State Representative Robin Gabel and State Senator Daniel Biss at the April 4 town hall Meeting.             RoundTable photo

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Pensions permeated the town hall meeting held on April 4 by State Senator Daniel Biss and State Representative Robin Gabel, but there was also time for talk about unmanned drones, fracking and the still-troubled and still-in-progress state budget.

Although talks have already begun, the big three issues – gun violence, the budget and the pension crisis – are likely to be solved only at the end of the legislative session, said Sen. Biss.

Two other bills that Sen. Biss said he felt are important for all residents of Illinois are the marriage equality bill and the Medicaid expansion act. The marriage equality bill is important, he said, because it embodies “what kind of state, what kind of people, we are.”

The Medicaid expansion, part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, will allow many people who have no other insurance to be covered by Medicaid. The Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. The state did not opt out, said Sen. Biss, but the bill not to opt out was passed along party lines, said Sen. Biss.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has mandated that Illinois craft a law that allows certain residents to carry concealed weapons under certain circumstances and in certain places. Gun-control amendments in Springfield are far from being settled, said Rep. Gabel. The majority of lawmakers do not appear to favor requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance, as an example, she said, but added that “competency and marksmanship” will likely be part of any concealed-carry bill.

Budget

“We need to change the way we build the discretionary budget. We need transparency – honesty in long-term budget,” said Sen. Biss.

Rep. Gabel said she believed the way to build the budget was to “start with how much revenue we’re going to have and build the budget around that amount. This year we’re going to have $35 billion in revenue. The Governor has added another $7 million, bringing it to $35.7 billion. If we have to reconcile the two budgets [the legislators’ and the Governor’s] we’ll have to make some cuts.”

In either budget, said Rep. Gabel, about $300 million less will be spent on education. In addition, she said, Christopher Koch, the State Superintendent of Education, has said he wants to repeal two state laws: one that limits class size and another that caps at 30 percent the number of students in any class with an IEP (individual education plan).

Revenues are projected as follows, said Rep. Gable: $16 billion from personal income taxes; $3 billion from corporate income taxes; $7 billion from sales taxes; and the remainder from other taxes and fees, from such things as cigarettes, vehicles, liquor and inheritances. The bulk of the funds will be allocated as follows, she said: 39 percent to K-12 schools; 31 percent to human services; 12 percent to higher education; 9 percent to public safety and 7 percent to general services.

Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is still being negotiated. At present, fracking in Illinois “is totally unregulated,” said Sen. Biss. “It offers great economic benefit and poses a great environmental problem.” Right now the State is following two tracks on fracking: one, to get a moratorium, and another one dealing with environmental protections, “tight restrictions and taxes,” he added.

Unmanned Drones

Sen. Biss has sponsored a bill to regulate the use of unmanned drones by local law enforcement agencies. “The federal government has deregulated drones, [so] the timing of your bill is appropriate,” said Evanston resident Dickelle Fonda. She asked why a second version of his bill omitted the section that banned weaponizing drones and asked whether he would consider putting that section back into the bill.

“This draws a distinction between Planet Earth and Planet Springfield,” the Senator replied. He said his bill (SB1587) required a search warrant before law enforcement agencies could use unmanned drones and was told that some felt his original bill “goes too far. … Our goal was to make this a simple decision about privacy and the right to expect privacy. We found that that was the fight we had a prayer of winning. Evidence obtained by unmanned drones [without a warrant] cannot be used in court.” He said a committee has been set up to look into further restrictions about unmanned drones, including the sale to and use by private individuals and weaponizing unmanned drones.

Pensions

Many of the some 200 persons who attended the town hall meeting had concerns about pensions in general and about their own in particular.

Three pension bills have passed the House, said Rep. Gabel: one that incrementally changes the retirement age for those state workers less than 45 years old; one capping the amount of salary on which a pension can be earned (present retirees excepted); and one applying the cost-of-living increase to only the first $25,000 of income.

“What guarantees do we have that the State will fund pensions appropriately?” asked one resident. “The Biss/Nekritz bill said the state must make actuarial payments every year –using language provided by the unions,” said Rep. Gabel.

“We went to great pains to harm people with the smallest pensions the least,” said Sen. Biss. “We are trying to protect those with the least [pension income]. The problems that fall to legislators cannot be solved without pain being distributed. … We came to the painful conclusion that [this] is best for the people of Illinois.” He added, “The politics of pension reform is gruesome” and also said the pension changes are “not meant to make life easy; they are meant to make life bearable.”

Asked whether he thought the Biss/Nekritz bill would hold up Constitutionally, Sen. Biss said, “The issue is, ‘What are the consequences if the legislature changes the [pension] rules?’ If there is going to be a court case, it is going to cost the State.” He said he understood that pensions constitute a contract but also said that contract is “not a suicide pact.”

Other Bills

Rep. Gabel named several other bills that have been approved: one prohibiting teens from using tanning beds; one adding grandparents raising grandchildren to the Family and Medical Leave Act; and one allowing families of children with disabilities to ask for mediation to have their kids remain in a program. In addition, she said, recently approved legislation will implement the recommendations of the task force on offshore wind energy.

The legislative session officially ends June 30.