Editor's Notebook: It's crunch time. Do you know where your lawmakers are?
Death penalty reforms. Cheaper prescription drugs. Gambling options. And an unprecedented budget crisis. Lawmakers face a long might-do list heading into what they surely hope will be the last month of this legislative session.
In the next weeks, they’ll scramble through some 2,000 bills aimed at solving a range of perceived problems, many of them old familiars.
They could move to protect the rights of gays, track suspected racial profiling and permit handguns during open deer season. They could put restraints on the rising cost of a college education by limiting tuition increases and shake up the suburban tollway authority with tighter fiscal oversight.
They aren’t likely, though, to close the funding gap between the state’s rich and poor school districts by overhauling the way state education dollars are distributed or loosen Illinois’ enduring and corrosive bond between money and politics.
An expected showdown between business and labor doesn’t appear likely either. Four months ago we weighed whether, with Democrats in control of the governor’s mansion and the legislature for the first time in a quarter century, organized labor might flex some newfound muscle. While there’s still time for a dustup over significant differences, it appears labor will get a $1.35 bump in the minimum wage and businesses will pay higher taxes and fees and lose some exemptions.
Traditional tensions between workers and employers appear to have been subsumed in this first session of the new General Assembly by a more immediate need to close the state’s historic budget hole, which the new governor, Rod Blagojevich, has pegged at $5.2 billion through the fiscal year that begins July 1.
There’s much for lawmakers to chew on in Blagojevich’s first budget, including his plan to tap the road fund and sell state property. And they may want to rejigger his plan for elementary and secondary school spending. Though he called for a $250 boost in guaranteed per pupil spending, the governor’s proposal would eliminate new funding for other state-supported programs, including safety grants and dollars for gifted students. And lawmakers might reduce the size of cuts in higher education, which would have an impact on colleges and universities in their districts.
But the governor’s proposal to generate new revenue from gambling boats already has generated the loudest noise — and the most paper. Within minutes of the governor’s address, casino lobbyists were faxing their disapproval to news outlets.
Blagojevich proposed boosting the boats’ top tax rate to 70 percent of adjusted gross receipts of $250 million or more, up from 50 percent. Gaming spokesmen argue the increase would hurt business. They’re pushing instead for an increase in the number of gambling positions, which they figure would mean more dollars for the state. And lawmakers could go along, though negotiations likely will be left to the last hours of budget deliberations.
As is the case in virtually every session, lawmakers might attempt a political bailout of sorts for themselves by creating a state-sponsored plan designed to curtail the cost of prescription drugs. Those costs have been rising, and seniors are hardest hit. Most vulnerable are individuals 65 and over who aren’t eligible for subsidies but can’t afford insurance coverage for their medicines. In Illinois that constitutes a third of the senior population.
Middle-class seniors also happen to be among the most active voters, and Illinois and other states are scrambling to find a way to meet their needs.
The plan working its way through the legislature yet again would establish state-sponsored discount cards for individuals who are 65 or older or are disabled. Under the plan, the state would negotiate discounts with drug companies that participate. Cardholders would pay a $25 annual fee, entitling them to lower prices. Set discounts would be offered on brand name and generic drugs, with deeper discounts coming after negotiations with the drug companies.
But the most controversial policy question lawmakers face could be what to do about the state’s death penalty. They’ve decided not to ban it, but they still face a number of proposals aimed at improving justice under that system. Among the provisions still on the table is one to give state Supreme Court justices authority to overturn a death sentence they find to be unjust. Lawmakers also could reduce the number of eligibility factors for the death sentence, put restrictions on the use of jailhouse snitches, curb uncorroborated eyewitness testimony and require videotaping or audiotaping of interrogations of murder suspects.
Lawmakers face an ambitious agenda, it’s true. But in a legislative session, a month is a long time.
Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.
Illinois Issues, May 2003