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Fall Springfield session expected to impact students, gay couples — not pensions

llinois lawmakers debate state legislatiwhile House floor  Illinois State Capitol Springfield Ill. File Photo. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

llinois lawmakers debate state legislation while on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., File Photo. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: December 28, 2012 6:27AM

SPRINGFIELD — When Illinois lawmakers return to the Capitol Tuesday for the launch of their fall legislative session, consider it perhaps as the appetizer to the main entree.

The session that spans the next two weeks and could stretch all the way to Jan. 9 could have a profound impact on state employees and retirees, Chicago school students, gay couples, gamblers, illegal immigrants and residents in the 2nd Congressional District.

But out of the gate, most observers expect little movement on the big issues, including pension reform, gambling expansion or on even tougher issues such as the legalization of gay marriage or medicinal marijuana.

What is likely to happen between now and Thursday is action on Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of a budget bill that contained $57 million in appropriations for state facilities he wants to mothball, including the Tamms supermax prison and the all-women’s prison in Dwight.

Lawmakers voted to keep them open, defying the governor’s threat to lay off 400 Department of Children and Family Services caseworkers to make up for that shortfall.

There also is likely movement this week on legislation backed by Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton and Mayor Rahm Emanuel that would open the door to as many as 250,000 undocumented immigrants to gain state driver’s licenses in exchange for undergoing training and proving they have insurance.

On Tuesday, Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will travel to Springfield to testify for legislation that would extend a deadline from Dec. 1 to March 31 for the city to make public a list of schools it intends to shutter.

And on Wednesday, all eyes will turn toward a power struggle in the Senate Republican caucus, when the 19 members who’ll be seated in January vote on a leader. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) is fighting to keep her leadership post against Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon), who blames her for not doing enough to stave off the loss of five Senate seats to Democrats earlier this month.

Another issue that could surface this week or next is a push by Quinn to change state law so voters in the 2nd Congressional District could vote on a replacement for the now-resigned U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. on April 9, the date of municipal elections, rather than March 19. That latter date is when state law dictated Quinn set a special election to get a successor for Jackson, who stepped down last week amid a federal investigation and mental-health issues.

But January, when fewer votes will be required to pass legislation than now, is when a slew of more contentious subjects may surface, including pension reform and possibly gambling expansion, gay marriage and the legalization of medical marijuana, among other things.

With pensions, a drive to get rid of annual, compounded 3-percent cost-of-living increases for state retirees and pass the pension tab from the state to suburban and Downstate school systems for educators stalled in May and again in August. Quinn has called for action on pension reform in January to save billions of dollars for the state, setting the stage for a major leadership test that could extend ripples into the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

But a Cullerton aide Monday set the bar low on pensions, casting doubts that anything might happen on legislation that a united front of public-employee unions has succeeded thus far in bottling up.

“I think we’re still waiting for some indication the votes are there for anything,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. “I think that would still be correctly characterized as a top priority, but at this stage today I don’t see any momentum building around any pension proposal.”

On gambling, Quinn vetoed an expansion bill that would have brought a casino to Chicago, introduced four other casinos around the state and allowed slot machines at racetracks. But prospects for an override look dim because the original Senate roll call last May achieved only 30 votes, well shy of the 36 that would be needed to block the governor’s veto.

Responding to Emanuel’s continued push for a city casino, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) has dispatched his top lawyer, David Ellis, to try to broker some kind of deal on gambling. But with it, as with so many other contentious subjects, the Madigan camp makes no predictions on its potential success once January rolls around.

“This is a traditionally time of year where there are a thousand ideas, and we’ll see if anybody has the votes, either now or the post-veto session time in January,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

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