Senate Week in Review: July 29-August 2

Legislation that will legalize the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions was signed into law during the week ending August 2, but Senator Sue Rezin (R-Morris) said many questions remain about how the measure will be implemented, especially because federal drug laws still prevent the sale or distribution of marijuana.

Also during the week, a special conference committee continued to work behind the scenes trying to hash out a compromise on pension reform, while the legislature’s top two Democrats went to court seeking to overturn Governor Pat Quinn’s plan to withhold pay from legislators until he gets a pension bill he likes.

Medical Marijuana approved

With the approval of House Bill 1, Illinois will join 20 other states in allowing the use of marijuana to treat dozens of serious illnesses. The legislation, which goes into effect next Jan. 1, will create a four-year pilot program that allows persons with any of several dozen serious diseases to obtain up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis every two weeks.

More than 35 serious conditions would be covered, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and a number of spinal cord diseases and injuries. There will be a statewide registry of all patients and their caregivers. The legislation does not include a general eligibility for chronic pain or nausea. The legislation establishes a system for licensing up to 22 growers and 60 dispensaries.

But, many questions remain unanswered. For example, a doctor’s prescription will be required, but physicians may be hesitant to write a prescription that could bring them into conflict with federal anti-drug laws. Similarly, insurers are unlikely to cover the cost of the herb.

Pension Committee working

The special conference committee on pensions has been meeting in small groups and submitting proposals to financial experts to determine what the potential savings may be under various options, Sen. Rezin said. No details of the plans under consideration have been released, but it is generally expected that a final proposal could incorporate ideas developed by a University of Illinois government think tank.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) filed a court challenge July 30, to Governor Quinn’s decision to veto legislative salaries from the state budget. Quinn vetoed the salaries in retaliation for the legislature’s failure to adopt pension changes. The Governor cut the salaries even though he was the one who asked that a conference committee be created to develop a pension reform plan.  Sen. Rezin supported the Governor’s decision to suspend legislator’s pay and hopes that the action will get some results.  

After lawmakers agreed to the special committee, the Governor refused to testify before the group or submit his own plan for reform. Those actions have contributed to legislators’ frustration, with many seeing Quinn as more interested in scoring political points than seeking a genuine solution.

While many lawmakers share the Governor’s frustration over the slow pace of pension reform, there are also serious concerns that the action could set a dangerous precedent. For example, the Governor is staunchly anti-gun and might use a similar tactic to attempt to push through gun control legislation that has been consistently rejected by lawmakers.

Other measures approved

Also during the week, legislation was approved that will allow for online voter registration, create a revolving loan program for minority-owned businesses within the state’s Transportation Department, provide new protections from potential abuse of the elderly and give disabled student athletes more flexibility to meet physical education requirements.

Online voter registration

With approval of House Bill 2418, Illinois joins 17 other states allowing online registration. Other provisions include: changing the hours for early voting on Sundays from mornings to afternoons. Early voting will be allowed from Noon until 3 p.m.; Requiring the State Board of Elections to post precinct-by-precinct totals; codifying that votes cast for a candidate who drops out but remains on the ballot will not be counted; and make permanent the early voting locations at several state universities that were temporarily established in 2012.

Unfortunately, HB 2418 contained several other changes to state elections law that forced many lawmakers to oppose the measure. One would raise the threshold for becoming a political committee from $3,000 to $5,000 (this will mean that in many local races, there will not be disclosure of campaign contributions or expenditures because the candidate will never raise or spend $5,000).

Another controversial portion of the measure changes Lake County to a county board of election commissioners system with the chief judge of the circuit court appointing the commissioners. This was done over the objection of most elected officials of Lake County and is expected to increase costs for Lake County taxpayers.

A third change will make it more difficult to challenge Chicago aldermen by doubling the number of signatures needed by prospective candidates to get on the ballot.

Dept. of Transportation Loan Program

A new revolving loan program was contained in HB 3267, which creates the disadvantaged business revolving loan and grant program. The measure turns the state’s Department of Transportation into a lender for low-interest loans to businesses to allow them to participate in construction and construction-related contracts.

While lawmakers generally applauded the intent of the program, some raised concern that it would divert up to $3 million a year from the state’s Road Fund for the next five years.

Protecting the elderly

In order to better protect the elderly from physical or financial abuse, Senate Bill 1287 will prohibit anyone who has been convicted of felony harm or threat to a minor from being appointed to serve as a guardian of a person or an estate of an elderly person.

Previously, only a person convicted of a felony involving a threat or harm to an elderly or disabled person was not allowed to serve as an elder guardian.

Disabled students

Senate Bill 2157 will allow physically-challenged students to be excused from physical education classes if they are participating in an organized adaptive athletics program.

Similar exemptions have long been available to students who participate in other organized physical activities, such as interscholastic sports. The legislation was prompted by a student in the Lockport area who participates in an adaptive sport outside of school, but was unable to receive a waiver from the school’s physical education requirements and therefore could not fit desired electives and advanced placement classes in his schedule. The measure passed unanimously in both the Senate and House.

State Fire Marshall withdraws proposed rules before JCAR

In a press release from State Fire Marshall Larry Matkaitis, he issued a statement regarding the proposal of the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) to update Illinois’ fire safety code for the first time in more than a decade.  The proposed rule will no longer be considered in from of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) at this time.  His statement is as follows:

“After months of study into how we can better protect the lives and property of Illinois residents, I directed my office to draft Illinois’ first fire code update in 11 years.  As the brave first responders alongside who I have served during four decades in fire protection know, Illinois needs 21st century fire safety standards.  Since we began this process, we conducted numerous meetings with local officials, legislators, fire safety professionals, community leaders and residents who have all expressed a desire to strengthen Illinois’ fire safety.  We have received an unprecedented amount of public input and suggestions through emails, letters and public meetings.  In the course of this process, it’s become clear than y proposed state rule needs additional refinement.  Therefore today I am officially withdrawing the proposed rule before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to take into account substantial public comment and carefully re-examine this issue.”

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