Illinois' Fall Veto Session Not Free of Controversy

By Mary Massingale
    SPRINGFIELD – 11/15/10 - Just as gamblers count cards to win against the house, some Illinois lawmakers are counting votes to win over the House.
   The election may be finished and the possibility of a conservative Gov. Bill Brady defeated, but lawmakers and advocates pushing so-called “liberal” issues such as civil unions, abolition of the death penalty, and medical marijuana are not veering from their original goal of passage during the November veto session set to begin on November 16.
   The Illinois House in the new General Assembly slated for January will be more socially conservative than the group of lawmakers gathered for the two week veto session or the lame duck session set for the first week of January. The Republican “wave” may have missed Illinois, but the GOP picked up several seats in the House, making it easier for lawmakers to get a controversial vote now rather than later, according to political science professor Kent Redfield.
    “They know what the environment is, I mean, from a lobbying standpoint,” said Redfield, who teaches at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “Because you know the cast of characters, you know where the votes are.”
    State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, is still counting votes for Senate Bill 1716, a measure granting civil unions to same-sex couples. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he hopes the legislature passes the measure before the end of the year.
    Harris said this month’s election gives credence to the bill’s chances, even among Republicans. He noted that   Brady ran on a socially conservative platform and lost, while U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk campaigned on a socially moderate platform and won.
    “I think that says the people of Illinois are looking for really moderate centrist policies, and I think civil unions fill that description,” Harris said. Harris is one of two openly gay members of the legislature.
    Poll numbers also back up his assertion. A Chicago Tribune survey in August showed 54 percent of Chicago-area voters favor civil unions, while 40 percent support gay marriage. Further, an October statewide poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale found two-thirds of voters support civil unions or legal marriage – 33.9 percent favor civil unions and 33.6 percent favor same-sex marriage.
   “Civil unions is something that is a moderate compromise,” Harris said. “It goes down the middle, it does not change the definition of marriage, but it does give people basic relationship rights, like hospital visitation and medical decision-making. And I think most fair-minded people think that’s a fairly good compromise.”
    Jeremy Schroeder is hoping for no compromise on the death penalty. As executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Schroeder on Tuesday will join State Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Broadview, and state Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-Crystal Lake, in unveiling new legislation calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
    Former Gov. George Ryan in 2000 halted all executions following media investigations that uncovered wrongly sentenced Death Row inmates, and instituted a moratorium on the death penalty while possible reforms were studied. Ryan in January 2003 then cleared out Death Row, commuting the sentences of all inmates. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Quinn have upheld the moratorium.
   Schroeder said the timing of the bill coincides with the decade-old moratorium that’s shown voters multiple exonerations and demonstrated the flaws of the death penalty system.
    “It’s not so much ‘why now?’ as because public opinion has changed,” he said. “And that’s what’s really pushing us.”
    An April survey conducted for his organization found that slightly more than 60 percent of Illinois voters favor a life sentence without parole over the death penalty. An October poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, however, offers a contradictory view. The survey found that 56.4 percent of voters want the moratorium lifted, while 36.3 percent want it to stay in place.
    But Schroeder said the state’s struggle with a budget deficit estimated to climb to $15 billion next year often prompts voters to question the $20 million additional annual cost of a death penalty sentence over a life sentence without parole.
    “If you know you have a broken system and we’re putting money into that, it’s a pretty common sense question to say ‘why are we spending money there when we’re cutting things here,’” he said.
    State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, is hoping common sense prevails regarding Senate Bill 1381, which allows marijuana to be prescribed for medical purposes. The measure passed the Senate in May 2009, but Lang on Friday said he’s three votes short of passage of what he says would be the strictest medical marijuana bill among the 14 states that currently have such laws in place.
    “If everyone would vote their conscience, I’d have 30 votes to spare on this bill, but a lot of people are afraid, and they’re afraid for no reason at all,” he said.
    The bill allows patients diagnosed by a physician with a debilitating condition such as cancer to register with the state Department of Public Health to own no more than six cannabis plants – of which only three can be mature plants – during a 60 day period. The law also sunsets after three years.
The measure is a mixture of compassion and economics, according to Lang.
    “It seems to me that when people are suffering and in pain, and we’re worried about health care, this is health care we can provide to people without a single penny of taxpayer expenditure, and we ought to try it,” he said.
    Sponsors and advocates of these three social issues up in veto session appear ready to gamble on their proposals – to a point.
    All three pieces of legislation have – or will have before a floor vote – no immediate effective date, meaning they must gain only a simple majority of votes to pass, instead of the usual three-fifths majority required of all legislation voted on after May 31. If passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, the proposals would take effect on July 1, 2011.
    “We have a lot of support,” Schroeder said. “We don’t want to risk it, though.”
    Story published courtesy of Illinois Statehouse News.
    Original published date: 11/13/10.