End and Means: Neophyte Lawmakers Face a Bunch of Tough Issues

Jan 1, 2013

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
When the 98th Illinois General Assembly takes office in a few days, almost one out of every five lawmakers will be a newcomer with no previous legislative experience, the largest batch of rookies in more than a decade.

So many new faces — 11 in the Senate and 22 in the House — might be expected in the aftermath of the first election following redistricting, when candidates for all 177 legislative seats are running under a new map. Ten years ago, 32 newcomers were sworn into office in the wake of the 2001 remap and the 2002 election.

That three-quarters of the neophytes — nine in the Senate and 16 in the House — are Democrats also should be no surprise; after all, party operatives drew the new district boundaries to elect Democrats, a task which they accomplished on a record-setting scale.

Will the newbies bring fresh ideas and new perspectives to some of the state’s long-standing problems? Perhaps more to the point, will their more senior colleagues pay them much heed if they do?

Certainly, vexing issues abound, none more so than crafting a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Most daunting, the state’s employee pension payment is projected to jump to $6.8 billion, $966 million more than this budget year, according to the most recent report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The mandated increase would outstrip current projected revenue growth for FY 2014, meaning members new and old would be called on to approve new revenues (read higher taxes and/or fees); to support further cuts in key programs such as education, health care and human services, which consume the lion’s share of state general funds; or to vote for some combination of the two.

Looking further ahead, FY 2015 is the final year for Illinois Jobs Now!, Gov. Pat Quinn’s $31 billion public works program initiated in 2009, so a year from now, the rookies — with a year of service under their belts — will be challenged with helping their elders figure out a new way to fund the state’s ongoing need to build and maintain roads, bridges and other capital projects, all in the midst of the 2014 election season.

And as the freshmen end their first terms in the lame duck session following the 2014 election, they might be asked to make permanent current income tax rates, rather than allow most of the increases to sunset, as current law provides. Two years may be a long time in the legislature’s scheme of things, but you can be sure that some folks are looking ahead to that possibility.

Not every challenge comes with a price tag, of course, and perhaps the influx of fresh blood can help the state move forward in a number of important areas that don’t require spending any money.

Consider, for example, the state’s business climate, routinely trashed by neighboring states’ governors hoping to pirate away Illinois jobs and investment and just as regularly criticized by Illinois business leaders as being unattractive — if not downright hostile — to their companies’ needs.

Corporate chieftains may like to complain about the higher income tax rates, but one suspects other costs — such as workers’ compensation — are a far greater concern, especially given that roughly two-thirds of Illinois corporations pay no state income tax, according to state revenue officials, presumably because they have no taxable income.

In recent years, lawmakers approved what they billed as cost-saving changes to the state’s workers’ compensation program, mostly by cutting payments to medical providers and by improving program administration. But employers in Illinois still face significantly higher insurance costs — by some measures the nation’s third highest — than competitors elsewhere.

Business leaders say more changes are needed, particularly in three areas: requiring that the workplace be the primary cause of an injury, rather than a contributing cause, a tougher standard that most states already follow; adopting American Medical Association guidelines for determining disability; and providing employers with more control over an injured worker’s medical care.

Their concerns deserve attention, and while Republicans, who have been business’ traditional allies, will be vastly outnumbered in the new session, majority Democrats would do well to make strengthening the state’s business climate a top priority. Revisiting workers’ compensation is a good place to start, ideally with both business and labor involved in fashioning a reform package, similar to the old agreed bill process.

As sketchy as Illinois’ reputation might be as a place to do business, though, few would dispute that it’s much better than the general impression of the state’s ethical climate. Here, too, significant improvements have been made over the last several years, most of them in direct response to abuses under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

One item left untouched, however, has been the state’s woefully inadequate economic disclosure rules for public officials, so vague and open-ended that most of those covered routinely respond “not applicable” to the eight questions posed, making the forms virtually useless to anyone wanting to garner any idea about an official’s outside interests.

A remedy is in the offing, though, in the form of legislation proposed by Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, with strong support from Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. The proposal would require more thorough disclosure of outside income sources, relationships to lobbyists, favorable terms on loans and other information that would help people assess whether a lawmaker or other official might have a conflict of interest on a given issue. Its passage would mark another step in the long road to restoring Illinois citizens’ faith in their government, again at no cost to the state.

Of course, dozens if not hundreds of other good ideas will emerge during the new legislature’s two-year tenure, no doubt many introduced by the incoming freshman class. In fact, current lawmakers are still introducing bills as they’re on their way out the door. Kotowski’s measure, for example, went into the hopper on November 29, and other bills have followed, for a grand total of more than 10,200 since the 97th General Assembly took office in January 2011.

Safe to say their successors will be as prolific. Let’s hope they’re also willing to tackle the tough issues facing Illinois in a bipartisan manner to move the state forward. And if not? Well, the filing date for the March 2014 primary is only about a year away ... 

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

Illinois Issues, January 2013