Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Civil unions bill heads to the governor

By Jamey Dunn

Same-sex couples are a mere pen stroke away from having the option for civil unions in Illinois.

The Illinois Senate passed Senate Bill 1716 today,after a long debate about family, religion, insurance and pension benefits.

Sen. David Koehler, a Peoria Democrat, said he wanted to sponsor the bill because his lesbian daughter does not have the same rights in Illinois as his other two daughters. “I see this issue now through the eyes of a father who has a gay child.”

Koehler’s daughter, Maggie, watched from the gallery with her partner, Brennan Kramer. The couple are engaged and plan to hold a ceremony next September.

“I am one of the proudest children in Illinois today,” Maggie Koehler said after the vote.

Sen. Koehler said couples who enter into civil unions would get all the “legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits as afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois that relates to spouses.”

The measure is intended to give same-sex and heterosexual couples who opt for civil unions rights such as the ability to be involved in their partners’ health and end-of-life decisions, as well as hospital visitation and shared property rights.

Some opponents argued that the legislation was same-sex marriage by another name. Sen. John Sullivan, a Democrat from Rushville, said he voted against the bill because many of his constituents do not support it, and he couldn’t determine a difference between the civil unions described in the measure and marriage.

Others said it was morally wrong and would damage marriage as an institution between a man and a woman for the purpose of creating a stable environment for children.

“The reason marriage exists is that sexual intercourse between men and women … produces children. If intercourse did not actually produce vulnerable children who add to the population of a country, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions,” said Sen. Chris Lauzen, and Aurora Republican.

He added: “What the institution and policy of marriage aims to regulate is the sex, not love and commitment. Marriage exists to solve the major challenge that arises from sexual intercourse between men and women but not from sex between partners of the same gender — what to do about its potential generation of vulnerable children. ”

Sen. Dan Rutherford from Chenoa was the only Republican to cross the aisle and support the bill. “The people of Illinois, they don’t want discrimination. There’s going to be a bunch said about this legislation, I understand that. But one thing that I do know, it’s the right thing to do,” said Rutherford, who is leaving the Senate to take office as state treasurer in January.

Some Republicans said they support the concept but could not back the bill because it would require the state to give same-sex couples pension benefits and may require insurance companies to offer spousal coverage to gay and lesbian couples. “Our cup of debt is full, and we cannot take one more drop of financial strain,” said Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican.

However, Koehler said Illinois already offers health care benefits to domestic partners. He also said people pay a small amount into the pension system to potentially cover a spouse, and if they are not married when they retire, they get the money back. “In a sense, everybody has been paying into that all along.”

“The fiscal impact … I don’t see it,” said Kathryn Eisenhart, a professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois Springfield and a member of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee for the Illinois State Bar Association. “The state budget is a horrible mess. It was a horrible mess before this got passed. It will remain a horrible mess after this got passed.”

Eisenhart said that from a legal point of view, the bill would likely not result in drastic changes for same-sex couples. She said she would advise all couples to take some of the steps that same-sex couples have — in lieu of being granted explicit recognition — to access legal protection, such as getting power of attorney or a living will, to protect themselves in emergency situations.

She added that same-sex couples may still find themselves in the situation of having to “show their papers” to visit their partners in the hospital or make medical decisions — a situation that was used as an example of unfair treatment during the debate in the House.

“If you [are part of a heterosexual couple] and show up and say, "I am Mrs. so-and-so," they aren’t going to ask you for a marriage license,” she said. “If you are of the same sex, they can still say, ‘Where’s your papers?’ … It’s much more likely to happen.”

Eisenhart characterized the bill as a first-step toward equality for same-sex couples. “It’s a beginning. … [Some advocates are] pretty excited about the fact that we have a governor who will sign it and a Senate who is pretty strongly willing to support it.”

She added, “The fight starts again on Monday, and the reality is that this is just a beginning.”

Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to sign the bill. If he does, it would go into effect June 1.

Public Employee Evaluations

The Senate overrode Quinn’s veto on House Bill 5154, which would seal public employee evaluations. Quinn changed the bill so only evaluations for law enforcement personnel would be sealed, citing safety and security reasons.

Maywood Democrat Kimberly Lightford, the sponsor of the bill, said she supports making employment information such as salaries available to the public. But she thinks open evaluations go too far.

Proponents of the original legislation have said that opening the evaluations will make managers hesitant to be honest in evaluations, for fear of negative comments making it into the public sphere. Opponents say they legislature is already chipping away at newly enacted transparency laws.

The House already overrode the measure, so the original version of the bill, which exempts public employee evaluations from the Freedom of Information Act, becomes law.

Gaming Expansion
With virtually no floor debate, the Senate passed a large gaming expansion package before it adjourned this evening.

If it becomes law, the measure would allow for new casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, Park City and a yet-to-be-named location in the suburbs south of Chicago. Operating casinos would be able to increase the number of gaming positions to 1,600 each and 2,000 each in 2013. Horse racing tracks would also be allowed to have slot machines.

Sen. President John Cullerton said SB 737 would bring in $424 million immediately and higher levels of gaming revenue in the future.

The money would go to pay down the state’s backlog of overdue bills and capital projects. The legalization of video poker throughout the state, which was one of the major funding mechanisms of the capital bill, has stalled in getting off the ground and may not bring the revenues that were originally projected.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale, said he supported the bill because putting slots in at race tracks would help the agricultural sector — specifically horse breeding and training. “When these jobs are lost, they are next to impossible to replace in rural Illinois.”

Dillard added that he thinks the bill is still being negotiated and will not pass in the House without some changes. “This is not the final product. This thing is going to be back.”

Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, the sponsor of the bill, characterized it as a “huge” expansion but said something needs to be done to address the state’s “huge deficit.”

Gov. Pat Quinn said at a news conference earlier in the day that he did not support “top-heavy” gaming expansion. He said he has yet read the bill but that is strikes him as “top heavy.”

The Senate also passed SB 3976, which would change the redistricting process used to reconfigure legislative and congressional boundaries after each census.

The measure, which passed with bipartisan support, would add protection for minority populations and require public hearings on the process throughout the state. These provisions were included in the Democrats' redistricting bill, which failed to pass in April. The lack of those provisions is also the reason Democrats cited for voting down the “Fair Map” amendment, which was backed by Republicans and the League of Women Voters.

On Thursday, the Senate plans to take up a measure to reform police and firefighter pensions. The House in not scheduled to return until January.

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