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Illinois legislators face tough votes after break

Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers left Springfield on Friday for a two-week vacation before a final two-month push at resolving the state’s pressing problems, including the nation’s worst pension crisis.

After three months of debate, lawmakers finally showed some progress on tackling state employee pensions, but they have yet to move far a proposal allowing gay marriage, a federal judge’s order to permit conceal carry of weapons and an oil-drilling practice that could create thousands of jobs.

Also looming: Yet another push for an expansion of casinos and the need to approve a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn laid out what he called “the most difficult budget Illinois has ever faced.”

Legislators will intensify efforts to address all of those issues in the eight weeks before their May 31 adjournment. But a possible fix for the state’s $100 billion pension systems deficit will remain center stage.

Some lawmakers believe they’ve at least gained momentum with their votes on pension reform this week.

“I don’t feel like the break will hurt us,” said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, chairwoman of the House Personnel and Pensions Committee. “We’ve really done the heavy lifting right now.”

Here’s where some significant legislative measures stand:

PENSIONS

Discussions on the state’s pension mess have dragged for more than a year, but lawmakers’ faces showed signs of relief Thursday when the House approved a measure aimed at reducing and delaying cost-of-living increases in state employees’ retirement pay.

The measure is by no means the comprehensive reform needed to fix the pension problem. But lawmakers could still call the approval victory because the pared-down measure – estimated to save the state $19 billion – had been one of the most contentious points of debate.

The driving forces behind the proposal – Nekritz and Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston – shared a big hug after the breakthrough. But they conceded the measures’ fate in the Senate is uncertain.

On Wednesday, the Senate rejected a more comprehensive reform package sponsored by Biss. It included the COLA cuts and two other stripped-down measures that have passed the House.

Same-sex marriage

A proposal to make Illinois the 10th state to allow same-sex couples to marry received the Senate’s approval on Valentine’s Day. Only one Republican voted in favor of it.

Now House members are sending mixed signals about it.

The most powerful man in the General Assembly, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, last week said the measure is 12 votes short of approval. But one of the bill’s top sponsors, Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, said it’s closer than that. In the past, Harris and other supporters have said they would not call the proposal for a vote until they are certain they have the 60 votes needed to pass it.

CASINOS

An Illinois Senate committee approved a measure calling for five new casinos and thousands of slots at racetracks and Chicago’s airports.

Quinn has vetoed two similar proposals, but the new measure would allocate the gambling expansion’s profits to education, an idea Quinn has suggested he could support.

Legislative supporters say that adding the casinos could create thousands of jobs. But Quinn has vetoed their past attempts on ethical premises, and he says he is still studying the most recent one.

OIL DRILLING

An extraordinary compromise bill that would facilitate and regulate the practice of high-volume oil and gas drilling, known as “fracking,” has been negotiated by lawmakers, representatives from the oil and gas industry, environmentalists, agriculture industry officials and Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Experts have said the bill has the strictest regulations in the nation. Lawmakers have touted it as a jobs and revenue generator. The measure is stalled in a House committee while industry and unions work out differences over hiring requirements.

Supporters say they are confident it has the backing to move forward.

GUNS

In December, a federal court struck down Illinois’ concealed weapons ban – the last in the nation – and gave lawmakers until June 8 to adopt a law allowing concealed carry.

To find a solution, the House began holding weekly floor sessions last month, allowing lawmakers to propose gun measures. So far, lawmakers have considered more than 15 proposals, both for and against gun restrictions, but they are nowhere close to sending a bill to the Senate.

Quinn wants Lisa Madigan to appeal the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. She has said she will wait to see what lawmakers decide.

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