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Senate Week in Review: Veto Session Wrap-up, Plus more

A compiled review of Senate activities from the week.

SPRINGFIELD – This week marked the close of the Illinois legislature’s annual veto session. While some major pieces of legislation passed through the chambers, including a road safety bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, work on other prominent proposals—such as gaming and pensions—was left to be done early next year during the “lame duck” session, State Sen. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) said.
 
The Legislature will return to Springfield on Jan. 2 and is scheduled to work through Jan. 10. Legislative leaders might push through more controversial bills in the waning days of the 97th General Assembly, anticipating the upcoming turnover in members will compel some “lame ducks” to vote for contentious measures. Additionally, bills only need a simple majority to pass in January, as opposed to the three-fifths approval needed to advance legislation during the fall veto session.
 
Pension Reforms Shelved Until January
Pension reform remains the single largest issue facing the state. As expected, no formal plan was taken up, but instead deferred until January when the state constitution requires fewer votes to implement legislation immediately, Sen. Sandack explained.
 
During the week, a coalition of House members floated a plan that was viewed as important, not because of its specific provisions, but because it seemed to demonstrate that a number of rank-and-file lawmakers were ready to accept unpleasant choices in order to address the problem.  Sen. Sandack said that he sincerely commended each of the House lawmakers who stepped up and made the proposal on Dec. 5.  He noted that he is looking into the legislation to see if it is something he can support, especially the anticipated expense savings and reductions to the massive unfunded liabilities.  Sen. Sandack has long been an advocate for pension reform, stressing that it is the main fiscal problem facing the state and that the need for a solution is dire.
 
Illinois has the worst-funded pension system in the nation, driven largely by massive borrowing and the skipping of payments over the last decade under both Governors Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich.
 
Gov. Quinn has repeatedly said he wants to address the problem during the "lame duck" legislative session and launched a Web site, released videos and even created an official reform character, "Squeezy the Pension Python", to build support for reforms. However, the Governor has not unveiled a plan of his own.
 
Governor Quinn’s Misuse of Taxpayers Funds Draws National Attention
Months after lawmakers called for an audit of a state program that was spending millions of state dollars without apparent oversight, a CNN investigation has determined that taxpayer funds have been misused by Gov. Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

An audit of the program is currently being conducted, with a report expected by the Illinois Auditor General's office in spring 2013. However, late last week Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative was placed under the microscope by CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. A four-month CNN investigation found that the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative paid teens to hand out flyers promoting inner peace, to take field trips to museums, march in a parade with the Governor, and attend a yoga class.

When questions about the program were raised during the spring 2011 legislative session, the Governor’s Fiscal Year 2012 request for the program was reduced by 70% and funded at approximately $10 million. As a result, the Governor made three massive transfers of funds out of his FY11 discretionary GRF lump sums into the non-appropriated Illinois Violence Protection Authority Special Projects Fund.  The total amount transferred was approximately $95 million.  
 
Senate approves measure that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants
Also during the week, the Senate voted in favor of legislation granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Senate Bill 957 now moves to the House for consideration and if approved and signed into law, it would expand Illinois ’ existing temporary driver’s license program to include undocumented immigrants, which is estimated to impact approximately 250,000 immigrants who are already driving on Illinois roadways.
 
Sen. Sandack said that he supported the legislation as a co-sponsor because it comes down to ensuring that all drivers have insurance and that it ultimately aims to protect all drivers on Illinois roadways.  
 
“This is an issue that state lawmakers have considered in the past,” Sen. Sandack said.  “The federal government has failed to address this situation, forcing us as a state to develop a solution.  There has been a lot of work done on this legislation to address various concerns and I believe this is the best option for the state at this time.  It is my hope that damage claim costs decrease with more insured drivers and we will see fewer fatalities associated with unlicensed drivers than we have in previous years.”
 
Senate Bill 957 provides undocumented immigrants with temporary driver’s licenses provided that they have lived in Illinois for at least a year, passed all required tests, and are insured.  The legislation also specifies that the temporary visitor’s driver’s license is not a proof of identity, and could not be used to vote, apply for a FOID card, or board an airplane. Additionally, the license will be considered invalid if the holder is unable to provide proof of liability insurance upon a police officer’s request, and the motorist would receive tickets for driving without insurance and driving without a license.  
 
Proponents view the measure as a safety issue, noting that there are already an estimated 250,000 undocumented resident drivers who are currently not trained, tested, licensed or insured.  Unlicensed and uninsured immigrant drivers cost Illinois drivers approximately $64 million in damage claims and 42% of all fatal crashes in Illinois involved unlicensed drivers last year.  In addition to safety issues, the temporary driver’s licenses will provide additional new revenue, assist first responders and healthcare providers, and increase the pool of urgently needed organ donors.  
 
Negotiations continue on Illinois gaming
Setting the stage for potential consideration of a gaming expansion in early January, the Senate Executive Committee advanced legislation during the week that would be used as the vehicle for a gaming package. Gov. Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several lawmakers remain in negotiations over a gaming expansion, which is expected to advance gaming licenses for a Chicago casino and riverboat licenses in four other Illinois communities.
 
Gov. Quinn already vetoed a proposal (SB 1849) earlier this year that would have allowed for the establishment of five new casinos, including one in Chicago . The Governor said the measure lacked ethical safeguards, such as a ban on campaign contributions from the gambling industry. However, a number of legislators continue to push for a gaming expansion as a way to boost state revenues, and generate jobs and commerce in several Illinois communities.
 
Sen. Sandack tapes another episode of “Capitol Agenda”
Sen. Sandack taped another episode of “Capitol Agenda” on Dec. 5.  His guest was House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego).  The conversation involved a discussion of pension reform, a summary of Veto Session, and much more.  Look for details in the coming weeks of when the episode will air.

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