Online Exclusive: Illinois Senate Democrats Unleash Pent-Up Liberal Legislation Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 11 February 2003 18:00
Ten years in the minority often frustrated the Illinois Senate Democrats to no end. They would sponsor bills that had passed the House with huge bipartisan majorities – and often with significant public support – only to watch them quietly die in the Senate Rules Committee, which was controlled with an iron fist by the Republicans.

There were few Democratic victories. The high point, perhaps, was when Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones deftly maneuvered Senate President Pate Philip into backing a “continuing budget resolution” for education funding. Jones rejoiced that he had made education an “entitlement.” What this meant was that education funding would forever be taken care of first, before the budget was pieced together. In the past, schools got whatever scraps were left over.

But Jones’ entitlement law eventually expired, and it has been renewed only on an annual basis since then. An entitlement isn’t really an entitlement if it has to be renewed every year, because it can be taken away whenever the budget gets too tight.

Now, however, the Senate Democrats are the majority party, and Minority Leader Jones is now Senate President Jones, so Senate Bill 1 this year is a Jones proposal to make the school-funding entitlement a permanent fixture of law. The bill is scheduled for a vote in a week in the Senate Executive Committee, which is now ruled with an iron fist by President Jones.

Senator Philip also killed legislation sought by Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White that would require the secretary of state to appoint an inspector general to be confirmed by the Senate. The office would have real teeth, including subpoena power. That proposal, Senate Bill 13, sponsored by new Senate Majority Leader Vince Demuzio, zoomed out of the Executive Committee last week by a vote of 13 to zero.

Pate Philip was no big fan of allowing Democratic regions to update their voting machines, even after the Florida presidential debacle. But Senate Bill 82, sponsored by Democratic Senator Larry Walsh, would require the State Board of Elections to establish a grant program to accomplish that goal. The bill will be voted on soon in the Local Government Committee.

Philip and the Republicans also staunchly opposed a bill to require that police interrogations be videotaped. Senate Bill 15, sponsored by Chicago Democratic Senator Barach Obama, will do just that and will be taken up soon in a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.

The new chairperson of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee is Democratic liberal Carol Ronen. Her committee will take up her Senate Bill 2 soon, which will prohibit employers from basing wages solely on gender. This would not have been a popular bill when the Republicans were the majority party.

Pate deliberately killed a bill last year that would have given Chicago public-school teachers some of the collective-bargaining rights taken from them in the 1995 Chicago school-reform law. Senate President Jones got a vote on that one (Senate Bill 19) in the Education Committee last week. The bill, which also prohibits for-profit entities from operating a public school, zoomed out of the committee and then passed the entire chamber on a unanimous vote.

The big question now becomes “How many liberal bills will the Senate approve?” The answer could very well be “lots.” So far, the Senate has managed to only take up the sort of liberal bills that much of the public can support, but there is a lot more legislation in the pipeline, and the year is just beginning.

Plus, the House membership is as liberal, if not more so, than the Senate, so left to their own devices the two chambers could end up sending a lot of left-leaning legislation to the governor’s desk.

House Speaker Michael Madigan is expected to try to keep a lid on many of those bills, particularly those that could truly outrage the business lobby. Madigan was in the House in 1975, the last time the Democrats controlled both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Back then, the Democrats went way overboard on the anti-biz stuff and created a backlash that elected a Republican governor in 1976. It took from 1976 until last year to elect another Democratic governor.

Like I said, there’s a long way to go in this session. The old-style Republican conservative Pate Philip killed a lot of good bills when he was Senate president, but he also killed a lot of bad ones. The Democrats will now have to police themselves, and nobody knows yet whether they’re up to the task. Stay tuned.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).