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Illinois lawmakers peacefully, quickly pass budget to hit campaign trail

What a difference a year makes – especially when it’s an election year.

Illinois lawmakers this week approved a $38.5 billion budget for the new fiscal year set to begin July 1 —  before the May 31 midnight deadline, by a relatively wide margin, and with none of the acrimony that marked last year’s contentious end to a two-year budget stalemate between the Democratic-controlled legislature and Republican governor.

As one media outlet put it, this year’s peaceful resolution was an apparent indication that hell has frozen over.

The spending plan for the 2019 fiscal year is reportedly balanced; gives the required, annual $350 million to the new evidence-based education funding formula; funnels $25 million to a new merit-based scholarship intended to keep students in-state at Illinois public colleges and universities; gives $53 million to the Quincy veterans’ home to replace a water system riddled with the bacteria causing Legionnaire’s disease; gives a 2 percent increase to state universities and colleges; allocates $172 million for City of Chicago infrastructure improvements needed for the construction of the Obama Presidential Library; budgets $400 million for so-called “deferred maintenance“ around the state; offers voluntary pension reforms to state workers who essentially choose to cash out early for a reduced amount; and reins in “pension spiking” by decreasing end-of-career raises from 6 percent to 3 percent.

However, the budget as embodied in House Bill 109 and passed by the Senate 56-2 and the House 97-18 does nothing to reduce the state’s current unpaid bill backlog of $6.6 billion – and growing.

It also fails to contain language similar to the federal Hyde amendment that would ban the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for elective abortions for Medicaid participants and state employees. The Catholic Conference of Illinois joined several pro-life organizations in an attempt to hold up the budget by requesting that lawmakers refuse to fund the newly authorized abortions in House Bill 40.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is expected to sign the budget and the implementation bill (House Bill 3342) into law within the next few days, signaling the beginning of the campaign season in earnest, as the multi-millionaire governor attempts to win a second term in the face of Democratic challenger and billionaire JB Pritzker and his “blue wave Illinois” effort of electing Democrats statewide.

The 2018 legislative session got a late start because of the March 20 primary election, but packed in a few key issues in the final two months.  An early effort to derail the new Tax Credit Scholarship program by tying it to the annual budget process (Senate Bill 2236) was never called for a vote in the Senate, thereby safeguarding the program as it gets off the ground in its first year.

Social justice efforts were moderately successful, as a bill that ensures voting rights for pre-trial individuals being held in county jails (House Bill 4469) passed both chambers. Meanwhile, legislation banning the question of criminal background from state college and university admission applications (House Bill 3142) passed the House and awaits action in the Senate. Legislation limiting the interest rate on car title loans (Senate Bill 2843) to 36 percent – from current rates of up to 200 percent – stalled in a Senate committee.

Both chambers passed the federal Equal Rights Amendment (SJRCA 4) with more than the three-fifths majority needed, making Illinois the 37th state to pass the amendment, albeit more than 35 years after the deadline set by Congress. Ratification by 38 states would add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution, but legal challenges would most likely occur since the 1982 deadline has passed and five states have since rescinded their original “yes” votes.

Shootings across the country – especially in Las Vegas and a high school in Parkland, Florida – prompted a spate of gun control legislation, but by May 31, only a few had passed both chambers. High-profile efforts calling for gun dealers to be certified by the state in an effort to track gun data (Senate Bill 337) and a 72-hour waiting period following the purchase of any gun (Senate Bill 3256) were approved by both chambers but were being held in the Senate instead of passed on to the governor.

Rauner earlier had amendatorily vetoed a simple bill calling for a 72-hour waiting period for assault weapons (House Bill 1468) into a tough-on-crime initiative that included reinstating the death penalty for mass murderers and individuals convicted of killing a police officer under a new, stricter burden of proof. The Catholic Conference protested the suggested return to capital punishment in a statement, but the House did not take up Rauner’s amendatory veto.

Still, legislation echoing the governor’s call for the death penalty (House Bill 5886) surfaced during the final two weeks of session, as did a separate bill (House Bill 5891) that included firefighters among the victims. Additionally, a new firearms restraining order (House Bill 2354) was created to allow family and friends to ask a court to take away guns for six months from troubled individuals.

Sponsors of legislation to legalize marijuana held off on pushing the measures (House Bill 2353/Senate Bill 316) since Rauner opposes the effort and Pritzker supports it, should he win the Nov. 6 general election. Meanwhile, an effort (Senate Bill 2275) to put an advisory question on the November ballot asking if recreational marijuana should be legalized for those 21 and older passed the Senate but got stuck in a House committee.

A massive gambling expansion surfaced during the last week of session – as usual – but Senate Bill 7 and its six new casinos along with video gambling machines installed at airports and horse-racing tracks failed to pass a committee. Several sports betting bills appeared after the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-May legalized such wagering across the country, but were put off until the fall veto session, which begins a week after the election.

An amendment to the state Constitution calling for a progressive income tax (HJRCA 39) and another one actually setting the rates (SJRCA 1) both went nowhere, even before the early May deadline needed to get on the November ballot. However, a simple statement of support of a progressive income tax in House Resolution 1025 garnered only 61 “yes” votes – far short of the 71 needed for a constitutional amendment.

The fall veto session is set to begin on Nov. 13.