Bears emerge as biggest
beneficiaries of veto
Gov. George Ryan got his two cents in during the fall veto session by warning of an unexpected strain on the state budget: higher-than-expected Medicaid costs. He said the program that funds medical services for low-income people cost $60 million more than expected in fiscal year 2000, which ended June 30. Medicaid-related prescription costs have gone up by as much as 28 percent over two years. That dampened talk of tax breaks. Nevertheless, lawmakers managed to give their blessing to a $587 million renovation of Soldier Field, arguing the project involves no state funds. Other issues that might have been debated but never came up for discussion include Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's call to license gun dealers and to restrict gun purchases to one per month, as well as Ryan's veto of a measure to restrict state-paid abortions.
Loose ends left by the 91st General Assembly could be tied during a special session called for the 8th of this month. The 92nd General Assembly will be sworn in on the 10th.
Bears: The Chicago Bears won legislative approval of a $587 million renovation of Soldier Field, ending a long-running push by team owners to move or improve the site.
The skirmish, quarterbacked by lobbyist and former Gov. James R. Thompson, dominated the session. Under the winning deal, the renovation will be funded through a $387 million bond issue (which will be repaid from Chicago hotel tax revenues) plus $200 million from the Bears. The National Football League has promised a $100 million loan, and the team likely will roust up another $100 million by charging fans $2,000 a pop for personal seat licenses. (License holders would still have to pay for tickets.)
The project will put most of the seats at the sidelines and add luxury sky boxes. The stadium's colonnades will remain. The site will include additional parking. Construction could begin within a year.
Pensions: State employees will get a new retirement option under legislation approved by lawmakers.
Called the "Rule of 85," the plan will allow employees to retire early without financial penalty if their age and years of employment add up to 85. The rule was part of a contract agreement reached last spring between the governor and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But AFSCME criticized lawmakers for not considering other contract provisions. Among those was a boost in pension benefits for about 15,000 Department of Corrections workers. The legislature could address additional pension-related issues in the January special session.
Tax Cuts: Drivers likely will pay more at the gas pump beginning this month.
Lawmakers failed to extend the six-month reprieve on the state's 5 percent sales tax on gas. The Senate approved an extension, but the House wouldn't follow suit after Gov. Ryan warned he didn't believe the state could afford an approximate $360 million cost of abolishing the tax.
Seniors won't get a property tax rebate, either. The House approved a measure to offer rebates to homeowners who didn't get a check in the fall. Most of those who were ineligible are senior citizens who did not file income tax reports.
The Senate failed to buy into the plan, which would have cost $24 million.
Pay hikes: Direct care workers for the developmentally disabled won't see additional money in their checks. The House overwhelmingly approved a measure to boost by $1 the hourly salary of those service providers, but the Senate didn't act on the question. The annual cost to the state would have been $35 million. Care providers receive an average of $6.75 per hour.
Veto not overridden
Abortion: Lawmakers chose not to consider Ryan's veto of a bill that would have blocked public funding of abortions for low-income women except in extreme circumstances.
The bill would have prevented the state from paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is endangered. Ryan argued the standard should be set at protecting the health of the mother as is currently the case. In 1999, the state paid for nine abortions to protect the health of the mother.
Maureen Foertsch McKinney
QUOTABLE"We're always concerned about overreaction to problems that happen elsewhere that may have little or no relation to how we conduct business here in Illinois. And, thus, I think we'll want to be careful in reviewing what we expect will be a ton of legislation that's going to be introduced next year regarding the voting process."
State Board of Elections Executive Director Ronald Michaelson to public radio station WUIS/WIPA at the University of Illinois at Springfield, referring to the problems associated with the presidential vote in Florida. Michaelson suggested that Illinoisans are likely to take a look at election technology.
A perfect election?
In private, many election officials allow that on election night they're hoping for wide margins of victory. That's because close calls expose to the public what experts have always known: Elections are subject to voter error, official error and technological error. Contested elections are subject to judgment calls. This feels unacceptable as we head into a high-tech future where, surely, there's a solution for everything.
Terry Desmond doesn't pretend to have a solution for every potential election glitch, but he believes he offers a better way. Desmond spent 12 years overseeing elections as DeKalb County clerk, so he's no neophyte when it comes to electoral nightmares, including his own first race for clerk, which he won by 10 votes.
We should say right off, too, that Desmond has a stake in what he's offering. He works for Governmental Business Systems Inc., which sells the optical scan voter system. At our request, he brought a machine by Illinois Issues for a demonstration.
First some background. Illinois law authorizes local election officials to use punch cards - 90 percent of all jurisdictions do - and the optical scan system. Thus far, lawmakers haven't authorized touch screen voting or Internet voting. They're likely to consider it, but Desmond worries. Neither leaves a paper trail, unlike punch cards or the optical scan system. And the Internet could present security risks.
Problems with the 30-year-old punch-card technology are well-documented. In contrast, proponents of the optical scan technology argue that method gives voters a chance to get it right. If a ballot is mismarked or double voted, the machine alerts voters before they leave the polling place, giving them another shot. Further, proponents say, scan machines count votes instantly without the glitches associated with the often-temperamental punch-card tabulators.
The shift would be expensive, though. The scan machines cost $6,000 apiece. Still, Desmond believes that within the next five years, virtually the entire state will be using optical scan. "It will happen, simply because it's the best system out there."
So could we achieve a perfect election? "We can never be perfect, but you always want to strive to get better than it is." And, Desmond notes, the news from Florida has generated considerable interest in that possibility.
National spotlight shown
on historic Illinois elections case
A decade-old Illinois ballot contest made the news again when the Florida Supreme Court cited this state's high court ruling on punch cards to bolster its own first ruling allowing hand recounts of punch cards to determine voter intent in the presidential battle between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
The Chicago Tribune contended Gore's attorneys erroneously argued to the justices from the Sunshine State that "dimpled" chads could be included.
The Illinois Supreme Court's 1990 opinion concerned the primary contest for the 55th Illinois House seat between Park Ridge Republican Penny Pullen and Des Plaines Republican Rosemary Mulligan. The key ruling was that punch cards that couldn't be read by tabulating equipment because they had been only "partially punctured" can be inspected visually and counted if the voters' intent can be determined with reasonable certainty. The justices didn't establish what constitutes reasonable certainty. They left that to Cook County Judge Francis Barth, who inspected 27 ballots. Voter intent was not determined for 19 ballots. Barth gave seven votes to Pullen and one to Mulligan. Pullen won the primary by six votes.
The Illinois justices sided with voters whenever election procedure was not mandated by the legislature. Here are excerpts: "Nothing in our Election Code ... requires voters to completely dislodge the chad from the ballot before the vote will be counted.... Nor does the Election Code specifically prohibit the counting of punch card ballots by hand .... Our courts have repeatedly held that, where the intention of the voter can be ascertained with reasonable certainty from his ballot, that intention will be given effect even though the ballot is not strictly in conformity with the law."
The full opinion is a available through Lexis-Nexis.
Legislature on the Web
Watching and listening to live proceedings of the Illinois House of Representatives on the Web during the fall veto session was like playing Pong, the original video game. It was primitive entertainment, but bound to get better.
One stretch during the fall veto session showed only Speaker Michael Madigan guiding debate over Soldier Field renovations. But when another member spoke, the video stayed on Madigan or went black.
That klunkiness will be smoothed out before lawmakers return to Springfield later this month, say the designers. By then, the cameras will be programmed to follow the action between sponsor and other members. But viewers will have to have a Microsoft-compatible machine because, the technical people say, that software was free and cost was a consideration. Another drawback for legi groupies is that only proceedings from the Illinois House will be broadcast on the Web. The Senate does not plan to offer Internet audio or put cameras in its chambers this session.
Nevertheless, tapping in at www.legis.state.il.us is worth the effort. Until a C-Span-like network is in place, the Internet audio and video feeds are a way to view at least part of state government in action without making a road trip to Springfield.
Cemetery rescue, Asian beetles, the
Miami Tribe and chickenpox vaccine
- Three Civil War cannons sold by the former owner of Springdale Cemetery in Peoria were remounted and rededicated on Veterans' Day (see Illinois Issues, November, page 8, and April, page 36).
- Investigators found at O'Hare International Airport a grove of 22 box elders they believe may have been home to one of the first infestations of Asian long-horned beetles in the Chicago area (see Illinois Issues, June 1999, page 31).
- Lawmakers could consider helping to pay the legal costs of 15 Illinoisans in east central Illinois who are being sued by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, which claims it is the rightful owner of a 2.6 million-acre stretch of the state (see Illinois Issues, September, page 9).
- Though the State Board of Health voted against requiring chickenpox vaccinations for Illinois school- children, it intends to take the matter up again this spring and Public Health Director John Lumpkin will have the final say (see Illinois Issues, September, page 24).
Capital case procedures
The state Supreme Court postponed consideration of proposals to revise the death penalty process in Illinois. The court received the proposals from its Special Committee on Capital Cases this fall, but it delayed consideration until the high court reconvenes this month with three new justices on the bench.
If approved, a new Capital Litigation Trial Bar would establish minimum standards of training and experience for defense attorneys and assistant prosecutors appearing in capital cases. The committee also proposed amending the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct to state that a prosecutor has a duty to seek justice, not merely to convict a person on trial. This would "focus attention on the fundamental ethical responsibility of the prosecutor in every criminal case," the report said.
The court set no timetable for consideration.
Truck driver's licensing
In response to the licenses-for-bribes scandal, a federal Department of Transportation report calls on the Illinois legislature to ban political fundraising by state employees at work or on state business.
The full report is on the Web at www.fmcsa.dot.gov.
Mixed grades for higher ed
Illinois colleges get top marks among the states for offering students an affordable education, but they are a little above average when it comes to seeing that students get their degrees, says the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
That report is on the Web at measuringup2000.highereducation.org.