ILLINOIS HEADLINES FOR THE WEEK
This week, the state prepared to proceed with a construction bond sale on April 2. An earlier bond offering was delayed at the end of January because of concerns about the stability of the market and how that might affect the interest rate the state would have to pay on the borrowing.
Although Illinois remains at or near the bottom of the nation in bond ratings, market conditions have generally stabilized in the two months that the sale was on hold.
The state plans to borrow about $800 million for construction projects authorized under the 2009 bi-partisan Jobs Now! program. The bonds are to be repaid with dedicated funds, including revenues from video gaming.
While unrelated to the bond sale, the state also announced that as the spring 2013 construction season begins, work would soon start on several previously planned projects in the Jobs Now! program. Among the projects announced March 28 were improvements to the Richland Community College campus in Decatur, repairs to the Dixon Springs Boot Camp in Pope County, a major intersection upgrade in Lemont and reconstruction of the I-74 and I-155 intersection near Morton. The projects were among the first announced for spring 2013, with additional projects expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks.
With the spring session reaching its half-way point many issues have been addressed, while some hot button topics will continue to remain in the news. Here is a wrap-up of the spring session so far.
Pension reform remains atop almost everyone’s list as the most important issue of the spring session. Although Democrats control both houses of the General Assembly, the two chambers have yet to reach a consensus on solving the problem.
The Senate sent SB 1, a reform that State Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) called incomplete, to the house. SB 1 would only apply to active teachers in the Teachers’ Retirement System and would require them to make a choice between reduced future cost of living adjustments on their future benefits and keeping access to retiree health insurance, or keeping full cost of living adjustments 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 combine to become part of a full pension reform package. Among these the most significant change was contained in HB 1165 and 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.
Senate Bill 1739 containing a major gambling expansion for Illinois advanced out of committee in the Senate, but remains on hold as supporters continue to negotiate and gain support for the bill’s passage.
As it stands the bill would authorize 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.
To date no significant legislation has advanced in either chamber to address either a citizens’ right to carry firearms or to restrict the sale of semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines.
Illinois is the only state in the nation to deny citizens the right to carry firearms in public. However, a recent ruling in federal court requires Illinois to adopt right-to-carry legislation by the end of the 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 test votes designed more to give the House Speaker ammunition for future political campaigns than to resolve any disagreements.
Same Sex Marriage
As the U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue of same sex marriage, at the state level the issue remains on hold in the Illinois House. In February, the Senate approved 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.
While progress has been made on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (sometimes known as "fracking"), final legislation has yet to be unveiled. Draft legislation contained in HB 2615 has been described as a model for the nation, but details continue to be negotiated.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of using 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.
In early March, an Illinois House Committee sent House Bill 1, legislation which would legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes to the House floor. 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 further clarifies 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. This legislation 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.
Senate Bill 26, which passed the Senate in February, would voluntarily expand 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.
Senate Bill 1194 another healthcare-related measure, creates a process to regulate and license “navigators” required under the Federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as part of the implementation of healthcare exchanges. These “navigators” are tasked with raising public awareness on the 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.
These 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 may still surface.
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.