Monday, September 15, 2008

Pressure builds

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. is under increasing pressure to call his chamber back to Springfield to vote on ethics reforms and budget restorations already approved by the House last week. But the pressure affects him differently than his members, as he's retiring in January. It's the remaining Senate Democrats who feel the most heat.

Jones’ office said Friday that the chamber would not return until the regularly scheduled fall session November 12, about a week after the General Election and about nine weeks after the House overturned Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s changes to unanimously approved ethics reforms and budget cuts. Jones’ decision starts a constitutional debate about when a 15-day clock starts to run before the ethics reform dies in legislative limbo. See more about the constitutional debate in our previous blog.

To demonstrate widespread support for immediate action on the ethics legislation, four constitutional officers — Comptroller Dan Hynes, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias — joined a bipartisan group of state senators in Chicago to urge Jones to call his chamber back into session before the elections. (I listened to the live audio provided in Springfield.)

Hynes said the Senate president has two choices: He can call the Senate back now to give legislators an opportunity to vote on the ban on so-called pay-to-play politics before voters head to the polls, or he can wait until after elections and increase the chance of being sued and to make the electorate feel even more disengaged. We wrote about a potential lawsuit last week.

Lisa Madigan, Illinois attorney general, also urged Jones to act now to avoid a lengthy and costly lawsuit about when the 15-day clock starts to tick. A lawsuit would put her in a tight spot because she would have to defend the state in court.

Members of Jones’ leadership team, including Sen. Debbie Halvorson of Crete and Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan, joined the news conference, along with the Senate sponsor of the ethics bill, Democratic Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park. He said while he agrees with Jones’ interpretation of the state Constitution, the news conference demonstrates that the chamber is ready, willing and able to return immediately to avoid that constitutional challenge.

Senate Republican leaders also chimed in, saying they have supported the bipartisan effort but have opposed the Democratic “roadblock,” meaning Jones. Deputy Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said her Democratic counterparts elected Jones, so they should have some influence in forcing the Senate president’s hand to act now.

Hynes pointed out that the only one who could force Jones to do anything would be the governor, who is unlikely to call a special session of the legislature to override his own veto.

Such good government groups as the Campaign for Political Reform, the Better Government Association and the League of Women Voters also stood beside them. Dawn Clark Netsch, former state senator and state comptroller, spoke on behalf of voters. She said even if Jones is correct in his interpretation of the state Constitution about when the 15-day clock starts, it doesn’t matter to already skeptical voters who want to know where candidates stand before heading to the polls.

We're still waiting to hear from Jones' office this evening.

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