Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New General Assembly,
same old issues

By Jamey Dunn and Meredith Colias 

As the 98th General Assembly was sworn in today, legislative leaders reminded members new and old that they have difficult work ahead.

“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me,” sang Molly Durand, Senate President’s John Cullerton’s niece, at the end of the inaugural ceremony in the Senate. It may be a new day and a new General Assembly, but lawmakers face familiar issues such as pension changes, same-sex marriage and proposals regarding guns. “As we move forward in good faith and good comradeship, the issues haven’t changed that much. The nature of the issues hasn’t changed that much. They remain terribly contentious and terribly divisive,” House Speaker Michael Madigan told new House members.

Cullerton introduced Senate Bill 1 today, which he has dubbed as his compromise with the House on pensions. Cullerton believes recent proposals put forward by Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz and more than a dozen other House members are unconstitutional. Those in the House backing pension changes were unable to find the support needed to pass a bill during the lame-duck session. Cullerton says he is willing to call the House proposal for a vote as long as lawmakers also approve a plan that he believes is constitutional. His plan would be a backup option if the Illinois Supreme Court were to shoot down the Nekritz bill. SB 1 contains both proposals. Nekritz plans to introduce the House plan again in the new legislative session, and Evanston Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss, who until recently was a House member working on pension reform with Nekritz, said he plans to introduce the House proposal in the Senate. “The people of Illinois have put great trust in us and are counting on us to be bold while facing significant challenges ahead,” Nekritz said. “That work is never easy. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it falls short. Trust me, I know. Just look at House session yesterday.”

Gov. Pat Quinn said today of the failure to pass pension reform in the General Assembly's lame-duck session: “It was disappointing, but you know, in high school I ran long distance. So this is a long distance run to get pension reform, and you've just got to keep running until you get to the finish line.” He said is “optimistic” that Cullerton’s bill can pass in the Senate. “Then, we’ll get it over to the House, where we have obviously a lot of work still to do, but I think we made some progress in establishing good relationships, and ultimately there’ll have to be some compromises in the House in order to get a bill passed there.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan called the pension problem “the most serious problem facing the state of Illinois today.” He said in a speech today: “It’s an extremely difficult issue because in order to achieve some improvement .. .part of the solution would be to tell people that there will be a change in the promised benefit that they will receive in their pension.” Madigan said those who are serious about solving the pension problem must find a solution to what he described as the “free lunch” of the state paying most of the employer costs of pensions for schools outside of Chicago, public universities and community colleges. The cost-shift, which would eventually require downstate schools to pick up the full employer costs of retiree benefits, became a point of gridlock in previous negotiations among the legislative leaders. Madigan had said he would temporarily back off the issue during the lame-duck session to try to get a bill passed .

House Minority Leader Cross, who opposes the cost shift, also emphasized the need for pension changes when he addressed the House. “We need to understand and accept that if we do nothing, a variety of not-so-good things happen.” All four legislative leaders said they hope to address similar issues, such as getting the state's budget in order and paying bills in a timely manner.

Many other issues that were the focus of the recent lame-duck session also will likely become the key debates during the new session. Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris and Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who unsuccessfully pushed for a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, plan to introduce new legislation and continue their efforts in the new session. Quinn also renewed his call for a ban on assault weapons. “I’m optimistic that very quickly, we can address marriage equality with the new legislature. I think we have to address the assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, I think that’s imperative, and I think pension reform. Those are three issues that I think right away the new legislature is going to have to come together and focus on,” Quinn said.

While the Democrats will have veto-proof majorities in both chambers, that does not mean they will be able to easily pass any legislation leadership wants. “We may all call ourselves Democrats on this side of the chamber, but we hold a wide array of opinions and represent very different districts,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul in his speech to nominate Cullerton for another term as Senate president.

“We represent 4 million people collectively on this side of the aisle. We have ideas. We have principles, and we have microphones. And if microphones don’t work, we have soap boxes,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said of her 19-member Republican caucus.

Cullerton warned Democrats that just because they have large numbers does not mean they can avoid casting difficult votes. “My advice is to enjoy today and celebrate with your families, but you must know tough decisions and votes await us in the weeks and months ahead.”

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