Senate Week in Review: February 6-10

Springfield, Ill. – Illinois’ problems with job creation were highlighted during the week when long-time Illinois company, Caterpillar, acknowledged the state’s poor business and economic climate would have prevented them from considering Illinois for a significant expansion, said State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris).

In other news, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to push for a statewide handgun registry that could make felons of downstate and suburban handgun owners, and the state’s Medicaid program continues to draw attention.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Feb. 9 call for a statewide gun registry is expected to draw fierce opposition from gun advocates and many downstate lawmakers. According to media reports, the Mayor’s proposal would require all Illinois handgun owners to pay a $65 registration fee to the state, and provide the Illinois State Police with personal information, the gun’s make and model, and where and when the gun was purchased.

Currently, state gun owners are required to obtain a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card, but the actual guns aren’t registered with the state. Penalties for violation of Emanuel’s proposed legislation range from a misdemeanor charge for failure to report a lost or stolen firearm, to a felony charge for residents in possession of an unregistered gun.

The City of Chicago already enforces a strict gun ordinance, requiring handgun owners to register with the city and pay a fee. However, the Mayor says the statewide registry will help solve crime in Chicago, citing Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives statistics showing approximately 56 percent of guns at Chicago crime scenes are from outside city limits. Gun advocates pointed out that Illinois residents are already vetted through the FOID card registration process, and criticized the hefty registration fees associated with the Mayor’s proposal.

Almost a year ago, Caterpillar Inc. made headlines when a private letter penned by Chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman to Gov. Pat Quinn was leaked to the media. The missive outlined CAT’s concerns that the state’s massive tax increase would undermine the company’s ability to remain profitable.  This week, fears the company would bypass Illinois for greener pastures were realized.

On Feb. 7, an e-mail was leaked to the Peoria Journal-Star that Caterpillar—prompted by logistical deficiencies, and reinforced by the state’s inhospitable tax policies and bleak budget outlook—is bypassing Illinois to build the company’s new North American manufacturing plant in North Carolina. In a letter to Peoria County, the CAT facility selection team cited, “previously documented concerns about the business climate and the overall fiscal health of the state of Illinois,” that make it impractical to expand in Illinois.

As the largest private sector employer in the state—employing more than 23,000 Illinoisans—CAT’s decision is a blow to the Peoria area and the state as a whole. In the past, Caterpillar has lamented Illinois’ excessive workers’ compensation costs, pointing out that the cost for an employee with an identical injury is anywhere from three to seven times higher in Illinois than at a similar plant in Indiana. Senator Rezin said that serious efforts must be made to right the state’s fiscal ship, roll back the Democrats’ tax increase, and reform Illinois’ tedious regulatory system.

And on the heels of recent criticism from Republican lawmakers, on Feb. 7 Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos sent a letter to the federal government outlining the Department’s intentions to begin implementation of commonsense Medicaid eligibility requirements passed by state lawmakers. On Feb. 2, HFS and Quinn’s Administration were taken to task by Republican lawmakers for attempts to expedite expansion of the Medicaid program in Cook County, even as the Administration dragged its heels on pursuing execution of the bipartisan Medicaid reforms signed into law in 2011.

Senate Republicans were pleased to see the Administration pursue a more aggressive stance on Medicaid reform. The Caucus was particularly interested in DHS findings outlined in Director Hamos’ letter that suggest nearly six percent of the Department’s monthly medical card mailings from November 2011 were returned “undeliverable with out-of-state addresses.” If six percent of Medicaid recipients were deemed ineligible for benefits for failure to meet residency requirements, that would amount to approximately $650 million in savings each year.

Also during the week, Senate lawmakers spent most of their time in legislative committee hearings or working with staff, lobbyists, public interest groups and other lawmakers to craft legislation prior to the Feb. 10 deadline to introduce legislation for the 2012 legislative session. Lawmakers will return to Springfield Feb. 22 for the Governor’s annual budget address.

Some legislation approved by the Illinois Senate during the week includes:

Auto Dealers (SB 2571): Exempts dealers who sell vehicles to another dealer or auction house from the Dealer Recovery Trust Fund.

Comptroller Deductions (SB 2824): Prohibits the Comptroller from deducting payments to the Child Support Enforcement Trust Fund to ensure state law is in compliance with federal laws on child support distribution, so certain federal funding isn’t terminated.

DOC Mental Health Records (SB 2561): Gives the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice access to mental health treatment records of a person who has been treated or is subject to an evaluation, investigation or prosecution under the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act.

Gold Star Plates (SB 2494): Makes Gold Star license plates available to family members, including siblings of a person who has lost his/her life while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Previously siblings were not eligible if a parent was still living.

Some bills approved by Senate Committees during the week include:

Airport Authority (SB 2527): Provides Airport Authorities with expanded powers to invest in, plan, market, and otherwise support bus or rail transportation within the area served by the Authority.

DOC Reports (SB 2819): Eliminates various reports that the Department of Corrections must submit to the Governor and General Assembly.

Jury Fees (SB 2492): Allows jurors to waive jury payment.

Life Jacket Requirement (SB 2839): Changes the exemption relating to life jackets from “sailboats” to “sailboards,” so that sail boats would still be required to carry a life jacket for each passenger on board the craft, whereas a sailboard (windsurfing board, boogie board) remain exempt.

Non-citizen Arrestees (SB 2531): States that if a person is arrested for a murder or a violent crime the court must determine the citizenship of the person, and if the person is not a US citizen must seize the passport of the arrestee and impose travel restrictions.

School Day (SB 2850): Calls for a full school day on the first and last days of the school year.

Veterans ID (SB 2837): Allows for the designation of “Veteran” on ID cards issued by the Secretary of State at the request of the applicant, including driver’s licenses, state ID cards, and disabled ID cards.

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