Legislators discuss issues in General Assembly
By JASON PORTERFIELD
Northwest Side lawmakers discussed issues facing the General Assembly in its current session, including the state’s pension problem, efforts to pass bills permitting medical marijuana and marriage equality, and the effort to regulate concealed weapons.
Both chambers in the General Assembly passed bills designed to deal with the state’s $96.8 billion in pension debt earlier this spring. A bill passed by the House in March would end the 3 percent automatic cost of living increases to pension payments for future state retirees and would limit the increase to the first $25,000 of a retiree’s income. Workers also would have to be retired for 5 years or wait until age 67 before they could collect cost of living increases.
The House also passed bills that would raise the retirement age for state employees to receive a pension to 67 and that would cap the amount of income used in calculating pension payments. The Senate did not take up the bills.
The Senate passed a bill in March that would require local school employees to choose between keeping their annual 3 percent cost of living adjustment or opting reduced cost of living adjustment and continued access to the state-sponsored health care after they retire. Teachers outside Chicago participate in a state-funded pension system.
State Representative Greg Harris (D-13) said that negotiations are continuing in both chambers to pass a pension bill. “People are zeroing in on what elements have broad support,” Harris said. “There are a lot of details that might have an impact on one area or one group, like the school districts.
“Pensions in every school district in the state but Chicago are funded by the state. Changing the system is unpopular in those places, but it’s the right thing to do. We just need to figure out how to phase it in.”
State Representative Louis Lang (D-16) said that he has opposed the pension reform measures that have been passed because he believes they violate the state Constitution, which prohibits public employee pensions from being diminished or impaired.
“Many of the ideas out there in my view are in violation of the state Constitution by violating worker contracts,” Lang said. “We have a serious problem, and I’m prepared to vote for a pension bill that is constitutional.”
State Representative Robert Martwick (D-19) said that he expects a vote to come on an omnibus pension bill in the next few weeks.
“There’s a strong desire to get something done,” Martwick said. “It seems both sides have positions staked out that are very far apart, but in reality there’s some common ground and room to work something out.”
Martwick said that the cost of living adjustment passed by the House is “pretty rough.” “Every chance I get I’ve been advocating for some flexibility in that,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can give a little more relief, because $25,000 is not a lot of money.”
State Representative John D’Amico (D-15) said that he hopes a pension reform bill can get passed. “I think everyone accepts that we have to make some difficult choices,” D’Amico said.
State Senator John Mulroe (D-10) said that Senate President John Cullerton (D-6) has been meeting with union leaders in an effort to work out a compromise on pensions.
“They’re still meeting and ironing out the details and finding an approach to solve it, but they’re not there yet,” Mulroe said. “Some people are just rigid, so it’s hard to come to an agreement. At least conversations with all the stakeholders are taking place. We just have to find an answer.”
Lawmakers are facing June 9 deadline for passing legislation to regulate concealed weapons, after a federal court decision last year struck down the state’s ban on carrying concealed firearms and gave the lawmakers 180 days to put laws in place to regulate where guns can be carried and who can carry them.
D’Amico said that lawmakers face “some huge hurdles” in crafting concealed weapons legislation.
“One is the difference between ‘shall’ and ‘may’ and whether you have to issue a license to anyone who meets the general requirements or whether an objection can be raised to someone’s application,” D’Amico said. “The other is whether guns can be carried on mass transit. We have to find a way around this and come up with something.”
“There are so many potential options and big issues,” Harris said. “We have to look at whether the state police would have any discretion regarding who gets a permit, whether there can be home rule restrictions or not, and all the different types of places or situations where guns might be restricted, like a school or a bar. There’s also the matter of whether we can pass something with a simple majority or if we have to get 71 votes.”
Mulroe said that senators are working on a bill that would prevent applicants who have a criminal background or who are mentally ill from obtaining a concealed weapons license, and that there is an effort to include language that would allow local law enforcement to put an additional application process in place.
“We need compromise on this issue, but we’re not finding compromise from the pro-gun people,” Mulroe said.
Lang said that the extremes on both sides of the concealed carry issue “are very far apart.”
“The federal court has ordered us to do something, and if we do nothing then all of the gun laws in the state can be tossed out,” Lang said. “It would help if people on both sides could be reasonable. On one side you have extreme gun rights people who don’t want any restrictions at all, and on the other you have people who vote ‘no’ on everything. I’m prepared to vote for a reasonable bill.”
Martwick said that he had been prepared to vote in favor of a less restrictive concealed weapons bill but that he changed his mind when he saw that two provisions had been removed. He said that the bill is “really close” to picking up the additional votes needed to pass it.
“They left them out of the bill and I’m a no until they’re back in,” Martwick said of the provisions he sought.
Martwick said that he had asked for a ban on carrying a weapon on public transportation and for an amendment that would have allowed local law enforcement to raise an objection to an applicant and start a hearing process. He said that an automatic objection would be triggered by anyone who had been arrested five or more times for any offense in the previous 7 years or who had three or more arrests for “gang-related crimes.”
“There’s going to be an absolute flood of applications, and this would make sure that really bad actors in society wouldn’t slip through cracks,” Martwick said. “They would at least wind up in a hearing.”
Lawmakers spoke favorably of a bill that passed in the House in April that would allow the medical use of marijuana for patients with terminal illnesses or chronic debilitating conditions. The bill would limit marijuana growers to 22 and dispensaries to 60 located throughout the state and also would allow the state to track prescriptions. The Senate has not heard the bill.
“It’s the humane thing to do,” Harris said. “You see people with cancer, with multiple sclerosis or with AIDS who are in pain and can’t get relief from conventional medicine. This will help them find relief.
Harris said that the bill would put in place tight controls on who can get medical marijuana and that he expects the bill to pass in the Senate.
“If it is regulated properly and the doctor says it will help someone in pain, then I don’t have a problem with it,” Mulroe said.
“Most members of the House and Senate think it’s the right thing to do,” Lang said. “Politically, you have to educate public to understand that it’s the right thing to do.”
“This is by far the most restrictive medical marijuana law ever passed in the country,” Martwick said. “There are such difficult circumstances that you have to be in and so many hoops that you have to go through that it would be impossible to get a fake prescription.”
“I feel if someone is sick and needs medicine, they should be able to get it,” D’Amico he said. “It’s not going to be an easy system to abuse. You have to meet all of the requirements and you have to have one of the illnesses.”
Lawmakers also discussed the Senate’s passage of a bill that would legalize same-sex marriages in the state. The bill is being debated in the House.
Mulroe said that he was among the 34 senators who voted in favor of the bill. “The momentum seems to be behind it,” he said. “(U.S. Senator) Mark Kirk and other Republicans are getting behind it. I think it’ll come up for a vote.”
Harris, who is one of the bill’s sponsors in the House, said that he is hopeful that he can gather the support needed to pass it.
“Every day that goes by you see the tide turning to it,” Harris said. “It’s a trend. I think it’s likely to come up for a vote and to pass in the next couple of weeks.”
Lang said that he supports the bill. “We have so many marriages that end in divorce, why would we want to keep two people who love each other apart?” he said.
Martwick said that he is a co-sponsor of the bill and that he thinks that Harris will have to take a risk and call the bill for a vote before he can get 60 votes by polling members.
D’Amico said that he is leaning against the bill but that he will listen to the debate before making a final decision.