Legislators accomplish little
Not much of substance got accomplished during the recently concluded legislative session, which isn’t surprising. When, after all, has the Illinois General Assembly achieved greatness in an election year?
There were, however, winners and losers, as is always the case when the legislature is in session. Here’s a quick look inside the win-loss column.
Winner: Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. Republicans almost never win in a legislature controlled by Chicago Democrats, but they sure can give a good speech, which Murphy proved as lawmakers piled the November ballot high with meaningless advisory initiatives in a state where citizens have almost no power to enact laws by popular vote. Lawmakers put no fewer than five initiatives on the fall ballot, nearly one for each letter in the word “pander.” Meanwhile, two proposals that would actually accomplish things (one would establish term limits for elected officials, the other would take redistricting away from the legislature and give that power to a nonpartisan commission) face uncertain futures thanks in part to lawsuits filed on behalf of people who like the status quo. The silly-season initiatives included measures that would guarantee the right to vote (already covered by the U.S. constitution), raise taxes on incomes over $1 million (sounds great unless you’re a millionaire), increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour (if they really meant it, they would have actually passed it) and establish a crime victims’ bill of rights (and why not, given that Illinois already has a bill of rights for police officers and another for taxpayers). Murphy blew up as the Senate prepared to vote on an initiative that would require insurance companies to cover birth control (already required by both state and federal law). He blasted Democrats for putting what appears to be a record number of initiatives on the ballot that would accomplish nothing except fooling Democratic voters into going to the polls when the governor’s office is at stake. “Anything – anything – is better to you than losing that power, and you’ll do anything,” Murphy raged. “You’re about to pass another bad budget in this chamber. You’re about to have another year of failure. You’re going to do everything you can to distract, but you know what you’re really doing? You’re demeaning the people in this state who are looking for serious responses. This is a gimmick, this is a stunt, it’s a game and everybody down here knows it.”
Loser: State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. In just his second year in the Senate, Manar came remarkably close to shepherding a school-funding bill through the General Assembly, getting it past the Senate before it stalled in the House. School funding formulas in Illinois are mind-numbingly complex [see “Fixing school funding,” by Lauren P. Duncan, April 24, illinoistimes.com], but the issue boils down to poor school districts not getting as much money as wealthy districts with high property values. Fixing it is akin to herding fleas on a whole lot of cats, and Manar deserves credit for taking on the issue and making as much progress as he did. If it were only this, he’d be a winner, even though he didn’t prevail, but there is also the matter of Senate Bill 0648, a Manar idea aimed at reining back animal-rescue groups. What began as a dust-up involving a constituent whose hound was – take your pick – either dog-napped or rescued by folks who believed the mutt needed help morphed into a bill that would have required rescue groups to turn animals over to pounds and get a search warrant or court order before removing an animal from private property. Public animal control facilities, aka pounds, could not release dogs or cats to animal shelters within state borders, and humane investigators who typically work on behalf of private shelters would have to notify law enforcement before conducting animal welfare investigations. Dog and cat fanciers howled after the bill quietly passed the Senate, and it was quickly tabled before the first hearing in the House. If only there were the same level of concern for public education.
Loser: Executive Mansion. Just because lawmakers got all crazy awhile back and spent a jillion dollars on copper doors and other fancy stuff for the Capitol doesn’t justify allowing the mansion to cave in on itself. The roof leaks, and badly – at this rate, Illinois is going to become a blue-tarp state – but no one will do anything for fear of being called wasteful. The state gives millions in grants, needed or not, to practically any nonprofit with a friend in the Cook County courthouse while legislators and the governor worry about how things will look if they patch the roof on what is becoming the state’s version of the Bel Aire Motel. Please.
Winner: Bruce Rauner. With a session like this, the Republican who would be governor has plenty of ammunition for the fall campaign. A kick-the-can budget that everyone knows is fantasy. A governor whose biggest accomplishment, pushing through an income tax hike in 2010, has been overshadowed by a series of pratfalls (see scandals at the Illinois Department of Transportation and criminal investigations into anti-violence grants in Chicago) and a growing sense that he can’t steer this aircraft carrier. If nothing else, this session showed that Springfield doesn’t need a shakeup as much as it needs a jump start.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.