Friday, December 03, 2010

Finer points

By Jamey Dunn

There was a flurry of legislative action this week as the General Assembly considered civil unions, medical marijuana, gaming expansion and more. With so much happening in just four days, some details of the legislation tend to fall through the cracks:

Civil unions
If Gov. Pat Quinn makes good on his pledge to sign, Senate Bill 1716, which he says he will do in the new year, same-sex, as well as heterosexual couples, would have the option for civil unions.
Rights such as hospital visitation, medical and end-of-life decisions were often bandied about during the debate. While those are important protections, the bill provides for many more rights, as well.

“Every state entitlement or right that comes with marriage will now apply to civil unions,” said Jason Pierceson, a legal studies professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and author of Same-Sex Marriage in the Americas: Policy Innovation for Same-Sex Relationships.

The legislation would apply to family law issues, such as court intervention in divorce proceedings and child custody cases and protection under domestic violence laws.

However, Pierceson pointed out that there are more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections that the state legislature cannot grant couples, no matter what legislation it passes. For example, a couple in a civil union could file a joint state income tax return but not a joint federal return.

He said he does not anticipate that a large number of lawsuits would be needed to enforce the new law. While some may deny rights intentionally as a political stand, Pierceson said most officials and private institutions would just need a “transition period” to adapt. He added that other states have provided examples for how to implement such laws.

For instance, businesses may have to rethink family benefits they offer, such as a gym membership or a family cell phone plan, because the options would now be available to same-sex couples and their children. “There are so many small things that married couples take for granted,” Pierceson said.

There is also a possibility that some religious groups that oppose recognizing same sex couples may stop administering certain social services, such as adoption and foster care. Catholic Charities has stopped administering foster care in some places that recognize same-sex couples, such as Washington, D.C., to avoid having to place children with gay or lesbian couples.

If Quinn signs the bill, county clerks would issue licenses for civil unions, and in most counties, the fee would be about $30. The license would have to be certified by a judge or other eligible public official. No religious ceremony is required. And no church that is opposed to civil unions would be required to hold ceremonies to recognize them.

Illinois will also recognize out-of-state civil unions, same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships as civil unions in this state. Like marriages, civil unions must be dissolved by a court.

Medical marijuana
A measure to allow residents with “chronic” or “debilitating” diseases access to medical marijuana failed to gain the votes needed to pass on Tuesday. However, the sponsor, Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, said he plans to make a push to pass SB 1381 in January, before a new legislative session begins

The bill lists the conditions that could potentially be treated with medical cannabis: cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, nail patella, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, wasting syndrome. It could also be used to treat severe pain or nausea that is persistent and has not responded to other treatments, and to counteract the side effects of some treatments, such as chemotherapy. The Department of Public Health could add to the list.

The aspect of the plan that has been somewhat confusing is how a seriously ill person would be able to tend to the six marijuana plants the bill would allow patients to own.

This week, Lang spelled out the options. The first would be to designate another person as a primary caregiver. This individual could grow and keep marijuana for a sick person who was using it for treatment. However, whatever they may have between the two of them could not exceed the limit of two ounces of dried cannabis and six plants — only three of them mature.

The other option would be dispensaries, though Lang says the limits would be much tighter than the ones imposed California. That state has legal medical marijuana, and the perception that it also has a pot store that may or may not check prescriptions on every corner has made dispensaries infamous in recent years.

“A dispensary is a place where you can go buy three plants, or six plants — three of which can be mature. But if you’re too sick to deal with it yourself, and you don’t have a caregiver to name — perhaps you’re 90 years old, and all of your friends and all of your family are no longer with you, unfortunately — the dispensary would be allowed to be your caregiver,” Lang said.

So a business could take care of the plants for patients and then give them the dried marijuana produced from them. Dispensaries could take on multiple clients as long as they don't exceed the limits set for each patient.

“You might see storefronts, but not the same way you would see them in California. The California law was so loose, storefronts sprung up like Starbucks. … In this case there would be far less of them. … There will be industries created. There will be dispensaries, but they’re not going to be huge lucrative businesses,” Lang said.

Any patient or caregiver who sells or gives cannabis to someone not licensed to use it would be subject to criminal charges. The measure allows for up to two years in prison or a $2,000 fine to be tacked onto their sentence.

With little debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers also passed a large gaming expansion Wednesday. It would allow for five new casinos, slots at horse racing tracks and more gaming positions at existing casinos. Some Republicans said they were supporting the bill to move it along in the process because they expected the House to make changes and send it back for another Senate vote. However, the bill’s sponsor, Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, said Wednesday night, after his chamber approved the measure, that he had already talked with Lang, the House sponsor, and he expects the Senate’s version of the bill to pass in the House.

But they may have had a communication breakdown. “I congratulate the Illinois Senate on its successful effort to push the bill through the chamber, but I intend to thoroughly review their plan, and I expect to be making some changes,” Lang said in a written statement. Trying to appease all interested parties on a touchy subject such as gambling is usually what sinks a massive bill like SB 737.

Amendatory veto
The legislature failed to take up Quinn’s amendatory veto to House Bill 4842, which would have created an open primary election system. Quinn’s changes would have allowed voters to participate in primaries without having to publicly declare a party affiliation. Since lawmakers did not act on the veto during veto session, the governor’s changes die along with the bill.

The original measure would have required the State Board of Elections to post profiles of candidates before the primary election. Since lieutenant governor and governor candidates now must run as a team in the primary, it stands to reason that lieutenant governor candidates would get more attention, so such voter guidance would be less necessary. Both HB 4842 and the new law, which joins the governor and lieutenant governor candidates in the primary, were reactions to former lieutenant governor candidate Scott Lee Cohen’s surprise win — and subsequent later fall from grace — in this year's Democratic primary. Lawmakers likely were happy to let the bill slide rather than take up the sticky issue of Illinois’ primary system.

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