About a week after the end of the Springfield General Assembly session, elected state officials from Arlington Heights — representing parts of the surrounding region — met with constituents to provide an update and answer questions.
Dozens of district residents filled the seats at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library on April 18 as Senator Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, and State Assemblyman Mark Walker, D-Arlington Heights, discussed statewide plans for health care reform, public safety, the state budget for fiscal 2023, an inflation support plan and property tax reforms.
“It was so great to be face-to-face again, I loved that, we got a lot of good questions and I always appreciate the dialogue,” Gillespie said after the event, adding that one attendee gave her an idea for research given property taxes.
Gillespie and Walker, who are both up for re-election this year, provided updates on bills they supported that have passed both the State House and Senate and are now awaiting the governor’s signature.
“It wasn’t our largest turnout, but I was pleased with it as this was the first in-person event in over two years,” said Gillespie.
Among other things, participants at the April 18 evening forum asked about what lawmakers are doing to address gun violence and equal access to mental health across the country.
Gillespie opened the session by mentioning House Bill 246, an initiative to reform care homes. The law increases the amount of money for nursing home staffing across the country and provides additional incentive payments for certified nursing assistants — which are in demand at many aged care facilities. In addition, the legislation will push payments based on patients’ level of rehabilitation, which Gillespie said she hopes will lead to improved care and greater accountability.
Public safety initiatives in the state legislature include increasing burglary charges for people who use an electronic signal from a key fob to access and steal vehicles. The increase in catalyst thefts also prompted lawmakers to restrict the market, she said, by placing more restrictions on metal buyers and requiring the seller to share a photo, name and address of the owner of the catalyst before the sale process.
Gillespie also shared details of HB1091, which targets criminals involved in organized retail crime by including provisions to disrupt the market as most goods are sold online. The bill will require verification of every high-volume seller using an online platform, she said, “to crack down on kingpins and grab.”
Walker spoke about laws banning the sale and possession of ghost guns — guns that are often made on 3D printers and don’t have a traceable serial number. The bill requires owners of these guns to have them serialized within 180 days of purchase. It comes into force on January 1, 2023.
Walker said the state is “getting smarter about criminal investments” by investing $250 million in community-level interventions, trying to deter gang activity and promoting job training for teens dropping out of high school.
Walker also provided an overview of the state budget for FY23, which would take effect on July 1.
“I never thought I’d see that,” Walker said. “We have created a balanced budget with a surplus.”
“We put $1 billion into a rainy day fund,” Walker said. “We know that once federal support is gone, we will need discipline and additional funding, depending on how the economy develops.”
Walker shared details on educational grants, including $350 million for the evidence-based funding model; $598.1 million for early childhood education and $601 million for cash rewards programs for college students, a 20% increase.
“We’re in great financial shape right now,” Walker said. “We’re going to have tougher years in the future.”
Walker also pointed to other aspects of the state budget – which was passed by the General Assembly.
The plan, he said, addresses inflation concerns by suspending the state’s share of food taxes for a year; Suspended the state’s share of gas taxes for six months and offered homeowners property tax breaks.
Also, Walker explained, municipalities and school districts must publicly disclose their cash reserves before setting their tax returns.
“People [some municipalities and school districts] They took the maximum and they took the maximum they could take without a referendum, so it wouldn’t affect their calculations next year. It led to all sorts of bad practices. The communities built up large reserves. It’s Illinois’ biggest tax problem.”
One participant asked what the state was doing to prevent wage and hour theft and harmful labor practices, particularly at some large retailers.
“This is an issue we are dealing with and an issue we will continue to deal with, where it is most egregious and where we need to focus our efforts,” Gillespie said.
Walker said unfair labor practices must be addressed.
“Let’s talk about it, we’ll do the math,” Walker said. “We made it for waitresses. There are many industries where this occurs.”
Another participant asked what the General Assembly could do to provide equitable access to mental health in all of the state’s 102 counties.
Gillespie explained that there is a law to provide these resources and that doctors must treat mental health as a physical disability. She said there aren’t many psychiatrists outside of the Chicago area, but money is now available for telemedicine visits to increase access statewide.
Another participant asked why the legislature had not banned critical race theory.
“We haven’t banned critical race theory because it’s not taught,” Gillespie said.
The same participant asked why the state funds abortion.
“Illinois is a state that believes in women’s reproductive health, so we pay for these services,” Gillespie replied.
It was asked what can be done to curb gun violence in the state.
“It’s definitely a difficult problem,” Walker said. “We’re investing in things that are disrupting youth’s movement into gang culture with in-school programs, out-of-school programs, mentoring and job training to discourage people from engaging with that culture.”
Walker and Gillespie each have a Republican challenger on the ballot in the June 28 primary. Gillespie told the forum that most legislation in the state is being passed with bipartisan support. Walker agreed.
“The truth is, when we’re behind closed doors,” Walker said, “Republicans and Democrats work remarkably well together, they just don’t want it known.”
Elizabeth Owens-Schiele is a freelancer.