Gay marriage, pensions, gambling top lawmakers' agenda in final week

SPRINGFIELD — State lawmakers return to Springfield Wednesday with a week left on their terms in office, nearly three dozen lame-duck lawmakers in their ranks and an option whether to sprint through an aggressive agenda before Jan. 9 or wait out the clock and start anew.

Democrats that control the Illinois Senate could get started as early as today with legislation to legalize same-sex marriage or a proposal to limit the size of firearm magazines. A similar gun proposal has been sponsored by state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, in past years.

Suburban lawmakers also will be watching for a new compromise to build casinos in Lake County and Chicago and allow Arlington Park to have slot machines.

State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, didn't convey a sense of urgency. Link said he'll take stock of support among lawmakers and either move ahead immediately or put the issue off until the spring.

“Anything is possible, let's put it that way,” Link said.

Any attempt to take on public pensions, one of the state's biggest financial challenges in its history, is likely to be delayed until Sunday, Jan. 6, when the Illinois House convenes in Springfield. Legislation to cut teachers' and state workers' pension benefits is likely to start there.

The existing schedule likely would allow the Senate only one day, Jan. 8, to approve massive, complex changes if they are worked out in the House first.

The Jan. 9 deadline looms because a new class of lawmakers will be sworn in that day, and all legislation must start anew. Two years ago, Democrats after the November election pushed through proposals to legalize civil unions, abolish the death penalty and raise income taxes before that swearing in.

But in January 2011, Democrats were facing a new class that promised smaller majorities for them, so their agenda might have seemed more urgent to them.

Now, Democrats can see on the horizon a new class that will increase their already sizable majorities in the Illinois House and Senate, so they might be willing to wait on some issues.

Still, the nearly three dozen lame-duck lawmakers are attractive to supporters of controversial legislation who might see the coming days as a way to get their ideas approved. Legislation to give undocumented immigrants driver's licenses could come to a vote, as could a proposal to legalize medical marijuana.

“The Democrats can pass anything they want to in an hour,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

But Democrats are almost certain to need Republican help to make pension cuts, as various proposals have drawn mixed reviews from both parties.

A proposal from Democratic state Reps. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook and Daniel Biss of Evanston has attracted some bipartisan support, but both say the plan needs to be negotiated further before it's ready for prime time.

Senate Democrats point to legislation they approved months ago that would cut pension benefits for state workers like prison guards and lawmakers themselves, but not teachers. Kotowski said the House could just send that measure to Gov. Pat Quinn next week and take on teachers' pensions later.

“It's fair and it's constitutional, and it's going to save the state a tremendous amount of money,” Kotowski said.

Unlike the federal so-called fiscal cliff deadline that threatened higher taxes immediately, the Jan. 9 deadline doesn't bring any immediate consequences for state taxpayers if nothing is done. But the more the state has to pay toward ongoing pension costs, the less money it has for other purposes.

And observers on both sides see the Jan. 9 deadline as creating the kind of pressure needed to force compromise on pensions. The state's next budget deadline is May 31.

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