SPRINGFIELD – Lawmaking at the state Capitol often goes like this: Legislators talk up a bill or idea until the final days – or hours – of the session, when suddenly a deal is made behind closed doors, then emerges for a vote and no one has a chance to read the bill.
But this year, faced with bitter divisions over guns and state pensions, House Speaker Michael Madigan resorted to a rarely-used tactic that does the opposite. He has called weekly sessions to laboriously address each and every proposal on dealing with the two controversial issues, debating and voting on each amendment piece by piece.
The idea was to engage in deeper discussions early on, rebut concerns about a closed-door process and gauge where lawmakers were on even the smallest of aspects. Madigan and others point to success, including some movement on the pension issue.
But critics say the process was directionless, ate up time, and now appears to have evaporated as a strategy without moving Illinois that much closer to solutions. While Democrats say it was aimed at making lawmakers more accountable about where they stand on issues, Republicans fear it was aimed more at forcing them to make uncomfortable votes on sensitive issues, which could haunt them at election time.
“The word that comes to mind is almost a joke. Both pensions and guns have become extremely convoluted,” said Pecatonica Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent. “Anybody with an idea could throw their amendment on [a bill], though it might be totally conflicting,”
Madigan, head of the state Democratic Party, has deemed the so-called “Weekly Order of Business” debates a success. Late last month, House members approved a measure to address Illinois’ nearly $100 billion in pension debt, including provisions to delay and reduce retired employees’ cost-of-living increases. He and Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook, who has been at the center of pension talks, say that all House members got a crash course in pensions.
“We had a good airing of both sides of the issue,” said Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman. “All too often people, especially the minority party, will complain, ‘We don’t know this [debate or vote] is going to happen.’ You’ve got two pretty complex, somewhat emotionally charged, issues that seemed to lend itself to this sort of approach.”
But many Republicans, including House Minority Leader Tom Cross, disagree. They point to the lack of progress on the Legislature’s need to comply with a federal judge’s order to legalize the public possession of firearms by early June. Despite the deliberations, two opposing proposals to end the nation’s last ban on “concealed carry” were voted down last week.
The weekly hearings on guns were long and emotionally charged: In one session Republicans protested the process as flawed and kicked and pounded their desks. More than 50 amendments were filed on one guns bill, including separate proposals prohibiting guns in hospitals, libraries and amusement parks.
Brown and other Democrats believe lawmakers may have gotten as far as they were going to get on a guns compromise, part of the reason the process has ended. “I’m not sure you get to consensus on the issue of gun safety,” Brown said.
But Cross asserted that lawmakers have nothing conclusive to show on pensions either. Republicans say that several measures approved by the House fall short of the Senate’s desire to deal with a comprehensive plan to solve the nation’s worst pension crisis.
“No comprehensive legislation has yet come from the speaker’s weekly orders of business, so it would be premature to deem this practice a success,” Cross said in a statement. “We believe there are better ways to come to consensus on these major issues we are facing, like negotiating bills that we believe can pass the House.”
While it’s true no comprehensive legislation has resulted, the biggest victory thus far in the pension debate – House approval of a plan co-authored by Cross to reduce and delay cost-of-living increases in state employees’ retirement pay – came out of a “weekly order” vote. Cross himself heralded the passage as “the meat and potatoes of pension reform.”
Lawmakers disagree on the political impact of the piecemeal process. Some say it offered a chance to hold lawmakers accountable on important issues they might avoid if no compromise is struck or there ultimately is only one vote, yes or no, on a comprehensive bill. Come election time, candidates might have less wiggle room to explain away their vote under the piecemeal process.
Among the examples were the votes on reducing cost-of-living increases for retirees and capping the salary on which benefits are based at the limit set for Social Security. The state’s powerful unions object to the provisions, so some lawmakers would have preferred not to vote at all.
“The process is sometimes messy to get to a resolution of a very painful problem,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat who voted for the salary cap but against the reduced and delayed COLAs plan. “But at the end of the day we now know by a collection of votes how people feel on each and every issue.”