By AARON GETTINGER
Hyde Park–Kenwood’s freshman state legislators spent the end of May and the beginning of June voting on bills that will have dramatic, long-lasting consequences for their constituents and all Illinoisans.
And several Hyde Park institutions – the University of Chicago, Ray School, Hyde Park Academy and Kenwood Academy among them – received major funding.
“It feels epic,” said Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) on June 2. He recalled protesting Gov. Bruce Rauner during his administration and the state’s “absolutely dismal” mood at the time. “Right now, it feels like, ‘How did we get so much stuff done?’”
The General Assembly passed a budget. A capital bill — the legislation Gov. J.B. Pritzker hired former local State Rep. Christian Mitchell as deputy governor to shepherd through the Assembly — passed. Sports betting and additional casinos are coming. The “Fair Tax” plan will be sent to the voters, who will decide whether to replace the state’s flat income tax with a progressively graduated one. Illinois buttressed its pro-abortion rights reputation with the Reproductive Health Act. And recreational marijuana will become legal on Jan. 1, 2020.
“I think this legislative session represented a monumental leap forward for all of Illinois and especially for working families,” Mitchell said in a June 3 interview. “J.B. Pritzker said when he was running for governor that he was going to put Illinois back on the side of working families, and he delivered.” Mitchell suggested that the administration would prioritize a public health insurance option for Illinoisans and propose further criminal justice reform in next year’s legislative session.
Here is how local legislators voted on the key issues.
Budget: Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th who represents Kenwood west of Woodlawn Avenue and Hyde Park west of Ellis Avenue) and Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) voted yes; Rep. Curtis Tarver II (D-25th) voted no.
“I think after four years of Rauner, we saw a bunch of cuts, and the positive that we see here is a budget where things are funded,” Peters said. “And a lot of stuff is seeing an increased funding.”
The legislature passed a $39.9 billion spending plan with support from both parties; Republicans agreed with Democrats that it is balanced. The budget includes $375 million in public education funding and $66 million more for Illinois’ beleaguered higher education system (a 5% increase), $100 million for the Department of Children and Family Services and $9 billion for pensions (the whole mandated contribution). It borrows $1.2 billion to pay the $6.7 billion in overdue bills.
“This budget is another step on a path to stability, and will provide much-needed services to the people who rely on them the most,” Peters said in a statement, adding that he was particularly pleased with the additional education funding. “The state budget should be a tool to help those in need, and I’m proud to have been a part of ensuring that this year’s is.”
Tarver did not answer a submitted question asking his rationale for voting against the budget.
Capital bill, gambling and casinos: Tarver, Buckner and Peters voted yes on appropriations, bonding and revenue.
For the first time in a decade, Illinois has passed an infrastructure plan, this time worth $45 billion. In a statement, Pritzker said “Rebuild Illinois” will “create hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout our state” and “reinvigorate our economy and strengthen our rightful status as the transportation and supply chain hub of the nation.” Buckner called it “a first step toward long term economic growth,” one that “will make all Illinoisans safer.”
In addition to statewide investments in transportation infrastructure, several local entities got funding. Peters said nonprofit human services providers will receive funds to repair their buildings and that he would try to move funds to repair the 51st Street viaduct and water lines in local parks that contain lead. He anticipates ample coordination between the state and municipal governments, including local aldermen, in the effort.
A late amendment gave the University of Chicago a $100 million grant “for the construction of a new facility and acquisition of equipment with the Chicago Quantum Exchange,” based out of the new Molecular Engineering School, 5640 S. Ellis Ave.
Ray Elementary School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., Hyde Park Academy, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., and Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., got grants of $100,000, $150,000 and $250,000, respectively.
In the 4th Ward, Nichols Park, 1355 E. 53rd St., got $100,000 to build a dog park and $200,000 for capital improvements, Gwendolyn Brooks Park, 4542 S Greenwood Ave., got $20,000 for a pickleball court and Kennicott Park, 4434 S. Lake Park Ave., got $50,000 for a fitness center and $300,000 for capital improvements. The 5th Ward got a $400,000 grant through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for infrastructural improvements.
The state will pay for the investments through, among other things, a gas tax increase of 19 cents per gallon, a $1 increase in the price of cigarettes per carton and a $50 bump in the price of vehicle registration.
“Moving forward, we need to make sure that this is not just something we address once a decade,” Buckner said in an emailed response to questions from the Herald. “We need to always be thinking about how we approach infrastructure and lean towards creating a more sustainable, transparent, comprehensive and performance-based system.”
The legislature also allowed sports gambling in Illinois, with gambling allowed in Chicago’s sports stadiums and five blocks around them. A new privately owned casino with up to 4,000 table games and slot machines will be established in Chicago, overseen by the Illinois Gaming Board. Pritzker said the measures would provide 10,000 jobs statewide.
Progressive income tax: Tarver, Buckner and Peters voted yes.
Peters said that the “Fair Tax,” if ratified, would preclude the need for the aforementioned tax increases. “I think we all have to do the work to win the amendment,” he said.
On Nov. 3, 2020, Illinoisans will vote on a constitutional amendment to replace the state’s current flat, 4.95% income tax rate with a graduated system: 4.75% for households making $10,000 or below, 4.9% for those up to $100,000, 4.95% up to $250,000, 7.75% up to $500,000 and 7.85% for households making above a half-million. The amendment will be ratified it is approved by either a majority of the Illinois electorate in that general election or 60% of those who vote on the amendment.
Buckner said he voted for the measure “with hopes that it will provide tax relief for most people in the 26th District” and called it “important for a balanced budget, fully funding our schools, infrastructure and economic development.
“For far too long we have operated under a very unfair tax system that has unduly burdened middle class families,” he said. “This is the right thing to do.”
Abortion rights: Tarver, Buckner and Peters voted yes.
“Our state will now be the most progressive in the nation for reproductive healthcare,” Pritzker said in a statement. “In Illinois, we trust women to make the most personal and fundamental decisions of their lives — and now, that will be the law of the land, even as it’s under threat in other states.”
Illinoisans now have a “fundamental right” to have an abortion, and fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses do not have independent rights under state law. Spousal consent, criminal penalties for abortion-performing doctors, waiting periods and restrictions on facilities where abortions are performed have been removed.
“It’s time that we as men take a step back and let women make decisions for themselves as have always had the ability to do for ourselves,” Tarver said on Twitter. “I’m proud I’ll make my daughter proud.”
In a statement, Peters also acknowledged the recent “unprecedented attacks on reproductive health rights from several states across the country.
“These attacks are targeted and regressive, meant to secure patriarchal power against women, queer folks and people of color,” he continued. “These states are sending a clear message that the health of women, trans men, non-binary people or anyone whose health relies on the safeguarding of reproductive rights does not matter to them. I’m proud to have stood with my colleagues in the Senate to declare that Illinois does not share that belief.”
Cannabis legalization: Tarver, Buckner and Peters voted yes.
Illinois will become the second Midwestern state to legalize recreational marijuana, following Michigan, and the first nationwide to do so legislatively. Illinoisans 21 and older can have up to about an ounce of herbal marijuana, five grams of concentrate or 500 milligrams of high-inducing THC in edible or topical forms. Forty-seven dispensaries will be allowed to open across Chicagoland.
The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act also incorporates a social equity program that offers “financial assistance and license application benefits to individuals most directly and adversely impacted by the enforcement of cannabis-related laws who are interested in starting cannabis business establishments.” The legislation also allows for procedural, not automatic, expungement of low-level marijuana offenses.
Tarver, in an interview with WBEZ, railed against the idea that the bill was criminal justice reform, calling it a cynical justification “when there’s an opportunity to make money from the same people who decimated our communities.”
“I look forward to being incredibly involved in the follow up process and subsequent trailer bills to improve this program and ensure it works for all communities, especially those that have been most devastated by the so-called ‘War on Drugs,’” he said later on Twitter.
Buckner said that legalization “[gives] us a chance to attempt to right some of the wrongs of the past” and that expungements “will be life changing for hundreds of thousands of people.
“The war on drugs disproportionately affected African-American communities, and these communities deserve restorative justice,” Buckner said. “I plan to closely watch this program and be involved in fixing whatever pieces of it that need to be fixed.”
“I think it’s a really good first step,” Peters said. He cautioned against “unintended consequences” like a crackdown on the “shadow economy” that currently exists in recreational cannabis, though he does not think the matter should be debated in a future legislative session. “I think it’s more like, ‘Let’s see how the police engage with this moving forward and keep engaging with it,’ so it doesn’t become similar to what we see with loose cigarettes,” he said.
On Sunday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised the state government for its work. “We are securing new resources to improve our parks, schools, public transportation and roads through a new capital bill; new revenue for the city and the end to an old inequity through legalized cannabis; and the first step in approval for a Chicago casino that will help shore up the city’s seriously underfunded pension funds and creating new jobs,” she said.
“By continuing to work together in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration to confront shared challenges head-on, we can and will make meaningful progress to unlock new investments for growth in Chicago communities that have been left behind for too long.”