Week in Review for 5/19/14 through 5/23/14

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Final Days of 2014 Spring Session
As third week of May ends, only six session days remain for vital work. Left undetermined as of Friday, May 23 were key decisions affecting the future of all Illinoisans, including the FY15 State budget.

The key twelve-month spending plan will govern State spending and operations starting in only one month, July 1, 2014. A $3 billion gap between expected State tax revenues and Democrat-led spending requests will create significant challenges for lawmakers.

Substantive, non-budget issues will also require action, and positions and legislative language could change over this period from moment to moment. Stay tuned to The Caucus Blog for continuously updated information on these key questions.

Tax Hike Still In Play
House Democrats push to make permanent the largest tax increase in Illinois history. An amendment to HB 395, filed Monday, May 19, perpetuates the “temporary” tax increase enacted in Public Act 96-1496. This unpopular law, enacted in early January 2011 by a lame-duck Illinois General Assembly containing temporary and defeated House and Senate members, raised the individual income tax by 67 percent, from 3.0 percent to 5.0 percent. To try to fend off criticism, this move was sold to Illinois voters as an emergency “four-year” tax hike that would roll back 48 months later on January 1, 2015.

As the fateful date approached when they would be required to keep their promises, Gov. Quinn and key legislative Democrats changed their position. HB 395’s amendatory language makes the 5.0 percent individual income tax rate– the highest rate in Illinois’ history – permanent. A parallel income tax hike was imposed on corporate income in January 2011 and is also perpetuated in the HB 395 language. The controversial amendment was assigned to the House Revenue Committee on Wednesday, May 21.

Republican Lawmakers Seek Voters Input on Tax Increase Extension. A group of Republican lawmakers introduced legislation (HB 6237) Tuesday that would put on the November ballot a statewide advisory referendum asking voters whether or not the five percent ‘temporary’ income tax increase should become permanent.

“A number of issues are expected to be placed on the ballot in November as a way to gauge public sentiment. The proposal we are introducing today would ask the voters to decide whether or not the five percent ‘temporary’ income tax increase should be made permanent,” said Rep. Dennis Reboletti. “Extending the income tax increase hits residents and small employers directly in the pocketbook. They deserve the opportunity to weigh in on the decision.”

All Republicans in the House and Senate oppose raising the income tax because it does nothing to help the 550,000 unemployed Illinoisans to find work. Illinois’ unemployment rate of 7.9% (April 2014) is the second-worst jobless rate among the 50 states.

By the time the Democrats’ 2011 “temporary” income tax increase is set to expire in January 2015, it will have taken more than $31 billion from the pockets of working families and small businesses.

More on the tax hike advisory referendum.

Sign our petition against the Democrats’ threatened tax hike. Hardworking taxpayers cannot afford another tax increase. Stand with House Republicans by signing our petition to let the “temporary” tax increase expire.

It’s back! Income surtax refloated as advisory referendum plan. HB 3816, approved by the House on Friday, May 23 by a largely partisan roll call of 64-46-0, calls for placing an advisory referendum on the November 2014 ballot which would ask voters whether they want to see a 3 percent additional income tax imposed on individual Illinois incomes above $1.0 million. Voters would be assured that proceeds from this income tax surcharge would be divided between school districts by pupil count, but the advisory referendum created by HB 3816 would have no force of law. The monies to be raised from Illinois taxpayers by this additional levy could, in reality, be spent in any manner determined by a majority of the General Assembly.

The HB 3816 advisory referendum follows the failure earlier in the 2014 spring session of a parallel measure, HJRCA 51 (Madigan), to win a three-fifths majority (71 votes) in the Illinois House. Supermajority votes in the House and Senate would have directed the Secretary of State to place this language on the ballot as a bona fide amendment to the Constitution of Illinois. The stalling of HJRCA 51 has forced advocates of this proposal to try to re-present it to the people of Illinois as an advisory referendum with no force of law.

Key Democratic elected official’s husband subpoenaed in probe of NRI grant process. The troubled $54 million taxpayer-funded anti-violence program is the subject of multiple State and federal probes. The investigation follows findings by the Illinois Auditor General that the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) lacked internal guidelines governing the process by which it handed out grants, disbursed funds without keeping adequate records over its cash flow, and did not perform due diligence over the recipients of its grants. The program appears to have reached peak spending levels at the time of the November 2010 Illinois general election.

The federal subpoena’s recipient is Benton Cook III, husband of elected Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown and salaried recipient of NRI taxpayer funds. Records show NRI grants paid for more than $146,000 in salary and fringe benefits to Cook, described as monies used to carry out anti-violence social work in the challenged West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. The NRI initiative received final approval from Gov. Pat Quinn only one month before his narrow election to a full term in November 2010.

Parallel State subpoena powers were granted by the Legislative Audit Commission on Tuesday, May 6. The State investigation may be delayed if preliminary federal investigative work discovers a substantial likelihood that serious federal felonies have been committed.

Rep. Davidsmeyer, House respond to propane crisis of last winter. The price of the natural gas liquid, widely used by Downstate rural families for heating and other essential purposes, spiked above $4.00/gallon for Illinois delivery in February 2014. In addition to “polar vortex” cold weather conditions, industry observers pointed to logistical bottlenecks in the distribution of propane from pipelines and refining locations to customers.

After much discussion, industry participants and State highway experts agreed on language, sponsored in the House by Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, in SB 3139 to carve out a series of exceptions to State highway truck maximum weight limits. These exceptions would apply only to trucks used solely for the transport of propane or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and would apply only during the duration of a propane supply disaster declared by the Governor of Illinois. The House’s unanimous approval on Tuesday, May 20 sent the measure to the Governor for final action.

Health Care
Children’s medical cannabis bill advances. Illinois families have discussed with House members the problem of inadequate treatments offered by conventional medication for children with seizure disorders, including but not limited to epilepsy. SB 2636 will offer an alternative pathway for a child to be diagnosed by a trained and licensed medical professional as having standing as a patient to receive medical cannabis. A child will not be allowed to consume cannabis in any form other than medical infused cannabis products, such as tinctures and oils. The infused products will only be dispensed to a registered qualifying child patient with the consent of a parent or guardian and must be purchased from an approved dispensary by an adult.

The House approved an amended version of SB 2636 on Wednesday on a vote of 98-18-0, sending the bill back to the Senate for possible concurrence. If the Senate concurs, it will be forwarded to the Governor for possible signature.

Labor/Minimum Wage
Minimum wage referendum advances. HB 3814 would place a minimum-wage-hike advisory referendum on the Illinois ballot in the November 2014 general election. Observers pointed out that the measure, if placed on the ballot, could be used to defuse voter anger resulting from a proposed 2015 income tax increase. Voters would be offered the opportunity to support increasing the minimum wage from its current Illinois rate of $8.25/hour to $10/hour, effective January 1, 2015 – the same day as the proposed tax hike.

Memorial Day
As Memorial Day approaches, Illinois House pays tribute to those from Illinois who have fallen. HR 1094 and HR 1130 pay tribute to Illinois’ fallen warriors. As the Civil War moved towards its close, groups throughout the South spontaneously decorated the graves of the fallen with spring flowers. General John A. Logan, a native of Murphysboro, Illinois, took the lead in organizing his fellow veterans to bring the North into this commemoration and raise these community observances into the status of a national holiday. Logan and his fellow Union veterans in the “Grand Army of the Republic”, the veterans’ heritage group, succeeded in fixing the date of Memorial Day as the fourth Monday in May. Illinoisans have remembered the fallen warriors of their communities and families on Memorial Day from 1865 through today.  

Poker Runs
Rep. Brauer pushes bill through House to reaffirm legality of popular fundraising activity. Bikers and others often organize themselves into “poker runs,” a popular fundraising activity that uses a variety of game tokens (not necessarily poker cards) to encourage entrants to visit a variety of event stops. Entrants pick up one token at each stop and then compare their tokens at the finish line for small prizes.

Poker runs are primarily fundraising and fun runs, but the small prizes often awarded to winners mean that their legal status needed to be reaffirmed under Illinois law. After several false starts, it became clear that the best way to do this would be to enable the local police to treat a poker run the same way as they treat a charity raffle under existing law. SB 3312, sponsored in the House by Rep. Rich Brauer, expands the Raffles Act to make it the Raffles and Poker Runs Act. Bikers’ groups worked with Brauer to get the bill approved by both houses of the General Assembly. The 108-6-1 House vote came on Wednesday, May 21. SB 3312 now goes to the Governor for his signature.

State Government/Old Bills
House members fight to apply FY14 surplus revenues to old bills. With the State of Illinois having suffered more than 20 cuts to its credit rating in recent years, calls are mounting for the Quinn administration to use some of the unexpected surplus revenues being enjoyed in fiscal year 2014 (ending June 30, 2014) to pay back old and past-due bills owed by the State to providers of goods and services. A typical State creditor is a hospital, clinic, or nursing home that has provided health care to an eligible patient and is then forced to ‘front’ the cost because Medicaid bills have piled up. The office of Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka estimates the total load of unpaid bills by the Stet of Illinois was close to $4.9 billion at the end of April 2014

Rep. David Harris, Republican spokesperson on the House Revenue and Finance Committee, is the lead sponsor of HR 1078, which requests that the Quinn administration and the State use all of the State’s FY14 surplus to pay outstanding bills. The resolution was assigned to the Revenue Committee on Monday, May 19.

Unfortunately, budget experts do not expect to see a similar surplus in FY15, the approaching fiscal year starting on July 1, 2014. House Democrats passed a controversial budget on Thursday, May 15, that would spend at least $37.4 billion in the coming fiscal year. This amount is far greater than expected State revenues during the twelve-month period, signaling a return by the State of Illinois to the combination of tax hikes and deficit spending that has become familiar to Illinois taxpayers over the past decade-plus of one-party rule.

Taxes – Soda Pop Tax
Democrats propose new tax on Illinois sweetened beverages. Soda pop and other snack beverages, which are already (unlike most other foods) fully taxed under Illinois sales tax law, will be subject to an additional “sin tax” levy of 1 cent per ounce. A typical tax of this type would increase the sales cost of a six-pack of 12-ounce cans of soda pop by 72 cents. The language was floated on Wednesday, May 21 as an amendment to SB 397. Syrups meant for on-site preparation as fountain drinks, and syrups and powders sold to the public for preparation into sweetened beverages at home, will be taxed by this proposal at the rate of one cent per final ounce of sweet drink.

A complex formula is included inside this proposal to divide the tax money to be raised. Much of the money would be deposited into the State’s Medicaid program for health care to low-income Illinois residents. Advocates say the additional soda pop tax will not only raise desperately-needed funds for the State, but will also discourage the allegedly poor nutritional habits created by frequent consumption of sweetened beverages.

Transportation/Prairie Chickens
State planes transport 91 rare prairie chickens from Kansas to Illinois. The fourteen flights by the State planes of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics have transported 50 prairie chicken cocks and 41 hens from a breeding flock on the Great Plains to the endangered Illinois remnant bird population located in Jasper and Marion Counties in southern Illinois.

The prairie chicken, once hunted extensively throughout Illinois, has died back severely in recent generations due to farmers plowing up their preferred tall grass prairie habitat. Wildlife experts agree on the desirability of action to reduce the threat of inbreeding in the remnant Illinois flock and enable good eggs to be hatched, but the expense of the air taxi program for the endangered birds (approximately $7,500 per flight) has raised questions about the State’s priorities at a time of fiscal crisis. “This is an egregious abuse of tax dollars,” responded Rep. Bill Mitchell, a longtime critic of the State airplane fleet. A May 15th Illinois News Network story on the prairie chicken flight program can be found here.

Cougars, gray wolves, and black bears added to State’s Wildlife Code. The addition will add to protections for these three top carnivores, which are re-introducing themselves to Illinois. At the same time, the provisions of SB 3049 will allow the owner or tenant of property that is threatened by a cougar, gray wolf, or black bear to take steps to eliminate the threat. If the threat is imminent, the property occupant will have the right to shoot the animal; and if the threat is not imminent, the property occupant will have the right to apply to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for a nuisance permit.

Large carnivores, searching for living space, are spreading out from their breeding populations into many Midwestern states, including Illinois. In the case of black bears and gray wolves, the closest large breeding space is in the northern woods surrounding Lake Superior; in the case of cougars, genetic tests done on animals found in Illinois in recent years indicate that the big cats have wandered from as far away as South Dakota’s Black Hills. Although SB 3049 gives property occupants the right to protect themselves, their families, and their property, the bill also adds these three species to the list of protected species under the Wildlife Code. A unanimous House vote sent this amended bill back to the Senate for concurrence and possible signature by the Governor into law.

Week in Review
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