Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Civil unions passes as House has a big day

By Jamey Dunn

Same-sex couples are one step closer to having the option of civil unions.

The Illinois House passed Senate Bill 1716, which would give gay and lesbian couples access to the same rights as married couples in Illinois. Legislators also considered other hot-button issues today, including legalizing medical cannabis and repealing the death penalty.

“This legislation is a fair, moderate center. It does not change the definition of marriage. It provides basic legal rights to our citizens. It’s a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of respect. It’s a matter of equality,” said Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, the sponsor of the civil unions bill.

The measure would grant same-sex couples rights such as the ability to be involved in their partners’ health and end-of-life decisions, hospital visitation, state tax benefits and protection under domestic violence laws.

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Greenville Republican, said Harris equated granting same-sex couples civil unions to the righting of an ethical wrong. “Many of us sincerely believe that that’s not true,” Stevens said.

However, not all Republicans agreed.

“I’m in my seventh decade of life," said Rep. Bill Black, a Republican from Danville. "People my age have difficulty with this. Younger people do not. For many of us in public life this is an issue that quite frankly, if we can speak honestly, we wish it would go away. It isn’t going to go away. ”
Black, who is leaving the General Assembly on December 22, then called on members of his side of the aisle to support the bill and follow in the footsteps of former Illinois U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen when he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Some opponents say the bill is just same-sex marriage by another name, and others say it is a foot-in-the-door to seek approval for same-sex marriage.

“If this should ever pass, the next bill will be legalizing marriage between … members of the same sex, and I just think that’s wrong. … Just call me an old-fashioned traditionalist,” Stevens said.

Harris said as much as he would support legalizing same-sex marriage, that is not what this bill does. He said he realizes there is not support for a marriage bill and that is why he is advocating for civil unions at this time. “Illinois law specifically prohibits same-sex couples from being married. That’s in statute. … That will always be the law in this state until this General Assembly sitting in this room at some point in the future casts its votes to change that law.”

Gov. Pat Quinn, who has been lobbying lawmakers to support the bill, stood by Harris on the House floor for part of the debate. After the vote, Quinn said he hopes the Senate will take up the bill tomorrow.

"Whatever it takes. We really want to make sure that we enact this important civil rights law."

Death penalty abolition
A House committee approved a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Illinois.

The state has not used the death penalty since former Gov. George Ryan called for a moratorium in 2000 after several death row inmates were exonerated. He cleared Illinois’ death row in 2003 when he pardoned four inmates and commuted more than 150 sentences to life without parole.

Those in favor of the repeal say the lengthy appeals process associated with death sentences is a waste of the state’s resources, especially during a budget crisis. Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says the state cannot afford the $20 million a year it spends on prosecutions and the appeals process in capital punishment cases.
SB 3539 requires that the money from the capital litigation fund, which was established to help defendants build their case when prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, would go to fund support for homicide victim’s families and police training.

Opponents say the issue has nothing to do with financial woes and say pitching the repeal as way to save money is a red herring. “The fact of the matter is, this is not a cost issue. It’s a question that [legislators have] to decide: Are there certain crimes that are just so horrific, that have such an affect on the community, that the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence? I submit to you that that is the case. There are some crimes that just cry out for it,” said Robert Berlin, chief of the criminal bureau under the DuPage County state’s attorney.

“After study, reforms and dialogue, we still have not fixed this system, nor have we ended it. It’s time to end state-sponsored homicide in Illinois. It’s not a deterrent. It risks executing the innocent,” said Maywood Democratic Rep. Karen Yarbrough, the sponsor of the bill.

Schroeder said the moratorium is convenient for politicians, who can support the death penalty while knowing that no inmates will be executed as long as it is in place. He said that is unfair to others involved, such as victims and those sentenced to death.

Cathy Crino, whose sister was murdered in Texas in 1995, said the death of her sister’s murderer, who committed suicide, was not a comfort to her, and the state can offer better options to help victims’ families. “The void doesn’t go away. The death of the perpetrator is never going to fill that void. … I can tell you there is no closure. You just learn to live with it, and it doesn’t end for you. And the death penalty drags victims’ families through between 13 and 15 years of court proceeding after court proceeding after court proceeding. That re-traumatizes them. … What would help victims are broad-based services that help people deal with the trauma of this kind of loss.”

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, called on legislators to slow the process and hold hearings throughout the state on the issue.

Opponents of the repeal echoed Reboletti’s concern that it is being pushed through the General Assembly without an adequate amount of debate. They say recent reforms have gone far to rehabilitate a damaged system.

“The reforms that were put in place years ago are working,” Berlin said. “The defendants who are now on death row since those reforms have been put in place truly are the worst of the worst. … and they’re there because of horrendous crimes that they have committed.”

He added: “The fact of the matter is, this is not a cost issue. It’s a question that [legislators have] to decide. Are there certain crimes that are just so horrific, that have such an affect on the community, that the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence? I submit to you that that is the case. There are some crimes that just cry out for it.”

Medical marijuana
A measure that would allow residents with chronic or debilitating illnesses to gain access to medical marijuana failed today to gain the votes needed to move on to the governor’s desk.

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, the sponsor of SB 1381, said people who are in pain should be able to consult with their doctors and consider the drug as a treatment option.

Under the bill, residents seeking the drug for medical treatment would have to be approved and registered with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).

A registered patient would not be allowed to posses more than two ounces of dried cannabis and six marijuana plants—only three of which could be mature plants. A primary caregiver could be licensed along with a patient, but the same limit would apply, so if a patient were not well enough to grow plants, the caregiver could do it. However, they could not between the two of them have more plants or usable cannabis than the above limits.

Lang said that under the legislation, which passed in the Senate last year, licenses could be issued by IDPH for dispensaries that would sell plants.

Opponents said the bill is a precursor to fully legalizing the drug in Illinois.

“This … goes way beyond medical use, medical treatment. This is about the legalization of marijuana. … We’re sending the wrong message to our children,” said Rep. David Reis, a Willow Hill Republican.

Republicans raised concerns about how employers would deal with a worker who is eligible to use medical marijuana and might be intoxicated at the workplace.

While no employer is allowed to bar an employee from using medical cannabis, Lang said the rules a business currently has about being under the influence of a substance on the job would apply. Lang used the example that a forklift driver who is now barred from operating machinery while on a prescription pain medicine would also not be allowed to drive a forklift while under the influence of marijuana.

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat who will not return to the House for the new session in January, said he had not planned to attend session this week but returned weigh in on some of the controversial issues up for a vote today.

“This is about people who are in debilitating pain, people that have minimal quality of life, people that are terminally ill looking for compassion, not a high — looking for relief, not a cheap high,” Fritchey said.

Both he and Lang believe a majority of House members support the measure in principle but that many are afraid that voting for the bill could hurt their chances when they are up for reelection. “Like the sponsor of the bill, I have talked to a number of people that said they support this bill wholeheartedly but they're afraid of the political fallout from voters.”

The bill needed 60 votes to pass. When voting was open, the “yes” votes climbed to as high as 56, finally setting at 53 “yes” votes, 50 “no” votes and one “present” vote.

“I thought I had close to 60 [votes], and I had lost a couple of people who were going to be yes and decided that it wasn’t going to get the 60 and just took their vote off the board. I lost a couple of people who didn’t tell me the truth. I lost a couple of people to cowardice,” Lang said.

Lang used a procedural move to hold the bill for a possible future vote. “I’m not ready to pass this today or tomorrow. I’ll have to take my chances in January, and if I don’t get to 60 votes then, I’ll have to start over [in the new legislative session].”

Police and firefighter pension reform
When the legislature passed pension reform for most government employees during the regular session, the pensions for police and firefighters were not included in the measure. Negotiations fell apart at the end of session, but they have picked back up this week. The House passed SB3538, which would make changes to the retirement benefits for law enforcement officers and firefighters hired after January 1.

The retirement age would move from 50 to 55, and 30 years on the job would be required to claim full benefits, though workers could receive a portion of benefits at age 50 if they had worked for at least 10 years. The maximum salary used to calculate pensions would be $106,800, and eight of the last 10 years of the employee’s service would be used to determine benefits.

Local municipalities have been lobbying for changes to the police and fire pension systems because they are responsible for most of the funding.

“[These changes] start addressing the most serious problem that affects all of our municipalities across the state,” said Orland Park Democratic Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the sponsor of the bill.

Tenaska

The Illinois House also approved plans for a so-called clean coal plant slated for construction in Taylorville. Under SB 2485, utilities Commonwealth Edison and Ameren would have to buy power from the plant.

Opponents say higher energy costs resulting from the plant could hurt the job market in the state. Supporters of the plan say the power generated by the new technology, which is intended to reduce carbon emissions, would cost more. But, they say it would probably be a negligible increase of less than $2 a year to households.

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