GUEST EDITORIAL: While beneficial legislation sits, jaw-dropping bills advance in General Assembly

The following opinion piece was published in the Chicago Daily Herald on Friday, May 13:

While the Illinois State Capitol remains closed to the public, and statehouse reporters are few and far between because of strict COVID-19 rules, Illinois lawmakers are taking advantage of the civic disconnect by bringing forward and passing some outrageous and controversial pieces of legislation. At the same time, common-sense measures that would promote positive change are not even being heard or considered by the Legislature.

Taxpayers continue to plead for property tax relief and reform, as the crippling tax burden drives more and more out of their homes. Massive pension debt continues to crowd out essential budget areas that fund critical services for vulnerable populations. Legislators continue to be ensnared in the sprawling federal corruption probe into political wrongdoing. But is the Legislature addressing these or other issues that erode fiscal health and create unprecedented mistrust in state government? No. Instead, the majority party has revealed some truly jaw-dropping priorities.

On May 5, the Senate Executive Committee heard a measure that drastically changes sex education in K-12 classrooms. Among other things, this legislation mandates that 5th graders be able to describe the role of hormone blockers, and that 8th graders be able to define the various ways an individual can engage in the sexual act. The Committee also heard a bill that would decriminalize the act of knowingly transmitting HIV to another person. Both measures have passed the House and will soon be given full consideration by the Senate—where they are likely to pass.

Additionally, on the heels of the release of data that show a 32% increase in Illinois opioid deaths in 2020, legislation is currently being considered that would de-felonize lethal amounts of deadly drugs like fentanyl, meth, cocaine, and heroin. The bill reduces this offense to a Class A Misdemeanor, which is the same penalty for stealing a candy bar from a grocery store.

All of this is happening while important legislation that would go far in addressing the state’s most pressing problems has been hidden and shelved by the majority party.

For example, members of the Senate Republican Caucus have filed anti-corruption bills that would give the Legislative Inspector General greater autonomy to investigate and issue subpoenas in cases of alleged political corruption, and amend the State RICO laws to give wiretap authority to state’s attorneys to investigate crimes of public corruption. Neither have been granted a hearing.

Additionally, we are in the midst of a redistricting year. A proposal to bring an independent commission to the process, which is an idea that 75% of Illinoisans supported in a recent survey, was also denied a hearing. This, while Democrats who promised a transparent and open process were caught in early May choosing their voters while drawing maps behind locked doors in Springfield.

What’s possibly the most disgraceful is that after a fatal, mismanaged COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, which claimed the lives of 36 veterans and infected hundreds of other veterans and staff members at the facility, legislation was promptly filed to require the Illinois Department of Public Health to conduct an onsite visit within one business day of an infectious outbreak and require state-run facilities to conduct outbreak preparedness drills. These potentially life-saving measures have been sitting in the Senate Assignment’s Committee—no hearing given.

The movement of bills this year is more unbalanced than ever. At the April Senate Bill deadline, 483 bills reached the full Senate for consideration. Of those, 427 were sponsored by Democrats and 56 were sponsored by Republicans. That’s 88% Democrat bills to 12% Republican bills. To put those numbers into further context, Democrats hold 69% of the Senate seats while Republicans hold 31%.

While Illinoisans are feeling more disconnected from the world than ever, their legislators in Springfield are taking advantage of their limited ability to be truly engaged in what’s happening at the state government level. They’re pushing preposterous proposals while serious issues like the economy, ethics, redistricting, veterans’ health and the need for property tax reform are denied equal consideration.

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