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Gambling, pensions 2 lame-duck session possibilities

As constituents shake off their hangovers Jan. 1, state lawmakers will be packing their bags for a weeklong lame-duck session in Springfield.

The Illinois Senate plans to reconvene Jan. 2, and the House the following day, and both are scheduled to meet daily until the new General Assembly elected last month is sworn in Jan. 9. All existing legislation not signed into law dies with the end of the old General Assembly and the start of the new one.

The lame-duck session is important to state lawmakers for two reasons.

First, the number of votes needed to pass legislation goes back to a simple majority rather than a three-fifths majority, or a difference of 11 votes in the 118-member House and six votes in the 59-member Senate. And secondly, lawmakers leaving office can be persuaded to approve controversial legislation without fear of political repercussions.

The session in recent years has become a dumping ground for controversial legislation that intentionally does not get addressed in the fall veto session. Lawmakers in the last lame-duck session in January 2011 approved the largest income-tax increase in state history, abolished capital punishment, and approved civil unions.

The last session especially raised accusations of Illinois-style quid pro quo – six of the 12 lame-duck lawmakers who approved the tax increase have since ended up with state jobs and higher, pension-boosting salaries. Two of them had campaigned against a tax increase before losing their 2010 election bids. Thirty-five state lawmakers are leaving office next month.

The following are a few of the issues that did not get tackled in the fall veto session that wrapped up last week, but will likely be addressed in the lame-duck session:

Gambling – A compromise might be reached on a gambling expansion bill that would be palatable to Gov. Pat Quinn.

Quinn in late August vetoed a bill allowing five new casinos in Illinois, including one in Chicago, and video gambling machines at horse-racing tracks. He cited a lack of oversight and what he called an inadequate share of new revenues slated for public education.

The fact that powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan is getting involved raises the possibility that a new bill is in the works. Madigan, D-Chicago, has recused himself from the gambling issue in past years to avoid a potential conflict of interest with his law firm. His spokesman has since said without further explanation that the conflict has been resolved.

The lower vote requirement in the lame-duck session does not affect the three-fifths majority required in the Illinois Constitution to override a gubernatorial veto.

Pensions – Quinn has said he wants some sort of a pension fix by Jan. 9, but legislative leaders have not been forthcoming with solutions to address the state’s crushing $94 billion unfunded pension liability.

Frustrated by a lack of movement, rank-and-file lawmakers unveiled a pension reform bill on the last day of the veto session they hope that Madigan will call.

The bill, House Bill 6258, seeks to reduce the 3 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees. It also would raise the retirement age for younger workers and require them to contribute more to their respective pension systems. It also includes the controversial provision sought by Quinn and other legislative leaders to shift the burden of teachers’ pensions to local property taxes.

The bill will not likely survive unchanged, but could serve as a vehicle for other reforms hashed out behind closed doors. McHenry County’s representatives in Springfield, who like other suburban lawmakers allege that a cost shift would cause property tax bills to skyrocket, said they doubt that a cost shift would come close to having the votes to pass.

Illegal immigrant driver’s licenses – The House could take up a bill, which has passed the Senate, to grant provisional driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Senate Bill 957, if it becomes law, would allow illegal immigrants the opportunity to receive three-year, renewable licenses if they pass a driving test and show proof of insurance. The bill, which passed the Senate last Tuesday on a 41-14 vote, is now in the House Transportation: Vehicles and Safety Committee. Sen Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, voted no, while Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, was not present for the vote.

The “temporary” income-tax increase – Rumors have been swirling among state lawmakers for months that an effort will be made to make the temporary 2011 income-tax increase permanent.

Democratic lawmakers in the last lame-duck session raised the tax rate 67 percent on individuals, from 3 percent to 5 percent, and by 46 percent on businesses, from 4.8 percent to 7 percent. Those rates are supposed to start decreasing in 2015 to 3.75 percent on individuals and 5.25 percent on businesses.

Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton have denied that a lame-duck vote to make the increase permanent is in the works. But the next lame-duck session with outgoing lawmakers will be in 2015, after the taxes start to decrease, and 2014 is a gubernatorial election year.

The unpopular tax increase was sold by lawmakers as an attempt to help the state pay its huge backlog of bills and buy time to address the budget crisis. But almost all of the revenues have instead been eaten by the state’s public pension obligations.

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