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Rookie Gov Lands 'Historic' First Session

Gov. J.B. Pritzer flanked by senators at a news conference
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state senators marked the end of the 2019 spring legislative session with a news conference.

The Illinois General Assembly finally finished its annual legislative session this weekend, with lawmakers approving item after item on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s agenda.

Observers and participants are calling it one of the most significant sessions in living memory.

By the time the Illinois Senate finished its business late Sunday afternoon, the General Assembly had voted to legalize marijuana, pass a $45 billion infrastructure plan, expand gambling, legalize sports betting, pass a state budget, begin the process of amending the income tax article in the state Constitution, and expand access to abortion.

It had been a long, contentious week, after a long month, in a long session.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin makes final remarks as the 2019 legislative session comes to a close
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin makes his final remarks of the 2019 spring legislative session.

The night before, when the House held its final votes, Republican Leader Jim Durkin addressed his closing remarks to the freshmen lawmakers.

“We've had some moments where you've heard a lot of things and a lot of people have said some tough stuff on the floor,” Durkin said. “Did you hear that today? Did you notice the tenor of the debate and also the feeling that I had in this chamber today? It was pretty darn good. Because you know why? Because we worked it out. We worked out this very difficult day.”

Moments later, House Speaker Michael Madigan was triumphant: “This has been an extraordinarily productive session of the General Assembly. Simply historic.”

But this is hindsight. And just the day before, a cooperative outcome was far from certain.

Democrats spent the week flexing their supermajority, ramming legislation through on party-line votes. From the Republican perspective, these ideas fell on a range from wrong-headed, like the graduated income tax constitutional amendment, to repugnant, like the legislation intended to keep abortion legal should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

voting switch in the Illinois Senate
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Democrats racked up plenty of green lights -- Statehouse parlance for 'yes' votes -- on Gov. J.B. Pritzker's agenda.

This did not sit well with Republicans. And by Friday, which was scheduled to be the last day of session, the whole thing seemed to be coming apart.

Rounds of diplomacy ensued, with people criss-crossing the Capitol through out-of-the-way stairwells.

Durkin met with Pritzker, Senate President John Cullerton met with Durkin, Durkin was back in the governor’s office, and Pritzker even attended a private meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus.

By the end of the night, the House was passing a budget with support from Democrats and Republicans.

“Our caucus will work with the majority party on any issue, and we will respect your priorities as long as you respect our priorities,” Durkin said.

Those priories included a series of business-friendly additions to the final deal, like an extension of the research-and-development tax credit, and the creation of a new tax credit intended to lure data centers.

There was a little more back-and-forth, but by Friday evening, the die was cast, and the plan was on track through the weekend.

And that brings us back to where we started — the floor of the Senate, late Sunday afternoon, after the work of session was over.

Sen. Jim Oberweis poses for a picture with Gov. J.B. Picture and a bottle of Oberweis iced tea
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Even legislators who do not agree with much of Pritzker's agenda sought to be photographed with him. State Sen. Jim Oberweis, right, handed the governor a bottle of his company's iced tea. State Sen. Heather Steans, left, took the picture with Oberweis' smartphone.

Pritzker is here, being swarmed by lawmakers seeking photos.

Cullerton thanked Pritzker and praised his leadership. Later, he was asked why Pritzker had been able to pass so much of his agenda.

“Yeah, well it helps to start with a super-duper majority in both chambers; that kind of helps. The other governors don’t have as much,” Cullerton said. “But he just really got along — he's just really a nice guy — and that helps. And he got along personally with Republican leaders as well as us, and with our members. And keep in mind: He's new, he had never done this before. So he did a great job.”

At a news conference, Pritzker seemed to agree.

Senate President John Cullerton speaks on the floor of the Senate
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Senate President John Cullerton delivers the final floor speech of the 2019 legislative session of the Illinois General Assembly.

“Together, we just accomplished one of the most ambitious and consequential legislative sessions in this state’s history,” the governor said.

Nevertheless, there are still questions about what came out of session: What will legal marijuana do to the face of Illinois? And what about all that new gambling?

Is the budget really balanced? And why, after the shooting rampage in Aurora, did lawmakers fail to pass a bill on guns?

But as far as Democrats and a fair number of Republicans are concerned, those questions can wait for another day. For now, they're basking in the satisfaction that comes from a thoroughly checked-off to-do list.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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