Morrison passes four bills this summer

Julie Morrison | File
Julie Morrison | File

With no election staring her in the face in November, state Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield) has been quietly getting things passed in Springfield — including water safety legislation motivated by her nephew’s death in a boating accident.

Morrison, who was elected to a four-year term in 2010 and has no reelection bid until 2014, authored three new bills on water safety and one on ethics reform, which were signed into law by Gov. Patrick Quinn this summer.

While some of her colleagues were dealing with high-profile legislation like pension reform and gay marriage, Morrison said she stuck to issues where she felt she could make a difference. Now boat operators will be treated with more scrutiny and political appointees will be held more accountable. All four proposals passed unanimously or with overwhelming majorities.

“All the oxygen this session was sucked out of the air by the big issues,” Morrison said. “I sought issues important to me (where) I felt I could persuade my colleagues and chip away at some of the issues that affect everyday lives but don’t make the headlines every morning.”

Before Morrison got to work, there were virtually no regulations governing who could operate a motorboat or penalizing drivers for boating under the influence of alcohol. Now six hours of study is necessary to get an operator’s certificate, a red flag must be displayed when a boat is towing someone or something and drunken boaters’ crafts can be seized.

Morrison became passionate about the issue during her 2012 campaign for her current seat when her nephew, Tony Borcia, 10, of Libertyville, was killed by a drunken boater while floating in an inner tube on a lake. Then she got support from Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago).

“He appointed me to a new committee,” Morrison said. “I had the opportunity to hold hearings all over the state to see what we could do to make boating safer. I talked to barge captains and kayakers.”

One of those bills requires any boat towing anybody or anything behind it to display a red or bright orange flag to alert other people on the water . Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, who testified in Springfield in favor of all three water safety bills, sees added benefits.

“The flag bill is important for a person towing a water skier or tuber,” Nerheim said. “It’s hard to see the person in the tube or water skiing. Now other boaters will know there is a person behind (the boat).”

Morrison learned that other states have more stringent regulations than Illinois when it comes to allowing a person to operate a boat. Under her second bill, everyone born after 1991 will have to spend six hours in a classroom or take an online course to get a certificate permitting them to drive a watercraft.

“If you had a credit card you could go to the dock and rent a boat,” said Morrison, who explains that, in some ways, she considers the water a more difficult place to navigate than the roadways. “There are no stop signs (on the water).”

Morrison would like to see even more training before a person obtains a certificate, but said she couldn’t get the support.

“You have to take baby steps,” she said, explaining what she’s learned. “Legislating is compromise.”

The third water safety bill Morrison pushed through the General Assembly treats people operating boats under the influence of drugs or alcohol much like a person who drives an automobile impaired. This includes boat seizure for repeat offenders.

While Morrison has been passionate about water safety, some of the time potential legislation is presented to her. That was the case when Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor became frustrated that people he appoints to commissions cannot be held accountable. He makes more than 300 appointments to boards and commissions.

Lawlor was especially upset when the Lake County Housing Authority made a $122,000 settlement with four-month employee Jeneen Smith-Underwood after she left. He could get no information from his appointees.

“We created a code of conduct in Lake County for transparency and fiscal responsibility,” Lawlor said. “At the end of the day I’m responsible to the public.”

When he needed teeth to enforce it, he went to Morrison.

“She’s always been a responsive member of the state delegation,” he said.

Morrison authored a bill that would create a mechanism to hold people appointed to boards and commissions in Lake, DuPage, McHenry, Will and Kane Counties accountable. With a two thirds vote, a county board can call a public hearing where the appointee will have an opportunity to present a case, Morrison said. She echoed Lawlor’s sentiments.

“If it’s an elected official you can vote them out,” Morrison said. “There is a need for people who are responsible to the public to be accountable.”

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