Week in Review - June 10 2013

General Assembly prepares for special session.  The meetup, called by Governor Pat Quinn on Thursday, June 6, and scheduled for Wednesday, June 19, is being urged to deal with outstanding Illinois State budget and pension issues.  Illinois continues to labor under the burden of unpaid bills currently totaling $5.8 billion, although this is significantly lower than the $8.5 billion of past-due bills in State files in April.  Actions by House Republicans, when the FY13 budget was passed in spring 2012, were influential in ensuring that almost one-third of this past-due bill load would be paid down before the end of the fiscal year.

With the unfunded liabilities of the State’s managed systems continuing to grow at an estimated rate of $17 million/day, pension issues will be at the center of the special session; but the House and Senate are not constitutionally bound to any single subject and could deal with other questions as well.  In particular, if Gov. Pat Quinn issues any vetoes prior to the special session, the General Assembly could take action to override these vetoes in one or both houses.  Either or both chambers could also discuss and debate various issues, such as gaming expansion, that were not resolved when they adjourned in May.

Tap Dance to Block Pension Reform

Colleges and universities
House Republican college affordability plan released; would provide additional middle-class tax credits and deductions to students’ families.   HB 3640 (Cross) and HB 3641 (Brown) were introduced on Wednesday, June 12.  The Cross measure, lead-sponsored by House Republican leader Tom Cross (R-Kendall Co.) creates a new income tax credit of up to $1,000 per year for most families, if the family is the principal means of support for a full-time or part-time student in an accredited Illinois institution of post-secondary education (i.e. a college or a university).  A middle-class tax credit, this benefit would only be available for households declaring adjusted gross income of less than $150,000 per year.

HB 3641, sponsored by Representative Adam Brown (R-Macon Co.), expands an existing income tax deduction so that its benefits can be spread more widely.  Current State law allows contributors to two federally-approved college savings programs, “College Illinois” and “Bright Start/Bright Directions”, to deduct up to $10,000 per year from their taxable income with regards to slices of annual income that have been set aside for college savings.  However, under current law only these two programs are eligible for this tax deduction.  HB 3641 “unlocks” this tax deduction so that any Illinois taxpayer who is saving his or her money into any federally-approved college savings program will be able to deduct these savings from their incomes for State income tax purposes.  

Both bills were expected to be referred to the House Rules Committee for further scrutiny.  

Measure to allow serious felony charges in cases of drunk-driving-for-hire likely to become law.  SB 1764, sponsored by House Republican Leader Tom Cross, responds to a May 11 occurrence involving a hired limousine that was transporting students from Oswego East High School to a prom.  Limo driver Richard Madison allegedly had a blood alcohol level of more than three times the legal limit.   After the limo driver was seen driving recklessly, he was charged with driving under the influence (DUI), but Class 4 felony charges (1-3 years in state prison) could not be brought because the alleged conduct of reckless driving did not fit into any of the existing categories of felony aggravated DUI.   This bill was finalized by the House in the closing days of the 2013 spring session, and when the Senate concurred with this language on Friday, May 31, this approval cleared the way for the unanimously-approved measure to be sent to the Governor.   The bill covers taxicabs and buses, as well as limousines.  The measure, if signed into law, will take effect immediately.  

Protecting Families, Strengthening DUI Laws

Environment/legal liability
General Assembly sends bill, SB 1042, to Governor’s desk to protect landowners who allow limited public access for recreation.   Under current Illinois law, if someone suffers an injury while in the process of enjoying the outdoors, the person will have broad leeway to sue the landowner for damages – even if the recreation was being carried out in a relatively safe manner and the landowner was not enjoying any compensation for the access.  The presumption under common law is that the safest thing a landowner can do is to treat every entrant onto the property as a trespasser, and this overall doctrine has been solidified by Illinois case law.  Nonprofit conservation groups have sprung up in Illinois and other states with the goal of purchasing environmentally fragile lands and opening the parcels up, for brief intervals of time, for visits by members and the general public.  Under current Illinois law, however, these groups have to purchase expensive liability insurance whenever they do this.

SB 1042, which was passed by both houses of the General Assembly in late May and was ready in mid-June to be sent to the Governor,  carves out a limited exception from liability for certain defined conservation and recreational purposes.   The exception is parallel to an existing exception for parcels of land used for hunting and shooting.   This measure, if it becomes law, will be especially valuable for recreational users of sloping ground in far Southern Illinois, where groups of young adults go climbing, road biking, and bouldering.  Representative Mike Bost (R-Jackson Co.), who represents parts of hilly far southern Illinois, was a lead co-sponsor of SB 1042.

The House vote that helped to pass this bill was 117-0-0.

Local governments, property owners eligible for federal flooding help in 33 counties throughout Illinois.   Expansions in the lists of counties where the federal government’s Department of Homeland Security will provide help to local property owners, local governments, or both were approved on Thursday, June 6.   Heavy rainfall throughout much of Illinois in May led to immediate flash floods in tributary zones, such as much of greater Chicago; as swollen rivers flowed downstream, the problem shifted to major rivers such as the Illinois and the Mississippi.  In the first and second weeks of June, levees came under threat where these two rivers flow together, especially in and around Alton, Illinois. 

Websites operated by the Illinois House Republican Caucus (thecaucusblog.com), and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, are providing frequent updates on the flood situation.  These updates include lists of designated Illinois disaster-declaration counties, and short descriptions of the types of local aid that are available in each.   Representative C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Morgan County) represents many of the river towns and townships affected by the later stages of the 2013 spring flood. 

Concealed carry bill sits on Governor’s desk.   HB 183, approved by both houses, was sent to the Governor on Wednesday, June 5 for his signature.  The measure, if it becomes law, will enact a closely-regulated system, under the supervision of the Illinois State Police, that will enable gun owners to apply for a license to carry concealable firearms in most Illinois public places.  Law-abiding gun owners will have the right to be licensed, with some exceptions.  Further exceptions are carved out for security locations, such as courthouses and airport terminals, where concealable firearms will continue to be banned.  Representative Ed Sullivan (R-Lake Co.), one of the House Republicans’ chief spokesmen on gun-rights issues, was a key co-sponsor of the legislation. 

The measure was passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses (the final House vote, on May 31, was 89-28-0) but, should Gov. Pat Quinn veto the measure either entirely or in part, the bill would not become law or be enforceable until the General Assembly exercised its right to override this blocking move by three-fifths majority.  The Constitution of 1970 gives Illinois governors 60 calendar days to consider bills that have been sent to them; the State’s chief executive will have until August 4 to sign HB 183, veto the bill, or allow the measure to become law without his signature.  At least one prosecutor, Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons, has told the press he intends to use his prosecutorial discretion to not move forward with court proceedings against any person arrested after Thursday, June 6 for concealed-carry unlawful use of a weapon (UUW) offenses.