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Ill. lawmakers face tough votes before adjourning

Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois General Assembly has just two weeks left in Springfield before it adjourns for the summer, leaving lawmakers with a tight deadline for action on issues including tackling the state’s pension crisis, gay marriage and how guns will be allowed to be carried in public.

Making good on what’s become something of a tradition, Illinois legislators have saved the most controversial measures for last. They’re scheduled to adjourn May 31.

At the top of the list, especially for Gov. Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan, is addressing the state’s $97 billion pension debt. After years of inaction, lawmakers have two plans to consider. Both chambers have approved their own version of a solution, including one from Madigan that calls for employees to pay more, delayed retirement and less generous annual cost-of-living increases.

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has also indicated that lawmakers will incorporate the controversial idea of making most school districts, universities and community colleges pick up their own retirement costs that the state currently pays. He calls it the “free lunch” and has set another meeting on the issue next week.

“We will resolve the question of ending the free lunch before the end of the session,” he told reporters earlier this week.

The other major financial issue before lawmakers is approving a budget. Quinn outlined his proposal that calls for deep cuts to education, but Senate Democrats have already said they want to boost education funding.

At the same time, advocates of same-sex marriage are hoping that Illinois will become the 13th state to allow it. The proposal, which the Senate approved on Valentine’s Day, has stalled in the House for more than three months. But advocates believe they are close, even as several Republicans and various Democrats have expressed their disapproval, along with a fierce opposition campaign from churches.

The bill’s sponsors have said the measure is only a few votes short of the 60 needed to pass, Quinn had said he’ll sign it if it comes to his desk and advocates say Illinois has contributed to momentum in other states that have recently approved it including Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota.

“We were the first ones to get started this year,” said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. “I feel extremely optimistic about how close we are.”

Environmentalists and the oil industry are also waiting for movement on a compromise bill that would regulate the practice of high-volume oil and gas drilling, known as “fracking.” Critics say it could cause air and water pollution and deplete water resources. Supporters, including Quinn, say it could create about 40,000 jobs across Illinois.

Lawmakers also are scheduled to take up a plan to expand gambling in the state, including adding five new casinos and numerous slot machines. For legislators, it’s the third attempt to expand gambling, and Quinn has twice vetoed it. However, they’ve since added a ban on political contributions from the industry, which Quinn wanted.

If lawmakers manage to accomplish all those tasks, they have one other issue to face: Legalizing concealed carry.

A federal court in December struck down Illinois’ concealed weapons ban — the last in the nation — and gave lawmakers until June 9 to adopt a law allowing concealed carry. As a result, both chambers throughout the session have worked on legislation addressing the issue. A top Senate committee this week approved a bill that would require people to have special permission to have a gun in Chicago, and the chamber may vote on it as early as Monday. While in the state’s House, lawmakers are working to resurrect a National Rifle Association-backed proposal that was defeated in April.

“There should be one, uniform law statewide ... because if you allow municipalities and counties to do their own ordinances, from town to town to town, that law-abiding gun owner is not going to know between one town and another,” Rep. Brandon Phelps said this week. Phelps is a Harrisburg Democrat sponsoring the House gun measure.

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Online: http://www.ilga.gov

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Contact Regina Garcia Cano at https://www.twitter.com/reginagarciakNO

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.

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