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The upcoming lame duck session of the Illinois General Assembly is beginning to look like a Christmas tree.

What had started out as a weeklong get-together aimed at finally fixing the state’s pension systems, has suddenly become packed with many shiny baubles.

As things stand right now, lawmakers also could attempt to tackle gay marriage, gambling expansion and medical marijuana.

To be sure, leaders of the House and Senate are experts at ramming big issues through their chambers in short amounts of time. But the additional issues could be in danger of toppling the whole tree, leaving the matter of pension reform once again unfinished.

Quinn’s underlings are trying to keep their boss’ eye on the pension reform prize.

Last week, they released information outlining how state universities and college students will be affected by the ongoing squeeze on state spending because of an unchecked rise in pension payments.

At Southern Illinois University, for example, there may be nearly 500 fewer students receiving grants from the state’s Monetary Awards Program, which helps lower income students with skyrocketing tuition costs.

SIU, like other schools, has gotten about 12 percent less from the state each year than it did in 2009.

At Illinois State University an estimated 400 fewer students will receive MAP grants in the coming year.

About 300 fewer students each at Eastern Illinois University and Western Illinois University will be left without MAP aid, according to the governor’s budget office.

Such is life when a giant orange cartoon python named “Squeezy” has wrapped itself around the dome of the Statehouse.

Outside experts have taken notice.

Last week, Moody’s Investors Service placed the “long-term ratings of all Illinois public universities under review for possible downgrade.”

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford says the potential downgrade, as well as the continued deterioration of the state’s overall credit rating, should be enough to prompt the players to put a pension overhaul on the books.

“This should serve as a wakeup call once and for all,” Rutherford said in a prepared statement.

As last week was coming to a close, there appeared to be some recognition that the lame duck session agenda was becoming way too crowded.

Quinn, who had made loud demands for an assault weapons ban in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, was backing off his earlier call for something to be done during the lame duck session.

Rather, his staff said, he is hopeful of doing something “in the coming months.”

Minimum wage

Just to keep things interesting, there also is talk that the Illinois Senate could consider an increase in the state’s minimum wage.

It’s been known for months that state Sen. Kim Lightford, D-Maywood, is interested in moving forward on her plan to raise the current $8.25 per hour rate every year by 50 cents plus inflation until it reaches $10.65 per hour. After that, it would be adjusted annually for inflation.

If inflation were to rise by its current two percent rate, the minimum wage would top $12.50 an hour within five years, which would be more than $5 per hour higher than neighboring states which use the federal rate of $7.25 per hour as their base.

Business groups say the proposed increase would wipe out 21,000 jobs and reduce economic output by roughly $4.5 billion. Moreover, an estimated 67 percent of the jobs lost would disappear from the small business sector.

“Raising the minimum wage will destroy entry level jobs and drive labor costs upward at a time when the demand for labor is already weak,” said Kim Clarke Maisch, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “It will affect small businesses that can least afford higher labor costs and they’ll respond by finding ways to serve their customers with fewer employees.”

Representative wisdom

As he enters his final days in Congress, U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson has been reflecting on his lengthy career as an elected official.

The Urbana Republican, who never lost an election in 44 years, had this advice to his successor, Rodney Davis of Taylorville:

“You can’t forget where you came from,” Johnson said. “Stay humble and make sure you remember it is the people back home are the ones who sent you there.”

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