General Assembly faces key issues as session winds to close

Staff writer

Legalized cannabis. A capital bill for state infrastructure. A graduated, progressive income tax. The policies on which Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Illinois Democrats campaigned last year are coming down to the wire, as the General Assembly session concludes at the end of the month. The freshman legislators representing Hyde Park–Kenwood are in the belly of the beast as they propose their own policymaking priorities and work to advance their own bills.

“I think after four years of [former Gov. Bruce] Rauner [R], everyone just wants to get a lot of things done in the state, across the board,” said Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th). “The stagnation under Rauner and the impasses that he caused made a lot of people anxious to get stuff done, and I think it’s all happening literally right now, which is a good thing.” He expressed concern at “the smaller-level stuff and the speed at which they could be happening.”

“The cannabis fight has been happening for quite some time,” Peters pointed out. “Figuring out the pieces in terms of equity and the expungement piece — all of those pieces have been talked about and negotiated in some form for quite some time, and it’s all come to a head now. But when we talk about legalizing cannabis, we’ve been talking about that for years.”

“I think the main thing that’s happened with the cannabis bill that was really good was that it was actually bringing people to the table,” Peters said. Pritzker introduced the legislation at the Black United Fund in South Shore, 1809 E. 71st St., and Peters identified “a systemic component to this that can’t be missed.”

Rep. Curtis Tarver II (D-25th), who represents Kenwood east of Woodlawn Avenue and Hyde Park east of Ellis Avenue, also made no guess as to the whether the bills will pass. “Pot is 400 pages … still trying to sift through it,” he said. “I don’t have much to offer besides I’m participating in caucuses, reviewing bills and trying to ensure that I make informed votes.”

But Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th), who represents the western parts of Hyde Park–Kenwood, said he is not in support of the cannabis legislation, though he still supports legalization.

“There are so many criminal justice issues that are wrapped up in this thing that I think we have to address in a meaningful way,” he said. “I just want to make sure that we aren’t creating the situation in which folks from places like Canada and California are going to come here and make a lot of money while we have folks from here in prison for non-violent cannabis offenses.” He mentioned meeting with a constituent with a cannabis felony from 1988 whom he feared would be precluded from a legal cannabis industry under the introduced scheme.

Nevertheless, Buckner lauded Pritzker for its inclusivity on the cannabis issue and hopes chances to address his concerns will arise in the coming weeks.

The capital bill, legislation that Pritzker hired former Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-26th) to move through the General Assembly as his deputy governor, has been slow to come together, though House Democrats moved forward a $2.44 billion plan for transportation infrastructure last week. Peters said he would advocate for provisions that would affect both sides of his district, from Lake Shore Drive downtown, where a crack in a bridge snarled rush hour traffic after a wild temperature swing last winter, to bridges to the south that have to stay up.

“I want to be able to tell people in leadership ‘Here’s what I want to see’ and be able to be the best advocate I can be on that,” Peters said. “I did not like the feeling that if I drove over Lake Shore Drive, it was at risk, and when I visited folks on the Southeast Side, they made it very clear to me they want to see us move beyond the last 30 years of disinvestment on the South Side and see that investment put back in their communities.”

Writing for Crain’s Chicago Business last week, Buckner also referenced the recent partial bridge collapse in South Chicago and the Lake Shore Drive bridge cracking as “ominous examples of what awaits us if we continue our inaction.”

But Buckner said that infrastuctural investments should not be made by decades-old distribution and project selection formulas and criteria. “Illinois needs a transparent, data-driven process of project selection to make sure we are spending the state’s extremely limited money on only the highest priorities,” he wrote, decrying the selection of projects based on politics, not economic or quality of life impacts. He said new revenue sources should include user fees paid for by people and businesses that use the state’s infrastructure and said motor fuel tax revenue ought to be indexed to inflation or the cost of construction.

The new income tax system passed the Senate and is currently in the House, and Buckner is optimistic about its chance for passage. “I think it’s about time we addressed some of our tax issues and the way the tax structure exists in a meaningful way,” he said. “I think that there’ve been some dissenters on the Democratic side, but I think we’ll have enough votes to get it through.”

A bill that would have made Chicago Public Schools board members elected officials passed the House but is currently stalled in the Senate, and all three local legislators are concerned-to-pessimistic about its chance for passage before the end of May.

“You never know what happens in the final 10 days of a session,” Peters said, adding that more things could move in the upcoming veto session. “Something that you think is not moving could move, but right now, I think the idea is figuring out what’s going on on the city side of things will determine what happens on the state side.”

Tarver shares Peters’ skepticism. “I thought it would, but as of late, no, it doesn’t seem like it will pass,” he said.

Buckner said it will come down to the wire in the Senate committee considering it. He plans to introduce a resolution in the House supporting an elected school board in Chicago as well as a campaign finance system for its hypothetical elections.