SPRINGFIELD | Compared with last year's session, when Illinois lawmakers tackled major issues ranging from pensions to gay marriage to concealed carry, the legislative work that begins later this month likely will be less ambitious but more politically driven because of looming elections.
Tax questions are expected to dominate the agenda, including what to do about the pending expiration of the temporary income tax, corporate tax incentives, Chicago pension reform and the possibility of a capital construction bill that could boost Gov. Pat Quinn's re-election bid.
"It's going to be popular-vote issues," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said. "The financial issues of the state are finally taking root."
Control of the governor's mansion is on the line in the upcoming election, as well as the Democrats' veto-proof margins in the House and Senate. Republicans are aiming to convince voters that they would be better stewards of public funds if put in charge. Democrats, in turn, will portray the GOP as hurting the most vulnerable Illinoisans with aggressive cuts.
Lawmakers return to Springfield on Jan. 28, one day ahead of Quinn's State of the State speech. Among the things they're expected to discuss immediately is what to do about the scheduled rollback of the state's temporary income tax increase from 5 percent to 3.75 percent next January — halfway through the upcoming fiscal year.
In a report released earlier this month, Quinn's office of management and budget outlined a three-year projection showing the state's deficit would grow to $1.9 billion in 2015 and $4.1 billion in 2016 if the increase sunsets as scheduled. The state's backlog of bills would also grow, from an expected $5.6 billion at the end of this fiscal year in July to $16.2 billion in 2017.
Quinn's February budget address will serve as the opening salvo of negotiations with lawmakers as he announces his spending priorities for the year.
The Chicago Democrat has not yet said whether he wants to extend the tax increase. Three of the four GOP candidates — Winnteka businessman Bruce Rauner, state Sen. Bill Brady and State Sen. Kirk Dillard — want the hike to lapse. The other, state treasurer Dan Rutherford, has said he could be open to negotiations.
The issue will be vital to the GOP's voting base in the 2014 general election. Democratic lawmakers are seeking to keep it in place by spelling out doomsday scenarios of draconian cuts to schools and social services should there be a rollback.
Either way, legislative appropriators find themselves in a pickle, as they'll spend months budgeting before getting any certainty on revenue projections, forcing them to plan for a worst-case scenario.
"I don't think we should be appropriating money that I'm not sure we're going to have," said state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat.
Besides debating the temporary income tax extension, lawmakers also are expected to look into the idea of a graduated income tax. Democratic state Sen. Don Harmon has proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would set different income tax rates depending on individuals' incomes — essentially making the wealthy pay more.
Some conservatives have resisted that proposal. The advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is running video spots against Democratic lawmakers in moderate, suburban districts who are seen as vulnerable in their re-election bids. Among the targets is Rep. Marty Moylan, of Des Plaines, who says he hasn't yet made up his mind on the issue.
"We have to get more information," he said. "I'm getting criticized from both sides for not taking a stance."
Corporate tax incentives also are expected to come up during the session, as members of both parties figure to talk on the campaign trail about keeping businesses in Illinois.
Lawmakers adjourned for the year in December without granting tax breaks to several large companies that requested them, including Archer Daniels Midland, Univar and Office Max.
Democratic Rep. Jack Franks, of Marengo, is pushing for the state's main economic development tool, the EDGE program, to be revamped, citing a culture of "insider deals" that's blunting the state's economic recovery. Supporters of the breaks argue they are important for keeping and attracting more jobs.
After having dealt with the state's own pension problems last spring, Democrats intend to take up the pension crises affecting Chicago and other Illinois cities.
Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, who has said Chicago's pension problem is even worse than the state's, wants to take up the issue as soon as lawmakers return. Spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said Cullerton was "keeping his schedule open" to meet with other legislative leaders this week to discuss a plan. A vote could be especially difficult for Chicago Democrats who rely on support from the Chicago Teachers' Union.
Although most of the lawmakers won't face a major challenge until the November general election, the Republican battle for governor figures to be hotly contested leading up to the March 18 primary — halfway through the legislative session.
Durkin said among the bills on the table is one to fund a capital construction program, which could help Quinn portray himself as a job creator.
The last construction spending plan was approved by Quinn in 2009 — a $31 billion infusion creating thousands of jobs and helping rebuild the state's crumbling infrastructure. It was paid for through higher taxes and a vast expansion of legalized gambling.
Republicans up and down the ticket also will aim to show solidarity in opposing and supporting specific policy, Durkin said.
"We're going to be partners with Senate Republicans and gubernatorial candidates," he said. "We want to be on the same page with the same message."