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Cullerton sitting on gambling bills in hopes of persuading Quinn not to veto

Updated: October 16, 2011 12:18AM

Illinois residents woke June 1 to the news that the General Assembly the prior evening had wrapped up its spring session by approving major pieces of legislation to expand legalized gambling and raise electricity rates.

As is usual in such situations when legislation has cleared both chambers, the state’s news organizations, including ours, reported that the measures had been sent to Gov. Pat Quinn for his action.

Yet here we are more than a month later and neither of those bills has actually gone to Quinn’s desk, nor are they expected to arrive there any time soon.

That’s because Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, is using an obscure parliamentary maneuver to keep both bills on hold in his chamber, in effect holding them hostage while he and others try to convince Quinn not to veto them.

Despite a Constitutional provision that gives the Legislature 30 days to present any bill to the governor after its passage, Cullerton says he could, in theory, hold both bills in this manner until the end of the legislative session in January 2013, when they would die without ever getting to the governor.

That strikes me as a bad way of doing business that fouls up the legislative process, and it ought to be nipped in the bud before it becomes a normal element in the Springfield give-and-take.

Cullerton tells me I’ve got it all wrong and that this is an unusual situation that calls for a rare use of an otherwise well-established parliamentary procedure — a motion to reconsider. Holding these bills is not just legal but will produce a better outcome for the public than if he were to rush the bills along to the governor, Cullerton says. Action could come this fall, he said.

I want to give Cullerton his due. He’s not hiding what he’s doing. He’s taken the time to explain his reasoning to me and anybody who’s asked. The only reason you probably haven’t heard much about this issue is that it gets pretty arcane.

But in a period where we’re already concerned about too much power being concentrated in the hands of too few people in state government, I think he’s making a mistake. And if House Speaker Michael Madigan or former Senate President James “Pate” Philip had done this, there would have already been a big stink by now.

Under the Senate’s rules, as is common in most legislative bodies, Cullerton is entitled to file a motion to reconsider because he voted on the prevailing side of both the gambling and electric rate bills. With his motion pending, neither bill has technically cleared both chambers, he said, and therefore the 30-day clock doesn’t keep ticking.

“There’s nothing tricky about it,” he said.

After I started poking around on this issue last week, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno sent Cullerton a letter asking him to lift his hold “to preserve the integrity of the legislative process.”

Radogno stressed her objection had nothing to do with the merits of the bills, noting she had backed the electricity rate hike but opposed the gambling bill.

Radogno’s letter to Cullerton didn’t go into details, but in an interview with me she called it a “total subversion of the process.”

While others have invoked motions to reconsider in the past, most often when legislators realized they had passed seriously flawed legislation, “I have never seen it used like this,” she said.

I sure hadn’t seen this either, though some tell me it is a maneuver that occasionally plays out behind the scenes with little attention from the press as legislators try to gain leverage on the governor or a particular interest group.

The big problem for proponents of the gambling bill is that they sent Quinn a bill they know he doesn’t want to sign as is, yet they believe that if he uses his amendatory veto to make all the changes he wants, they won’t be able to win approval again. And most importantly, they don’t want to start all over if he vetoes it outright.

As Cullerton explains, they would rather craft a “trailer bill” with changes that would make the gambling expansion palatable to Quinn. The trailer bill wouldn’t take effect unless he approved both. Quinn refused again Monday to commit either way on the gambling bill, although he reiterated his intention to veto the electricity rate legislation if it ever gets to him.

I’d say all of this speaks to the problem of approving an overreaching piece of legislation in the first place.

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