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Budget Wasn't Only Issue Before Illinois Lawmakers


Springfield, ILL. – So much attention was paid to the state's budget deficit that much of the Illinois Legislature's accomplishments this spring might have gone unnoticed.

But speeding motorists are likely to notice that their fines have increased, and senior citizens might take note if their prescription drug costs decline. And people looking for an energy or diet boost will find that ephedra-based products are no longer to be sold over-the-counter in Illinois.

Those are just a few of the measures lawmakers approved during a spring session haunted by a roughly $5 billion budget deficit.

"This (session) has been so overshadowed by the budget crisis it is kind of hard to remember the other substantive legislation that's cleared," said Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville).

While Gov. Rod Blagojevich stood by his pledge of not increasing the state's sales or income taxes, he did propose dozens more increases to state fees and fines.

Speeders caught driving 20 miles over the limit will be charged $100, up from $75. The cost of a personalized license plate will jump to $125. That's up from $78, and the new law would tack on an additional $85 annual renewal fee.

"A lot of it sounds really great on the surface: Bo income tax, no sales tax. But when people realize what the meaning of a lot of these fees is to them, they could be a little more concerned," said Sen. Christine Radogno (R-LaGrange).

Consumers might also see a hike in their residential telephone bills. A new law will give telecommunications giant SBC the authority to raise rates on the phone lines it leases to competitors such as AT&T and MCI. Critics said that means those companies will pass those costs onto customers.

One place some people could see financial relief is at the pharmacy. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a plan that would let senior citizens and the disabled join a discount prescription "buying club" for $25 a year.

Supporters predict the new program will cut nearly 30% from the cost of drugs without the use of state dollars. Gov. Blagojevich has said he will sign the bill.

Illinois also became the first state in the nation to ban the over-the-counter sale of the dietary supplement ephedra this spring. The bill was signed into law in late May and products containing the substance already have been taken off store shelves.

Other bills mean:

Minimum wage workers would see their pay go up from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour over the next year and a half.

Police could have the power to pull over and ticket motorists for not wearing their seat belts. Currently they must pull over a motorist for some other reason before catching the seat belt violation.

Teen drivers would only be allowed to carry one other person under 20 years old in their car during the first six months of having their license.

E-mail users would be able to fight junk mail cluttering their inboxes under legislation that requires senders to include a toll-free number to unsubscribe from the sender's list.

Those measures, of course, must still be signed by the governor.

Blagojevich can either sign the bills into law, veto them or send them back to the Legislature with his suggestions for changes.

While lawmakers said they've accomplished a number of minor policy goals, they said the state's overwhelming financial problems prevented any earth-shattering legislation.

"There's a lot of good things on the smaller levels that can really help the citizens of Illinois," said Rep. Lou Lang (C-Chicago). "But when you have the state budget that's in the kind of mess ours is in it sort of overrides everything."

Lawmakers also:

Ignored a package of gambling expansion bills estimated to generate more than $2.5 billion.

Passed legislation that would require women to be paid the same wage as men who work in similar jobs.

Voted to give prosecutors more time to file charges of sexual abuse and giving victims of childhood abuse more time to sue their attackers.

Passed legislation allowing adults tobuy up to 20 needles at a time without a prescription, a move pitched by supporters as a way to reduce the spread of diseases like AIDS.

Other pieces of legislation were passed,

Requiring hospitals to provide information to expectant mothers about donating their baby's umbilical cord.

Requiring insurance policies to cover birth control and similar contraceptives.

Offering lower in-state tuition to immigrants, legal or illegal, who graduated from Illinois high schools.

Freezing tuition for college students at the rate they paid when they were freshmen.

Barring anyone but doctors or dentists from performing "tongue-splitting" procedures.

Requiring companies who send out spam e-mail to include a toll-free number or Web site so recipients can request being taken off the list.

There were also a handful of measures that did not pass, despite their fanfare. Lawmakers Rejected a package of gun control measures pushed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. They shelved a bill that would add sexual orientation to a state law that bans discrimination in housing, employment and more.

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