Pritzker threatens to begin vetoing bad bills

Gov. JB Pritzker has vetoed only a tiny handful of bills since assuming office in 2019 and has taken a mostly hands-off approach to this year's spring legislative session. But that may soon change.

Pritzker and his top staff began contacting lawmakers and interest groups last week to tell them how they need to "fix" their bills and to warn them that the governor will veto their legislation if the requested changes aren't made.

This is the first kinda-real spring session not only since the pandemic began, but also since both the House and Senate have elected new presiding officers. As a result, committee chairs in both chambers have been far more reluctant than usual to bottle up potentially problematic bills, while floor debates have frequently involved sponsors promising colleagues that their legislation would be fixed when it crossed the rotunda to the other chamber.

Well, the bills have pretty much all been moved to the other chamber, and lots of problems remain.

Last Wednesday alone, House committees approved 107 Senate bills for floor action and passed 227 during the full week. Senate committees approved 100 House bills last week.

The biggest problem with this haphazard flood of bills is that many require mandates for additional state spending. The governor's office rightly points out that the state doesn't have the money to be creating tons of new and costly programs. Several others would also impose unfunded spending mandates on local governments.

In the past, former House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton would put a brake on most bills like that. But the new leaders, House Speaker Chris Welch and Senate President Don Harm, are allowing members to police themselves and are standing back as bills pass that could either create fiscal issues for the state or create laws that, in the opinion of the governor's office, won't do what the sponsors may have intended.

"Every other day we're going through bill review [and saying] 'That doesn't even make sense. We can't do that. That can't actually be effectuated,'" said one exasperated high-level administration official last week.

"At the end of the day," the official said, "the governor can't let a bad bill go through that we can't afford, or can't actually implement, or doesn't actually work."

The respect level for this governor's legislative operation has never been high in either chamber, to put it mildly. In some circles, it's even reviled and ridiculed for its ineffectiveness.

But the grumbling has noticeably intensified this year as members complain that the governor's office has been of no help all session. Just the other day, one lobbyist who works often with a particular state agency was talking about how the agency had zero involvement with bills this year that could significantly alter the agency's mission. His advice to members was to run their bills the way they wanted.

So, naturally, some members are chafing at the belated veto threats after months of near radio silence. The time to work on many of these bills was a month or two ago, they say. But with the clock ticking down to the scheduled May 31 adjournment they're being told to change their bills or find themselves working on veto override motion rollcalls this summer.

Because Pritzker has so rarely vetoed any bills, more than a few folks are having a difficult time taking these threats seriously. They expect he'll talk a good game and then roll over to avoid making enemies.

But, in fairness, Pritzker had Madigan and Cullerton shepherding members for him during the 2019 session and had no real need to issue any threats. The 2020 spring session ended up being just a few days long because of the pandemic and everything was negotiated. Now, it's pretty much anything goes and even though veto threats are usually a final weapon and not a legislative strategy, he may have no choice at this late date but to do something drastic.

Others contend that some of the advice they're getting from the governor's office is off the mark. While the governor's people are trying to tell members what their bills would actually do in the real world, their interpretation is sometimes just flat wrong.

I'm told, however, that some members have listened to the gubernatorial advice and have agreed to alter their legislation. So, we'll see.

But if you thought that one-party control of the Illinois House, Senate and the governor's office always meant things always run smoothly at the Statehouse, well, think again.

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