Illinois Legislative Blitz
Illinois lawmakers had a busy spring legislative session -- so busy that they adjourned two days later than the usual May 31 deadline. Many of the items the House and Senate passed were victories for Illinois Democrats, including moving forward many campaign promises made by first-term Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
On June 5, Pritzker signed a $40 billion, bipartisan budget plan. The plan, which determines where taxpayer money will be used, increased spending on things like education, infrastructure and social services. Separate legislation was signed to help cover the expanded budget, including further taxing of online sales, insurance companies and creating a program to pay overdue taxes.
The budget was previously just another one of Illinois’ financial woes when, in July 2015, former Gov. Bruce Rauner and state legislators mutually rejected several budget proposals. This began a period where Illinois had no budget -- which would only end two years later. The fallout from the incomplete budget included damaged social service programs (like those for the homeless, victims of domestic violence, etc.), a deeper backlog of debts and a major hit to funding of higher education.
Other notable items passed...
Graduated Income Tax
Also on June 5, a major step towards a graduated income tax was completed when the governor signed a measure into law that would ask voters in the 2020 elections to approve an amendment to the state constitution to allow the new rates. A graduated income tax generally taxes the rich at higher rates and the poor at lower ones. This effort is another signature of Pritzker’s campaign promises and part of a drive to collect more revenue for the indebted state.
On June 12, the governor signed the Reproductive Health Act, which essentially made abortion a fundamental right in Illinois. The bill also repealed several previous laws that limited access to abortion, like the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975 that made performing one a felony (unless there was an established danger to the mother). The act passed in the midst of a reinvigorated, national debate over abortion, with several states passing restrictive laws.
Starting July 1, state law on texting while driving changed to punish offenders who use their devices, or even just hold them, with moving violations instead of warning tickets. Three moving violations in one year can result in a license suspension, and what constitutes a moving violation can include using any device while stopped at a light or sign.
At the Southern border, the treatment of migrants at detention camps has come under national scrutiny. The facilities are described as being overcrowded and unsanitary, with those being held there not given access to basic hygiene products or enough food and water. Regarding the conditions, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the detention centers to Nazi concentration camps, drawing both criticism and support from different ends of the political spectrum. Federal agencies at the border also may be understaffed. In February, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general released a report that found that Border Patrol did not have an adequate understanding or ability to hire the 5,000 agents that they were ordered to find in January 2017.
In other immigration news, President Donald Trump changed the policy regarding green cards, making it harder for an immigrant to get one to live and work in the United States if they would rely on government welfare such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers. Multiple states have already sued to block the measure, including New York, Connecticut and Vermont.
After two years and one public statement when he closed his office, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified to the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sticking to his statement that “the report is my testimony,” Mueller was tight-lipped about many of the talking points Democratic and Republican members of the committees wanted to address -- citing his inability to comment on certain topics because of ongoing matters or Justice Department policy, as well as answering many questions by citing the report and giving short, carefully worded responses.
Here are some important takeaways
- For the majority of his appearance, Mueller stuck to the report
- Mueller defended the integrity of the investigation
- Mueller resisted Democrats and Republicans who pushed for politically-favorable statements about the president or investigation
- Mueller had few things to say due to ongoing investigations, a limited pool of topics that he would answer and Justice Department policy
- Mueller said that Russian interference into the presidential election was clearly proven, is of paramount importance and is still a threat
- Foreign interference into our elections continues to be a threat to our democracy
- Following the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion, Mueller did not indict President Donald Trump for any crime while he was in office, repeating that his team never made a decision on the matter
- Mueller answered “yes” to a question of if you could charge the president of a crime after he left office (he was not indicating whether the president did or did not commit one)
- Mueller repeated that the report did not clear Trump of committing a crime
On Aug. 3, a white gunman opened fire on Walmart shoppers in El Paso, Texas with a semi-automatic rifle. 22 people were killed in the attack, and even more were injured, making this one of the deadliest mass shootings in America’s history. Most of the victims were Hispanic Americans from the El Paso area whereas the gunman was not a native of the region. Less than 24 hours later, on the morning of Aug. 4, a second shooter killed nine people on a crowded street in Dayton, Ohio. The assault took only 32 seconds. Although the shooting in El Paso is suspected to have been a hate crime, the Dayton shooter appears mostly to have been exploring violent ideologies.
Hong kong Protests
Violent protests broke out in Hong Kong in June over an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong to transfer detained criminals to their wanted countries and territories, even somewhere the government does not have a formal extradition agreement. On June 15, the bill was suspended indefinitely, however the Chinese government reportedly prevented Hong Kong from completely axing the bill, jeopardizing tentative peace in the area.
On Aug. 31, protesters violated a police ban during a disruptive demonstration in the streets of Hong Kong. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, leading to further chaos and violence. The main issue for protesters, however, is Hong Kong’s eroding civil liberties. Ever since the British returned Hong Kong to the Chinese, the region has enjoyed special freedoms due to its semi-autonomous status -- which has recently come under attack by the Chinese government.