In first year as governor, Pritzker pushes through far-reaching agenda

After four years of fiscal austerity and the pro-business, anti-union agenda of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois lawmakers took a sharp turn to the left during the just-completed legislative session, passing a budget with more than $1 billion in new spending and a host of new social policies.

Those social policies include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, legalizing recreational marijuana and sports gambling and declaring access to reproductive health services, including abortion, a "fundamental right."

"This one has been unlike any I've ever served in," Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Democrat from Riverside, said during an interview in the final days of the session. "Both in action and the substance of the issues, and the importance of the issues, this has been the craziest session I've ever been a part of."

Although many of the initiatives enacted this session were debated for years in Illinois, most observers credit first-year Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker for pushing them through. Pritzker had help from Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly - majorities that resulted from a "wave" in the 2018 election that changed the course of Illinois politics.

Christopher Mooney, who teaches state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Illinois has always been something of an outlier in the Midwest.

"We have a different kind of economy," he said. "We have Chicago as basically a third of the state, and if you count the metro area, it's basically two-thirds of the state."

Rauner's election in 2012, Mooney said, was largely the result of the unpopularity of his predecessor, Democrat Pat Quinn. He added that much of Rauner's true conservative character was not revealed to voters until after he took office in 2013.

The election of Pritzker and a supermajority of Democrats in 2018 and the sharp turn to the left that followed can be seen as a kind of course correction for Illinois rather than a long-term reversal, he said.

For Republicans in the General Assembly, the 2019 session was anything but a cause for celebration.

"The last four years under Gov. Rauner, we were able to stop some things because we had more seats," said Rep. Tony McCombie, a Republican from Savanna who is heading up the House Republicans' 2020 election strategy. "And they had to have conversations with Republicans, and that's the most important thing.

"I believe that that really upset them, that they lost a little bit of control, and they really are showing us and reminding us who they are, what their agenda is, and they're really giving it to us."

Here is a summary of the major legislation that passed this spring:


The rookie governor achieved bipartisan support for his first operating budget, accomplishing in six months what it took Rauner nearly two years to achieve. The budget spends just over $40 billion, increases K-12 education funding by $375 million, raises higher education funding by 5 percent and adds $567 million to human service agencies decimated by Rauner's cuts.

The bill also makes the state's full $8.4 billion statutorily-mandated pension payment and increases funding for the beleaguered Department of Children and Family Services budget by $100 million.

Graduated income tax

Pritzker's marquee campaign proposal - changing Illinois' constitution to allow the General Assembly to tax higher income earners at higher amounts - will be on the 2020 November election ballot.

The governor also signed a rate structure proposal that would take effect upon the amendment's approval by voters.

That structure would bring in an estimated $3.5 billion while lowering taxes on those earning less than $250,000 and raising the rates on those making more than that amount.

Sixty percent of those voting on the question or the majority of those voting in the election must support the change for it to become law.

Capital plan

Lawmakers approved the state's first capital infrastructure plan in over a decade.

The plan will invest $45 billion in Illinois' infrastructure, with $33.2 billion for transportation, $3.5 billion for schools, $4.3 billion for state facilities, $1.2 billion for environment and conservation, $420 million for broadband deployment, $465 million for health care and human services, and $1.9 billion for economic and community development.

The plan is funded by a variety of new taxes and fees.

Gas tax, fees

Beginning July 1, the state's gas tax will double to 38 cents and the diesel fuel tax will get bumped 5 cents to 45.5 cents total.

For cars and passenger trucks, registration fees will go from $101 to $151 beginning Jan. 1, 2020, while electric vehicles will be charged a $248 registration annual fee, up from $35 every two years.

Other title fees will go from $95 to $150, while motor home registrations will cost $250. Registration fees for certain buses, trucks and trailers will increase by $100.

Sports gambling and casinos

Just about all gambling options will be expanded under a bill that adds six casinos, more video gambling and sports betting.

The state's casinos, horse tracks and professional sports arenas - such as United Center and Wrigley Field - would be eligible to buy sports betting licenses.

Sports betting will also be allowed online or through mobile applications. Gambling expansion is expected to produce $660 million in its first year due to licensing fees and taxes.

Abortion rights

The Reproductive Health Act, which repeals and replaces Illinois' current abortion law, was a source of controversy this session, but it ultimately gained approval from both houses. Supporters and critics agree it would make Illinois one of the most progressive states with regards to abortion rights.

Recreational marijuana

Those over age 21 will be able to purchase and smoke marijuana recreationally beginning Jan. 1. The measure includes expungement language for those affected by the war on drugs and allows for several new grow and retailer licenses over the life of the program, which could bring in $500 million annually when fully matured.

Minimum wage

Wages for Illinoisans will rise to $15 hourly by 2025, going up incrementally each year. The proposal was Pritzker's first big legislative win in February and was achieved with only Democratic support.

Tobacco 21

Illinois became the first Midwestern state to change the age to buy cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapes, chewing tobacco and other goods containing nicotine from 18 to 21. It takes effect on July 1.

Green energy

Pritzker made Illinois part of the U.S. Climate Alliance with an executive order, but an ambitious package of energy market reforms will wait until the state's November veto session or later before becoming law.

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