MORRIS – Illinois has a long political tradition of pushing through controversial legislation during lame-duck sessions, when lawmakers are on their way out of office.
Lame-duck sessions are between election day and inauguration day, allowing soon-to-be-replaced lawmakers to cast their votes on new legislation, even though they are headed out the door.
The state’s abolition of the death penalty, the 67 percent tax hike and the smoking ban were all passed during lame-duck sessions.
With the “temporary” 67 percent tax increase set to start expiring Jan. 1, 2015, House Republicans are worried lawmakers will make the increase permanent during a future lame-duck session and are taking action.
“You look at legislation passed during this period and it’s done by those in their last days,” state Rep. John Anthony, R-Plainfield, said Wednesday. “There is no accountability to the voters when that happens.”
Tuesday, Anthony announced he has joined House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, and other members of the Republican caucus to introduce new legislation aimed at ending these lame-duck sessions.
The bill would move the inauguration date from January to December, and require the General Assembly to conclude their work by election day.
The new bill would prohibit the outgoing General Assembly from convening unless a special session is called with approval from the governor and each of the four legislative leaders – the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, the minority leader of the House and the minority leader of the Senate.
“In the past we have seen lawmakers take positions on bills during the lame duck that they might not have taken if they had to answer to the voters,” Durkin said at a news conference. “The bills we have filed will eliminate lame-duck sessions and tough votes will have to be taken before an election – not afterwards.”
A simple majority – 61 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate – is needed to pass legislation during spring session, which now runs from the second Wednesday in January to the end of May.
From June 1 to the end of the year, the threshold increases to three-fifths – 71 votes in the House and 36 in the Senate – for legislation to take effect immediately, rather than the following June.
But the number of votes needed reverts to a simple majority Jan. 1, giving lawmakers a window after an election in which they can more easily pass controversial or unpopular laws without answering to the voters.
The lame-duck lawmakers who are leaving office have nothing politically left to lose, or can be persuaded with the promise of government jobs.
Former Democratic Reps. Robert Flider, D-Mt. Zion, and Careen Gordon, D-Morris, campaigned in 2010 against the tax increase, but were defeated at the polls. On the last day of the lame-duck session, they voted yes.
Three days later, Gov. Pat Quinn nominated Gordon for an $88,000-a-year seat on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.
She withdrew after Senate Republicans promised to grill her over the perceived quid pro quo, but Quinn later appointed her to a similar-paying job as an attorney for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which did not require Senate confirmation.
Quinn the following year nominated Flider to head the Illinois Department of Agriculture, a job that commands a $133,273 salary.
Quinn’s press office has repeatedly denied that the jobs were given as rewards for approving the tax increase.
Anthony said he hopes the new bill will be taken seriously.
“These sessions need to end,” Anthony said. “Lawmakers should be held accountable by voters.”
Six of the outgoing Democratic lawmakers who voted in the January 2011 lame-duck session to raise the state income tax 67 percent ended up getting high-paying government jobs and better pensions:
• Robert Flider was confirmed to head the Illinois Department of Agriculture, a job that pays at least $133,273 a year. • Careen Gordon now earns $88,200 as an attorney with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. • Michael Smith makes about $95,000 as a member of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The board meets once a month and members can attend by phone. • David Miller, who left office after losing his bid for state comptroller, now has a $117,000-a-year job with the Illinois Department of Public Health. • John O’Sullivan was hired in May 2011 as a regional superintendent with the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The job pays $85,704 a year. He was fired five months later. • Michael Carberry was hired by Cook County at $100,000 a year as deputy director in the county’s Department of Facilities Management.
Sources: Illinois General Assembly, Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal, Northwest Herald archives