SPRINGFIELD — Despite massive and unresolved problems with the state budget, the Illinois House is poised to set a record for meeting the fewest number of days in two decades.
Although lawmakers are still expected to return to action later this month for one or two more days of work, the 45 days lawmakers were in the capital city between Jan. 1 and May 7 mark the fewest since a 50-day spring legislative session in 1998.
The Senate has met for just 41 days this spring but could tie or slightly exceed its previous low set in 2000, when the chamber met for 42 days.
The shortened schedule became an issue May 7 when Democratic leaders sent lawmakers home without a new state budget in place.
Republicans in the Senate voted against adjourning, arguing that the General Assembly should not go home until a spending plan is adopted.
“The Senate Republicans believed it was appropriate to stay here and get the job done,” said Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno.
But just because they met fewer times than usual and still haven’t adopted a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 doesn’t mean lawmakers weren’t busy this spring.
In all, the House and Senate approved 1,447 bills in this General Assembly. That is 300 more pieces of legislation than the average load of the past two decades and nearly double the amount of legislation sent to former Gov. Jim Edgar in a 1993-94 and 1995-96.
The last time lawmakers dumped so much legislation on a governor’s desk was in the 1991-92 General Assembly, when 1,528 bills were approved.
“I think in terms of legislation that’s unrelated to the budget, I think it’s been a pretty good year,” said state Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion.
Not so, said state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon.
“The bad things greatly outweigh the good things because the most important thing that we do in the General Assembly is decide how we are going to spend the billions of taxpayer dollars,” Righter said.
The absence of vigorous debate on the state’s budget woes surprised and disappointed some lawmakers.
“Have we discussed the budget one day here?” asked state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, as the session wound down. “You’ve been here since January, and the single most important issue facing the state of Illinois, and you haven’t discussed it?”
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In general, election year sessions typically feature a lighter schedule because the state Constitution calls for lawmakers to meet only for budgetary and emergency action.
For example, in the Senate, last year’s non-election year legislative session lasted 68 days, but also included days set aside for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment proceedings in January and a lengthy overtime session in the summer over the state’s budget mess.
The House record for the most days spent in Springfield in the past 20 years is 95, set in 1991 when a budget impasse had members of the House in town through July 19.
At the same time there are concerns about lawmakers not getting their work done, their absence arguably is saving taxpayer dollars.
On each session day, all 177 members receive a $139 expense check. The House and Senate also must bring in doormen and pay mileage to lawmakers. Over the course of an extra 20 days of session, those added expenses could top $500,000.
Some legislators say being home in their districts rather than sitting idle in Springfield is the best option for the time being.
“Everybody is scared to do anything because they are scared they won’t get elected,” said state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton. “We could sit up here all summer long, sit here every day until November and nothing is done.”
The House is expected to return to action May 24.