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Pritzker’s ‘Historic’ Legislative Session: New Budget, Gambling, Infrastructure Bills

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In this Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, file pool photo, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker delivers his first budget address on to a joint session of the Illinois House and Senate at the Illinois State Capitol building in Springfield.

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker ended an epic spring legislative session Sunday, notching big victories in the statehouse with passage of a bipartisan budget, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan and a gambling expansion that could bring a megacasino to Chicago.

“Illinois is back,” Pritzker told reporters after the Senate had cast its final vote on Sunday. “Illinois is open for business. That this is a place that stands up for working families, that we got a great future ahead of us.”

The conveyor belt of wins rolled along at a dizzying pace over the weekend, after some of the governor’s key priorities appeared to be in doubt Friday. But the fast action Saturday enabled the Democratic governor to finish the legislative session poised to accomplish all of his major campaign promises in bipartisan fashion.

“I’ve never witnessed a 24 hours like this in my career,” Republican House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said as the House finished its spring business Saturday evening.

Considering the dysfunction in Illinois’ gubernatorial politics for nearly the past two decades — and particularly under Pritzker’s Republican predecessor, Bruce Rauner — the rookie Democratic governor worked Springfield like a maestro. His agenda has been ushered through the General Assembly by legislative Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers.

While Pritzker still has time to endure setbacks in the remaining three and a half years of his term, he established himself as a wheeler-dealer extraordinaire on par with Republican Govs. “Big Jim” Thompson and George Ryan.

Pritzker is now assured of seeing legislation arrive on his desk authorizing a first-in-a-decade multibillion-dollar infrastructure program, legalized adult-use cannabis and one of the most sweeping abortion-rights packages in the nation.

The governor ventured onto the House floor as Durkin and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan gave their closing speeches on Saturday night.

“This has been extraordinarily productive session of the General Assembly,” said Madigan, the longest-serving House speaker in American politics. “Simply historic.”

The speaker rattled off the litany of Pritzker campaign promises that reached fruition: In addition to gambling, a budget and an infrastructure bill, there was an earlier hike in the state’s minimum wage and adoption of a constitutional amendment that will go to voters in November 2020 to radically change the state’s flat income tax.

Madigan then turned to Pritzker, who was sitting near the speaker’s seat on the House floor. Madigan reflected on his nemesis, Rauner, who presided over a record-setting two-year budget impasse that established a new floor for political incapability in state government.

“So, Mr. Governor, do you see what a difference it makes to have somebody new in the governor’s office?” Madigan asked. “I understand the difference. Truly a historic session. Just reflect on these items I cited.”

The governor already scored two big wins earlier in the week, when lawmakers voted to put a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that could move Illinois to a graduated income tax system — a frequent Pritzker campaign promise. They’re also sending him a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana, which the governor has said he’ll sign into law.

Here’s a rundown of the major proposals that passed over the weekend that are now awaiting Pritzker’s signature.

More — and bigger — casinos

The huge gambling expansion legislation allows for six new casinos in Chicago, Waukegan, the south suburbs, Rockford, Danville and Williamson County in far southern Illinois.

The new casinos, including in Chicago, would be privately owned, which is a departure from past gambling-expansion efforts in which previous Chicago mayors sought city ownership. The Illinois Gaming Board would have oversight over the new facilities. Existing Illinois casinos could expand their operations.The Chicago casino could be one of the largest in the country. The bill allows for 4,000 slot machines and table games. That’s more than many casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Closer to home, the Ameristar in East Chicago, Indiana, brags about housing 1,700 slot machines and 72 table games.

Sports betting

After the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow states to legalize gambling on sports, Pritzker said he would prioritize its legalization in Illinois if elected. The proposal would allow for established online sports betting companies, like DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate 18 months after the first Illinois license is issued, so that the state’s existing gambling companies have time to ramp up their own sports betting operations. They’d have access to official league statistics. The legislation forbids betting on Illinois college teams.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially objected to allowing sports betting within the city’s major sports venues like Soldier Field or Wrigley Field. But she eventually struck a deal with Pritzker, and the House approved a plan would allow for gambling within the stadiums, or within five blocks of them.

Tax and fee increases

The cost of the $45 billion infrastructure bill will hit Illinois drivers almost immediately.

Starting July 1, Illinois’ tax on gasoline would jump from 19 cents per gallon to 38 cents per gallon. From there, increases in the state’s gas tax would be tied to inflation.

But the city of Chicago could increase the gas tax another three cents with City Council approval. Additionally, Will and Lake Counties have the option of increasing the gas tax up to eight cents per gallon. The tax for diesel would go up to 45.5 cents per gallon.

Annual vehicle registration fees for most cars and motorcycles would increase from $98 per vehicle to $148 next year. Owners of electric vehicles would see their registration fees jump $248.

The tax on cigarettes would go up $1 per pack, to $2.98. And e-cigarettes or vaping products would also be taxed the same as tobacco.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2020, parking garages would see an increase in their taxes. For hourly or daily parking garages, taxes would go up by 6%. For parking spaces paid for on a monthly or annual basis, it would increase by 9%.

Construction projects

The money collected from those tax and fee increases would be spread out to fund billions of dollars in road and bridge repair, hospital and school-related construction, mass transit and CTA improvements.

Even community arts theaters are included in the $45 billion infrastructure plan. The last time the state legislature approved a capital bill was 2009. Among the projects receiving money are:

  • $100 million for University of Chicago for the construction of a new facility and acquisition of equipment with the Chicago Quantum Exchange

  • $81.5 million for the CTA Blue Line improvements; $60 million for Green Line Cottage Grove stop repairs

  • At least $400 million for expanding broadband internet access

  • $14 million for Rush University Medical Center to expand ADA accessibility

  • More than $100 million for early childhood construction grants

  • $9 million for upgrades to John Hancock High School in Chicago

  • $350 million for upgrades to the Illinois state capitol complex

  • $1 million for renovations to the Timeline Theatre in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood

State budget

After four years of turmoil and an all-out partisan war that resulted in a two-year-long state budget stalemate under former Gov. Bruce Rauner, Pritzker put together a full-year state budget that passed with both Republican and Democratic support.

In addition to beginning to pay down the $6.6 billion backlog of bills, the budget allows for $100 million in additional money for the state Department of Children and Family Services, according to Durkin. DCFS has recently come under much scrutiny after multiple high-profile deaths of children whose families had had contact with the department’s workers.

The state budget also appropriates $230 million for reconstruction of the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy that has been the site of multiple deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks. The state’s mishandling of those outbreaks was the subject of a year-long WBEZ investigation. During the gubernatorial campaign, Pritzker heavily criticized the Rauner administration’s handling of the outbreaks.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.

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