Illinois Capitol

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget proposal, including his call for legalizing recreational marijuana, will be among the top issues Illinois state lawmakers will face when they return to the Capitol on Tuesday, following their two-week spring break.

Pritzker, a Democrat who was elected to his first term in November, came into office in January facing a backlog of unpaid bills totaling roughly $8 billion, not counting late-payment interest; another $134 billion in unfunded pension liabilities; and a budget situation that he described as having a $3.5 billion “structural deficit.”

SPRINGFIELD — A key supporter of an initiative to legalize adult recreational marijuana in Illinois said substantial bill language will be filed soon, and the issue could be one of the first discussed by state lawmakers when they return to the Statehouse from their two-week spring break next week.

In a recent interview with Capitol News Illinois, state Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said she hoped to file substantial adult use language “by the end of April or very early May, if not (Tuesday) April 30. … Very soon, when we are done with the two-week break here.”

Illinois legalized marijuana use for certain medical conditions under a pilot program enacted in 2013. Three years later, lawmakers decriminalized possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana – about one-third of an ounce – lowering the offense from a misdemeanor to a civil offense that carries a $100 to $200 fine.

Now, with support from Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, many lawmakers want to legalize it for adults entirely under state law, even though it remains a criminal offense under federal law. Pritzker’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $170 million in new revenue from licensing cultivators and dispensaries.

Steans said a number of different “working groups” have been meeting to hammer out details of different aspects of the legislation. Those are thought to include such things as how many new licenses will become available for cultivation and retail sales; how much those licenses will cost, and how they will be allocated; and limits on how much marijuana an individual could possess for personal use.

Some early proposals have called for setting aside half or more of the new licenses for people who live in predominantly black, Hispanic and Native American neighborhoods, which supporters argue have suffered disproportionate negative impacts from the war on drugs.

PRITZKER'S PENSION PLANS: Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pension proposal is not sitting well with state lawmakers, an advisor to the Illinois Teachers Retirement System told its Board of Trustees this week.

The governor’s plan is to reduce payments to the various pension systems by $850 million next year, while extending by seven years the time it will take to pay off $134 billion in unfunded liabilities.

While the plan appears unpopular now, Andrew Bodewes, the board’s legislative liaison, said that could change as the end of the session draws near and lawmakers have to consider the other options.

“I don’t want to suggest that the majority of the General Assembly could ever get to a place where they’re OK with reducing pension payments by $850 million,” Bodewes told the board during its annual retreat Thursday, April 25, in Springfield. “But when they start looking at, ‘We’re going to cut schools by this, we’re going to close these parks; We’re going to reduce these services to children with learning disabilities,’ it starts to get real. Those conversations get very real. So I’m always sympathetic to the members.”

The Teachers Retirement System is the largest of the state’s pension funds, with $52 billion in assets and 417,000 members.

SPORTS GAMBLING: With five plans being considered, it’s anyone guess what legalized sports gambling will look like in Illinois if the Legislature approves a bill this spring.

One element of several of those plans might not yet be a safe bet. The wisdom of having a $10 million one-time licensing fee was questioned during a second hearing on sports gambling by the House Revenue and Finance subcommittee on Thursday in Chicago.

The proposed licensing fee would be paid by sports betting operators, such as casinos, race tracks or online platforms.

“If the licensing fee is too high, it’s going to prohibit people from entering the market,” said Robert Davidman, a marketing professional who has helped launch several online gaming businesses in New Jersey, widely considered to have the most comprehensive sports betting system of any state.

Davidman said fees that other states are considering, $100,000 in Indiana and $45,000 in Iowa, are better.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: A pair of reports released this week offered supporting arguments for one of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s top priorities: increasing investment in early childhood education.

Both reports, one by a group of law enforcement officials and another by leading business executives, use data from the Illinois State Department of Education that shows roughly three-quarters of all students entering kindergarten in Illinois lack necessary school readiness skills in at least one of three critical areas – social-emotional development, literacy or math. Only about a quarter of all new kindergarteners demonstrate school readiness in all three categories.

Because of that, the reports argue, many of those children fall behind in their early elementary years and have difficulty throughout their school careers, leading to a wide range of social problems, including a lack of workforce skills and a higher propensity to get involved with crime later in life.

“Research has shown that high-quality early childhood education can result in more successful outcomes, particularly for at-risk children from low-income families,” wrote the authors of the first report, “Illinois’ Path to Prosperity.”

That report, written by a group of law enforcement officials known as “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Illinois,” suggests children enrolled in quality preschool and child development programs are more likely to complete high school and significantly less likely to be arrested for violent crimes after they become adults.

“Illinois spends $2.3 billion each year to house adults in prisons and jails, and experiences violent crime at rates 15 percent more than the national average,” the organization said. “One solution we have to combat this epidemic is investing in our youngest residents: research shows that children who participate in high-quality early childhood programs are more likely to succeed in school and less likely to commit crime later down the line.”

The second report, released Wednesday, April 24, by a group of business executives called ReadyNation, argues early childhood education is an important component of workforce development because it lays the foundation for the kinds of “soft skills” like social and emotional development that are critical for success later in life.

Pritzker’s budget proposal calls for a $100 million increase in general revenue funding for early childhood education. That would be the largest single-year increase in state history and would boost total funding for those programs to just more than $636 million.

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ELECTIONS AND RUSSIA: Special counsel Robert Mueller’s recently released report on Russian interference in the 2016 election repeated what Illinois already knew: that it suffered the worst election data breach of any state in the country when Russian agents stole the personal information of more than 70,000 voters.

To the Illinois State Board of Elections, that is welcome news.

“I’m reassured, because there was nothing new in the report about what happened in 2016,” SBOE spokesman Matt Dietrich said. “I knew there was potential for Illinois to be mentioned, but I didn’t think there’d be any revelations about it.”

An indictment of 13 Russian operatives last summer was the first public mention of the SBOE website breach. A brief recount of the incident is on Page 50 of the Mueller report released with redactions last week. It details “intrusions” on the “administration of U.S. elections.” Russian hackers accessed voters’ names, addresses, birth dates and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

“In one instance in approximately June 2016, the GRU [Russian military intelligence] compromised the computer network of the Illinois State Board of Elections by exploiting a vulnerability in the SBOE’s website,” the Mueller report reads.

While the summary of the hacking incident is unchanged from what was publicly known, the recap is followed by several lines of blacked-out redactions.

“That’s where we would have learned something new,” Dietrich said of the redactions. “We might have seen exactly how the FBI connected Russia with our data breach. But it’s still considered an open investigation, so the feds are not going to let the public know their techniques.”

CORPORATE BOARDS: State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch urged the Illinois Senate on Tuesday, April 23, to act quickly on his bill that would require all publicly-traded corporations headquartered in Illinois to have at least one African-American and one woman on their boards of directors.

The bill passed out of the House on March 29 with 61 votes, only one vote more than the minimum 60 votes needed for passage.

“This is blowing my mind,” Rep. Tony McCombie, a Savanna Republican, said during the debate. “You guys are going to put your governor, our governor, on the books for being the biggest business-busting person in the nation.”

“This is a horrible bill,” she continued. “I don’t even – you guys have got to get it together here. I don’t – no offense, this is something else.”

“Offense is already taken,” replied Rep. William Davis, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Homewood, who often sponsors legislation calling for diversity in state contracting and purchasing.

“We wouldn’t have to do these kinds of things if folks would just act right,” he said.

ENERGY SUPPLIERS: Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Tuesday, April 23, called for greater regulation of alternative retail energy suppliers, many of which go door-to-door using “deceptive practices” to lock consumers into contracts that ultimately lead to higher energy costs.

At a Chicago news conference, Raoul said “almost nobody” who signs up to receive gas or electricity from alternative energy providers ends up paying less for their energy bills than consumers who stayed with their public utility.

CAPITAL BILL: Stakeholders from northern Illinois added to the state’s list of capital funding requests Monday, April 22, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle acknowledged more revenue would be necessary to get the state’s infrastructure back in working order.

“The need is great; the revenue is problematic,” said state Sen. Donald DeWitte, a St. Charles Republican.

Requests included funding for community college buildings, wastewater and sewage projects, roads, bridges, infrastructure at domestic violence shelters and other human service providers which were hit hard by the impasse, and more.

ELIMINATING TOWNSHIPS? McHenry County is the sole subject of legislation giving its voters an option to dissolve township government. It is an effort by a state lawmaker to cut residents’ property taxes by eliminating what he calls “unnecessary” levels of government.

If the experiment goes well there, in the sixth most populous county in the state, Rep. David McSweeney said the next step would be to give the rest of Illinois the ability to get rid of township governments.

But the measure is contentious even in McHenry county, where some officials expressed frustration McSweeney did not ask if such a provision was needed. Others said they worry what the impacts would be if McSweeney’s bill becomes law — there has not been a recent study providing a clear analysis.

COMBATING MEASLES: The Illinois Department of Public Health initiatives include a marketing campaign to combat “extensive misinformation” about vaccines, and bringing temporary mobile clinics to under-vaccinated neighborhoods and highly-attended community events, such as fairs, celebrations and religious gatherings.

The department’s announcement also outlined its plan to assess schools with student vaccination rates of less than 95 percent. It cited transportation, health clinic hours, complicated paperwork and long wait times as the main barriers to completing routine vaccinations.

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