DECATUR — Ask local lawmakers about the major issues that face the region and the state in upcoming spring session of the General Assembly in Springfield, and the answers will vary across the board.
Pensions. Schools. Jobs. Guns.
But these lawmakers will have to work together to address the laundry list of problems facing Illinois by May 31, the end of session.
Several of the new lawmakers say they have been going through their districts to talk with constituents and learn the important issues. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, said she is preparing herself to take on an active role in pushing for local issues, including working to prevent the creation of a chemical landfill near Clinton above the Mahomet Aquifer.
But Scherer, a former schoolteacher who won election in the 96th House District in November, said everybody knows the major issue remains the pension mess.
“The concern is the same thing we’ve been hearing about,” she said.
While Scherer is a newcomer to government, the other incoming lawmaker from the area brings much local and state experience.
Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat who defeated Republican Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy for the 48th Senate District, previously served as chairman of the Macoupin County Board. He will be a familiar face in Springfield, too, as former chief of staff for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.
Manar said both experiences have helped prepare him for navigating Springfield politics, but he’s still going to consider himself a newcomer.
“I’m approaching it as a freshman member, but I’m going to use my knowledge of the institution to help my constituents,” Manar said.
His major issues this spring will be pushing for job creation and to get equitable funding for downstate schools, which have seen their money from the state dwindle for more than a decade.
Aside from Manar and Scherer, most of the local lawmakers are familiar faces.
State Sen. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican who served the previous eight years as a state representative, said he is still adjusting to the size of his Senate district, which covers parts of Macon, DeWitt, Piatt and Shelby counties and stretches east to the Indiana border.
However, Rose; state Rep. Adam Brown, a Champaign Republican whose House district covers parts of Shelby, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt counties; and state Rep. Bill Mitchell, a Forsyth Republican whose House district covers parts of Macon, DeWitt and Piatt, said they will focus on getting a balanced budget and reducing the state’s pension problem.
“My macro-level focus is on pensions, including the budget, and promoting pro-job business bills,” Rose said.
Illinois has the worst-funded pension in the country, with $96.8 billion unfunded liability.
But pushing for the issues they care about could be difficult for Brown, Rose and the rest of the GOP this spring.
After one of the most lopsided victories at the polls in November, Democrats find themselves with supermajorities in each chamber. The Senate will feature 40 Democrats and only 19 Republicans, while the House will have 71 Democrats and 47 Republicans. The advantage would allow the Democrats the ability to pass or veto any legislation without the support of a single Republican.
Even so, Manar said bipartisanship is necessary to build trust between the two parties and create the best solutions to the state’s problems.
Additionally, Rose notes many of the local issues are not partisan but regional issues.
“We have a collection of lawmakers from both parties across Central Illinois,” he said. “It benefits the constituents because we all want to do our best for them.”
It remains to be seen whether this General Assembly will be more effective than the previous one, which was unable to push through a variety of high-profile legislation in its lame-duck session such as pension reform, gay marriage or gun control.
Local lawmakers varied on the topics, with Republicans assuring they would do their part to focus on the important budget issues, involving pensions and school funding, and prevent Chicago Democrats from pushing their agenda.
Whatever issues pass or fail, Brown said he hoped lawmakers could at least inspire some hope in their constituents about the legislative process.
“We have to restore some public honesty and trustworthiness in what we’re doing in Springfield,” he said.