Newly elected state Sen. Craig Wilcox already has a slight leg up on his other freshman colleagues in the General Assembly. That’s because he already has seen legislative action at its most frenetic pace.
After the October retirement of outgoing state Sen. Pamela Althoff, who chose to run for the McHenry County Board during the election cycle, Wilcox was appointed to the state Senate seat for which he already was running. That meant that, unlike other incoming freshmen, Wilcox, R-McHenry, actually got to take part in the November veto session, when lawmakers overrode a number of outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner’s vetoes.
“And veto session for a new legislator is quite a whirlwind,” Wilcox said. “It forces you to start learning the rules and understanding how things process maybe quicker than if you were just initially starting out after inauguration.”
Now Wilcox, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former McHenry County Board member, is looking ahead to his first full session, where he expects things to move at a slower and more orderly pace.
“January and February, I suspect, will be significantly quieter and less hectic than veto session was,” he said after taking office. “So while it was a challenge, I certainly think I’m in a better position to represent the district now than if I were just starting out this coming week.”
For Wilcox and other Republicans in the General Assembly, 2019 promises to be a challenging year. With Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers and a new Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, in office, the GOP caucus will have very few cards to play.
That means they’ll have to make strategic choices. Should they try to work with Democrats to achieve bipartisan compromises and, hopefully, moderate some of the majority party’s more liberal initiatives; or should they stick to their conservative principles in hopes of creating a solid brand that will play better in the 2020 elections?
For the time being, at least, Wilcox said he’s optimistic that the Pritzker administration will be willing to work with and listen to Republicans.
“If you listen to the talk that has gone on since the election, I think there’s a healthy optimism that there’s an opportunity to work together and across the aisle,” he said. “Those are what the words are saying, and I believe everyone is hopeful that the actions will then follow. So I think over the next two months, my primary focus is going to be watching how new legislation is brought forward – if it’s developed behind doors and the first time Republicans get to see it is when it’s filed and comes up in committee – or will there be true bipartisan discussion in the development of legislation before something gets filed?”
If bipartisanship and compromise prove not to be possible, however, Wilcox said he is prepared to take a stand by sticking to his conservative principles. In fact, he said, that sometimes can be easier for a minority party that doesn’t have to worry about building a majority coalition.
“If you are truly in a superminority, I think there’s a chance, in my view, to be a bit more true to representing your district,” Wilcox said.
The ability of Republicans to exert influence in the statehouse will be tested early in the session, when Pritzker and his allies start pushing for his agenda. Among other things, that includes Pritzker’s desire for a major capital improvement plan and legalization of recreational marijuana, as well as the desire in some circles for even further expansion of gambling in the state.
Still looming over everything, however, is the state’s precarious financial condition, including its estimated
$7.7 billion in unpaid bills.
While some in the statehouse see legalized marijuana and expanded gaming as opportunities for the state to generate new revenue, Wilcox, a fiscal conservative, said he thinks that’s the wrong approach.
“I’m not one who believes that Illinois has a revenue problem. It has a spending problem,” Wilcox said. “When you raise $5 billion through an income tax hike and still end up with a budget that’s $1.2 billion out of whack, it’s not for failure of raising the revenue. It’s for failure of controlling your spending. So I think we’re going to need some significant discussion on where the dollars are going and how much is going in each direction, and [to] find a way to balance that budget without continually looking for additional revenues.”
Still, with his background in local government, Wilcox said he understands the importance of investing in public infrastructure, especially for communities in the 32nd Senate District.
“Certainly, for our district, there are a number of state route upgrades that are top priorities – that have been in the works through many engineering phases – that I think certainly we would think would be at the top of the list,” he said. “But I think for our municipalities, there are many other infrastructure issues – which some have termed ‘vertical infrastructure’ – whether it be water and sewer plants, that also need to be a discussion item, and we’ll see which way we move as Springfield gets back into session.”
Wilcox said he also is willing to consider the legalization of marijuana, but he does not think it should be done just for the sake of generating revenue.
He said discussions should focus on legalization as a liberty and personal privilege, about community standards and expectations and about requirements for law enforcement and business protections.
“If … those become the primary focus, then I’m confident that Springfield can do something in a good fashion for Illinois,” Wilcox said.
“If, on the other hand, much of the discussion about legalization of marijuana is about a revenue source, then you can be assured that we will probably get it wrong.”
Wilcox also takes the same approach to further expansion of gambling in the state.
“There’s certainly room for discussion as long as we are being honest about where future potential licenses go,” he said. “But once again, if it’s about garnering revenue, then we will make poor decisions about maximizing revenue as opposed to protecting all interested parties in the gaming expansion.”
New lawmakers were sworn into office Jan. 14.