attend from the beginning of the academic year. The bill passed on a 64 to 52 vote. Its Senate sponsor, Chicago Democrat Sen. Kimberly Lightford, said lowering the school age would help districts to enforce truancy rules for children under 7 who enroll,but may not attend school on a regular basis.

Since the House pushed the effective time frame back a year to the 2014-2015 school year, the bill now goes to the Senate for a vote on the change. The bill itself was not without controversy. There are concerns that the state should not be superseding the judgment of parents to decide when a child is ready to start school. New Lenox Republican Rep. Renee Kosel argued it is estimated a majority of children in the state already attend school well before the age when the state requires it. “We are passing legislation that we can already do,” she said. Opponents are also concerned about the cost to the state. It is not known how many children are not attending school until age 7, the current starting age. It is not estimated to be a large number. Illinois should not be paying for a “state-funding babysitting service,” Willow Hill Republican Rep. David Reis said.

Early childhood advocates argue that requiring children to attend school at earlier ages is beneficial to them for their academic and social development, especially for low-income children who can begin school with vocabulary and other academic deficits.

Affordable care act marketplace 
Illinois has signed onto “Obamacare,” and in the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers are looking to authorize the creation of an online marketplace for residents who do not have health care through an employer to purchase insurance individually.

House Bill 3227 to create the state’s insurance exchange passed the Senate this week. Its sponsor, Peoria Democrat Rep. David Koehler, described the legislation as a suitable compromise because insurance companies would still be allowed to set prices as long as the plans they submit meet state and federal guidelines. The exchange will be a state and federal partnership. Under Koehler’s bill, Illinois would take over control of the marketplace in 2015. The bill’s fate in the House is unknown. Koehler said he expects to negotiate on the smaller details of the bill but says the main portions of the legislation should remain intact. Enrollment in the exchange is expected to begin for states on Oct. 1, and coverage is set to begin on Jan. 1, 2014.

Clearing criminal records
Some non-violent offenders would be given the chance at a fresh start by petitioning a court to seal their criminal records. Prostitution convictions, possession of marijuana and other controlled substances and retail theft convictions that date back at least four years without a subsequent conviction would be eligible to be sealed under House Bill 3061 introduced by Chicago Democrat Rep. LaShawn Ford. People asking to wipe drug-related offenses off their record would have to pass a drug test within 30 days before their request is granted. Children prosecuted as adults would also be eligible to apply. The Senate passed the bill on a 42 to 13 vote. The bill now goes to the governor. The thought is that sealing criminal records to potential employers would give them a better chance getting a job long after their conviction, but opponents say employers should have the right to know of their criminal record.

TANF assets 
For low-income families seeking welfare assistance, their car, savings and other possessions would soon not count toward their application under a new bill now heading toward the governor. Currently, families applying for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, have to prove they have less than $3,000 in assets. The Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law argues that the requirement is outdated, since welfare recipients now have to work at least 30 hours per week. The group argues that limiting their possessions keeps them living in poverty. House Bill 2262 passed the Senate on a 32 to 21 vote and now heads to the governor.

Adult protective services

To prevent abuse of older adults and those with disabilities, House Bill 948 would set up specific procedures for the state to use when investigating alleged incidents of neglect. An investigation by the Belleville News-Democrat found that more than 50 developmentally disabled adults died while being cared for at home since 2003. The paper found that the Department of Human Services had failed to follow up on allegations that some of these people were victims of abuse.

For the full story, read “Hidden Horror Stories,” by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hunsdorfer in the October 2012 edition of Illinois Issues. The House will have to approve changes made by the Senate before it can go to the governor. The bill would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

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Friday, May 24, 2013

House and Senate Democrats
see eye to eye on state budget
but not on pension changes

By Jamey Dunn

House and Senate Democrats are working together on a state budget plan that they hope to have completed early next week.

“The fact that the House and the Senate Democrats actually worked together on the budget is a first in the last four years, so I’m encouraged by that,” Senate President John Cullerton said after the Senate adjourned this afternoon. “And we have an agreement on the amount of money that we have to spend and a general idea of where these categories of money should go — how much for higher ed, how much for elementary and secondary, that sort of thing. And we’re working through all the different line items over the weekend.” He said Democrats hoped to fund K-12 education at the same level as last year and to avoid the cuts proposed in Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget. Cullerton said that in the Senate, he planned to share budget information with Republicans when Democrats are done with the process, and Republicans would have time to look over the plan. “We will vote on it maybe two to three days later.” House Speaker Michael Madigan declined to discuss the budget or pension reform efforts today.

House Republicans had been meeting with Democrats on budget issues, but Sara Wojcicki, a Republican spokesperson, said those talks have been “canceled indefinitely” this week. As for Senate Republicans: “We have been excluded from the budget process, but when we see the Democrats' budget, we hope it puts Illinois on a path to end the 67 percent income tax they promised would be temporary,” Patty Schuh, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, said in an email. “We would also like to see it end the Road Fund diversions blasted by the auditor general and fix the school funding inequities that give Chicago a disproportionate share of state education funding.” A recent audit found that money from the road fund was being spent on other costs, including paying off bonds from past road construction projects.

Cullerton said both legislative chambers are still at an impasse on pension changes. The House and Senate both approved bills that would reduce benefits for public workers, but neither body has voted on the other's legislation. Madigan and Cullerton have different views on what strategy for reducing pension costs would be possible under the state’s Constitution. Cullerton’s proposal is supported by unions representing state workers and teachers. Cullerton noted that a bill that is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss and which is similar to the House plan, failed by seven votes in the Senate. “I’m sponsoring that bill,” he said of Senate Bill 1, which passed in the House. “It doesn’t have enough votes [in the Senate]. It has fewer votes than Sen. Biss’ bill because now the unions have gone out and they’ve actively worked against it. So I’m going to continue next week to see if I can reach some kind of a compromise.” Cullerton said he thinks his plan would pass by a wide margin if called for a vote in the House.

He indicated he would be open to returning to his original proposal, which would include the House measure. His proposal, then, would be considered as a plan B if the Supreme Court rejected the pension changes backed by Madigan. But such a proposal could lack support of the unions. “That would be up to them to decide. I suppose they probably would be against it. That’s why I’m having trouble passing Senate Bill 1. I just want to emphasize that I’m not holding us back from trying to advance a compromise.”

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House approves concealed-carry gun bill, but Senate may tweak it

By Jamey Dunn

State Sen. Kwame Raoul says he plans to craft a “compromise” bill similar to the concealed-carry legislation approved by the House today.

The Illinois House passed Senate Bill 2193 on a vote of 85 in favor and 30 opposed. Under the proposal, Illinois residents would be able to carry loaded handguns in public if they meet the licensing requirements prescribed by the bill, complete 18 hours of training and pay a fee of $150. The Illinois State Police would issue concealed-carry licenses, which would be good for five years.

A federal court ordered Illinois lawmakers to approve legislation regulating concealed carry by early June. House Speaker Michael Madigan said that ruling was a driving force behind today’s vote, but he said so were changing attitudes about concealed carry. He noted that a bill backed by gun control advocates received only 31 of the 60 “yes” votes it would have needed to pass in the House last month. A bill supported by gun rights activists was only defeated after Madigan lobbied against it. “That language, which required 71 votes, got 64. It got 64 after I had worked against the bill and where the proponent of the language felt that at a high water point, they had 75 votes,” he said on the House floor today. “Those vote counts are very telling. They tell the reason why I stand before you today changing a position which I’ve advocated for well over 20 years. But that’s what happens in a democracy.” He said that as public sentiment changes, so do lawmakers’ votes. “In a democracy, it’s not only OK to do that, it’s expected that there would be changes in thinking by people in legislatures consistent with how the people of the country feel.”

The measure approved today would wipe out all existing local gun laws, including requirements to report lost or stolen guns and Chicago’s ban on assault weapons. Senate President John Cullerton called this preemption of the powers of home rule units of government an “overreach” by the National Rifle Association. The NRA has not taken a position on the bill. However, Raoul, who sponsored a more restrictive plan in the Senate, says he doesn’t buy that. “You’ve never known the NRA to be quiet on a gun bill. I think that’s reflective of the NRA being in favor of this bill. There’s not question the NRA is in favor of this bill. I don’t think anybody is fooled by that.” A representative of the Illinois State Rifle Association told Illinois Issues yesterday that the group opposes the fee and the number of training hours required, but it remains neutral on the overall bill.

Supporters of SB 2193 say they want uniform laws throughout the state so that gun owners do not commit crimes just because they are unaware of a local ordinance. “I’m a home rule guy. I live in a home rule county. I live in a home rule municipality. I represent home rule municipalities,” said Rep. David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights. But Harris told a story about his wife getting a ticket for talking on her cell phone while driving in a city that bans it because she did not know it was illegal there. He said that if that happened under a carry law, she would potentially face criminal charges. “It’s rare that I stand up and support preemption. However, I think this is one time where preemption makes sense.”

 Harrisburg Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who sponsored the bill, said, “No matter where you live, no matter what ZIP code you come from, you should have equal rights.” Raoul said that his compromise bill would preempt local government on the issue of concealed carry, so that the law is uniform across the state. But he said there is no reason to roll back local gun regulations that are not related to carry. “The 7th circuit [court] didn’t say pass a law that preempts home rule to do anything with regards to guns,” he said. “Any of the ordinances that exist right now, except for those that have to deal with concealed carry, we’d leave those in place.”

Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said many components of Phelps’ plan would make it into his own legislation. Under SB 2193, any law enforcement official could object to applications for carry licenses. Objections and the documentation to back them up would come before a board that would be appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. The requirements for serving on that board would be high. The bill calls for federal judges, department of justice attorneys, federal law enforcement agents, doctors and clinical psychologists as potential candidates for saving on the panel. Applicants for carry licenses who were flagged by a law enforcement objection would also be able to submit information to the board, which would make the final ruling on the permit. Raoul’s previous bill would have given Chicago’s police commission veto power over applications from people who want to carry in the city, but he said he is comfortable with including Phelps’ review board instead of his Chicago-specific idea. Raoul said he also plans to call for banning concealed carry anywhere alcohol is served. Phelps’ bill only bans guns in establishments where alcohol sales make up half of the take.

Gov. Pat Quinn issued a scathing statement after the House vote today. “This legislation is wrong for Illinois. It was wrong yesterday in committee, it’s wrong today and it’s wrong for the future of public safety in our state. The principle of home rule is an important one. As written, this legislation is a massive overreach that would repeal critical gun safety ordinances in Chicago, Cook County, and across Illinois. We need strong gun safety laws that protect the people of our state. Instead, this measure puts public safety at risk. I will not support this bill, and I will work with members of the Illinois Senate to stop it in its tracks," he said. The city of Chicago also opposes the bill.

But Phelps said he is concerned that if the state misses the deadline set by the courts, then carry would be allowed without statewide restrictions, and the result would be chaotic. “We have a court ruling to deal with, so I would find it appalling [if] the governor and the powers that be want to go off the cliff because there’s way too much uncertainty in that. So why would you want to put the people in the state of Illinois in jeopardy by going off the cliff?” He asked during floor debate of his bill.

Cullerton said he might call Phelps’ legislation for a vote. However, he said that decision would be made after Senate Democrats caucus on the issue when they return to Springfield for session on Monday. “Maybe our caucus doesn’t want to go forward with it. Maybe we’ll have a caucus, and we’ll see that there’s no support and go a head with an alternative,” Cullerton said.

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May 24, 2013 GOPUSA ILLINOIS email is posted at www.gopillinois.com

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

NRA silence 'speaks volumes'
to those who oppose new
concealed-carry legislation

By Jamey Dunn

Concealed-carry legislation is expected to pass in the Illinois House on Friday without the support of the National Rifle Association, but opponents say there is a lot in the bill for pro-gun groups to like.

A House committee approved Senate Bill 2193 on a vote of 13 in favor and three opposed. Under the proposal, residents who are eligible to own a gun and are age 21 or older could apply for a carry license. The license would cost $150, and applicants would have to complete 18 hours of training, including live-fire range training. Law enforcement officials at any level could object to applications based on “reasonable suspicion that the applicant is a danger to himself or herself or others, or a threat to public safety.” A panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate would rule on the objections. House Speaker Michael Madigan predicted that the bill would pass in the House. A vote is expected tomorrow.

The proposal would wipe out local gun laws, including requirements to report lost or stolen guns and Chicago’s ban on assault weapons. That provision makes gun control advocates bristle. They have been pushing to add a component addressing lost or stolen guns, but the sponsor, Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, and others have said that they did not want to address issues other than concealed carry with the bill. Colleen Daley, executive director Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, said that the city’s assault weapons ban would not interfere with the carry law. “If it’s just carry, then make it just carry.”

But Phelps said that the same gun law should apply everywhere in the state. “We just think [it will make] law-abiding gun owners criminals if you don’t have one uniform law. That way, everybody understands what to expect. Having 220 home rule municipalities -- and 109 of them already have some form of firearm ordinances -- we just think that’s ridiculous.” Those with reservations about the bill say that even though the NRA is neutral, they can see the group’s influence in the proposal. They note that the group rarely, if ever, sits quietly and allows legislation it does not favor to pass. No one representing the NRA or the Illinois Rifle Association testified during the committee hearing today. Before the hearing, the usually talkative NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde declined to comment on the bill.

“That speaks volumes to me,” Daley said. Ronald Homes, spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton, also noted the association’s silence. “This is still the template that the NRA wanted to get done. ... The NRA is often loud about bills that they don’t like.” SB 2193 would not allow Chicago or Cook County to add any additional restrictions to concealed carry, something Cullerton and many in his caucus support. “The Senate president has been a strong advocate for tough gun laws in the past, and this bill kind of is the opposite of things that he advocated for,” Holmes said.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul presented a more restrictive carry bill in the Senate that would require approval from the superintendent of Chicago police for residents seeking to carry in Chicago. But Raoul was not able to find the support needed to pass the bill in the Senate. Holmes said that this new version of concealed carry also could be met with opposition. “I think the bill has a couple things in it that will make it less appealing to members in our caucus.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other prominent Chicago-area officials have not weighed in on SB 2193. Holmes said that Cullerton and Emanuel planned to discuss the bill during a scheduled phone call today.

Phelps acknowledged that the lack of NRA support could help put more votes on the bill. But he says he never talked to any NRA representatives about taking a stance for political reasons. “You saw what happened today The NRA is just not going to support this bill. ... So if it was their fingerprints, I think that they’d be happy because they have a lot of members that are involved in this.”

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said there are things that his group does not like about the bill. “We feel that the fees are too high and the training is too long.” The steep license fee and cost of training could make the constitutional right of carry inaccessible for some.  But he says there are components of the proposal that he supports. “It also has some good things in the bill. It’s got [home rule powers] preemption in the bill, which is very very important.”

Daley said she sees some positives in the legislation, too. “We do see the value of some of the pieces in the bill.” She said that all predictions point to the House approving SB 2193 on Friday. But she says that her organizations and other gun control advocates are continuing to push for a bill that recognizes Chicago’s differences and allows for more restrictions there. “We’ve activated our network to get them to call their legislators.”

Pearson said his group is not trying to sway House members. “We’re not saying it’s OK to vote for the bill; we’re not saying it’s not OK. We’re saying we’re neutral.”
He added, “I’m sure the representatives will be more than able to make up their minds.”

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Senate approves ban on cell phone use behind the wheel

By Meredith Colias

Cellphone-loving Illinois drivers may soon have to alter their handheld habits, as the Illinois Senate voted to institute hands-free and 'one-touch' dialing restrictions on the road.

It would mean drivers would not be allowed to press more than one button to dial a phone number and would have to either use a Bluetooth device or put the phone on speaker while driving. The Senate approved House Bill 1247 on a 34 to 20 vote.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s office did not take a definitive stance on the bill, saying the governor would review the bill when he received it. The Illinois Department of Transportation also has not taken a position on the legislation. Before it can be sent to the governor’s desk, the House, which passed the legislation in March, would have to agree to an amendment added by the Senate to spare drivers from a moving violation the first time they are caught by police. The bill’s House sponsor said he would accept the change. “It actually makes the bill a little better,” Chicago Democrat Rep. John D’Amico said. Giving drivers a break will give the state an opportunity to better educate the public if it becomes law, he said.

Sponsor Sen. John Mulroe, a Chicago Democrat, argued the bill would reduce distracted driving, making roadways safer. He recounted stories of younger drivers killed in accidents while using their cellphones. Other proponents said they felt a sense of responsibility to write legislation that could potentially improve road safety. "Our jobs are to save lives and protect the public," said Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein. Mulroe cited statistics stating drivers were four times more likely to get into a car crash while using a handheld device. Texting while driving is already outlawed in the state. Under this bill, a first time fine would be $75 and go up to $150 for four or more offenses.

Opponents said the bill was poorly constructed and would be difficult for police to enforce. Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter said it was more important for the bill actually to be effective, not to be introduced “just because we care."

East Moline Sen. Mike Jacobs, a Democrat, cited studies showing hands-free driving did not significantly lower accident rates because drivers were still distracted by their conversations. “People have to make decisions in their lives,” he said. “Anyone who texts and drives is a fool" and anyone who talks and drives “is an idiot, but that doesn't mean we should have a law to say so.” Echoing Jacobs, Carlinville Republican Sam McCann said the bill would not effectively prevent drivers from taking their eyes off the road. “We cannot legislate every minute of their lives," he said.

Grayslake Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush said it was worth a try. For a distracted driver, “causing an inconvenience is worth the cost of someone's life," she said. “You are a safer driver with both hands on the wheel," she said. "It's not difficult to use the speaker on your phone."

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May 23, 2013 GOPUSA ILLINOIS email is posted at www.gopillinois.com

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New carry bill expected to pass the House without NRA support

By Jamey Dunn

The sponsor of a new bill to regulate the concealed carry of firearms in the state says he is confident that the measure will pass in the House.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 2193 this afternoon.  After polling other lawmakers, he said he thinks the bill could receive as many as 80 votes in favor. The legislation would require 71 votes to pass because it will supersede the powers of home rule governments, such as Chicago and Springfield. House Speaker Michael Madigan publicly backed the bill today and predicted its passage in the House.

A federal court gave Illinois until early June to craft concealed carry legislation. Phelps and others believe that if there is no law after that deadline, Illinois will be a carry free-for-all. Phelps described such a scenario as “mayhem.” “I don’t want to go off the cliff. A lot of people that are pro-gun around this state, they think it would be best to go off the cliff. I just don’t because there’s too much uncertainty.” He said making sure that those with carry permits are qualified is in the best interest of carry supporters because one bad actor could spoil things for everyone. “It just takes that one person to go out and shoot themselves or shoot somebody accidentally and just lock this down for years to come,” he said. “Let’s get some certainty with a bill we can pass.”

Local officials throughout the state are considering passing restrictions if the General Assembly fails to approve a bill by the deadline, but the National Rifle Association has vowed to challenge all local ordinances in court.

Under the bill, applicants for a concealed carry license would have to be 21 or older and eligible for a Firearms Owner Identification Card (FOID). They would have to complete 18 hours of training, including passing a live fire range test and pay $150 licensing fee. The amount of training has doubled since Phelps’s previous bill, which failed in the House last month. Most of the fee would go toward implementing the new licensing system. However, $20 would go toward fixing the state’s seriously flawed mental health records reporting system, and $10 would go to state crime labs. A recent audit of the FOID system, which is administered by the Illinois State Police, found that the FOID division was not getting the mental health records from counties that it needed for screening FOID applicants and cardholders. Under SB 2193, the state police would also administer carry permits.

Any law enforcement official could object to applications for carry licenses. Objections and the documentation to back them up would come before a board that would be appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. The requirements for serving on that board would be high. The bill calls for a federal judge, department of justice attorneys, federal law enforcement agents, doctors and clinical psychologists as members. Applicants would also be able to submit information to the board, which would make the final ruling on the permit. The proposal would ban guns in many places, including schools, colleges, government buildings, health care facilities, parks and bars. It would also ban them from public events that require a permit from local government, such as street festivals. The legislation bans the carry of guns on public transit. But Phelps said he intends to make a change that would allow for carry on transit, as long is the weapon is stowed in a bag and unloaded.

Phelps, who has worked with the NRA on all the carry bills he has presented to date, says he does not have the organization's support on this one. He said he thinks the association will take no position on the bill. An NRA spokesperson could not be reached for comment. “I don’t know if anybody is happy right now, to be honest with you. My main thing is to get something done,” Phelps said. “Do you get everything you want in this process when it’s two weeks to go? No. But you know what? I think this is a good concealed carry bill.”

Phelps conceded that the lack of NRA approval might help the plan’s chance for passage in the Senate, where many Democrats support a much more restrictive bill. Phelps' legislation appears to try to skate a thin line of avoiding excessively angering the NRA, thus pushing them to lobby against the bill, while also not giving them a reason to jump for joy, which might scare Senate votes off the plan. But the proposal does not allow Chicago or Cook County to be any more restrictive on licensing than the rest of the state, which some in the Senate may find tough to swallow.

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House makes override of Quinn's veto on electricity rates official

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers overturned a veto from Gov. Pat Quinn on a bill related to oversight of the so-called smart grid law.

In 2011, lawmakers passed a bill that gives Commonwealth Edison and Ameren automatic rate increases. In return, the utilities must make upgrades to the state’s electrical grid, including changes meant to make service more efficient for customers. Quinn vetoed the plan, but lawmakers overrode his veto.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, which is tasked with regulating the smart grid rollout, has since made a ruling about rates connected to the bill. Utilities didn’t like the ruling because they say it will cost them millions, and lawmakers say it was wrong and missed the intent of their law. So they approved Senate Bill 9, which supporters say clarifies the original language. It would also allow the utilities to collect rates they lost under the ICC ruling, plus interest, from customers retroactively.

Quinn vetoed SB 9. “I cannot support legislation that puts the profits of big electric utilities ahead of the families and businesses of Illinois,” he said in a prepared statement when he issued the veto. “A strong economy that creates jobs requires stable energy costs, but this bill sends Illinois in the wrong direction. We cannot allow big utilities to force automatic rate hikes on the people of Illinois by going around oversight authorities each and every time they do not get the decision they want.”

But legislators who pushed for an override say Quinn has it all wrong. “All this bill says is that the Commerce Commission ought to follow the law that we originally passed. I know when the governor vetoed this bill he did it very emphatically. Some of you may have seen that on the news, and he said that the General Assembly should not get in the way of the Commerce Commission,” said Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, sponsor of SB 9. “But I have a different story to tell. The story is that the Commerce Commission does not make public policy in this state. The Illinois General Assembly makes public policy, and they ought to follow the policy we set.”

The House approved the override today, 71-41, with five members voting present. The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday.

The utilities said that without the change, they would have to delay implementing the grid upgrades. But now that they bill is law, they say that work will return to normal. “We are starting immediately to accelerate smart meter installation and other work to improve reliability, provide new ways to save energy and money, and serve as a shot in the arm to our state’s economy,” Anne Pramaggiore, president and chief executive officer of ComEd, said in a prepared statement.

Opponents say the override shows that the utilities will come to lawmakers when they do not like the decisions made by regulators. “I think that SB 9 is very telling that they don’t want the commission to be anything more than a rubber stamp,” said Scott Musser, a lobbyist with the AARP. He said that it seems that lawmakers are not willing to back the ICC in such conflicts. “They have now made the commission their punching bag. They’ve beaten them up pretty successfully.”

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