SPRINGFIELD — When lawmakers return to Springfield this week, suburban officials will be among the leaders on a handful of tough issues likely to dominate debate almost until the summer.
The underlying challenge will once again be the state's troubled finances, an issue that affects how suburban schools operate, with what kind of security local teachers will retire and how local disabled people get — or don't get — the services they're desperate for.
Illinois has no spare money, and the future looks as dark as ever.
"I expect this year to be even tougher than last year." said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat and chairman of a House budget committee.
The long march toward lawmakers' May 31 budget deadline will have an extra hurdle, Crespo said, as they might try to find money to shore up programs in the current year's budget.
Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Riverside Republican, says without a $1 billion infusion, some agencies will run out of money before the June 30 end of the fiscal year. But the state isn't likely to find that much money lying around. So lawmakers might have to fight over redistributing the smaller amount they do have.
On top of that, the state's pension bill could be substantially bigger this year.
State Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, said this year's payment might be up to $1 billion more than last year. Paying it would make it even harder to cover shortfalls in human services.
"It is my hope that we can craft a budget in a bipartisan way that funds the state of Illinois as reasonably as possible," Harris said. "But because of our situation, it is going to be difficult."
The day after lawmakers were inaugurated this month, House Democrats met in private to go over some of the details of the state's dire finances.
"That's no big secret," Crespo said. "The question is what are we going to do?"
A lot of budget hawks think the first thing lawmakers should do is cut back teachers' and state workers' pension benefits. Rising costs every year suck money out of the pot lawmakers can spend on education, health care for the poor and other programs.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, is one of the leaders on the issue. She made stops at some school board meetings across the state to talk about it, including at Community Unit District 300 in Carpentersville last week.
"If I get an invitation, I don't turn it down," she said.
Harris has met with local school officials to talk about the controversial proposal to have school districts pay millions of dollars more a year toward teachers' retirements.
But workers and their powerful union leaders continue to push back against cuts. And a plan Nekritz has championed might be impossible to reconcile with a competing idea pushed by Senate President John Cullerton and complimented recently by Gov. Pat Quinn.
The delays in addressing the state's nearly $100 billion in retirement fund debt have led to credit downgrades, the most recent coming Friday. If the state's rating continues to crash, borrowing money to build roads and other projects will get more costly.
"We simply cannot afford continued downgrades at a time when we urgently need to restore stability and balance to the state's fiscal climate," House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego said.
Even if officials can find a pension compromise before May 31, lawsuits and other factors likely will mean they won't get to reap the savings in the coming year's budget. The growing fear of not getting it done for the following year, though, keeps them working.
"It isn't like we've taken our foot off the gas," Nekritz said.
Budget issues aside, lawmakers also face three controversial "Gs": gun rights, gay marriage and gambling expansion.
Gambling expansion has huge implications for the suburbs, as most proposals call for slots machines at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and the south suburbs.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and top supporter of expansion, says he wants to work with Quinn to find a compromise on the issue this year.
On gay marriage, supporters' attempt to approve it in the waning days of the last session sputtered. They might see 2013 — with more Democrats in the House and Senate — as a good environment to try again.
And suburban officials could be leaders on both sides of a bitter debate on guns.
State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, is one of the party's top gun control advocates, calling for restrictions in the wake of 2012's mass killings. And state Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican, is a leader on the other side, pushing to give Illinoisans the right to carry a concealed gun. A federal court ruled lawmakers must enact such a law soon, but appeals could drag that effort out.
The Illinois House returns to session Wednesday, and the Senate starts back up next week