Illinois Legislative Recap: Progress Amidst Intraparty Warfare

Illinois' session was marked by an ugly showdown between Governor Blagojevich and the legislature that delayed funding for schools and jeopardized federal transportation money, with the Governor even suing his fellow Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan over the scheduling of special sessions.

The intra-party fight between the governor and the legislature resulted in record budget delays. Much of the session's drama came as Governor Blagojevich vetoed portions of the legislatively-approved budget to increase health care coverage for kids and low-income citizens, vetoes that were overridden by the House but upheld by the Senate. 

While hopes for comprehensive health care reform for the state fell to the acrimony, significant legislation was passed amidst the internecine political warfare. A signature bill of the session was a $1 billion cut in electric rates after prices spiked in the wake of earlier deregulation of the industry. SB 1592

Clean Energy & the Environment: The legislature and governor did manage to agree on some things, including establishing a renewable energy standard of 25% by 2025 and an energy efficiency portfolio standard that will require Illinois utilities to reduce overall electric usage by 2% by 2015. The state also approved a number of smart growth laws, including SB135, known as the "Green Neighborhood Award Act,"  to award grants to green buildings and SB 220, which awards additional school funding to communities that approve multi-family housing developments.

Rewarding Work:  As we highlighted a few weeks ago, Illinois made national news when it enacted HB 1744, which prohibits employers from using the inaccurate federal E-Verify system until its databases can deliver a 99% accurate evaluation of an employee's legal status within 3 days. The state also established a number of other key labor advances:

  • Government contracting: HB 1347 limits school subcontracting that undermines benefits for school support workers, and HB 479 requires any company taking over a government contract to assume the collective bargaining obligations of the previous contractor and offer employment to employees currently doing the work.
  • Home Health Workers: HB 4144 gives home care workers for seniors a $1.70/hour raise. The bill also provides money to cover some health care costs for the estimated 18,000 workers who get funding through the Department on Aging. The bill has not yet been signed by the Governor.
  • Worker Tax Credits: SB 338 expands the Earned Income Tax Credit to an additional 100,000 citizens, while SB 1279 creates income tax credits for wages paid to eligible offenders. The credit amount is set at 25% of the federal work opportunity credit for wages paid to eligible offenders.
  • Whistleblower Protections: HB 742 extends state whistleblower protections to protect educational and local government employees from retaliation when they report activity that they believe violates the law.
  • Child Care: HB 1009 improves the state's child care subsidy program by raising eligibility maximums and increasing subsidy rates for providers.

HB 1332 would have forbidden certain state agencies from asking about convictions at the beginning of a hiring process, although it would have allowed these questions later in the process. The bill passed, but the governor vetoed it.

Women's Rights: SB 534 expands protections for tenants who suffer domestic violence, including the right to terminate a lease if they need to move to be safe, while HB 1462 suspends the current two-year statute of limitations for civil suits for rape victims if the victim is threatened, intimidated or manipulated by the perpetrator or another person acting in the perpetrator's interest.

Civil Liberties and Human Rights:

  • SB 1434 - allows expedited motions to dismiss Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPS) that are aimed at discouraging citizen petitioning of government against growth and development.
  • SB 729 - creates a ban on prior review of student-run campus media by administrative officials at state colleges.
  • HB 2734 - establishes drug schools, as a drug intervention and education program, as a alternative to incarceration for low-level drug possession offenses.
  • SB 1169 - prevents Illinois pension funds from investing in companies associated with Sudan.
  • House Joint Resolution 27 calls on the U.S. Congress to repeal the federal REAL ID Act of 2005 for creating a de facto national ID.

Tax Reform: SB 1544 closes corporate tax loopholes that only benefit business and special interests. Closing the loophole is expected to generate an estimated $250 million of revenue.

On the Telecom front, the state passed SB 678, which allows statewide video francises for telecom companies to bypass municipal regulation, but at least imposes stronger buildout requirements and protection of local community television stations than many other similar bills passed across the country. 

Health care:  While a lot of unsuccessful effort was spent debating SB 5, the Governor's universal health care plan known as Illinois Covered, there were some gains in health-care related areas:

  • Stem Cell Research: Illinois committed to investing in stem cell research and set up an institute to award grants to scientists.
  • Protection of Patients: SB 873 protects disabled individuals under Medicare from being overcharged by insurers. HB 1301 gives the state's Long Term Care Ombudsmen the option to serve residents under 60 years of age to increase protection of people living in long term care facilities. SB 867 mandates staffing plans to help make sure hospitals maintain appropriate nursing care for all patients.
  • Workplace Health: A new law will ban smoking in all workplaces in Illinois by January 1, 2008. SB 500
  • Children with Disabilities: HB 817 allows young people with disabilities to continue receiving the services necessary to help them transition smoothly into adulthood by clarifying the definition of "children with disabilities" to include students through age 21.

Failed Promises: Among the other bills that failed to pass out of the legislature is a simple, straight-forward bill that would have made "pay to play" campaign contributions from government contractor illegal. Unfortunately, though it passed through the house, the bill was held up in the Senate. The legislature also failed to pass any fiscal relief for the ailing Chicago Transit Authority, causing likely fare hikes, layoffs, and service cuts. 

More may be accomplished in special sessions in the rest of the year, but there is little question that much more could have been accomplished in the state with a little less political gamesmanship and a bit more leadership.

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