Illinois lawmakers have a politically enviable tradition when it comes to unpopular decisions – make them in the lame-duck session after the November election.
That’s how lawmakers three years ago raised the income tax 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on corporations, with the help of 12 outgoing Democratic lawmakers who provided the bare minimum number of votes needed. Six of them subsequently ended up receiving high-paying government jobs and the lucrative pensions that come with them.
With the tax increases set to expire Jan. 1, 2015, and worries that cash-strapped state lawmakers might go back on their word and make it permanent, House Republicans are taking a largely symbolic shot at ending lame-duck sessions.
Lawmakers led by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, last week filed House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 43, a bill to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would move the start of session from January to December, and would forbid the General Assembly from convening between the November election and the start of session without unanimous consent from the governor and the assembly’s four legislative leaders.
It is one of two measures, albeit unlikely to go anywhere in a Democratic-dominated state government, that Republican lawmakers unveiled.
“In the past we have seen lawmakers take positions on bills during the lame duck that they might not have taken if they had to answer to the voters,” Durkin said at a news conference. “The bills we have filed will eliminate lame-duck sessions and tough votes will have to be taken before an election – not afterwards.”
Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, believes elimination of lame-duck sessions will make legislators more accountable.
“You cannot have responsibility without accountability,” Demmer said. “This loophole has to be reformed to restore accountability in the voting process.”
Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley, believes two-year terms are sufficient to complete the process.
“The two-year legislative session allows more than enough time to thoroughly vet and move legislation through appropriate channels while simultaneously holding lawmakers responsible for their legislative action,” Pritchard said.
State lawmakers have increasingly exploited a loophole in the Illinois Constitution to pass controversial legislation that otherwise would have a hard time.
A simple majority – 61 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate – is needed to pass legislation during spring session, which now runs from the second Wednesday in January to the end of May. From June 1 until the end of the year, the threshold increases to three-fifths – 71 votes in the House and 36 in the Senate – for legislation to take effect immediately, rather than the following June.
But the number of votes needed reverts to a simple majority on Jan. 1, giving lawmakers after an election a window in which they can more easily pass controversial or unpopular laws without answering to the voters. Lawmakers who are leaving office have nothing politically left to lose, or can be persuaded with the promise of government jobs.
Former Democratic Reps. Robert Flider, D-Mt. Zion, and Careen Gordon, D-Morris, campaigned in 2010 against the tax increase, but were defeated at the polls. On the last day of the lame-duck session, they voted for the increase. Both of their votes were essential because the passed by the bare minimum in both houses without a single Republican in support.
Three days later, Gov. Pat Quinn, nominated Gordon for an $88,000-a-year seat on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. She withdrew after Senate Republicans promised to grill her over the perceived quid pro quo, but Quinn later appointed her to a similar-paying job as an attorney for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which did not require Senate confirmation. Quinn the following year nominated Flider to head the Illinois Department of Agriculture, a job that commands a $133,273 salary.
Quinn’s press office has repeatedly denied that the jobs were given as rewards for approving the tax increase.
It takes three-fifths votes of both the House and Senate to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, which means the latest GOP initiative, which has been attempted before, faces very long odds. Tuesday’s bill joins 43 other proposed constitutional amendments filed in the House this session, only one of which has made it out of committee. It is practically identical to a proposed amendment filed a year ago in the Senate, which is stuck in committee and has no sponsor other than the lawmaker who filed it.
A constitutional amendment to abolish the office of lieutenant governor, filed by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, passed the House last April but has languished in the Senate since. The office, long targeted for deletion by government waste watchdogs, carries no statutory powers in the Illinois Constitution.
Democratic lawmakers are expected to push for a constitutional amendment to change from a flat tax to a progressive one based on income like the federal tax structure. While it is expected to pass the more liberal Senate, it likely will face problems in the House. The number of votes needed is equal to the 71-seat Democratic supermajority, but local Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, has vowed to vote against putting it on the ballot, meaning at least one Republican would need to vote yes.
House GOP members last week also filed a fallback measure in House Resolution 805, which would change House rules by applying the three-fifths majority requirement after elections to bills going from second reading to final reading, and on bills concurring with legislative changes made in the Senate.