Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Statehouse News that were written by various Illinois Statehouse News reporters.
SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn this week signed off on a bill that eliminates the state’s decades-old legislative scholarship perk, and a committee of House lawmakers denied a request by indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith to delay a hearing to determine punishment.
Quinn signs bill to abolish legislative scholarship program
Illinois’ century-old legislative scholarship program started with good intentions but was hijacked by “a small band of craven lawmakers with the worst of intentions,” a government watchdog said this week.
Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday that abolishes the program, which had become a source of corruption and misuse.
“This is not about depriving needy students of educational opportunities,” said Andy Shaw, president of the Chicago-based Better Government Association, which investigated lawmakers’ use of the program. “It’s about depriving greedy lawmakers of unethical patronage opportunities.”
The program allows lawmakers to hand out tuition waivers to public universities. Among the few rules are that recipients must live in the district of the lawmaker awarding the scholarship. Over time, reports surfaced of lawmakers distributing waivers to campaign donors, employees and people outside the district. Those reports prompted calls for an end to the program.
Last year the program cost the state $13 million.
Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, is under investigation for her handling of tuition waivers, according to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times this week. The federal government is seeking 11 years’ worth of documents relating to how she decided to allow waivers and who received them.
The investigation follows reports by the Sun-Times earlier this year that suggested Collins gave waivers to students who did not live in her legislative district.
Last year, the federal government also sought information about tuition waivers awarded by former state Rep. Robert Molaro, a Democrat from Chicago. He has not been charged with wrongdoing.
Even though Quinn signed the law abolishing the program Wednesday, lawmakers can continue handing out waivers until September.
Discipline committee denies Smith request for extension
House lawmakers charged with deciding possible discipline for indicted Rep. Derrick Smith have denied his attorney’s request to delay the final hearing.
Victor Henderson, Smith’s Chicago attorney, on July 6 asked the committee to delay the hearing for at least 30 days after July 19, the scheduled date for the final hearing. Henderson said he needed more time so he could ask the federal court to modify a protective order and allow him to use some kind of unidentified evidence at the hearing.
Smith, a Chicago Democrat, is under federal indictment, charged with taking a $7,000 bribe in his job as a state legislator.
The House Select Committee on Discipline responded Wednesday that it saw no point in waiting because the U.S. attorney has repeatedly said any evidence revealed during the committee hearings could jeopardize Smith’s criminal case.
Members of the bipartisan committee are charged with deliberating possible professional punishment for Smith. They have four options: to expel, censure, reprimand or exonerate Smith. The House then must vote on the committee’s recommendation.
Lawmakers call for override of Quinn’s prison funding veto
State lawmakers and the union representing thousands of correctional officers are calling for an override of Gov. Pat Quinn‘s veto that slashed funding for two prisons and two youth centers.
“The biggest concern I have is not only the safety of our employees, but the safety of our citizens,” said state Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon. “We’re going to get to the point where the citizens are going to be in danger from the overcrowding here. I’m very supportive of overriding the veto. We (lawmakers) put that money in the budget for a reason, and that was to keep these facilities open.”
Kelly Kraft, Quinn’s budget spokeswoman, responded to the lawmakers’ call for a veto, saying, “Anyone who calls to keep these outdated, half-full, expensive facilities open is calling for the continual waste of taxpayer dollars on facilities the state no longer needs.”
Eight lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans from both chambers of the General Assembly joined in calling for a veto override Tuesday, pointing to resulting job losses in their districts and what they believe are Quinn’s broken promises. They also pointed to the potential for crowding and increased violence in the state’s prisons, citing an Associated Press report from Monday that identified several recent reports of violence.
Quinn wants to close four correctional facilities: Tamms “super-max” prison in economically depressed far southern Illinois; Dwight Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Grundy County about 80 miles southwest of downtown Chicago; and youth correctional centers in Joliet outside of Chicago; and Murphysboro in southern Illinois.
Lawmakers provided funding for the facilities in the budget they passed in May, but Quinn, who had vowed to close them, later vetoed the funding.
Unemployment officials looking for prisoners on rolls
State unemployment officials are cross-checking their rolls with prisons and jails to cull people who collect benefits but don’t qualify for them.
The cross-check, prompted by a House resolution, has been under way about two weeks. So far they’ve identified about 420 people whose names appear on both lists.
Illinoisans who receive unemployment benefits must certify every two weeks, by phone or online, they were available for work the previous two weeks.
In numerous scenarios, a person’s name could show up on a jail log while he legitimately qualifies for benefits – weekend jail time and evening incarceration, for example. Officials are interested in finding people who are jailed, unable to work and have certified they qualify for benefits or have asked someone else to certify them on their behalf.
The initiative is in line with the agency’s focus on “trust-fund integrity,” said Greg Rivara, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Businesses pay into the unemployment fund, and their contribution levels are set according to several factors, including the fund balance.
“So dollars that inappropriately go out of the fund and are wrongfully paid to claimants have a direct effect on businesses because part of their payment is based on the balance of the trust fund,” Rivara said.
The cross-check will occur on a continuous basis and is expected to save up to $200 million a year. About 253,000 Illinoisans receive unemployment benefits. Officials are comparing those names to an inmate list of about 65,000.
— Jayette Bolinski