Redistricting Tops Illinois Legislature's Agenda

When Illinois lawmakers open the 92nd General Assembly this month, the state's 177 legislators may rewrite the telecommunications law, divert more money to public schools from a tightening state budget and, perhaps most importantly, try to save their own scalps.

As in other states, Illinois is about to begin the diennial process of drawing new House, Senate and congressional boundaries. With its high political stakes, this exercise in cartography will rank as the toughest issue to resolve in what promises to be one of the busiest spring legislative sessions in recent memory.

The gamesmanship doesn't get underway until Jan. 10, when new lawmakers are sworn in. But the true political drama will begin in March when the four legislative caucuses begin getting their first glimpses at the population and demographic shifts that occurred among Illinois' 12.2 million residents since the state's last headcount 10 years ago.

The latest population estimates suggest that suburban Chicago - a once solidly Republican bastion where Democrats have made recent inroads - could become an even more powerful player in Springfield. Outside Cook County, the state's largest county and home to Chicago, the five neighboring suburban collar counties expect to boast a collective population gain of 22 percent since 1990. That rate of growth greatly exceeds Chicago and areas downstate, putting their delegations to the General Assembly at risk of being downsized.For the average voter, the whole process is a game of inside baseball, unless they have a cousin employed as a legislative staffer. But as true insiders know, the party that gets to choose what lines to use in the remap often wins an important leg-up in elections for another decade and can chart an agenda that favors either big business or labor interests.

It's already clear that Illinois' 20-member delegation to the U.S. Congress could be cut by one seat. The Legislature will have to decide which incumbents get pitted against one another. And once the remap is completed, some incumbents in the state Legislature also could wind up squaring off against each other.

Just how hostile it all gets is an open question, though the fact both Republicans and Democrats share control of the General Assembly means neither side will get shut out. In fact, there have been early signs of detente, despite the fact history has shown redistricting typically isn't settled over a handshake and smile.

"Anybody who [was] around reapportionment in 1981 and 1991 doesn't want to go through it again,'' said House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who will be going head to head with his counterpart in the statehouse's other chamber, Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-Wood Dale). "It would be possible for Sen. Philip and I to reach an agreement. Is it probable? I don't know."

Any optimism of an early settlement is tempered by the fact the last two remaps have wound up in the laps of state Supreme Court justices or a federal judge.

"There might be some compromise. I don't know,'' Philip said. "I wouldn't slam the door on it. But it's not easy. It's never easy because there are so many players."

The remap won't be the only complicated and divisive subject before lawmakers this spring. The General Assembly will be faced with a decision to undertake the first major rewrite of state telephone laws that sunset in 2001, a move that could affect the size of Illinoisans' phone bills and quality and choice of their phone service.

The likely debate over setting new ground rules in the state's $3.6 billion telephone market could mark the first major rewrite of telecommunications laws in Illinois in 15 years.

It all comes at a difficult time for phone giant Ameritech, which has faced widespread complaints of shoddy service in recent months, drawing wrath from an unprecedented alliance of utility regulators in five midwestern states.

Ameritech would like to expand its reach into the long-distance marketplace. Before it can do that, it must show state and federal regulators it has opened the local-phone service marketplace to competition. Ameritech, which owns and maintains the telephone wiring into most homes, argues it has not stood in the way of competition.

Ameritech's rivals, led by AT & T, argue against relaxing utility regulations and want the Illinois Commerce Commission to have greater latitude to impose fines on Ameritech for poor performance or for anti-competitive moves. They also have proposed going back to a complex rate-setting formula abandoned by the commission that essentially capped Ameritech's profits.

An all-star team of lobbyists lays in wait for this issue. The marquee player will be former Gov. James Thompson, who will lobby for Ameritech after demonstrating a golden touch that helped the Chicago Bears secure a new $587 million stadium in the General Assembly's fall veto session.

Because all sides in this battle have enormous resources to bring into battle, Illinois' top utility watchdog is not holding its breath for radical changes to the law, especially ones that will put consumers first.

"If I was a betting man now, despite efforts we'll make or others will make, I don't expect to see a major rewrite this year. But we'll see,'' said Martin Cohen, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. "I'm not sure we have the critical mass to make sweeping changes, and we also have diametrically opposed powerful interests. That makes it hard to see how they can get reconciled."

No less simple to resolve is the question of how much state money to sink into public education. Lawmakers must wrestle with whether to boost the base amount of money the state allots per pupil because a three-year funding package passed in 1997 expires this year. The so-called foundation level of per pupil spending now stands at $4,425 per student, a rate that will freeze without action by lawmakers.

"As we've gone through various campaign cycles, I have yet to hear one lawmaker who said they didn't realize the need to do something about improving school funding,'' said Anne Davis, president of the Illinois Education Association. "I'm hopeful that commitment is still there."

Whatever gets obligated to education funding undoubtedly will hinge in part on budget deliberations that will take on a far different tone than the go-go spending days of recent years. The current state budget stands at $49 billion, the latest in a string of record budgets fueled by the booming economy of the late 1990s.

But continued growth in spending could be limited this upcoming year by the slowing economy and increasing Medicaid debts owed by the state. While Gov. George Ryan has denied the state is anywhere near a budget crunch, state Comptroller Dan Hynes offered a contradictory view in December.

For the first time in nearly four years, the obligations the state owed exceeded the amount of money in the treasury. As a result of that cash-flow problem, Hynes has begun delaying payments to state vendors until the situation improves, perhaps by March.

While the Ryan administration dismisses the notion of a cash crunch and still projects a $1.2 billion end-of-fiscal year cash balance next summer, the dispute over the state's financial future could throw another issue on the table for lawmakers this spring: increased money for a "rainy day" fund requested by Hynes to get the state through temporary cash-flow problems. So far, neither the governor nor legislative leaders have committed to that proposal.