State Capitol Q&A: Bill introductions continue record pace

Ryan Keith

Illinois state government has a huge money shortage, yet lawmakers are anything but short of legislative ideas this spring. In many cases, however, the proposals aren’t what they seem.

This week’s State Capitol Q&A takes a closer look at the thousands of bills being considered in the House and Senate, including the significant number that seem to have an identity crisis.

Q. What is the size and scope of legislation this session?

A. Lawmakers have filed nearly 6,700 bills for consideration between the two chambers. That continues a trend toward legislators filing more and more measures. In the two-year 95th General Assembly, which ended in January, legislators submitted more than 9,800 bills.

Many of the ideas will never clear initial hurdles in the legislature, much less wind their way through the entire process and become law. Of the 9,800-plus bills filed in the 95th General Assembly, a little more than 1,000 became Illinois law – or just about 10 percent.

Q. What’s in all these measures?

A. You name a topic, and it’s probably covered.

There are hundreds of bills each devoted to the state’s bigger-picture topics – education, taxes, health care, law enforcement, driving, guns. In some instances, there are multiple bills filed to do the same exact thing on the same topic.

Legislators also have plenty of local issues to handle – extending tax districts for communities back home, resolving zoning disputes, giving local governments more taxing authority.

And then there are “shell bills.”

Q. What are shell bills and how are they used?

A. Shell bills are essentially blank bills, pieces of legislation that have no content other than a generic title. They’re becoming more and more popular-- nearly 60 percent of the 6,500 bills filed in the legislature so far this year are shells.

Shell bills are important because they give lawmakers more say over the process – and let them go around the state constitution. The constitution says bills must be read by title on three different days in each chamber, so lawmakers can’t just introduce a new bill on the final day of a session and send it to the governor the same day.

Shell bills get around that inconvenience because leaders advance dozens of them through the process as session goes on. Then, lawmakers can add language to the bills through an amendment late in the process, allowing a bill to essentially be passed all in one day without being unconstitutional.

Like most better-fleshed-out proposals, shells often go nowhere. About 110 of them became law in the last legislature, only about 2.5 percent of all the shells filed.

But many big issues, such as the state budget, are usually handled through shell bills.

Leaders in the Senate, who have promised more transparency in handling bills under new leadership, say they’re still reviewing how to deal with all the legislation.

“I think we’re going to sort things out. Obviously, this is a different process. It’s still early,” said Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne, D-Belleville.

Q. Why are shell bills allowed at all?

A. Both Republican and Democratic leaders use them, so blame can’t be flung on a partisan basis. And they can be used or abused, depending on the situation.

Critics say shells let leaders sneak through important pieces of legislation without adequate review, calling, for instance, for a quick vote on a 400-page budget when it should have to be read into the record and considered for several days.

But the reality is that the legislature is driven by deadlines. Lawmakers seldom reach a deal on a budget or other hot-topic issues until the end and then need to act quickly before it falls apart.

And sometimes there are legitimate reasons for shells. If an emergency topic needs to be addressed very quickly, shells can be the only practical option.

“That just goes to the integrity of the people who control those shell bills and the process. I have no sinister motives for having them,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518