Now’s the time to watch state government – and to watch carefully

Illinois lawmakers have been meeting and filing bills since early January, but the time you really need to be paying attention is now. And how you pay attention is also important.

The state’s regular legislative session is scheduled to end by midnight May 31 each year, and lawmakers, like most humans, seem always to leave it until the final days or even hours before the deadline to complete the most complex and difficult work. This year, that means that over the next eight days, they will be wrangling over proposals with monumental impact, including laws involving recreational marijuana, property tax assessments, sports gambling and a proposed budget laden with new taxes. In the midst of all this, and contrary to historical practice, they’re also rushing to try to put a constitutional amendment question on the November 2020 ballot, although the pressure for that measure is more political than procedural. Technically, they have until May 3, 2020 — six months before the general election. For now, I’ll let you speculate on why the governor and other supporters are in such a rare rush, but the larger point is that they are.

All these measures have the potential to dramatically affect your quality of life and the costs and benefits of your government. The wheeling, dealing, pleading and arm twisting surrounding them is only now growing fierce and it’s sure to grow more ferocious between now and next Friday — a period, don’t forget, that includes a three-day holiday weekend.

If you’re plugged into social media, you no doubt will be able to follow action on some of these issues through your Facebook or Twitter feed, but be aware that even more than usual, the appeals to your attention are going to come from partisan points of view, from individuals and groups who want to promote or defeat a given proposal. There is value in that, to be sure, but it’s an approach that aims to provoke or persuade more than to inform.

There is, though, one place you can follow the legislature from an unbiased and comprehensive perspective — the newspaper.

Thanks to a new initiative of the Illinois Press Foundation, with additional funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Illinois newspapers can build on their in-house and wire coverage of state government with objective, reliable, detail-oriented stories about the most important topics bubbling to the surface in Springfield. In recent days, we’ve carried reports from this bureau — called Capitol News Illinois — ranging from a front-page story on the committee vote advancing a graduated income tax measure to calls from state police for better communication about the “move over” law intended to protect first responders on Illinois highways.

We’ve had many more such stories throughout the legislative session, and no doubt we will carry a flurry of them — from CNI, from the Illinois bureau of Associate Press and from our own reporters — in the coming days.

For, now is the most important time of the year to be monitoring what’s happening at the Capitol, and how you monitor it is critically important. If your sources don’t include the newspaper, you won’t be getting the full picture.