SPRINGFIELD --- A new Illinois General Assembly was sworn in today, and after the ceremony and celebrations are over, lawmakers will face a full plate of unresolved issues in the month ahead.
Democrats now have veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, increasing the party's control at a time when the state's $96.8 billion pension debt looms as a major issue. Also left hanging following Tuesday's adjournment of the last session: gay marriage, gun control and gambling expansion, among others.
Gov. Pat Quinn presided over the 59-member Senate, which is his constitutional duty, until Sen. John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, was re-elected as the chamber's president. Democrats make up 40 out of the 59 senators.
The House is across town at the University of Illinois-Springfield at an auditorium. The House elected Democratic Rep. Michael Madigan as speaker, a post he has held since 1983 with the exception of a two-year period when Republicans won control. He is Illinois’ longest serving House speaker. There are 71 Democrats out of 118 members.
Madigan challenged his newly sworn colleagues to tackle the difficult finances of the state, including the "absolutely serious nature" of the heavily indebted pension systems.
The Southwest Side Democrat warned House members that "really difficult work" lies ahead, asking them to call upon their "inner resolve."
After briefly relenting the past few days during efforts to get pension reform passed, Madigan stuck beside his call to shift the state's costs of paying for suburban and Downstate teacher pensions onto local school districts. Madigan said it is now a "free lunch" given that Chicago property taxpayers cover expenses for the city's public teacher pensions.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, called on lawmakers to "be bold" and put political consequences aside when deciding how to move forward on the "incredibly difficult issues."
Earlier, House Majority Leader Barbara Currie launched the renomination of Madigan to start his 15th term as speaker of the House, saying the hallmark of his leadership is one of hard work, intelligence and deliberative decision making.
"He's not a knee-jerk, not a snap judgment kind of guy," Currie said.
Citing the state's daunting financial challenges, Currie said: "One man has shown the capacity to chart a course out of the morass."
Among lawmakers seconding Madigan's nomination. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said Madigan is always a step ahead, or maybe "seven or eight," as the clear "focal point" of the legislative process.
Unlike most ceremonial debates over pre-determined leadership choices, Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, ripped into Madigan while nominating Cross for the speakership.
Bost drew national attention last year for a paper-tossing tirade against the confining Madigan-backed rules of procedure in the House, but he said this time he would try to "keep my emotions in check."
But Bost wasted little time before he railed against Madigan.
"For the last 32 years, this has not been a very democratic place," Bost said, singling out Madigan as the "one person" responsible for the problem.
Bost pleaded with colleagues to back Cross because today they will take the "most important vote" of the session, one that will determine how committees are structured and whether bills will ever be heard.
At the House ceremony, there is a banner with a picture of the Capitol dome and American flags. There is also a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "Determine the thing that can be and shall be done, and then we shall find the way."
Four years ago, the Illinois House was sworn in, then promptly voted to impeach then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Senate went on to remove Blagojevich from office, and eventually the ex-governor ended up serving federal time in a Colorado prison following his conviction on political corruption charges.
The new Illinois House is home to two lawmakers who face federal criminal charges: Reps. Derrick Smith, who was kicked out last August but re-elected in November by West Side voters; and LaShawn Ford, who was indicted on financial charges late last year.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times