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Pritzker: ‘Ambitious and consequential’ session concluded

June 3, 2019
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Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker holds a press conference, surrounded by both Republicans and Democrats from the legislature, touting the accomplishments of the Spring Session after the Illinois Senate approved funding for the capital construction plan, legalized sports betting and gambling expansion, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Springfield, Ill. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Democrats led by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Sunday celebrated what the first-year governor called “one of the most ambitious and consequential legislative sessions” in state history.

The Senate concluded action on a state budget and a far-reaching infrastructure improvement plan to wrap up the spring session two days past the scheduled May 31 adjournment date.

The budget pumps extra money into education and fully funds the state’s onerous pension obligation. The state construction plan — not to mention the billions of dollars in new taxes and fees to fund it — provides funding permanency to what has been a feast-or-famine procedure.

Voters will have a chance next year to change the income-tax structure. And Pritzker promises to sign laws legalizing recreational marijuana, expanding casino gambling and allowing wagering on sporting events, and codifying expansive protections for abortion rights.

The amount of legislative approvals was in contrast with the previous four years, when then-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s conservative agenda was stymied by Democrats who controlled the General Assembly. The unwillingness of either side to budge led to policy stalemate and a two-year budget deadlock that resulted in billions of dollars in debt.

“Illinois is back,” Pritzker declared when asked what message the action sent to the nation. “Illinois is open for business. This is a place that stands up for working families. We’ve got a great future.”

Here’s a rundown of major initiatives approved in final-days action, all of which Pritzker says he will sign into law:

BUDGET

The $39.9 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1, carrying a “balanced” stamp from both Republicans and Democrats, is a 2% increase over the current year. It provides a $375 million increase to public education to fund the school-aid formula revamped two years ago, a 5% bump.

It also includes increases for higher education, fully funds the required $9 billion pension contribution and allows borrowing $1.2 billion to pay down a lingering, $6.7 billion pile of overdue bills to save money on interest payments.

The budget plan adds $100 million in funding for the Department of Children and Family Services, which is reeling from criticism over its inability to save three children in its care who have died this year.

It also includes a 2.4% cost-of-living adjustment for legislators, meaning a $1,600-a-year increase in the base $67,836 salary. The Senate intended to freeze the pay hike, but the House added it to the budget and ignored a Senate legislative request to block it.

STATE CONSTRUCTION PROGRAM

A $45 billion statewide construction program for roads, bridges, mass transit, schools, prisons and other public works is the first comprehensive infrastructure investment since 2009, a plan that was never fully implemented because legal action tied up some of its funding sources.

It relies, in part, on a gas tax doubled to 38 cents per gallon, an assessment that will increase in the future with inflation. This marks the first gas-tax increase since 1990.

The construction programs also calls for increases vehicle registration fees by 50% to $150, lower than what Pritzker proposed, and hikes the per-pack cigarette tax by $1 to $2.98.

The plan rejected contentious taxes that were proposed, such as a real-estate transfer tax increase, a $1-a-ride fee for ride-sharing services and a 7% tax on cable, satellite, and streaming video services. But it now counts on hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from legalized sports betting and casino expansion.

GAMBLING EXPANSION/SPORTS BETTING

A proposal to legalize sports betting emerged this spring after the U.S. Supreme Court approved it outside of Nevada. But the Illinois legislation languished until last week when House Democrats tacked onto it a long-discussed expansion of existing casino gambling.

The measure would legalize sports betting and allow for adding casinos in Chicago and its suburbs, Rockford, Danville, and southern Illinois. It would expand gambling slots at the state’s 10 existing casinos and add them at horse racing racks.

A preliminary estimate puts first-year licensing and tax revenue at more than $700 million. It would be the largest contributor to the construction program ’s so-called vertical projects — buildings such as schools, prison, and sewage-treatment plants — as opposed to roads.

GRADUATED INCOME TAX

The Legislature voted to send a constitutional amendment to the November 2020 ballot asking voters whether they want to switch from a flat-rate income tax to one based on income. If approved, the new scaled approach would take effect in January 2021.

In separate action, Pritzker was sent legislation establishing the rates should the new system be enacted. They top out at 7.99% for the state’s wealthiest residents. Pritzker contends that 97% of taxpayers will pay no more than they do now because those earning less than $250,000 would pay, at most, the current 4.95% rate that applies to the flat tax.

MARIJUANA

Adults could buy and possess up to one ounce (30 grams) of marijuana for personal use. Illinois would become the 11th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow recreational use.

Supporters say the new law also will remedy past injustices to minorities who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. The plan allows scrubbing of criminal records for anyone convicted of possessing 30 grams of marijuana or less, and offers incentives to minority investors who want to enter what will likely be a burgeoning marijuana industry.

ABORTION PROTECTIONS

After at least a half-dozen Republican-controlled states adopted steep restrictions on abortion , Illinois Democrats answered with legislation to provide statutory protections for the procedure. The legislation rescinds prohibitions on some late-term abortions and 45-year-old restrictions such as criminal charges against doctors who perform abortions, none of which has been enforced because of court orders.

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