Statehouse update: Sen. Burzynski announces retirement, higher education bills await action

Ken Zehnder
Ken Zehnder

The February blizzard of 2011 postponed the first full week of the 97th General Assembly before the first snow flake fell.

Legislative bills are being introduced and a host of issues — old and new — are on the horizon but will wait until the second week in February for the process to begin. House members are waiting for committee assignments and new legislators will be settling into their offices.

One person who will be packing up instead of unpacking is 35th District State Sen. Brad Burzynski, who has represented the DeKalb area for more than 20 years. He is retiring to spend more time with his family. Replacing him is DeKalb County Treasurer (and NIU alumna) Christine Johnson, who has served 17 years in her current position. She was selected as the replacement by a proportional vote of the Republican county chairmen from Boone, DeKalb, LaSalle, Ogle and Winnebago, who have part of the district.

When Sen. Johnson takes office Monday, Feb. 14, she will be faced with a multitude of issues. There are numerous measures that could impact higher education.

Senate Bill 1 would remove from office any university trustee whose term has been expired more than 30 days. Northern Illinois University currently has four trustees with terms that expired Jan. 17, 2011.

Senate Bill 3 proposes to sell $8 billion in bonds to pay overdue state obligations. The last General Assembly approved $4 billion to apply to the current fiscal year pension payments, but the total state indebtedness far exceeds what those bonds would cover. Members of the Republican caucus, a portion of whose votes would be required to pass the bond measure, have indicated that more budget cutting is a requirement for their support.

Rep. Jack Franks has introduced House Bill 146, which would extend to all current employees the pension limitations imposed on any new state employees hired after Jan. 1, 2011. It would set caps on the final average salary calculation and change the annual cost-of-living increase.

There is also an effort, HB89, to revise the procurement act changes enacted last year and structure some provisions that fit the unique situations found in higher education. Another proposal, SB 135, would take away the authority by the university boards to set tuition and give that power to the General Assembly.

One piece of legislation that did receive final action this week was a bill that Gov. Quinn signed to recognize civil unions and domestic partnerships for gay couples. Illinois becomes the sixth state to enact this protection, which becomes law June 1.

University and agency budgets are being prepared for FY2012 while NIU awaits more than $63 million currently due for this year. The governor is scheduled to present his budget address Wednesday, Feb. 16.

So there is a lot of work ahead — once we dig out from under the snow.

Ken Zehnder is director of state and local relations for NIU.

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