Race, poverty and politics: Health exchange in limbo; subsidized child care at risk; Obama supports gay marriage; TIF reform?

The Illinois General Assembly is not expected to make any moves to create a state-run health care exchange, Crain's reported on Thursday. Sources on both sides of the aisle in the statehouse said the inactivity is due to the pending Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the President Barack Obama's sweeping health care law. The Affordable Care Act requires the creation of the heath exchanges--basically a market place for competitively priced health insurance--by 2014. If states do not enact such legislation, the federal government will do so. If the General Assembly remains idle on the issue, Gov. Pat Quinn could issue an executive order to outline what the exchange would look like or to jump-start it. But the spring session in Springfield is over May 31, and there is no sign the legislation will be called for a vote, according to the Crain's piece. Illinois could also miss out on federal funding to offset the cost of creating the exchange--pegged at some $90 million--if state legislation is not passed.

At Wednesday's City Council meeting, 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti said Tax Increment Financing expenditures need more oversight, the Chicago Tribune reported. Fioretti suggested that a special council subcommittee convene public meetings each time the city proposes to spend TIF money on a project. According to Fioretti, this might eliminate the perception that TIF funds are little more than a "slush fund" for the mayor. Mayoral spokesperson Tom Alexander told the Tribune there is already sufficient oversight in place.

Embattled state Rep. Derrick Smith was in Springfield on Thursday. He appeared before the House Special Investigative Committee which is considering whether to punish or expel him based on accusations he took a $7,000 bribe. Smith refused to testify, although his lawyer told committee members that the government's case was full of holes. Oh, and he compared Smith to Jesus Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

The state's budget crunch has put several programs that help primarily low-income families at risk of being shut down. The budget for 40,000 state-subsidized child care providers will run out on June 30th, and may put child care at risk for 85,000 low-income parents, Progress Illinois reported. The Child Care Assistance Program was created specifically to allow low-income parents to continue working. Planned Medicaid cuts will also disproportionately impact low-income populations.

Both chambers of the General Assembly have now passed a bill that would require retired state workers to start paying for health insurance. The bill, SB1313 would end provisions in a previous law that required the state pay for the health insurance premiums of retirees with at least 20 years of service. The move is aimed at saving some $300 million as the state works on a new budget. Presently, the costs of the program are approaching $880 million. The bill now goes to Gov. Quinn, who expressed his support for it.

Unless Congress steps in to stop a planned increase, students could see interest rates on their Stafford loans double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. If the rate hike goes through, the Center for American Progress estimates that millions of families in Illinois will be affected. The increase effectively raises the price of going to college for those students in need of loans, the report notes. The Center for American Progress says that low-income families would be hit hardest.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for pension reforms in testimony before a committee in Springfield Tuesday. . He was there to pitch ideas to help mitigate the city's $20 billion pension crisis. Emanuel's suggestions were similar to those already made by Gov. Quinn. The mayor said that the retirement age should be increased to 67, and that annual cost-of-living hikes should be suspended. He also said that for five years there should be an annual 1 percent increase in employees' contributions. Emanuel said he was in favor of offering new employees a "defined" pension plan, or one that looks more like a 401(K). And he added that Chicago taxpayers should not make additional contributions to the pensions until reforms are enacted. Emanuel was blasted by labor leaders who claimed he was engaging in scare tactics.

In a widely lauded comment, President Obama announced this week that he is in support of gay marriage. "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally," the president told ABC News. The statement has been seen as a major step towards achieving equal rights for same-sex couples, though it does not in itself mean any laws will change. The statement comes on the heels of similar comments by two other high-ranking cabinet members - Vice President Joe Biden and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education.

Yana Kunichoff contributed to this post.

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