SPRINGFIELD — The first six months of 2011 have been some of the busiest and most productive in the Illinois General Assembly’s recent history.

By Benjamin Yount and Melissa Leu

SPRINGFIELD — The first six months of 2011 have been some of the busiest and most productive in the Illinois General Assembly’s recent history.

Lawmakers in Springfield, in the waning days of the 96th General Assembly and the first days of the 97th General Assembly, approved measures and reforms that once had been considered politically impossible.

Illinois legislators approved an income tax increase as well as workers’ compensation and education reforms, and took the first steps toward reforming Illinois’ massively underfunded pension system.

But 2011 began with the tax increase.

Less than a day before the 97th General Assembly was sworn in, the 96th General Assembly passed the 67-percent personal income tax increase — from a flat rate of 3 percent to 5 percent — the largest tax hike in Illinois’ history. The state’s corporate income tax rate also jumped from 4.8 percent to 7 percent.

Suburban Republican State Rep, David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, said the tax increase gave lawmakers a starting point on the budget, of which the Illinois House took advantage by basing the 2012 spending plan on revenue estimates.

“Whether we like it or not, the legislature passed a significant tax increase in the lame duck session,” said Harris.

Democrats argue that the tax increase was needed to “stabilize” Illinois’ financial situation and put the state in position to eliminate an $ 8 billion deficit.

“The argument that people have made in the past, ‘Well, we just need more money.’ No, we got more money and there’s not enough, and there’s not ever going to be enough to run a government that’s been bloated,” state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said.

With that in mind, Bradley and others in the Illinois House focused on cutting the next state budget. Instead of granting the governor a lump sum to spend as it had in previous years, the legislature allocated the funds to programs and line items.

Harris said lawmakers also paid some state’s bills — the pension payment and health-care costs for state employees — for the first time “in many years.”

“What we did with that new money is (make this year’s) pension payment, “said Harris. “And we made our spending less that it was in previous years.

Mike Lawrence, who is the former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said the action at the beginning of 2011 brought in a revived era of productivity.

“You have the same major players, but they’re acting differently because I think they realize that the people of Illinois are unhappy about the state of finances,” said Lawrence. “Those were all substantial moves on the eve of this regular session and in some ways that flurry of action provided a flame for the current session.”

State Sen. David Koehler, D-Perkins, agreed.

“We’ve had more reform legislation, more critical issues in front of the General Assembly, than I can remember in a long time,” said Koehler. “Sometimes issues don’t really manifest until the time is right. That’s not something you can necessarily predict, but you just have to react when it does happen.”

Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield, said the elections of 2010 certainly sparked much of the action for lawmakers in 2011.

These changes are “driven by wanting to solve problems and responding to citizen demand, but it’s also driven by the politics and seeing the dissatisfaction of government that was expressed in the midterm elections,” said Redfield.

Education reforms that make it easier to fire teachers and harder for teachers to strike, Medicaid reforms that could trim billions of dollars from the cost of government subsidized health care and workers’ compensation reform all have ties to dissatisfied voters, added Redfield.

Whether that dissatisfaction will stick, however, Redfield said he is holding out until the next election cycle.

“You may not have a good sense of this until you see how things shake out politically” in 2012, Redfield said.

While the elections of 2012 certainly will be part of the 2011 legacy, so will unfinished business.

Illinois lawmakers could not or did not make changes to how state employees pay for their retirement benefits.

Illinois’ $130 billion unfunded pension liability is becoming an ever-increasing weight on the state’s finances. Leaders in the House tried to push a reform package that would raise costs for state employees and hopefully lessen costs for taxpayers. But it will be the fall, or even next year, until lawmakers could act on that.

“We teach our children, don’t put off until the last day to do your homework or get that special project done. Start doing it right away. Well, government should learn the same lesson,” said state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford.

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