(MCT) — Illinois lawmakers convening Tuesday for their post-election lame-duck session face a lengthy list of issues — ranging from a burgeoning pension debt to expanded casino gambling — but it remains uncertain whether departing legislators will provide the votes to pass the most controversial measures.
Traditionally, the legislative session held after lawmakers' elections marks one of the busiest times in Springfield. Lawmakers who lost re-election bids or did not seek another term are viewed as political free agents who can more easily be persuaded to cast their votes on issues without concern to party loyalty or having to face voters ever again.
There are 21 lame ducks in the House and 15 in the Senate following the Nov. 6 election, enough to provide a surge of energy for issues that have been stalled by political stalemates despite the fact that Democrats hold the governor's office and control of both chambers. Both old and new business are on the table for discussion, if not action.
Lawmakers could seek to overturn Gov. Pat Quinn's veto of a gambling expansion bill that could bring a casino to Chicago, and they might also take a new run at a twice-failed idea to allow illegal immigrants to receive state driver's licenses. Other issues include an attempt by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan to have lawmakers set a spending limit for Quinn as the governor's office negotiates new union contracts with state workers, and a renewed push by Downstate lawmakers to legalize concealed carrying of firearms.
Majority Democrats displaced even more Republicans from both chambers in the election for all 177 House and Senate seats, thanks in part to new Democratic-leaning boundaries. The new lawmakers will be seated on Jan. 9, but the days right before that — rather than this week — are likely to see the biggest action.
That's because after Jan. 1 it takes only a simple majority to pass new legislation, rather than a three-fifths supermajority needed now.
Less than two years ago, another lame-duck session in January 2011 produced a 67 percent increase in personal income tax rates aimed at helping state government survive a fiscal crisis. This year, the fiscal crisis remains not only unabated, but enhanced by the depth of Illinois' unfunded government-worker pension debt.
While Quinn launched his public education plan on pensions last week, with help from the cartoon mascot "Squeezy the Pension Python," the governor has set the final full day of the lame-duck session — Jan. 8 — as yet another deadline for lawmakers to act on pension reform.
With the unfunded pension liability standing at an estimated $96 billion, Democrats find themselves considering politically difficult measures that could affect a dedicated Democratic ally — organized labor. Moreover, any pension changes would likely be taken to court because of the state Constitution's guarantee that pension benefits are a contractual obligation that cannot be diminished.
Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, the chief pension negotiator for House Democrats, predicted talks could go on throughout the spring legislative session.
Nekritz said she believes the real deadline facing lawmakers is the June 30 end of the state's budget year. Implementing changes before then could be difficult for the state's five pension systems, she said.
"My view of the world, and I think I am the only one, the real deadline we face is June 30," Nekritz said. "The pension systems have indicated they don't want anything implemented in the middle of the fiscal year. It caused a lot of heartburn last time around, so I think it's very possible that this could go into the spring as well."
Nekritz acknowledged waiting that long to make changes could further hurt the state's downgraded bond rating, making it even more expensive to pay for new roads, schools and bridges. But she said the end of the budget year would also likely spur action from lawmakers who usually kick the can down the road.
Two years ago during their lame-duck session, lawmakers also approved and Quinn signed legislation legalizing civil unions in Illinois. Now, the issue of same-sex marriage is getting more discussion and supporters are counting votes to determine whether to push such a measure or wait until the new larger Democratic majority is seated.
"To me, it becomes not just a question of if, but when," said Rep. Greg Harris, the Chicago Democrat who is lead sponsor on the same-sex marriage issue. But Harris cautioned that any move on the issue may compete with other more "time-sensitive" issues, such as the pension debt and gambling.
The renewed effort comes as the state Department of Public Health issued a recent rule allowing same-sex parents using surrogacy births to have their names listed on birth documents.
There also is a post-election push for legislation to allow illegal immigrants to obtain an Illinois driver's license after passing the traditional driving, written and vision tests and obtaining insurance.
The measure comes after Democrats gained overwhelming support from a growing Latino voting base and amid some Republican concerns that the GOP needs to do more outreach for future elections.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, also a former secretary of state, is backing the license measure sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. Edgar said the GOP should be looking to appeal to Latino voters for the future, but he also praised the plan as a public safety measure to get more drivers licensed and insured.
Meanwhile, supporters of a plan vetoed by Quinn that would expand casinos to Chicago, the south suburbs, Lake County, Rockford and Danville are counting votes for a potential override or may try to launch a new bill. The plan also would bring video slot machines to the state's horse racetracks.
Last spring the gambling expansion plan passed the House with 69 votes, two shy of the number needed to override a veto. But it passed the Senate on a 30-26 vote, the minimum needed for approval and six votes shy of what is needed for an override.
Quinn vetoed the bill, saying it lacked ethical oversight and failed to ban political contributions from gambling interests.
Sen. Terry Link, the Waukegan Democrat who sponsored the gambling package in his chamber, said he is in contact with legislative leaders and the governor's office in hopes of getting a satisfactory solution that will put a law on the books.
"I'm very optimistic that something will be done," Link said. "I don't know if it's an override, (or) a new bill. Something will be done."
Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, appears ready to move forward with a plan aimed at inserting lawmakers into the collective bargaining process with state employees — a power traditionally reserved for the governor. Madigan's plan would let lawmakers cap how much money the state could spend on worker wages.
Quinn's office and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been deadlocked on talks to replace the contract that expired in July. Quinn's office said recently it was terminating the contract with AFSCME, a symbolic hard-line move against the union, although talks with a federal mediator are continuing.
Legislators also are expected to try to override Quinn's decision to close several prisons and juvenile detention centers, though the governor retains the power to shutter facilities in Dwight, Tamms, Murphysboro and Joliet.