Votes show double standard

KwameBy STATE SEN. KWAME RAOUL (D-13)

The state Senate took two very important actions last Wednesday. But when the votes were cast, some were steeped in hypocrisy.

Illinois has a heroin problem. Even as the yearly death toll from overdoses has risen to the highest of any state, we’ve posted the largest decline in resources available to treat addiction. A majority of legislators of both parties voted for a plan to tackle the heroin crisis head-on.

Gov. Rauner, apparently content to allow well-off families access to treatment but wary of funding recovery for the less fortunate, used his veto pen to remove a key provision that would require Medicaid coverage of methadone and other drugs used in treating heroin addiction, as well as Narcan, a drug that can save overdose patients. To their credit, many House and Senate Republicans bucked their party’s leader and sided with Democrats to override the veto.

I stood in support of the addiction treatment bill. But I challenged the chamber to consider the ways in which we ignore crises as long as they are quarantined in low-income communities. We tend not to act on them until they seep out into the suburbs.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said of the lives lost to heroin, “We have to do everything within our power to stop this.”

That’s commendable. But what about Illinois’ other epidemics? What about gun violence, lack of health care access and an unraveling social safety net for senior citizens, single working parents, individuals with mental illness and people with disabilities? What about the systematic underfunding of schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods?

Senators had the chance last Wednesday to be consistent, doing everything within their power not only to stop heroin’s death toll, but to house homeless youth, help children start school ready to learn, staunch the tide of shootings, assist rape victims, screen low-income women for cancer and much more. Yet Republicans rejected legislation that would have sent desperately-needed dollars to these and other needs.

In doing so, they rejected the priorities they and Gov. Rauner agreed to fund last year and once again sidestepped an honest conversation about revenue. We can either find money to pay for the services we agree are needed, or we can eliminate them anyway, understanding the human cost of what we do. But Republicans aren’t doing either, voting “no” or “present” until a problem wreaks so much destruction in their own communities that they can no longer ignore it.

Chalk up their willing hypocrisy to their governor’s determination to hold the budget hostage to his demands to undermine collective bargaining, weaken protections for injured workers, enact a redistricting scheme that could limit the influence of minority voters and more.

We can sit down and have a discussion about these questions. I personally negotiated workers’ compensation reforms that resulted in the nation’s largest drop in workers’ comp insurance premiums here in Illinois. We need to allow these reforms to continue working, but I’m also open to talking about steps we might take in the future. We can have spirited but civil conversations about the other items on the governor’s agenda, too.

But the budget comes first. People in need come first. They’re hurting now, and there’s no time to waste.