Leaders of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus declared victory Wednesday after lawmakers approved most planks of their sweeping legislative package aimed at stamping out systemic racism during the final hours of the General Assembly’s lame duck session.
The General Assembly approved bills overhauling state laws on education, criminal justice and economic development, but a companion suite of proposals aimed at closing racial disparities in health care failed to reach the finish line.
While House Speaker Chris Welch’s (D-Hillside) election highlighted the start of the new 102nd General Assembly, legislators were still processing the aftermath of the lame duck session, which had members working late into Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning before taking a four-hour break around 4 a.m.
Heading into the lame duck session, Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) proclaimed that the Black caucus’ agenda would be the “heart and soul” of the abbreviated session. By and large, the leader’s sentiment proved to be true as much of the caucus’ agenda took center stage from the session’s start to end.
Roughly two hours before Welch was sworn in on Wednesday, the House narrowly approved the most controversial of the four planks of the Black caucus’ agenda: a series of major criminal justice and police reforms.
The legislation (HB 3653) makes a multitude of changes ranging from ending cash bail in Illinois and implementing a statewide body-worn camera requirement for police officers to ending prison gerrymandering and enhancing use-of-force training for police officers.
It also bans the use of chokeholds, increases training for crisis intervention, provides additional mental health services to police officers and requires law enforcement agencies to submit data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s use of force database.
Further, the legislation requires police officers to have a preceding justification before someone can be charged with resisting arrest. Additionally, police departments will be banned from purchasing certain military equipment including tanks.
The narrow margin came after law enforcement agencies and others warned that the proposal would make communities less safe and make it harder for police to do their jobs. The Black caucus widely rejected such claims as the proposals were considered.
Education, economic development proposals approved
The criminal justice bill passed just days after both chambers passed HB 2170, a multifaceted education and workforce development proposal that was the caucus’ first pillar to be approved by lawmakers. The legislation changes the state’s education requirements, providing additional resources to Black students and creating several task forces.
In between, the chambers also passed legislation that caps interest on consumer loans at 36 percent (SB 1792), implements racial diversity requirements for state purchasing (SB 1608), and limits the use of criminal history in hiring and housing (SB 1480 and SB 1980).
Since the start of the lame duck session, Republicans railed against Democrats for rushing the complex and hundreds-of-pages legislation through during a window of several days. Democrats rejected such concerns, saying the proposals being considered were fully discussed for months during a series of virtual meetings. Additionally, Democrats argued many of the ideas being brought forth were under consideration for years.
At the same time, Democrats occasionally admitted that the legislation was still being worked on or they could not address specific questions. At one point, when Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Jacksonville) asked about the cost of a bill, Rep. Sonya Harper (D-Chicago) said did not have that information.
While Republicans frequently resisted much of the Black Caucus agenda, they supported some bills, including the predatory loan measure, which was unanimously approved in the House.
Health care proposals fall short
Although much of the Black caucus’ agenda was approved, some proposals were left behind. Among the unfinished proposals was SB 558, which sought to reform the state’s health care and human services systems.
The bill was approved by the House on Wednesday morning with a 66-41 vote but was not taken up in the Senate. Harper, who is the incoming chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, wrote in a statement that she was “committed” to seeing the passage of the proposal during the 102nd General Assembly.
Another bill aimed at eliminating health disparities for people of color that faltered was HB 3840, whose many provisions included a moratorium on hospital closures and created an Anti-Racism Commission. The Senate approved the proposal with a 35-18 vote but the House did not take it up before the legislature adjourned.
But even with unfinished business, the passage of the Black caucus’ agenda was heralded by lawmakers and other advocates.
Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) wrote in a statement that the legislative package will have a “sweeping” and “dramatic” impact.
“The members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, working with the Latino Caucus, led the way in developing a package of legislation that attacks the root of the racism that is systemically embedded in every aspect of our lives,” he said.
After he was sworn in as the first new speaker in decades, Welch praised his colleagues, including Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago), for their work on the various Black caucus bills.
Prior to Welch’s election as speaker, Slaughter led the effort to get the House version of the criminal justice bill across the finish line, delivering an emotional speech just ahead of the bill’s passage.
“For Black communities all across the state of Illinois, the time is now to go from protest to progress,” he said.
On Wednesday night, Gov. JB Pritzker wrote in a statement that the passage of HB 3653 — the criminal justice and police reform bill — offered an opportunity for the state to have a “lesson in true justice.”
Pritzker, who has supported modernizing the state’s sentencing laws and ending cash bail, said the Black caucus’ proposals will help to “truly root out the systemic racism that pulses through all of our nation’s institutions.”
All approved bills now head to Pritzker’s desk for his signature.