SPRINGFIELD -- Over the past few weeks, the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee has dealt with more than a few bills that don’t seem to have anything to do with farming. The committee has passed bills giving Illinoisans the power to carry concealed firearms, approved bills requiring physicians performing abortions to offer ultrasounds to pregnant women before they get an abortion, and passed a bill allowing fees at state parks. It’s just one of the many ways the Statehouse works that often confuses outsiders.

SPRINGFIELD -- Over the past few weeks, the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee has dealt with more than a few bills that don’t seem to have anything to do with farming.


The committee has passed bills giving Illinoisans the power to carry concealed firearms, approved bills requiring physicians performing abortions to offer ultrasounds to pregnant women before they get abortions, and passed a bill allowing fees at state parks.


It’s just one of the many ways the Statehouse works that often confuses outsiders. Here are a few customs that might be unusual to someone walking in the door at Second Street and Capitol Avenue for the first time:


NAME THAT COMMITTEE: Rep. Lisa Dugan, D-Bradley, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said she has no control over which bills come to her committee. Assignments are decided by the House Rules Committee, which is controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.


Dugan rejects the premise that her committee sees a lot of non-agriculture-related bills, noting that the committee’s name is Agriculture and Conservation, which encompasses issues that the Department of Natural Resources deals with, including state parks and hunting.


“I don’t know which ones you’re talking about,” Dugan said. “DNR is natural resources, which has to do with animals and land, agriculture, so DNR and Department of Ag and water and soil conservation and all of those things that have to do with land and things like that … because it’s Agriculture and Conservation — that’s the name of the committee.


“I think you can ask that about any committee. None of us, as legislators, send bills to committee. … It’s not just the Ag committee.”


But with the presence of gun and abortion bills every session, the committee might be more aptly named “The Committee for Conservative and Downstate Democrats to Pass their Bills.”


Madigan spokesman Steve Brown was coy about the political calculation involved in sending gun-rights and abortion legislation by pro-gun and pro-life Democrats to the committee. He said sponsors often ask that bills be sent to certain committees.


“That happens at the request of the sponsor,” Brown said. “You would have to ask the sponsor as to why they make the request. When they do, the Rules Committee and the speaker try to accommodate them.”


But it’s no accident that modt of the Democrats on the committee are conservative downstaters whose presence in the chamber allows Madigan to maintain a six-vote majority. Their bills aren’t buried in the Rules Committee or go to a hostile, more liberal committee — as often happens with Republican-backed bills the speaker does not want passed.


WHAT TIME IS IT? A calendar is printed every day listing the time committee and floor action starts for each legislative chamber. Once in a blue moon, those meetings actually begin at the designated times.


The reason things often run behind? Simple human nature. Lawmakers show up late to committee meetings, delaying their start. Committees run long because witnesses and lawmakers drone on about their bills. A legislative chamber cannot begin its business until the committees are done meeting, which often pushes its scheduled start time back.


The lesson: If you’re coming to the Capitol to watch a bill go through the process, be ready to wait a while and maybe even come back later.


WHAT DOES THIS BILL DO? On the General Assembly’s website, bills have a short title and a synopsis. As the legislative session drags on through the spring, bills get amended and their purpose and synopsis changes. But their short title does not.


Take a big issue from last year — workers’ compensation reform. One workers’ compensation bill, Senate Bill 1933, abolished Illinois’ system entirely and would have thrown workers’ compensation cases to the courts to decide.


But SB1933 did not start out that way. Originally, it was a bill that would have declared unclaimed wages abandoned after one year instead of the current five years. Its short title was “UNCLAIMED PROP-WAGES-LIMIT.” Even after the bill was amended to deal with workers’ compensation, the short title was not changed.


So if a layperson was looking for workers’ compensation bills on a list of introduced legislation, they would not have spotted this particular piece of legislation. Most bills that start out being about workers’ compensation have “WORKER COMP” in their short title.


 


DEADLINE WEEKS: The General Assembly has many deadlines each year — a deadline for bills to be introduced, a deadline for bills to get out of the committee to which they’ve been assigned, a deadline for bills to get out of the chamber in which they originated, and a final deadline for passage.


In reality, for any piece of truly important legislation, the deadlines mean nothing. Friday, for example, was the deadline for bills to get out of committee. But for the two most important issues legislators are expected to deal with this year — pension reform and Medicaid reform — the bills have not even been drafted.


The speaker and the Senate president can extend the deadline for any bill they choose. And a new bill can surface on May 31, the day the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn, because of what are known as “shell bills.”


A shell bill is basically an empty bill. It makes a technical change to existing law, usually as simple as removing a period or comma from that piece of statute. Each year, the speaker, Senate president and minority leaders in both chambers send hundreds of shell bills from one chamber to the other — enough shell bills, in fact, so that either party could amend or rewrite any conceivable part of Illinois law that it wants later on in session.


This procedure allows lawmakers to pass a bill in one day even though the state’s Constitution requires bills to be read on three separate days. The shell bills meet that requirement and can be amended at a moment’s notice and passed.


The highest-profile example in recent years was in 2009, when the General Assembly reduced pension benefits for future public workers in less than 12 hours.


Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.