Spring break is coming to a close, meaning school kids are returning to the classroom and state lawmakers will be returning to the Capitol.
The Illinois House returns to Springfield beginning today and the Senate on Wednesday to begin the push toward the scheduled end of the spring session on May 31.
Whether pension reform, gay marriage, gambling expansion or crafting a state budget, lawmakers have a full slate of items facing them when they return.
“We’ll be moving on a lot of things when we get back,” said Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan. “It’s going to be very busy.”
Here’s an update on some of those pending issues.
Lawmakers, particularly in the House, engaged in a flurry of pension reform activity before the two-week spring break began.
The Senate approved a scaled-down reform measure that affected only teachers outside of Chicago. Sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, the bill requires teachers to choose between state subsidized health care in retirement or reduced cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions.
The Senate rejected a more comprehensive pension reform plan.
The House, meanwhile, passed a bill reducing pension COLAs for teachers, university workers, state employees and lawmakers. Before going on break, the House also passed bills raising the retirement age and limiting the salary on which a pension can be earned. Together, they prompted House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to predict the House was close to drafting and debating a comprehensive bill that incorporates a number of reform measures.
“I’m taking Mike Madigan at his word that there will be a comprehensive bill put together,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, a leading pension reform negotiator.
Nekritz said she doesn’t think the spring break has hurt the momentum that was building for finally passing pension reforms when lawmakers were last in session in late March.
“I think members understand the gravity of what they voted for, and I think they’re still going to be committed to doing that,” she said.
Nekritz said she does not know the status of the controversial cost-shift idea proposed by Madigan that would shift the cost of downstate teacher pensions away from the state and onto local school districts. Although the House voted on a series of reform measures over several weeks in March, the cost shift was not one of them.
A bill adding five new casinos, slot machines at horse racing tracks and the inauguration of Internet gaming in Illinois is pending on the Senate floor.
Page 2 of 3 - Link, the bill’s sponsor, said changes will be made to the bill before it is given a final vote in the Senate, which he predicted will happen before the end of the month.
“We’re just trying to appease everybody and make them happy,” Link said.
One of those changes will be to restore money for agriculture programs that was a part of previous gaming expansion bills. Using some of the increased revenue from gaming expansion to support county fairs and other agriculture programs was crucial to winning support from some downstate legislators with largely rural districts.
At the same time, Gov. Pat Quinn has insisted gaming revenue be devoted to education. As it is currently written, the expansion bill devotes revenue to education and pension costs, but removed most of the money for agriculture programs.
“We have to figure out how (the bill) gets passed before we can do anything else,” Link said of accommodating Quinn’s demands. “At last count, I don’t remember him passing any legislation in his lifetime.”
The Senate has already approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois. If the House also approves it, the bill would go to Quinn, who has promised to sign it.
When that might happen is the question, although the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said he thinks it will happen before lawmakers conclude the spring session.
“Support continues to grow and broaden for it,” said Harris. “This is an issue of basic fairness. This is not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue.”
In mid-March, Madigan said the same-sex marriage bill was 12 votes short of approval in the House, a significant number. Harris thinks the gap isn’t that large, but would not say what he thinks it is.
“I never talk about roll-call numbers on any bill,” Harris said.
Still, he said the fact Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Highland Park came out in favor of same-sex marriage last week will help win over some state legislators.
“A lot of my colleagues are looking at this as one of the great votes of history that they will be remembered in,” Harris said.
Both the House and Senate are grappling with passing a concealed-carry law in Illinois, although neither chamber has done so yet.
The House has taken more public action on concealed carry, debating and voting on a number of amendments, many of which would place restrictions on it. Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, a sponsor of concealed-carry legislation, said the House has approved 16 amendments, rejected 11 and has at least 19 more that are pending.
Page 3 of 3 - “I assume there will be other amendments when we get back. I’m not sure what they are going to be,” Phelps said. “I’d say you’ll probably see a final version sometime in April.”
Phelps said Madigan “kind of wanted to take everyone’s temperature with those amendments. He didn’t’ want to do any secret, behind-closed-door meetings.”
Although the final makeup of a concealed-carry bill isn’t clear yet, Phelps said he doesn’t expect it to include a ban on assault weapons.
“I think that’s two different issues, and I think the speaker understands that,” Phelps said.
Phelps said he traveled around his district during the spring break and got a clear message that his constituents want action on a concealed-carry bill.
“People want it now. They are tired of waiting,” Phelps said.
Allowing Illinois residents to use marijuana to ease the symptoms of certain illnesses should get a vote in the House in the next two weeks, said sponsor Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
“Clearly, momentum is moving in our direction,” Lang said.
At the same time, Lang said the number of votes in favor of the bill is “kind of a moving target.”
“We have as many as 15 or 20 legislators who haven’t committed,” Lang said. “The thing is just hovering around, give or take, either side of 60.”
It takes 60 votes in the House to pass the bill.
“I believe we’re going to pass this bill, and I believe we are going to pass it in the next two weeks,” Lang said.
Lang said he and Sen. William Haine, D-Alton, have worked hard to address concerns raises by some lawmakers, and as a result, the bill is “very highly controlled and regulated.” That includes a prohibition on users growing their own marijuana, a limit on the amount of marijuana they can obtain and specifying the illnesses for which medical marijuana is prescribed.
“It is not a bill to be afraid of,” Lang said.
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527. Follow him at twitter.com/DougFinkeSJR.