Week in Review for August 5 - 9 2013

House Republicans take stand against “progressive” income tax proposal.  At the end of the 2013 spring session, the Democrat majority introduced a new State constitutional amendment, HJRCA 33, for discussion.  This amendment, if it were approved by both houses and ratified by the voters, would abolish the current flat-rate income tax (the current rate is 5.0 percent on individuals) and replace it with a graduated or “progressive” income tax rate that would rise with the income of the taxpayer.  Enactment of a progressive income tax law could open the door to income tax rates much higher than 5.0 percent for many Illinoisans, and with inflation more and more households (including middle-class households) would be subjected to the higher rates.  Graduated income tax rates are higher in neighboring states which constitutions allow these rates to be charged.  For example, higher-income Iowa individuals must pay a rate of 8.98 percent.

The Illinois Constitution requires that proponents of a constitutional amendment, such as the one that would be required to enact a “progressive” income tax, get a three-fifths majority in both houses of the General Assembly.  Some Democrats see a window of opportunity to get this controversial change through the State’s legislative chamber during the next year and a half.  Changes in the Illinois House’s membership after the election of November 2014 mean that proponents of this proposal may no longer have a credible pathway to the required three-fifths majority.  71 votes are required in the Illinois House to pass a bill or resolution by three-fifths.

$338 million city deficit predicted for fiscal year 2014.  The fiscal year, scheduled to begin on January 1, will not include adequate funding for Chicago’s underfunded defined-benefit pension systems.  Actuaries estimate that the city pension systems face a shortfall of $19.5 billion for non-educational employees only.  Pensions for teachers and other educators must be added to this total.

Chicago’s budget is currently benefiting from a multi-year pension “holiday” granted by Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly during the nationwide 2008-13 economic downturn, when city tax revenues fell far short of meeting the city’s long-term budgetary needs.  The “holiday,” similar to one granted for the State’s contributions to parallel State-managed pension funds in earlier years, has dramatically worsened the city’s pension underfunding situation.

Chicago’s pension woes were featured in a story published by the “New York Times” on Tuesday, August 6.  New York-based Wall Street bond rating agencies, such as Moody’s, are aware of the extent of the challenge.  Moody’s imposed an unprecedented July 2013 three-notch downgrade of the general obligation debt issued by Illinois’ largest city.  Actuaries say that when the “holiday” ends in 2015, Chicago’s taxpayers will face an additional $1 billion red-inked line item in their city’s budget in order to make fiscally sound contributions to the troubled pension systems.

160 years of State Fairs resume in Springfield.  The inaugural parade for Illinois’ summertime festival, sponsored by the Department of Agriculture, was held Thursday, August 8 and the Fair’s first full day of events was Friday, August 9.  Further events will continue through next week in advance of the Fair’s scheduled close on Sunday, August 18.

The Illinois State Fair celebrates the resiliency of the people of Illinois, especially our farmers.   Weather challenges continued in the spring of 2013 as heavy rains and flooding led to 35 counties being declared disaster areas.  The Illinois State Fair was first held 160 years ago, in 1853, and has been celebrated every summer since except during certain wartime periods.

The Budweiser Clydesdales will be featured attractions at this year’s festival.  In addition, the State Fair features concerts, rides, displays, performances, and agricultural events.  800 pounds of unsalted butter have been used to sculpt the Dairy Pavilion’s world-famous Butter Cow.  

General Assembly
Court puts off hearing on controversial majority lawsuit to ensure paychecks for lawmakers.  After Gov. Quinn imposed a line-item veto on the appropriation bill that set aside money to be used to cover the General Assembly’s bimonthly paychecks, the Democrat leaders in the Illinois House and Senate, Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton, filed a controversial lawsuit to reverse the line-item veto and force the transfer of the funds intended to cover the paychecks.

Illinois’ 177 lawmakers learned on Tuesday, August 6, that they would get no personal pay in their immediate future.  A Cook County judge responded to the Madigan-Cullerton filings by docketing oral arguments for Wednesday, September 18.  The matter remained unresolved this week.  Commentators noted longstanding personal ties between Speaker Madigan and many of the judges on the Cook County court, which is hearing the case.  In addition, the chief lawyer representing the State of Illinois against Madigan and Cullerton is expected to be Speaker Madigan’s daughter Lisa Madigan, acting in her capacity as the state’s Attorney General.

Request for immediate concealed carry denied by appellate court; the court grants advocates the right to renew their request with written briefs.  When HB 183 became law in July 2013, Illinoisans learned that they had been given the go-ahead to prepare, at some future point in time, to apply for licenses to carry concealable firearms in public places.  The new law is expected to apply to most streets, most sidewalks, and most of the places that a motor vehicle can drive.  Specific exceptions are carved out of the list of places where this right can be enjoyed, and before these applications can be distributed the Illinois State Police must adopt rules to govern these exceptions and set forth the requirements that license applicants must obey in order to demonstrate their ability to carry a firearm in public.

It is not expected that actual concealed-carry licenses will be issued until 2014.  In the hopes of gaining immediate enjoyment of their rights, a group of gun owners that included rights advocate Mary Shepard filed a lawsuit asking for court-ordered immediate relief into a transitional period of concealed-carry rights.  Under the lawsuit, an Illinois FOID card would double as a concealed-carry card during the transition.  Attorney General Lisa Madigan opposed the lawsuit.  In a decision filed on Thursday, August 1, the court did not grant immediate relief to Shepard and her fellow plaintiffs, but asked both sides to submit written briefs by August 14 so the matter could be held open for possible further court action.

Embattled governor pledges to appoint panel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at Metra.  The pledge was made on Tuesday, August 6.  Gov. Quinn’s move followed the resignation of the troubled commuter-train agency’s executive director and four of the members of Metra’s governing board, including board chairman Brad O’Halloran.  Former executive director/CEO Alex Clifford accepted a $718,000 contact buyout, raising questions about alleged conflicts of interest and possible interests of key Chicago-area politicians in buying his silence.  Gov. Quinn’s pledge to appoint a panel drew a contrast with the Illinois House, whose Mass Transit Committee has thus far refused to convene a hearing to look into these allegations of misconduct.

The rules of the Illinois General Assembly allow witnesses to testify under oath, making the state legislature an attractive option for increasing public accountability over troubled public-sector agencies.  However, the House majority has not responded to House Republican requests, from Representative Mike Tryon and his colleagues, for hearings in the Metra scandal.  Furthermore, Gov. Quinn did not clarify this week what questions his in-house Metra panel would ask, or what reform steps over Metra the Governor’s office would be likely to propose.  

“Patricia’s Law” will end court supervision for most persons who are charged as the result of a fatal motor vehicle accident.  HB 1010, which would approved by both houses with almost unanimous bipartisan support, was signed into law on Monday, August 5.  The bill was filed following the court disposition of a driver who pleaded guilty to running a McHenry County stop sign; the incident led to the death of another driver, Patricia McNamara.  However, in this individual case the court allowed the driver charged in the incident to accept court supervision, a fine, and mandatory attendance at a traffic safety school.

Many members of the General Assembly believe that if a person is charged for a traffic accident that leads to the death of another, they should (if guilty) be convicted and sentenced, not granted court supervision.  HB 1010 closes the door to court supervision for a fatal accident for all drivers who have a prior conviction or a prior court supervision for any non-equipment-related moving violation under the Illinois Vehicle Code.  The bill was signed into law as Public Act 98-169, informally called “Patricia’s Law.”