Springfield's election-year inertia could keep tough issues off the table

SPRINGFIELD — Suburban lawmakers are set to return to Springfield today to begin their annual spring session, leaving their often-tough campaign battles at home for the daily grind of legislating at the Capitol.

With many lawmakers in heated primary election races and even some sitting lawmakers challenging each other, some think the 2012 session could be relatively quiet, with substantial issues such as spending on state pensions, Medicaid reform, and gambling expansion getting pushed off the table.

“I don't think you'll see many people sticking their necks out too much,” said state Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican. “I think you're going to see a lot of posturing between now and the primary,” he said. And after the March 20 primary, with lawmakers' attention turns to the November general election, partisan politics can make acting on contentious issues difficult.

But others say some of Illinois' financial problems have become so urgent that avoiding decisive action at the legislative level might be impossible.

“They of course fear the voters will punish them for making hard choices, but I think voters are more likely now to be in a mind to punish them for not making hard choices,” said John Jackson, a professor from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Gov. Pat Quinn will lay out an “ambitious agenda” Wednesday when he delivers his State of the State address, a spokeswoman said. But the specifics of his budget plans will be saved until later in the month for a separate speech.

Last year's largely bipartisan budget-crafting process in the House was a difficult one as the state's pensions, rising health care costs and unpaid bills meant there wasn't much money to go around, state Rep. Keith Farnham recalled.

“I think we're going to have the same issues this year, if not harder,” Farnham said. “I hope that we don't shy away from the things we need to do.”

In 2010, lawmakers famously put off many controversial actions until after voters made their choices in November.

Then, in the weeks before the winners were sworn in, lawmakers approved civil unions, abolished the death penalty and raised income taxes.

Only time will tell whether 2012's biggest moves in Springfield will wait until the very end. This year's election could be even more contentious than in 2010, as the newly drawn political maps mean several incumbent lawmakers are facing off against each other. Others already are embroiled in tough races leading up to the primary election, and even more have to woo new constituents who previously didn't live within their districts' boundaries.

At the very least, action on budget issues like pension and Medicaid reform could be delayed until after the primary, said Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican who himself is running in a new district.

Other politically prickly issues like gambling expansion could get put off entirely.

“The big ticket items might not even see the light of day,” he said.

Daily Herald Staff Writer Ryan Voyles contributed to this story.

Expectations low for Congress in election year

Rep. Keith Farnham
Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr.
Rep. Dennis Reboletti
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