The Rail: where action at the Il Capitol takes place

May 28, 2014

It’s the final week of the Illinois legislative session in Springfield…when the hard work of legislative staffers lives or dies. Their bills either get called for a vote or they go into a sort of limbo, and maybe get to come up later this year. Illinois Public Radio's Tony Arnold is in Springfield all week for the high stakes drama. He brings us to the place in the Capitol where the behind-the-scenes action takes place – in plain view. 

Here on the 3rd Floor of the Illinois Capitol, there’s one place that can bring all sides of an issue together. It’s simply known as - The Rail. It’s a piece of brass that forms a ring around the rotunda. 

You can look over it, like a fence, and see below the second floor a statue commemorating the World’s Fair on the first floor from here. From here , on one side, is the House of Representatives…And on the other is the Senate.

So The Rail is right in the middle between the two. And it’s something that needs a lot of upkeep given how popular it is. 

"My name is Ron Burge. B-U-R-G-E. Every morning I come in and put the polish called Flitz and we polish it every day. Sometimes twice a day. It takes all the oxidation off the rail and the fingerprints from the kids and stuff." 

But it’s more than just school groups who get their fingerprints on the brass railing.

The Rail is where lobbyists sit for hours, watching tv screens to see which bill is being voted on. Sometimes they grab legislators as they go into their chambers. And in this final week of session, it’s going to get a lot of use.

This is the time when a bill about one thing can become something else entirely. And when Chicago politicians make a surprise appearance in Springfield to try to get something passed. And the Rail is where they can make news.

The Rail is where Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle stopped an interview to warmly greet State Senator Kwame Raoul with a hug.

"Just a second. Let me say hello to Kwame."

I stood off to the side while they chatted about Preckwinkle's plan to reduce retirement benefits for Cook County employees. 

When she turned back to me, she defended the need to cut pension benefits, repeating the same points about the county's struggling retirement funds that Governor Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have said. 

"Well, we know from our actuaries that our pension fund is going to run out of money about 2038 and we really need to take some action now to ensure that there are benefits for our present retirees and for those who are in our workforce."

90 minutes after the two chatted, Preckwinkle sat at a table and watched a key Senate committee approve her plan. 

The Rail isn’t just where handshake deals get cut. It’s where activists wearing matching clothes look for someone - usually anyone - who will listen to their story.

"So my name is Amber Smock. My last name is spelled S-M-O-C-K. Smock. The last couple of days CHicago Adapt has been down here in Springfield advocating to prevent cuts to home service programs and these are programs that help people get out of bed, bathe, eat, toilet, things like that."

ARNOLD: Do you think it helps to be down here?

"It does help to be down here because imagine if you had a Springfield with no people with disabilities whatsoever. Who would make the decisions for folks with disabilities? But I think having people down here is really good because for legislators who fight for people with disabilities, it can be a losing battle. Disabilities isn’t always the sexiest issue on the table, but when you’re able to point out to the hallway and say, ‘See, people with disabilities are fighting for what they need, we should support them.’ That makes the politics much easier for them."

By the end of the day, the House of Representatives will have voted against what Smock was there to advocate for. The House passed a budget that Democratic lawmakers warn could result in thousands of layoffs. But that plan still needs the approval of the Senate by Saturday which shows just how quickly things move this week.

But that’s half the point of hanging out on The Rail – just to watch the high stakes drama unfold. So that come tomorrow morning, the rail can be polished and start all over again.