Gunfight Expected To Preoccupy Illinois Lawmakers

 

SPRINGFIELD -- Had Illinois lawmakers in December resolved the question of whether illegal gun possession should be a felony, the General Assembly's spring calendar likely would have lived up to the sleepy expectations top leaders had last fall when they cut the spring session back by six weeks.

But as it stands, the Legislature's election-year session that begins Jan. 12 very well could launch the second installment in the running feud between Gov. George Ryan and Senate President James "Pate" Philip over re-enacting the governor's Safe Neighborhoods anti-crime package.

Should squabbling break out anew, then all bets are off on whether the session will end by its scheduled, mid-April adjournment date, let alone on whether the state's top two Republicans will be speaking to one another by then.

"This isn't an issue that's going to fade," Ryan said after losing a pivotal Senate vote on his proposal on Dec. 29.

Without a doubt, Illinois' gun saga is sure to overshadow expected legislative maneuvers on a possible, election-year tax cut and on discussions over how the state should spend its $9.1 billion share from the federal tobacco settlement.

Lawmakers also are expected to delve more deeply into the state's troubled child-support disbursement unit in suburban Chicago. It was launched by the Ryan administration last October but has been a disaster because of long delays in processing and mailing out checks to single parents.

But those issues are likely to remain in the background while Philip and Ryan go at it one more time over guns.

Philip, a Republican from suburban Chicago, singlehandedly scuttled Ryan's efforts at getting the Legislature to put back on the books a four-year-old law that the state Supreme Court struck down because of the unconstitutional way it originally passed the General Assembly.

The latest legislative sticking point with the anti-crime package is the the felony gun provision, which passed the Illinois House, but became stuck in political tar in the Philip-led Senate. There, hunting interests and the National Rifle Association carry great influence among conservative Republicans and Democrats from mostly rural Downstate.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has joined Ryan in pressing for re-enactment of the gun law and its felony gun provision, which they said gave police a powerful tool in getting guns out of the hands of gang members and off the city's streets. Daley was the law's chief architect in 1994.

But Philip and his colleagues worried too many hunters could be slapped with felonies if they get pulled over on a traffic stop and are found to be accidentally transporting their hunting weapons loaded and in plain view, which would be against the law.

In late December, after a Ryan bid to pass the felony gun provision fell five votes short in the Senate, the governor vowed he'd be back and would continue to press Philip for another roll call on the issue this spring, when fewer votes are needed for passage than last December.

The governor had been aiming for 36 votes in the Senate so the gun measure could take effect immediately but could skate by this spring on as little as 30 votes, so long as he is willing to push back the legislation's effective date to June.

Ryan's strategists are still mapping out what course to take in the spring session, but are behind new polling that suggests GOP senators in swing suburban districts and in Downstate Illinois were out-of-step with their crime-fearing constituents by voting against Ryan's proposal.

Regardless of such election-year pressure, Philip is unlikely to back away from his stance, making the issue nearly impossible to script.

On other fronts in the General Assembly, lawmakers are expected to deal with a flurry of tax-cut proposals. Philip has suggested cutting the state's 3-percent income tax as an election-year gift to voters. Alternatively, in the House, some Democrats have suggested enacting sales-tax holidays as their own token to voters.

Even though the state's treasury is flush because of the booming economy, Ryan has been reticent to accept any major rollback in taxes but has not ruled out signing on to a modest proposal.

Voters remain upset at him and other lawmakers for passage last year of his $12 billion Illinois FIRST public works program, which raised license fees and liquor taxes. A boost in annual automobile license fees - from $48 to $78 - kicked in Jan. 1. Two years ago, Ryan campaigned for governor on a pledge against raising taxes.

The tobacco issue also must be resolved soon. In December, Illinois began receiving the first payments from the tobacco industry. By mid-summer, $400 million is expected to be in the state's treasury, courtesy of Big Tobacco. Ryan has been silent on how he thinks that money should be spent

Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan, who helped negotiate the tobacco settlement and is unrelated to the governor, believes at least 50 percent should be devoted to anti-smoking efforts. Other lawmakers and health-related special-interest groups are pressing for a higher percentage for that use.

But like with guns, Philip once again could be an obstacle to quick action. He has expressed concerns about laying out a definitive road map on spending the money until the state knows its funds won't be depleted by a pending lawsuit by Cook County. That government seeks a share of the state's tobacco funds to help pay for smoking-related health-care costs incurred at its Chicago hospital.

 
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