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Spring break ending, legislators go to pot, gambling, Pritzker’s budget

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, right, are acknowledged on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol in February. File Photo. | Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register, distributed by the Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD – 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.”

His short-term plan for climbing out of that hole calls for enacting a host of new revenue streams, including, among other things, higher cigarette and tobacco taxes, a new tax on shopping bags, a new “privilege” tax on certain kinds of health insurance companies, legalizing sports betting, and legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana, which he has said could generate $170 million in licensing revenues alone.

Meanwhile, for the long term he also has proposed reducing statutorily mandated payments into the state’s pension systems by $850 million to free up cash for increasing spending on a host of other initiatives, including education and social services, while at the same time asking lawmakers and Illinois voters to back a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for a multi-tiered, or “graduated,” income tax system that would tax upper-income taxpayers at higher rates than lower-income individuals.

“We’ve never experienced a plan like this governor’s that doesn’t just require three or four or half a dozen things,” Republican Sen. Dale Righter, of Mattoon, said during an interview for a Capitol News Illinois podcast. “It requires a dozen things to happen and fall in order exactly as he proposed them in order for his plan to work.”

Democratic leaders, on the other hand, have applauded Pritzker’s proposal.

“The governor does have an ambitious budget, but it’s a budget that says, ‘Here’s how we begin to get ourselves in some stability, some solid footing,” Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, from west suburban Maywood, said in a separate interview. “It’s only the beginning.”

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Republicans in the House and Senate have come out solidly against the idea of a graduated income tax. But Democrats now control super majorities in both chambers, and most observers believe the proposed amendment has a strong chance of gaining the three-fifths majority it needs in the House and Senate to be placed on the November 2020 general election ballot.

So far this session, House and Senate appropriations committees have held hearings on the administration’s budget requests for various agencies. But they now face the laborious task of sifting through the fine details of each one, accepting and rejecting various recommendations from the governor, and cobbling together a final bill that lawmakers likely will adopt in late May.

They also will have to sort through each of Pritzker’s requests for new revenues, including his call for legalizing, regulating and taxing the production and sale of recreational marijuana.

Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of that initiative, has said a draft of the bill will be unveiled this coming week.

But that proposal faces stiff opposition from religious groups, public health advocates and others who argue, among other things, that it would lead to an increase in mental health problems brought on by substance abuse.

“When usage goes up, abuse goes up, and there will be more people landing on the doorsteps of drug treatment providers across this state – drug treatment providers who tell you, every one of them will tell you, we have more people than we can serve and we do not have enough money,” Righter said.

Still, House Majority Leader Gregory Harris, a Chicago Democrat, said he thinks a legalization bill has enough support to pass.

“I’m told it does. I’m not counting votes on it, understanding this is a topic where there can be strong opinions on both sides,” he said. “I think members are going to be very carefully taking the temperature of their district. But if you look around the country, this is where the trend is going.”