Lawmakers say break won't slow momentum for pension solution

SPRINGFIELD — When Illinois lawmakers walked out of the Capitol Friday for their last full weeks away before the end of their annual session, they left behind a building momentum on the effort to try to fix the state's biggest financial problems.

But after months of furious debate, a cooling-off period might not hurt.

“We've been through a lot of work this month,” said state Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican. “In order to recharge the batteries, I'm glad to have that break.”

At the end of last week, the Illinois House appeared to make a small crack in the gridlock over cutting public employees' pensions. But shortly after doing so, lawmakers left for their districts. They now have two weeks to meet with suburban voters and talk about the issues they'll decide — or not — in the sprint until their budget deadline May 31.

“It's kind of nice to be back in our districts to reach people,” Senger said. “A lot of this is about how they feel.”

And until lawmakers return in April, they might work toward some consensus with the Senate.

“I don't feel like the break will hurt us,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. “Because I think we've really done the heavy lifting right now. We can sort of regroup and maybe have some discussions with the Senate.”

Not everyone agrees. A handful of freshman suburban Democrats said they'd like to stay under the Capitol dome and work on the state's budget issues. The voters don't want them to stop, they say.

“I would rather stay here,” said state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat. “I'm not taking a break, I've got a full schedule at my district office.”

State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, said he feels similarly.

“Leaving on break when we can take one more day to work on it, one more day to get it done, is irresponsible,” Cullerton said. “There is a cost for us staying in Springfield, but it's small compared to the cost of us leaving early.”

Similar concerns arose after lawmakers left Springfield in January without a pensions deal, but since then more and more proposals have arisen. Consensus still could be far off, but the discussions are more advanced now than they were last year.

“It won't hurt momentum. The pressure the pension problem poses isn't going away, it's building,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican. “Maybe (the break) will let people back out of their entrenched positions and see another way.

“Hope springs eternal, right?” he said.

The tussle over pensions and the state budget aren't the only lingering issues. Lawmakers also haven't resolved in what way to allow Illinoisans to conceal and carry a firearm.

A federal court has given them until early June to decide how to do it. They continue to debate where and when people should be allowed to carry a gun.

If they don't set restrictions by their deadline, the law could allow nearly limitless legal rights to carry a gun in Illinois.

And the controversy over same-sex marriage remains as well. The Illinois Senate has approved it, but supporters in the Illinois House haven't been able to overcome the objections of critics. The delay has led to at least some doubts they'll find enough support this year.

The same doubts accompany the annual support to allow slot machines at Arlington Park and put new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and elsewhere.

Lawmakers like Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, are likely to push for approval again this year, but a path to victory in that battle has eluded supporters for more than a decade.

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