SPRINGFIELD – If highly touted but abruptly halted lame-duck action in the Illinois Senate last week was any indication, the House’s return Sunday will likely continue a roller coaster of escalating hopes, discouraging dips and resurgent optimism.
Though the need to fix a $96 billion pension deficit is at the forefront of most taxpayers’ minds, the Senate gambled with public opinion last week, bravely taking on the prominent but risky issues of gay marriage and gun control.
They lost. Supporters of gay marriage, especially, thought they’d have a bill to move to the House, but the fanfare fizzled when the legislation didn’t advance as hoped.
Why couldn’t Senate President John Cullerton – whose Democrats are on the verge of becoming more powerful, perhaps, than at any time in Illinois history – push through progressive legislation in a lame-duck session, when departing lawmakers feel free to vote as they please?
“Passing gay marriage and passing major gun control bills is always going to be very, very tough,” Cullerton said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.
In the 2011 session, lawmakers increased the income tax and abolished the death penalty, drawing criticism for using lame ducks to create such momentous changes, and “when we pass routine legislation, we get criticized for not passing major legislation, so let’s just get that off my chest,” he said.
Faced with defeat, Cullerton abruptly adjourned Thursday and canceled Friday’s meeting.
That was an embarrassment for Democrats, said Sen. David Luechtefeld, an assistant Republican leader from Okawville.
“Obviously, it turned out to be a waste of time,” Luechtefeld said. “We have a budget problem, we have a nearly unsolvable pension problem, and they take up these extremely controversial issues.”
Cullerton said the issues aren’t dead, that Democrats merely pulled them back for further work after hearing GOP opposition.
“It’s a matter of pleasing people enough to get enough votes,” the Chicago Democrat said.
As for the pension crisis, Cullerton quickly points out it’s not been ignored – the Senate adopted a reform bill in May. He called it “mind-numbing” that people have forgotten. He acknowledges that the measure is limited, but it provides a framework for expansion.
And he has previously suggested setting aside, for now, the prickly topic of local school districts picking up some of the retirement cost of teachers, a concession made by House counterpart, Speaker Michael Madigan. That opened the door to what proved to be an unfruitful meeting Saturday with Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative leaders.
Cullerton was coming off the biggest election in Senate Democrats’ history, winning five seats in November to take the majority to an unprecedented 40 votes versus Republicans’ 19. National opinion seemed to show there was significant momentum for gay marriage, and the Illinois proposal had recent public encouragement from President Barack Obama.
The time was right to push gay marriage, supporters thought.
But a procedural setback unexpectedly held it up. It was late Thursday before a committee approved it and sent it to the floor, following Republican complaints about details of the bill.
Similarly, legislation to regulate high-capacity ammunition clips and assault rifles in the wake of last month’s Connecticut school massacre received a chilly reception. It won a committee OK but still hasn’t moved to the floor.
Cullerton said the holdups are just part of lawmaking, not the result of too much nose-counting and too little focus on clear legislative language.
“Did we waste time by doing this exercise? Absolutely not,” Cullerton said. Committee hearings on guns and gay marriage “flushed out the opposition” and helped Democrats determine where they can clarify language or concede issues.
“It’s not an admission we did something wrong,” Cullerton said. “When they raise issues, we say, ‘OK, we’ll make this clear, maybe that would help you?’ And they say, ‘Sure.’ ”
And the Senate didn’t quit. If the House does cobble together a pension reform bill, the Senate will be back Tuesday.
Said Cullerton, “We are open for business.”