In the frustrating struggle at the end of May to craft a budget bill that would pass both the Illinois House and Senate, the Springfield Democrats decided to clean out their inventory of “progressive” bills — some of which have lingered for more than a decade. With Democrat majorities, the General Assembly voted to raise the state minimum wage, approve automatic voter registration, and reform school spending formulas, along with other left-leaning bills that now wait on the desk of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) has said he wanted to push state Democrats to more closely resemble the national party, which is building a progressive momentum in reaction to President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile business industry leaders complained the Democrat bills were pushing Illinois to become a “business unfriendly state.”
Leaders from industry groups complained that bills passed by Democrats were really the beginning of the 2018 campaigning.
“This is one of the most unfriendly to business General Assemblies that I’ve seen in my career,” said Greg Bais, of the Illinois Manufacturing Association at a press conference May 31. “The ’18 races have already invaded into the actions of the General Assembly, and the politics of both sides have played into the action,” he said. GOP lawmakers and the Governor called the Democrats’ bills “phony.”
Minimum wage increase
The battle for a state minimum wage increase has been brewing for years. The Illinois minimum wage has been stuck at $8.25 since 2011.
An advisory referendum to raise the state minimum wage received more than 63 percent of the vote in 2014. But some cynics said it was placed on the ballot to draw more Democrat voters out to the midterm election.
This session, Guzzardi sponsored a minimum wage hike to $15 over five years that quickly flew through the House and Senate. It was supported by Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), and others, who had been proposing minimum wage hikes since 2013. “Even if you get to work 40 hours a week, that still amounts to about $17,000 a year, which is just abject poverty,” Guzzardi said. He was building on a national “Fight for 15” movement in New York, California and other states that has raised wages.
But even other Democrats seemed cautious during a two-hour debate on the House floor.
“I’m worried this will be bittersweet,” said Scott Drury (D-Highwood). “In 2013 we had 71 Democrats in the House and a Democratic governor and the bill didn’t get called,” he said. Springfield Democrats never called the bill with veto-proof majorities, so why were they calling it now? he asked. “In 2017 we have 67 Democrats and we’re running the bill. We have a governor that has promised to veto it and we don’t have the votes to [override] it,” Drury said. He worried the bill might just be a ruse to embarrass Rauner politically. “I’m so concerned that … we’ll pass this bill and it won’t be any relief for the people we’re trying to help,” he said.
Retail professional groups said the minimum wage increase would kill jobs and drive small businesses to close.
“In the retail industry every week we hear of stores closing of all types and sizes,” said Rob Karr, of the Illinois Retail Merchants Assn. Springfield politicians want to “reach into our pickets with both hands, so people earn more and add additional costly benefits,” he said. “It’s a bleak narrative in the retail sector, with smaller and smaller margins and seeing that vanish under fiat of government action.”
Automatic voter registration
The House and Senate were unanimous in passing so-called “motor-voter” automatic registration in the last days of the spring session.
A similar bill, passed in the summer of 2016, got the Rauner veto. Supporters said automatically registering people to vote when they renewed drivers’ licenses and submitted documentation to other state agencies would add 1 million new voters and clear up outdated addresses on voting rolls.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have approved automatic voter registration. In Oregon, voter participation in 2016 spiked after motor-voter legislation to the highest-recorded level of 2 million, up from previous highs of 1.8 million.
“[Automatic voter registration] without question, is going to lead to more people, more citizens of our state, regardless of where they live, regardless of party affiliation, participating in our electoral process,” said Sponsor Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), who worked with Republicans to address Rauner’s concerns. “And regardless who wins an election, we all win as citizens of the state of Illinois.”
A revamp of Illinois school funding formulas has been called for again and again — most recently by a bi-partisan commission convened by Rauner, which was supposed to present recommendations by February. Manar, a member of the commission, first proposed a school funding formula in 2014, which leveled the state student-dollar playing field. But districts howled when a list of “winners and losers” showed how the state would move funds from wealthier school districts to poor ones.
Manar sponsored a new school funding reform bill in May (SB1) that seemed to take Republicans by surprise.
“The truth is this is a more than 20-year-old problem that we have studied to death, repeatedly debated and willfully ignored,” he said in a statement.
The new bill made the financial changes more palatable with a two-year “hold-harmless” provision that blunts the pain. The bill passed 60-52 in the House and 35-22 in the Senate. Republicans described the bill as a Chicago Public Schools “bailout,” but there may a chance Rauner will sign it to avoid being seen as obstructing school funding reform.
Other progressive bills that swept through the House and senate in the final days include an elected school board for Chicago Public Schools; a “Trust Act” prohibiting local police departments from enforcing federal immigration laws; a state gun dealership registry (long-opposed by the National Rifle Association) and the ACCESS Act, which allows undocumented university students to qualify for in-state tuition and state financial aid. Criminal justice reforms were also passed, such as eliminating cash bail; making it easier to expunge non-violent criminal records and allowing formerly incarcerated persons to qualify for financial aid to earn a degree.
Whether or not these changes will withstand the veto pen of Rauner is a question. But the governor will certainly be seen as a one-man-party-of-no if he goes on a vetoing binge.
Drury, the only Democrat to vote against Mike Madigan for Speaker of the House this spring, announced in early June that he would run in the Democratic primary for Governor.
Drury said he hoped the Democrats were acting in good faith when passing progressive bills that they had never moved forward before.
“I wish the games that are being played on both sides of the aisle would stop so we can really help people,” Drury said.
— Will Rauner veto ‘progressive’ bills pushed through Springfield? —