SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois lawmakers are set to reconvene Tuesday for their first chance in four months to address pressing issues such as pension reform and gay marriage, but a looming deadline for opponents to challenge sitting lawmakers in next year's elections is among several reasons those issues could be pushed off once again.
Anyone considering challenging a legislator in next March's primaries has until early December to file petitions with the state board of elections. That could make some lawmakers especially careful about casting controversial votes in favor of gay marriage or reining in state employees' pension benefits.
Among those already feeling the heat is Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, one of only two Republicans in the House who publicly support same-sex marriage. His stance has drawn the ire of a conservative group entitled Illinois Families First, and one group member is recruiting someone to take him on.
"I think the conservative community is going to be pretty well united behind this challenge," said Jon Zahm, a former campaign aide to presidential contender Rick Santorum in 2012.
Sullivan calls the group's efforts a "smear campaign" that would not deter him. "I'm following my convictions," he said.
Advocates of same-sex marriage have said they were aiming at the fall veto session to call another vote on the issue, but won't comment on whether they have enough support. They were targeting moderate Republicans like Sullivan but also socially conservative members of the House Black Caucus.
Also on the agenda for the session — to be held this week and the first week in November — is proposed tax incentives aimed at keeping the new global headquarters of Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Company in Illinois, supplemental appropriations to the $35 billion budget lawmakers approved in May, and a hearing to debate resuscitating negotiations over expanding gambling in the state. Chicago officials trying to rein in street violence are pushing for legislation to enforce mandatory minimum prison sentences for felony gun convictions.
Supporters of gay marriage plan to hold a large rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday, the first day of the session. The House already has cancelled a Thursday session.
Negotiations on how to resolve the state's $97 billion employee pension shortfall have hit a critical point. Top Democrats are pushing a plan that would save $138 billion over 30 years, but Republicans on a committee tasked with developing a solution don't think it goes far enough. They've demanded more cost estimates, which could take weeks.
Some experts see partisanship being a hurdle. In the coming campaigns, Republicans can use the lack of pension reform as a way to beat up on majority Democrats for fiscal mismanagement.
"Right now you're getting more political mileage out of taking positions," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. "It all works against it happening during the veto session."
Lawmakers also point to procedural reasons to push off the issues. Legislation passed during the fall session with a simple majority vote won't take effect until June. Legislation passed with a simple majority after the new year would go into effect immediately — or, in the case of the proposed gay marriage legislation, within 30 days.
There's also precedent for holding off.
One of the General Assembly's biggest flurries of activity occurred after the November 2010 election, when lame-duck lawmakers helped approve civil unions, repeal the death penalty and raise income taxes just hours before their successors were sworn into office.
All 118 House members are up for re-election in 2014, as are a third of the Senate's 59 members.
Gay marriage supporters believe they were just a few votes shy of passage when sponsors canceled a vote in the House during last spring's session. The Senate previously had approved it.
Redfield noted that black lawmakers whose votes are being recruited also are meeting stiff resistance from "the grass-roots clergy-based opposition" that is influential in their districts back home. Many of those districts are predominantly Democratic.
"For the majority of those people, the primary is the general election," he said.
One of them, Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat who announced his support for gay marriage in May, said he's gotten numerous calls from constituents and churches opposing the legislation. He acknowledges it could fuel a primary challenge for him, along with the fact that he was indicted in federal court on bank fraud charges last year, an allegation he calls "ridiculous."
The former seminarian says he is proposing amending the legislation to include more provisions protecting churches that fear being forced to carry out same-sex weddings.
"We've got time," he said.
Follow Kerry Lester at http://twitter.com/kerrylester .