With my first legislative session in the General Assembly in the books, now is a good time to take a look back at what occurred, particularly in the final week of session.
In addition to witnessing some events that I don't support, I also got a first-hand look at the how the House is run under Speaker Michael Madigan, and it was eye-opening. Two issues, in particular, demonstrate the broken system in Springfield--legislator pay raises and expanded abortion rights legislation.
Let's start with the pay raises. I'm sure it would come as a surprise to most people that Illinois law provides that legislators will receive a cost-of-living pay increase every year. Each year since 2008, the General Assembly has included prohibitions against the yearly pay increase in the annual budget documents or through other legislative action. That changed this year, and this issue highlights the problems our state has with its budgeting process.
Illinois' budget is to be passed by May 31 of each year. This year, Republicans received a copy of the 1,581-page document fewer than 12 hours before the midnight deadline. It is not humanly possible for any one person to read and understand that document in the time frame given. Legislators are then forced to vote based on summaries and explanations from staff, who have also had limited time to review and understand it.
Before midnight on the 31st, the House passed the budget, which I voted against, and sent it over to the Senate. In the Senate, Republicans discovered that the budget did not prohibit legislative pay raises. The Senate passed the budget and also passed another bill to prohibit the pay raise. On June 1, the House was again in session to take up the gas tax, expanded gaming, and the capital program. The House adjourned the session without voting to prohibit the pay increase, which means without any further legislative action pay increases will go into effect on July 1.
In February, I sponsored HB 2965, which would prohibit legislator pay and reimbursement increases for this fiscal year. Forty-three of the 44 Republicans in the House joined me a co-sponsors. That bill was not called in committee and was not called for a vote in the House.
Although the General Assembly is typically in session from the second week of January until the end of May and many legislative days see little to no official action, it is common for many large issues to be packed into the final week in May.
The abortion rights bill shows the absurdity of this practice in our Capitol. House bill 2495, known as the Reproductive Health Act, was filed in February. The bill would greatly expand abortion rights in Illinois. Over 22,000 people filed witness slips against the bill, and thousands arrived in the Capitol to protest earlier in the spring. The bill was assigned to the Human Services committee and then a subcommittee and was never taken up for a vote.
The House was called back into session on the Sunday evening before Memorial Day to begin the final week. When legislators arrived for session, we learned at 6 p.m. that SB 25 would be taken up by the Appropriations--Human Services committee at 7 p.m. Senate bill 25 was amended that evening to include the Reproductive Health Act with amendments that no Republican had seen prior to 6 p.m.
When we arrived for committee, legislators received stacks of letters supporting SB 25 and mentioning the just-amended bill specifically by number. The supporters of the law were able to have an abortion doctor and an ACLU lawyer testify in favor of the bill. The opponents, with no time in advance to have witnesses present, were only able to have lobbyists from pro-life groups testify rather than doctors and legal scholars who were opposed. Also, legislators on the committee had their questioning shortened in the "interest of time." Finally, the bill was assigned to an appropriations committee, which is to hear bills expending state funds and is not to consider substantive law changes, like SB 25.
On a party-line vote, the committee passed SB 25 to the House floor around 10 p.m. under the cover of darkness on a Sunday night when most Illinoisans, including the thousands of opponents of the bill who filed in witness slips and had appeared earlier in the Capitol, were enjoying their holiday weekend.
The legislator pay increase and the abortion bill show what business as usual means in Springfield. Whenever I would protest, I would commonly hear, "that's the way it's always been done." Well, the way it's always been done isn't working for our General Assembly, our state, or our citizens.