End and Means: General Assembly Ends its Term Quietly

Feb 1, 2013

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
This is the way the 97th General Assembly ended — not with a bang but a whimper. (With apologies to T.S. Eliot.)

When the outgoing legislature quit for good on January 8, its list of unfinished business was considerable, topped by its inability to agree on anything to help restore fiscal stability to the state’s retirement systems.

Despite the urgings of Gov. Pat Quinn and the high hopes of lawmakers involved in trying to craft a plan, the lame-duck session proved just that on pensions, perhaps symbolized best by House Speaker Michael Madigan’s motion to adjourn his chamber sine die without a vote on a Quinn scheme to pass the pension buck to a special committee, a plan endorsed just minutes earlier by a House committee.

Instead, fixing the five systems’ almost $97 billion in unfunded liabilities now poses a daunting challenge to the 98th General Assembly, which took over the next day.

While most post-mortems focused on pensions, a couple of other hot button issues also briefly shared the lame-duck spotlight before fizzling out: gun control and marriage equality. Though both met the same fate — no floor votes in either chamber as sponsors said they’d instead wait for the new General Assembly — their future prospects would seem starkly different.

Despite unprecedented Democratic majorities, significant limits on gun ownership and use — long the Holy Grail of Chicago mayors — isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, the momentum is on the side of Second Amendment activists who are all but assured of achieving their long-sought goal of legislation to allow people to carry concealed weapons. On the other hand, approval of gay marriage is not a question of if but when, and a good bet is the answer will be sooner rather than later. 

Consider recent legislative history. In the wake of the horrific tragedy in which 20 children and six adults were slain in a Connecticut school in December, Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other gun control activists called for legislation to ban semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips of the kind reportedly used in the murders.

Bills embodying the provisions cleared the Illinois Senate’s Public Health Committee on a party-line vote, then died, as sponsors acknowledged insufficient floor support. Similar legislation was offered in the House but never even made it to a hearing committee. Moreover, when Quinn last summer attempted to rewrite a measure dealing with in-state ammunition sales to enact a similar ban, lawmakers overrode his amendatory veto 49-4 in the Senate and 78-28 in the House, not an auspicious sign for the gun control crowd.

In contrast, gun rights’ advocates expect Illinois finally to allow concealed carry in the wake of a federal appellate panel ruling that effectively orders the state to do so before the spring legislative session ends. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has appealed the decision, asking that the entire appellate bench consider the issue, rather than just three justices.

Even if she prevails, though, legislative numbers suggest Illinois could be poised to join its 49 sister states in allowing concealed carry because more than anything else, gun control is a regional, not a partisan, issue.

The roll call almost two years ago on an earlier version of concealed carry is most instructive. The measure fell short in the House, 65-52, six votes shy of the three-fifths majority required to pre-empt local ordinances in Chicago and elsewhere. Democrats voted 49-14 against the bill, while Republicans supported it 51-3. By region, though, 30 of the 32 lawmakers from Chicago-based districts voted against the plan, while suburban legislators favored it 25-20. Downstate was almost a mirror image of the city, with 39 of 41 lawmakers voting yes.

But the 98th General Assembly was elected under a new map drawn to reflect population changes documented by the 2010 census. As a result, the city lost four seats to the suburbs, while downstate kept its 41, thus increasing the ranks of lawmakers presumably more attuned to Second Amendment concerns than their Chicago colleagues.

Similarly, the new regional breakdown likely won’t help other perennial gun control measures such as registering firearms, taxing ammunition and limiting handgun purchases, all long opposed by the Illinois State Rifle Association and its allies.

In marked contrast, the trend lines are rising steadily for legalizing gay marriage, a cause espoused by most Democratic leaders from President Obama through Quinn on down to many rank-and-file lawmakers.

The growing support reflects an ongoing evolution in society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians as regular folks like everyone else. Years ago, for example, a House measure to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation won only a dozen or so “yes” votes amid debate marked by the kind of sophomoric comments more appropriate to a high school boys’ locker room than a legislative chamber. Finally, the anti-discrimination provision became law in 2005, capping a decades-long effort. Moving at relative warp speed, Illinois authorized civil unions just six years later, and now gay marriage seems likely to win approval this spring after narrowly missing in the lame duck session.

Recently, for example, a coalition of business leaders endorsed same-sex marriage as an economic development tool that would boost economic development and keep Illinois competitive with states where gay marriage is now legal.

To be sure, the measure faces strong opposition from religious leaders, especially the state’s Roman Catholic bishops who argue that “natural law” makes same-sex marriages impossible because there’s no chance of procreation. They’re also worried they might be forced to acknowledge gay couples or face discrimination charges. 

But other religious leaders — and many lay Catholics — disagree with the conservative hierarchy’s opinion, and public opinion polling suggests a majority of Americans support the idea. The only age group clearly opposed to same-sex marriage is those older than 65, while 73 percent of people age 18 through 29 are supporters. Reflecting the public mood, voters in four states approved gay marriage or voted against bans of it in November.

In response to the religious objections, sponsors have pledged the legislation will have provisions guaranteeing that the bishops and like-minded clergy would not have to perform same-sex marriages, and say they’ll work to address other freedom-of-religion concerns. The working premise for marriage equality advocates is that religious leaders and their followers are entitled to believe whatever they wish, but in a pluralistic society, civil government should not force one group’s particular set of beliefs on others who don’t share them. 

Seems reasonable enough to win legislative majorities in the coming months. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, February 2013