Friday, March 29, 2013
Lawmakers returned to their districts this week said State Senator Dale Righter, who said the two week spring hiatus from the Statehouse is a time used by most legislators to catch up with their district office responsibilities and respond to community concerns and issues.
“Now that we have passed the legislative committee deadline for reviewing bills, it is a good time to take a look at the progress of some of the most noteworthy and contentious measures facing Illinois lawmakers this spring,” said Righter.
The following measures represent some of the most high-profile issues before the General Assembly to date. However, with almost two months remaining in the session before its scheduled adjournment, it is impossible to offer a comprehensive list of major measures that could be undertaken.
Senator Righter emphasized that because most legislative committees will continue to meet throughout the remainder of the legislative session, many proposals are still be negotiated. Amendments to these bills will need to be reviewed by lawmakers in Senate and House committees.
In addition, work is just beginning on the state budget, the most critical issue before lawmakers. Governor Quinn submitted his budget proposal in early March and House and Senate Committees are currently conducting hearings on all aspects of the Governor's proposal.
To date, no significant legislation has been advanced to address either a citizens' right to carry firearms or to restrict the sale of semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines.
As the only state that denies citizens the right to carry firearms in public, Illinois remains under a federal court order to adopt right-to-carry legislation this spring.
The Senate has tasked two lawmakers – one from each party – to lead negotiations on the issue. The House, however, has focused primarily on a series of high-profile votes that some believe are designed more to give the House Speaker ammunition for future political campaigns than to resolve any disagreements on this hot-button issue.
Same Sex Marriage
While the U.S. Supreme Court considers testimony on same sex marriage in Washington, at the state level the issue remains on hold in the Illinois House.
In February, the Senate advanced SB 10 authorizing same sex marriage in Illinois. Illinois already allows for civil unions between same sex couples. Though changes were made to add legal protections for churches that refuse use of their religious facilities for same sex marriage ceremonies and receptions, opponents still have concerns that overly broad language in the measure could force churches to host or participate in gay weddings, or face legal repercussions, even if it is against their tenets.
Recently, the Senate sent the House a limited reform (SB 1) that would apply only to active teachers in the Teachers’ Retirement System. It would give teachers a choice between reduced cost of living adjustments on their future benefits and keeping access to retiree health insurance, or keeping a full cost of living adjustment and losing access to state subsidized health insurance. This legislation does not change pension benefits or health insurance for retired teachers, nor does it affect benefits or health insurance for employees in other state pension systems including the General Assembly retirement system. Senate Bill 1 passed on a purely partisan vote with no Republican support.
The House sent to the Senate several partial reforms, which may ultimately become part of a full package. The most significant change (HB 1165) affects cost of living adjustments for all retirees. It would limit the adjustments to $600 for those who are also covered by Social Security and to $750 for those who are not eligible for Social Security. The House has also sent the Senate measures that would increase the retirement age to 67 (HB 1166) and cap pensionable income at about $113,000 (HB 1154).
The Senate also sent to the House SB 1224, which would end the practice of allowing persons to use unused vacation and sick time to boost their pensions when they retire.
Affordable Care Act
Senate Bill 26 voluntarily expands the state’s Medicaid program eligibility to nearly 350,000 additional individuals, who are between the ages of 19 and 64 who are under 138% of the Federal Poverty Level.
This is the second exemption to the state’s moratorium on Medicaid expansions to take place within the last year. It is estimated that this expansion will cost the state an additional $574.4 million by 2020. However, when adding up costs associated with the expansion, the Dept. of Healthcare and Family Services (HFS) indicated the cumulative cost could exceed $2.9 billion by 2020. The proposal passed the Senate with Republicans opposed and Democrats in support.
Another healthcare related measure (SB 1194) creates a process to regulate and license “navigators” required under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," as part of the implementation of healthcare exchanges. “Navigators” are tasked with raising public awareness of the availability of qualified plans, distributing informational material in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate to the population being served, facilitating enrollment, and providing appropriate referrals in the event that an enrollee has a grievance or question.
The "navigator" legislation is sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats and was approved unanimously in committee. It awaits action by the full Senate.
While progress has been made on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (sometimes known as "fracking"), final legislation has yet to be unveiled. Draft legislation (HB 2615) has been described as a model for the nation, but details continue to be negotiated.
Hydraulic fracturing uses pressurized water and sand to open up fissures in underground rock, allowing natural gas or oil to be more easily extracted. It has been estimated that the new technology could bring as much as 47,000 jobs and $9 billion into the Illinois economy. Environmental groups have split on the issue. Many have worked with proponents to insert safeguards into the draft legislation, but others have insisted on a moratorium on all fracturing.
A major expansion of gambling in Illinois (SB 1739) advanced out of committee in the Senate, but remains on hold as supporters continue negotiations aimed at winning sufficient support for passage.
The bill as currently drafted authorizes a Chicago casino; slot machines at horse racing tracks and at O'Hare and Midway airports in Chicago; four new casinos outside Chicago (one each in Rockford, Danville, the Chicago south suburbs and Lake County); legalized internet gambling (iGaming); and a ban on political contributions by those holding gambling licenses.
The Chicago Casino Development Authority would be run by a five-member Casino Development Board appointed by the Mayor. The Chicago casino would be allowed up to 4,000 gaming positions. The City could choose to install slot machines at O'Hare or Midway airports, but those machines would be included in the 4,000 gaming position cap for Chicago.
In early March, an Illinois House Committee sent legislation to the floor (HB 1) which would legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. No similar legislation has advanced in the Senate. The House measure would allow patients over the age of 18 who have been diagnosed with specific terminal illnesses or debilitating medical conditions to obtain marijuana.
Supporters argue that marijuana offers pain relief for certain conditions without creating the side effects that are common with some prescription drugs. Opponents say the medical claims are primarily anecdotal and that legalization for medicinal purposes will eventually lead to complete legalization of the drug.
Utilities Smart Grid
Senate Bill 9 is intended to further clarify the state’s 2011 “Smart Grid” law that allowed utilities to hike consumer rates in order to digitize and repair the state’s aging electrical grid. Senate Bill 9 addresses three points of contention between the Illinois Commerce Commission and ComEd, including: whether pensions will be considered an asset or a liability; the interest rate that will be used to bring the utility’s actually costs into line with the theoretical costs; and what returns will be based on—the equipment in the ground at the end of the year, or the average amount of equipment that is put into the ground throughout the year. The measure also requires the utility to begin installing their in-home smart meters in 2013.
The bill has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting action by the Governor.