The Illinois General Assembly usually tries to adjourn by the end of May. That hasn’t worked out too well the past few years as partisan bickering, the state’s huge budget problems and the bloody war between former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan forced months-long overtime sessions.
The last time the legislature truly got out early was in 1999, when then-Senate President Pate Philip demanded they adjourn by April 15. After legislators left town, I didn’t know what to do with myself. There were no statewide elections at all the following year, which meant that absolutely nothing was going on in the political world. So, I went to Kosovo to cover the war and then took my daughter on a tour of Europe and went with my dad to Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It was quite an adventure. Later that year, I went to Cuba during then Gov. George Ryan’s official visit. I have fond memories of that year. I actually had a life back then.
This year, though, the calendar says the General Assembly plans to adjourn by May 7. I haven’t really experienced a May without grueling work hours since those halcyon days of 1999, so that pleases me. But I’m not holding my breath because of all the carnage I’ve seen the past few years. I just can’t bring myself to believe.
The early adjournment idea isn’t going down well with everyone, however. The plan at the moment is to pass a budget that’s billions of dollars out of balance and inform Gov. Pat Quinn that he is now in charge of figuring out how to pay the bills. Newspaper editorial boards are already warning legislators not to sneak out of town before truly “solving” the problems or they will pay heavy consequences.
One of the demands issued last week by some of the thousands of protesters who descended on Springfield to press for higher state taxes and lower budget cuts was that lawmakers stay in town, finish the job and abandon their early adjournment dreams.
“If you try to leave town without doing your job, we are going to chase you. And when you come back home, we will be there,” warned Henry Bayer, the Illinois director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
So far, though, legislative leaders are still hoping to at least partially meet that May 7 adjournment target. The idea at the moment is to try to finish work on all “substantive” legislation by the seventh, and then return for the last week or so in May to put the final touches on the budget and deal with anything else that comes up in the interim.
But several high-level Democratic legislators are quite nervous about this plan. The perception of a “vacationing” General Assembly while the state sinks ever deeper into a financial and economic morass frightens them to no end. They’ll be sitting ducks, the members worry. Better to finish the whole thing by the seventh or, even better, just work through the whole month, even if there is little or nothing to do.
A big factor playing into the timing of the General Assembly’s summer adjournment will be whether the Republicans, particularly the House Republicans, support more borrowing. The governor wants to borrow billions of dollars to meet the state’s pension payments. But that borrowing has to be approved by a three-fifths vote in the General Assembly, and they can’t do that in the House without the Republican minority. If the House Republicans don’t get on board, the budget will take far longer to craft and will be very “ugly,” one top Democrat said last week. If they do get on board, it’s possible that the legislature could wrap up everything by May 7.
That doesn’t appear to be in the cards, however. The Republicans have no incentive to allow Democrats to conclude business early. The longer they’re in town, the longer the Republicans will have easy access to the media to make their case that the Democrats are incapable of governing.
I learned long ago that when it comes to the Illinois Statehouse, don’t ever get your hopes up about adjournment schedules and always bet on nothing ever getting done. That way, you’re never disappointed. Well, you’re still disappointed, but it’s a little easier to digest.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.