I gave thanks this week for being able to ply my trade in one of the most continually interesting buildings in Illinois.

Heading into the press offices carved in the Illinois Capitol these recent weeks, I've been recalling memorable moments that occurred during my tenure as a reporter covering state government and politics in Springfield.

Some have been important. The end of the death penalty. The advent of concealed carry. The repeated failure to fix school funding. The impeachment of a governor.

Other moments were memorable because they were so odd. Former Gov. Pat Quinn unveiled "Squeezy the Pension Python," for example, to illustrate the need to fix the state's employee retirement systems.

But, when asked who actually thought up the idea of an orange cartoon snake, no one on his staff would admit it. Even a public records search failed to turn up the creator.

Some moments over the past two decades were just plain funny to watch.

Like the time former state Rep. Bill Black of Danville angrily threw a box of tissues at the speaker's podium, followed years later by former state Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro going viral on social media after screaming and tossing a sheaf of papers in the air to express his outrage over some partisan slip.

Big changes have taken place here.

During the Blagojevich era from 2003 to 2009, the now-imprisoned Democrat from Chicago worked to expand child care programs for working parents.

The Quinn years were marked by a tax increase that Republicans used to oust him from office. As it goes in this place, now that the increase has expired and left the state in a deeper financial hole, even the GOP mainliners now acknowledge a tax hike is needed.

I witnessed the end of capital punishment in Illinois when former Republican Gov. George Ryan blinked at the prospect of putting another human to death.

Quinn's signature on legislation legalizing gay marriage was not something I expected to ever see when I arrived in the mid 1990s. Nor was the sad decline of funding for higher education, which has triggered an exodus of students to other states in search of lower tuition prices and more stability.

Also unexpected was the court-ordered approval of concealed carry in a Chicago-centric state government that had prided itself as being one of two lone holdouts on tough gun laws in the nation.

Other changes that exemplify state government's role in your life include raising the interstate speed limit to 70 mph, the legalization of video gambling and the approval of medical marijuana.

Having watched the political baby steps taken by a young state senator named Barack Obama, I can tell you I never thought I'd be sitting in the seventh row covering his first swearing-in ceremony as president of the United States on a cold January day in 2009.

There also have been incredible failures.

The lack of a solution to reduce the disparities in school funding between wealthy suburban districts and poorer rural areas is a complete shame that will continue to reverberate for generations.

The inability of governors and lawmakers to figure out a way to deal with the state's pension mess has left the state in a fiscal quagmire.

Although current Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to reduce the state's inmate population, the fact that the state's prisons are so overcrowded also is an expensive embarrassment on the shoulder of policy makers.

Yet, amid all the changes and stops and starts, many things have stayed the same.

For one, there is House Speaker Michael Madigan. The man has been in charge of the House for all but one year since I've been around and was doing this long before I arrived. He's very good at keeping his party in control.

And there are the ethical problems among elected officials. Despite attempts to crack down on corruption with various laws and inspectors, the people Illinoisans elect continue breaking the rules.

And, of course, there is the Capitol building. It's been a destination of mine nearly every day for 20 years. And I still look around in awe as I walk in the copper-clad doors on the way to the press room.

In the coming days I'll be departing Illinois to cover a new beat. I am grateful to have had a front row seat at this circus. But it's time for a new act.

Follow Kurt Erickson on Twitter @Illinois_Stage


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