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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 11:55 am

What's up in El Capitol?

For most people who don’t follow state politics, May is just another month. But inside the Illinois Statehouse, this month is a whirlwind of activity in which legislators try to hammer out deals and ram legislation through so they can go on summer vacation. (There’s also the minor fact that any bills passed after May 31 won’t take effect until June 1 of next year unless they get a three-fifths majority, but I think that’s a secondary concern. Most legislators just want to get some free time to play Portal 2.) Here’s a look at some of the bigger issues legislators are working on.

1) The budget – Expect lots of cuts to social services, which means lots more depressing news stories about how children, the elderly, the sick and the poor are suffering without enough help from the state. And the budget process is a pretty big deal this year, for two reasons:

-This is the first budget crafted under new rules geared toward keeping the total dollar amount under a certain cap. It’s meant to limit spending growth so the state can get to work on eliminating debt.

 -The House and Senate are actually creating specific line-by-line budgets for each agency, instead of just giving the governor a wad of cash and sending him to the store to grab whatever we need, and maybe a little something extra for being a good boy. It’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, lawmakers are getting serious about fixing the state’s financial problems.

2) Pension payments for state workers – They’ve already reduced benefits and raised the amount future workers will pay for them, but now the legislature is looking at requiring existing state workers to pay more for their benefits or downgrade to a second “tier” of benefits. The unions will almost certainly file a lawsuit if this happens, because the Illinois Constitution forbids “diminishing or impairing” those benefits. Expect a protracted court battle and an eventual compromise that leaves both sides scrunching their noses.

3) Workers compensation – When you get hurt on the job (or sometimes off the job) and can’t work for awhile, the workers’ comp system attempts to help you stay warm and fed while you’re recovering. But recently, Republicans and the business lobby have called for reforms that, among other things, require claims show “causation” – that the injury actually occurred on the job. The reform package was stalled because of that sticking point, but Speaker Michael Madigan may let the House vote on a bill to nuke the entire system and let the courts handle those cases. That threat will probably spur some movement on the real reform bill, but causation probably won’t be part of the final package.

4) Redistricting – Every 10 years, the legislature pretends to be concerned as numerous groups – often ethnic or religious minorities – plead for more/better representation in the statehouse. (That might be unfair of me; perhaps lawmakers really are concerned, but whatever concern there may be never seems to translate into more representative maps.) This year, the Democrat-dominated redistricting committee has the huge task of designing districts that give minority voters a larger voice while still retaining the political advantage of sticking opponents in districts where they can be more easily unseated in the next election. Expect the new map to include some interesting changes, especially in Chicago, where a new influence/crossover/coalition districts will have to be created to account for shifts in black and Latino populations. (Senate Redistricting - House Redistricting)

5) Utility rate hike – ComEd wants to charge more for power again, but this time, they’re offering something in return. They say the rate hike would go toward creating a SmartGrid that would save consumers money in the long run. (SmartGrids allow you to schedule your power consumption and allow the power companies to do all sorts of neat stuff to increase efficiency/lower costs.) The problem is that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says ComEd’s proposal is really unfair to consumers, and she walked away from negotiations last week, likely stalling any progress. Expect a last-minute change of heart on ComEd’s part to push something through, if they're serious about wanting to implement this project.

6) Medical marijuana – Lawmakers pushing this idea have done pretty much everything they can to make sure it doesn’t wind up like California’s medical pot law, in which pretty much everyone can get high legally. The bill still failed, even despite support from Republican House leader Tom Cross, but it’s on postponed consideration in the House, which means it could pop up for a “do-over” vote at any time.

7) Concealed carry of firearms – Pretty much the same situation as medical marijuana. It failed when it came up for a vote, but it could resurface at any time. Every other state except Wisconsin allows some form of concealed (or open) carry, but Chicago’s anti-gun influence is pretty strong on the issue.

8) Cheesecake day! – This is my favorite. It’s a tradition that one of the constitutional officers (in past years it was the Treasurer, in my recollection) buys a bunch of delicious cheesecakes out of their own pocket and shares them with anyone who happens by their office in the Capitol. This year, it looks like the Comptroller will be doing it on May 25. If you’re in the building, grab a fork. But please don’t abuse this…I love cheesecake, and I might forkstab somebody if this tradition disappears because of Hoggish Greedly.

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