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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 01:46 pm

A flurry in the legislature could mean big stuff is coming

Senate President John Cullerton.
What started out as a slow state legislative veto session suddenly accelerated last Thursday.

Senate President John Cullerton formed two new bipartisan committees and charged them with reforming workers compensation and Medicaid. The catch is that the committees must finish their work by Monday, Jan. 3.

That means votes could be taken on workers comp and Medicaid reform before the new General Assembly is sworn in about a week later. The Republicans have been clamoring for those very reforms for years. So that means, if all goes well, the Republicans will have two fewer excuses to refuse to put votes on the big bills the Democrats really want, like borrowing to make the state’s pension payment, gaming expansion or perhaps even a tax hike.

Senate President Cullerton also introduced major legislation last week which would force the termination of Rod Blagojevich’s appointees whose terms have expired but who have not yet had another Senate confirmation vote.

More than a dozen state agency directors and hundreds of others would be kicked out of government by the legislation unless Gov. Pat Quinn renominated them. Speaker Michael Madigan added his name as chief House sponsor, which is a good indication that this thing is moving fast.

Gov. Quinn acted quickly, however, and asked for the resignations of all his cabinet members the following day. Change is in the air.

This new movement wasn’t confined to the Senate or to the governor’s office. Both legislative chambers advanced several state finance and government reform measures Thursday and more may be on the way. For instance, a reform of the police and firefighters pension system will likely be unveiled in the House after the Thanksgiving break.

Speaker Madigan took over sponsorship of a bill Thursday which would create a $300 million short-term, no-interest loan program for the state’s health care and human service providers, most of whom have been waiting months to be paid. A bill requiring 30-day reviews of state leases passed the House unanimously the same day. Legislation forcing the RTA to submit to the state’s Executive Inspector General sailed through the Senate a day earlier.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie amended a bill to sweep special funds related to the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The sweeps will shore up other, depleted funds that pay for oversight or regulatory activities. Leader Currie passed a bill unanimously Thursday to allow the state’s ethics commissions to close some gift ban loopholes.

A Senate bill that has been stalled in the House Rules Committee since March was suddenly given new life and assigned to the House Executive Committee, the usual destination of high-priority bills. The legislation would require the state to make monthly payments to the state’s pension systems when revenue growth reaches a certain point. There’s no real growth now, but there will be some day.

Numerous other bills were also advanced last week, giving the impression of a whole lot of movement designed to placate various groups of legislators. The legislative leaders will need to make as many legislators as happy as possible if they want to do anything really major.

A long-stalled microloan program for small business backed by several House liberals was suddenly revived and sent to the Senate Executive Committee. Legislation favored by south suburban legislators creating the Southeast Commuter Rail Transit District passed the House. Casino owners are pushing hard for an exemption to the state’s smoking ban, and a bill was moved through the House Executive Committee and was teed up for a vote.

Some potentially interesting revenue bills moved as well. A bill making what’s known in the lingo as a “technical change” to the Income Tax Act, which was once sponsored by Speaker Madigan and is co-sponsored by Majority Leader Currie, was moved to the House floor. Keep an eye on that one. It could be amended with a tax hike. A former Madigan bill was amended to decouple the state’s estate tax from federal levels. That could very well be advanced.

This burst of activity has the feel to some observers of things being put into place so that the really big stuff can be moved later on. Whether the trigger will ever be pulled on that big stuff is yet to be seen. Stay tuned.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and
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