The Preview: Important Issues Loom as Lawmakers Prepare for Veto Session

Nov 1, 2012

The Illinois Senate in session.
Credit Jamey Dunn / WUIS/Illinois Issues
Legislative sessions scheduled after a general election but before a new General Assembly is sworn in are historically a time when things get done. 

Recently in such sessions, Illinois lawmakers approved civil unions for same-sex couples, abolished the death penalty and passed the only income tax increase the state has seen in 20 years. 

Lawmakers who are finishing out their terms but will not be returning for the next General Assembly provided votes for all the measures listed above. More than 30 current legislators will not be on the ballot in the general election later this month, and if more incumbents lose their re-election bids, the number of so-called lame-duck lawmakers could increase. At the same time, several important issues, such as pension reform and a massive gambling expansion, are looming. 

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, says that after the election, victorious legislators — not just the lame ducks — might feel more comfortable casting difficult votes because they would have a better sense of their constituents in newly drawn legislative districts. “They were really cautious in the spring, and now I think they’ll probably be a little less cautious.”

The session scheduled later this month is known as veto session because it is the time for lawmakers to consider vetoes the governor has made. The legislature is scheduled for six session days. But if they were to stick to the vetoes, lawmakers would likely need less than half of that. Quinn only issued three vetoes and four amendatory vetoes. He also made reduction or line-item vetoes to three budget bills. 

To be sure, some of Quinn’s vetoes will likely be the focus of debate. 

Quinn shot down a gambling expansion plan that would create licenses for five new casinos statewide: in Chicago, Park City, Danville, Rockford and in the south suburbs of Chicago. The location of the fifth casino would be up to the Illinois Gaming Board. The bill includes slot machines at horse racing tracks and would allow individual casinos to increase their gaming positions from the current limit of 1,200 to 1,600. Supporters of the bill say they plan to push back against the governor’s rejection.

The governor says he had ethics concerns and has stated publicly that he wants any gambling bill to include a ban on campaign contributions from gaming interests. “The most glaring deficiency of Senate Bill 1849 is the absence of strict ethical standards and comprehensive regulatory oversight. Illinois should never settle for a gaming bill that includes loopholes for mobsters,” he wrote in his veto message. 

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, who sponsored the bill, says he tried working with Quinn when the measure passed, but the governor did not give him specifics on what he wanted to see in the legislation. “The only conclusion I can draw is that he is not interested in having a gaming bill,” Lang says. He says that he plans to try to override the veto, and he thinks he has the votes to do it in the House. However, he says he is not sure that there is a three-fifths majority of supporters, which is the number of votes needed to overturn a veto in the Senate. Senate sponsor Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, says he plans to lobby his colleagues after the general election. 

But Quinn still hopes to work out a new bill before the next General Assembly is seated in January: “I really feel we will address this issue and hopefully resolve it by the ninth of January, which is the deadline for this session of the General Assembly. I’m very hopeful of that.”

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, says there are no “concrete” plans for additional session days before the new legislature is seated, but he says that such session days are typical. “Tradition would tell you that the old General Assembly often comes back for a day or so before the new General Assembly is sworn in.”

Besides wanting tighter ethics measures, Quinn would like to see the money from a gambling expansion go toward education. Under SB 1849, revenues from the expansion would be spent on a variety of needs, including the state’s more than $8 billion in overdue bills. “It did not have dedicated earmarked money for education, and I think that is absolutely required — imperative if we’re going to do this. And I feel that if that’s addressed, that will certainly go a long way to getting the job done,” Quinn says. “But if there are going to be any new proceeds, it needs to be earmarked for education. I think that’s important for Chicago; it’s important for the suburbs; it’s important for downstate. And I think every school in Illinois has a stake in this.” 

Some lawmakers are also interested in restoring some of the $57 million Quinn cut from the state budget. Most of that money was included to keep open facilities that Quinn wants to close. He vetoed $19.4 million for the super-maximum security prison near Tamms and $21.2 million for the women’s prison in Dwight. In addition to the prisons, the governor plans to close three transition centers meant to help inmates re-enter society. He also cut $8.9 million for a youth prison in Joliet and $6.6 million for a youth prison in Murphysboro.

Quinn’s administration has closed a mental health center in Tinley Park and is moving forward with plans to shutter another mental health center and two developmental centers. Lawmakers included money in the budget to operate the centers but gave Quinn the flexibility to also spend the funds to transition patients and residents as part of his closure plan. 

Closing the prisons has proved more difficult. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents many prison employees, sued to stop the closures, citing safety concerns for its members. “Many of the inmates that will be moved are those who have been intentionally segregated in the correctional system because of the danger they pose to guards and to other inmates. Almost a thousand maximum-security female inmates will be moved, and several hundred maximum security youth will be moved as well. The insertion of these inmates into the overcrowded prisons of the state will inevitably foment unrest that will put employees, other inmates and the general community at risk,” AFSCME’s complaint says. An Alexander County judge put a hold on the plan and ordered Quinn to negotiate with the union. Judge Charles Cavaness wrote in his order that the closures “have the potential to make the prisons that remain more dangerous for employees.” 

Lawmakers with corrections facilities close to home hope to override Quinn’s vetoes and see the governor walk back from his proposal. “Hopefully he’ll come to his senses,” says Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat. “I thought it sent a clear message when we voted for the budget to fund the facilities in the first place.” But even if lawmakers manage an override, Quinn could still opt not to spend the money and continue with the closures. 

Quinn has agreed to stop moving forward on the plan until the issue plays out in court, but he is not backing down. “The General Assembly wants to maintain half-empty facilities, prisons that are not even full. I don’t think that’s a good thing.” While the population at the Tamms facility does not come close to the number of inmates the prison was designed to hold, Dwight prison has more prisoners than it was designed to house. Both of the youth facilities have not been filled to capacity in recent years. 

Quinn wants the money from the vetoes to go to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. “It’s a choice. I choose children. They choose keeping half-empty facilities open. I don’t think that’s a very good ­­way to go.” The governor’s own budget proposal included a cut of more than $40 million to DCFS as part of a restructuring plan that would have shifted workers from management to the front lines. However, the legislature tacked on another reduction, leaving the agency with more than $85 million slashed from its budget. 

Lawmakers who approved the cuts say that they are disappointed that the agency gave out raises while at the same time admitting that it was not in compliance with a 1991 federal consent decree because investigators’ caseload numbers were too high. DCFS has since reached an agreement with the ACLU of Illinois, which represents all children in foster care under the consent decree, to bring the agency into compliance. 

As a result of the cut, DCFS Director Richard Calica says the agency would have to lay off hundreds of workers and cut back on any services not required by law or the consent decree. 

“We took a look at how could we minimize our risk and still maintain the level of services that we are responsible for. When I say minimize risk, I’m talking about death of children. Because that’s ultimately what the Department of Children and Family Services is responsible for, is protecting children from dying,” Calica told a Senate committee at a Chicago hearing. He added: “Well-being is nice, but death is what lands in the papers, and death is what I’m responsible for.” Calica says raises only went to workers who were fulfilling duties from their jobs while also picking up work from unfilled positions. He says cuts in preventative services may mean that more children are removed from their homes to become wards of the state. 

Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, says the consent decree is important, but it is not the whole picture. “The consent decree focuses on caseloads for investigative workers, but that’s not the whole job of the department. Helping families in other ways — keeping kids out of foster care — is also a job of the department.” Wolf and DCFS workers are lobbying legislators to try to restore some of the funding. 

Pension reform is perhaps the biggest issue on the horizon and also the one that lawmakers seem to have the least amount of answers for. 

Work on pension changes reached a standstill after Chicago Democrats insisted on a provision that would require suburban and downstate schools to pick up the cost of their employees’ retirement. The shift would be phased in over time, but Republicans say it would lead to layoffs and property tax increases. Democratic backers of the idea say it is only fair because Chicago picks up the bulk of pension costs for its teachers and school employees. They say they are willing to make the shift more gradual, but Republicans have been unwilling to back off their opposition. Republicans say they fear the possibility of pension funds underperforming and school districts then being on the hook for larger-than-expected costs. 

Quinn, who called a special session in August as part of a failed attempt to pressure lawmakers into approving a pension bill, hopes for an agreement when they return to the Statehouse later this month. “That will be a fateful day, I think, for a lot of our legislators and candidates in Illinois,” Quinn says. “Once the election is over, they’re going to have to come with us to Springfield, to the city of Abraham Lincoln, and work on something that will make our state much better and stronger, and that’s public pension reform.” 

As of October, all four legislative leaders say they are no closer to reaching a compromise on pension reform and have not held meetings on the issue since August. They agree that a deal can be reached, but none of them seem willing to bend. House Minority Leader Tom Cross says the issue is “a top priority” for him heading into the veto session. “A problem of this magnitude is difficult to solve and is going to require strong leadership and a willingness by both parties to work together to get it done,” says a prepared statement from his office. 

A written statement from Senate President John Cullerton’s office says: “The Senate president believes that there is still time to form a bipartisan agreement on pension reform before the end of the year. Unfortunately, we have been given no indication that Republicans are willing to reform the system in a way that addresses fairness during the veto session.”

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno has voiced concerns that Democrats may try to push through a bill with the cost shift after the election. Brown says he doesn’t think they would have the votes. “I think the reality is, I’m not sure that you could pass that on a partisan roll call.”

With so many lame ducks swimming around in the legislature after the election, it is possible that supporters of a number of controversial issues may try to bring their bills up for votes. 

Recent polling shows growing public support for same-sex marriage. Rep. Greg Harris, who sponsors House Bill 5170, which would allow same-sex marriages in the state, says he is encouraged by the shift in sentiment. “As more lesbian and gay couples have come out and talked to their senators and representatives, it also puts a human face on it.”

Lang says he is still working to lobby members on a plan to legalize medical marijuana, but his attempts at passing the bill in 2010 and 2011 fell short. 

Redfield says that the veto session may be the best time to pass a proposal to allow Illinoisans to carry concealed handguns in the state. “If you don’t get concealed carry in the veto session, then I don’t think the new legislature would be more sympathetic.”

Phelps, who sponsors HB 148, says he wants to wait for a ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the case Shepard v. Madigan. The ruling has the potential to legalize concealed carry in Illinois, which is the only state in the nation that does not allow residents to carry firearms in public. His bill failed when he called it for a vote last year. “We hated that we had to go through the courts like this, but right now, this might be our only hope.” Whatever the outcome, Phelps says he will not give up on concealed carry as long as he is in the legislature. (For more on concealed carry, see Illinois Issues March 2012.)

Redfield says that while the lame ducks could provide opportunities to pass proposals that have not been successful so far, some lawmakers who are leaving the body may already be looking forward to their next chance to come back. “There are lame ducks and there are lame ducks. There are lame ducks who think they are only temporarily out of office, and there are other lame ducks who are pretty sure that the curtain is coming down on their legislative careers.” 

Illinois Issues, November 2012