Every two years, with the January swearing-in of a newly elected Illinois House of Representatives, the legislature starts fresh. All bills and legislative proposals that were not enacted by that point are rendered null and void when the new General Assembly is convened.
The last assembly, the 96th in the state’s history, introduced more than 13,000 proposals. Six hundred and twenty-three of them passed both the House and Senate; Gov. Quinn vetoed five.
Already this year, members of the 97th General Assembly, sworn into office in January, have introduced 6,234 legislative bills; 2,481 in the Senate and 3,753 in the House. Are there that many new good ideas, or laws that need fixing?
Many legislative initiatives are created because a constituent has an idea and a local legislator responds to the suggestion or request.
Other bills provide a platform to illustrate or highlight a key issue, even if there is little likelihood of the legislation passing. These efforts also give the lobbyists and interest groups the opportunity to get involved. There is as least as much effort spent defeating bills as there is getting them passed.
A large number of proposals are considered “shell or vehicle” bills and have no real substance to them as originally filed. They are created, filed and moved through the General Assembly in case they are needed to use as vehicles to amend legislation to later in the session. There also are technical bills that slightly modify or make minor corrections to earlier laws to correct unintended impacts.
Usually the complexities of the General Assembly naturally weeds out “bad legislation,” and stimulates debate on those bills with potential, but that is not always the case.
There are always surprises. These exceptions are the best reason to pay close attention, remain informed and be active in public policy discourse.
State government leaders have demonstrated the ability to move quickly on major issues during the past year, such as passing an income tax increase, legislation to permit civil unions in Illinois and to abolish the death penalty. Just a few months ago, legislators introduced, debated and passed a completely new and reduced pension system for all new state employees (effective Jan. 1, 2011) within 48 hours.
Unfortunately, reducing pension benefits for new and future state employees did not solve the problem, however, and further action on pensions, budgets, borrowing and health care benefits might yet occur this spring.
Numerous proposals that deal with state employee benefits, and at least 35 “shell” bills on that topic, could surface with language later. Some will be heard this week in committees.These can be tracked at www.ilga.gov.
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Legislators take a recess next week before gearing up a busy April and May.
The state must find a way to chart a course that combines discipline on the spending side, wise investment of new, enhanced revenues and the realization that it will take several years to work our way out of a situation that took decades to establish.
The Voices section of NIU Today features opinions and perspectives from across campus. Ken Zehnder is director of state and local relations for NIU.