Subpoenas, investigations and audits created an unfortunate feeling of déjà vu in Springfield as scandals swirled about the Quinn Administration, overshadowing most legislative action during the week.
At the top of the news was the revelation that federal prosecutors are seeking financial records related to Governor Pat Quinn’s controversial anti-violence program, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
Federal probe revealed
Following an inquiry from the Chicago Sun-Times, a spokesperson for the state Comptroller confirmed that the office had been contacted by, and has provided information to, the U.S. Department of Justice. The Comptroller processes payments for all state agencies, including those under the purview of the Governor. The confirmation of a federal investigation followed an earlier report that the Cook County State’s Attorney has also opened a criminal investigation of the same program.
On February 25, Senate Republicans called for a criminal probe into the program after a scathing audit found serious management and implementation problems within the program; at that time they said evidence of potential criminal activity could merit further review by the U.S. Attorney. Shortly thereafter, Auditor General Bill Holland turned over his audit to U.S. Attorney James Lewis and Illinois Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza.
Patronage hiring draws lawsuit
Charges of patronage hiring at the state Department of Transportation have also raised concerns. In late April, Chicago attorney Michael Shakman filed a motion in federal court seeking to remove hundreds of questionable hires from their jobs at the transportation department. Shakman’s motion was prompted by a months-long Better Government Association investigation into politically motivated hiring at the agency.
Members of Illinois’ U.S. Congressional delegation weighed in during the past week, seeking “an immediate investigation to determine the extent to which federal funds were used to subsidize or justify the potentially illegal hiring of dozens of patronage workers at the Illinois Department of Transportation.” Shakman earned a placed in the history books in 1972, when he led the charge against political patronage hiring in Chicago and Cook County, leading to an initial and several subsequent Shakman Decrees to rein in political hiring.
Graduated tax stalled
Taxpayers did receive a small reprieve during the week when the deadline for advancing a graduated income tax passed with no vote on the proposal. Lacking necessary support, and facing a strict May 5 deadline to advance the initiative, the measure’s sponsors opted not to call the amendment for a vote.
Proponents had hoped to place a state constitutional amendment on the ballot allowing Illinois to move from its current flat rate tax to a graduated system, in which tax rates would rise with income. The proposal was sold as a “Fair Tax” that would amount to tax breaks for many Illinoisans; however, a closer look at the measure showed that simply was not the case. While the constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 40, did not contain any tax rates, the sponsor of the amendment floated proposed rates that would be approved by the General Assembly.
However, opponents stressed there was nothing to limit or restrict the Governor and the General Assembly to those rates. A closer look at the thirty-four states (plus the District of Columbia) that have graduated income tax rates shows that in many of those states a graduated income tax simply means slightly lower rates for those at the bottom of the income scale, but higher rates for middle income earners. In fact, in a majority of states with a graduated income tax, middle income taxpayers pay more than they do in Illinois, both under the current 5 percent rate and under the 3.75 percent rate that Illinois income taxes were supposed to roll back to next January.
Term limits for constitutional officers blocked
A constitutional amendment that would allow Illinois voters to decide whether to impose a two-term limit on the state’s Executive Branch officers stalled in a Senate Executive Subcommittee on April 29, when the measure was blocked by majority Democrats.
If the constitutional amendment (SJRCA 69) had been adopted by both chambers of the General Assembly, Illinois voters would have been asked to decide whether or not to add these provisions to the Illinois Constitution. Constitutional amendments require either a three-fifths majority vote of those voting on the constitutional amendment or a majority of those voting in the election.
The Constitutional Officer term limit amendment was similar to the federal constitution’s 22nd Amendment, which restricts presidents to two terms.
Citizen initiatives advance
While the legislative effort to impose term limits was blocked, a citizen-backed term limit proposal was filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections April 30. The proposed amendment would limit all legislators to eight years in office. However, the proposal goes beyond term limits, also requiring a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a governor’s veto, and increasing the size of the House of Representatives from 118 members to 123 members, while reducing the Senate from 59 members to 41.
Another citizen initiative – seeking to reform the redistricting process – was filed May 1. Under redistricting, the boundaries for state Senate and House seats must be redrawn every decade to reflect changes in population. However, in Illinois the process is controlled by legislators. Critics contend this results in politicians picking their voters, rather than the voters picking their representatives.
Senate Republicans have long supported redistricting reform and sought unsuccessfully to change to the system to allow for an independent commission to draw legislative maps after the last census.