Waning days of spring session to reveal Pritzker’s big wins — or losses

Legalizing marijuana and expanding gambling in the state are still up in the air as session winds down in Springfield.

SHARE Waning days of spring session to reveal Pritzker’s big wins — or losses
Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, Juliana Stratton, celebrate their win in the Democratic primary on Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker came into his first term hot with a sweeping plan to change the state’s tax code, legalize recreational marijuana, pay for roads and bridges, enact a budget and expand gambling in the state.

By later this week — this coming Friday is the last day of the legislative session — we’ll know if he pushed those big-issue items too fast and too soon.

And we’ll know just how much political power he has alongside the state’s most consistent reigning power — Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. With a Democratic supermajority in both chambers, the spring session will prove whether Pritzker and Madigan are working together or against each other.

From brewers and small-business owners fighting a proposed $70 million tax hike on beer and cider within the capital proposal, to law enforcement still skeptical about how they’ll be able to detect under-the-influence drivers should marijuana be legalized, Springfield is buzzing with lobbyists and groups fighting the very many issues surrounding some of the state’s most complex legislative proposals.

Pritzker’s most important priority is his push for the graduated income tax, which he’s poured millions into via the dark-money group, Think Big Illinois. The change from a flat tax to one that would tax the wealthy at a higher rate likely would be one of his crowning achievements this legislative session.

“The governor can’t leave town without it, and Madigan is going to give it to him,” a Republican lawmaker said.

The Illinois Senate earlier this month quickly — rather, very quickly — cleared three measures, including the so-called “fair tax” resolution and two corresponding measures — one of which set the rates for the tax structure. One of the Senate measures would require that, beginning in 2022, should the state fully fund K-12 education in its budget, school districts would be denied the ability to raise their property taxes for that year. That provision was contingent on voters approving the graduated income tax amendment.

That measure was a not-so-subtle reminder that the state will need property tax changes should it enact a graduated income tax, a criticism harped on by opponents of the graduated income tax.

The Illinois General Assembly must first approve putting a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot to ask voters if they want to change that portion of the constitution, which has been in place since 1970, a year after the income tax was first enacted. Should the Illinois House also pass the amendment — it must do so with the exact same language — it would be on the ballot. It does not require the governor’s approval.

While many lawmakers believe the Illinois House will clear the resolution, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will approve the two other measures amid concerns over the lack of property tax relief. And sponsor state Rep. Mike Zalewski, who chairs the House Revenue and Finance Committee, said there’s support for a task force to discuss property tax relief this summer.

“It seems like people realize property taxes need to go down and it’s intrinsically tied to a fairer tax structure, but what it looks like is very much up for debate,” Zalewski said Friday.

Zalewski said the rates measure is still in play in the House after the revenue committee gave a green light on Friday.

“The rates bill — it strikes me that today was an important step towards moving the rates bill forward.”

There is no sense of timing on the vote that will clear the graduated income tax, but House Democrats say they’re confident it will pass by week’s end — giving the freshman governor a big win.

The expansion of sports betting was included in Pritzker’s budget proposal, but in the waning days of the session, it’s become a war between sports fantasy sites FanDuel and DraftKings, and billionaire Neil Bluhm, owner of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Bluhm had backed a proposal that the fantasy sports sites be put in a “penalty box” for three years — since they both continued to operate even after former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued an opinion that their sites constituted illegal gambling under state law.

While the House sponsor of the gaming measure is trying to negotiate between casinos and the fantasy sites — including a provision that would shorten that so-called “penalty box” to 18 months — no language had been filed in an amendment as of Sunday evening. And there’s talk a casino expansion would be included in the measure, setting up more complicated hurdles.

Zalewski, D-Riverside, said several stakeholders weighed in over the weekend and sponsors were wading through their arguments.

There have also been no major developments on a measure that would legalize recreational marijuana. Pritzker included legalization in his revenue checklist for this year to bring in an estimated $170 million in license fees.

And sponsors say recreational marijuana would bring in $500 million when the program is fully running, which could take between five and six years. In this year’s budget, they expect to bring in $56 million, growing to an estimated $140 million in next year’s budget.

On May 4, Pritzker gave a stamp of approval to legislation that would allow Illinois residents over 21 to buy cannabis from licensed dispensaries. Illinoisans over 21 years old could possess 30 grams, or just over an ounce of cannabis flower, and 5 grams, or less than a quarter-ounce, of cannabis concentrates such as hash oil. Additionally, Illinoisans would be able to carry up to a half-gram of edible pot-infused products.

The bill’s criminal and social justice considerations include plans to use an automated system to expunge roughly 800,000 marijuana convictions and allow those with pot convictions to work in the legal cannabis industry.

But Madigan two weeks ago told a University of Illinois Springfield journalism class that there were concerns over the expungement portion of the marijuana legalization bill — sending up a smoke screen that changes might be needed. Home grow, or allowing up to five plants in a household, remains a sore issue for some.

Madigan remains a quiet, integral figure in this year’s resolutions. And the wins and losses this session will be an indication of his wielding of power.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, on Sunday said she is awaiting changes from the state’s Labor Relations Board regarding the marijuana legalization measure. She’s expecting an amendment to her original language, which will likely take up the controversial issue of expungements: “There’s all sorts of things coming out of this,” she said. Sponsors have been trying to get unions on board, but they have been promised an amendment for several days.

For once, there is the most optimism that the state will pass a budget. And there’s even hope the state will pass some sort of capital bill to fund roads and bridges. With just days to go before the end of session, it’s unlikely the Pritzker administration will see a total win for their sweeping $41.5 billion plan six-year plan, which also includes a gas tax hike. That plan was unveiled to lawmakers on May 17, giving them little time to react, or act.

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