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Legislative Action

86th General Assembly winds up; 87th begins


State lawmakers convened in January for a little bit of work and a lot of nostalgia. The work came on January 8, the final day of the 86th General Assembly, when lawmakers passed a comprehensive pension bill that had stalled twice within the last year. They also patched but did not repair the Chicago school reform legislation and insulated Chicago's pension-for-salary fund swap from legal challenge. The nostalgia came on January 9 when Gov. James R. Thompson presided for the seventh and final time over the Illinois Senate.

The heaviest piece of work that lawmakers tackled was a 252-page omnibus pension bill. Sponsors had tried and failed to get agreement on the bill during the spring session and again in November. The measure increased benefits to workers covered by 14 public pension systems. The new legislation increased the liabilities of the systems by nearly $300 million will raise the annual costs to those systems by more than $35 million. Most of those costs are for Chicago systems. For the five statewide systems the increase in liabilities is about $15 million, and the increased annual cost totals about $1.5 million.

The largest costs will be borne by Chicago pension systems and were approved after Chicago, the pension systems and workers agreed to the changes. There are increases for others, too. Retired downstate teachers saw an increase from 50 percent to 75 percent in the pension system's share of their health insurance costs.

The bill also contained a not-so-new element, as lawmakers repassed the pension funding swap that they had voted in June and November, which allowed the Chicago Board of Education to pay negotied salary increases to its teachers. The plan to tap two existing property tax sources $51 million used for pension payments and $15 million that would go to the building fund had gotten only a majority vote approval in November. Questions over whether the measure should have required a three-fifths vote had opened the door to legal action. By repassing the measure after January 1, when a simple majority vote was needed, lawmakers foreclosed such a challenge.

Inclusion of the once controversial pension swap prompted some Senate opposition to the omnibus bill. Republican senators had twice rallied against the pension swap, saying it would create future problems. Sen. Calvin W. Schuneman (R-37, Prophetstown) cautioned that the pension swap was not agreed to by all parties, as was everything else in the package. "Most of the provisions that are in this bill are Chicago pension sweeteners, and there really isn't very much in this bill for downstate interests," Schuneman said. Despite his effort, the measure picked up Republican support and got 37 Senate votes. The measure got 99 votes in the House.

Lawmakers also patched the 1989 Chicago School Reform Act that the Illinois Supreme Court had on November 30 ruled unconstitutional in the case of Fumaralo v Chicago Board of Education. The key element of the reform had been creation of more than 500 local school councils that had the authority to select a school principal and decide how some funds would be spent. They were comprised of six parents elected by parents, two teachers elected by teachers and two members elected by citizens at large. The court ruled that the reform act's method of electing local school councils violated the one-person, one-vote standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reform advocates had originally hoped to develop a method for electing school council members that would leave control in the hands of parents and still pass constitutional muster. That proved impossible in the six weeks between the ruling and January 8. Instead Chicago interests the city, the board of education, the teachers and reform groups agreed upon a two-part plan to first validate actions of the previous local school councils and then to give Mayor Richard M. Daley authority to appoint all council members. Daley pledged to appoint those who had already been elected. Lawmakers hope to work out an election method during the spring session.

The nostalgia came as Gov. James R. Thompson convened the Senate and presided over the election of Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park) as Senate president. An emotional Thompson told senators that he felt privileged to have served as governor and to have worked with them. Lawmakers warmly applauded Thompson.

But Thompson left state lawmakers with more than moist eyes. Thompson delivered his final State of the State message via a 185-page book instead of a traditional speech, saying he did not want to take away from Jim Edgar's inaugural festivities. The final chapter of the book contained several recommendations for the future, including:

The 1989 income tax surcharge should be extended for education. The portion for local governments should also be extended, but some should be used for property tax relief and some for state human services.

The income tax (Thompson calls it the "most equitable kind of tax") should be raised and property taxes (which he calls "inequitable") reduced a commensurate amount.

The sales tax should be extended to services, the growing portion of the state's economy. The expanded base could allow tax rate reduction, Thompson said.

State government should assist in the $1.4 billion McCormick Place expansion, including a domed stadium to be used by the Chicago Bears and for other year-round events.

The state and its governor should continue its work to retain business and to boost international trade. "The groundwork for international economic development activities can't always be done from a desk in Springfield," chided the well-traveled Thompson.

The state gasoline tax should be computed on the basis of price instead of per gallon, so that revenues can grow along with transportation needs.

These final Thompson recommendations to lawmakers contained few surprises. Some, like extension of the sales tax to services and expansion of McCormick Place, he had unsuccessfully pushed. Others, like an income for property tax swap, have been only discussed. Thompson's recommendations would keep the 87th General Assembly busy, and probably the 88th and 89th as well.

February 1991/Illinois Issues/27

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