Politics: Here's an "ought to do" list for the 92nd General Assembly

Jan 1, 2001

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Monday morning quarterbacks have been having a field day of late, ever since the lame-duck legislative session produced a new home for the Chicago Bears.

Talk-show pundits and editorial writers - most of them from outside Chicagoland - have been picking at the details of the $587 million package that relies on an existing city hotel tax to bankroll renovation of Soldier Field, the Bears' home since they moved from Wrigley Field in 1971.

Critics question whether the hotel tax receipts will be enough to pay off the bonds that will be sold to finance the work. They fear the state might be left holding the bag should tourists and conventioneers stop visiting the city. They think Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley gave too sweet a deal to team owners. They're unhappy that Chicago got something and their towns didn't.

And they grouse about the hurry-up offense that pushed the stadium deal through the legislature in the final week of the fall session. Lawmakers shirked other, more important issues to once again help out a few rich white guys, the critics say. The Bears should have waited until spring, instead of cutting to the front of the line, they argue.

None of the complaints is well-founded, least of all the suggestion that the Bears should have been more patient. Patient? The team has been looking for a new home since before most of its current players were born, going back to the days of "Papa Bear" George Halas and Mayor Richard J. Daley, two legends in their chosen callings. Indeed, very few issues come to mind that have been on the legislative agenda as long as a Bears stadium.

The most obvious, of course, is school finance - but then lawmakers have been trying to figure out how to pay the bills for local schools since before Abe Lincoln's legislative tenure.

But there are a couple of other items that have been in the legislative "ought to do" file for years and merit attention once the 92nd General Assembly takes office in a few days.

- A ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Encouraged by civil rights gains of the '60s and a strong commitment to personal dignity in the 1970 Illinois Constitution, advocates have sought for years to enact legislation combating anti-gay bias.

Last year, a proposal to extend existing protections to gays and lesbians fell three votes shy in the House, despite support from Gov. George H. Ryan and the state's five other constitutional officers.

Though sometimes called the "gay rights" bill in newspaper headlines and Statehouse shorthand, in fact the legislation's first section flatly stated that it should not be construed as requiring any preferential treatment, special rights or affirmative action quotas based on sexual orientation.

Instead, the proposal would have barred anti-gay discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and access to credit, areas in which current law already forbids discrimination based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, marital status, age or disability.

The bill's defeat was unfortunate, but proponents could take heart in the close vote and the serious manner in which the House treated the issue, marked contrasts to the way lawmakers dealt with similar measures over the years.

A generation ago, efforts to combat anti-gay discrimination typically were met with legislative behavior that only could be described as embarrassing. Sponsors usually sought to frame the issue as a matter of basic fairness, a point some opponents were willing to contest on the merits. But others resorted to the sort of crude jokes and double entendre one might expect to hear in a JV locker room. And on a good day, the bill might get 20 votes.

After one such spectacle, one of the few lawmakers who voted for the proposal confided to a reporter that his "yes" vote was probably a mistake politically, given the conservative bent of his district, but was the right vote for his conscience.

So, while 1999 still was a loss, the narrow vote and serious discussion showed how much progress has been made in the struggle to make fair treatment of all citizens public policy in Illinois. Now, the final steps toward that goal should be taken in 2001.

- A later primary.

After they take their oaths of office on January 10, all 177 lawmakers will be only about 11 months away from filing nominating petitions for new terms, thanks to the March primary and redistricting. While House members always have to deal with the quick turnaround time, senators are elected for two four-year terms and a single two-year term each decade. For the 2002 election, though, all lawmakers will be running in new districts slated to be drawn this year in the wake of the 2000 federal census.

When Illinois first went to a March primary in 1970, the third Tuesday turned out to fall on March 17, causing red-faced lawmakers to quickly eliminate a long-standing requirement that saloons be closed while polls were open. While the proper observance of St. Patrick's Day was thus preserved, the interests of Illinois voters have not been served by a March primary, one of the earliest in the nation for state and local candidates. The result is an 11-month campaign season that's far too long and costly, sapping both candidate energy and voter interest.

Persistent efforts to move to a later date - optimally, September - have been fruitless. Pushing back the date might prove more attractive in a redistricting year, however, to legislators who might welcome all the time they can get to acquaint themselves with their new turf before facing voters.

Best of all, neither outlawing anti-gay bias nor choosing a sensible primary date requires dipping into the till. Like a new Bears stadium, they're proposals overdue for enactment.

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