Quick Hit Matthew Blake Friday May 4th, 2012, 3:35pm

State Could Hike Minimum Wage, Reinstate Early Release Prison Program

This is typically the busiest month for the Illinois General Assembly – state lawmakers stay in Springfield each week to agree upon an annual budget by May 31 and act on other major bills. This year, again the focus is on the state budget – and the related problems of underfunded pensions and rising Medicaid costs.

But there are other key measures that have flown under the radar so far during this hectic legislative season – including a bill that would give Illinois the highest minimum wage in the nation, at effectively $10 an hour. The current state minimum wage is $8.25, while the federal minimum is $7.25.

The bill's sponsor State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) states that the legislation “provides acknowledgement that most new jobs being created are low wage jobs.”

Lightford admits that it is “very hard to get people to consider a [minimum wage] vote, because a lot of discussion is about how improve the state business climate.” Many business owners balk at raising the wage floor – they say increased labor costs prevent them from hiring more workers.

But Lightford states that “there are enough members to a call vote next week” and pass the bill out of the Senate Executive Committee to the full Senate floor. Lightford reasons that state lawmakers are now comfortable with the measure, because, to the displeasure of progressive activists, they already have done enough to help the state business climate through corporate tax breaks.

Lightford cites corporate tax breaks over the past year, including a hotly contested tax deal for the handsomely profitable CME Group. That tax break eventually led to compromise legislation that expanded the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

The Senate might also consider a bill next week sponsored by  State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) that would return an early release prison program to Illinois. The measure has already passed out of the Senate Executive Committee. The bill would let a select group of non-violent offenders leave prison after 60 days for good behavior.

Gov. Pat Quinn eliminated the state Meritorious Good Time program, after it caused a stir during the 2010 gubernatorial election. There are 49,000 inmates in an Illinois prison system that has a capacity of 33,700 prisoners.

Another key bill that has already passed the Senate would ban the operation of for-profit detention centers in Illinois. Designed to halt a planned immigrant detention center in Crete, the measure passed out of the House Executive Committee Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for that bill's sponsor, State Sen. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago), said that the legislation would likely be debated on the full Senate floor next week.

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