Week in Review for week ending February 24, 2017

AFSCME – Possible labor action
AFSCME announces results of strike authorization vote. AFSCME, the labor union that represents 38,000 Illinois employees, states that 81% of the workers who participated in a recent advisory ballot voted to authorize a possible strike.

A key advisor to Governor Bruce Rauner, General Counsel Dennis Murashko, called the vote to authorize a strike “an attack on our state’s hardworking taxpayers and all those who rely on crucial services provided every day.”

The union’s leadership pointed to a possible partial freeze in State pay rates, and cuts in employer-financed health care benefits, as reasons for the strike vote. The Governor’s office responded that AFSCME workers currently enjoy many benefits that private-sector workers do not enjoy, such as a 37.5-hour work week, platinum health insurance benefits, and a ban on merit pay. The AFSCME vote does not make a strike inevitable, but authorizes the union’s powerful bargaining committee to call a labor action in the near future. The strike, if it occurs, would be the first ever statewide public-sector labor action against the State of Illinois.

Chicago – Thompson Center
The Chicago Sun-Times editorializes in favor of State disposal of James R. Thompson Center. The editorial asserts that the troubled 1.2-million-square-foot structure reflects the values of a bygone period of public-sector arrogance and has reached the end of its useful life. Studies indicate that the building has been under-maintained for many years. Building experts say that the State would have to pay $326 million merely to renovate the building back to working conditions. In addition, the State currently has to pay $25 per square foot in Thompson Center heating, cooling, cleaning, and upkeep bills.

The 2,200 State employees who work inside the Thompson Center would have to relocate to other existing office space. HB 500, sponsored by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, authorizes the State to take steps to turn over the Thompson Center and its potentially lucrative LaSalle Street “footprint” to the private sector. The bill has been assigned to the House State Government Administration Committee for a hearing. Speaker Madigan has agreed to hold subject matter hearings on the bill.

Criminal Law – Reducing Prison Populations
Members of prison reform commission speak out on path forward. Illinois currently imprisons about 44,000 inmates within the Department of Corrections system. This constitutes a substantial burden on Illinois taxpayers. On the other hand, the overall system of criminal justice demands that persons who have committed serious offenses be suitably punished for their crimes.

Speaking to a forum in Bloomington-Normal this week, two longtime leaders in criminal justice, retired circuit judge Elizabeth Robb and University of Illinois law professor Andrew Leipold, spoke out on the subject. Both forum participants had been members of the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, a panel appointed by Governor Bruce Rauner to look at the future of Illinois imprisonment. Following up on their December 2016 report, the panelists told the forum that there are many things Illinois can do to reduce the prison population by as much as 25% over a long-term period without statistically increasing the danger of crime for law-abiding Illinoisans.

Panelists Leipold and Robb spoke in favor of comprehensive action on the commission’s recommendations, including a request that the legislature and judiciary take a closer look at the practice of sentencing nonviolent first-time offenders to felony prison time. Other recommendations include a request that the Department of Corrections look at granting some form of compassionate release to inmates who are terminally ill and can be monitored and confined at home.

Education – Asthma Emergencies
New mandate requires school districts to have written emergency protocols. In a response to the increasing number of Illinois schoolchildren with severe asthma, Illinois has passed a new law requiring school districts to create and maintain an asthma action plan. Effective January 1, each school district must keep a list that identifies all children with asthma. The school district must maintain a step-by-step plan to respond if any of them develop an asthma emergency. The Illinois law matches what is now a recommended nationwide protocol for the school enrollment of children with asthma, and half of the 50 states have enacted laws of this type.

Statistics show that a startling percentage of Illinois children now have asthma. According to the Illinois Asthma Consortium, nearly 14% of Illinois young people have been diagnosed with this condition. The Illinois General Assembly added the Asthma Action Plan requirement to the School Code in 2016. The bill, HB 6333, was signed into law as P.A. 99-843.

General Assembly – Pay Freeze
House panel moves bill to freeze legislators’ pay for 2017. Under current law, the pay given to members of the Illinois House and Senate rises each year with inflation. In light of the current fiscal crisis facing the State, many believe this is in 2017. Legislation unanimously approved by the House Executive Committee this week would block the legislative pay raise and continue a reduced mileage rate for legislators.

State Rep. Dave Severin voted to deny state lawmaker pay increases during the meeting of the House Executive Committee on Thursday morning. The Benton Republican and first-term lawmaker had filed an identical piece of legislation, HB 3790.

Higher Education – University of Illinois
Preparations for 150th birthday. During the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration realized the need for the growing country to train more young adults with a professional education. Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act, which set aside proceeds from federal land on the Western frontier to endow startup universities in every state in the Union – including states that had fought for the Confederacy.

Illinois chose Urbana-Champaign, a railroad stop on the tracks of the Illinois Central, as the site of its new land-grant university. The university was established in 1867. From the start, the new institution looked to engineering and job-creation activities as a focus, and briefly took the startup name of “Illinois Industrial University.” The university changed its name to “University of Illinois” in 1885. With the university’s 150th birthday coming up, university officials announced this week the beginning of what will be a 15-month cycle of observances and celebrations.

Illinois State Fair – Grandstand Headliners
Key entertainers booked for the Illinois State Fair. In an announcement released on Tuesday, February 21, Illinois State Fair officials released the names of five key singers and acts that will fill headline slots at the August 2017 Illinois State Fair in Springfield. The country group Alabama will appear on August 16; during its almost 50-year history, Alabama has sold more than 75 million records. It is believed to be the most honored band in the history of American country music, with more than 200 awards. The State Fair’s closing concert, on August 20, will be headlined by heartland rocker and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member John Mellencamp.

State Government – Sunshine
Freshman lawmaker pushes sunshine measure through House committee. Representative David Olsen is the lead sponsor of HB 682, a measure to shine light on initiatives to increase State spending. The new Local Initiative Sunshine Act will ask the Illinois Comptroller to set up a website with entries for all initiatives that “earmark” State funds for specific local groups and governmental units. The website will disclose who has sponsored the initiative, who is receiving the initiative, how much money is being transferred, the purpose intended to be fulfilled by spending the money, and other relevant information.

Using data of this sort to inform the public will help taxpayers measure how their money is being spent and the quality of the processes used to spend it. In particular, this website is meant to help taxpayers identify what is often called “pork barrel” spending. HB 682 was approved unanimously by the House Committee on Government Transparency on Wednesday, February 22. It has been sent to the full House for further discussion and debate.

Terrorism – REAL ID Act
House passes bill to improve Illinois compliance with federal REAL ID Act. Illinois, like many other states, issues drivers’ licenses that are partly compliant and partly noncompliant with the federal REAL ID Act. Federal law requires all 50 states to take steps to issue REAL ID-compliant drivers’ licenses. In the near future, if individuals do not get a drivers’ license of this type, they will not be allowed to board a passenger airplane or enter a federal building/federal military base.

HB 395 takes further steps to comply with the REAL ID Act. It provides for the issuance of REAL ID-compliant identification cards. These cards are meant to replace, over time, the drivers’ licenses that Illinoisans currently have. By turning over their drivers’ license, an Illinois resident will have the right to apply to obtain a REAL ID-compliant identification card. The process of applying for a REAL ID-compliant identification card will require the turnover of personal information as mandated by federal law.

Residents who will not wish to do this will be able to keep their drivers’ licenses, or apply for non-compliant identification cards, which will continue to offer the right to drive but which will not be valid for federal public-safety purposes. The Office of the Secretary of State has not yet worked out with the Department of Homeland Security, or publicly announced, the proposed time frame for implementing this identification card hand-in and changeover. HB 395 was approved by the House on Thursday, February 23, 2017.

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