Criminal record expungement language in a bill legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois might be unconstitutional. That is the warning one chief county law enforcement official gave to the State Journal-Register for a story first published online Monday, May 13.

At issue is the General Assembly’s legal authority to erase criminal records for those previously convicted of possession crimes.  

Robert Berlin, president of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, said the Legislature can create a process by which people can petition to have their records erased. But the language in question goes beyond that and “provides for an automatic expungement.”

“The issue is a separation of powers issue,” he said.

The first draft of Senate Bill 7, which is scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday, details an expungement procedure and schedule for state and local law enforcement agencies, state’s attorneys, and courts to follow.

It is a “critical” component of the legalization measure, Chicago Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy said. She is the bill’s sponsor in the House, and spent more than two years working with Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago, negotiating the pieces of a potential recreational program.

“We’ve always said that the language about how this gets done is a work in progress,” Cassidy said in an email Tuesday, May 14. “We have been talking to the prosecutors and law enforcement from day one.”

The bill instructs law enforcement to comb through its records and identify everyone convicted of a possession charge that would be eligible for “automatic expungement,” according to the bill. A list is sent to state’s attorneys, who then submit it to a court for a judge’s approval.

The provision is included in the measure because if recreational marijuana becomes legal in Illinois, the individuals’ conviction would become “legally invalid,” the bill states. 

It is additionally part of an initiative by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to focus on “equity,” he said Tuesday.

“Expungement is also part of something that I said from the very beginning, which is that this needs to be about equity as much as anything — that we need to focus on the criminal justice reform aspects of it, the safety aspects of it — and indeed lots of that was included in the bill,” the governor said.

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CAPITAL BILL: House Democrats advanced a $2.44 billion plan to pay for state transportation infrastructure improvements Thursday, May 9, that hinges on a hike in the motor fuel tax, vehicle registrations and fees.

It is the “beginning of a dialogue” for how to fund road, bridge and mass transit projects, said Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Democrat from Riverside who is sponsoring the bill. 

Republican lawmakers took issue with components of the revenue measure — a boost to the state’s motor fuel tax, an omission of a bonding option and giving local governments the ability to levy an additional gas tax, to name a few.

One representative, Mokena Republican Margo McDermed, also protested the lack of time her colleagues had to prepare for the Revenue and Finance Committee meeting. Members, she said, received a copy of the legislation Wednesday.

“We’ve been negotiating and discussing all of the issues — which are large and complex and have many moving parts and involve many, many different interest groups — for months, and to say that we’re going to have a hearing that lasts less than an hour and move this bill out is not an act of good faith, it’s not good governance and it’s the usual bullying that goes on in this Illinois House of Representatives and I need to make that clear,” she said. “We all know this bill is going to get out. We all know we’re going to keep working, but this is an evil, evil process.”

The plan calls for a 25-cent increase in the motor fuel tax, to 44 cents per gallon, and a 30.5-cent increase for diesel fuel, to 52 cents. 

It also bumps registration fees for passenger cars by $50, to $148. Driver’s license fees would double to $60, and the fee to register an electric car would be $1,000. The increases would also be indexed to increase with inflation.

Zalewski’s proposal is identical to one released Wednesday by Chicago Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval.

The motor fuel tax bump would be a hard pitch for Democratic Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, from Hillside, to make to his constituents, he said.

“From 19 cents to 44 cents a gallon for gas is a lot of money and to go home and try to explain that to people — that’s hard to do, especially in a district like the one I serve,” Welch said.

And Rep. David McSweeney, a Republican from Barrington Hills, said while it is “clear” the roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure in the state need attention, raising the motor fuel tax is not the way to pay for it.

“I oppose this bill because I don’t support an increase to the gas tax, and I think we need a capital bill, but I think we should use the revenue from the sports gambling bill,” he said.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker wants to legalize that practice, and he projected $200 million in revenues from sports gambling licensing fees in his proposed budget. It is one of several revenue streams in Pritzker’s budget that are not guaranteed to become law.

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SCHOOL INFRASTRUCTURE: A group of K-12 education representatives on Tuesday, May 14, added to the chorus of calls for a statewide capital infrastructure bill that goes beyond road and bridge projects.

At a Capitol press event, the group detailed infrastructure needs at school districts across the state, appearing in front of poster boards with images of outdated and dilapidated Illinois school facilities. They did not, however, give any suggestions as to how the revenue for capital infrastructure projects could be raised.

“I think our role is to show that the need exists across the state pretty widespread, and then show the most effective and efficient ways that we could use the money to enhance educational opportunities,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. “I think our big job is to rely on the General Assembly to determine the revenues to fund a capital bill.”

In a budget proposal packet distributed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in January, K-12 deferred maintenance needs were estimated at $9.3 billion. The state has not passed a capital projects bill since 2009.

Superintendents at the news conference detailed 100-year-old buildings, excessive use of mobile classrooms and crumbling facilities that schools don’t have the funding to correct.

The General Assembly is discussing an infrastructure funding bill which would increase motor fuel taxes and state licensing fees, but the $2.4 billion in estimated revenue generated in that proposal could be used only for roads and bridges due to a “lock box” amendment passed in 2016.

Funding for vertical infrastructure would have to come from other sources. State Rep. Will Davis, a Homewood Democrat, said discussions for revenue are ongoing, although he did not give specifics as to where money would come from.

“What these folks behind me (superintendents and education representatives) also have to do is advocate, not just for the project itself, because I'm sure that our legislators will support the project,” Davis said. “They also have to encourage their legislators to be open-minded when it comes to the revenue side of this as well because it is going to take some tough votes to get us to where we need to go.”

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HALTING HIV'S SPREAD: Gov. J.B. Pritzker and several public health advocates outlined an ambitious plan Tuesday, May 14, to halt the spread of HIV in Illinois by 2030.

Speaking at a Statehouse news conference, Pritzker unveiled a multi-pronged strategy called “Getting to Zero” that calls for expanding access to antiviral drugs for people already infected with the virus, and preventive medication – known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or “PrEP” – for people who are at high risk of contracting the disease

“While this virus’ most horrifying and unsparing days may be behind us, we know that the disease rages on,” Pritzker said.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen HIV prevention funding dry up,” he added. “HIV testing rates have gone down, and HIV prevention and treatment agencies have laid off staff. I have always said that health care is a right, and not a privilege. All Illinoisans deserve access to that right, and that includes those who are living with or vulnerable to HIV.”

The Getting to Zero plan is a collaborative project involving the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Chicago Department of Public Health, outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

It calls for increasing investments over the next five years to expand the HIV health care and public health workforce, increase access to PrEP and use data to target resources to the most at-risk communities. It also aims to increase funding for treatment of other conditions that often accompany HIV infection and AIDS, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and screening and treatment of other sexually-transmitted diseases.

“This plan paves the path towards the day when there will be zero transmissions of HIV in the state of Illinois and every person living with HIV will thrive,” said John Peller, president and CEO of the Chicago AIDS Foundation.

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GAMBLING AT WRIGLEY?: Sports betting could take place at the home of the White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Cubs depending on which details emerge in a final bill to legalize the practice in Illinois.

Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) has championed this year’s effort to bring sports wagering to the state, and several different plans for doing so have been filed in recent months.  

Three of those plans would allow betting operators to set up wagering sites at or within five blocks of Guaranteed Rate Field, Soldier Field, United Center and Wrigley Field, with the approval of the teams that play there.

One of those plans would make betting operators pay a .25 percent royalty fee to the sports leagues, while also requiring the use of official league data.

But that plan, filed as the third amendment to Zalewski’s House Bill 3308, has not been discussed in legislative hearings on the matter since the first batch of sports betting plans were released in mid-March.

Meanwhile, the other two plans that also allow betting at pro facilities were released more recently, and do not include royalty fees to the leagues.

On Monday, Iowa became the 10th in a growing list of states to legalize sports betting since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year allowed the practice.

As Illinois lawmakers are still struggling to accommodate the various interests – including casinos, race tracks, online or mobile operators, professional leagues and more – Zalewski did not give a definite timeline for when a final sports betting bill might emerge for a vote on the House floor.

“I’d say I’d like a vote as soon as we can get enough support,” he said.

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CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE: Opponents of legislation that would create tougher penalties for intentional damage to critical infrastructure say the bill would actually infringe on an individual’s right to protest at those facilities and against the companies that operate them.

Representatives of more than 50 groups statewide said during a news conference Tuesday morning, May 14, at the Capitol that House Bill 1633 provides protections to “big industry” that could harm the environment and intimidate potential protesters.

The bill, approved by the House last month, would cover intentional damage to equipment in a critical infrastructure facility. Those facilities would include oil pipelines, nuclear power plants, pumping stations, gas processing plants, military bases, more than 9,900 miles of railroad tracks in Illinois and other facilities.

“We’re here to urge state senators and Gov.[ J.B.]Pritzker to stand up against this bill and look at it for what it is,” said Kylah Johnston, a spokesperson with The People’s Lobby. “An attempt by conservatives and fossil fuel industry to … raise new charges against black and brown communities that are already disproportionately affected by pollution and criminal justice.”

Elizabeth Kosuth, a leader with Illinois People’s Action, said the bill should be called the “protect big energy from the people bill,” and that it’s nothing more than an attempt by energy industries and their ally, American Legislative Exchange Council, to deter people from protesting against the industries and their impacts on the environment.

“A healthy environment won’t just happen because we wish it,” Kosuth said. “As with all social movements, we must push, organize, and yes, even protest.”

Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said the bill isn't an attempt to stifle the voices of anyone who wants to protest. 

"They can protest," Denzler said. "We’re looking at the individual who's committing more enhanced crime by knowingly damaging infrastructure."

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GRADUATED TAX: Democrats in the Illinois Senate said Thursday, May 9, that a $1.5 billion greater-than-expected April revenue windfall won’t solve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, and they urged House Democrats to move forward with a constitutional amendment to overhaul the state’s income tax structure.

“The truth is that manna from heaven may get us out of the desert, but it will not feed us for years to come,” Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said during a Statehouse news conference.

Harmon and fellow Democratic Sen. Toi Hutchinson, of Olympia Fields, were pushing back against statements made Wednesday by House Republican leaders who said the unexpected windfall, and the decision by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration to raise their forecasts for future revenues, mean the state no longer needs to overhaul its tax code or adopt any of the other new taxes that Pritzker has proposed.

“It plugs one hole in a very, very leaky boat,” Hutchinson said “We have a lot to make up.”

Harmon and Hutchinson also appeared to be applying subtle pressure to House Democrats who so far have not acted on a proposed constitutional amendment that would replace Illinois’ current “flat” income tax with a graduated tax structure that would apply higher rates to higher-income taxpayers.

That proposed amendment passed the Senate on a straight party-line vote of 40-19 on May 1, but there have been reports that House Democrats may not have the three-fifths majority – 71 votes – that they will need to place the question on the November 2020 ballot.

“The one thing we always expect is that nothing moves out of either chamber without the weight and input of the other chamber,” Hutchinson said. “This is absolutely normal and expected.”

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PRITZKER APPOINTMENTS: House Republicans on Thursday, May 9, accused Gov. J.B. Pritzker of revoking his own state board appointments as political retribution for votes he did not agree with.

“We came down here today because we think it's important to call attention to some seemingly heavy-handed tactics that the administration has taken recently regarding some dissent,” Republican Rep. Tom Demmer, of Dixon, said.

Demmer and Rep. Norine Hammond, a Macomb Republican, raised these concerns at an Illinois State Capitol news conference, specifically noting a pair of Pritzker actions regarding the Teachers’ Retirement System board and the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board.

Pritzker withdrew his own appointments of Julie Hamos and Michael Gelder from the state health facilities review board less than a week after the board voted unanimously to allow the owners of Westlake Hospital to close the Melrose Park facility.

Pritzker’s office said in a statement the decision was made “in order to appoint members who more closely share the governor’s vision for hospitals around the state.”

In March, the Teachers’ Retirement System board opposed Pritzker’s pension plan to diminish statutorily-mandated payments – a plan the governor has since scrapped.

A month later, two holdovers from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration were removed from the board.

“We can’t have these boards fearing their decisions must first be vetted by the governor,” Hammond said.

In response to questions about the Republicans’ claims, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said, “The governor has appointed and will continue to appoint highly qualified people who share his vision to serve on boards and commissions across the state.”

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COAL ASH: The Illinois Senate advanced a bill Thursday, May 9, that is aimed at ensuring safe closure of toxic coal ash pits left behind by power plants.

“When you burn coal to produce power, there’s a byproduct called coal ash,” Champaign Democrat Scott Bennett, the bill’s sponsor, said.

That byproduct contains heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic, which are harmful to humans, fish, and wildlife and can seep into surrounding earth and groundwater. In many cases, Bennett said, coal ash is placed in unlined pits where it remains long after the power plants are closed.

There are approximately 25 known coal ash impoundments which are already closed in the state. Bennett’s Senate Bill 9 would put processes in place to address the other 55 impoundment sites which have yet to close.

Bennett said most of the unlined pits will close in the coming years due to federal regulations, but the urgency and order of closures is not decided. He said his bill would ask the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Pollution Control Board to set up a series of guidelines and rules to prioritize closures.

The bill would require a coal ash impoundment owner to submit to the EPA a “closure alternatives analysis” addressing several closure scenarios and options laid out in the legislation and giving the EPA the authority to choose the safest plan for coal ash remediation.

Senate Bill 9 would also create initial fees of $50,000 for each closed coal ash plant and $75,000 for those that have not yet closed. Owners of operational impoundments would then pay an annual fee of $25,000, and a $15,000 fee would be charged for closed plants that had not yet completed “post-closure care.”

Bennett said the fees would allow the EPA to hire hydrologists, engineers and others to ensure safe closures.

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CORPORATE BOARDS: A bill that would require Illinois-headquartered corporations to include women and minorities on their boards of directors is now being considered in the Senate, where a committee chairwoman on Thursday suggested changes could be applied.

House Bill 3394 stirred heated debate when it passed out of the House last month. In its original form, it would have required every publicly traded corporation that has its main executive headquarters in Illinois to have at least one African-American and one woman on its board of directors, and it would impose financial penalties on corporations that fail to comply.

So far in the Senate, it has been expanded to include Latino representation as well, and it now provides that one person can serve to fill two or more categories.

Speaking to the Senate Commerce and Economic Development Committee, Sen. Christopher Belt (D-Cahokia), a co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said it is not intended to be punitive.

“The intent of it is to look at the disparities on these boards,” he said. “Women, who make up 50 percent of the population nationally, and I think 32 percent on corporate boards; African-Americans, who make up 13.4 percent nationally and only make up 6.3 percent on boards; and Latinos, who are 18.1 percent of the population nationally but they only make up 2.0 (percent) on boards.”

Belt cited studies showing that corporations with diverse boards of directors tend to outperform those that don’t.

“The studies that I’ve read, that I’ve been reading, it really underscores the fact that diversity does well for businesses. The corporations that have diversity do well, they do better profit-wise,” he said.

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VIDEO GAMBLING: If the state of Illinois wants more revenue from video gaming, one gaming industry executive said Thursday, May 9, lawmakers should loosen betting restrictions rather than raise video gambling tax rates.

Ivan Fernandez, who heads the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association, offered that proposal to the state House Executive Committee, which is considering several alternatives for increasing state revenue from video gambling.

“Our proposal is projected to far exceed (Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s) request, without resorting to a tax increase,” Hernandez said.

The Executive Committee, chaired by Democratic Rep. Chris Welch of Hillside, heard testimony from representatives of the video gambling industry who unanimously oppose a proposed tax hike that Gov. Pritzker outlined in his late-February budget address. No legislation has been introduced so far.

Elements of Fernandez’s proposal include raising the bet limit on single plays from $2 to $4, increasing the maximum winnings on a single play from $500 to $1,199, allowing games with higher jackpots, and increasing the number of gambling terminals allowed at one location from five to six.

Those measures, Fernandez said, would create $210 million in new tax revenue the first two years, without changing the tax rates.

The governor said his plan would result in more than $100 million in new revenue for state and local governments.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.