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Cristina Francisco-McGuire on June 3, 2010 - 11:06am
Despite a crippling budget crisis — which has proven so divisive that adjournment of the legislature was postponed in order to reach a consensus on the 2011 budget — Illinois managed to pass a few truly progressive pieces of legislation. But gains by low-wage workers, nursing home residents, low-income communities, and renewable energy producers were offset by atrocious pension reforms impacting teachers and other state employees, as well as a state budget that hardly solves any problems.
Tax and Budget: Illinois’ approved budget doesn’t provide enough money to pay businesses and charities that provide services on behalf of the state, meaning that day-care centers, health clinics, and homes for the disabled will continue waiting months for their checks. The legislature also adjourned without consensus on a $4 billion borrowing bill that would allow the government to make its pension contribution next year, only adding to the state’s fiscal woes. According to a white paper released by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Illinois needs $36.9 billion to pay off its annual bills and the entire existing deficit. At best, Illinois’ revenue next year will only reach $29 billion, far short of the state’s estimated expenditures. A proposal to raise income taxes was also shelved, alongside legislation to raise cigarette taxes.
Pension Cuts: SB 1946 (now Public Act 96-0889), which went from the Personnel and Pensions Committee to passage by both houses in just ten hours, is one the largest and most substantial pension overhauls in the country. It creates a two-tier pension system by which the retirement age of new hires will increase to 67 — the highest teacher retirement age in the country — and the vesting period is raised to ten years. The bill also reduces inflationary protection for vulnerable retirees, caps maximum pensionable salary at $106,800, and mandates a three-year pension holiday for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The pension holiday alone will save CPS $1.2 billion, but leave pensions far short of being the required 90% funded. A second bill, SB 3660, would allow the Governor to implement and fix the budget as s/he sees fit, with one particular provision that allows a 6-month suspension of payment to the following state retirement systems.
Wage Theft: More positively, following evidence that the state Attorney General did not prioritize wage theft claims, the legislature approved SB 3568, which takes the AG out of the equation and grants the Illinois Dept. of Labor the power to take action on wage theft claims and issue enforceable judgments on claims lower than $3,000 per employee. In Cook County alone, at least 146,000 workers per week suffer wage theft and are owed at least $7 million in unpaid overtime, workers’ compensation, and wage violations each week. The Illinois Dept. of Labor had directly referred 10,000 wage theft incidents last year alone, which were largely not acted upon by the attorney general’s office.
Nursing Home Reform: Both houses approved legislation that would raise the standards of care and safety in the state’s nursing homes. The bill would raise the minimum staffing levels to a minimum of 3.8 hours/day for residents needing skilled care and 2.5 hours/day for residents who need intermediate care. With new requirements that nursing homes meet higher standards before admitting patients with serious mental illness as well as mandatory segregation of the most dangerous residents, the measure incorporates the 38 recommendations of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Nursing Home Safety Task Force that was formed to address issues of attacks, rapes, and murders in facilities.
Health Care Reform: Reaffirming Illinois’ commitment to federal health care reform, both houses passed SB 3047, which creates the Health Care Justice Implementation Task Force. The task force will monitor the implementation of the federal health care legislation and make recommendations for any additional reforms needed to ensure affordable health care in the state.
Green Energy: Building on 2009’s achievements in energy reform initiatives, Illinois’s Senate passed two bills aimed at offering incentives to renewable energy producers. Both houses passed HB 6419, which allows school districts to set up a cooperative wind farm and sell the excess power to utility companies for a profit. HB 6202, which also passed both houses, updates net metering rules so that residences and small business can sell renewable energy generated on the premises back to the electric grid.
Food Deserts: Farmers’ markets and other alternative vendors will soon be able to buy the equipment needed to process Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards with help from the Farmers’ Market Technology Improvement Program, which passed both houses and establishes a fund to help cover the often-prohibitive expense. Bringing farmers’ markets to low-income communities not only benefits residents, but it is lucrative for farmers as well — since Chicago’s 61st Street market began using an EBT machine, related sales have grown more than five-fold.
Payday Lending: Both houses passed a bill to close a loophole in IL’s payday lending reform law. HB 537 caps the APR on payday loans to 99%, indexes the loans based on the borrower’s ability to pay, and requires loans to be paid off in equal monthly installments with no balloon payments. Though the 99% APR cap is still relatively high, especially when compared to similar legislation passed in other states, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation estimates that the measure saves low-income consumers approximately $850 million in fees and interest payments each year.
Voter Turnout: A pilot program designed to increase voter turnout on public university campuses passed both chambers as an amendment to an omnibus elections bill. For this year’s election only, the legislation requires county clerks to establish sites on each campus for grace period registration, grace period voting, and early voting.
Notable bills that passed one chamber but failed to be enacted include:
- Education: Although the Senate passed legislation that would allow families to apply for school vouchers of up to $6,000 per student toward private school tuition, the bill died in the House.
- Medical Marijuana: Legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana to chronically ill patients in lieu of addictive painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin passed the Senate last year but died in the House this year.
Notable Defeat, Telecom: Set to expire at the end of the year, both houses approved legislation that revamps the state's Telecommunications Act by reducing regulation on utilities’ responsibility to maintain landlines. A victory for large telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast, supporters argued that investing in increasingly obsolete landline services came at the expense of wireless and broadband technology. Though consumer groups were able to secure "safe-harbor" provisions that guarantee low landline rates for vulnerable consumers, there is no promise of a minimum level of broadband development in rural and low-income parts of the state to ensure that development does not flow largely to the Chicagoland area. Consumer advocates are also skeptical of supporters who say that the telecom bill will create jobs, when the bill doesn't contain a jobs component and eliminating service quality standards will actually have the opposite effect.