Two measures affecting Illinois motorists were signed into law during the week. Beginning January 1, 2014, the speed limit on all interstates and toll highways will increase to 70 miles per hour (mph), and Illinois residents will no longer be allowed to talk on cell phones when they are behind the wheel, unless using hands-free technology.
Also during the week, a bipartisan committee began the task of examining how the state’s school-aid formula has been transformed over the past decade, focusing on how to return the program to its original intent.
New law sets speed limit at 70 mph in 2014
Beginning January 1, Illinois’ speed limit will be in line with most of the rest of the country, under a new law I sponsored. Signed August 19 by Governor Pat Quinn, Senate Bill 2356 increases the maximum speed limit to 70 mph on all interstates and toll highways. The legislation was passed by an 85-30 vote of the House of Representatives on May 22 and by a 41-6-1 vote of the Senate on April 23.
This new law shows what can be accomplished when lawmakers work together for the good of our state. Senate Bill 2356 was co-sponsored by lawmakers from both political parties who represent all regions of our state. It also updates our law to reflect the reality of current driving speeds in Illinois and other states. Interstates were designed for a higher rate of speed, and currently, there are 34 states with speed limits of 70 mph or higher. All of Illinois’ neighboring states, except Wisconsin, have speed limits of 70 mph. Fifteen states have speed limits of 75 mph and one state has a speed limit of 85 mph.
At the request of the Illinois State Police, Senate Bill 2356 provides public safety enhancements in the form of a lowered threshold upon which the penalty for speeding is increased from a petty offense to a misdemeanor. Speeding in excess of 26 miles per hour but less than 35 mph (currently 31-40 mph) will be a Class B misdemeanor. Speeding in excess of 35 mph (currently 40 mph) will be a Class A misdemeanor.
Senate Bill 2356 also allows Cook County, the collar counties, Madison County and St. Clair County to opt out of the higher speed limit via ordinance. Some officials in northeast Illinois are currently trying to set restrictions on which roads are affected by this new law. As legislative sponsor, I know the intent of this new law but officials who oppose it are trying to impose limitations even before it takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014. The Toll Highway Authority has ultimate responsibility to set limits deemed “safe and reasonable” on Tollways and I intend to meet with them to discuss any issues they may have. In addition, IDOT can set a lower speed limit if they produce a study indicating that a faster speed is dangerous. I intend to get a briefing from them also. Studies have generally shown that it is traffic that moves significantly faster OR SLOWER than most of the traffic that causes a higher rate of accidents. So getting all of the traffic moving 65 to 70 should produce safer highways. I also intend to work with the State Police to improve enforcement of the law that requires all traffic to move to the right-hand lanes except when passing.
Use of cell phones while driving ban to take effect January 1
Illinois drivers will no longer be allowed to talk on cell phones while driving, unless using hands-free technology, under a new law that takes effect on January 1, 2014. Illinois is one of about a dozen states with similar laws banning the use of cell phones while driving, and already has a prohibition in place for texting and driving.
The new law will cut down on distracted driving, making Illinois roads safer. Devices that are still allowed include Bluetooth headsets, speaker phone systems built into car stereos, and mounted cell phone holsters that allow a driver to use the speaker function on their phone without holding it. Additionally, drivers will still be legally allowed to make calls on hand-held phones in emergency situations. Violators of the law can be fined $75 for a first offense. Fines of as much as $150 could be issued for repeat offenses, and offenders could face a moving violation on their driving record.
Bipartisan Committee tackles education formula
The special bipartisan Senate Advisory Committee on Education Funding met in Springfield August 19 to hear testimony from the Illinois State Board of Education and others. The Committee was prompted by a Senate Republican study of school funding in Illinois that first drew attention to shifts in school-aid funding and called into question school financing decisions that have been made largely out of the public eye. Upon further review, Senate Republicans found these decisions appear to steer a disproportionate amount of general state education dollars to Chicago public schools.
The state’s general state-aid formula was created as a “resource equalizer” to assure that all school districts receive a core foundation of financial support from the state. However, over the past decade, core education funding has flat-lined while specialized formulas for property tax and poverty grants have skyrocketed. As a result, more and more state dollars have been directed to schools in Chicago and away from downstate and suburban school districts with little or no debate among public policy makers.
One component of general state aid – property tax adjustments – saw a 1,267% increase from Fiscal Year 2000 to Fiscal Year 2012. Another component – poverty grants – increased by more than 400%. In contrast, general foundation grants actually fell by 6% during the same period. One goal of the Committee will be to determine if the funding shifts have a fact-based foundation in education, or if they instead represent political decisions to steer funding to specific areas of the state. A presentation by the State Board of Education at the first meeting confirmed the trends outlined in the GOP report.
One contentious issue is likely to be the formula used by the state to allocate poverty grants to school districts. Rather than use the federal government’s clear-cut income guidelines to define children in poverty, Illinois has elected to define poverty by using a child’s eligibility for other assistance programs. Additionally, the state follows a formula that heavily weights the amount of aid a school district receives based on the percentage of students in poverty. This weighting means that some districts receive nearly $3,000 for each child defined as poor, while other school districts may receive only $355. School districts with a high percentage of poverty students may need more money to educate those students, but the allocation formula appears arbitrary and based on political, rather than educational, considerations.
Finally, the conference committee on pension reform has been meeting and we expect to hear their proposal in the next few weeks.