Ill. lawmakers leave major business unfinished despite frenzied end to session | St. Louis Public Radio

Ill. lawmakers leave major business unfinished despite frenzied end to session

Jun 1, 2012

Lawmakers in Illinois went past their midnight deadline in Springfield on Thursday in an effort to finish their business before the campaign season. In a frenzied end, the General Assembly approved a new state budget and authorized a massive expansion of gambling.

But they're not finished.

The collapse of pension reform means lawmakers will probably return to Springfield this summer. This recap is from Amanda Vinicky in Springfield.

There’s an election in November, so lawmakers would rather be out in their districts, knocking on voters’ doors in an effort to win their support.

But instead – they’ll be spending part of the summer at the Capitol because they failed to do anything to reduce the soaring costs of Illinois’ pensions.

"We must stabilize and strengthen our pension systems to prevent them from swallowing up our core programs in education, in health care and in public safety," said Gov. Pat Quinn in his budget address.

Temporary momentum

For a time, it appeared as if legislators were going to heed his call. An Illinois House committee on Thursday morning approved House Republican Leader Tom Cross's proposal to reduce the pensions of state and university employees, teachers, and even legislators themselves.

But any agreement had crumbled by Thursday evening under the weight of a dispute that was both partisan and ideological.

Cross's proposal had the state continue footing the bill for teachers' and university workers' retirement benefits.  House Speaker Michael Madigan says that's a cost schools should absorb, and dropped his support for the plan.

When it became apparent that Democrats were following the Speakers' lead, leaving the measure short of the votes needed for passage, Cross announced he wasn't going to even try. He’s urging legislators to take some time to let emotions settle, and tempers cool – then work to find common ground.

"This got really ugly the last couple days, and I had some strong feelings about it. I still do," he said.  "But we’ve all got to put that stuff aside, we've got to get this done."

Senate takes small steps

The Senate voted to reduce the pensions of state employees and legislators, but didn’t touch those of teachers and university workers alone. But the House took no action, and Republican Senator Dan Duffy called it a "joke" and a "farce."

"This is like trying to put out a forest fire with a spray bottle," he said.

In a statement, Governor Quinn said "inaction is not a choice" and said he'll call a meeting in the coming week with the four legislative leaders to talk about pensions.

“Significant accomplishments."

"We're all very disappointed that we did not resolve the pension question before the legislature," said House Speaker Michael Madigan. "However, I think we should all recognize that there were significant accomplishments in this session, this regular session, of the General Assembly."

And with that, Madigan ticked off a list of measures that are on the governor's desk:

  • A bill that longstanding practice of handing out free tuition at state universities;
  • A move to end the payment of health insurance premiums for retired state employees;
  • $1.2 billion of cuts to Medicaid, coupled with a dollar-a-pack increase in tobacco taxes.

Quinn has signaled he’ll sign those measures into law. But that’s not the case with a gambling expansion measure that allows slot machines at horse racetracks, and approves five new casinos, including in Chicago, Rockford, and Danville.

Bipartisan support, bipartisan disgust for budget

And last but not least, legislators also sent Quinn a new state budget.

Although it was largely crafted with bipartisan support in the House, Senate Republicans like Matt Murphy charge that the Democrats' plan spends too much.

"Job growth will continue to be sluggish, taxes will continue to be high, the budget will continue to grow, and the people of this state will continue to suffer under your failed leadership," said Murphy, who’s from the northwest Chicago suburb of Palatine.

Democrats like Kimberly Lightford of Chicago had the opposite problems. The senator says the budget doesn’t spend nearly enough on education.

"This is a disgrace," Lightford nearly shouted on the Senate floor.  "All of us should be ashamed of ourselves for putting green lights on the board to support an education system that is failing our children."

The spending plan before Quinn also funds prisons, mental health centers, and institutions for the developmentally disabled that Quinn had proposed closing. He has the final say in their fate despite the appropriations.

No finality

May 31st in the Capitol usually brings with it a feeling of finality. But with the unanswered questions over pensions, gambling, state facilities, and the budget, lawmakers are finding that finality is another scare resource.