- Chicago Public Schools votes to close 50 inner-city school facilities. Strongly supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the controversial move will affect more than 10 percent of the district’s 472 elementary schools. At the time this vote was taken (Wednesday, May 22), there were more than 100,000 empty chairs and desks in Chicago Public School facilities. The operation of redundant facility space is blamed for a significant fraction of Chicago Public Schools’ fiscal deficit in the 2012-13 school year. 48 of the schools scheduled for closure will see their last pupil a few weeks from now, in June 2013. The closure move will lead to significant layoffs of public school personnel, many of them unionized. While Chicago public school enrollment continued to shrink during the 2012-13 school year, advocates assert that 19,000 children are currently listed on waiting lists for seats in Chicago charter schools. Opponents of the school closings have commenced litigation to try to reverse the decision.
- House passes “shall issue” concealed carry legislation. Senate Bill 2193 was approved by the House on Friday, May 24 on a bipartisan vote of 85-30-1. If approved by the Senate and signed by the Governor, this legislation would make Illinois a “shall issue” state, with the legal presumption in favor of granting the right, by license, to carry a concealed firearm to every valid applicant who requests one. The license would cost $150 and would convey 5 years of concealed-carry rights. The State’s concealed-carry law would preempt home rule powers and override the anti-concealed-carry ordinances of local governments and home-rule units, including the City of Chicago; however, concealed carry would remain banned on Chicago public transportation. In addition, most property owners would have the right to ban concealed carry on their private properties; in some cases, they would have to post signs conveying notification of their bans. The issue of “concealed carry” has been discussed extensively throughout the 2013 spring session, following last December’s ruling by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down Illinois’ ban on concealed carry. Many advocates are pushing for Illinois to join its fellow 49 states and grant concealed-carry rights to law-abiding gun owners.
- “Flash mob” bill signed into law. SB 1005, approved by the Illinois House on May 10, was signed into law as Public Act 94-14 by the Governor on Monday, May 20. This bipartisan measure gives the criminal courts the option of imposing an extended-term sentence upon the organizer of a flash mob. Using electronic communications to solicit or commit mob action is added to the list of reasons why an extended-term sentence may be imposed. Reasons that a court may cite under current law for imposing an extended-term sentence include the fact that the crime was a hate crime or was a crime committed against a senior citizen.
- House unanimously approves measure strengthening DUI law for hired drivers. SB 1764, as amended in the House, will redefine driving under the influence while driving a vehicle-for-hire. This offense will be reclassified as aggravated DUI, a Class 4 felony, when the driver is transporting one or more passengers in a vehicle-for-hire. The Wednesday, May 22 House vote, which returned the amended bill to the Senate for concurrence, was 117-0-0. This action follows an incident on Saturday, May 11; driver Richard Madison, hired to transport teenage prom attendees from Oswego, Illinois to DuPage County, was seen driving recklessly. Although Madison was then charged with having a blood alcohol level of more than three times the legal limit, the police found that he had not committed any of the acts that are defined under current law as aggravated DUI, and the allegedly impaired driver was charged with a misdemeanor. Enactment of SB 1764, as amended, into law would grant increased powers to prosecutors and police officers to charge hired drivers with aggravated DUI.
Energy – Fracking
- “Fracking” agreement advances in the House. Newly-invented technology that combines horizontal drilling with the pulverization of shale rock by high-pressure sand, water and chemicals is credited with dramatically increasing production of oil and gas in frack-friendly U.S. states such as North Dakota and Texas. Geologists believe that the New Albany Shale, a plate of ancient rock that lies under much of Southern Illinois, also offers substantial opportunities for fossil fuel production. Legislative action is necessary to govern the issuing of licenses to begin drilling operations; SB 1715 is co-sponsored by the lead House Republican negotiator on fracking issues, Representative David Reis (R-Ste. Marie). Negotiations between energy producers, labor, and environmental communities is credited by observers with generating legal language that could lead to major oil and gas production and the creation of up to 47,000 Illinois jobs. Issues under discussion included the level of taxes to be paid by oil and gas companies, the levels of environmental protections to be imposed to protect Illinois groundwater and other resources, and the types of specialized trades (including unionized trades) whose labor would be required or encouraged for the work. U.S. shale oil and gas reduces the dependency of the developed countries on fossil fuels from the Middle East and other sensitive global regions. SB 1715 was unanimously approved by the House Executive Committee on Tuesday, May 20. The committee action sent the bill to the full House for further action.
- Major bill offers hope for struggling racetracks, but would also dramatically expand Illinois gambling. Strong positions are being expressed for and against SB 1739, a Chicago casino bill that would also authorize the siting of electronic gaming machines (slot machines) at Illinois racetracks such as Arlington Park, Balmoral, Fairmount, Hawthorne, and Maywood. The bill, which has not yet been approved by both houses, would also authorize the creation of as many as four additional casino riverboat licenses, allocated to floating casinos that would operate in the south Chicago suburbs, the Danville area, the Rockford area, and the Waukegan area. Existing Illinois riverboat casinos would be given the right to apply for the rights to set up additional playing machines, too. Supported by Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the measure is opposed by many individuals and groups that are concerned about gaming expansion in Illinois. SB 1739 was held in the House Executive Committee on Tuesday, May 21, and did not progress to the full House.
- State Senate passes controversial bill, sending it to Governor. HB 1 would establish 22 cultivation centers and give them the sole power to grow medical marijuana in Illinois. The cannabis grown by these centers would be distributed through 60 closely regulated and policed dispensaries. Persons with certain preexisting medical conditions, including cancer, severe fibromyalgia, hepatitis C, and multiple sclerosis, would have the right to seek legal status as a patient licensed to purchase marijuana. Approved patients would have the right to present themselves once every two weeks, with their identification, at a dispensary and purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana. As the Illinois House had already passed this bill on April 17, the Senate’s approval sent this measure to the Governor for final action. Many opponents continue to express concern that marijuana’s status makes it inappropriate to treat it as a legal substance under Illinois law. Marijuana is an untested drug that cannot be smoked or consumed legally under federal law, and HB 1 does not provide a pathway for testing the drug or proving it to be effective for the medical conditions listed. The Senate’s roll call of 35-21-0 was held on Friday, May 17.
- General Assembly approves bill to provide additional catastrophic medical insurance for the benefit of student athletes. SB 2178 will direct Illinois school districts – public and private – to purchase a supplemental catastrophic health insurance policy that will cover up to $3.0 million or 5 years of additional coverage, whichever comes first. This bill is meant to create additional peace of mind for student-athletes, their coaches and staff, and their families. In unusual, tragic cases, student-athletes can be severely injured when playing or practicing sports such as high school football. This bill was informally dedicated to the memory of Rasul ‘Rocky’ Clark, former Eisenhower High School football player. The House vote of 71-39-1 sent this bill to the Governor for final action.
- 70 mph Interstate highway bill approved by House; could apply to at least 96 counties in Downstate Illinois. By a vote of 85-30-0, the House approved legislation to raise the maximum speed limit on many Downstate Illinois expressways and superhighways from 65 mph (current law) to 70 mph. As SB 2356 has already been passed by the Senate, the House vote moved this bill to the Governor’s desk for possible signature. A potential “slow zone” of eight Illinois counties – six counties (including Cook County) in and around Chicago, and Madison and St. Clair Counties adjacent to St. Louis – will be allowed to enact ordinances to retain the 65 mph speed limits within their corporate limits. Many states that border Illinois, such as Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri, already allow drivers on rural Interstate highways to travel at speeds up to 70 miles per hour.
Utilities – Smart Grid
- General Assembly enacts reliable-electricity “Smart Grid” bill over Governor’s veto. The new law clarifies the existing right of Illinois’ largest supplier of electricity to households and retail users, ComEd, to file for rate hikes based upon a corporate plan to digitize their electrical grid. The ComEd plan is controversial with some customers because the cash flow phasein is immediate and the digitization project will consume at least 10 years. Under the SmartGrid plan, existing “dumb” electrical meters will be replaced with new meters armed with a computer chip and dedicated wireless line to ComEd’s electrical substations. In the event of a blackout, the utility’s personnel will know exactly where the problem is and will not have to wait for the imperfect information that trickles in through customer service complaints. The House vote of 71-41-5, on Wednesday, May 22, enacted SB 9 over Governor Pat Quinn’s veto objections. The new law is Public Act 98-15.
- Chicago Tribune editorial features House Republican push for welfare reform. The use of LINK card benefits for jail bail, casino gambling opportunities and other purposes was the focus of a Monday, May 20 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which featured the advocacy of Representative Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro) for LINK card reform. HB 2784 (Bost) would ban the use of LINK cards for alcoholic beverages, lottery tickets, and casino games. Bost’s bill is part of a four-bill welfare reform package presented on Tuesday, April 23; other measures in the package would require photographs to be included in LINK cards, as with drivers’ licenses and FOID cards. The package is being held in the Democrat-controlled House Rules Committee. More than 2.1 million Illinoisans are beneficiaries of programs financed through LINK cards, which are most often used as the conduit of food-stamp money to Illinois households and families. The 2.1 million LINK card headcount is a ten-year increase of 114% from the 959,000 Illinois residents who received food stamps and other welfare benefits in 2003. During this same period, the total population of Illinois increased an estimated 3 percent.
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