This column is by Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, who represents the 54th Senate District in Illinois.
The time spent in Springfield for lawmakers is on the rise and the debate over legislation is getting more heated. They are the telltale signs we are nearing the conclusion of a spring session.
The General Assembly spent five days at the Capitol from May 18 through May 22. Starting May 25, we are scheduled to be in every day for seven straight days – including the last weekend of May – to finish our business.
Making it more difficult to accomplish goals on behalf of the people of Illinois is a reluctance on the part of the majority party to seriously work with Gov. Bruce Rauner to pass any of his “Turnaround Illinois” agenda to create jobs, reform government and get our state back on solid financial ground.
Last fall, the people said they wanted Illinois to go in a different direction and they supported divided government to bring that about. After years of inefficient and bloated government, runaway public debt, a record tax hike and the lack of job opportunities, we might expect last fall’s wake-up call to have an effect. But, it appears the leadership is still asleep.
In a recent editorial, the Chicago Tribune said “Leaders in the Illinois General Assembly play the same old tired game.” They characterized our spring session as “Illinois-as-usual.”
Illinois families can no longer afford Illinois-as-usual. They are seeing their sons and daughters graduate from college and seek a career far away from home as opportunities are on the rise in other states while Illinois continues to flounder.
The lack of opportunities seems apparent in a new report from the Illinois Policy Institute. IPI reviewed recent federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data and released a report May 18 that stated: “Today, there are nearly 3.6 million adult Illinoisans who are not in the workforce, the highest count ever.”
That’s a 37-year low water mark for labor participation in Illinois, according to the Institute. There seems to be no doubt that it’s long past time to “Turnaround Illinois.”
Reforming government is a key part of the Turnaround agenda. The state’s on-going financial problems stemming from years of over-spending should give all legislators pause when deciding how best to spend the tax dollars hard-working Illinoisans send to Springfield. Considering our estimated $6 billion ($6,000,000,000) current debt, available tax dollars are rare and we should give serious consideration as to how we are spending those tax dollars.
Prioritize our limited resources
An example is the state’s current subsidy for Amtrak. Illinois spends $42 million annually on in-state train service. The $42 million comes out of the state’s Road Fund. It’s not going for new roads and bridges or to make necessary repairs to our transportation infrastructure, but to subsidize a train service. Amtrak could not survive without tax subsidies. I realize it provides a convenience for some people, but we need to ask whether we can afford it at the $42 million level.
In better economic times, you might make an argument to support train service, but we aren’t in better economic times and the level of money we are spending on Amtrak could be better used on transportation priorities that impact all Illinoisans. What we should be doing is working with the federal government to lessen our state subsidy and asking the users of Amtrak to pay more.
In other action this past week, legislation dealing with marijuana was approved by the Illinois Senate, but not with my support. I spoke out strongly against it.
The Senate voted to extend the life of the medical marijuana pilot program that took effect on Jan. 1, 2014. The medical marijuana pilot program was originally scheduled to sunset in 2018. Sunset dates are used to give legislators the time to reflect on past decisions, to review benefits and detriments, and then determine whether a program or policy should continue. The original Senate sponsor of the program who also sponsored the extension (House Bill 3299) admitted the rollout of medical marijuana has been plagued by poor planning and implementation by the state, and even though the program is still viable for the next three years supporters found it necessary to extend its “life” until 2020.
I took the opportunity during Senate debate to point out an interesting fact about the medical marijuana program. Since its passage about a year ago, investors have contributed millions of dollars to be part of the program that on paper has no guarantee of continuing past its sunset date. As of today, there are roughly 40 medical marijuana user cards granted for each of the state-approved dispensaries or about 2,300 “customers” in all to support a business that has attracted millions of dollars. The level of investment doesn’t seem to match the scope of the temporary, pilot program. I also find it curious that some of the same people who lobbied for medical marijuana are now investors.
A second marijuana bill to pass this week maybe a hint of what is to come in the future.
The Senate also gave final legislative approval to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. The decriminalization bill should concern us all. It makes possession of small amounts of marijuana (15 grams) no longer a criminal offense but a civil offense that carries a mere $125 fine.
Under House Bill 218, a person could be caught with 15 grams of pot dozens of times and the toughest punishment that could be given is a $125 fine. In addition, the arrest and records would be automatically expunged each year. There is also no treatment component to this law so an offender just pays a fine and is never ordered by the courts to get help. We treat misusers of alcohol more severely. Under current law, the driver of a car under the age of 21 who gets caught with an open can of beer faces fines of up to $2,500 and possible jail time. The marijuana decriminalization law is out of whack with our principles.
Amazingly, in one year we’ve moved from medical marijuana to decriminalization. As I have previously reported in this column, Senate Bill 753 was introduced this year to legalize the possession of marijuana and marijuana plants for adults. This legislation is still pending and could be voted on before we conclude the spring session. We are heading down a dangerous path for our society.
I found it ironic that during the debate on marijuana legislation, there were middle school-age student groups visiting the Senate Chambers. Think about the drug message these votes sent to those children. Meanwhile, away from Springfield and back home in the cities and towns that make up “real world” Illinois, our young people are battling drug addiction that many times started with marijuana. Illinois families are under attack. As if marijuana wasn’t bad enough, synthetic marijuana and other chemically-engineered drugs are ruining lives on a daily basis.
Banning synthetic drugs
This year I sponsored Senate Bill 1129 to ban synthetic drugs once and for all. This week, Senate Bill 1129 received final approval in the House. The next stop is the governor’s desk for consideration. If signed into law, Illinois will have one of the toughest anti-synthetic drug laws on the books. Senate Bill 1129 targets the chemical formula that underpins every synthetic drug, not just a specific chemical formula that can be easily altered to avoid the law.
Important town-hall meeting
I am also hosting a town-hall event in Vandalia on Thursday, June 4, to discuss the synthetic drug threat and answer questions. Join me and a panel of local experts that evening from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Vandalia Junior High School. Attendance is open to anyone who wants to learn about the danger of synthetic drugs and what we can do to protect our children. Informational handouts and refreshments will be available. It will be informative, help raise awareness and maybe save a life.
There is just about one week left in the spring legislative session. We are scheduled to conclude our business on Sunday, May 31. There is still time for lawmakers to take the action we need to reverse course in Illinois and end years of lost opportunity. We have time to “Turnaround Illinois” to reform, renew and revitalize our great state.
“We have a moral duty to have an efficient government. The tax money belongs to the taxpayers. It doesn’t belong to the bureaucracy, and government is not a welfare system.” — Gov. Bruce Rauner as quoted by the Chicago Tribune, April 6, 2015.