Sunday, May 19, 2013
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Friday, May 17, 2013
By Meredith Colias
After years of just saying no, the legislature has sent a restrictive medical marijuana bill to the governor’s desk.
The measure passed the Senate on a 35-21 vote as the legislature approaches the final weeks of its spring session session. The House approved it earlier. Gov. Pat Quinn has said previously he is “open-minded” to the legislation but has not firmly confirmed whether he would sign it into law. If he does, the law would go into effect starting in 2014. Supporters are touting this measure as one of the strictest in the nation, hoping to avoid the fallout in other states such as Colorado and California that have looser medical marijuana guidelines.
The Illinois bill is a four-year pilot program designed as a compassionate measure to allow those with 33 chronic or deeply debilitating illnesses specifically outlined, including multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and cancer, to obtain marijuana to relieve their pain. They would be authorized for one year at a time. “Many of these people are dying,” the bill’s sponsor, Alton Democrat Sen. William Haine said, and are forced to take medication with severe or adverse side effects. “They shouldn’t be relegated to this.”
Patients and their caregivers would have to pass background checks by the state police and would have their eligibility to buy and possess marijuana permanently revoked if they violate the bill’s guidelines. The state will require each patient to have a satisfactory “bona fide” relationship with the physician prescribing their medical marijuana as a way to sort out healthier or younger individuals hoping to obtain the drug for recreational use.
Patients approved by their doctors can buy 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The state will keep electronic records to ensure they cannot exceed their allowed quota. Marijuana smoking in public would not allowed, and any marijuana transported by patients from state-approved dispensaries has to be kept in a sealed container. Haine said the costs for maintaining the program would be paid by fees established by the Department of Public Health, Department of Agriculture and state police for authorizing possession cards, regulating growing centers and distributors and conducting background checks. “The users that are in this system have to pay [for] it,” Haine said.
Opponents have expressed concerns that the bill will lead to unintended consequences, such as encouraging more recreational use and drug addiction among teenagers and others. “For every touching story,” Lebanon Republican Kyle McCarter said, “there are a thousand times more parents that will never be relived from the pain” of losing a child to addiction." The bill would equate marijuana to “all these basic drugs that we trust are safe,” McCarter said.
Chicago Democrat Sen. Mattie Hunter, who has worked as a drug treatment counselor, said she could not support a bill that could encourage more addiction. “All they did was put ‘medical’ in front of marijuana. It’s still a drug,” she said. “I am not going to have this matter on my hands.” As a former state’s attorney, Haine is judged to bring some credibility to the issue, but opponents cited the lack of support from law enforcement organizations.
They also expressed concerns that those approved to use it could be allowed to drive under the influence. That is “absolutely not the case,” Haine said. If they cannot pass a sobriety test by police, they are subject to the law, and “their card is revoked.”
The Senate last passed another medical marijuana bill in 2009, but it failed in the House. Aurora Democrat Sen. Linda Holmes, who has MS, said she understands the importance of providing a better quality of life. “We don’t want them to suffer,” she said. For its sponsor, the bill is “a way to achieve … compassionate relief consistent with the law,” Haine said, while creating “a system that avoids abuse.”
Thursday, May 16, 2013
By Jamey Dunn
The Illinois Senate may vote as early as tomorrow on a bill to regulate the concealed carry of firearms in the state.
A Senate committee approved a concealed carry measure today that would give Chicago police control over who can carry in the city and allow home rule governments to ban guns from some areas.
To qualify for a concealed carry license under House Bill 183, Illinois residents would have to have a valid Firearm Owners Identification card, be 21 years old and complete eight hours of training. Licenses would cost $50 and last for five years. From that fee, $20 would be designated to fix the state's flawed system of reporting mental health records. A recent audit found that county officials were often not submitting such records to the state. The Illinois State Police, which currently issues FOID cards, would issue carry licenses. The state police would be required to notify local law enforcement if a resident of their jurisdiction applies for a license. The local police could object to applications, but the ultimate decision would be made by the state police. The Illinois State Police are in favor of the measure. “Everything that you find in this bill are things that the Illinois State Police can do,” said Illinois State Police Lt. Darrin Clark.
Applicants who plan to carry weapons in Chicago would have to receive approval from the superintendent of Chicago police. Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, who sponsors the bill, said it recognizes that Chicago is different from any other part of the state. “There’s a density issue that creates a lot more contact between individuals. ... There’s a lot more population, and there’s a lot more opportunity for conflict,” he said. “Our feeling was that the chief law enforcement officer within the city of Chicago, who is most familiar with some of the violence challenges and the law enforcement challenges, is better positioned to determine who is appropriate to carry within the city of Chicago.”
The NRA came out strongly against the plan. “In our eyes, this is not a carry bill. This is a bill to discourage people and prevent people from carrying a firearm and exercising a constitutional, fundamental right to keep and bear arms for self defense in the public,” said NRA lobbyist Todd Vandermyde. “You can put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig. And that’s what this is.” HB 997, which was backed by the NRA, fell short on a House vote last month.
Raoul's bill would ban guns from many areas, such as government buildings, bars and hospitals. University officials would decide whether guns could be carried on campuses. The proposal would also allow home rule units of government to add locations to the list of places where guns are not allowed by passing ordinances within six months after the measure goes into effect. Private businesses would also be able ban guns from their premises and parking lots. Raoul said that he was trying to strike a balance between the rights of gun owners to carry and the rights of property owners who may not want guns on their land.
Vandermyde said the bill would create a patchwork of regulations that would be confusing to gun owners and make it difficult to follow the law. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going to work if you allow 200-plus home rule units to set arbitrary restrictions,” he said.
Raoul’s plan would also require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms within 72 hours of discovering the theft or loss. Gun owners conducting private sales would also have to verify that purchasers’ FOID cards are valid. Vandermyde said that the NRA opposes adding gun control measures to a carry measure. “The carry bill is the carry bill. There’s a court case that deals with this. We ought to deal with that. Separate all the other things and keep it down to a simple concept.”
Senate President John Cullerton supports Raoul's plan. “I want to commend Sen. Raoul for negotiating another tough issue on behalf of our caucus. The framework of this proposal acknowledges the diversity of our state, embraces local control and provides for sensible safeguards,” he said in a prepared statement. No Republicans voted in favor of the measure in committee.
House Minority Leader Christine Radogno voted “present,” saying she had issues with the plan. “My concerns about this bill I think are fixable, but they are definitely major,” she said.
Cullerton said after the hearing that the bill could come up for a floor vote tomorrow. When asked if it has the support to pass, he said: “We don’t know. It’s going to be close.”
By Meredith Colias
Representatives from universities and community colleges negotiating with House Speaker Michael Madigan have reluctantly agreed to begin gradually taking over the payments for their employee pension costs.
The plan is for the higher education institutions to start to pay .5 percent of employee pension costs in Fiscal Year 2015, which begins July 1, 2014, and gradually increase that amount by an additional .5 percent increment each year until they fully take over the state’s payment, estimated at between 10 to 11 percent under the new plan.
Madigan is pushing the proposal, saying the state is no longer in a financial position to foot the bill for them. “Whenever one person spends money and another person pays the bill, it’s a bad policy, especially for government,” Madigan said. “They would prefer not to do this, but they all acknowledged in their public testimony that they think proposal is fair,” Madigan said. “They think they can manage it.” The proposed cost shift has been a point of controversy throughout the debate over changes to the pension systems. Republicans have argued that it would lead to layoffs, tuition increases and local property tax increases if it were applied to K-12 schools. Democratic leaders decided to remove the issue from the larger debate and deal with it on its own.
Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, said the proposal would require sacrifice on the part of the university, but he said it was more important to show employees that there would still be a reliable source for their pension payment. “We’ll just have to do it, because they deserve stability and security in their pensions system.” Poshard said. “We are willing to go forward,” he said. “We know it is not going to be easy.”
Representatives from community colleges expressed more concerns. “We [will] manage, but it will be difficult. We will do the best we can,” said Tom Ryder, who represents the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. A “free lunch is a good thing if you’re consuming, but not if you’re paying,” he said. “We want to manage our way through it.” Ryder said changes made during negotiations with Madigan, including delaying the start of the shift until 2015 and settling on the .5 percent initial shift, “helps us feel comfortable” with the proposal.
University officials and community colleges called on lawmakers during the committee to fix the Tier II pension system. University employees cannot contribute to Social Security, and some have expressed concern that Tier II pension benefits may not be sufficient enough for them to continue to be exempt from the Social Security system. The worry is that sometime in the future, universities could be forced to pay into Social Security in addition to their pension costs. Some key players in the pension debate have proposed a Tier II fix that would give employees a 401(k)-type plan in addition to their defined benefit plans, but it was not included in either the pension proposal that passed in the House or a different one that passed in the Senate.
Poshard said that looking at the long-term consequences, he is concerned that less state funding and more obligations to pay from the state will force universities to raise tuition costs and price students out of a college education. “There is a plethora of things the state is not funding [anymore],” he said. “I think that’s the road we have been going down,” he said. “If we keep going in this direction, we are just going to privatize public higher education. That’s the meal ticket for the middle class,” he said. “We’re still hopeful that we won’t” end up with Quinn’s proposed 5 percent cuts to higher education, Poshard said after the committee meeting. “If we end up with one or two [percent in cuts from last year's funding instead] we would be happy.” Supporters of the cost shift hope to work out a plan for K-12 schools to also pick up future employee retirement costs. Madigan said today that the House would likely have another hearing on that issue next week.
By Jamey Dunn
The Illinois House is planning to fund human services in its budget at a lower level than Gov. Pat Quinn proposed in his budget.
“We’re looking at cutting $770 million form the governor’s introduced budget, which are horrendous cuts,” Rep. Greg Harris said this morning before heading into a working group meeting, which is not open to the public, to negotiate the human services portion of the House budget with other members of the House human services budget committee. Quinn called for an increase of about $340 million for the Department of Human Services for next year when compared with the current budget.
Harris said that he hopes pass a bill that would spend more on human services this fiscal year as an effort to soften the blow of next fiscal year’s cuts. Income tax revenues for the current year will exceed previous estimates by $1.3 billion. However, some of that money has been used to pay down a chunk of the state’s overdue bills to schools, vendors, social services providers, local governments and others. “The economy has begun the rebound; not a lot but a little. So we have had money come in that was above our target for FY 13,” Harris said. He said spending some of that money on human services this fiscal year, which ends on June 30, “would certainly make our job less horrible and the cuts less painful on people. I hope that everyone will go along with doing that so that we can minimize the cuts, but we still have to continue to look for ways to live within our means and not overspend our budget every year.”
Harris said he did not know when the human services portion of the House budget would be complete. He said members of both parties serving on the committee, which he chairs, are trying to reach agreements. “We’re all trying to work together, and we want to work in a collegial way.” Whatever the House passes would also have to be approved by the Senate and signed by Quinn.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
By Jamey Dunn
with Meredith Colias contributing
Budget bills from both legislative chambers could emerge as early as next week.
“The clock started ticking today. We have two weeks left, for all practical purposes, to get it done,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, who is a key player in the budgeting process in his chamber. The spring session is scheduled to adjourn on March 31. “We can’t miss a beat as we go forward,” he said, adding that legislators working on the budget in the Senate hope to get a bill or bills passed through committee next week. “Nobody knows what form it’s going to be in as of yet.”
While he said he doesn’t know the specifics yet, Trotter said he knows many in the Senate would like to keep education cuts as shallow as possible. “I don’t think there’s anyone in this chamber, or even across the [Capitol] rotunda, who feel that cutting $400 million out of the education budget is the way we should be doing business in this state. If we want a viable state, we certainly have to have an educated community to get those jobs and to want to stay in the state of Illinois. So cutting dollars out of K-12 and in higher education — another 5 percent out of higher education — is not the way to achieve that goal. So many of us are looking at how to put dollars back in there.”
Lewistown Democratic Rep. William Davis, who is the chair of the House education budget committee, said the committee has about $6.5 billion to work with, the same amount that it received last year. In recent years, House leaders have given committees lump sums and then asked them to determine how the money will be spent in their areas of state government. Because of cuts, general state aid to schools has been prorated over the last two years, leaving schools with smaller payments near the end of the fiscal year. In Fiscal Year 2013, general aid was prorated at 89 percent. Davis said that if the same amount of money were allocated this year, the proration would be set at 86 percent. That means the state would fall 14 percent short of meeting the foundation funding level, which is $6,119 per student. “I would say that my priority as chair is to try to keep general state aid level,” Davis said. But he added, “It’s going to be very difficult to not have to make some cuts somewhere.” Davis said he and other budget committee chairs hope to pass bills out of their committees next week. However, he said, that they may be shell bills with no specific language in them.
Trotter said those working on the budget in the Senate are not doling out set amounts to different areas of the state budget but instead are trying to find savings where they can and weigh different areas of spending against one anther. “It’s called prioritizing, and that’s how you have to do a budget.” He said that he and others realize that it will likely be impossible to avoid any cuts to education. “We’re broke. I mean, you can’t get past that. And certainly there has to be some reductions. It’s called just being smarter with our money that we have.” He said they are focusing on some personnel cost increases in Quinn’s proposed budget but do not plan to skip out on appropriating money for raises negotiated in the state’s new contract with union workers. “The raises — if they’re, of course, by union contract — we have to do the raises.” Trotter said he hopes that both chambers can take a broad look at the budget and try to problem-solve. He said Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn have been meeting to discuss the budget. A spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said Radogno had not been invited to any budget meetings with the governor.
“The House is known to look at things in silos. Hopefully as these next couple weeks advance, we can maybe bust into those silos and look at some other things,” Trotter said. “As we know, the budget is a whole, not just all these little parts to it.” He echoed the complaints heard from Senate Democrats in recent years that budget cuts are hurting those who most need help from the state. “Many of us feel the most vulnerable ones are being attacked. Last year it was health care; this year it is education,” Trotter said. “Why do you go to these programs? It’s like the old joke: because that’s where the money is. But at the same time, that is where [the most vulnerable people] are, too. We need to find a balance, and I think we can.”
By Meredith Colias
Groups wanting to revamp the state’s redistricting process hope to get enough popular support to add a constitutional amendment to the November 2014 ballot.
They are looking to bypass the legislature, where another citizens’ initiative for a proposal for a constitutional amendment failed in 2010. Voters can approve an amendment to be added to the Constitution by popular referendum, but supporters of the change would first need to collect at least 300,000 signatures to add it to the ballot. Reform groups attempted to collect the required signatures to get such a change before voters in 2010, but the effort fell short.
“This is the year,” said Ryan Blitstein, president of Change Illinois!, the main organization behind the latest push. Supporters believe this time have a better chance of success because they are giving themselves more time, they are better financed and have a broader coalition. Common Cause Illinois, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and other groups are backing the effort. The requirements under the state’s Constitution are spare for how legislative and congressional districts should be drawn once every decade. As long as districts are basically equal in population, they only have to be “compact” and “contiguous.” Those who want to change the current process say that the political party in power uses the Constitution’s vague requirements to draw the districts to give itself an unfair advantage to win elections. During the last process, Democrats held the power to draw the maps. If no single party holds both legislative chambers and the governor's office, the ability to set the boundaries is been determined several times by literally drawing a name out of hat.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, said allowing one party to draw districts to its advantage was creating a more partisan environment at the Statehouse by “eliminating the middle” of the political spectrum. The reform group is proposing that the lines for legislative districts be drawn by a commission that does not include lawmakers, constitutional officers or political appointees. (Read the commission's proposed amendment here.) “Redistricting in Illinois is still a back-room process, one that fails to give the people of Illinois the transparency and accountability they deserve,” board member Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, said in a prepared statement. “Our nonpartisan redistricting commission would bring the process out into the open, where it belongs, clearing the way for a more diverse candidate pool of public servants to lead,” said Puente, who also serves on the Illinois Issues Advisory Board.
Senate Republicans publicly backed the proposal to change the redistricting process that failed in 2010. Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Senate Leader Christine Radogno, said Republicans are supportive also support the renewed push. “We welcome their effort,” she said. “If they need our assistance, I’m sure they will be reaching out.”
Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat who spearheaded the drafting of the current legislative map said, “It’s a healthy process to let citizens and advocates do just what they are doing.” He said he was less supportive of following a model, such as the one California uses, that appoints an outside commission to approve the state’s redistricting plan. “I prefer a body that the people pick, versus some other designated person decides to pick,” he said. “Who picks the pickers? How do you ensure you have representation on whatever commission?” Raoul said that no matter what method the state uses, there would be complaints. “There’s no way that you can come up with a process and a map that all legislators are happy with.”
He said the issue was not as pressing at the moment. “We just went through a redistricting process. The map is set for the next 10 years,” Raoul said. He is more concerned about issues such as pensions and concealed carry that are expected to come up in the session’s final weeks, he said. “It’s not my top priority right now. I’d rather focus on … those things right now than something that’s going to happen eight years from now.” Redistricting helped the House and Senate Democrats both win supermajorities in their chambers in the last election.
Theoretically, if Democrats voted in a bloc, they are able to do things like override Gov. Pat Quinn’s vetoes and approve bonds for new spending without Republican support in either chamber. To see what Illinois could learn from redistricting experiences in other states, see “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Christopher Mooney in the January 2011 edition of Illinois Issues.