by Jamey Dunn
Now that the election is over, several movements advocating for major changes in the state are gaining momentum.
After three states approved same-sex marriage in November’s general election, gay rights advocates in Illinois say it may be the right time to pass a bill legalizing same sex marriage in the state.
“The passage of these measures shows that mainstream America has turned a corner with regards to LGBT civil rights. It is also a testament to the momentum behind marriage equality that the first sitting U.S. president to support marriage equality, Barack Obama, has been re-elected to a second term. These advances demonstrate that the time is right for gay marriage in Illinois,” Rick Garcia, director of the Equal Marriage Illinois Project, said in a written statement after the election.
The General Assembly passed a bill legalizing civil unions in 2010, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law in early 2011. “We believe in civil rights, and we believe in civil unions,” Quinn said in Chicago as he signed the bill. “Many people … all over Illinois worked so hard for [this], not just in the last few days or weeks or months, but literally, for many people, almost their entire lives.”
Garcia says the work is not finished. “Although civil unions give many of the same benefits as marriage, it is clear that it is a different and discriminatory institution. Most peopledon't even know what a civil union is. People know what marriage is, and same-gender couples deserve the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-gender couples. Separate is not equal.”
A recent poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University found that 44 percent of Illinois voters support same-sex marriage, an increase of 10 points from when the institute asked the question in 2010. Twenty percent of respondents opposed any legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris said that he thinks that just as Obama’s view on same-sex marriage has evolved over time, Illinois residents are starting to change their minds the more they learn about the issue. Obama previously favored civil unions but earlier this year he said he supports same-sex marriage.
Still, Harris said does not plan to call House Bill 5170 if he cannot get the votes to pass it because he does not want to lock any lawmakers in to having “no” votes on the record.
The measure has received high-profile backing from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Obama chief of staff. “The time for marriage equality is now,” Emanuel said to reporters in Chicago. “The time is right, and the time is here.” Quinn has also voiced for same-sex marriage.
Harris’ bill would receive push back from conservative and religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church. After civil unions became legal, the state stopped contracting with Catholic Charities for adoption and foster care services because the organization would not facilitate adoptions for gay couples and instead wanted to refer them to other adoption services. Catholic Charities sued to continue providing the services but lost its legal battle. Lawmakers who saw civil unions as a compromise may also be hesitant to support same-sex marriage.
A movement to allow undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses is gaining new steam. Advocates have been pushing for the measure for years, saying it would make the state’s roads safer. Currently, undocumented residents cannot obtain licenses or insurance to drive. However, thousands of them take to the roads each day in the state. According to an analysis from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights of statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, about 250,000immigrant motorists drive in the state without licenses or insurance and are involved in 79,600 accidentsannually.
The list of high-profile supporters, including law enforcement groups, religious institutions, insurance industry and business groups and former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, continues to grow.
“There’s broad-based support for this because it is being seen as a highway safety issue,” says Lawrence Benito, chief operating officer of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “It is a safety issue, not just for immigrant families but families that share the same roads. It impacts all of us.” He said supporters are hoping to see a bill called for a vote in the legislature’s veto session, which is scheduled to begin on November 27.
Benito said he measure is being viewed primarily as a road safety issue, but he said allowing undocumented residents to have a license and insurance would have other benefits. “From a law enforcement perspective, when that police officer pulls somebody over, they want to know who’s driving, who’s behind the wheel of the vehicle.”
The recent election demonstrated the growing political power of Latinos in America. Many think that it is likely that immigration reform will be addressed during Obama’s second term. “I think we’re going to have the national discussion on immigration in a couple months,” Benito says. “We believe, given that national narrative, now is a good time to revisit this issue at the state level.”
Senate President John Cullerton plans to sponsor the bill that would allow undocumented residents to get licenses. As of press time, the legislation was still being drafted.
Change Illinois, a coalition of reform groups, is preparing to kick off a campaign to change the way the state draws its legislative maps.
The group plans to work to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014 to change the process before the next redistricting in 2021.
Why start so early? Jim Bray, a spokesman for Change Illinois, said that after the November general election, voters saw the effects of the new legislative map, which Illinois Democrats drew last year. “It’s somewhat fresh in some voters’ minds, and there will be more interest, we hope.”
Democrats will have super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and took back the majority among the state’s congressional delegation. While the party’s big gains cannot be attributed entirely to the map, most Statehouse observers agree that it played a part. Of course, if Republicans would have had the power to draw the map, they likely would have done the same. “It’s the one area where people that aren’t political animals but who care about the government and election process are pretty much in agreement that the voters ought to be electing their legislators instead of the legislators drawing maps where they can give themselves the greatest advantage to remain in office or elect people from one or the other party,” Bray says.
Change Illinois plans to advocate for a redistricting amendment that would distance the legislature from the map-making process and instead, task an outside commission with drawing the districts.
Reformers say they hope to see more competition in Illinois legislative races. Of the races for the General Assembly’s 177 seats, more than 65 candidates who won earlier this month faced no opposition in the primary or general elections. And much of the real competition came during primary races, when candidates from the same party battled to run in a district that leaned heavily one way or the other.
Good-government groups teamed up with Republicans to try to pass such an amendment in 2010, before the redistricting process that created the current map. But the measure stalled in the legislature. An effort spearheaded by the League of Women voters to get the amendment on the ballot fell short of collecting the 288,000 signatures from voters that are needed.
To get an amendment on the ballot, backers must gather signatures equal to 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the last election for governor. Bray estimates that would be about 300,000 signatures. He says that the group will gather more than that in case some of the signatures prove to be invalid.
Bray said the need to gather so many signatures is another reason why the group wants to get started soon. “I think you want to give yourself a maximum amount of time to circulate petitions,” he says.
The push for pension reform in the state is nothing new. However, one business group that has been at the center of the struggle to change the state’s financially troubled pension systems has become fed up with inaction from lawmakers. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago called the state’s troubled pension system “unfixable” in a memo sent to its members.
The group had supported a pension reform proposal that stalled at the end of spring session. That measure would have required employees to choose between keeping cost-of-living increases based on compounded interest or state-subsidized retiree health care.
But leaders of the committee have since doubled-down on their call to reduced employee retirement benefits, and in their memo, they presented a proposal that cuts deeper into benefits than any provisions recently up for consideration in the legislature — and which, presumably, would also do more to cut pension costs. The memo proposed eliminating all cost-of-living increases for current and future retirees, capping the level of salary that can be used to determine benefits, increasing the retirement age to 67 and shifting the state’s portion of the cost of retiree benefits for educators to K-12 schools outside of Chicago, universities and community colleges over 12 years. The change in retirement age would not be phased in to protect workers who are currently close to retirement age.
The memo said that those four proposals would not fix the problem but would “slow the bleeding.” The group said that those four provisions must be included for any plan to be considered “meaningful” pension reform.
Cullerton’s chief legal counsel fired back in a letter that said the memo “generated more heat than light” and rebutted the group’s claims that the pension problem cannot be fixed. While it seem unlikely that some of the committee’s more extreme suggestions — such as a total elimination of cost-of-living increases or an immediate jump in the retirement age — will be approved in January, the memo is telling of where some backers of pension reform stand heading into the lame duck session of the General Assembly.
Illinois Issues, December 2012