Illinois lawmakers avoid tough calls as elections approach
Monday, March 19, 2012
SPRINGFIELD — Lawmakers have avoided making the tough calls on major reforms, they confess are needed, in an election year — when all seats are up for grabs.
Legislators spent this week in their home districts, most campaigning before the March 20 primary election. They’ll return here for eight days in March starting March 21, before taking a two-week spring break in April.
To date, the Illinois Senate has been in session 15 days and the Illinois House for 13 days. This time last year the House met on 27 days and the Senate on 18.
Statehouse observers point to the election as a major factor in the lawmakers’ absenteeism.
However, this is no regular election year. The once-a-decade redistricting has several legislators facing new voters in changed districts. New legislative maps are redrawn to match population shifts outlined by the U.S. Census.
“The remap is causing a lot of heartburn,” Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said.
Lawmakers have used their few days in the statehouse so far this year to take up topics such as registering exotic pets and preventing minors from using tanning beds, instead of tackling the more pressing issues of pension and Medicaid reform.
“It’s an election year, and they don’t want to stick their necks out. Plus they’re busy running for re-election,” Mooney said.
Steve Brown, spokesman for the House Democrats and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, contended that “the elections aren't an issue.”
State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, agreed, saying the prospect of re-election wouldn’t stop him from acting in the best interest of the state.
“I am not reluctant to take a (tough) vote,” Harris said.
Brown insisted lawmakers not being in the statehouse doesn’t mean business isn’t getting done.
“You could talk to any rank-and-file member you want. Probably more things get done in their district offices,” he said.
But reforms and budgets aren’t passed in district offices.
The annual task of creating a budget has become more contentious, as the amount of discretionary spending has shrunk, forcing the Legislature into overtime during several years over the past decade. Beyond that, lawmakers have said they will tackle pension and Medicaid costs.
Gov. Pat Quinn called for major pension and Medicaid reform during his budget address in February, but he put it on the General Assembly to come up with the specifics. He has convened two working groups to provide suggestions on the underfunded pension system and sky-rocketing Medicaid costs by mid-April.
If nothing changes, the state will have $21 billion in overdue Medicaid bills by 2017.
The pension system’s unfunded liability — how much the state has in resources versus how much in current and future benefits it owes — is $83 billion, caused by lackluster investment returns, chronic underfunding and retirees’ longevity.
If lawmakers couldn’t pass something for Quinn to sign, “the governor will do whatever it takes, including special session, to ensure that we address these urgent issues that threaten core services and our budget stability,” Brooke Anderson, Quinn’s spokeswoman, said.
Lawmakers do have a full calendar for May — 24 days — but whether they’ll do anything of substance remains to be seen.
Mooney said it could be difficult to get anything done before the Nov. 7 general election.
Republicans, the minority party in both chambers, will have little political incentive to go along with any reforms.
“They don’t get a lot of credit, if they help solve the problem, and if it doesn’t work, they can put it in their campaign literature that ‘candidate X voted for this,’” Mooney said.
Tough decisions could be pushed until after the Nov. 7 elections during the Legislature’s fall session, which has yet to be scheduled. Lawmakers who are re-elected can make politically tough votes, anyone who doesn’t win re-election can cast votes without political ramifications.
State Sen. Terry Link. D-Waukegan, said he hopes reforms to public pensions and Medicaid are taken care of before the end of May, but he prefers caution over expediency.
“It’s taken years and years and years to get us into this situation, and it’s not like the problems can be resolved in five minutes,” Link said.
When the legislators return here next week, they’ll have 39 scheduled session days.