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Lawmakers achieve mixed bag of results

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SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Legislature ended its spring session Tuesday night, leaving a mixture of major accomplishments and stalled ideas in its wake.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Legislature ended its spring session Tuesday night, leaving a mixture of major accomplishments and stalled ideas in its wake.

Education Reform

Possibly the biggest piece of legislation this session, education reform makes major changes to the state's elementary and high schools by linking student performance to teacher promotion, tenure or lay-off.

"What it will do is make the focus what it should be, and that is the student and whether students are performing. I think sometimes that gets lost in a lot reform movements," said state Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, who also is superintendent of Hutsonville School District.

The legislation also makes it tougher for unions to strike by changing the mediation process. Teachers would have to wait several months rather than 10 days to picket.

Republicans and Democrats said these changes were overdue. Gov. Pat Quinn has endorsed the plan and said he would sign it.

Budget

The General Assembly approved a spending plan for $33.4 billion during the next 12 months, $2 billion less than what Quinn asked for in February.

"I have been impressed that for the first time in several years there seems to be a meaningful effort through the Legislature to accept responsibility and control spending," said Mike Lawrence, who worked with former Gov. Jim Edgar and headed the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. As governor, Edgar eliminated the state deficit and created a surplus through cuts and tax hikes.

The budget passed with broad support from both parties in the House, but only Democratic support in the state Senate.

"We made it the responsibility of the House of Representatives to do the cuts that Leader (Tom) Cross and Speaker (Michael) Madigan had (wanted). We focused on those cuts and bringing those numbers down to exactly what they said they wanted the budget number to be," said state Rep. Patricia Bellock, R-Hinsdale, said.

"It's getting us on the road to fiscal health and stability. It's probably the first time we've done this in 25 years," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, who led the budget process in the Senate.

GOP senators said the approved budget is an increase of $2.3 billion above this past year's $31.1 billion budget — an increase of more than 7 percent.

"I don't know in whose world that's a cut, but it isn't for most people that I know," said state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine.

The budget proposal is on Quinn's desk now. The governor could veto it, change specific spending amounts or approve it.

Redistricting

The Democratic-controlled Legislature undertook the once-in-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional districts.

States redraw political maps every 10 years to coincide with population changes indicated by U.S. Census Bureau data.

For the first time since the state's Constitution was adopted in 1970, one party, in this case the Democrats, controls both chambers in the Legislature and the governor's office, essentially letting the Democrats run the redistricting process.

The maps pose challenges for Republicans, several of whom share legislative districts in the redrawn map. Deciding where to, or even if they should, run for re-election becomes among the biggest decisions for these lawmakers.

A few failed measures

The state's overdue bills will be paid off over a longer period, because a move to borrow $6 billion failed. More than $4 billion in overdue bills are awaiting payment from the state's Comptroller's office.

Quinn floated a plan to borrow $8.7 billion to pay those and other outstanding expenses earlier this spring, but members of both parties in the state Senate voted down a compromise to borrow $6 billion.

Those bills would be paid off with any revenue that state receives above $33.4 billion.

Also, a proposal to shift the growing cost of public sector workers' pensions from taxpayers to employees stalled after legislators received calls and notes from union members. The proposal, supported by Cross and Madigan in the House, would have created three different tiers from which employees could pick to structure their pensions.

While the plan would have left pension benefits earned to date untouched, unions said it amounted to a pay cut. Unions said the move also violated the state's Constitution, which recognizes pensions as part of the contractual relationship between the state and the public sector workers.

Illinois has promised retiree benefits of more than $80 billion that it can't pay at this time. Madigan and Cross have vowed to continue to work on fixing Illinois' pension system.

"Our goal is to enact reforms to our pension systems that provide a long-term solution for both those who are members of the pension systems and those who fund them," said Cross and Madigan in a rare joint news release.

Both promised to hold hearings during the summer on the issue and to take it up during the fall veto session in October.

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