This week's State Capitol Q&A takes a closer look at what lawmakers have moved so far and where it heads next.

It's almost Easter. For state lawmakers, that means it's halftime. Legislators wrapped up the first half of their session last week and are on a two-week spring break. As usual, they've shuffled a lot of measures around but there's still a long way to go in the coming weeks.

This week's State Capitol Q&A takes a closer look at what lawmakers have moved so far and where it heads next.


Q: What have lawmakers been up to so far? 


A: They've been busy but haven't broken any productivity records.


Before leaving town last week, about 700 bills had made it halfway through the legislature. That is a combination of Senate bills that have been approved and sent to the House and House bills that have gone to the Senate. That total is only a fraction of the thousands of bills introduced in January and February for consideration. Again, that's par for the course - especially in an election year when controversial issues mostly sit on the sidelines. 


What's been advanced so far covers a wide range, from vital needs to the mundane.


Lawmakers have pushed to change pensions for new state workers and crack down on drivers who travel way over the speed limit, while also barring monkeys being owned as pets and giving hair braiders special licensing to make it easier to stay in business.  


Q: Has there been anything finalized yet? 


A: Yes, in a few cases.  


In lightning-quick fashion that surprised just about everyone at the Capitol, Democratic leaders pushed through both chambers in a few hours sweeping changes on pension for new hires. 


Those restrictions include making new workers wait longer to retire with full benefits and capping the salaries that can determine those benefits. Powerful unions had fought those changes for years but were steamrolled by top leaders last week. A couple weeks earlier, lawmakers also moved quickly to push back the primary election. They had moved it up to early February to benefit now-President Barack Obama run in 2008. But turnout was super low this year. Legislators heeded complaints and put it back in late March, where it's traditionally been held. The vast majority of bills are only halfway through the process. Fewer than 20 bills so far have cleared the legislature.  


Q: Where will lawmakers head next when their break is done? 


A: The session will hit high gear when legislators return to work on Tuesday, April 13. That usually happens anyway, but this year there could be more urgency.


Legislative leaders have set May 7 as the targeted date for wrapping up the session. That's much earlier than the usual May 31 end date. The idea is to get home as early as possible and avoid dragging out the session while getting a head start on the campaign season.


Of course, doing that risks public anger if they manage to push off major budget problems until after the election. But it may mean less outrage than whatever solution they could come up with - tax increases, huge spending cuts or some combination. Some of these bills will never clear the opposite chamber. Each year, a few hundred actually clear the legislature and reach the governor's desk.


Another factor this year will be constitutional amendments. There's a whole bunch of them waiting for consideration: from establishing new income tax rates and eliminating the lieutenant governor's office to putting new eligibility requirements on judges and changing how legislative districts are drawn. These proposed changes to the Constitution have to be considered by voters this fall and to do that must be in place six months before the election.


So that means by early May they have to clear both the House and Senate - and that could be a tall task.  


Ryan Keith can be reached at 217-788-1518 or Ryan.keith@sj-r.com.