Ill. lawmakers' spring session: No pension reform, no gambling, no gay marriage

News-DemocratMay 31, 2013 

Illinois Legislature

The floor of the Illinois Senate.

SETH PERLMAN — AP

— They failed to pass a solution to the pension crisis -- again.

They also failed to pass a gambling expansion and they put off a vote on gay marriage.

They passed a budget with $2 billion more in spending, they reached a compromise on carrying guns in public and they approved a bill allowing so-called fracking.

That sums up how the Illinois General Assembly wrapped up its spring session on Friday.

The House also passed a resolution urging the governor not to close the state-operated Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia, but it's only a recommendation.

PENSIONS: The failure on the pension front was glaring, especially in light of previous failed attempts to solve the state's nearly $100 billion unfunded pension liability.

Banks took notice: A Moody's analyst predicted that the state's bond rating, already the lowest of any state in the nation, could go even lower.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican, said the state's "foundation is crumbling" because of the pension burden.

"We're really going to leave this place and not do pension reform?" he said. "It's mind-boggling to me. For three years, we've talked about pension reform -- three years."

House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, told House members that failure to resolve the issue this spring "doesn't mean that we're going to walk away from our responsibility."

The inaction means soaring pension payments will continue to squeeze the state budget. The state's full annual pension payment in 2014 will be about $6 billion -- nearly one-fifth of the state's general revenue fund.

The House and the Senate couldn't come to agreement on a pension overhaul. The Senate on Thursday evening rejected a plan supported by Madigan.

Most senators preferred a plan offered by Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. Cullerton favored giving employees and retirees a choice in benefits -- an approach he said was the only one that would survive a court challenge.

Public employee unions, which threatened to sue if Madigan's bill passed, lobbied hard for Cullerton's approach, saying they wanted a deal that would not only uphold the state's promises to workers and retirees but also stabilize the pension system.

Critics argued that Cullerton's plan didn't save enough money.

The state's pension systems cover state employees, judges and legislators, as well as teachers from outside Chicago, which has its own teacher pension system.

GAMBLING: The sponsor of a bill that would have added five new casinos and allowed slot machines at horse-racing tracks says the Illinois Gaming Board chairman's recent comments were a reason he decided not to call it for a vote.

Earlier this week Chairman Aaron Jaffe said a proposal for the Chicago casino should be separated out because of potential issues with oversight.

Democratic Rep. Robert Rita told reporters Friday that the bill simply wasn't ready. Negotiations had been ongoing for days.

The plan would have added casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, Chicago's south suburbs and Lake County. It also would have allowed video gambling at horse-racing tracks, including Fairmount Park in Collinsville.

Gov. Pat Quinn had twice rejected plans, but publicly signaled he was open to the idea if it had ethical oversight and he got a pension deal first.

GAY MARRIAGE: Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said his bill to allow same-sex marriage didn't have enough votes to pass in the House, so he didn't call it.

At the end of Friday's House session, Harris, who is gay, tearfully told fellow representatives that he and other supporters of same-sex marriage will keep their eye "on the ultimate prize" and continue pushing the issue.

Supporters filled the House gallery in hopes the measure would be called. The bill cleared the Senate in February.

Opponents said marriage should be between a man and a woman. They also feared the bill would force religious organizations to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities.

Proponents touted it as a civil rights matter, and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn had pledged to sign it into law if it reached his desk. Same-sex marriage is allowed in 12 states.

FRACKING: The Senate approved a bill allowing high-volume oil and gas drilling, also known as fracking.

Supporters say regulated fracking would bring as many as 70,000 jobs to depressed areas in southern Illinois while some opponents worry about pollution. Supporters said the bill has the most strict regulations of any state in the nation.

Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said proponents have taken great precautions to make sure groundwater and other parts of the environment are protected.

"I think we bent over backwards with this bill," Luechtefeld said. "We've gone to great lengths to make this something that is safe."

He added, "This has great promise...I think you're going to see some tremendous results from it."

BUDGET: Republicans criticized the $35.4 billion general funds budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, saying it increases spending yet again. Democrats said it's a responsible spending plan that pays off part of the state's bill backlog and avoids cuts to education for the first time in at least four years.

Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, said the plan, crafted by Democrats, effectively spends $2 billion more the previous year.

"They created the entire budget behind closed doors and increased spending next fiscal year by more than $2 billion. Last year, the budget was created in a transparent and thought-out process. This year they decided to cram what they wanted down our throat with no discussion and no other option presented to us," Meier said.

Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, said the budget avoids harsh cuts to education and other critical programs.

"I worked diligently to prioritize state spending and to ensure that important programs, like education, are spared from major cuts that could have had devastating consequences. However, there is still more work to be done, and I am committed to working to continue to improve efficiencies and to reduce waste within state government," Hoffman said.

MURRAY CENTER: By a vote of 105-12, the House approved Meier's resolution urging the governor to stop the closure of Murray Center, which is home to about 275 residents with developmental disabilities.

The governor has said closing the center will save money and provide a better quality of life for people with developmental disabilities, who mostly would be placed in group homes.

"I've been screaming from the rooftops this whole time and I'm not giving up," Meier said. "We're going to keep fighting the governor and prove that Murray Center is more than just a line-item in the state budget. It's a home for these residents, and if he takes it away, there's nowhere else they can go."

Meier urged his colleagues, "Let's not be loading them in a trailer like a herd of cattle."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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