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Illinois lurches left in 2019 legislative session

In first year as governor, Pritzker pushes through far-reaching agenda

By Peter Hancock, Jerry Nowicki, Rebecca Anzel and Grant Morgan

Capitol News Illinois, [email protected]

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 social 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,” Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Democrat from 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.”

At the end of the spring Legislative session, Pritzker signed into law, a $40 billion budget, a $45 billion capital improvement plan, a comprehensive gaming expansion bill, a recreation marijuana bill, a $15 minimum wage hike, increases in cigarette, gas and license plate renewal fees and the Reproductive Health Act, which repeals and replaces Illinois’ current abortion law, a source of controversy this session, but it ultimately gained approval from both houses after remaining in legislative limbo for several months.

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 was always something of an outlier among Midwestern states. They are traditionally known for being moderate-to-conservative in their 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, was largely the result of the unpopularity of his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. He 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 really 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, though, 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 Rep. Tony McCombie, a Republican from Savannah. “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 heading up the House Republicans’ 2020 election strategy.

Jason Gerwig, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, said that while there was unanimous opposition in the party to a graduated income tax, legislative pay raises, minimum wage hike and the Reproductive Health Act, there 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.

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