Chicago Democrats may control state government but there is plenty of evidence that downstate Illinois fared pretty well in the recently ended session of the Illinois General Assembly.
Of course, how you view the results of the five-month marathon depends on what lens you happen to be looking through on issues like pension reform, fracking and concealed carry.
But, in a general sense, there’s a lot for people living south of Interstate 80 to be pleased about.
Take pension reform as an example: Nothing happened. Again.
While that’s not good for the state’s longterm financial health, the legislature’s failure to find agreement on overhauling the state’s grossly underfunded retirement systems means that public school teachers, university employees and prison guards weren’t dinged this spring.
What’s more, hundreds of thousands of retirees and their dependents also were left mostly unscathed because of the inability of the three Chicago Democrats who control the executive and legislative levers of government to find common ground.
The failure of the House and Senate to take action may leave workers and retirees feeling a bit unsettled, but at least their benefits are still intact. For now.
Lawmakers also approved a budget that calls for no facility closures after last year’s controversial push by Gov. Pat Quinn to shutter prisons and other state facilities in Tamms, Dwight, Murphysboro, Decatur and Carbondale.
The new budget also spares public education and the state’s universities from the $400 million in cuts that Quinn had sought in February.
Although funding for schools in general remains below what it should be, at least it’s not going to be even less. Grants to school districts to help pay for school bus costs also are being kept relatively flat.
Lawmakers also failed to enact a proposal that would have forced downstate public universities and community colleges to pay a bigger chunk toward employee retirement costs.
Then there’s the whole issue of allowing Illinoisans to carry loaded weapons in public.
Granted, not everyone in Central and Southern Illinois feels passionate about the lifting of Illinois’ ban on concealed carry. But its biggest supporters in the General Assembly were downstate lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle.
Even if/when Quinn takes his veto pen to the proposal, the legislature’s wide margin of approval virtually assures it will eventually become law.
If you believe that hydraulic fracturing really will boost employment in Southern Illinois and not hurt the environment, then last week’s vote to regulate fracking was yet another major milestone for the part of the state located south and west of the heavily populated urban area in the northeast.
Whether fracking brings 1,000 jobs or 47,000 jobs to the state, that’s employment for a region that has undergone some trying times in recent decades.
The House and Senate also approved a proposal to boost the speed limit on rural interstate highways to 70 miles per hour, up from the current limit of 65 mph. That means downstate residents will be able to drive to their jobs at the fracking fields faster. Or, get to the gun shop a little quicker.
Given previous statements, it wouldn’t be a shocker if the governor vetoed the speed limit legislation. But it also was approved by wide enough margins in both the House and Senate that lawmakers could easily override him.
The change would not be free: Transportation officials say it will cost about $200,000 to convert all of the signs to read “70” by the January implementation date.
The governor also pledged to sign legislation that could bring 2,000 construction jobs and 150 permanent positions to the Central Illinois community of Tuscola.
Cronus Chemical LLC wants to build a fertilizer plant in either Illinois or Iowa. A package of incentives worth about $35 million was included in a larger economic development initiative that also will pave the way for work to begin at the long-awaited, much-debated third Chicago-area airport at Peotone.
Illinois has made its best offer. Now it’s up to Cronus to decide which state has the best deal.
And, finally, members of the Senate single-handedly stopped Quinn from remaking the Southern Illinois University board of trustees.
They quickly and efficiently rejected three Quinn nominees, introduced legislation to alter the appointment process and then “helped” the governor pick two replacement trustees that were quickly signed off upon by members of the Senate.
All of the action in Springfield showed that downstate wasn’t a forgotten part of the state in 2013.