End and Means: Bipartisan Mood Captures the General Assembly

Jul 1, 2011

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Is legislative productivity becoming a trend in Illinois?

Building on the impressive record compiled by the 96th General Assembly during its two-year tenure that ended in January, current lawmakers fashioned a budget based on expected revenues, significantly changed teacher tenure and evaluation rules and revamped the state’s workers’ compensation system — all in the first five months of the 97th General Assembly.

Along the way, the legislature also approved a measure designed to guarantee double-digit returns to the state’s largest utilities for upgrading the state’s electric grid and passed a major expansion of gambling in the state.

And to no one’s surprise, the Democratic majorities also fashioned new congressional and legislative maps designed to strengthen party numbers in Washington and Springfield and to consign Republicans to minority status for the next decade.

Quite a track record, by anyone’s reckoning, but perhaps more importantly, a record accomplished in large part through bipartisan cooperation (with the notable exception of redistricting) that’s been lacking for most of this century.

Consider the budget. Under new rules enacted last session, the legislature had to decide how much money would be available in the budget year that started July 1 and hold spending within that amount. And for the first time in decades, rank-and-file appropriations committees actually went through Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget, line item by line item, to keep agency spending within the predetermined amounts.

The process wasn’t perfect, of course; at this writing, a disagreement between Senate Democrats and the House about exactly how much could be spent on education and human services means more work could be done during the fall session. Important to note, however, the dispute stemmed from the Senate majority’s belief that state revenues would be roughly $1 billion more in FY 2012 than the estimate agreed to by both parties in the House — but still some $2 billion less than the budget Quinn proposed in February.

For the last two budget years, in contrast, Democrats approved spending plans well in excess of expected revenues, eschewed line-item appropriations for lump sum authorization, and left it up to the governor to make ends meet. 

Also new this spring, both chambers appropriated the full cost for state retirement systems, employee health care and debt service — almost $9 billion — before tackling outlays for ongoing programs.

While few criticized the new process, Quinn and advocates for education and human services lambasted the results as cutting too deeply into programs important to the state’s future, such as early childhood education, and to its ability to help its most vulnerable citizens, including services to people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.

While the legislature’s spending plan was crafted to match 2012 outgo to 2012 income, the budget ignored a mountain of unpaid bills from FY 2011, estimated at $8 billion by state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Quinn and Democratic leaders suggested raising cash through bond sales to pay the tens of thousands of past-due bills, but Republicans balked, arguing the state shouldn’t borrow any more money. The GOP conveniently overlooked the fact that the state already has borrowed the money from social service providers, small businesses, school districts, local governments and other creditors, few of whom are in the business of making loans, instead of going to the bond markets, whose main role is loaning money.

In contrast to the budget squabbles, lawmakers approved — with but a single dissenting vote — landmark education reforms that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called "truly remarkable."

Under the legislation, signed by Quinn in mid-June, teacher performance —measured in part by student achievement — will count in deciding layoffs and job assignments, not just seniority. The product of lengthy negotiations between school administrators, teachers’ unions and education reform groups, the measure also makes firing bad teachers easier, tenure tougher to get, and teacher strikes more difficult.

The workers’ compensation overhaul also was a bipartisan effort, at least in the Senate, but garnered only one Republican vote in the House. Sponsors said the proposal would save Illinois companies some $500 million to $700 million in workers’ comp costs, largely by cutting by 30 percent the fees paid to doctors and hospitals for treating injured workers. The bill also would allow employers to set up doctors’ networks, set guidelines for determining the severity of an injury, limit awards for carpal tunnel syndrome and strengthen standards for the arbitrators who hear claims.

But the measure does not cover the employer community’s top concern: tying injury claims more closely to the workplace, causing some business groups and most House Republicans to dismiss the reforms.

Mindful that half a loaf is better than nothing, though, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and Illinois Manufacturers Association President Greg Baise backed the bill. Some Democrats, meanwhile, suggested that House Republican opposition reflected the significant campaign contributions to caucus coffers over the years by the Illinois State Medical Society.

The utility measure, sought by Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, would increase electric rates 2.5 percent annually through 2014 to generate $3 billion for a 10-year plan to upgrade the electric grid, including installing new technology that would help consumers manage their power usage more closely.

Despite opposition from Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the Citizens Utility Board and other watchdog groups, and a veto threat from Quinn, the proposal cleared the House with 34 Republican and 33 Democratic votes, then garnered 12 GOP and 19 Democratic votes in the Senate.

In similar fashion, lawmakers from both parties teamed to approve a sweeping measure to authorize five new casinos, including one in Chicago, to permit existing casinos to expand and to allow slot machines at six horseracing tracks, two Chicago airports and the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Forty-four Democrats and 21 Republicans voted for the plan in the House, and six Republicans joined 24 Democrats to provide the 30 votes needed in the Senate.

Both the electric bill and the gambling legislation faced considerable opposition, of course. But whether pro or con on a particular issue, Illinois citizens should be heartened by the bipartisan approach that seems to be in vogue in the Statehouse these days.

 Lawmakers approved — with but a single dissenting vote — landmark education reforms.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2011