By State Sen. Jim Oberweis -
When Gov. Pat Quinn delivered his annual State-of-the-State speech Feb. 6, many lawmakers were hoping for detailed plans on how the Governor would fix Illinois’ broken pension system and get the state’s economy back on track.
Instead, we got a pleasant speech filled with upbeat slogans but little substance. Meanwhile, Illinois continues to have an unemployment rate higher than the national average, owes $9 billion in unpaid bills and faces a pension liability conservatively placed at $95 billion.
Gov. Quinn once again expressed support for fixing the state’s pension funding problem but did not offer a clear roadmap, other than simply calling a proposal from the Senate President “the best vehicle to get the job done.”
I don’t believe that Senate Bill 1, the public pension reform bill, will solve our problems, but it is a step in the right direction. Senate Bill 1 only solves a small part of our problem, and if that is all we do, we’ll be back here facing the problem again in another year or two. We ought to do the right things now to fix this problem on a long-term basis. All new employees should have a defined-contribution plan instead of a defined-benefit plan so that this problem does not recur.
Quinn spent far more time on controversial measures, seeking to revive gun control measures that failed just last month and urging lawmakers to raise the state’s minimum wage to the highest in the nation.
The minimum wage proposal drew immediate opposition from small-business owners. Typical was Jorge Armando, a restaurant owner in Chicago, who told the Chicago Sun-Times he would have to lay off his dishwasher if the minimum wage is increased.
Opponents say a high minimum wage can actually hurt employment, because it dries up entry level jobs and forces retailers to raise the cost of consumer goods to cover the higher expenses. Only three states have a minimum wage higher than Illinois, and no Midwestern state has a minimum wage as high as Illinois.
In other action during the week, Senate committees advanced several controversial measures.
On Feb. 5, the Senate Executive Committee advanced legislation that would authorize same-sex marriage in Illinois. A similar bill was approved during the early January lame-duck session. Committee debate once again centered on the degree to which religious organizations and parochial schools’ religious liberties would be affected by the bill.
Many religious organizations have raised concerns that overly broad language in Senate Bill 10 would force churches to host or participate in same sex weddings. Opponents say the legislation is in direct conflict with these institutions’ religious principles—and their constitutional, First Amendment rights. Despite these concerns, the bill was approved and the sponsor has announced intentions to call the bill for a full Senate vote on Feb. 14.
On Feb. 5, the Senate Public Health Committee considered legislation that would advance the second exemption to the state’s Medicaid expansion freeze in the past seven months – despite the state’s current moratorium on Medicaid expansions. Though the expansion was initially required as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” it was later rendered optional as a result of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Senate Bill 26 was passed by the Committee despite Republican concerns that the expansion would offer benefits to an additional 350,000 individuals, which could carry an annual state cost of $300 million to maintain the federal reimbursement level beyond the first two years of the program’s implementation. By 2020, the cumulative state cost of this expansion could exceed $2.9 billion.
In other action, lawmakers approved and the Governor signed legislation that would free up $2.2 billion in supplemental spending. I voted against House Bill 190, noting that one of the first acts of the new General Assembly should not be to approve a massive new spending proposal, especially after the Governor outlined a bleak financial picture in his State of the State speech.
House Bill 190 initially enjoyed bipartisan support, as lawmakers sought to direct revenue to important state programs in need of a fiscal boost. However, many Republicans dropped their support of the legislation when Democrats piled on additional spending for questionable projects.