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Illinois lawmakers return to the Capitol Tuesday for start of the annual slog toward a scheduled May 31 adjournment date.

While the state's pitiful budget and Gov. Rauner's anti-union agenda have sucked up much of the legislative oxygen since the governor took office in January, there is a bubbling cauldron of special interest stew that has been simmering in the statehouse kitchen.

Telephone giant AT&T is hoping to convince the General Assembly to allow it to move away from its landline business. The company has dispatched its army of lobbyists and communications professionals to spread the word about why its important for the company to rid itself of the responsibilities of keeping its old-fashioned rotary phone-era infrastructure intact.

Exelon is out there with its threats to shut down nuclear power plants in Clinton and Cordova if it doesn't get some relief in the form of a favorable bailout on the backs of everyone who uses their juice.

Another group is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would ask voters if they want term limits. And don't forgot those ongoing efforts to give Chicago a casino.

All of that is supposed to get done in the 20 days lawmakers are scheduled to work between now and the end of the month.

On Wednesday, a longtime statehouse lobbyist asked me what the over-under is on whether the House and Senate finish their business before the scheduled end of session.

I told him to plan on mid-July before there is even a little light at the end of the tunnel.

The reason is this: The Democrats who control the House and Senate and the Republican governor can play brinksmanship politics throughout June without getting in the way of normal state operations.

But, without a budget in place by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, questions will begin being raised about whether the state can meet payroll. In the past, we've seen that first deadline date come sometime in the first two weeks of July.

That has previously forced some kind of compromise. Of course, the governor could decide to see how far he wants to push state workers by refusing to deal.

Rauner signaled Wednesday that the scheduled deadline may be a bust.

"We're going to push hard to get it done by May 31st. I've heard chatter that it may take longer," Rauner said.

Rauner debate

Since beating Pat Quinn back in November, Rauner has spoken proudly of his attempts to meet with every state lawmaker.

Some of those haven't gone so well.

Take state Rep. Mike Smiddy's experience as an example.

The Hillsdale Democrat was meeting with the governor three weeks ago when things got heated. Smiddy said he was simply telling the governor that his budget proposal would end up costing his district more in the long run. The governor apparently didn't agree.

Smiddy, who was elected with the help of labor unions, also pointed out that some of Rauner's anti-union positions did not and do not have his support.

In response, Rauner proposed the two have a public debate.

The idea took Smiddy by surprise.

"I'm just a lawmaker from the Quad Cities," Smiddy told me.

On Friday, the Capitol Fax blog reported that Rauner was backing down and was no longer pushing for a debate.

Prison tour

A group of lawmakers toured Pontiac Correctional Center last week as part of an educational visit sponsored by state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington.

The maximum-security facility was built in 1871. On a daily basis, guards deal with operational blind spots and 2,040 of the state's worst criminals, including 162 inmates from the former super-max facility in Tamms.

The challenges facing correctional officers wasn't lost on one of the visitors.

"It would take a special person to work in a place like that," state Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, told me after we'd spent an hour walking through the noisy galleries.

He said it makes sense for lawmakers to go along with Rauner's proposal to add 400 guards to the Illinois Department of Corrections to reduce the amount of overtime being worked by employees.

"In a situation like that, where you can't afford to make mistakes, I think having people working overtime could put public safety at risk. We need to take a fresh approach to dealing with overtime. That part of the budget makes sense to me," Wheeler said.

Follow Kurt Erickson on Twitter @Illinois_Stage

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