McHenry, IL…This column is the first installment of a three-part report looking back on some of the high-profile issues addressed by the Illinois General Assembly during the spring legislative session, plus a recap of the legislative Town Hall in Crystal Lake and my recent tour of McHenry County gravel and sand mines.
Crystal Lake Town Hall
Questions about the new state budget, Illinois’ fiscal health and high taxes were among the concerns constituents brought to the joint Town Hall June 11 with my colleagues Senators Dan McConchie and Don DeWitte (photo below). Each of us represents a part of Crystal Lake and we were pleased to be able to make this event happen. We put great value in staying in touch with the citizens of our respective districts. Communicating with you is an essential part of our duty representing you in Springfield.
The Town Hall was also a great opportunity to present an overview of the just-concluded spring legislative session. We discussed Illinois’ new phased-in $15 per hour minimum wage, the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, a number of new tax increases to take effect July 1, a major expansion of gaming and a massive new public infrastructure program for roads, bridges and public buildings.
While many of the issues addressed by the General Assembly this year were controversial, their impact on Illinoisans may not be known for some time. That was also a concern of some in attendance who expressed doubt about being able to remain in Illinois, due in large part, to our current high tax burden – especially property taxes.
Coincidentally, in a recent analysis by the online Business Insider news site, Illinois ranks number two in the top ten of states that lost the most people between 2016 and 2017. Figures show Illinois lost 142,685 residents when they moved to other states. The article also notes, “Illinois has reported a population loss for the fifth consecutive year, according to Census data released in April.” Only the state of New York lost more population, 164,681 residents, than Illinois.
On June 13, local elected officials – including myself – got a first-hand look at gravel and sand mining. The McHenry County Gravel Advisory Council hosted the tour, which included active gravel mines and an explanation of how the mines work and the products they provide for construction and manufacturing.
At the end of the last Ice Age, large deposits of gravel and sand were left in northern Illinois by receding glaciers, which is why McHenry County today has a thriving gravel industry. Being able to better understand how it works and operates, as part of our larger community, enables me and other local officials to better represent our area.
Meanwhile, in Springfield, much of time spent at the Capitol this spring could be described as merely routine legislative activity. However, the final hours and days were anything but routine. Intense discussions, hours-long bargaining and sometimes emotional debate were the norm with session concluding June 2.
This is part one of a three-part End of Session report. First, let’s take a look at rebuilding Illinois infrastructure, a legislative pay hike and recreational marijuana:
Major Infrastructure Plan Approved
Illinois is planning the largest-ever public infrastructure program. The plan will provide nearly $45 billion in direct investment in Illinois’ aging transportation infrastructure, as well as money for construction projects for schools, public universities, sewer and water systems and state facilities.
Revenues generated under the plan, like those from gasoline taxes and higher vehicle registration fees, can only be used to fund roads and bridge transportation projects, according to the lock box amendment passed in 2016 by Illinois voters. Other infrastructure projects, like those for improvements at schools, public universities and state facilities, will be funded largely by a gaming expansion that includes six new casinos, and legal sports wagering in Illinois.
I voted against the Capital plan because our government’s first option to address issues is to raise taxes and fees, with little or no consideration of any meaningful spending reforms or reduction of government growth.
We also know that many residents of the 32nd District will certainly cross the border to buy gas and cigarettes, and likely shop, dine, and spend their money outside Illinois because of these new taxes, further hurting our small local communities’ economic recovery. Additionally, while we might expect that the 32nd District should still receive it’s "fair share" of projects and funding, we must realize our district is not home to public state universities, state corrections facilities, no major airports or water ports, and limited actual interstate miles. We know that our residents will not see projects of the same scope that other areas of the state will, resulting in our taxpayers being "net payers" during this 6-year capital bill program.
Senate Republicans say NO to Pay Hike
I joined my fellow Republican Senators in the final hours of the spring session to reject a budget that included a pay raise for legislators. Frankly, we were surprised to find a $1,600-per-year salary increase tucked away in the proposed budget – a 1,567-page spending and tax plan – given to us with only a few hours for review on the night of May 31.
The $40.1 billion budget, which includes a 2.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to legislators’ base salary, was considered initially in the Senate on May 31 just before the clock struck midnight. One of our Republican leaders, State Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon), was the first to point out that the previously agreed to COLA freeze was missing from the legislation.
In Illinois, COLA increases for legislators are automatic in state law unless the legislature takes action to block them. Blocking these pay increases has become a routine practice and, for a decade, budget legislation has included language to freeze salaries.
Salaries should have been frozen again this year, especially when you consider the $3.4 billion spending increase included in the budget. It’s an embarrassing situation. At the same time legislators are getting a pay raise, state government is demanding taxpayers pay more through new and higher taxes also included in the budget.
All 19 members of the Senate Republican caucus ultimately voted “no” on the budget proposal. However, the Governor is on the record saying he will sign the new state budget, with the pay raises intact.
Recreational Marijuana Legalization and Medical Marijuana Expansion
In the final days of the spring legislative session, a majority of lawmakers approved legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana, and expanding the state’s medical marijuana program. While I expressed public support for legalization before I was sworn into office and during this spring session, ultimately I voted “no” on House Bill 1438.
Proponents of legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana argued that HB 1438 provides a framework to tax and regulate the emerging industry, providing for public safety, taxpayer protections, workplace protections, and local control. While there is acknowledgment that our current prohibition regarding marijuana does not work, I don’t think the measure went far enough to fully address my concerns about responsibility and accountability. In the future, I believe Illinois lawmakers will be discussing shortfalls in funding of very critical budget components as Illinois deals with the negative social issues that we’ve seen increase in other states that legalized marijuana.
There were days, during the negotiation, when I was excited about changes being made to the proposal, but on other days, less-than-desirable changes were included – such as extreme expungement of criminal records linked to marijuana – which were unacceptable. The final version was an improvement over alternatives, but it did not resolve concerns allowing me to feel the issue had been properly legislated, and the primary intent of the legislation seemed to be more about generating tax revenue for special issues. HB 1438 makes it legal to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis or marijuana; however, possession above that limit remains a class 4 felony.
Another measure (Senate Bill 2023), which I did support, expands the list of qualifying medical conditions in the medical cannabis program to include ulcerative colitis, autism, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, osteoarthritis, anorexia nervosa, Ehlers-Danios Syndrome, Neuro-Bechet’s Autoimmune Disease, neuropathy, polycystic kidney disease, and superior canal dehiscence syndrome.
*** Don’t miss the next report. I’ll cover additional high-profile issues that came before the Senate and House this spring. In Part 2 you’ll read about the major expansion of gaming, including new casinos, and a very controversial bill – now a law – allowing unrestricted abortion.
Keep In Touch/Stay Informed
Check out my new legislative Facebook page at www.facebook.com/senatorwilcox for news and issues in the 32nd District and at the State Capitol. I also welcome your calls, letters and emails. My district phone number is 815/455-6330. At the Capitol, my office can be reached at 217/782-8000. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit my legislative website at www.senatorwilcox.com for important news and to connect to state government agencies and resources, including an extensive list of sites veterans can use to for job searches, information on educational opportunities and service record information. You can also sign up for my free newsletter and read our Founding Documents, the lifeblood of Your American Heritage.