Until last Friday, the Illinois legislature had gone 230 days without meeting.
What normally would have been a busy several months here in the capitol was all canceled due to COVID-19.
A lot built up in that time. A major focus of the lame duck session: a package put forth by Black legislators in the wake of George Floyd's killing.
“The Illinois legislative Black Caucus agenda will ensure that we’re addressing the pandemics that exist in our society. One: systemic racism. Two: violence. And now COVID-19,” said Rep. Camille Lilly (D-Oak Park).
One provision of the Black Caucus’ extensive agenda limits the interest payday loan providers can charge to 36%.
“How many of you want to get a credit card from Macy’s or Neiman Marcus at 80%, 99% -- this is preying on certain communities. It’s really targeting. … It’s a remake, rebirth of redlining, housing covenants and all the other ills and hells that decimated my community,” said Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago). “And what we’re trying to do is ensure that they have an opportunity to build economic stability.”
That measure passed despite critics saying it’ll leave low-income individuals without any access to capital.
“There are many citizens – not just in Illinois but all across the country who don’t necessarily have the credit rating that would necessarily allow them to go to the company, lending institutions and borrow money, but nevertheless have a cash need or capital need, maybe short term or to put a new roof on their house or repair a car,” Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) said.
Republicans also raised concerns about a Black Caucus proposal that restricts employers from making hiring decisions based on job applicants’ criminal records.
They say it puts employers at risk of breaking the law when they’re looking out for their business.
“I feel like I’ve fallen into an episode of hypotheticals gone wild with all of these various nightmare scenarios looking for a way to make this bill a bohemia,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago). “Again, we are at a critical point in our history. We have generations of errors and injustices to correct for.”
A major plank in the Black Caucus agenda deals with policing and criminal justice.
In part because of the pandemic, Illinois’ budget is in a world of hurt.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s solution is to bring some money into state coffers by eliminating a tax break for certain businesses, that the federal government had passed in order to help them if they were losing money because of COVID-19. It’s called "decoupling."
Republicans were furious about it.
“Now I understand that the governor doesn’t have a lot of empathy or a lot of understanding for the struggles of small businesses. This is unacceptable,” said Rep. Michael Marron (R-Springfield).
“I would like to know one reason why any business would want to come in Illinois or stay in Illinois,” said Rep. Mike Murphy (R-Springfield). “We’re treating our small businesses, especially with this decoupling shamefully. They need our help.”
“This is a $1 billion tax increase. Everybody needs to wake up. This is a tax increase on small businesses,” said Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills).
But Pritzker and backers of the idea say tough choices have to be made and that Illinois can’t afford to expand tax breaks to businesses now.
“When we’re talking about taxing businesses out of existence, that’s a bit of an overreach to the bill,” Rep. Stava-Murray (D-Naperville) said. “What we’re talking about – this is a deficit increase if we don’t pass this.”
“The decisions in the 102nd General Assembly are not going to be easy. This makes balancing the budget a much more palatable circumstance for our constituents,” said Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside)
It wasn’t just Republicans who weren’t on board. Democrats have more than enough members to pass any bill without a single GOP vote.
That decoupling measure didn’t have the support it needed to pass.
It’s among a lot of measures that didn't clear the legislature for lack of support, or lack of time. Others included a Chicago Public Schools elected school board, anything to do with ethics, and a law that would have made it so the General Assembly wouldn’t go for such a long stretch without meeting again. They talked about it, but no bill passed to permit legislating over Zoom.
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