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Amid wide federal corruption probe, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton announces retirement
Other
Friday, November 15, 2019  |   Article  |   By Greg Bishop | The Center Square
Governor (44) , Retirement (70) Brady, Bill--State Senate, 44 , Cullerton, John--State Senate, 6
Senate President John Cullerton announced his retirement Thursday as the General Assembly wrapped up its last session day of the year, and the FBI continued its investigation into alleged political corruption in the senate and other elements of Illinois government.

Following the final day of fall legislative session Thursday, the senate president’s spokesman confirmed the Chicago Democrat told members of the Democratic caucus he’s retiring.

The retirement is effective in January, so senators will need to choose a new president then. His term in Senate District 6 doesn't end until 2023. An interim replacement will be appointed within 30 days of his actual retirement, according to state law. A special election will then need to be held to complete the term.

Cullerton has been in the General Assembly since 1979, initially serving in the House until 1991. He then was appointed a senator in 1991. He was selected to be senate president in 2008.

During his tenure, Cullerton oversaw the removal of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich following Blagojevich’s impeachment in the House in 2009.

In 2011, he helped usher in a temporary income tax increase that expired in 2015.

Cullerton also supported a reform measure in 2013 to reduce pension benefits that was ultimately found to be unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

In 2015 and 2016, Cullerton was involved in negotiations to get piecemeal budgets passed during an impasse with former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration. While Cullerton was able to pass one spending plan in that time, the House never followed through, leading to the stalemate.

Cullerton’s official bio says he and former Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno “paved the way for a bipartisan deal [in 2017] that broke the budget stalemate and set the stage for economic recovery.”

That deal included a 33 percent income tax increase that Rauner vetoed, which the House and Senate overrode, ending the stalemate.

More recently, members of Cullerton's caucus have been under investigation by the FBI.

This summer, federal agents raided the home and offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero. They were looking for information related to a possible kickback scheme that could have touched on several industries, including energy, gambling and transportation.

While Sandoval has not been charged with a crime, Cullerton resisted calls for Sandoval to be removed as the powerful chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, including from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

After details from a search warrant were released that included damaging information about the federal corruption probe, Sandoval was finally removed as chairman.

Earlier in the summer, Cullerton's distant cousin state Sen. Tom Cullerton was indicted for embezzling from a labor union. Tom Cullerton has pleaded not guilty. He remains in office where his chairmanship on the Senate Labor Committee was transferred to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Cullerton is 71. He and his wife, Pam, have five children and three grandchildren. He served in the U.S. Army and attended Loyola University. Aside from being a Senator, he’s also a partner with the law firm of Thompson Coburn.

“In the past decade as Senate President, John Cullerton has been a passionate advocate for improving Illinois – whether it was his focus on ending the scourge of youth smoking, dedication to fully funding education or efforts to advance critically needed infrastructure throughout the state,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “Over the years, I came to know John as my state senator, and this past year I have truly appreciated his work to advance our common agenda to stand with working families. I wish him all the best in the years to come, and I know that Pam and his children will be glad to start their next chapter as a family.”

“Senate President John Cullerton has led the Illinois Senate with honor and distinction, and our Chamber will forever be better as a result," Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady said in a statement. "I have known John for many years, but it has been during the last two years in my role as Senate Republican Leader that I have seen first-hand the integrity, honesty, and humor that he brought to the responsibilities his office entailed."

Brady continued: “We may not have always agreed on how best to address the issues facing the state, but there can be no denying John always put the people of Illinois first. I wish the Senate President and his family well as he begins this next chapter in his life. I am grateful to have had him as a colleague, and I will forever be grateful to call him my friend.”


Ethics commission, watered down disclosure bill head to governor
Carbondale Southern Illinoisan
Friday, November 15, 2019  |   Article  |   By JERRY NOWICKI – Capitol News Illinois
Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Pay to Play, Corruption Castro, Christina -- State Senate, 22 , Cullerton, John--State Senate, 6 , Durkin, Jim--State House, 82 , Harris, Gregory--State House, 13 , Wehrli, Grant--State House, 41

While most House Republicans voted in favor of a resolution creating an ethics reform commission, which passed, 111-4, and a bill to require greater lobbyist disclosure, which passed, 110-5, they bombarded Democrats with criticism during floor debate.

Many Republicans listed ethics bills they filed as early as January and as late as this week, many of which had not received a committee hearing or even been assigned to committee.

“Clearly, this is a last ditch effort to appear to be doing something on ethics, which I applaud that we’re finally going to do something on ethics,” Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, said while questioning whether the new commission would actually deliver results.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, questioned why language adding requirements to lawmakers’ statements of economic interest was removed from the lobbyist disclosure bill, Senate Bill 1639, by a late amendment Thursday.

Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who carried the bill in the House, said economic interest disclosures would be discussed by the commission created in House Joint Resolution 93.

“Do we really need a commission to be able to come up with a solution that is, I would say, practical but also the right thing to do?” Durkin asked. “… I’ve seen commissions come and go over the years. Many of us look at those commissions with jaundiced eyes because generally they don’t produce the positive results that we think are important.”

The commission’s role would be to study ethics reforms and report their recommendations on specific pieces of legislation to lawmakers, who would have the ultimate authority to enact the measures.

It would be made up of two appointees each from the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, two from the secretary of state including the inspector general of that office, two from the attorney general including the inspector general of that office, and four from the governor, who can appoint no more than two members from any party.

Republicans in the Senate supported the lobbyist disclosure measure, which passed by a 48-0 vote, but unanimously pulled support for the commission, citing what they believe is a partisan makeup. That measure passed 32-18.

Republicans argued the appointees would create a 10-6 Democratic slant to the commission because the secretary of state’s and attorney general’s offices are both controlled by Democrats.

Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat who filed the bill, said the appointees from those offices would be staff members, and they would not carry a political party designation.

Still, Republicans pulled support when the bill came to the floor.

“Today, the Senate Republicans Caucus is united in support of real ethics reform, which is why we stand in opposition to HJR 93. Despite assurances from Democrat leaders that this would be a balanced, bipartisan task force, what was filed is a nothing but a Democrat-controlled commission that will not bring about the changes this state needs to restore the people’s trust in their state legislature,” the Senate Republican caucus said in a release. “With the cloud of scandal hanging over the dome we need to be taking up serious ethics reforms not punting to another partisan task force.”

After the afternoon committee, Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, told reporters the commission would study several of the ethics bills brought forth by Republicans which have thus far not received a committee hearing.

When asked why lobbyist pay disclosure wasn’t included in the lobbyist reform measure which passed later in the day, Cullerton referenced the commission.

“We are being asked to pass bills right away. And we're being asked to put together a commission to study what bills we should have, you see?” Cullerton said. “So when you start to get more technical. … What does the secretary of state's office have to say about requiring? … What about the state board of elections? Maybe we should have campaign contributions also in the same database. That's what the commission is supposed to study. … We're trying to do this in a deliberative way. That's all.”

He said the commission is due to report to the Legislature in March, but it can make intermittent reports on bills that could be enacted more quickly.

“If they come up with low-hanging fruit, … if that’s indeed what it is, they can make that recommendation,” Cullerton said.

Responding to questions, Cullerton said the commission would study issues such as strengthening the legislative inspector general’s office and banning lawmakers from lobbying local governments.

When asked if the General Assembly would take up any ethics bills without the commission studying them first, he pointed to the bill discussed in committee which was lambasted on the floor as watered down by Republicans.

“You see what I'm saying, … you've got low-hanging fruit, if you want to call it that. People have different definitions of what that is, what we're passing today, hopefully. And then you've got the commission that would study recommendations for other legislation,” he said.

He did not identify any other “low-hanging fruit” and no ethics legislation was discussed in the committee aside from the commission and Senate Bill 1639, which passed later in the day after being weakened by a House amendment.

The version of Senate Bill 1639 that did pass requires primary lobbyists to specifically identify each client of any lobbyist that is listed as their subcontractor in state databases. It also requires any state lobbyist to disclose any unit of local government they lobby for and any elected or appointed office they hold.

It also directs the secretary of state to create a publicly accessible and searchable database which brings together lobbying disclosures, contributions by registered lobbyists and statements of economic interest filed by state officials.

During a separate, unrelated news conference earlier in the day, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the bills moving Thursday were “just the beginning.”

“Let me be clear that we're not going to tolerate people who engage in that kind of corruption and self-dealing that we've seen …,” he said. “There isn't a lot of time to go after the big things that need to be addressed and that I'm insisting be addressed. … This is much needed reform, but it's not enough. And there is much more comprehensive ethics legislation that needs to be introduced and passed and will be.”


SIU announces sole applicant for provost position, interview date
Daily Egyptian SIUC
Friday, November 15, 2019  |   Article  |   By Staff Report, News Desk
Education--Higher (37)
Meera Komarraju has been announced as the sole applicant and candidate for the position of provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at SIU, according to a university press release.

Komarraju, the current interim provost, will hold forums with constituents on Nov. 19 as part of a day-long interview process.

A faculty/staff forum will take place at 2 p.m. on Nov. 19 in the John C. Guyon Auditorium at Morris Library, followed by a student forum at 5:45 p.m. in room 150 of the Student Services Building.

During the forums, Komarraju will discuss her vision for the major areas of responsibility of the provost’s office, which include academic affairs, enrollment and retention.

“The forums give university students, staff and faculty an opportunity to meet with the candidate and ask questions about her approach to the position,” the release said.


Counting Chickens Before They’re Hatched: Will Illinois Botch Pension Consolidation?
Forbes Online
Friday, November 15, 2019  |   Commentary  |   Elizabeth Bauer Contributor
Fire Marshal, fire, fire fighters (84) , Governor (44) , Local Government (60) , Pensions (70) , Police (28) Barickman, Jason--State House, 105 , Righter, Dale--State Senate, 55
Not much more than a month ago, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s task force released its report recommending that asset management at the 650-odd pension funds be consolidated, while leaving benefit administration (and jobs, and decision-making about disability-eligibility) to the local entities.

And when Illinois doesn’t drag its feet on making changes due to inter- or intra-party squabbles or the desire to avoid making any hard choices, when its politicians think they’ve found a free lunch, they rush headlong into it. The Chicago Tribune reported last night that

“The Illinois House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to consolidate nearly 650 local pension funds for suburban and downstate police officers and firefighters.

“The measure, which was approved on a bipartisan vote of 96-14, now goes to the Senate. If that chamber approves the bill before adjourning Thursday, it would hand another victory to Pritzker after he accomplished nearly all of his legislative priorities in the spring.”

Now, the fundamental concept of consolidation is entirely reasonable – as it is, the smallest of pension plans see lower asset returns because of investment restrictions and comparatively high expenses, which should be solved with consolidation. In the best case, they should see returns of as much as 2 percentage points higher in a consolidated system due to economies of scale.

But Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner at Wirepoints point to a serious concern not being reported elsewhere, an additional boost in benefits:

“[I]t makes sense to pool the funds of the 650 pension plans in an attempt to increase investment returns and lower transaction fees. Everything else equal, not doing so would be irresponsible.

“But the consolidation bill being debated on the floor today isn’t just about consolidation of fund assets. It’s also become a vehicle for changes to pension benefits, with increases for Tier 2 public safety workers. Pensions are the biggest issue that the state faces – and lawmakers are about to make significant changes with no debate as to their merits and no public actuarial analysis calculating their cost.”

More specifically, the bill – by means of deleting two words and changing two numbers – changes the averaging period for Tier 2 worker (hired 2011 and later) from 8 years to 4 years, and modifies the pensionable pay cap increase rate from half of CPI to the full CPI (with a maximum of 3%). (See page 73 of the Amendment 5 text.) This latter change in particular remedies an element of Illinois pensions which would otherwise, over time, have a particularly harsh impact as the real, inflation-adjusted level of the cap declines from year to year.

And I’ve written repeatedly that Tier 2 benefits for all Illinois workers need reform. But, as Dabrowski and Klingner write,

“For sure, benefits for Tier 2 workers – those who started work after January 2011 – will at some point have to be fixed. We’ve written about that in the past. It’s a real mess.

“But this bill is not the place to do it. If Tier 2 is changed, it should be part of a dedicated pension reform bill that fixes all the funds at once, not snuck in as part of unrelated legislation.

“Supporters of the Tier 2 reform in the bill argue that the costs of the increased benefits – estimated at some $70 to $95 million over the first five years – are covered by the expected higher investment returns generated as a result of consolidation.

“But higher returns aren’t guaranteed by the bill. Yes, the consolidated funds will be able to take more risks in the stock market – but those greater risks can lead to better returns or bigger losses.”

The pair also point out that this sets a precedent for simply increasing Tier 2 generosity in other systems without any sort of funding. What’s more, this was done without any concrete analysis of the degree to which the various Tier 2 benefits – for teachers, state and municipal workers, and public safety worker statewide – are in violation of Social Security’s “safe harbor” laws, analysis which has never taken place for any of these benefits.

Now, I myself should acknowledge that in my prior article on the pending consolidation, I was perhaps overly excited by the task force’s acknowledgement of this issue, so as to not recognize at the time the danger of pairing the consolidation with a benefit enhancement.

But the folks at Wirepoints are right - this has the potential from going from a success story to yet another cautionary tale of Illinois’s bad governance.

UPDATE:

As of this (Thursday) morning, the State Senate has now approved the pension consolidation bill. However, as the State Journal-Register reports, various Republican Senators did object to the Tier 2 enhancements, and specifically, the lack of analysis:

“The cost of those changes is estimated at $75 million to $90 million over a five-year period.

“‘I have not found any taxpayer who wants to enhance pension benefits,’ said Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington. ‘The IRS has not told us we have to do this.’

“He also said the estimated cost of the enhancements did not come from an actuary and thus may not be accurate.

“’We are going to continue to pass enhancements without knowing how much they cost,’ he said.

“’It’s a classic Springfield solution that has led to underfunding of pensions across the board,’ added Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. ‘Increase benefits, but not put in place any mechanism to require contributions to increase. The difference is going to be made up by a savings figure given to us by the governor’s Office of Management and Budget.’”

There are also two ways in which the cost of these enhancements is not as simple as a liability increase figure.

In the first place, all these pension systems are placed on a funding schedule to reach 90% funding at some point in the 2040s or 2050s, varying by plan. But the Tier 2 liabilities will become an ever greater share of the liabilities, so the relatively small portion of the liability attributable to them in 2019 is not a meaningful measure of the long-term impact of restoring the benefit reductions for new hires.

In the second place, the “savings” due to increased investment earnings will not be shared by all police and fire plans uniformly; plans for larger cities will gain less because they are now in a better position than the smaller-asset plans. This means that the rationale that “we’re just applying some of the increased investment revenue to fund better benefits” only works for those smaller plans, rather than all plans statewide.

So good job, Illinois – in confirming you still don’t have your act together.


Marijuana trailer bill clarifies allowable public use
Northwest Herald
Friday, November 15, 2019  |   Article  |   By JERRY NOWICKI
Recreational Marijuana Steans, Heather--State Senate, 7 , Villanueva, Celina--State House, 21

SPRINGFIELD – A cleanup bill written to ensure a smooth rollout of the legalization of adult-use marijuana in January passed both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly on Thursday.

Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored both the original legalization bill and the follow-up Senate Bill 1557 in the Senate, made clear that public consumption of cannabis will be allowed only at locations that have no food or drink.

“No restaurants, no bars, it can only be in a dispensary or retail tobacco store,” she said.

Those facilities will have to seek waivers from the Smoke Free Illinois Act from their local governments.

The bill also clarifies a “revolving door” provision of the law by prohibiting future members of the General Assembly and their families from having a direct financial ownership interest in a cannabis business until two years after that lawmaker leaves public office.

“This amendment adds ethics language to conform with a two-year revolving door prohibition on members and family having ownership interest that currently exist under gaming law,” said Rep. Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat who carried the bill in the House.

Villanueva said lawmakers who were in the chamber during the passage of the original cannabis bill and their spouses “currently have a lifetime ban on being able to have a stakeholder ownership” in the cannabis industry. The new language change applies the two-year ban to future lawmakers and their immediate family members.

She said the language was added to address Republican concerns.

The bill also provides that marijuana-related paraphernalia no longer would be illegal in Illinois. But it would remain illegal to operate a snowmobile or any kind of watercraft while under the influence of marijuana.

Steans said it also strengthens and clarifies language that would allow employers to maintain zero-tolerance policies. It also cleans up language in the portion of the bill that expunges criminal records for people who have standalone marijuana convictions on their records, specifically ensuring that outstanding fines do not limit access to expungement.

She said the bill moves up to July, from September, the earliest date municipalities and county governments can begin collecting taxes resulting from marijuana sales.

Villanueva said the bill allows people ages 18 to 21 who are part of the medical marijuana program to consume combustible cannabis, while the previous version limited them to edible products. It also unifies terms throughout the several hundred pages in the law and corrects grammar and punctuation among the other noted changes.

The new bill adds stakeholders to multiple boards and commissions created under the original bill.

Villanueva said the technical changes in the bill were proposed by state agencies, lawmakers and stakeholders.

The bill passed the House, 90-20, and the Senate, 41-6.


Tobacco bills’ progress in veto session appear stalled
Northwest Herald
Friday, November 15, 2019  |   Article  |   By REBECCA ANZEL – Capitol News Illinois
Tobacco, Smoking Ban, E-Cigarettes Bush, Melinda--State Senate, 31 , Cullerton, John--State Senate, 6 , Link, Terry--State Senate, 30

Just one day left in veto session to OK bans on public vaping, flavored vape products

One bill would loop electronic cigarettes into the Smoke Free Illinois Act. The other would ban flavored cartridges and pods used in such devices.

Thursday is the last scheduled day of the fall veto session, which lawmakers are using this year to clean up new laws and pass new bills before they return to Springfield in January.

Indian Creek Democratic Sen. Terry Link is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1864, which would include vapes, e-cigars, e-hookahs and other such devices in the existing prohibition on smoking in public places, areas of employment, and within 15 feet of the entrance to a public building. There is an exception for tobacco stores and vape shops.

The Illinois Sheriff’s Association opposes the measure if jails are included in the ban. Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk said although not every county jail official allows vapes, “many do.”

He said jails allow vaping because many people who are jailed have substance abuse issues, or smoke cigarettes. Vaping is allowed to prevent forcing inmates to quit “cold-turkey.”

“I just want them to continue to have that as an option if they so choose,” Kaitschuk said. “I can tell you anecdotally that for those that utilize this, they have seen signs in a reduction of incidences.”

Link said in a committee hearing Tuesday any exceptions should be a “stand-alone bill if they want to do it.”

His measure cleared the Senate Oct. 29and needs approval from a House committee before it can be considered by the full chamber.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, is sponsoringone of six flavor bansaimed at vape products. His has the highest-profile backing and was considered by a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.

Adam Hergenreder, an 18-year-old high school student from Lake County, told legislators he was sickened with a lung injury related to his vape use. He was sharing his story, he said, to encourage those in his age group not to use the product.

He said about 80 percent of those who attend his high school, Warren High School, use electronic smoking devices.

“I frankly just believe that it’s a different way to smoke — it’s not a smoking cessation device, or otherwise the (Food and Drug Administration) should approve it as such and do it as a prescription,” said Sen. Melinda Bush, a Democrat from Grayslake.

Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, said electronic cigarettes are “regulated as tobacco products.”

“They’re not regulated as a smoking cessation product, and even though some people think they’re being marketed as a smoking cessation product, what they're really referring to is the public discussion around these products ..,” which, he said, “...is so great is because smokers — millions of smokers — who have bashed their heads against the wall trying to use the patch and the gum, failing time after time after time after time have finally found some relief.”

The Senate Executive Committee approved Cullerton’s measure by a vote of 13-4. But it would have to be approved by both the full Senate and House on Thursday to be moved to the desk of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

While the attempt to ban flavored electronic smoking products in Illinois is being done legislatively, other states — including Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — have enacted bans of some form through executive order.