Briefly

Apr 1, 2001

Legislative checklist

The 92nd General Assembly kicked off the spring session with an ambitious load: 1,523 bills in the Senate and 3,618 bills in the House. By the end of March, committees had screened the bills and reported them back to their respective chambers, where lawmakers were deciding which ones to send across the rotunda this month. Only a portion of the proposed legislation - roughly 25 percent, by some estimates - will make it to the governor's desk. The legislature is scheduled to wrap up by the end of May.

 

Sentencing

Prosecutors can seek tougher sentences in the most serious cases under a new law approved by Gov. George Ryan.

Described by some as the single greatest criminal justice initiative of the last year, it was designed to make the state's extended-term sentencing laws comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey. That June decision held that all factors used to enhance a defendant's sentence, other than a prior conviction, must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors complained that, without a change to state law, the decision precluded them from seeking longer sentences based on factors separate from the underlying offense.

The new law, passed at the urging of prosecutors and signed in February, permits them to include additional sentencing factors in the document used to set forth charges against the defendant or in "written notification" to the defendant. They would then need to prove each fact separately.

Defense attorneys complain lawmakers acted hastily and promise an immediate challenge in court. They say the law unconstitutionally requires the Illinois Appellate Court to remand cases for resentencing or retrial if a sentence is vacated because the state failed to prove an additional factor beyond a reasonable doubt.

"It's a separation of powers issue," says Stephen Baker, DuPage County public defender. "If it were up to those guys [prosecutors], we wouldn't need juries or judges. All we'd need is police and prosecutors."

Meanwhile, challenges to extended-term sentences imposed before the Apprendi decision are piling up in Illinois courts. There's nothing the legislature can do to stop judges from reducing sentences that were imposed before the decision and may now violate that decision.

 

Hemp

Proponents of industrial hemp are trying again to move the state closer to commercial production.

They've reintroduced legislation to authorize the University of Illinois to study the "feasibility and desirability" of producing industrial hemp. Gov. Ryan vetoed a similar measure that lawmakers approved last year. "We're working with the governor's office to see what type of language they would consider," says Rep. Ron Lawfer, a Freeport Republican and the bill's sponsor.

Ryan said in his veto message that conducting the study without reviewing the potential impact on law enforcement agencies "could lead to a weakening of our state and national efforts to effectively enforce drug laws."

Under the new proposal, the General Assembly would need to pass additional legislation, including an evaluation of how hemp production would affect law enforcement agencies, before hemp could be commercially produced.

 

Phones

The drive to rewrite the state's expiring telecommunications law has moved into full gear. Both chambers have created special committees and are hearing testimony from phone industry representatives and consumer advocates.

Current regulations, which govern competition in the telecommunications industry, expire at the end of June. Lawmakers must decide to what extent the state should regulate telephone service and what can be done to encourage competition. They could rewrite the regulations or vote to extend the current law's sunset date.

The legislative debate, driven by high-powered lobbyists, including former Gov. Jim Thompson, is essentially over proposals by Ameritech, which dominates the local phone market, and long-distance providers led by AT&T Corp.

Legislation backed by Ameritech would reduce the state's regulatory authority over the industry. Long-distance providers, who complain that Ameritech has a virtual monopoly over the local phone market, want more regulatory oversight.

 

Guns

Gun advocates and opponents pushed a slew of proposals this year.

A House committee approved several measures supported by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, including one that would permit Illinoisans to carry concealed weapons.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was less successful with his anti-gun package. Among those that were approved by the committee are measures that would require gun dealers to be licensed by the State Police and restrict transfer of guns at gun shows.

An NRA-backed bill would also require gun dealers to be licensed by the State Police, but the measure would preempt local gun ordinances in Chicago and other towns. Chicago's ordinance, for example, precludes city residents from owning handguns unless they owned the guns before 1983 when the ordinance became effective.

Prosecutors

Lawmakers are considering proposals designed to curb so-called prosecutorial misconduct - when prosecutors break or ignore the law to win convictions.

Prosecutors carry quite a bit of weight among lawmakers, who entertain dozens of tough-on-crime proposals each year and often get their way. So it's remarkable that the proposals, which could be perceived as adverse to the law enforcement community, have gained any speed at all.

But reform is in the air and Illinois is ground zero. "People are asking for some type of change because we know the system, as it exists, has problems," says Rep. Jim Durkin, a Westchester Republican who is sponsoring the bills. "People in the nation are looking at what Illinois is going to do."

The state's prosecutors came under fire in recent years amid a wave of concern that the criminal justice system - capital punishment, in particular - has not been administered fairly. The bills would permit defense attorneys to depose certain state witnesses before trial; require special hearings to test the reliability of statements made by jailhouse informants; and codify a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prosecutors must disclose certain evidence favorable to the accused.

 

Abortion

Should parents be notified when their minor child is seeking an abortion? Thirty-two House lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats - think so. They're sponsoring a bill to permit the procedure only when the minor's parents are notified 48 hours in advance. A judge could waive the requirement in an individual case.

There are several bills dealing with abortion but the notification bill, spearheaded by Rep. Terry Parke, a Hoffman Estates Republican, has garnered the most attention and support.

 

Fuel

In what could be a slight boost for corn producers, state lawmakers are moving a proposal to get petroleum-based MTBE, which has on occasion contaminated water supplies, out of Illinois gasoline.

Legislation that passed the House would phase the additive out over three years. After that, MTBE could not be included in gasoline sold in Illinois. Corn-based ethanol, which already controls about 90 percent of the state's fuel additive market, would take the entire market.

"I realize that we're better off than most states," says Rep. Julie Curry, a Mt. Zion Democrat and the bill's sponsor. "But I also believe that we have the responsibility to take a leadership role on this issue and to make sure that the water sources that aren't protected are protected."

Federal law requires that additives like MTBE or ethanol be added to fuel in urban areas such Chicago and Metro East so that fuel burns cleaner. The petroleum industry has been neutral on the bill - a move that, some observers say, help the bill's prospects.

 

Voting Reform

House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, each proposed updating the state's voting machines. Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, wants punch card tabulators equipped with error-detection devices, while Daniels, an Elmhurst Republican, wants to do away with punch card ballots altogether. Ballots would instead be marked with pencil and read by optical scanning machines. Both proposals are estimated to cost more than $50 million each.

 

Ethics

Also popular this year are good-government and campaign finance reform packages.

Gov. Ryan, whose administration has been plagued by the licenses-for-bribes scandal, called on lawmakers to enact a series of ethics reform proposals that would, for example, ban all state constitutional officers from soliciting campaign contributions from their employees.

And House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, an Elmhurst Republican, introduced a series of bills to limit campaign contributions. One bill would limit individual contributions to candidates to $3,000 for each election cycle. Labor unions and corporations would be limited to $5,000.

 

Odds and Ends

Speaking of voting reform, a Chicago Democrat wants general election ballots to include photographs of presidential candidates. Rep. Calvin Giles says including the candidates' head shots would help voters identify candidates and reduce confusion at the polls. But the bill stalled after conservatives said counties, which pay to print the ballots, didn't need the added expense. Giles says he'll make another run later.

Another Chicago Democrat, Sen. Ira Silverstein, wants to outlaw guns that look like cellular phones. "We have a gun problem here in the United States," he says. "People are getting sophisticated and I think we should stay ahead of these people." He says he hasn't heard about phone guns being used in this country but that European law enforcement officials have been dealing with them. Silverstein's colleagues in the Senate aren't laughing; they voted 51-0 for the bill.

And a Milan Democrat says he won't push his bill to permit the manufacture and sale of gun silencers to law enforcement officers. Rep. Joel Brunsvold says he introduced the bill after hearing an arms manufacturer in Geneseo wanted to make silencers for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but couldn't do so under state law. However, he says, FBI officials told him they weren't interested in the silencers.

"If the FBI or something like that wants them, I think we can probably accommodate them," he says. "But that doesn't appear to be the case."

Aaron Chambers

BRIEFLY

Loot and run?
Private HMOs could
face extra oversight

Asif Sayeed lives in an 18,000-square-foot home in Frankfort. He and his wife drive Mercedes. But the company that produced the cash for these luxuries crashed last year, leaving Illinois hospitals and doctors holding tens of millions in bad debts.

How did it happen? Sayeed was sole owner of American Health Care Providers, a health maintenance organization that at its height had about 100,000 Illinois subscribers. The Department of Insurance forced American into liquidation last May. In a civil suit settled last November, the department accused the Sayeeds of systematically looting American to bankroll their lavish lifestyle.

Meanwhile, others were left to make up the shortfall. The University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, for example, lost roughly $5 million when American defaulted. In Springfield, Memorial Health System, which runs Memorial Medical Center, wrote off $2.5 in bad debts from American.

But under a legislative proposal backed by the insurance department and sponsored by state Rep. Timothy Osmond, an Antioch Republican, HMOs such as American would face extra oversight. The measure would require a privately owned HMO to recruit at least one-third of its board members from outside the company. In addition, those making loans to company officers or directors or to any other person with financial connections to the HMO would have to get prior approval. And no company money could be used to buy or sell property on behalf of company officers or directors unless state regulators OK'd the deals.

Tony Cappasso
The State Journal-Register of Springfield

Study finds Illinoisans are civically engaged

More than nine in 10 Illinoisans are active in some type of community activity, but the nature of those activities varies considerably. Further, significant barriers prevent them from being more involved.

Those are the major findings of a report released last month by the Illinois Civic Engagement Project, which is co-sponsored by Illinois Issues and the United Way of Illinois. The research, conducted by the University of Illinois at Springfield, was a benchmark survey that measured Illinoisans' level of community involvement.

Researchers concluded that even active citizens are selective about how they become involved. For example, a group researchers labeled "faith-based activists" score highest on activities affiliated with or sponsored by a religious organization, while "community activists" are engaged in political and community activities but only moderately active in church activities.

Middle-aged people had the highest levels of civic engagement, while the oldest age group (those 60 and older) had higher levels of exposure to news and church activity. People under 40 had the highest levels of technology-based activities and informal socializing.

Almost six in 10 Illinoisans say that job pressures and family responsibilities prevent them from being more involved. A lack of knowledge about how to get involved is another barrier. "The major difference between participants and nonparticipants was that the nonparticipants had not been asked," says Richard Schuldt of UIS's Survey Research Office, which conducted the telephone survey of slightly more than 1,000 people.

Another major finding, Schuldt says, is the effect of corporate support on civic engagement. The study found that people are more likely to be active in their community if they work for businesses that encourage them to donate money or volunteer their time.

The report, "Profile of Illinois: An Engaged State," includes 68 suggestions for stimulating civic engagement in Illinois communities. A copy of the report is available on the project's Web site at civic.uis.edu.

Ed Wojcicki

 

WEBSOURCE
Internet gardening:
Just add seed, soil, sun and water

Spring is here and gardeners are itching to put those first seeds in freshly tilled soil. Two Web sites offer Illinois gardeners information and advice on planting: the Chicago Botanic Garden's Illinois' Best Plants site at bestplants.chicago-botanic.org and Gardening in Illinois at garden-gate.prairienet.org/gardill.htm, which focuses on the east central part of the state, but draws on the vast resources of University of Illinois Extension services.

The botanic garden enables research on a particular plant, offering its characteristics and care instructions along with a color photograph. Enter a set of criteria, such as sun or shade, perennial or shrub, and it will provide a list of matches for planting zones. This site also includes a glossary of gardening and plant terms.

The Gardening in Illinois site puts novices in touch with master gardeners through a hotline staffed by volunteers. Gardeners also can link to university experts and resources at the U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Department and the Department of Horticulture. The Cooperative Extension link gives solutions for common gardening problems, and other links allow for virtual tours of central Illinois gardens, as well as a master gardeners' "idea garden." Hit the "Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois" link for helpful hints on growing prairie plants in a home landscape setting.

Beverley Scobell

Credit Olin Harris / Department of Natural Resources
  Citizen scientists listening for frog song serenadesA second annual frog survey in the Chicago area is in full swing this month as volunteers spend evenings listening for the sounds of American toads, western chorus frogs and spring peepers. A group called Chicago Wilderness will translate volunteers' findings into frog distribution data that will be passed on to government agencies planning for proper land management.

This year's survey can only hope to replicate the successes of the first survey. Last spring, Marcy Andersen of St. Charles and her daughter were the citizen scientists who identified the call of a Blanchard's cricket frog. That species had been the most common amphibian in Illinois in the 1960s, but it was thought to have disappeared from the Chicago region by the 1990s (see Illinois Issues,July/August 2000, pages 12 and 18).

The amateur scientists' discovery was later confirmed by a herpetologist. The data from the 150 frog surveyors was the basis for continued study through the fall by Northwestern University biology professor Joe Walsh and Lucas Wilkinson, a senior environmental sciences major. They say initial analysis of the data points to two trends. One, that ponds with higher acidity levels tend to have fewer species of frogs, and two, that the farther a pond is from tall grass, the fewer species it has.

The Northwestern biologists give credit to the Habitat Project that organized the first count. "No single biologist, no matter how motivated, could find the time to get to a sufficient number of these sites during the frogs' breeding periods, on those few nights when weather conditions are just right for choruses."

To learn more about monitoring frogs or other wildlife as a volunteer citizen scientist, go to www.habitatproject.org.

Beverley Scobell

PRESS BOX
Casino donors and
office expenses

The Associated Press reports contractors, lawyers and investors tied to the ill-fated Emerald Casino project contributed at least $128,400 to Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens' campaign fund in the second half of last year. AP's review of campaign records shows donations related to the casino accounted for a little more than a quarter of all contributions Stephens took in during that period. The high-profile northwest suburban mayor was giving as well as receiving. According to AP, the Donald E. Stephens Committeeman Fund gave state lawmakers $92,400 last year.

But Gary Mack, a Stephens spokesman, tells AP there's no connection between contributions and what gets done in the village. Nor, he says, do political donations reflect Stephens' influence on the riverboat project. "If the mayor had any influence, Rosemont would have a casino now."

Stephens wanted the Illinois Gaming Board to let Emerald Casino Inc. move a license from a defunct riverboat in East Dubuque to Rosemont. The board voted against the move in January.

The Chicago Sun- Times reports state lawmakers have a "free hand" when it comes to using district office allotments, and in some cases those taxpayer-funded legislative allowances are used to benefit families, friends and political sponsors.

The newspaper's review of $10.6 million in office allowance expenses over the past year finds a pattern of questionable spending, including sojourns to Italy and lavishly framed group portraits of the members of the House of Representatives. In some instances, the stipends were used to pay rent to family members and salaries to political friends.

And it's all legal. Steve Brown, an aide to House Speaker Michael Madigan, tells the Sun-Times: "There are very few guidelines that apply to what they can use their district office allotments for, as long as they use them for constituent services, and that definition is very broad." The Sun-Times concludes, "a few legislators appear to have taken that ambiguity and run with it."

Representatives get $57,000 a year to run their offices, while senators get $67,000. In January, lawmakers voted to increase those amounts beginning July 1 by $4,000 and $6,000, respectively.

BRIEFLYGrowers association helps put brakes on GMO corn As farmers begin planting their fields this month, more people - from elevator operators to bureaucrats to Japanese consumers and Brazilian competitors - are paying attention to the seeds they choose.

In the wake of last fall's recall of taco shells and other foods made from a genetically altered corn hybrid not approved for human consumption, seed companies are holding up the release of some new genetically modified (GMO) corn hybrids. Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. decided not to introduce five new products this growing season. "These seeds do not have the StarLink gene, but they are new technology," says Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Illinois Corn Growers Association. StarLink was the GMO corn at the heart of last year's controversy. "These [Pioneer] hybrids contain stacked genes that have been approved separately, but combining the technologies is something that has not been done before." The association has encouraged seed companies to slow marketing efforts until new products are fully approved.

To make sure farmers don't get to the elevator only to find their hybrids are unacceptable to customers, the corn growers association has a list of contact information for more than 400 elevators in Illinois. Farmers can find out what harvested grain each terminal will and won't accept. The Corn 2001 booklet is available on the association's Web site at www.ilcorn.org.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Springfield has introduced two measures that would create more oversight of GMOs. One would require reviews of genetically engineered foods, meaning an OK from the federal Food and Drug Administration, before they are marketed. Now federal review is voluntary. The other bill would create a single food safety agency. At least 10 federal agencies are involved in the country's food safety system.

BOOKSHELF

Balloons to Jets: A Century of Aeronautics in Illinois, 1855-1955

The first Illinois flight began in a vacant lot at the corner of Chicago's Peoria and Randolph streets and ended near the Michigan and Southern railroad tracks. The ascent and descent of the Eclipsewas short - and not-so-sweet. Still, it could have been worse. Silas M. Brooks managed to drop part of his borrowed gas balloon just short of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

An aeronaut from Connecticut, Brooks was performing an exhibition that July 4, 1855. According to news reports, the Eclipse rose vertically for nearly a mile before strong winds swept it toward the lake. Brooks drew open the gas valve and threw out an anchor. But it was a single telegraph wire that brought pilot and basket, though not balloon, back to earth. In one account, the remnants of the Eclipse "mounted into the heavens like a freed bird, and sailed off into the eastern sky."

For curious Chicagoans who witnessed it, that abbreviated flight was just for show anyway. Yet the rise and fall of the Eclipse, however tragicomic, landed a tiny part in the tale of Illinois air travel, the story of unsteady but unstoppable momentum from performance to commerce. It's worth recalling as politicians fire up the debate over the role of aeronautics in Illinois' fortunes.

Howard L. Scamehorn's 1957 history on the subject is one place to start. Southern Illinois University Press has reissued it with a new foreword by Gene Abney, the former director of the Illinois Department of Aeronautics.

Though the book leaves off before air travel entered the modern era, this retrospective underlines the significant part Illinois played in the nation's story of aviation advancements. The part Illinois will play is left, as always, to current and future policy-makers and profiteers.

In the meantime, it's worth remembering that it was an Illinoisan, Octave Chanute, who almost single-handedly systematized and professionalized aeronautical research; that landing fields cropped up throughout the state as early as 1919, two of them recognized airports, both in Chicago; that the Illinois General Assembly moved to regulate aircraft in 1931; and that commercial air travel took off in the mid-1950s.

"The potential for unlimited expansion exists," Scamehorn concludes. "The air transport industry and interested local communities need only to exploit it." 

Peggy Boyer Long