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2019 legislative session marked by last-minute push on abortion, marijuana, gambling expansion, statewide construction program

Procrastination may be a part of human nature, but the Illinois legislature during the 2019 spring session elevated it to an art form.

Illinois lawmakers in February gave newly-elected Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker a quick victory by speedily approving his campaign promise to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2025. But then the pace of legislative action on major proposals slowed to a crawl until the final two weeks of session.

But what a two weeks.

In the final days of session, lawmakers passed legislation making abortion a fundamental rightlegalizing marijuana for recreational use, switching the state’s income tax from a flat rate to a graduated rate and to be put before voters in November 2020, expanding gambling with up to six new casinos – including a site in Chicago – legalizing sports betting, doubling the gas tax, hiking annual license plate fees by nearly 50 percent, and increasing cigarette taxes by a dollar a pack.

The last-minute heavy workload prompted both the House and Senate to blow past the May 31 deadline but with no fears of attaining the extra votes needed for a three-fifths majority passage. Both chambers had more than a Democratic super majority during this first legislative session under a new Democratic governor. In fact, lawmakers actually carried over gun dealer certification legislation from the previous General Assembly, sending it to Pritzker for his signature during his first week on the job.

The end-of-session flurry also created a $45 billion capital program across the state for the first time in years, creating construction jobs for projects for state buildings, schools and universities, as well as roads and bridges. 

The five-year pilot Tax Credit Scholarship program created by the Invest in Kids Act approved in August 2017 was set to be scaled back from its original $75 million cap when Pritzker presented his first budget proposal in mid-February. The 2018-2019 academic year marked the first time the scholarships were awarded to qualifying students, with nearly 6,000 low-income and working-class students receiving $57 million in scholarships to use at private schools across the state.   

However, Catholic school parents from across Illinois during May visited lawmakers and left notes with Pritzker’s office, telling of their children’s success stories in their new schools. The program was left in place in its original status, allowing individuals and corporations to donate to scholarship-granting organizations (SGO) and receive a 75 percent credit on their state income taxes. The program is annually capped at $75 million, meaning $100 million would have to be donated.

Social service providers like Catholic Charities of Chicago received enough funding for a rate reimbursement increase to offset the effect of the gradual increase in the minimum wage. However, Catholic Charities of Chicago had already been struggling to meet payroll for its popular Community Care Program with the city of Chicago’s increased minimum wage.

CCI’s main fight this past spring was against a package of House and Senate bills overhauling the state’s abortion laws by making the procedure a fundamental right and repealing current law requiring parents be notified when a minor seeks an abortion.

In their original form, HB 2495 and SB 1942 define abortion as a fundamental right, remove the requirement that only doctors can perform abortions, and jeopardize legal protections for doctors and hospitals who refuse to participate in an abortion. Named the “Reproductive Health Act,” these bills go further than Roe v. Wade in stripping rights from the unborn child with this single sentence: “A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this State.”

Meanwhile, HB 2467 and SB 1594 repeal the Illinois Parental Notice of Abortion Act, which requires a parent or legal guardian be notified when a minor seeks an abortion. The law includes a waiver for those children who have been physically or sexually abused. Although the law was passed in 1995, legal wranglings barred it from taking effect until July 2013, when the Illinois Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling implementing the law.

Our Illinois bishops in February issued a statement against these extreme proposals, noting they “focus on corrupting our God-given right to life and sowing unnecessary division.”

House Bill 2495 and Senate Bill 1942 were both buried in subcommittee most of the legislative session, but the issue broke loose and appeared Sun., May 26 as a House amendment to Senate Bill 25. The new version of the RHA remedied two objections to the original legislation by including conscience protections for doctors, nurses, medical personnel and hospitals who refuse to participate in an abortion. The amendment also restricts surgical abortions to physicians.

The RHA passed both the House and Senate, and Pritzker signed the legislation into law on June 12. SB 1594 passed a Senate committee in late March and is awaiting action in the House.

Our Illinois bishops also took a stand against the legalization of marijuana, noting that “as lawmakers consider this issue, it is important to remember they are not only debating legalization of marijuana, but also commercialization of a drug into an industry the state will profit from. In seeking the common good, the state should protect its citizens.”

Although it was the subject of several informational hearings throughout the 2018 spring legislative session, legalization of marijuana did not appear in bill form until May, and was further amended when critics objected to the provision allowing Illinois residents to “home grow” the plant. The final version allows only patients in the state’s medical marijuana program to grow cannabis plants. The measure also allows for expungement of previous marijuana offenses.

Other issues that CCI tracked included the following:

Senate Bill 156, which allows inmates in state prisons to access job search internet sites in order to apply for employment upon their release, passed both chambers.

Senate Bill 2090, which allows individuals who are detained in a county jail to vote by mail, passed both chambers.

Senate Bill 1641, which calls for the Illinois Student Assistance Program to notify college students receiving financial awards through the Monetary Assistance Program that they are eligible for food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), passed both chambers.

House Bill 2468, which calls for interest rates on loans taken out against the title of a motor vehicle to be capped at 36%, passed a House committee, but has yet to be heard before the full House.