With Days to Go, Crunch Time In Springfield
By Brian Mackey
While many people across Illinois had Monday off from work for Memorial Day, the members of the Illinois General Assembly were meeting in Springfield.
Just four days remain until lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn for the summer. The last week of session is a time for individual legislators to shine — or stumble — as months of hard work on legislation culminates in long-awaited votes. We took a look at some of this week's key players in Springfield.
Time tends to slow down in the last week of the legislature's spring session. That's a useful phenomenon, as lawmakers are still hoping to pass bills on state government pensions, hydraulic fracturing, same-sex marriage, casino gambling, utility regulation, and the concealed-carry of firearms.
And then there's Illinois' multi-billion dollar budget, which affects everything from schools to state parks.
House and Senate Democrats went into the Memorial Day weekend with the rough outlines of a compromise — that's a departure from recent years, in which the Senate has had to knuckle under and accept the House's spending plan.
On Monday, legislators were still weighing just how much they'd have to spend. Back in March, the House of Representatives estimated Illinois would have more than $30 billions. But then came the "April surprise" — an unexpected windfall of tax payments. Suddenly, it looked like there might be an extra $200 million to spend next year. Or not.
Enter John Bradley, D-Marion, who chairs the House Revenue Committee. He said it's not clear whether lawmakers will decide to spend that money or hold back.
"We're going to look at it, and Rep. Harris and I are going to be meeting and discussing it, and we'll see if there's an opportunity for bipartisan support, or if there's something that is going to be done in either a bipartisan or partisan manner," Bradley said.
That's bipartisan as in Democrats and Republicans working together. Or partisan as in majority Democrats going it alone. The Rep. Harris he referred to is David Harris, R-Arlington Heights. He said just because the state got more money than it estimated for this year doesn't mean lawmakers should increase the amount they'll let themselves spend next year.
"It makes sense to be conservative, as we were in FY13," Harris said. "Good things happen when you estimate on the conservative side."
Harris said the decision could come down to how that $200 million would be allocated. He said more money going to pay the state's massive backlog of bills could be appealing to Republicans. It said something about the dire financial situation in Illinois that there should be this much consternation over what amounts to little more than half of one percent of state revenue, but every dollar counts these days.
Dollars are what's behind the latest hiccup in a longstanding attempt to expand gambling in Illinois. The proposal to add five new casinos and slots at horse racetracks already passed the Senate, but the House is rewriting it. Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, said the biggest sticking point so far has been changing the tax structure of casinos.
"If you look at the current tax rate, anything over $200 million's a 50 percent," Rita said. "Some want it lower, some want it existing longer. But we're looking at re-structuring the tax rates from what was in that Senate bill."
Then there's concealed carry, an issue that's been slowed by starkly different visions on the part of the House and Senate.
Last week, House Speaker Mike Madigan helped pass a concealed carry bill that had the support of plenty of gun-rights lawmakers. But that legislation would strip every town, city and county in Illinois of the ability to pass their own gun rules, and not just on concealed carry — for example, it would effectively void Cook County's assault weapons ban.
That's been a non-starter in the Senate, where President John Cullerton said he "violently" opposes the House plan. His fellow Chicago Democrat Kwame Raoul has been trying to find a compromise between the gun-control and gun-rights factions. Raoul said there are numerous aspects of the House proposal that he'll incorporate into his bill. But there are differences beyond the local rules — for example, he wants tougher penalties for carrying a gun while intoxicated.
"We believe that guns and alcohol do not mix," Raoul said.
Gov. Pat Quinn has also vowed to stop the House bill. Perhaps you've noticed that Illinois' chief executive has thus far gone unmentioned in this story. You might think the governor has spent time in Springfield this weekend, trying to broker deals with lawmakers. But according to his public schedule, he stuck close to Chicago — doing veterans events, marching in a parade, and releasing an eagle at Monday night's Sox-Cubs game. (The eagle, named Challenger, was meant to raise awareness of veterans' issues.)
Quinn's absence did not go unnoticed in the Capitol.
While lawmakers were debating legislation to let people return sick puppies to pet stories, Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, was incensed that Quinn had found the time to endorse it: "Can't stand up for any of the other things we're doing around here, but the puppy lemon law — you talk about somebody riding issues to the hilt."
Quinn frequently refuses to take a stand on pending legislation, saying he'll review it when it comes to his desk. Bost pointed to a few of the other issues still pending before the legislature, like pensions and concealed carry, and urged the governor to take a more active role in the legislative process.
"When the governor comes out and gives a statement he's for this, but he can't come here and work on the other issues we've got to work on, then there seems to be a problem," Bost said.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said charges of absenteeism and vagueness are unwarranted, particularly on the pension problem.
"If Rep. Mike Bost is confused, then he call always call our office up because it's pretty clear where the governor stands," Anderson said. "The governor has spoken with lawmakers — and especially Speaker Madigan and the Senate president, John Cullerton — at length about this issue. They know what they need to do to get that comprehensive solution in front of the governor, and to his desk."
Given Democratic majorities, Madigan and Cullerton are the two key players at this point.
Andersen said Quinn was scheduled to arrive in Springfield Monday night. With that, everyone is in place for the final push of the spring legislative session. But just how much they will or will not be able to get done remains to be seen.