Senate Week in Review: December 1 – 5, 2014

Though Senate Republicans stressed that lawmakers shouldn’t move forward with major policy initiatives on partisan roll-calls during a fall “lame-duck” veto session, State Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) said Democrats pushed through a number of significant and controversial measures prior to adjourning on December 4.

Senate Republican lawmakers also pointed out that a number of contentious policy initiatives were pushed through the legislative process during the veto session that will require significant modifications in the future. They argued that a more reasonable option would be to wait until the state’s new governor and lawmakers are sworn-in next year and allow the 99th General Assembly to fully address any concerns or issues prior to passage of the legislation.

Changes to election law raise concerns about election fraud

Major changes to Illinois election law were approved by the General Assembly during the final week of the fall veto session. While some are hailing the changes as a means to increase access to voter registration, others are raising concerns that the significant changes will make Illinois vulnerable to mass election fraud.

Senate Bill 172 makes notable modifications to how, when and where Illinois voters can register and cast their ballots. The bill makes permanent and expands the same-day voter registration pilot program that was established prior to the 2014 general election. Voters will now be able to register to vote on Election Day at their polling place. Another significant change allows voter registration online or through a mobile application.

The changes in the bill won’t be in place until the 2016 Presidential election, leaving Senate Republican lawmakers questioning the timing of this bill’s passage.

Minimum wage hike

An effort to push through a statewide minimum wage increase was stymied this week after the City of Chicago voted to pass a $13 an hour hike in the city. Going into the fall veto session it seemed plausible the General Assembly could pass a statewide increase. However, the recent decision by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to push through a more generous minimum wage hike in Chicago undermined a statewide effort, as most Chicago-area lawmakers balked at supporting legislation that would cap the minimum wage at $11 an hour—which would now be a reduction of pay for employees living in Chicago legislative districts.

While a measure to increase the minimum wage passed the Senate on Dec. 3, the vote was considered moot since the House of Representatives had already adjourned for the week—with no plans to return and act on a minimum wage hike.

New ridesharing bill speeds out of General Assembly

Lawmakers advanced legislation this week imposing statewide regulations on the growing “ridesharing” industry, which includes the very popular Uber driving service. The emerging ridesharing industry, comprised of drivers who use personal vehicles to give rides, raised insurance and passenger safety concerns.

The measure establishes insurance requirements, background checks, a “zero tolerance” drug and alcohol policy, and parameters for “disqualifying” drivers within the ridesharing industry. The regulations imposed by Senate Bill 2774 are less stringent than those contained in similar legislation approved by the General Assembly last spring, which was later vetoed by the Governor. The sponsor of that measure opted not to call for an override of the Governor’s veto.

Controversial mesothelioma bill passes

A controversial measure was passed by lawmakers that would indefinitely extend liability for injuries, disease, disability, or death associated with asbestos in construction cases. The disease most commonly associated with asbestos exposure is mesothelioma.

Senate Bill 2221 drew criticism for creating a wide open avenue for litigation, allowing for claims that go back 50 years. Concerns were also raised the bill could create unlimited liability into the future.

The bill does not contain language specifying whether or not this change would apply to pending cases. Nor does the legislation make it clear whether closed cases could be reopened or new cases could be filed, in situations where the statute of limitations has expired, but there is a newly discovered injury.

Proponents, including the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, argued that the legislation was necessary because asbestos-related mesothelioma does not manifest for at least 10 years. They say that the time it takes the disease to manifest limits the ability of those affected to file a lawsuit.

Smart Grid extension

The Illinois Senate voted on December 4 to approve legislation that would give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois another two years until they have to report back to the General Assembly on the progress of their digital “smart grid” plan.

Illinois’ smart grid program was approved in 2012, advancing a decade-long plan to modernize and upgrade the state’s electric delivery system. Delays in implementation of the plan brought the utility companies back to the General Assembly this fall seeking a two-year extension of the original 2017 sunset date, giving them time the utilities say is needed to fully implement the program.

Secure Choice Savings Program

The General Assembly advanced another mandate on employers this week, which would require businesses with 25 or more employees to enroll employees in a state-sponsored retirement savings program. The program would be in the form of an automatic enrollment payroll deduction IRA.

Employers would be forced to facilitate coordination with the state-held IRA accounts and automatically deduct at least 3 percent from the employees’ paychecks for contribution into the IRA account. Employees would have to actively pursue “opting out” if they did not want to participate.

Senate Republicans argued that lawmakers should not be advancing legislation that would place additional burdens on Illinois’ employers.

Lawmakers override Governor’s speed-limit veto

Illinois lawmakers have successfully challenged a gubernatorial veto of legislation sponsored by State Sen. Jim Oberweis (R-Sugar Grove) to raise the speed limit on Illinois toll highways from 55 mph to 70 mph.

Legislators successfully overrode the Governor’s veto, but this does not mean tollway drivers can start driving 70 mph immediately. Because tollway or IDOT officials must first conduct speed safety studies on toll highways to determine if 70 mph is a safe maximum speed for each particular stretch of road, drivers are cautioned to adjust speed according to the posted speed-limit signs along the road on which they are driving.

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