Senate Week in Review: May 13-17, 2019

Controversy continues to swirl around Governor J.B. Pritzker’s plan to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults in Illinois, while a great deal of work remains on several other pressing issues that will also affect the state budget, with just two weeks left in the spring session.

Also during the week, lawmakers and state officials joined firefighters and their families from around the state at the 26th Annual Fallen Firefighter Memorial and Firefighting Medal of Honor Ceremony on the Capitol lawn.

Controversial marijuana bill gets hearing

On May 15, supporters and opponents packed a Senate Committee hearing room to debate the economic, health and social implications of legalized recreational marijuana, as detailed in Senate Bill 7.

The subject-matter hearing before the Senate Executive Committee included nearly three hours of testimony, some of it rancorous as supporters and opponents weighed in on the plan. The Committee’s Hearing Room was closed after it reached maximum capacity.

Senate Bill 7 would make it legal for residents 21 years of age and older to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis or 5 grams of concentrated cannabis. However, concerns were raised that convictions for possession of up to 500 grams – a Class 4 felony that would remain even if the bill were passed – would be eligible for expungement. Critics questioned why the bill provides for expungement for crimes that would still be illegal if the bill were to become law.

The process for expungement laid out in the legislation also drew fire from committee members and prosecutors this week who noted that the Governor already has the power to commute or pardon offenses – which can automatically lead to an expungement – instead of creating a new expungement process through the Legislature. Prosecutors have cautioned this legislative expungement process could be unconstitutional.

There is historic precedent for Illinois Governors issuing mass clemency or commutation. In 2003, Governor George Ryan commuted all Illinois death sentences to prison terms of life or less. A similar action, which would be a more streamlined option, could be used in this situation.

Other concerns have been raised over what revenue legalization could generate, and how it would be allocated. In his Budget Address earlier this year, Governor Pritzker included $170 million from recreational cannabis to plug a hole in his budget proposal. During the hearing, however, the bill’s sponsor gave an estimate of only $56-57 million in Fiscal Year 2020, most of which would be dedicated to other programs.

According to Senate Executive Committee records, 602 people have filed witness slips supporting Senate Bill 7 and 1,187 people have filed slips opposing the bill.

Key issues remain unresolved

With just two weeks until the General Assembly is supposed to adjourn on May 31, a number of important issues remain unresolved.

Lawmakers have yet to approve a budget for Fiscal Year 2020, the overhaul of the Illinois income tax system from a flat tax to a graduated tax system, legalized sports betting, and a massive infrastructure program with a source of revenue to pay for it.

It is important to note that millions in revenues for the proposed budget are linked to the passage of these programs, which runs counter to a provision in the Illinois Constitution that requires a proposed spending plan to be based only on revenue sources that are already in place.

Legislative committees have scheduled hearings on the issues in the coming days, but there is no guarantee that action will be taken on the bills.

Honoring firefighters in Springfield

On May 14, lawmakers joined firefighters and their families from around the state who traveled to Springfield to participate in the 26th Annual Fallen Firefighter Memorial and Firefighting Medal of Honor Awards Ceremony.

The ceremony, which takes place every year in May, honors those who have made the supreme sacrifice, and those who have demonstrated extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism to protect fellow firefighters and civilians.

The Illinois Fallen Firefighter Memorial, which is located on the Capitol’s southwest lawn, lists the names of those who have given their lives in the line of duty. Inscribed on the memorial are the words, “Dedicated to the firefighters of Illinois who have given their lives in the line of duty and to those who heroically serve with courage, pride and honor.” This year, one name was added: Firefighter Juan Buccio of the Chicago Fire Department.