Despite enjoying supermajorities in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly and controlling the governor's mansion, state Democrats failed to pass numerous crucial bills ranging from pension reform to casino expansion, opting instead to punt on these pressing problems. Single-party control over statewide offices and the immediacy of Illinois' financial problems compound the failures even as the legislature moved forward on several key but less urgent issues. Here are the good, the bad, and the ugly from the recently concluded spring session:
Though several high-profile failures will resonate for weeks, it wasn't all doom and gloom in Springfield. The General Assembly finally passed concealed carry legislation — the last state to do so — thereby fulfilling a federal court's June 9 deadline. The bill, however, disallows concealed carry on public transit, in stadiums, schools, government buildings, and in establishments where alcoholic beverages constitute at least 50% of all revenue. Furthermore, the legislature approved a massive expansion of McCormick Place, including a new DePaul University basketball arena eagerly sought by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D); raised the state's speed limit to 70 MPH on certain highways; and lowered the minimum mandatory school age from 7 to 6, the norm for most other states. All bills await Governor Pat Quinn's signature.
The General Assembly failed to approve major gambling expansion that would permit new casinos in Chicago, the south suburbs, Lake County, Rockford, and Danville. Legislators previously sent two bills to Quinn in 2011 and 2012; he signed neither, citing lax oversight and ethics provisions. Indeed, prior proposals vested regulatory powers in Chicago's City Hall instead of the Illinois Gaming Board, which customarily and axiomatically controls state retail gaming networks. Though regulatory and ethics considerations are important, that casino proceeds would benefit Chicago's severely underfunded public school system makes this failure all the more painful. However, pending tightened oversight provisions, gambling expansion is largely inevitable.
The session's biggest failures are undoubtedly pension reform and gay marriage. Illinois was poised to become the 13th state to allow gay marriage by changing its marriage definition from an act between one man and one woman to an act between two people. However, sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) emotionally announced that he lacked the requisite votes, citing individual members' need for further deliberation — many of whom are facing intense external opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and conservative black churches.
Though the LGBT community and its allies expressed strong disappointment with the delay, that furor pales in comparison to universal displeasure with the General Assembly's inability to pass necessary comprehensive pension reform to save the state's worst-in-the-nation, cash-strapped public pension system that is approaching $100 billion in debt. Warnings from Moody's about another credit downgrade and multiple interrelated fiscal problems, detailed in an instructive 2012 report, were not enough to inspire meaningful action, and the 67% 2011 tax hike has thus far failed to stop the bleeding.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) each pushed vastly different pension proposals, with Madigan's allegedly reaping greater savings. However, the two leaders were unable to reconcile their respective plans and the chance to enact reform collapsed for the time being. Legislators' difficulties stem from a unique provision in the Illinois Constitution: "Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired" (Ill. Const., Art. XIII, §5, emphasis added). Thus, state lawmakers must contend with the double challenge of enacting comprehensive pension reform that adequately addresses their fiscal obligations but which will also survive inevitable legal challenges. Cullerton claims his plan, while saving less than Madigan's, will pass muster in the state courts.
The pension imbroglio is effectively a microcosm of Illinois' other financial woes. General fiscal uncertainty, the result of years of bipartisan mismanagement, is disincentivizing companies from doing business in the state, which opt instead to create jobs in neighboring states like Iowa and Indiana. Similarly, a lack of new business suggests Illinois will continue merely anemic recovery even as the rest of the nation progressively strengthens.
The legislature's collective failures will undoubtedly galvanize admittedly battered and disadvantaged Illinois Republicans leading up to 2014 and 2016. The state GOP recently selected former lobbyist Jack Dorgan as its new chairman. Dorgan replaces Pat Brady, who ignominiously resigned after enduring months of vehement criticism from his own ranks for supporting gay marriage. Additionally, the Sunday after the legislature adjourned, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford announced his candidacy for the 2014 gubernatorial election — adroit timing for the former state congressman who has long harbored gubernatorial aspirations. Meanwhile, the General Assembly's inaction leaves Quinn vulnerable to major general election and primary challenges, including from state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, daughter of the Speaker, who is reportedly considering challenging Quinn.
All told, it was a disappointing conclusion. But the failure is political, not ideological. Deals can and must be struck to restructure state public pensions in a way that comports with the Illinois Constitution; to afford all Illinoisans equal rights and protections regardless of sexual orientation; and to ethically and responsibly expand statewide gambling. Quinn should exercise his Art. IV, §5 powers and convene the General Assembly for a special session at least until remaining disagreements regarding pension reform are overcome. The state's fiscal future and millions of taxpayers demand no less.