SPRINGFIELD – Illinois legislators return to the Capitol Monday for their final week of the spring session, with much of the heavy lifting still to do.
In what is practically an annual tradition, the biggest remaining issue is approving next year's budget. As part of that debate, the Legislature also must decide whether to make Illinois' temporary income tax increase permanent rather than let it roll back as scheduled in January.
"I'll tell you something about this place: the most important issues are always last," Rep. Monique Davis, a Chicago Democrat, said last week. "Sometimes it's in order to get a lot of support. And sometimes it's just to have an exciting ending."
Here's a look some of the issues still yet to be addressed, and what the outlook is as the General Assembly heads toward its Saturday adjournment.
BUDGET AND TAXES:
At its most basic, this year's budget debate comes down to one question: Is it better to extend the income tax hike – potentially angering voters who were told it would be temporary – or approve a smaller budget that cuts billions of dollars for schools, social services and other areas? So far the answer, at least in the Illinois House in this election year, has been "neither." House Speaker Michael Madigan says he doesn't have the votes to extend the tax increase, which is set to drop from 5 percent to 3.75 percent for individuals. But on Friday, a so-called "doomsday" budget based on the smaller revenue projections went down in flames. Madigan said legislators would try again to draft a 2015 budget that can get through the House and Senate. That plan could surface as soon as Monday. Meanwhile, Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn will keep pushing for the tax hike extension.
OBAMA PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY:
A proposal to set aside $100 million to help construct Barack Obama's presidential library and museum in Chicago passed a House committee but has been waiting for a floor vote. The measure, intended to lure the library to Obama's hometown, has Madigan's backing. But Davis, who's co-sponsoring the bill, acknowledged the funding would need to come from a capital construction bill, and there's been little to no traction yet on such a plan. If the funding bill passes the House it would face a tougher vote in the Senate, where even Democrats are reluctant to spend the money in a tight budget year without evidence it's absolutely needed to land the library.
Weeks after it became clear Democrats were struggling to find the necessary votes to increase Illinois' minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.65 per hour, Madigan began advancing the issue by another route. The House has approved the Chicago Democrat's plan to instead ask voters in November whether the state should increase the wage to $10 an hour. Quinn on Tuesday said the non-binding referendum will help the Legislature "get the job done" as it works to build a majority to raise the minimum wage. The ballot measure also may work to drive Democratic turnout in the governor's race between Quinn and Republican businessman Bruce Rauner. The measure is now in the Senate, where it's expected to pass.
Illinois mayors outside of Chicago say "unsustainable" pension cost increases for municipal police and firefighter pension systems will lead to higher property taxes and slashes to services. They've asked legislators for permission to reduce public safety pension benefits, similar to recent changes to state employee retirement systems. But help appears unlikely to come this session. Democratic Sen. Terry Link of Vernon Hills says he's negotiating a proposal, but a group of mayors already has come out against it. There's also no action expected on Chicago police, fire and teachers pensions. Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle has been working with lawmakers on a plan, however, to address county pensions. The bill is expected to be introduced this week.
Democratic Rep. Bob Rita of Blue Island sent a letter to House leaders last week in an effort to spark support for his plan to expand gambling. It has two options: One adds five casinos – including one in Chicago – and slots at horse tracks; the other calls for a mega casino in Chicago. Rita pitched the package as a source of much-needed revenue, but it hasn't gained momentum and is unlikely to advance by Saturday.