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Political Rewind: Indicted Lawmaker No-Show for Hearing; Audit Dings Workers’ Comp

It's always good to be caught up on state politics. Here's an easy guide to what happened this week.

Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Statehouse News that were written by various Illinois Statehouse News reporters.

Week in Review: Indicted Lawmaker No-Show for Hearing; Audit Dings Workers’ Comp

SPRINGFIELD — An indicted state lawmaker failed to show for an investigative hearing by his colleagues in the House of Representatives, and an audit revealed extensive problems with how Illinois processes, investigates and awards workers’ compensation payouts to state workers. 

Smith a no-show for investigative committee hearing

Indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith on Thursday did not attend the second hearing of a special legislative committee charged with investigating criminal allegations against him.

The committee is trying to determine if the Illinois House should move forward with discipline against Smith, a Chicago Democrat who earlier this month was indicted by a federal grand jury on a bribery charge.

Smith, who has not stepped down from his seat and is still on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, is scheduled to enter a plea Monday in federal court.

The House Special Investigative Committee was formed in March shortly after the FBI arrested Smith on charges of accepting a $7,000 bribe to steer a $50,000 state contract to a fictitious day care.

Smith’s attorney, Victor Henderson, did not say whether Smith intends to testify before the committee.

“We’re taking it one day at a time and making the decision as the best way to proceed on a day-by-day basis,” Henderson said.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald denied the committee’s request for information, including the names of the federal informant used in the investigation and other anonymous sources. Fitzgerald also asked the committee not to conduct an independent investigation beyond taking testimony from Smith.

Audit critical of workers’ comp system for state workers

Illinois’ Workers’ Compensation Program has “numerous shortcomings” and is “ill designed to protect the state’s best interests,” according to a state audit released Wednesday.

Auditor General Bill Holland urged lawmakers to change the program for state employees because of “extensive problems.”

According to the audit, which examined the system between 2007 and 2010, state workers filed 26,101 workers’ compensation claims, and more than half of those were from the state departments of Human Services and Corrections.

The state paid out more than $295 million during that time. Sprains and contusions accounted for three-quarters of all injuries.

The audit identified problems within the Workers’ Compensation Commission and the state’s Central Management Service, both of which oversee the workers’ compensation program. Among the findings:

  • The commission failed to review arbitrators’ performance annually and had no guidelines for how arbitrators were to award compensation for particular injuries, causing inconsistencies.
  • CMS negotiated settlements with injured employees’ attorneys, made decisions about compensation without appropriate forms and had no policies to address conflicts of interest by those who handle workers’ compensation claims for the state.

The audit also noted the board that investigates complaints against arbitrators and commissioners did not meet for 3 1/2 years.

CMS and the Workers’ Compensation Commission indicated in the auditor’s report that they plan to address or have begun addressing the audit’s recommendations.

Illinois education officials move to oust two school boards from office

The Illinois State Board of Education is set to remove from office the boards of two metropolitan school districts characterized by poor academic performance and, in at least one case, corrupt leadership.

The removal of the elected but unpaid school board members in North Chicago and East St. Louis would be a first for the state.

The earliest the removal could happen is May, according to Matt Vanover, spokesman for the state board of education.

“It has been very difficult and challenging working with these local boards,” Vanover said.

Years of poor academic performance led the state to intervene in North Chicago in 2010 and East St. Louis in 2011. Allegations of corruption and fraud have plagued both districts, as well.

If the school districts’ boards are removed from office, the state will appoint a panel to take over until the schools can meet yet-to-be-determined academic benchmarks, Vanover said.

Plastic bag recycling bill heads to Illinois House

A bill that would establish statewide recycling guidelines for plastic grocery bags is headed to the Illinois House for a vote.

The bill passed the House Environmental Health Committee on Wednesday with support from manufacturers and retailers.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, requires plastic bag and wrapper manufacturers to establish collection sites within 10 miles of Illinois residents in 90 percent of counties by 2014. The collection program would evaluate plastic bag and wrapper recycling rates, and it would expire in four years unless the General Assembly renews it.

“We could do nothing and recycle 2 percent of our bags next year, or we could put in a statewide program and make it to 13 percent,” Tryon said.

The bill also bars local governments, except Chicago and Cook County, from banning or taxing plastic bags and wrappers.

An identical version of the bill passed the Senate in late March by a 36-15 vote. The bill has support from the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Chemical Industry Council of Illinois and Hilex Poly, the largest plastic bag manufacturer and recycler in the United States.

Judge strikes down Illinois’ so-called ‘Amazon tax’

Illinois’ Main Street Fairness Act, which requires online retailers advertising in Illinois to collect and pay taxes on sales in the state, was found unconstitutional after a lawsuit in a Cook County Circuit Court.

The law was intended to protect brick-and-mortar stores that collect sales taxes and in some places have seen declining revenues, as more people shop online.

Judge Robert Lopez Cepero ruled that the law violated the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause and that online advertising — an Amazon.com ad on an Illinois business’ website — doesn’t qualify as a “physical presence,” which was the basis for the law.

Critics said the law was not only unconstitutional but also impractical, because online retailers simply stopped advertising on Illinois business websites, rather than pay the tax.

While the Illinois Department of Revenue said it’s considering an appeal, the ruling comes amid calls for Congress to act, to let states collect sales taxes rather than having a patchwork of laws.

Industry groups and online retailers like Amazon.com are supporting the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, which would allow states to collect sales taxes from online retailers.

— Staff Report

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