Observations and comments about state government by State Representative Robert W. Pritchard.
March 4, 2013
In this issue:
· Political Games Plague Concealed Carry Debate
· Republican Caucus Refuses to Participate in Pension “Charade”
· Plan Unveiled to Foster Job Creation
· Prison Closures Lead to Overcrowding
· Committees Hear Ideas to Reduce College Costs
· Handheld Cell Phones Banned While Driving
· Committee Accepts Revenue Projection for FY14 Budget
· Director Provides Bright Side to Illinois Economy
Political Games Plague Concealed Carry Debate
Although two comprehensive concealed carry gun bills awaited action, the House spent nearly 8 hours last Tuesday debating amendments to a bill that would preclude the right to carry nearly everywhere. In my opinion, the amendments from Chicago legislators did nothing more than pay lip service to a recent federal court ruling directing Illinois to legalize concealed carry.
The amendments produced an incoherent jumble of conflicting and unclear restrictions that would have allowed concealed carry in name, but not in practice. In some cases, citizens could have been arrested just for having a weapon “near” a prohibited facility, with no definition of what was considered “near.” It was not a serious proposal; it was a publicity stunt.
In contrast, I joined with a bipartisan group of legislators in supporting House Bill 997, which legalizes concealed carry for trained, licensed, law-abiding citizens. It would put in place reasonable background checks and restrictions such as bans on carrying guns in airports, schools and courthouses. This legislation would respect the Constitutional rights set forth in the 2nd Amendment and reaffirmed by the recent federal court ruling.
Republican Caucus Refuses to Participate in Pension “Charade”
On Thursday, Speaker Madigan used his muscle to push forward four different pension amendments that were unreasonable, unfair, and unlikely to pass. As a result, the entire Republican caucus refused to participate in the publicity stunt and did not vote on the measures. Fewer than 5 Democrats voted for any of the measures.
The House has numerous legitimate pension bills awaiting action including HB3411, HB3162, HB3066, and HB2365 that would bring funding to a 90 percent level and would be more likely to stand the test of constitutionality than the bill debated last week.
During the Thursday debate there was a call from a Democratic legislator that all bills and resolutions be set aside until a pension reform bill is passed. Republican leader Tom Cross quickly agreed and the idea was met with applause.
The legislature must find a way to stabilize the pension system and lower the annual cost paid by the state. Unless that goal is achieved quickly, there will be little hope of paying down unpaid bills, avoiding further cuts to state services and improving the state’s fiscal situation.
Plan Unveiled to Foster Job Creation
Last week I signed on as a co-sponsor of five bills aimed at improving the job climate in Illinois. Included are initiatives that address workers compensation fraud, the tedious licensure process for starting a new business, and tax incentives.
HB 107 tightens an area of our workers compensation law to require that any injury awards be caused primarily at work and not from off-the-job activities. Many feel Illinois businesses are paying millions of dollars more than is justified for injuries. Reforms to worker compensation several years ago have reduced the cost of worker compensation insurance for businesses by 9 percent but rates are still among the highest in the country.
Another bill, HB 2892, eases regulations on businesses; expedites and simplifies licensure procedures; and cleans up outdated laws and administrative rules. HB 2891 makes permanent the Research & Development Tax Credit of 2012 and adds biodiesel and ethanol research as qualified R & D activities.
Finally, HB 2230 reduces the cost of setting up a limited liability company by 50 percent and HB2890 accelerates the Corporate Tax Rollback to promote economic growth. Together, the five bills represent a multi-faceted approach to jump starting economic activity in Illinois. The state’s job growth continues to lag behind other Midwestern states and is well below the national average.
Prison Closures Lead to Overcrowding
The closing of the maximum-security prison facility at Tamms and the female correctional center in Dwight before implementing an early release prisoner program has caused considerable overcrowding in the state’s prisons and increased violence against guards. The Department of Corrections has informed workers that it will soon be setting up temporary bed space in gymnasiums for the overflow of inmates at prisons in Vienna, Vandalia, Centralia, Danville, Canton and Hillsboro.
A new early release program approved by the legislature last year has yet to be implemented to reduce the over-crowding of 49,000 inmates in facilities designed for 33,000. Under the program, inmates must serve a minimum of 60 days for their crime and sentences may be reduced by 180 days based on good conduct.
To be eligible for the program, inmates must have successfully completed a job-training program or a substance abuse rehabilitation program. Violent offenders and those who commit further offenses while in prison are not eligible to participate in the program.
Committees Hear Ideas to Reduce College Costs
Eric Millender, Jr., a student at Northern Illinois University, was one of several students testifying before members of the House and Senate Higher Education Committees last week on ways to make college more affordable. Several ideas were mentioned to lower the cost of textbooks which one student said range from $500 to $800 per semester. Eastern Illinois University uses student fees to operate a book rental program while others suggested using e-books, book buy-back programs and a textbook “swap” program over the university website.
Declining state funding for higher education has been a major factor causing student tuition and fees to rise. State funding for most public universities in the state are at the same levels as 10 or more years ago. Another reason for tuition increases have been the Truth in Tuition Law which holds tuition costs stable for up to 6 years. The committee heard that universities set higher tuitions with each entering class to be certain to cover their cost increases over the next 4 to 6 years.
Handheld Cell Phones Banned While Driving
A bill passed the House last week that would ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving. Hands-free cell phones would still be permissible except in construction and school zones and near emergency scenes. HB1247 allows police to stop a driver for using a handheld phone while driving and charge them with a moving violation. The purpose for the ban is to reduce driver distractions. It now moves to the Senate.
Committee Accepts Revenue Projection for FY14 Budget
In what has become the first step in building a state budget, the House Appropriation Committee Chairs have set the fiscal year 2014 revenue target at $35.081 billion. This is an increase of about $1 billion from the projected revenue for FY13.
The House has used its own conservative revenue projections over the past two years but accepted the forecast of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) this year due to its better track record for accuracy. The group is still trying to determine what bills and how much should be set aside for payment before dividing the remaining revenue across the five budget committees.
The governor’s continued inability to stay within spending limits has many members of the group wanting to withhold more money for employee health insurance, Medicaid expenses and unpaid bills. Then too, any reform to the pension system in the next few weeks could affect how much is set aside to pay pensions and thus funding for everything else in the budget. If the legislature really intends to let the 5 percent income tax roll back in 2015, it also needs to begin cutting back spending so it doesn’t create a financial cliff of funding cuts in 2015.
A Joint Legislative Session will hear the Governor’s Budget address on Wednesday and then the legislative budgeting process moves into high gear.
Director Provides Bright Side to Illinois Economy
Like a coach trying to encourage his team at half-time, the Acting Director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity found lots of positive signs in the Illinois economy for a House Committee. Adam Pollet appeared before the Business Growth and Incentives Committee to explain how his agency is working to create jobs, grow the economy and build a foundation for prosperity of all citizens. His agency provides 12 program areas with regional and international offices to help train workers, find new markets for small businesses and fund various activities.
Pollet reported the agency funded skill training for over 127,000 workers last year and 73 percent of them found work. In 2011, 240 businesses located in Illinois compared with 160 locating in Indiana. Exports of Illinois products reached a record $68 billion last year and tourism captured a record $32 billion in 2011 and nearly 9 percent growth in hotel/motel tax revenue for 2012.
He said businesses are attracted to Illinois’ skilled work force, transportation network, educational system, finance and capital markets and its world-class city–Chicago. Foreign companies who don’t see the daily dose of bad press are attracted to the state because of these comparative advantages.
Thanks to all those who attended my morning discussions over coffee that were held the last two weekends. I appreciated getting acquainted, and your time, comments and ideas for improving our state. This next week is the Governor’s Budget Address and also my Youth Advisory Council travels to the Capitol to see our government in action and speak with many of its leaders. Have a great week.
Click Here To Submit A News Tip Or Story