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State lawmakers still have much to do

Illinois General Assembly under pressure as final month approaches

Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Remember that student in class who waited until the last day to start studying for the final exam? That’s how state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, describes the Illinois Legislature in May.

The flurry of activity that characterizes the last month of the spring session is about to begin for Syverson and other lawmakers representing DeKalb County.

“Every year, things get pushed off,” Syverson said. “Now we have less than 30 days to deal with all the substantive issues.”

The Daily Chronicle checked in with the county’s four local lawmakers – Syverson, state Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, and state Reps. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, and Tom Demmer, R-Dixon – on where they stand on the following substantive issues.

Pensions

At least five pension reform proposals have been drafted during the spring session, but none of them have gained much traction.

In March, Pritchard and Demmer voted “yes” on legislation that caps the size of cost-of-living adjustments to state pensions.

State employees currently receive a 3 percent compounded annual increase in pension benefits. House Bill 1165 would limit when and how much of a raise would be applied to an employee’s pension. The proposal would also increase the retirement age to 67 for state workers.

“All of [the pension reform bills] are just a piece of what needs to be done,” Pritchard said. “I was voting to say, ‘Yes, this is a topic we need to address.’ ”

H.B. 1165 and other bills have moved onto the Senate but have sat in various committees. Syverson said he did not expect the Senate to move on them.

“We have to stop playing games with this issue,” Syverson said. “If they fail to do that before they adjourn, then shame on the leadership here in Springfield because this is too important of an issue.”

Concealed carry

In December, a federal appeals court ruled that the legislature must pass some law allowing people to carry concealed handguns in public by June 9. If they don’t, it is presumed that concealed carry will be allowed without any restrictions.

Any concealed carry bill that will set statewide standards requires the preemption of home rule authority. That means the vote threshold on these bills are raised from a simply majority to a three-fifths majority.

Pritchard and Demmer co-sponsored H.B. 997, which would have the Illinois State Police issuing concealed carry permits that would allow someone to carry a handgun on their person. The proposal, however, only garnered 64 votes, seven short of three-fifths.

Bivins said he was working on a concealed carry proposal with another senator, Chicago Democrat Kwame Raoul. However, people didn’t react well to his concept of giving Chicago a carve out for concealed carry permits.

“It was problematic for members on both sides,” Bivins said.

Demmer compared concealed carry and pensions, noting that they are both important issues, but how the Senate and House are tackling them are very, very different. What passes in the House, he added, might not gain traction in the Senate.

Gambling

Still working its way through the legislative sausage-making is a gambling expansion bill. Syverson is a co-sponsor of S.B. 1739, which would allow for five new casinos around the state, including one in Chicago and another in Rockford. The bill would also allow for slot machines at the state’s racetracks.

However, the other legislators were opposed or lukewarm in their support for the expansion. Bivins, citing his experience as a former sheriff, said he opposed any expansion of gambling. Demmer said he wanted people to be aware of the costs of gambling.

Pritchard was skeptical of the bill being passed this year, noting that it comes up every year.

“I’m not convinced this year is going to be any different,” Pritchard said.

Gay marriage

All four legislators voiced their opposition to S.B. 10, which would legalize gay marriage. The bill contains language stating that religious denominations are not required to marry same-sex couples if it is against their beliefs.

Bivins and Demmer said they believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Syverson and Pritchard said the arguments that proponents of gay marriage are using were mentioned during the civil union debate, which the state legalized in 2011.

“This one, I guess, I didn’t see the urgency of doing it,” Syverson said. “What the real purpose was – outside of changing terminology – I guess that’s why I joined the others and didn’t support that.”

Medical marijuana

The Illinois House took the first steps to legalizing medical marijuana earlier this month. Under the proposal, a doctor can prescribe someone with a “debilitating medical condition” up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana during a 14-day period.

Pritchard voted yes on H.B. 1, while Demmer voted no. Pritchard described the bill as being much better than previous versions.

“This bill was significantly different, and I thought it addressed a lot of the concerns people were saying,” Pritchard said.

He noted that the legalization has a sunset clause of four years, so the General Assembly can consider later if the program has worked.

Demmer said that although he’s aware of the potential benefits of medical marijuana, he felt the General Assembly was not qualified to discuss matters like these.

Bivins expressed similar sentiments.

“I don’t know if that’s been proven,” Bivins said. “I don’t know anyone in the GA who can say this is a legal and safe drug. That’s what we would be doing if we pass this law.”

Demmer said his opinion would change if an agency like the Food and Drug Administration came out in favor of medical marijuana.

Syverson said he’s in favor of it provided the bill maintains strict rules on use.

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