Illinois Public Media News
Gay rights advocates celebrated Wednesday as the Illinois Legislature voted to legalize civil unions, although some wondered whether the measure that the governor is expected to sign will make it easier or harder to someday win approval of same-sex marriage.
The state Senate approved the legislation 32-24, sending it to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. It passed despite complaints from some senators that civil unions threaten the sanctity of marriage or increase the cost of doing business in Illinois.
After Quinn signs the measure, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get official recognition from the state and gain many of the rights that accompany marriage - the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner, for instance. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and woman, and the federal government won't recognize the civil unions at all.
Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.
Some supporters of civil unions in Illinois hope they'll be a step toward full marriage.
"The ultimate goal is not to be separate but equal," said Jacob Meister, president of The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights organization. Meister said civil unions are a necessary compromise because they will provide important protections for gay couples.
But even advocates acknowledge it's possible that by accepting civil unions now, they may be delaying movement toward being able to marry. The compromise could weaken any arguments that gay people are being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry.
The sponsors of the civil unions bill said Wednesday they don't plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.
"As soon as the governor signs it, it's the law of the state of Illinois and that's what we're going to live with and going to make work," said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.
The executive director of a gay community center in Chicago said he welcomes civil unions but worries the legislation may stall ultimate approval of same-sex marriage. Modesto Valle of the Center on Halsted said it will take "tremendous work" to turn civil unions into "a platform to move toward marriage equality" in Illinois.
Courtney Reid, 48, of Chicago said she and her partner of 12 years have decided they won't pursue a civil union, preferring to wait until same-sex marriage is recognized by federal law and homosexual couples get all the tax benefits and other rights available to heterosexual couples.
"It's a stand on principle for us," Reid said.
Supporters presented the civil unions legislation as a matter of basic fairness for all Illinois residents. With civil unions, state law will treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They would inherit property when a partner dies, for instance.
"It's time for us to look history in the eye and not flinch," said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston.
Opponents argued it moves Illinois closer to legalizing same-sex marriages. They said civil unions are basically marriage by another name and that they could give the courts a reason to step in and order Illinois to allow full marriage to everyone.
Some senators also criticized the time being spent on civil unions at a time when the state faces a massive budget crisis.
"Here we are, forced to debate an issue that may be political payback to a small but very politically powerful special interest group," said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora. He called gay sexual activities dangerous and questioned whether the state has a role in regulating relationships that don't produce children.
The Illinois Family Institute accused legislators of failing to examine the legislation clearly.
"Proponents engaged in embarrassing and maudlin displays of sentimentality intended to emotionally manipulate rather than intellectually persuade their colleagues," said executive director David E. Smith.
Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders fought civil unions vigorously. Conservative groups also lobbied to block the measure. They argued it could hurt religious institutions.
The measure wouldn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but critics fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.
Some religious leaders welcomed the legislation. In Chicago, Rabbi Larry Edwards said he's looking forward to planning celebrations for couples in his Jewish congregation who may decide to form civil unions under Illinois law.
"To those who say it's a slippery slope and eventually will lead to marriage, I say, 'I hope so,'" said Edwards of Or Chadash synagogue. "I would like to be on a slippery slope that slides in the direction of justice."
The Rev. Vernice Thorn, associate pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said she considers the vote a hopeful sign. "Same-sex legalized marriage is going to happen. It's just a matter of when.
Illinois' economy keeps creeping slowly toward recovery according to a monthly gauge of economic performance, but the economist who calculates the University of Illinois Flash Index says an amnesty program for late taxpayers in the state may have distorted the index in November.
Fred Giertz says he made an adjustment in the index, placing it at 94.2 for the month. That's still well below the 100-level that signifies economic growth, but it's slightly higher than October's index, marking the seven straight month of similar increases.
The Flash Index is based on state tax proceeds in a given month. Giertz says if he had not adjusted the index to account for the tax amnesty program, it would have been about five points higher.
Area educators have issued urgent appeals for the state to maintain funding in areas ranging from transportation to early childhood education.
Champaign was the site for the last of the State Board of Education's six public hearings on the Fiscal 2012 budget. Champaign Unit 4 Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas testified that cuts to the district's early childhood program have meant 40 less students, with a waiting list of 100. He pleaded with the state board and legislature to increase funding in that area. "And the only winner is the state prison system when we don't get our children off to the best start that's possible," said Logas. "It's just such a shame to waste scare resources building prisons when we could be using that money on our youngest children. This is a just a total waste, a total lack of priorities. We should all be ashamed of ourselves." Logas also says maintaining court-mandated special education remains a very expensive proposition for many districts.
Cris Vowels is the principal at Urbana's Washington Early Childhood School. She says every year, the amount of the school's grant is questionable, and how many staff members can be re-hired. She says 70-percent of them were given Reduction in Force notices last spring.
"And so come August when I found out that we were indeed going to be fully funded, I was calling people on Friday asking them to come back to work on Monday," said Vowels. "Of course, I lost key staff members. Most particularly, my bilingual staff members who are in high demand around the state." Vowels suggests the state support a multi-year grant program for early childhood programs.
Former Champaign School Board member Margie Skirvin says the uncertainty of state payments has been the biggest problem among all districts. Representing the Illinois PTA, she says the group is backing a House bill that would shift the burden of funding education from property taxes to income taxes. Deb Foertsch, Illinois Federation of Teachers Vice President and a teacher at Champaign's Carrie Busey Elementary, says an easing of tax cap restrictions in affected districts could help save programs like bilingual and gifted education. And Jessica Schad, a second year teacher at Urbana Middle School, says she wouldn't have survived in her job if it weren't for a grant-funded mentoring program at District 116.
James Bauman, chair of the ISBE's finance committee, says most funding remains committed to general state aid, with about a billion dollars left for grant funded programs, include early childhood education. He says comments at Tuesday's Champaign hearing reflect those of others held around the state, and will help guide the State Board when it recommends an education budget to lawmakers in January.
The Illinois House approved legislation Tuesday night that would position Illinois to become the sixth state to allow gay couples to enter civil unions.
An emotionally charged Illinois House narrowly approved the measure Tuesday night. Civil unions are not marriage, but under the proposal, same sex and heterosexual couples who enter one would receive many of the benefits - including hospital visitation and the power of attorney.
State Representative Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) said those are rights she is now denied because Illinois does not legally recognize her relationship with her partner.
"After six years of building a life together, committing our lives to each other," Mell said. "We have a strong faith in God and in family. And after all that we are still not considered family. And I assure you, we are a family. And we deserve the same rights that you enjoy."
Larry McKeon became Illinois' first openly gay legislator when he was elected to the Illinois House in 1996. He is not around to see his successor, Democratic Representative Greg Harris, usher through the legalization of civil unions. McKeon died a couple years ago from a sudden stroke, but his legacy played a role in the measure's passage ... as Harris recounted a tale of how McKeon tried to visit his longtime partner in intensive care.
"The hospital turned Larry away," Harris said. "They said he did not have the proper documentation with him. They did not consider him next of kin. He would have to go home. He would have to go home and find the documents."
By the time McKeon returned with paperwork proving his status, Harris said, McKeon had missed his partner's passing by mere minutes.
"Should anyone have to be absent from the side of the person they most love in life because they don't have access to the proper paperwork at the right time," he said. "Should this not be a right that every person in Illinois be granted?"
If the civil unions measure becomes law ... it will no longer be an issue. Harris lists the benefits it would trigger: "To participate in health care decision-makings, it would allow them to share a nursing home room, it would allow them to be the first in line to make a disposition about their partners' remains when he or she dies, and it would allow them rights in probate."
Harris, who is openly gay, noted that it is not just for same sex couples. It applies to heterosexual ones too. He said many elderly couples don't want to take on a spouse late in life because a new marriage would cut into their social security payouts.
Harris estimated that it is these heterosexual senior citizens who will most take advantage of civil unions. Entering one will be similar to getting married - couples would pay a county clerk for a license. Dissolving the partnership would require a legal proceeding similar to a divorce. There are differences. Only married people can get perks like filing joint income tax returns. Illinois law does, and still would, define marriage expressly as between a man and a woman.
However, critics like David Reis, a Republican representing the Effingham area ... say with approval of civil unions, Illinois is on a direct path to gay marriage. He warned its passage will lead to equal rights lawsuits that could result in a court order requiring Illinois let same sex couples marry.
"And it won't take long for your people back home to know that your vote tonight, while for civil unions and individual rights and hospital visitations, was really a vote for same sex marriage in Illinois," Reis said. "I don't think we're ready for this, I don't think the people of Illinois want this just yet."
Another Republican, Ron Stephens of Greenville, said allowing civil unions may contribute to the crumbling of America's future.
"If you look at the sociological history of a society that has failed, what are some of the commonalities," Greenville asked. "One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted in the higher society. Whether it's in Greek times, the Romans or others. And here we are at the precipice again."
Despite advocates' claims to the contrary, critics also say extending insurance and pension benefits to partners will hurt government and businesses' bottom lines. Opponents had cranked up their protest in advance of the debate with such arguments. Prominent Catholics, like the head of the Chicago Archdiocese, Cardinal Francis George, repeatedly called legislators, trying to sway them to vote no. Nonetheless, with a vote of 61 to 52 a solitary vote over the required amount it passed.
While Democrats were the main backers, handful of Republicans including Lake County's Mark Beaubien also lent their support.
"I don't think this is a partisan issue," Beaubien said. "I respect everybody's opinion on this and their believes. My only statement is there comes a time. And for those of you that are on the fence. Now is the time to support this bill."
Charlie Beall was in the House gallery watching it all happen.
"I was the first kid in my school to actually come out of the closet," he said.
The Senate is poised to take up the proposal Wednesday and its passage is expected. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken backer, it's likely to become law.
Beall is now a 19-year old student at Heartland Community College in Normal, but looks back at when he was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. Just weeks after the football season ended, he first told his friends and family he was gay.
"Well, actually I was going to see my first boyfriend and I was on a date with him - not him," Beall explained. "I lied to my parents because I didn't want them to know."
After his parents discovered he had faked an alibi, Beall said he broke down, and began to hear hear taunts of "fagot" or "queer" when he walked down his high school's hallways. He said with the House's approval of civil unions, he is hopeful that mentality will not continue much longer.
"just the fact that I have almost the same rights as everyone else now," he said. "It changes a lot. And hopefully when I'm having children, my kids won't even know what that was like. To be repressed in a way."
Despite Beall's positive take is that some gay rights activists say they will not be satisfied until they get all of the rights afforded to heterosexuals, namely the right to marry. They say by supporting civil unions, they are settling for inequality.
The Senate's poised to take up the proposal Wednesday, and it's expected to win approval there as well. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken supporter, it's likely to become law. Quinn said it is an important civil rights issue, and called passing it the "right thing to do.
Lured by the promise of jobs and a boost for the state's coal industry, the Illinois House agreed to a plan that could pave the way for a controversial central Illinois power plant.
Omaha based Tenaska Corporation wants to build a coal fired power plant in Taylorville. It would use Illinois coal, which has fallen out of favor because of its high sulfur content. Emissions would be captured and stored underground.
It has taken years to get the proposal this far. Opponents are concerned about the legislation's requirement that utilities purchase power from the plant, which are expected to lead to higher electric rates over several decades. House sponsor Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) said the cost factor was a sticking point.
"I would say that is part of the cost trade off for improving the overall economy," Mautino said.
Residential rates would be capped at a two-percent increase, but businesses and governmental bodies could pay more. Mautino admits it has been difficult convincing colleagues who represent other areas that it is a good deal for them.
"For example, when I buy a gallon of gas or fill my tank in Spring Valley, part of that money goes to fund the CTA which already gets 97-percent of all mass transit money to fund a bus I will never ride on," he said "Yet that is one of the costs built in to having an overall statewide system."
Mautino said a boost for Illinois coal will benefit the entire state. The plan still needs approval from Senators and the Governor to become law.
A discovery recount performed last week in the Douglas County sheriff's race found that the margin of victory for incumbent Charlie McGrew stayed the same over his opponent, Fred Galey.
Douglas County clerk Jim Ingram said this review of the ballots was not an official recount since it does not change the final vote tabulation. If there is sufficient evidence to show ballot error, then the petitioner could file a petition in circuit court for a full recount.
After the November 2 election, Galey made a request for the county's first-ever discovery recount where about a quarter of the local precincts were reviewed for voting errors. Ingram said of the four precincts studied, only two were found to be off by one ballot.
"In one precinct the Sheriff received an additional vote, and in another precinct the petitioner received an extra vote," Ingram said. "That means nothing. It doesn't change any totals."
Ingram said the ballot review process went on without any problems.
Since Galey initiated the recount, he is required to pay a $10 fee for each of the four precincts counted. But Ingram pointed out that the county has to pick up an even larger tab charged by Government Business Systems, the vendor of the voting machines.
"Even though it cost the petitioner himself $10 per precinct, it costs the county an excess of ten times that amount to perform the task," he said.
McGrew defeated Galey by less than 40 votes after the absentee ballots were counted. Calls to Galey for comment were not immediately returned. McGrew's new term as sheriff begins Wednesday, December 1 at 9am.
Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged another $47 million to keep a temporary jobs program going while the state hopes for more federal money.
The latest infusion of cash is in addition to $75 million Quinn pledged in September to keep the Put Illinois to Work program from ending.
The extension will keep the program going through Jan. 15. Quinn's office says more than 26,000 people have gotten jobs.
The jobs program was a centerpiece of Quinn's campaign in a close election win over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady, who criticized the governor for using state money to keep it going.
The governor's office says the $47 million will come from proceeds of the bond sale of a portion of the state's tobacco settlement money.
An effort to allow medical use of marijuana fell short by a handful of votes in the Illinois House. Opponents argued it was less about health care and more about legalizing pot.
The tally was a setback for medical patients suffering from glaucoma, cancer and other diseases who say smoking marijuana helps ease pain and improve their quality of life. Former talk show host Montel Williams was among those who came to the capitol to lobby for the measure. Williams has multiple sclerosis and admitted he uses marijuana to deal with his symptoms.
"For me, it helps to lessen the neuropathic pain," Williams said. "It also helps me, no ifs, ands, or buts, with spasticity. I suffer from MS. I have leg tremors and have spasticity at night. This completely squashes that."
The House sponsor, Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said the medical contributions of the drug are a compelling argument to legalize it.
"How do you turn down people who are sick," Lang said. "People who are in pain, people who have not had the opportunity to have a quality of life without this health care product. And make no mistake my friends. This is not a bill about drugs. This is a bill about health care."
But critics say more testing should be done to determine if marijuana has benefits. Fifteen other states allow medical marijuana use.
Illinois' plan would have patients get a doctor's note that would then be submitted to the state department of public health. The agency would regulate who can buy from licensed dealers.
But law enforcement was opposed to the measure, and so were lawmakers like State Rep. Ron Stephens (R- Greenville), who is a licensed pharmacist.
"This is about possession of marijuana," Stephens said. "That's all it's about. It's not about medical treatment."
Stephens said more research is needed to determine any potential benefits marijuana might have. While the Illinois plan was defeated, the same proposal was kept alive through a legislative maneuver and could be called for another vote.
Legislation Seeks to Extend Immigration Rights to Same-Sex Couples
The U.S. Senate is expected to consider ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans gays from openly serving in the armed services. But there's another issue that many gay rights supporters are pushing. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports on the political deadlock over legislation to extend immigration rights to same-sex binational couples.
Airline passengers are putting up with a new and often unwelcome level of security screenings, but a University of Illinois professor who studies aviation security said those searches may not be useful.
Thanksgiving-weekend travelers at the nation's largest airports reported few slowdowns or other problems with "backscanner" machines that give screeners revealing images of passengers. Those who turned down the scans are subject to intensive pat-downs.
Professor Sheldon Jacobson said he believes federal officials pay too much attention to searching for banned items, and that the high-level searches should not be the first line of defense against terrorists.
"The question is, is this an effective use of a very powerful technology? In our own research, we don't believe it is," Jacobson said. "We believe that using it for secondary screening is far more appropriate and will actually facilitate a far more secure system, which is very counter-intuitive in some sense."
Jacobson says more effective security should focus on a passenger's intent. He said the Transportation Security Administration needs to further its research on ways of filtering out passengers based on background checks and looking for behavioral red flags at the airport.
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