Illinois lurches left during 2019 legislative session

Pritzker pushes far-reaching agenda during first year as governor

SPRINGFIELD – After four years of fiscal austerity and the pro-business, anti-union agenda of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois lawmakers took a sharp turn to the left during the just-completed legislative session, passing a budget with more than $1 billion in new spending and a host of new, more liberal social policies.

Those policies include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, legalizing recreational marijuana and sports gambling, and declaring access to reproductive health services, including abortion, a “fundamental right.”

“This one has been unlike any I’ve ever served in,” state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, said during an interview in the final days of the session. “Both in action and the substance of the issues, and the importance of the issues, this has been the craziest session I’ve ever been a part of.”

Although many of the initiatives enacted this session were debated for years in Illinois, most observers credit first-year Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker for pushing them through. But Pritzker also had help from Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly – majorities that resulted from a wave in the 2018 election that changed the course of Illinois politics.

Christopher Mooney, who teaches state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the Land of Lincoln always was something of an outlier among Midwestern states. The state traditionally is known for being moderate to conservative in its policies and slow in making big, sweeping changes.

“We’re not Iowa. We’re not Wisconsin. We’re not Michigan,” he said in a phone interview. “We have a different kind of economy. And we have Chicago as basically a third of the state, and if you count the metro area, it’s basically two-thirds of the state.”

Rauner’s election in 2012, Mooney said, largely was the result of the unpopularity of his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

Mooney added that much of Rauner’s true conservative character was not revealed to voters until after he took office in 2013.

Because of that, Mooney said, the election of Pritzker and a supermajority of Democrats in 2018 – and the sharp turn to the left that followed – can be seen as a kind of course correction for Illinois rather than a long-term reversal.

“After four years with a Republican governor, and under the crazy fiscal situation that we had, and the sort of self-inflicted wounds – problems don’t stop in situations like that,” Mooney said. “It’s like, if you have a bad infection on your foot. If you break your leg, you’ve got to fix that quick because it hurts. But that doesn’t stop the infection from growing.”

For Republicans in the General Assembly, however, the 2019 session was anything but a cause for celebration.

“The last four years under
Gov. Rauner, we were able to stop some things because we had more seats,” said state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna. “And they had to have conversations with Republicans, and that’s the most important thing. I believe that that really upset them, that they lost a little bit of control, and they really are showing us and reminding us who they are, what their agenda is, and they’re really giving it to us.”

McCombie is leading the House Republicans’ 2020 election strategy.

Jason Gerwig, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, said that although there was unanimous opposition in the party to a graduated income tax, legislative pay raises, a minimum wage increase and the Reproductive Health Act, there also were some bipartisan agreements.

“We did … find common ground on investing in our children’s education, providing resources for senior care and persons with disabilities, achieving business reforms that will grow our economy and investing in our state’s critical infrastructure needs,” Gerwig said in an email to Capitol News Illinois.

Here is a summary of the major legislation that passed during the 2019 spring session:


The rookie governor achieved bipartisan support for his first operating budget, accomplishing in six months what it took Rauner almost two years to achieve.

The budget is set at a little more than $40 billion, increases K-12 education funding by $375 million, raises higher education funding by 5% and adds $567 million to human service agencies decimated by Rauner’s cuts.

The bill also makes the state’s full $8.4 billion statutorily mandated pension payment and increases funding for the beleaguered Department of Children and Family Services budget by $100 million.

Graduated income tax

Pritzker’s marquee campaign proposal – changing Illinois’ Constitution to allow the General Assembly to tax higher-income earners at higher amounts – will be on the November 2020 ballot.

The governor also signed a rate structure proposal that would take effect upon the amendment’s approval by voters. That structure would bring in an estimated $3.5 billion while lowering taxes on those earning less than $250,000 and raising the rates on those making more than that amount.

About 60% of people voting on the question or the majority of those voting in the election must support the change for it to become law.

Capital plan

Cranes soon will be in the air and construction crews on the roads after approval of the state’s first capital infrastructure plan in more than a decade.

The plan will invest $45 billion in Illinois’ crumbling infrastructure, with $33.2 billion for transportation, $3.5 billion for education infrastructure, $4.3 billion for state facilities,
$1.2 billion for environment and conservation, $420 million for broadband deployment, $465 million for health care and human services, and $1.9 billion for economic and community development.

The plan is funded by a variety of new taxes and fees.

Gas tax, fees

Beginning July 1, the state’s gas tax will double to 38 cents, and the diesel fuel tax will get bumped 5 cents to
45.5 cents total. The measure also shifts 1% of Illinois’ sales tax on motor fuel to the road fund every year beginning July 1, 2021.

For cars and passenger trucks, registration fees will go from $101 to $151 beginning Jan. 1, 2020, while electric vehicles will be charged a $248 annual registration fee, up from $35 every two years.

Other title fees will go from $95 to $150 under the plan, while motor home registrations will cost $250. Other registration fees for certain buses, trucks and trailers will increase by $100.

Sports gambling, casino expansion

Just about all gambling options will be expanded and new ones added in the state under a sweeping proposal to make Illinois the gambling capital of the Midwest. The bill adds six casinos, expands video gambling and allows sports betting.

The state’s casinos, horse racing tracks and professional sports arenas – such as the United Center and Wrigley Field – would be eligible to buy a sports-betting license. Sports betting also will be allowed online or through mobile apps.

Gambling expansion is expected to produce $660 million in its first year because of licensing fees and taxes.

Other new taxes

The gambling expansion also included several new taxes, such as a
$1-a-pack cigarette tax increase, bringing the total tax to $2.98. This will produce an estimated $159 million in revenue.

A 6% daily and 9% monthly tax on parking lots and garages will produce an estimated $30 million. The bill also would subject electronic cigarettes – including e-cigars, vapes and hookahs – to taxation as tobacco products at 15% wholesale.

Additionally, the bill would remove a sales tax exemption on traded-in vehicles valued at more than $10,000, producing $45 million in revenue. Sales tax also would be collected on online purchases made through remote or out-of-state online retailers.

All new money, along with all revenue from the gambling expansion bill, would fund a $45 billion capital infrastructure program. These new taxes would begin to roll out from July 1 to Jan. 1, pending Pritzker’s approval.

Reproductive Health Act

Proponents and opponents agreed a bill Pritzker vowed to sign will make Illinois the most liberal state in the nation for access to reproductive health care.

The Reproductive Health Act, which repeals and replaces Illinois’ current abortion law, was a source of controversy this session, but it ultimately gained approval from both houses after remaining in legislative limbo for several months.

Legalized recreational marijuana

Those older than 21 will be able to buy and smoke marijuana recreationally beginning Jan. 1. The measure includes expungement language for those affected by the war on drugs and allows for several new grow and retailer licenses over the life of the program, which could bring in
$500 million annually when fully matured.

Minimum wage

Wages for Illinoisans will rise to $15 hourly by 2025, going up incrementally each year. The proposal was Pritzker’s first big legislative win in February and was achieved with only Democratic support.

Tobacco 21

Illinois became the first Midwestern state to change the age to buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes, chewing tobacco and other goods containing nicotine from 18 to 21. Pritzker signed the measure, and the law takes effect July 1.

Green energy

Pritzker made Illinois part of the U.S. Climate Alliance with an executive order, but an ambitious package of energy market reforms will wait until the state’s November veto session or later before becoming law.

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