CHICAGO – A huge election night gave Illinois Democrats unprecedented power at the state Capitol, allowing them to set budgets, borrow money and override vetoes by the governor without any input from Republicans.
But bigger majorities won’t necessarily make legislative business headache-free for the Democrats.
The veto-proof control of both chambers they secured Tuesday night could give legislative leaders even more influence in negotiations with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who at times has clashed with the General Assembly.
He vetoed a popular measure to expand legalized gambling and has differed with lawmakers on how to spend the state’s money, shore up its fiscal house and deal with a gap of $85 billion owed to state employees for future retirement obligations.
Still, Quinn insisted Wednesday that he is happy with his party’s victories in the elections and isn’t concerned about losing some muscle in the legislative process.
Democrats won a historic 40 seats in the state Senate – up from the 35 they have now – to just 19 for Republicans. In the House, Democrats picked up seven seats, reversing their losses in the 2010 Republican surge, leaving the GOP outnumbered 71-48.
“It’s hard to think of a landslide when someone already has a majority, but this is as close to a landslide as one can imagine,” said Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor.
Democrats have never held so many Senate seats, but for much of the 20th Century, the GOP dominated the upper chamber.
In 1906, Republicans won 44 of the Senate’s 51 seats and had more than 40 posts for most of the 1920s, according to records kept by Charles Wheeler III, a longtime Statehouse reporter and professor at U of I Springfield.
Since the size of the House was cut from 177 to 118 in 1982, a Democratic majority of 72-46 in 1991 was the biggest split. Democrats elected 118 House members in 1964, with help from an odd, court-ordered at-large ballot and President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide.
Exultation might be the natural reaction after unleashing such a blistering conquest. But all those new lawmakers will have their own agendas, making party cohesion more difficult. And Mooney said they pose other problems, particularly in setting an agenda that voters in distinct legislative districts will support in the next election.
“It’s unlikely they’re going to just cram through something crazy,” Mooney said. “One, it’s hard to get everybody on board, and even if they did, they’re going to pay for it down the road.”
Veteran Rep. Lou Lang agreed it’s no time to get giddy.
“It isn’t a slam dunk that just because one party has veto-proof majorities in both houses and the governor’s office that we can just wake up one morning and fix everything,” Lang said.
Lang sponsored a major gambling expansion measure supported by lawmakers that has met steady opposition from Quinn, including a veto in August.
The Skokie Democrat won’t embrace the idea that it would be easier to skip a veto override on the gambling proposal, wait for the supermajorities to take office and start over with a new bill. He plans to push for an override with the current Legislature in its fall session later this month.
“Get it off the table now,” Lang said. “Whether it’s gaming, pensions, health care issues, the Legislature should act when we have the ability to act.”
Quinn pushed aside questions about the gambling measure Wednesday but said he isn’t worried that his own party has suddenly removed the governor’s veto threat from unfriendly legislation.
“I don’t know where that ever came from,” he told reporters. “It’s really important to see that the Democratic Party made great inroads in suburban communities and I think that’s healthy for our democracy in Illinois. It’s not just one party in one part of our state.”
That would be the traditional split of Democrats dominating Chicago balanced by Republican strength in the suburban counties around the state and in rural parts of central and southern Illinois. But population changes, including an influx of heavily Democratic Latinos in the suburbs, have painted Illinois politically blue.
Quinn did emphasize a need to solve the pension crisis. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat who survived a tight race Tuesday, said the election results likely won’t change plans or timetables on that issue, which she has handled for House negotiators. Nekritz dismissed the idea that voters went to the polls with the idea of sending Democrats to eye-popping majorities to handle pensions and other issues.
The ballot offered a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it more difficult for lawmakers to expand state employees’ pension benefits. But the measure failed when it did not achieve enough votes.
Overall turnout was high — nearly 5 million votes cast in the presidential election. Nekritz said voters “were looking at individual races rather than looking at the big picture and saying, ‘We don’t want this leader or that leader.’”
Associated Press writers Sara Burnett and Jayson Keyser contributed to this report.
Contact John O’Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor