CHICAGO — It was a big year in the Illinois statehouse with lawmakers ending an historic budget impasse and approving an income tax hike, overhauling how public schools get funding and allowing automatic voter registration.
Now, a fresh set of 215 laws takes effect Jan. 1.
The laws cover numerous topics, including the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortions, celebrating Barack Obama’s presidency, allowing tax credits for private school scholarships, criminal justice reforms and a circus-related ban. Parts of existing laws also kick into motion Monday.
Here’s a closer look:
Illinois will allow state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions under a new law that also makes sure abortions remain legal. The law removes language in state law that could criminalize abortion if a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing the procedure is overturned.
However, the move was controversial. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner surprised many when he reversed course and signed the legislation. Over a dozen groups and lawmakers filed a lawsuit challenging the law and its effective date, which a judge dismissed. The groups plan to appeal.
Also, high schools will have to make free feminine hygiene products available in bathrooms of school buildings and pick up the tab.
Illinois has also taken steps to address the opioid epidemic, requiring those who prescribe medicines to register with a database that records patient prescription history.
Tucked into Illinois’ historic overhaul of a decades-old school funding formula is a provision that takes effect in the new year: a $75 million tax credit for people and companies donating to private school scholarships. The program allows a credit worth 75 percent of a donation, up to $1 million.
Proponents argue it’ll provide scholarships for 6,000 to 10,000 lower-income students to attend private schools and give parents choices. But opponents, including teachers’ unions, say it encourages attendance of private schools, where teachers and other staff typically aren’t unionized.
While efforts to approve such scholarship programs are difficult, nearly 20 states have them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most are Republican-led.
Illinois joined about a dozen other states when it legalized automatic voter registration over the summer. The move followed an unsuccessful attempt in 2016, which Rauner vetoed over concerns of voter fraud.
State officials are working to complete a major update of voter files and registrations through the Secretary of State’s office. Most changes will take effect ahead of the November election. Other agencies will be on board with the changes by July 2019.
Three new Illinois laws will affect LGBTQ rights. One makes Illinois the second state after California to outlaw the so-called “gay panic” defense in criminal proceedings, which is allowing the use of a victim’s sexual orientation as a justification for a violent crime. Advocates say the tactic is dated, but still used.
Illinois also revised its requirements for birth certificate changes, allowing Illinois residents to update the gender on their birth certificate with a care provider authorizing they’ve gone through medically appropriate treatment. The law had previously required proof of surgical operation.
Also, when applicants apply for appointments to state board and commissions, they’ll have the option to disclose sexual orientation, which advocates say helps track diversity.
Illinois will commemorate the birthday of former President Barack Obama under a new law. The plan sets aside Aug. 4 to honor the 44th president, but it’s not an official state holiday. The law highlights Obama’s efforts to protect Americans’ rights and build “bridges across communities.”
Obama began his political career in the Illinois Senate in 1997. He served there until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. The law came after lawmakers narrowly rejected a plan to make Obama’s birthday a state holiday amid concerns of giving state employees another paid day off.
A law that will automatically expunge juvenile criminal records two years after a case is close takes effect. Exclusions apply, including cases involving homicides, felony sex offenses and other serious crimes. Advocates say the move allows young people to recover from past mistakes.
Repeat firearm offenders will also be subject to sentencing at a higher range.
New laws will also expand the state’s cyberstalking laws by outlawing electronic harassment of a person using spyware or tracking software to threaten harm or restrain.
Illinois will prohibit the use of elephants in circuses and other traveling exhibits. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals billed Illinois as the first state to do so.
Backers say African and Asian elephants are endangered species and such exhibits don’t always properly care for the animals. The measure doesn’t apply to zoos or other permanent institutions.
The practice of using live elephants has been going out of style amid outcry from animal rights groups. In 2016, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its elephants to a conservatory in Florida.
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