Editor's Notebook: Lawmakers plan a quick trip but we will track the itinerary
Fasten those seat belts. The spring legislative session is on a fast track. This being an election year, no one wants to run into unexpected controversies. This being Illinois, the ride could get bumpy.
Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn April 7, nearly two months before the state's constitutional deadline. But in these next few weeks, they'll have a lot of ground to cover.
First stop is the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. To smooth the way, Democrats used their majorities in both chambers last spring to give themselves a two-year financial cushion. In sending this fiscal year's $54.4 billion budget to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, they pushed off $2.3 billion in public pension obligations. The move closed an immediate $1.2 billion revenue gap and provided a $1.1 billion cushion heading into next fiscal year.
That move could ease continuing budget constraints — or set off a scramble for the so-called "extra" cash.
In either event, if the Democrats ride together, they could blow past Republicans; their votes aren't needed to pass the budget. But watch for the GOP to raise concerns about deferring liability in the state's five pension systems.
And watch for Republicans to flag proposed increases in the state's bond debt that aren't tied to new sources of revenue.
Capital spending is the second stop on the itinerary. Blagojevich called for a $3.2 billion construction program for roads and schools. He argues he can raise $500,000 of that for school construction by adding keno to the state's lottery lineup, and that he can tap dollars from the state's road funds to finance borrowing.
There has been some grinding of gears over the proposal to borrow from the road funds and over the plan to introduce keno. This could signal trouble ahead. The governor says he can add the game without legislative approval, but he will need Republican votes if he has to increase the state's bonding authority. And most experts say he will.
Though lawmakers will focus on fiscal matters, they have introduced hundreds of substantive measures. Most won't get a vote. A few are worthy of note. Among them is a measure pulling the Illinois Gaming Board out of the Illinois Department of Revenue, making it an independent entity; two granting pharmacists the right to refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill; and several regulating vicious dogs and their owners.
We touch on these issues in this edition. But Illinois Issues now has two new reporters in our Statehouse bureau who will help our readers make sense of the action during this fast-paced session.
Bethany Carson is our new Statehouse bureau chief. As the magazine's Public Affairs Reporting intern a couple of years ago, she wrote several in-depth cover stories on such complex and controversial subjects as medical malpractice caps.
There has been some grinding of gears over the proposal to borrow from the road funds and over the plan to introduce keno. The governor says he can add the game without legislative approval, but he will need Republican votes if he has to increase the state's bonding authority.
She returns to the Capitol this month after a stint in Decatur as the health reporter for The Herald & Review, where she has been covering local and state impacts of the new federal law extending Medicare coverage to prescription drugs.
"I feel a lot of things have converged for me," she says about her new position at the Statehouse.
"I've gained a lot in all the different areas where I've lived, from the Chicago suburbs, to rural Illinois, to the industrial town of Decatur."
Her goal, she says, is to offer perspective.
"I approach every story I do with that goal, giving people a perspective on what happened, how we got there and what it could mean to them."
She also has worked as a managing editor. That position at The Chronicle of Hoopeston right after college gave her a close-up view of local government and politics, and considerable experience in writing, editing and managing a small town newspaper.
Bethany has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied magazine writing, and a master's in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Jasmine Washington, our Public Affairs Reporting intern for this spring's session, set aside premed studies to take up journalism. She, too, aims to write about policy issues in terms that best serve the public.
"Not too many people pay attention to what's going on in local government and state government," she says. "I really am interested in trying to bring it to a broader audience."
Within a week of her arrival, Jasmine wrote her first story for Illinois Issues, a piece on the controversy over pharmacists' rights of conscience on the morning-after pill. It's an issue that is attracting the attention of state lawmakers throughout the nation.
She will compile the magazine's monthly Legislative Checklist this spring. "I'm going to be interested in how everything is going to be handled in such a short session," she says.
Jasmine grew up in South Carolina. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Claflin University in Orangeburg. While a student, she landed a legislative internship with The Associated Press in Columbia, S.C.
We're thankful to have two such dedicated and high-energy reporters in our bureau.
And we're thankful to former Illinois Issues bureau chief Aaron Chambers for writing our State of the State columns over the past two months. Aaron, who is now Statehouse bureau chief for the Rockford Register Star, agreed to help us out again temporarily.
We're good to go now. As are lawmakers.
Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.
Illinois Issues, February 2006