New lawmakers have to hustle on big issues
SPRINGFIELD -- When lawmakers started meeting in January, the newly elected class faced huge, complicated questions about Illinois' disastrous finances, thousands of teachers' retirement futures, gun control, same-sex marriage and gambling in the Chicago area.
Friday is the last scheduled day of their annual session, and none of those issues has been resolved. Some appear mired in unbreakable gridlock.
How those issues are worked out in the coming days -- and if they are -- will have a significant impact on suburban taxpayers, teachers, parents and students.
Cutting the budget
The state's ongoing budget woes mean cuts of some kind could be coming, and what they look like could determine what kind of year it will be for local schools and nonprofits.
So far, it appears top Democrats might find a way to keep budget cuts away from schools.
But Gov. Pat Quinn and Democrats have talked about holding back some income tax money that usually is distributed to towns. Mayors might have to look to program cuts or new fees to cover for lost revenue if that happens.
The debate over the budget, which will go into effect July 1, frames all other issues in Springfield and is the reason for the Friday deadline. After Friday, approving a budget requires more votes, so Republicans would have a more significant say in a Capitol controlled by Democrats.
Reducing pension costs
Suburban teachers have a lot at stake as lawmakers try to reduce pension costs. The state House and Senate have approved competing packages of pension benefit cuts. But until both chambers agree, neither will become law.
The House's plan would cut benefits deeper, but some predict it would run afoul of the Illinois Constitution's requirement that pensions not be "diminished."
The Senate's plan would do less to chip away at Illinois' worst-in-the-nation pension debt. But it's backed by union leaders and might be more likely to win the Illinois Supreme Court's blessing.
Suburban lawmakers are leading the charge on both sides of the issue.
Pension debt is arguably the state's biggest financial pressure, but a fix from lawmakers won't affect the budget they're working on now. So it's possible the same gridlock that prevented a compromise last year could continue into the summer.
Asking schools for more
House Speaker Michael Madigan, a powerful Chicago Democrat, has insisted he'll move legislation that'll make suburban schools pay more toward teachers' pensions. That'd cost districts across the region millions of dollars per year.
But support has been hard to find. House Republican Leader Tom Cross said shifting pension costs to local schools without cutting benefits to lower the price tag could "literally destroy a school district."
Still, the state's money troubles are immense, and unloading some pension costs onto local schools could free up a lot of cash.
The House and Senate have been on different tracks so far in the debate over letting Illinoisans carry concealed firearms.
The Senate has wanted to give bigger suburbs a chance to add additional restrictions on where people can carry. The House wants one statewide set of rules that includes restrictions on having a gun on mass transit and in parks.
In addition, state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, doesn't want to back down from his proposal to limit the size of ammunition magazines.
Lawmakers are facing a court-ordered June 8 deadline on concealed carry, so they could conceivably put a compromise off until after Friday's scheduled adjournment or blow the June deadline, too, and face uncertain legal consequences.
More casinos, slots
It's been three weeks since the Illinois Senate approved a large-scale, contentious, gambling proposal that would allow for five new Illinois casinos, including ones in Lake County and Chicago, as well as up to 1,200 slot machines at Arlington International Racecourse.
State Sen. Terry Link, the Waukegan Democrat behind the plan, said there could be an initial $1.2 billion influx of cash for the financially troubled state should lawmakers approve.
That boon of revenue could be the thing that persuades reluctant House members to support the plan.
Should the massive proposal get the approval of the General Assembly, there is no guarantee that Quinn would sign it into law.
The last time same-sex marriage was debated in the General Assembly was when the Senate approved it on Valentine's Day.
In the months that have followed, proponents have failed to cobble together a majority to win support in the House. Two House Republicans have publicly backed same-sex marriage, both from the suburbs: state Reps. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove and Ed Sullivan of Mundelein.
But it's the Democrats who have come up short on votes to back their national party's position on the issue. Aurora Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia is an example of one of the potential swing votes lobbied hard by both sides.