SPRINGFIELD -- Fourteen months ago, Mike Madigan, the Democratic speaker of the Illinois House, and Tom Cross, the chamber’s Republican leader, were like spitting pythons as they waged an electoral battle over who would be in the majority amidst a likely national GOP landslide.

SPRINGFIELD -- Fourteen months ago, Mike Madigan, the Democratic speaker of the Illinois House, and Tom Cross, the chamber’s Republican leader, were like spitting pythons as they waged an electoral battle over who would be in the majority amidst a likely national GOP landslide.


A less personal, but similar dynamic, existed in the Illinois Senate, although Republicans had little hope of gaining a majority there.


Today, the Illinois General Assembly has sent more than a half-dozen signature pieces of legislation to Gov. Pat Quinn, most of them with bipartisan support in at least one chamber and sometimes both.  


State government still has potentially crippling financial problems – $85 billion in pension debt and $5 billion in unpaid bills and no agreement on how to address either – but legislative leaders agree that they have moved the ball further than the few inches that often constitutes progress at the Statehouse


In the past 12 months, bipartisan majorities changed the state’s laws on workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits in legislation endorsed by most of the state’s largest business interest groups.


Democratic lawmakers passed a state income tax increase that, for at least a year, wiped away most of a decade-long structural imbalance in the state budget and allowed Illinois to make its pension payment without borrowing money. The income tax increase has also reduced some of the backlog in overdue bills. 


New budget process


Rank-and-file legislators in both parties took the lead in writing the state budget largely in public, after more than a decade of legislative leaders and the governor crafting it in closed-door meetings.


Large bipartisan majorities in both houses adjusted teacher tenure rules, streamlined the process for firing educators and made it tougher for Chicago teachers to strike.


And Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, abolished a death penalty system viewed by many as flawed and granted same-sex and opposite sex couples the right to civil unions, a legal recognition of their relationships that falls just short of marriage.


“We actually have accomplished a lot in the last three years, so this year was a complement to that,” said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. “We passed education reform … helped by our new (Chicago) mayor pushing for it. That bill was a symbol of what we do here. We work with the unions.


“To abolish the death penalty and to pass civil unions and pay finally to pay down your debts so you’re not a deadbeat state are pretty major accomplishments.”


Cross said “there was some good and bad” in the last year.


“We worked together in the House on a budget. It wasn’t the best budget in the world, but it was a better budget than we’ve had in the last eight or nine years,” he said. “I like that approach.”


 


Rhetoric cooled


During the election, Republicans put billboards up on Chicago highways blaming Madigan for the debt. Madigan repeatedly called Cross and his caucus “nonparticipating dropouts.” Such rhetoric disappeared in 2011.


“I think there was a recognition, at least by me, that this place is in such bad shape -- I’m going to have my political differences and we’ll get close to next year’s campaign and we’ll have them -- but it’s bad and we need to work together,” Cross said.  “We’ve got a long way to go on the economy, and on jobs and on the budget, so I’m going to work with the speaker where I can.”


Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said her caucus’ positions this year were “a good mix of principle and practicality.”


“There’s always hard-fought races … but after the election’s over, it’s important people focus back on the issues,” she said.


Cullerton credited Republicans for coming to the table, particularly on business issues.


“You know how tricky it was to pass workers’ comp reform – probably the best thing we passed this year to help the business climate,” Cullerton said.


“The only area the (Senate) Republicans have boycotted was working with us on the budget. We’d like to invite them once again next year to help us with the budget and hopefully, help us with these tax reforms that we’ve talked about.”


Disagree on tax hike


The Republican leaders are far less sunny about the income tax increase – Illinois’ rate went up from 3 percent to 5 percent for individuals and 4.8 percent to 7 percent for corporations.


“We have not been for that and will continue not to be,” Radogno said.


Cullerton said he hopes to reform the corporate tax code next year and make it more fair than the current system, under which only one-third of the state’s corporations pay income taxes.


“I think that’s a fairness issue,” he said. “As long as we can bring in the same amount of money, I think it’s something we should definitely look at.”


Cross mentioned five major issues he thinks need to be dealt with next year – further changes to the pension system designed to retire its debt, repeal of the corporate tax increase, making state retirees shoulder more of their health care costs, implementing further reforms to Medicaid and passing another state budget that controls spending.


“None of them are easy. All of them are tough. But we can’t get out of our hole without doing them,” Cross said.


Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.


 


Major legislation passed in the General Assembly in the last 12 months


 


*Civil unions: Same-sex and opposite-sex couples can enter into legal unions with most of the same rights as marriage, including the right to visit a partner in the hospital, inherit property or to make medical decisions in case one is incapacitated.


Passed both houses: Dec. 1, 2010


Bipartisan?: One Republican voted for it in the Senate, and six voted “yes” in the House.


Senate vote: 32-24


House vote: 61-52


 


*Medicaid reform: Tightens eligibility for the All Kids children’s health insurance program to families making 300 percent of the poverty level, requires 50 percent of Medicaid recipients to be in managed care programs by 2015, requires recipients to prove annually that they are eligible for the program and creates civil penalties for Medicaid fraud.


Passed both houses: Jan. 6, 2011


Bipartisan?: Yes


Senate vote: 58-0


House vote: 111-4


 


*Death penalty repeal: Abolished execution as a sentence in Illinois. After signing the bill, Gov. Pat Quinn commuted the sentence of the remaining prisoners on death row to life imprisonment without parole.


Passed both houses: Jan. 11, 2011


Bipartisan?: Four Republicans in the Senate voted for repeal, and six voted “yes” in the House.


Senate vote: 32-25


House vote: 60-54


 


*Income tax increase: Increased the individual income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. Increased the corporate income tax from 4.8 to 7 percent. Under the law, in 2015, the individual income tax will fall to 3.75 percent and the corporate income tax will fall to 5.6 percent. The law also provides that appropriations cannot increase by more than 2 percent a year for the next four years.


Passed both houses: Jan. 12, 2011


Bipartisan?: No Republicans voted for it.


Senate vote: 30-29


House vote: 60-57


 


*Education reform: Makes it more difficult for teachers to get tenure, streamlines the process for firing teachers, bars school boards from laying off teachers solely on seniority, allows teacher assignments based on merit, bars Chicago teachers from striking unless 75 percent agree.


Passed both houses: May 12, 2011


Bipartisan?: Yes


Senate vote: 54-0


House vote: 112-1


 


*Workers compensation reform: Reduces payments to doctors and hospitals that care for injured workers, tightens reviews that determine an injury's severity and cost and caps awards for the increasingly common claim of carpal tunnel syndrome. Fires current arbitrators, sets their terms at three years and bars them from accepting gifts.


Passed both houses: May 31, 2011


Bipartisan?: All but seven Senate Republicans voted for it; one House Republican voted “yes”


Senate vote: 46-8


House vote: 62-43


 


*State budget: Estimated general revenues would total $33.3 billion, House passed resolution requiring any additional tax revenue to be used to pay unpaid bills, rank-and-file lawmakers wrote the budget in public appropriation committee meetings.


Passed both houses: May 31, 2011


Votes/bipartisanship: 13 different bills comprised the budget. House Republicans generally supported the budget, sometimes in overwhelming numbers. Senate Republicans opposed it.