Illinois has the worst funded pension system in the nation … and lawmakers have until today to do something about it. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn by midnight. After that, it requires extra votes to get legislation to the governor’s desk. Pensions are not the only thing left. Plenty of other big-ticket policy issues are also unresolved.
You’d think the Capitol would be at its busiest in the final days of session, overflowing with activists and lobbyists trying to get in a final push.
But for much of yesterday, the crowd at the Statehouse was relatively small. The time for run-of-the-mill legislation has largely come and gone.
It’s the big stuff — the most controversial — that remains.
I’ll let one of the lobbyists who was around, Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Doug Whitley, give you a rundown:
WHITLEY: “So the big issues are: we still don’t have resolution on public employee pensions, we still don’t have final resolution on the budget, we don’t have resolution on marriage equality (or gay marriage), we don’t resolution on guns/concealed carry, we don’t have resolution on gambling, we don’t have resolution on the fracking bill, which is very important to southern Illinois, we don’t have resolution on a major piece of legislation that the telecommunications industry is interested in…”
Got all that?
To be clear, some of the items on Whitley’s “to do” list are farther along than others.
Like the budget. It’s not done. But it’s getting there. Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, have agreed to a spending plan without Republican support. Gov. Pat Quinn’s already on board.
He also says he’s ready to sign a “fracking” bill – all it has to do is get through the Senate. The House on Thursday easily passed a measure to regulate the controversial method of extracting oil and gas from deep underground. Rep. Ann Williams, a Chicago Democrat, says Illinois’ regulations strike a practical balance.
WILLIAMS: “The choice is this: fracking in Illinois with no regulations, or fracking in Illinois with the tightest, most stringent regulations possible.”
Legislators have also been working to strike a balance on gun control. That’s proved to be a challenge in a state as geographically diverse as Illinois. But they have little choice in the matter. The state’s under a court order to pass a law by June 9 that lets people carry guns in public. Late yesterday came word of a deal. Senate President John Cullerton says he’s happy with it.
CULLERTON: “Yeah because we stopped the House bill which would have wiped out all of these local jurisdictions to have their own gun laws – so that is a good thing.”
The compromise would set statewide standards for concealed carry, but let municipalities have other rules on guns.
Those are the topics on which the General Assembly’s at or near agreements.
But further down the list are still three outstanding issues that appear to be a long way from resolution, even as the end of session draws near.
One: overhauling state employees’ pensions. Illinois’ retirement systems are $100 billion dollars in debt.
Cullerton’s approach is backed by unions, and he says it’s got a better chance of withstanding a court challenge. But House Speaker Mike Madigan has so far refused to call it for a vote.
Prospects for a resolution grew murkier yesterday when the Senate took up House Speaker Mike Madigan’s proposal – which makes more drastic cuts to benefits than the Senate plan, and therefore saves more money. The measure tanked.
SENATE FLOOR AUDIO: “On that question there are 16 voting aye, 42 voting nay, zero voting present. Senate Bill 1, having failed to meet the constitutionality majority – the motion fails.”
It’s hard to see a path to compromise between the House and Senate, though there are several ways it could happen.
The second, major outstanding issue is less tangled, but its future is nonetheless uncertain.
The Senate voted to legalize same sex marriage on Valentine’s Day. Now gay rights activists are watching and waiting for the House to do the same. Theresa Volpe and her partner are raising two children in Chicago and are expecting a third in November.
VOLPE: “And so for us, marriage means a lot of things. It’s not only about the love that we share with one another. But it’s about the protections our family deserves.”
While activists say they’re certain they have the votes; only two Republicans are on board, and influential black churches are pressuring African American Representatives to vote no.
The House is also the focal point for the final, outstanding big ticket item.
Lawmakers have twice approved big gambling expansions, only to see them vetoed by the governor. They’re eager to put new casinos in Chicago, the suburbs, Rockford and Danville, plus slot machines at horse racetracks.
House sponsor Bob Rita, a Democrat from Blue Island, says he’s still negotiating.
For a guy sponsoring gambling legislation, Rita was reluctant to place odds on its chances.
REPORTER: “How close? This is a gambling package. Gimmie a bet.”
RITA: “We’re, we’re making progress okay? Alright, thank you.”
Even with just hours to go, Rita says there’s plenty of time to make a deal. The clock, he says, ticks both ways.
And on deadline day in Springfield, it’s been known to stop altogether.
– Amanda Vinicky