Election season means legislative limbo, but do minimum wage and healthcare laws stand a chance?

Election season means legislative limbo, but do minimum wage and healthcare laws stand a chance?
Illinois capitol building in Springfield (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Kath)

When it comes to the Illinois General Assembly, everybody’s number is up this year, which means some key legislation is likely to be stymied by the politics of November's general election.

Nonetheless, there's still some optimism, particularly among proponents of minimum wage and healthcare reforms, that a handful of bills just might gain some momentum in the Statehouse in 2012.

For years, 8th District state Sen. Kimberly Lightford has made raising the minimum wage a key legislative priority. Last year, the Westchester Democrat introduced a bill that sought to gradually bump Illinois' minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2014. Right now, Lightford’s bill is stalled in the Senate. She said it remained there all last year because of “timing.”

Lightford says that some of her colleagues hesitated to back the measure this fall because they, along with House members, were too distracted by efforts to pass legislation aimed at giving the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Options Exchange, Inc. and Sears Holdings, Corp. hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks as a carrot to stay put in Illinois.

Two weeks after receiving over $100 million in tax breaks, though, Sears announced it was closing 100 stores.

Lightford quibbles with the idea that her minimum wage proposal is "stalled." The measure was introduced in February 2011. And since then, the veteran lawmaker says she's been able to drum up more support for the bill. That, she adds, means it will have a better chance of clearing both chambers in the near future--perhaps even before the November general election.

"It is an election year," Lightford conceded, but says, “We’re done with CME and Sears. This is the time to address minimum wage."

Lightford does have a record of backing wage reform. In 2006, she sponsored successful legislation that bumped the state’s minimum wage to $7.50 an hour. The state’s current hourly minimum wage is $8.25.

Elsewhere, supporters of the 2010 Affordable Care Act want to see Illinois lawmakers pick up the pace in bringing the state into compliance with new federal healthcare laws.

One such law requires states to create state-run, online health exchanges. Basically, this will be a place where consumers can shop for health coverage, which will be less expensive, in theory, because of the competitive nature of making providers vie for customers in a marketplace.

John Gaudette, organizing director of Citizen Action/Illinois, a progressive public interest group, said he believes the exchange will be created before the November elections.

Near the time of the general election there are “soft deadlines” for states to submit plans for the exchange to the federal government and to potentially claim tens of millions of federal dollars that will help create the exchanges Guadette said.

What's more, Gov. Pat Quinn is reportedly frustrated with the Legislature's slow pace and is mulling the idea of using an executive order to create an exchange.

Regardless, the exchange is something the state needs to get around to doing if the Affordable Care Act remains in place. Under the law, states are mandated to create exchanges by 2014 or have the federal government launch them.

Guadette insists "Illinois needs an exchange, especially ... where there’s no competition," and healthcare costs are extremely high.

There’s some hesitancy--mostly among Republicans--to act in favor of an exchange, though, because the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether it’s legal for the federal government to require citizens to buy healthcare.

“You can’t wait for something you can’t control; it’s important to move forward,” Gaudette said.

Right now, though, both legislative pushes remain on ice.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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