State lawmakers handled everything from a pitch for a big pot of federal education money to stronger cemetery regulations Tuesday, but some say they're not doing enough on the work that really matters. Legislators approved several measures on the first of a two-day session week. They'll do some more work Wednesday and hear from Gov. Pat Quinn in his State of the State speech, then go home until after the Feb. 2 election.

State lawmakers handled everything from a pitch for a big pot of federal education money to stronger cemetery regulations Tuesday, but some say they're not doing enough on the work that really matters.


Legislators approved several measures on the first of a two-day session week. They'll do some more work Wednesday and hear from Gov. Pat Quinn in his State of the State speech, then go home until after the Feb. 2 election.


Leading the way on what they did was Senate Bill 315, which the House voted for 74-37. That measure helps better position the state's bid for roughly $500 million in federal funding through the new Race to the Top program, offering money to states moving forward with education reform.


The measure strengthens evaluations for teachers, principals and superintendents by linking them more directly with improvement in student performance.


Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, the Aurora Democrat pushing the measure, said this will help fix a "broken" system for evaluating school officials.


"It is nothing short of groundbreaking policy in this state," LaVia said.


Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said the Race money was a case of good timing for a bill that was "just good public policy" because schools can't do much spending now with tight budgets.


The application deadline for Race to the Top is Jan. 19. Winners will be announced in April. Proponents argue this measure will enhance the state's chances of getting Race money, although no state is guaranteed money.


The stronger evaluations would not take effect until September 2012 and would only apply to schools with lowest performance and who seek the money and agree to higher standards. If Illinois doesn't get Race money, the higher standards would not apply.


Other issues approved by the House Tuesday involved two long-running problems.


One measure would require inmates in state prisons to be there for at least 60 days before receiving credit off their sentences for good behavior. That's in response to the ongoing controversy over two early-prisoner release programs recently halted by Gov. Pat Quinn.


The other idea calls for the state to borrow $250 million to deal with major delays in paying bills for health care providers. Comptroller Dan Hynes has balked at agreeing to borrowing plans pushed by Quinn, his rival in the Democratic race for governor.


This measure would get around that by authorizing the borrowing explicitly for this purpose in law. But Hynes spokeswoman Carol Knowles says he's still opposed.


"It is still short-term borrowing and there isn't a plan to pay it back," Knowles said.


All the House-approved measures now go to the Senate.


Senators, meanwhile, approved tighter regulations on the cemetery industry after the ugly debacle last year involving a Chicago-area cemetery where fraud and abuse were allegedly rampant. That measure now goes to the House.


Despite the action, some say it's doing too little too quickly.


Legislative leaders canceled Thursday's planned session, saying there wasn't enough work this early in the calendar to need that day here.


One Democrat says there's a silver lining to going home early.


"From one standpoint, when we aren't in session, we're not spending money," said Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville. Sullivan noted the heavy lifting of session ordinarily doesn't start until February anyway.


But several other GateHouse-area lawmakers say the state's dire budget problems shouldn't continue to wait.


"I would have preferred that we were here," said Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford. "If nothing else start addressing the magnitude of the Illinois financial crisis, but instead the decision is to go home."


Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria, said with the primary approaching he understands why the session day was canceled but still thinks there is work for the legislature to be done.


Focusing on the budget instead of getting people elected is what the legislature should do, said Rep. Dave Winters, R-Shirland.


"It is though they are not taking it seriously," he said.


Lawmakers said they have not been hearing from constituents angry about the shortened schedule. But the delay of state payments has led to regular calls to lawmakers from people struggling waiting for payment.


Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said he receives calls every day from constituents about services being cut and businesses not receiving money they are owed from the state.


"They had to borrow money because the state is not paying," he said.


Brian Feldt can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or brian.feldt@sj-r.com. Matt Hopf can be reached at (217) 782-3095 or matt.hopf@sj-r.com.