End and Means: Legislators Didn't Fix Pensions but Made Other Historic Moves

Jul 1, 2013

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Everyone knows Illinois has the largest pension debt and worst credit rating in the nation, right? So obviously its elected officials, especially Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly, have to be absolute bozos, folks who should be sent packing at the earliest opportunity.

That’s been the clamor since lawmakers adjourned the spring session on May 31 without cutting pension benefits for public employees, a din raised particularly loudly by editorial boards, online commentators, and folks firing off angry (and often ill-informed) letters to the editor.

So in the interest of balance and fairness, all the critics might take a moment to consider what lawmakers have done since January on other public policy questions that our sister states might well emulate. I’d argue Illinois has proven itself a national leader on at least three issues, to wit:

  • House Bill 1 — The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act.

For decades, legislation to allow people suffering from chronic pain to use marijuana for relief has been presented in Illinois, only to fall short in the face of anti-drug warriors who see no difference between pot and meth. The effort had not been helped by horror stories of lax controls and widespread abuse from other states, most notably California, which became the first state to legalize medical marijuana via a 1996 voter initiative.

Learning from that experience, HB1’s sponsors, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, and Sen. William Haine, an Alton Democrat, crafted a tightly drawn measure that would create a four-year pilot program under which a patient with one of 33 enumerated serious or chronic conditions, such as cancer, HIV, muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, could be prescribed up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks by a physician with whom the patient had an established doctor-patient relationship.

Patients could not grow their own marijuana but rather would have to purchase it from one of 60 dispensing centers in the state, which in turn would get their supplies from one of 22 licensed growers. Everyone involved in the operation — from the patient and his or her caregiver to the guy sweeping the floors at the dispensing center — would have to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check.

“This bill is filled with walls to keep this limited,” said Haine during floor debate before the Senate approved the measure, 35-21, in May. “We have learned from California and Colorado … and I have to say sadly that most of them have done it sloppily.”

“The product is tightly controlled from seed to sale,” noted Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, who switched his past opposition to support when the bill cleared the House 61-57 in April.

In fact, the bill’s provisions ought to serve as a model for the 18 other states and the District of Columbia that allow medical marijuana.

  • Senate Bill 1715 — The Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act.

Over heated opposition from some environmentalists and from grass-roots groups in southern Illinois, lawmakers easily sent Quinn what supporters described as the nation’s toughest regulatory framework for “fracking,” a technique that involves pumping water, chemicals and sand or gravel under high pressure deep underground into rock formations to free oil and natural gas. The votes were 52-3 in the Senate and 108-9 in the House.

The legislation would establish well-drilling standards and require companies to disclose publicly the chemicals they use, test water before and after fracking and be liable for any pollution. The proposal also imposes a $13,500 per well permit fee and severance taxes based on a well’s production.

The bill’s chief sponsors, Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign and Rep. John Bradley of Marion, both Democrats, predicted the measure would lead to thousands of new jobs in southern Illinois while safeguarding the environment and water supplies.

While environmentalists generally would have preferred a moratorium on fracking, some helped fashion the legislation in negotiations with industry, particularly oil and gas interests. They reasoned better to have strong regulations to govern a practice that was inevitable, as energy companies already had leased hundreds of thousands of acres for exploration. In fact, just days before the final votes on the measure, The Associated Press reported that a Carmi-based company voluntarily disclosed to state regulators last year that it “fracked” a White County well, even though drillers currently don’t have to report the method they use to extract oil and gas.

“These are tough regulations that are going to protect and preserve our most valuable resources in our state,” Frerichs said in debate. “We are going to increase home produced energy in our state in one of the most environmentally friendly ways possible.”

Here, too, Illinois seems on track to avoid the kinds of problems that have arisen in other states that didn’t have the regulatory framework in place to deal with the oil-and-gas boom, like the Dakotas and Pennsylvania.

  • Senate Bill 1587 — The Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act.

U.S. citizens learned last month that the federal government routinely collects their telephone records and tracks their Internet usage, leading many to conclude George Orwell’s vision has arrived in full force, albeit some three decades after his predicted 1984.

Facing the near certainty that the wholesale invasion of privacy in cyberspace could soon be joined by similar snooping in the physical world, lawmakers overwhelmingly endorsed legislation that would limit law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones.

Under the measure, approved 105-12 in the House and 58-0 in the Senate, local police and sheriff’s offices would have to obtain a search warrant before using a drone to collect information. The bill has some common-sense exceptions, for example to counter a terrorist attack, locate a missing person, or photograph a crime scene or traffic accident.

But routine surveillance of everyday folks would not be permitted, under the proposal by Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, and Rep. Ann Williams, a Chicago Democrat.

Unmanned aircraft already are in limited use for things such as search and rescue missions, border patrols and scientific research. But their numbers are expected to explode in coming years, once the Federal Aviation Administration issues regulations for their integration into the national airspace, as Congress has required.

Their appeal to local law enforcement agencies for surveillance is understandable; a hummingbird-size drone can go a lot of places without being noticed that a helicopter can’t, and at a fraction of the operating cost.

Before then, the state should have spelled out limits, according to proponents. “The idea here is to address this proactively and to ensure that the privacy protections for citizens are in place,” Williams said, “to ensure that the privacy protections afforded to us in the Constitution under the First and the Fourth Amendments are intact.”

One could find other examples besides those three bills. The point is, a rational assessment of the 98th General Assembly’s work product thus far requires more than one-issue tunnel vision. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, July/August 2013