Illinois Issues: What’s Ahead In Springfield In Spring 2016

The Illinois Statehouse in Springfield

The Illinois Statehouse in Springfield.


Illinois’ legislative session is slowly, but surely, getting underway in the new year.Senators met for all of an hour last week, and the House session was cancelled. One of the Speaker’s top aides says – given that there’s still no budget agreement -- there wasn’t enough to do. Though they will be in the capitol now and again … lawmakers aren’t scheduled to be at the capitol often until March or April. But they *will* be back.  And they have some major issues to tackle.

The Senate's top Republican, Christine Radogno, recently gave a speech at the City Club of Chicago.  Something she's done every year.

"This year ... was really hard for me because I kept thinking: What in the world am I going to talk about?" said Radogno. "Because as you know, there's very little legislative activity right now, we've already had session days cancelled. We are seven months into the fiscal year with no budget. The Dem leaders still refuse to engage in any real reform discussion. So essentially we're stuck. Now I suppose I could just sit down now and say 'we're stuck, nothing's really changed.' "

Now, Democrats disagree with her characterization that they've refused to engage --- House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton both say they have comprised, and are willing to compromise more.

But the point is -- Illinois' leaders are stuck.

Despite warnings of a growing deficit, credit rating downgrades, universities potentially shutting down, agencies that help vulnerable people closing their doors, nothing has been enough to nudge lawmakers to reach a deal. Gov. Bruce Rauner, who's been in office for about a year now, is bent on limiting legislators' terms and making Illinois more friendly to business and less friendly to labor. He won't talk budget until those changes pass.  Democrats continue to say those changes will hurt Illinois, and it's high time the budget be the focus.

That was the stalemate that characterized most of 2015. And it's carried over into the new year.

The budget will be sure to dominate the coming year's legislative session, no doubt about it.  But that's not all that's on legislators' agendas.

"It's my hope that we can get this job done in 2016, in the calendar year," said State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Macoupin County). "I think the governor has an incredible moment ahead of him when it comes to bringing together differing opinions on this issue."

Manar is s talking about his hope to retool how Illinois funds schools, to make it more equitable. Dollars follow need.

The idea is, Illinois would send more state money to poor districts than to those in wealthy areas like Chicago's suburbs, where local property taxes mean more money is spent on students. You could think of it as the Robin Hood model.  But you know how the "rich" didn't like getting stolen from, even if it was to give to the poor? That's kinda like this. It's controversial.  No legislator wants to vote for a plan that gives the local school district *less* money.

This debate isn't new in Illinois. But there's a reason Manar's more hopeful. He says he's tweaking the plan after getting others' recommendations.  The governor's big on pumping more money to schools (though he hasn't been a fan of Manar's concept; he says his big ideas for education will be unveiled in coming weeks).

Plus, education's at the forefront because the state's largest district, Chicago Public Schools, is threatening layoffs if the state doesn't send it a hundreds of millions of dollars. Robin Steans, who until recently was director of the advocacy group Advance Illinois, says the overfull funding formula and CPS's financial distress are linked.

"If there is a grand budget bargain, it ought to include a plan, over the next three to seven years, or marching our way toward a much more adequate level of school funding," said Steans.

What's happening in Chicago is likewise the catalyst for another potential hive of legislative action for 2016: measures dealing with police accountability.

One of 2015's bipartisan successes was a package that's just taking effect. It bans chokeholds, sets standards for use of dash and body cameras, and raises money to help departments purchase the technology. But protestors have been active and calling for more, since the delayed release of a silent video. It shows a Chicago cop repeatedly, and fatally, shooting a black teenager -- Laquan McDonald.

Members of Illinois' Legislative Black Caucus are critical of the governor for not having a proactive response. Several members have introduced legislation since the incident:

-to make videos of police shootings more available to the public -to require all Chicago police wear body cameras, or to use Tasers.

Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) says he wants to mandate cameras statewide, but not yet.

"That is my hope," said Raoul. "And that is my hope for hopefully in the not-to-far-off future. But I'm mindful of the fact that we don't have a budget yet, we are in debt, and you have to be cautious about mandating things unless you know exactly how you're going to pay for them."

But Raoul says he will push for police to be licensed, just as attorneys like himself are.  Then a professional board would be able to strip an office of his or her license.  Police aren't generally warm to the idea, but it is on the agenda for a new state commission to discuss.

An area there's a potential for agreement is on a plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Lawmakers advanced a plan last year, but it died after Rauner used his veto pen to make it stricter.  Now, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) is back, with a version that mirrors' Rauner's (the governor wants higher fines, and reduced from 15 to 10 grams the amount of cannabis someone could possess to get a ticket instead of jail time).

"There is still enforcement," said Cassidy. "This is making better use of our criminal justice resources. This is taking away those collateral consequences for low-level offenses."

That dovetails with Rauner's aim to reduce Illinois' prison population. A criminal justice commission's set to present ideas that could go forward this year. So, too, could some suggestions included in a recently-unveiled report on local government consolidation and cost-cutting.

Lawmakers have introduced a host of other bills.  Measures that would allow for the recall of elected officials are getting attention.  Illinois is playing a central role in a national debate over the regulation of daily Fantasy Sports betting -- or is it gambling? Both renewable energy advocates, and Exelon, could power up campaigns for changes to state law friendly to their often antithetical causes.  And now's the time lawmakers can get proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, to present to voters.  They've got plenty of ideas for how to do it, too.  Coming up with a new way to draw legislative districts, moving to a progressive, rather than a flat tax.

And that's because -- it's campaign season. 

That could stifle any agreements.

Political consultant Thom Serafin says it's rare to see controversial measures advance when an election's ahead.

But given the budget situation, this isn't a typical election year.

"At some point, you run out of rope," said Sarafin. "And you do run out of rope in '16 ... so in this particular session, you have the opportunity after the primary (and I don't think anybody’s going to put anybody on a rollcall before the primary) to actually do the business of the business of the people."

If lawmakers don't come together this year, come 2017, things will only have gotten worse.

Story source: Illinois Public Radio