The General Assembly adjourned a session May 31 that can only be described as a complete and utter failure. After hundreds of hours of work and endless meetings, lawmakers walked away from the Capitol leaving unfinished the single most important task facing the state – addressing Illinois’ massive pension debt – while passing an expanding budget that makes it hard to believe that Democrats want our “temporary” income tax increase to actually stay temporary.
The lack of leadership in Springfield is deeply frustrating. It is hard to understand why Governor Pat Quinn and his allies, who hold super majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, are unable to come to an agreement that would address the pension crisis. In the final hours of the legislative session, it boiled down to competing plans between the Senate President and House Speaker, with a Governor who seemed powerless or unwilling to do anything but issue press releases from the confines of his office.
To make matters worse, lawmakers defeated a measure that would have shifted future pension costs for Illinois’ state universities and community colleges to the employers from the state. The cost shift would almost certainly have resulted in greater focus on those runaway costs because those incurring the costs would begin to bear those costs instead of the state being responsible for those costs. I became a sponsor of the bill and, unfortunately, was the only Republican to support that bill. Without Republican help, it failed to pass the Senate. The universities and community colleges generally supported this legislation.
We did make progress on a number of other important issues.
After months of negotiation, the General Assembly approved House Bill 183, affirming a citizen’s right to carry a concealed firearm. The bill will allow Illinois to join the rest of the nation in allowing some form of Right-to-Carry. Illinois was under a June federal court deadline to adopt Right-to-Carry. I was proud to sign on as a cosponsor of this legislation. While not perfect, I believe this is a solid compromise bill resulting from a lot of work by Senators Forby, Raoul and Bivins, and Representative Phelps in the House.
The bill imposes very strong (perhaps excessive) safeguards to ensure training and background checks for those who wish to carry a concealed firearm. The legislation preempts all local ordinances affecting concealed firearms and ammunition, including registration, licensing, possession and transportation, for those with a concealed carry license.
An applicant does not have to show a need in order to carry, but they do have to undergo 16 hours of training, which is more than any other state, and pay a $150 application fee. The license will be good for five years.
House Bill 183 also specifies prohibited places a firearm cannot be carried. This includes any schools or childcare facilities, bars, hospitals, government buildings, airports, sporting events, and more. Unfortunately, it also precludes carrying on public transit like CTA where it might be very useful in reducing crime. The bill also prohibits carrying firearm under the influence of drugs or alcohol and outlines strict penalties for those who are found to be under the influence. Additionally, the bill outlines strong mental health standards and reporting procedures.
Lawmakers also approved model legislation covering hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” The technology holds out the promise of new jobs and greater energy independence. Extensive negotiations between environmental groups and industry representatives ultimately yielded Senate Bill 1715, which defines how Illinois will regulate and monitor the practice. I was pleased to also sponsor this bill, which was negotiated in good faith by all parties.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting pressurized water and materials underground to crack rock layers and free up natural gas or oil that can then escape to the surface where it is recovered. It has been estimated that hydraulic fracturing could create as many as 40,000 jobs in Illinois, many in southern Illinois and other job-starved areas of the state.
In other news, majority lawmakers also embarked on a major expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. Senate Bill 26 will make almost 350,000 individuals newly eligible for Medicaid beginning on January 1, 2014 – in addition to the 250,000 previously added to the rolls as a result of a Cook County waiver to implement the federal Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) early.
Were those 350,000 persons to live in one place, they would constitute the second largest city in Illinois, with almost 150,000 persons to spare. Although the federal government will pick up the bulk of the costs initially, the estimated cumulative cost of the expansion by 2020 could exceed $2.9 billion even with those federal dollars.
Two measures (House Bill 3139 and Senate Bill 1775) would bring the state’s proof of insurance laws into the 21st Century and make life easier for drivers, by allowing persons to carry an electronic version of their insurance cards on a tablet or “smart” phone.
The latest updates on other legislation acted on by the General Assembly can be found on the Senate Action page of the Senate Republican Web site.