Senate Week in Review: March 19-23

Springfield, Ill. – In anticipation of a pending deadline, Senate lawmakers approved almost 100 Senate bills that will now proceed to the House for consideration, while a number of Senate Subcommittees met to consider a variety of bills targeting ethics, transparency, and fiscal responsibility, to name a few, according to State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris).

Also during the week, faced with Medicaid obligations that far exceed available revenues, Senate legislators convened for a presentation outlining federal Medicaid requirements and offering ideas on how other states approach Medicaid.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. Rezin that would provide a check off for the Habitat for Humanity Fund on individual income tax forms unanimously passed the Senate this week.  The measure, which now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration, was introduced by Sen. Rezin after speaking with a constituent and he expressed his desire to have the check off as an option. 

Sen. Rezin said that she continued to attend meetings of the pension reform working group created by Gov. Quinn this week.  The group was tasked with formulating a pension reform proposal that they feel would have bipartisan support in both the Senate and House.  Gov. Quinn has requested that they have a plan by April 17. 

It became apparent during the week that several ethics measures introduced by Senate Republican lawmakers will never make it to the Senate floor for a vote.  Sen. Rezin explained it is not uncommon for legislation to be sent to a subcommittee and held there.  This appears to be the tactic used by Senate Democrat leaders to kill several bills that would have increased transparency and promoted ethical behavior in the General Assembly. 

Though a recent study by the University of Illinois found Illinois to be the third most corrupt state in the nation, several transparency and ethics bills failed to advance out of the Senate Executive Subcommittee on State Government, lacking Democrat approval. Two disclosure measures were halted in the Subcommittee, including Senate Bill 3646, which mandates that those who are required to file a statement of economic interests – including legislators – must disclose the name of any immediate family member who is a registered lobbyist.  A similar bill, Senate Bill 3647 requires registered lobbyists to report any familial relationships that the lobbyist might have with state officials. 

Senate Bill 3649 was also stalled by Democrat leaders in the Subcommittee, who failed to move the legislation that would bar legislators from negotiating for employment with lobbying entities during their term in office. The measure also prohibits lawmakers from receiving payment for lobbying members of the General Assembly for one year after leaving office.  Democrats also sidetracked Senate Bill 3648, which creates the Legislative Ethics Reform Task Force to study current governmental ethics law and identifying provisions that need to be expanded or clarified. 

However, the Subcommittee on State Government did advance legislation creating an “Office of the Repealer” charged with weeding out and eliminating redundant and outdated laws and regulations. Senate Bill 3681 was introduced in response to the many state laws that remain on the books long after their purpose has expired. These aged polices, and the associated red tape, can hurt Illinois’ employers and hinder economic activity.

As envisioned, the Office of the Repealer would act similarly to the State CLEAR Commission, a body that recently completed an update of the Illinois Criminal Code to make it less complex, easier to comprehend, and free of superfluous laws and redundancies. The measure would also create an online portal to accept public comment or suggestions on laws and regulations thought to be unreasonable or overly burdensome.

Similar efforts have been pursued in other states with positive results. Having been approved by the Subcommittee, Senate Bill 3681 advances to the full Senate Executive Committee for consideration.

Though committee meetings consumed most lawmakers’ time this week, Senate legislators still remained focused on tackling some of Illinois’ more pressing issues. The state’s unsustainable Medicaid growth is one of the number one budget concerns facing Illinois, as state leaders seek to eliminate the program’s deficit, which is projected to top $21 billion in five years.

Seeking to learn more about federal Medicaid requirements and how other states approach their state-financed health care programs, the Senate convened a special Senate “Committee of the Whole” hearing March 22 for an in-depth Medicaid presentation by Joy Johnson Wilson, Health Policy Director of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Ms. Wilson shared insight about how other states have tackled growing Medicaid debt in their state budgets, noting the main hurdle that each state shares lies within the Federal Affordable Care Act. Under the new federal law, changes to Medicaid eligibility standards, methodologies or procedures are prohibited until 2014. However, Wilson acknowledged that the prohibition has not yet been challenged or tested by any state.

Senate Republican lawmakers asked specific questions on how best to solve the growing Medicaid problem, raising questions regarding eligibility concerns and how best to reduce the growing backlog of bills to Medicaid providers.  

Ms. Wilson noted changes to optional programs, such as adult dental care, have provided the most flexibility for states seeking to cut Medicaid costs. Other states have also realized savings by reducing provider reimbursement rates; reducing the scope and/or duration of services; placing other restrictions on mandatory benefits; and expanding the use of co-payments. Improving management of prescription drug programs and durable medical equipment and supplies were also areas identified for potential cost-savings. 

Senate Republican members stressed that Illinois needs to identify ways to reduce the Medicaid program’s unsustainable growth and associated costs. According to the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, Fiscal Year 2013 funding for Medicaid will have to increase nearly $3 billion next year just to maintain the original bill backlog of $2.4 billion.

In other state news, reports recently submitted to the General Assembly show that the closure of state-owned facilities may have a greater impact on surrounding communities than Gov. Pat Quinn initially suggested.

Gov. Quinn said the closures would result in a cumulative loss of 2,300 jobs. However, recent studies released by the University of Illinois indicate the employment and economic costs may be much greater, as the loss of jobs and associated revenues ripple throughout the communities and the surrounding region.

For example, according to reports, closing Tamms Correctional Center would not only result in a loss of 295 prison jobs, but would lead to the loss of approximately 43 positions in the surrounding communities. Similarly, the same study examined the impacts on other facilities at Chicago, Dwight and Peoria; those would result in 419 direct job losses and 55 indirect job losses.

Direct and indirect job losses translate into lost revenues for local businesses, communities and schools. The economic output of the four facilities is estimated to be slightly more than $101 million.

The study also examined the impact on sales and income taxes as a result of the job losses. At the local level, tax revenues would only be compounded by employees potentially leaving Dwight, Peoria or Tamms. The report pointed out that a trickle-down loss of property taxes, charitable giving and other socio-economic factors would almost assuredly be expected.

Bills approved by the Illinois Senate during the week include:

AIDS Transmission (SB 3673): Clarifies the law to make it easier to investigate and prosecute cases where an individual who is HIV positive knowingly engages in activities in order to spread the disease to others.

Assessment Challenges (SB 3607): Sets a uniform 30-day deadline for property owners to file an assessment complaint.

Car Accidents (SB 3409): Allows persons to move their vehicle to the nearest off-ramp, access road or other safe location following an accident if it is a property damage-only accident.

Caylee’s Law (SB 2537): Establishes penalties for failing to report in a timely manner the disappearance or death of a child. This legislation stems from the death of two-year-old Caylee Anthony, whose mother failed to report the child’s disappearance and death for more than 30 days.

Cell Phone Ban (SB 2488): Extends the ban on cell phone use in construction or maintenance zones to all projects, not just those with a reduced speed limit.

Child Safety (SB 2950): Prohibits manufacturers, wholesalers or retailers from selling children’s food or beverage containers that contain Bisphenol A, and establishes penalties for doing so.

Collision Waiver (SB 3457): Allows rental car companies to increase the collision damage waiver and allows for future increases tied to the rate of inflation.

Comptroller Payment Requirement (SB 3257): Requires the Comptroller to pay all vouchers that are less than $5 through electronic funds transfer. This will save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, as the Comptroller says the cost to process a hard-copy check is $18 per check.

Corrections Records (SB 2873): Adds information that must be maintained in an inmate’s “master record file,” to include inmate grievances, criminal history and administrative tickets. This will ensure if an inmate moves facilities, that facility will have that information, and also will prohibit other inmates from accessing this information.

Criminal Passport Confiscation (SB 2531): Allows the court to confiscate the passport or impose travel restrictions as a condition of bail for non-U.S. citizens arrested for first degree murder or other violent crimes.

Domestic Violence (SB 3510): Makes it easier to use evidence of a defendant’s past history of domestic violence in murder cases involving allegations of domestic violence.

“Drano” Law Repeal (SB 3655): Exempts household products, such as drain cleaners, pesticides, epoxy and paint from requirements that purchasers of caustic substances must show a photo ID and sign a log. This would undo controversial provisions of a law that went into effect in January.

Family Fugitive Concealment (SB 2520): Creates a new sub-offense of aiding a fugitive to flee the jurisdiction targeting those who assist criminal suspects to flee apprehension by law enforcement.

Financial Reports on the Web (SB 3508): Requires the Comptroller to  post on the Internet all financial reports that are required to be submitted by governmental units, including counties and municipalities.

First-Time Offenders (SB 3423): Allows a first-time offender who is charged with or convicted of possession of less than 15 grams of methamphetamine to receive treatment in a drug abuse program rather than a prison term.

Gun Cases (SB 3533): Allows a greater variety of containers to be used as gun cases when legally transporting a firearm.

Head Concussion (SB3410): School boards must establish protocols for dealing with possible head concussions during sporting events.

HFS Efficiency Bill (SB 2574): Promotes efficiencies within the medical assistance programs by cutting costs, streamlining healthcare payment processes, and eliminating duplicative services.

National Guard (SB 3670): Increases National Guard state active duty pay to the same rate Guard members receive on federal active duty.

No Wheelies (SB 3452): Imposes a minimum fine of $1,000 for driving a motorcycle on one wheel while speeding. Also limits motorcycle handlebars to the same height at the driver’s head (currently handlebars cannot be higher than the operator’s shoulders.)

Property Tax Bills (SB 3386): Allows the Cook County Board to Review to send out results of tax appeals electronically, instead of by mail. Also allows property taxpayers to file appeals electronically in Cook County.

Religious Observation (SB 2949): Establishes that a college student who is unable to attend class or take an exam due to religious obligations will be granted an excused absence.

RTA Fraud (SB 2875): Requires the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to work with the Department of Public Health to identify deceased riders who were receiving free or reduced fares through the Seniors Ride Free program. The RTA projects that this could save as much as $350,000 each year.

School Days (SB 2850): Restricts school districts from having shorter school days on the opening and closing days of a school term.

Sex Offender Trick or Treats (SB 3579): Prohibits sex offenders from participating in holiday events involving children, such as handing out candy at Halloween or working or volunteering as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

Towing Fees (SB 3536): Gives smaller communities more flexibility to deal with impounded vehicles.

Veteran Tax Abatement (SB 2503):  Allows a county or municipality to grant property tax abatements for the residences of the surviving spouse of a fallen soldier.

Youth Scholarships (SB 2818):  Expands eligibility for Department of Children and Family Services scholarships and fee waivers to those who aged out of foster care, or former foster care children who have been adopted or are in a guardianship placement, who have earned a high school diploma from a public school district or a recognized non-public school.

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