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State of the State: A 37-member majority may not be as super as it first appears

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues
The regional and political differences among Senate Democrats were on display in some of the most attention-getting issues this spring.

The 95th Illinois General Assembly began with high expectations for the Senate Democrats, whose majority grew by six members in last fall's elections. But so far they haven't looked like the agenda-setters they were expected to be.

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. has 37 members on his side of the aisle. That's one more than the 36 votes needed to craft a state budget, approve a major capital plan and override a gubernatorial veto without a single Republican vote. Senate Democrats haven't had such a large percentage of the votes since the mid-1970s.

Thirty years ago, the Senate included loyalists to then-Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and the so-called Crazy Eight independent and downstate senators. This Democratic Caucus is just as diverse, says Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

Despite the current Senate's Democratic "super majority," though, the size and diversity of its caucus could actually disrupt their chances of becoming a unified force.

"The narrower the majority, the greater the case for the caucus being cohesive," says Lawrence, who also was a longtime Statehouse journalist and a senior policy adviser to former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. "If you have an extraordinary majority, people are more inclined to leave the reservation."

In fact, before mid-May, the regional and political differences among Senate Democrats were on display in some of the most attention-getting issues this spring: skyrocketing electricity rates and tax reform.

Since the start of the spring session, Jones has been at odds with some of the members of his Democratic Caucus over those two issues. And how the Senate president decides to lead his chamber will determine the likelihood of compromise on either.

But there's an additional factor that Jones has to confront that wasn't there 30 years ago: diversity among the Chicago-area lawmakers. Jones would have to pull in five of this year's Democratic Party pickups who represent suburban Chicago districts. Some of those districts lean more Republican and could influence whether the new members vote in line with Chicago Democrats or vote in the interests of their local businesses and more conservative constituents.

Two other first-time senators represent central Illinois districts, another region not guaranteed to follow the Chicago-centric partisan line. And they haven't. Their constituents applied pressure as soon as electricity bills went up. A nearly 10-year freeze on electricity rates expired in January, and most downstate residents served by Ameren Illinois have experienced higher rates than Commonwealth Edison customers in northern Illinois.

Jones opposes an idea to roll back and refreeze electricity rates at their 1997 levels. He went so far as to outmaneuver one of his party members, Sen. Gary Forby of Benton, to ensure that ComEd was left out of legislation to freeze rates.

But new senators from the Chicago suburbs and from downstate are more likely to support the effort to freeze electricity rates again, Lawrence says. Downstate legislators get the most angry phone calls because Ameren cut off a discount formerly given to customers who heat their homes with all electric power. Downstate and suburban law-makers also are more visible in their communities and likely to be more sensitive to public opinion and feel more pressure from local businesses.

Local pressure is also reflected in downstate lawmakers' stance against the governor's idea for a gross receipts tax, which is expected to generate more than $7 billion to pay for near-universal health insurance. It has support from education and labor groups but opposition from large business groups and some medical organizations.

Jones unequivocally supports Blagojevich's gross receipts tax. And he said early in the spring session that he would not allow multiple tax proposals to be debated on the Senate floor. By mid-May, it was unclear whether he would be able to draw his Democrats together to support a revised version of the governor's tax plan.

Because Jones initially ruled out a Senate hearing of an alternative "tax swap" proposal, he ran into conflict with some key Senate Democrats. Independent-turned-Democratic Sen. James Meeks of Chicago is one. He wants to raise the state income tax, expand the sales tax and relieve local property taxes to reform the way Illinois funds education.

Meeks' proposal gained early support from the Latino Caucus, another key Democratic group unafraid to use political leverage with its leadership. The leaders of the 13-member faction have been most vocal in its opposition to Jones' support of the governor's business tax.

Caucus chairman Sen. William Delgado, a Chicago Democrat, says he doesn't like the strong-arm approach, the "old-school politics to try to twist our arms" into supporting the governor's gross receipts tax as a way to fund state-sponsored health insurance.

"The caucus is up for grabs," Delgado said in early May. "I'm very disappointed in the vote I cast for my Senate president, who apparently has decided that it's one way or the highway."

Delgado added the entire session stands out as one of the most unorthodox, convoluted and divisive sessions he's seen in his 10 years in the legislature. 

He partially blames Jones, "and I call him Sen. Jones, the gentleman who is keeping us from moving as a group." He adds the administration "should do everything they can to counsel him and help him understand that he should be working closer with his members and that he gets more flies with honey than with vinegar." 

But with their own internal divisions, Latino Caucus members aren't as unified as they appear, either.

It started when former Sen. Miguel del Valle of Chicago, the first Latino elected to the Senate, left office after nearly 20 years to become Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's city clerk. The diversity among the members' perspectives and political allegiances played out in the shuffling of internal power, says Sylvia Puente, director of the Metropolitan Chicago Initiative at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"[D]el Valle's departure has really created the void and the vacuum in the realignment of the caucus membership," she says. 

While proud to have a Latino Caucus, she says "the caucus, like other groups right now, is posturing to figure out how it's going to stake out its claim and its position." And she says she hopes that doesn't affect caucus members' ability to bring resources back to their districts. For instance, one coalition is hoping to secure a $25 million capital program to build early childhood education facilities in Latino communities.

Chicago Sen. Donne Trotter, caucus whip for the Senate Democrats, says disagreements are part of the budget-setting process and have already led to two changes in the governor's tax plan between January and mid-May. He says because of members' concerns, the Senate pushed the governor to adjust the exemption threshold from less than $1 million in sales to less than $2 million in sales. They also succeeded in getting a property tax relief provision added to the plan.

"For individuals to characterize this as a process that input is not given, I think is incorrect and disingenuous," he says.

Some senators, including some Republicans, think Democrats have more incentive to compromise than to let their differences delay a state budget until after May 31, the constitutional deadline. After that date, Republicans will gain some power in the budget process.

"As painful as it might be to try to force some of their members to vote for some things that are, quite frankly, very unpopular in their districts, they would rather do that than have to listen to us at the budget table tell them what we believe they're doing wrong," says Mattoon Republican Sen. Dale Righter, GOP Caucus chairman.

Compromise is possible. Despite this spring's tension among the leadership, Lawrence says Jones is consistently underrated as Senate president. He typically delivers the votes he needs.

Whether the regional and political differences within their caucus could prevent the Senate Democrats from compromising — particularly about whether to offer electricity rate relief throughout the state or to enact tax reforms that all members can support — depends on the way Jones pulls in his members or lets them off the reservation. Either way, he might not apply the "veto-proof" majority that was so celebrated on Election Day. 


Bethany Carson can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, June 2007

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