New Lawmakers, But Issues Remain the Same

Among the Illinois politicians sworn in to the new General Assembly on Wednesday, nearly one in five are first-time state lawmakers. But the issues they’ll be facing in the coming months have been around for a long time. Pensions, guns, health care for the poor, and the possibility of more Illinois casinos are expected to remain the top issues in Springfield. Brian Mackey has more:

Governor Pat Quinn presided over the opening the Senate, reading off the names of new members.

QUINN: “Will Senators-elect Barickman, Bertino-Tarrant, Bush, Connelly ….”

There are 11 senators new to the General Assembly — including former professional football player Napoleon Harris, a Democrat from Flossmoor, and dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, a Republican from Sugar Grove. The House added 22 new members. Most of them are Democrats, turning what was the majority party in Springfield into a supermajority party in both the House and Senate.

CULLERTON: “I’d like to congratulate you for assembling what is currently the largest senate caucus in America, and also the largest Senate Democratic Caucus in the history of the state of Illinois.”

Chicago Democrat John Cullerton was re-elected Senate president. Theoretically a supermajority should be unstoppable — there are enough Democrats to override the governor’s veto without any help from Republicans. Theoretically.

CULLERTON: “So I know a lot of you are sitting there thinking, ‘This is great. We’ve got 40 members. I don’t have to take any tough votes.’ But if everybody thought like that, we wouldn’t get anything done, would we? So that’s not going to work.”

There will be plenty of tough votes ahead for members of the General Assembly. It seems like only yesterday that Gov. Quinn and some lawmakers were desperately trying to pass something — anything — to deal with the state’s nearly $100 billion in pension debt.

QUINN: “We have to understand that this is (an) emergency, and it does require under this emergency situation, a — I think — approach, a structure, that allows us to move forward.”

In fact that was the day before Inauguration Day. None of those last-ditch plans had enough support to pass, and lawmakers ended their two-year session without fixing the pension problem. House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a Republican from Oswego, says the new General Assembly needs to keep pushing on those issues right away.

CROSS: “We’re facing challenges as a state that we probably haven’t seen as a General Assembly since the Great Depression. Incredibly difficult issues that are going to take incredibly bold ideas and incredibly bold solutions.”

Pensions are only one of those tough issues. Lawmakers could also consider how to implement the federal Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — by creating a market for Illinoisans to buy health insurance and possibly expanding access to the state’s program of health care for the poor. There’s also a court order that Illinois pass some sort of law allowing people to carry loaded firearms in public, and simultaneous attempts to tighten gun laws, in the wake of last year’s mass shootings, most recently at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticuit.

You might expect new lawmakers to be bitter about the pile of dirty dishes the last General Assembly left in the sink. But freshman Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Democrat from Villa Park, says that’s not true.

TOM CULLERTON: “For any of us to have the expectation that we could walk in, and it’d all be magically fixed before we got here on the ninth, would have been very naive.”

Tom Cullerton says he’s a distant cousin of Senate President John Cullerton. Family ties and the same names popping up again and again are old traditions in Springfield. But he also represents something newer: increasing Democratic power. Tom Cullerton is the first Democrat elected to the Senate from DuPage County, which has been a Republican stronghold for all of living memory.

The GOP’s relative weakness gives Republicans two choices: work with the majority, or fight as hard as possible. Sen. Christine Radogno will continue to lead the Senate Republicans, though it’s now a historically tiny caucus.

RADOGNO: “We represent 4 million people, collectively, on this side of the aisle. We have ideas, we have principles, and we have microphones.”

That said, Radogno praised Senate President Cullerton for trying to work across party lines. The two even symbolically cast votes for each other when electing the Senate president — a gesture of comity that was not shown when the House of Representatives chose its Speaker.

Whether or not the bipartisanship continues, the goodwill of Inauguration Day is likely to be short-lived.

RADOGNO: “Today, (it) has been mentioned, is about flowers and fanfare and festivities. But we will be right back down to work tomorrow.”

In one sense, that’s true. There is a session scheduled for the day after the swearing-in. But after that, they’re taking a few weeks away from Springfield — not returning until the end of the month.

— Brian Mackey

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