SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Despite the priority of the state’s budget crisis, Illinois lawmakers managed to put a number of new laws on the books for the coming year.
Of all such laws scheduled to take effect with the start of 2011, few got more attention than one passed with much fanfare more than a year ago.
Though signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in December 2009 on the one-year anniversary of Rod Blagojevich’s arrest, Illinois’ first limits on campaign contributions finally becomes enforceable on Saturday, capping how much money individuals, political action committees and interest groups can give to candidates. The law also sets up campaign finance disclosure requirements and requires random audits by the State Board of Elections, among other things.
The law’s intent is to prevent people and interest groups from trying to buy influence in state government, barring an individual from donating more than $5,000 to a candidate in both the primary and general elections. Businesses, unions and other associations can give candidates twice that much, while political action committees can give $50,000 to a candidate in each election.
But the new law has a loophole: It only caps what political parties and the four legislative leaders can give to candidates in primaries but not in general elections, leading to criticism that it simply concentrates power in the hands of a few well-entrenched legislative leaders.
The reforms were inspired by the scandal surrounding Blagojevich.
Under another new law, new Illinois state employees will have to work to age 67 and won’t get the same, generous annual pension increases in retirement, ostensibly helping stabilize underfunded state retirement systems and, according to Quinn’s office, save the state $220 billion.
The law, which applies to people hired after the start of 2011, raises the retirement age to 67 after 10 years of service, from age 60 after eight years. It also reduces an annual increase of 3 percent, compounded, to half the inflation rate or 3 percent in simple interest, whichever is less.
Quinn said the pension reform “will bring a new era of financial responsibility to our state” and keep the pension system solvent. The proposal was widely seen as necessary because the state’s five pension systems were underfunded by $80 billion after decades of governors and legislators shorting the accounts of annual contributions.
Unions countered that the reform does nothing to solve existing problems with one of the nation’s worst-funded retirement programs, but merely cuts what already were unremarkable retirement payments.
Other new laws that take effect Jan. 1:
- Tickets generated by automated “red-light” cameras will require an official to verify the violation before any citation is issued. Drivers also will get to view the evidence online and can’t be charged an extra fee for contesting the ticket. Drivers get a little more leeway to stop beyond the white line at a red light, so long as they don’t enter the intersection. Previously, even pulling past the line by a few feet could trigger a ticket.
The cameras have been controversial, with critics wondering whether municipalities embrace them more for the revenue-generating ability than for improving safety. The Chicago Tribune reported recently that some municipal officials in Illinois are rethinking the use of red-light cameras as the number of tickets drops and groups question whether the cameras are effective in reducing crashes.
- Minors who send indecent photos of other minors electronically, for instance by text message, can be taken into custody, with those minors then subject to adjudication or supervision. Another measure makes it a crime to sexually exploit a child using a computer or Internet-based software.
- Gubernatorial and lieutenant governor candidates of the same party will have to be nominated jointly instead of letting voters pick each nominee separately. A gubernatorial candidate would select a running mate for the primary election.
- Pet stores must give potential buyers details of every animal’s vaccination history and health, as well as disclose the breeder’s name and the animal’s date of birth, breed and other specifics. The law makes allowances for animal shelters and animal-control sites that often don’t know an animal’s history.
- Independent teams now will review deaths of residents of state-operated sites for people with developmental disabilities or mental illness.
- Employers who shortchange or don’t pay their employees will face stiffer penalties, and workers will have more rights under a new wage-theft law that experts say is among the country’s strongest. A repeat offense will be considered a felony, not a misdemeanor, and employers who violate the law will have to pay workers back from the date of nonpayment with interest and a $250 fine. The employer may also owe interest to the state under the new law, which gives the state’s Department of Labor more oversight in dealing with the 10,000-plus wage theft claims it gets annually.
- College fraternities and sororities built after New Year’s Day will need to install automatic fire sprinkler systems. Older fraternities and sororities have until 2019 to install them. The law says dormitories already are required to have automatic fire sprinkler systems by 2013.
- Parents who don’t strap their kids into car safety seats will see their fines rise to $75 from $50 for the first offense, with fines for subsequent violations doubling to $200. Parents can have the first violation waived if they own a safety seat and attend a safety course.
- Mandatory one- to three-year prison terms now will be required for aggravated weapons convictions of anyone who was at least 18 years old, did not have a valid firearms owner identification card, and who possessed a loaded, uncased firearm. Previously, such suspects could see one to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press