The Illinois General Assembly adjourned for the summer on June 2, two days after the regularly scheduled adjournment, after addressing a number of high-profile issues.
Major infrastructure plan approved
Infrastructure upgrades are on the way as the result of a capital program that will bring vital investment to communities throughout the state of Illinois. The bipartisan plan will provide nearly $45 billion in direct investment in Illinois’ aging transportation infrastructure, as well as include funds for construction projects for schools, public universities, sewer and water systems and state facilities. Now we just have to figure out how to pay for all of that while paying our increasing pension obligations, our outstanding bills and $1 billion increase in GRF spending.
Horizontal revenues generated under the plan, those that go to roads and bridges, can only be used to fund transportation projects as a result of a lock box amendment passed several years ago by Illinois voters. This means that taxpayers can rest assured that when they fill their gas tank, the money generated from those doubled gasoline taxes will be a direct investment back in our roads.
Vertical projects – those to make improvements at schools, public universities and state facilities, among others – will hopefully be funded largely by a gaming expansion that includes six new casinos, legal sports wagering in Illinois, and sales of recreational cannabis licenses.
This bipartisan infrastructure investment plan will hopefully revitalize the state, helping to attract business, stimulate the economy and create jobs.
Not all it seems
I’m a business guy. An entrepreneur. So I thought I could at least fight for ways to make business better in Illinois. I would fight for things to help encourage entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses and to help grow the Illinois economy. But it turns out that politically influential businesses are more interested in protecting their own turf and preventing competition than in growing our economy and creating a favorable environment for new businesses.
Several votes in the closing days were just more examples, especially those bills that are trying to find revenues to help build our “vertical” and “horizontal” projects in Illinois. They provide authorization for new casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville and three more locations. They also allow for new sports betting. They double the gasoline tax to $.38/gallon. They end the sales tax offset on car trade-ins valued at $10,000 or more.
And at the last minute, the big franchise car dealers were able to sneak a provision into SB 690, to increase their so-called “doc fees” to $300 from $150. Under questioning by me during debate on this bill, the sponsor indicated that he thought the extra $150 went to the state, only to be corrected by his staff to admit that it actually goes to the car dealers. That means that the next time hard-working Illinois families buy a new car, they will have to pay an additional $150 plus, possibly, more sales tax. What benefit do we get for that? Nothing. Just an extra $150 per car in the pocket of the dealer. By the way, these are the same dealers who fought tooth and nail against my bill to allow a small used car dealer, an Orthodox Jew by the name of Uri Adler (and others) to be open on Sunday instead of Saturday since his religion prevents him from being open on Saturday. The car dealers don’t want any competition, even from a little guy selling fewer than 35 used cars per month. Incredible!
3 percent pension-spiking cap repealed
Another disappointment came when lawmakers voted to repeal last year’s 3 percent/year cap on public educator pay to save pension costs. One of the budget bills, SB 1814, would allow local schools and public universities to give teachers end-of-career pay bumps of up to 6 percent without having to pay for the increased pension costs of those raises. We, the taxpayers, get stuck with the added pension costs – again.
Repealing the 3 percent cap will allow for a return to end-of-career pension spiking, which only adds to the liability of one of the most underfunded pension systems in the country. I proposed a simple solution – let the school district pay whatever they want, but cap the increase in terms of calculating the pension at the 3 percent that it is now instead of raising it. But my compromise was not approved.
Senate Republicans say NO to pay hike
Senate Republicans rejected a budget that included a pay hike for legislators in the final days of the spring legislative session. Late on May 31, Senators were surprised to find a $1,600-per-year salary increase in the budget presented to them. The $39.9 billion budget, which includes a 2.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to legislators’ base salary plus increase in the per diem and mileage reimbursement rates, was considered initially in the Senate on May 31 just before the clock struck midnight. State Sen. Dale Righter was the first to point out that the previously agreed to COLA freeze was missing from the legislation.
In Illinois, COLA increases for legislators are automatic in state law unless the legislature takes action to block them. Blocking these pay increases has become a routine practice and, for a decade, budget legislation has included language to freeze salaries. Speaking on the Senate floor, Righter said, “Don’t try to slip it through in the last hours of session, because that’s what people resent.”
Freeze language was added to legislation that the Senate voted to send over to the House; however, the House sponsor filed a motion to reject the freeze, and the bill was never called for a vote. Despite optimism that a bipartisan state budget was within reach, without language to freeze this pay hike for legislators, all 19 members of the Senate Republican caucus ultimately voted “no” on the budget proposal.
Recreational marijuana legalization and medical expansion pass the General Assembly
In the final days of the spring legislative session, lawmakers approved controversial legislation legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana, and expanding the state’s medical marijuana program. House Bill 1438 allows for the adult use of recreational marijuana. The bill makes it legal to possess up to 30 gram of cannabis; however, possession above that limit remains a class 4 felony.
Proponents of legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana argue that House Bill 1438 provides a framework to tax and regulate the emerging industry, providing for public safety, taxpayer protections, workplace protections, and local control. House Bill 1438 contains similar provisions to laws regulating the consumption of alcohol. It incorporates laws that will deter and punish use by minors. Strong limitations and protections will be put in place regarding product marketing, packaging and labeling. Employers are given the strongest policy protections in the nation, hopefully allowing for a “drug free” workplace.
Opponents note that marijuana remains illegal at the Federal level, even though House Bill 1438 legalizes the adult recreational use of cannabis at the state level, which sends the wrong message to young people. Opponents say lawmakers are rushing to legalize recreational use, when more time is needed to analyze the social impacts of legalized marijuana, as seen in other states. We question whether tax revenues from the program will offset higher costs of resulting social problems that will place additional burdens on taxpayer dollars.
Another measure, Senate Bill 2023, expands the list of qualifying medical conditions in the medical cannabis program to include ulcerative colitis, autism, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, osteoarthritis, anorexia nervosa, Ehlers-Danios Syndrome, Neuro-Bechet’s Autoimmune Disease, neuropathy, polycystic kidney disease, and superior canal dehiscence syndrome. I support this expansion.
Gaming expansion clears the General Assembly
A sweeping expansion of gaming in Illinois cleared the Illinois General Assembly in the final hours of the spring legislative session. When signed by the Governor, the measure will allow for six new casinos and legal sports wagering in Illinois. Senate Bill 690 authorizes casinos for Rockford, Chicago, Walkers Bluff, Danville, Waukegan, and the south suburbs.
The measure would also allow for sports wagering at casinos, racetracks, lottery and online. Fantasy sports sites, like FanDuel and DraftKings, will be able to partner with a casino, racetrack, or other sports venue that offers a sports book, and those wishing to engage in sports betting would then physically enter a casino to register to bet and place deposits. The in-person deposits would allow them to place bets through the online services. Additionally, the bill allows a sixth terminal at video gaming establishments other than truck stops where ten terminals will be allowed. Terminals will be taxed at 33 percent of revenue which will increase to 34 percent in the second year. Revenue from this expansion, will help fund capital improvements in Illinois.
Controversial abortion expansion heads to Governor’s desk
A controversial measure to expand legal abortion in Illinois is on its way to the Governor’s desk. Senate Bill 25, which goes much further than simply keeping abortion legal in Illinois, passed the Senate on May 31.
Proponents of the measure framed it as necessary to protect legal abortion in the event that Roe v. Wade were to be overturned at the federal level. However, as we opponents pointed out, the measure went far beyond this simple mission, massively expanding what would be allowed in Illinois.
Among the provisions of concern was one that would establish abortion as a “fundamental right” in Illinois. A fundamental right, which in this case would be created by statute instead of being part of the state’s constitution, could supersede any statute on the books and could overturn any restrictions currently in place for abortions including parental notification for a minor girl seeking an abortion, late-term abortions, and sex-selective abortions.
Opponents also pointed out that Senate Bill 25 did not need to become law in Illinois to protect abortion rights. Under House Bill 40, which was signed into law in 2017, abortions would remain legal in Illinois even if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned. The legislation passed the Senate on a partisan roll call and now heads to the Governor’s desk to be signed.
Sexual Harassment Prevention and Ethics Legislation Advances
Also during the week, the Senate approved an omnibus bill addressing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, protecting hotel and casino employees from sexual harassment by guests, and updating government ethics laws.
All employers in the state will now be required to provide sexual harassment prevention training to their employees, with enhanced training required for those working in restaurants and bars. Hotels and casinos will be required to have anti-sexual harassment policies in place and to provide employees with a safety or notification devices.
Another provision prohibits a union from having the same union representative representing both the victim and the alleged perpetrator in a sexual harassment case. Victims of gender violence will be allowed to take unpaid leave to seek medical help, legal assistance, counseling, safety planning or other assistance. The legislation also makes a number of changes to update sexual harassment prevention and ethics laws regarding public officials, and for those who interact with the Legislature. Beginning in 2020, State Officials, state employees and lobbyists will be required to take sexual harassment and unlawful discrimination prevention training annually.
For both the Executive Inspectors General and the Legislative Inspector General, the time frame for filing a complaint with the appropriate Ethics Commission will be 12 months after the IG’s receipt of the allegation of the violation. The bill creates a Complainants Bill of Rights for persons who are subjected to discrimination, harassment, or sexual harassment, and spells out a complainant’s rights in the case. Other governmental units are required to adopt an ordinance amending their sexual harassment policies to provide for a mechanism for reporting and independent review of allegations of sexual harassment made against elected government officials.
Finger-printing, fee increases for FOID stall out
A measure decried by Second Amendment advocates as an unnecessary infringement on privacy rights stalled out during the last week of the spring legislative session. Senate Bill 1966, a so-called “fix the FOID” bill, would have required fingerprinting to apply for a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card and increased fees.
New applications and renewal fees for a FOID card would have increased from $10 to $20 under the controversial measure. Applicants would also have been required to pay costs for fingerprinting and processing a background check – an extra expense on top of the application fee. Additionally, FOID cards would have been valid for only five years instead of the current ten, meaning the increased fees would be twice as often. Facing opposition, the measure failed to move during the spring legislative session.