SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate voted in the waning hours of the fall legislative session Thursday to send Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker a polarizing proposal aimed at preventing people from using a decades-old state law to skirt coronavirus vaccination mandates by citing moral or religious objections. The Illinois State Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021. (Brian
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate voted in the waning hours of the fall legislative session Thursday to send Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker a polarizing proposal aimed at preventing people from using a decades-old state law to skirt coronavirus vaccination mandates by citing moral or religious objections.
Before adjourning for the year, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate also approved a Pritzker-backed package of incentives for electric vehicle companies; gambling legislation with provisions that include allowing limited in-person betting on Illinois college sports teams and a sportsbook license for Wintrust Arena, the home court of the WNBA champion Chicago Sky; and a new map of the state’s 17 congressional districts for the next decade.
The change to the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act was passed on a 31-24 vote in the Senate a day after the House approved it on a 64-52 vote. With the signature of Pritzker, who has expressed his support, the measure would take effect June 1.
The proposal comes as numerous lawsuits across Illinois challenge government and employer vaccination and testing requirements by citing a law originally intended to shield doctors and other health care workers from having to provide abortions or other reproductive services that conflict with their beliefs.
Pritzker issued a statement late Thursday thanking Democrats in the legislature “who joined together to affirm that the Health Care Right of Conscience Act was never meant to put vulnerable people in harm’s way.”
“This legislation clarifies existing law’s intent without infringing on federal protections,” Pritzker said. “Ultimately, this means we can keep kids in school, businesses open, neighbors safe, and continue on the path to bring this pandemic to an end.”
The issue has become a lightning rod amid battles over the government’s role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, though it hasn’t broken cleanly along partisan lines. Seven of the 73 Democrats in the House joined the Republican minority in opposing the measure, and two other members of the majority party voted “present.” In the Senate, six Democrats sided with the GOP against the proposal, and four others didn’t cast a vote.
During the Senate debate, Republicans argued a vote against the proposal was a vote to protect religious liberties enshrined in the First Amendment.
“The government does not get to decide what somebody’s sincerely held religious beliefs are,” said Republican Sen. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro.
But Senate President Don Harmon said there are legitimate limits to personal freedoms.
“The line of my personal liberty ends at the beginning of your nose,” Harmon said. “That’s all we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to strike a balance. This law was never intended to preclude public health responses to a pandemic. And it shouldn’t be.”
In a committee hearing earlier Thursday, Harmon said he believed that although the right-of-conscience law was “poorly drafted,” it was not intended to allow someone to get out of doing anything they don’t want to do simply by citing a moral or religious objection.
“Let’s imagine that your constituent is pulled over under suspicion of drunken driving. Could that constituent tell the officer they would refuse a Breathalyzer test on the Health Care Right of Conscience Act? Could they refuse a field sobriety test because their medical condition is being tested?” Harmon said during the hearing.
During the same hearing, Republican Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington at raised a familiar talking point among the GOP, criticizing Pritzker for sidestepping the legislature by issuing executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For how long do you think the governor should be allowed to continually issue these executive orders that seem to circumvent the legislative process that allows us as a coequal branch of government an opportunity to have some input and dialogue in that? How long does that continue?” Barickman asked Harmon.
Harmon argued that Pritzker has the authority to issue executive orders in the time of emergencies, a law that was adopted by a previous General Assembly.
“Similarly, a prior General Assembly adopted this law on the Health Care Right of Conscience, and people are using it in a new circumstance that was not foreseen when it was passed,” Harmon said. “I am here with an amendment to this law because I think it is being misapplied.
“Should someone bring forward a bill suggesting that the governor’s use of executive orders are misapplied? We can consider that if that was the majority consensus,” he continued.
Sen. Sue Rezin, a Republican from Morris, asked Harmon at the committee hearing if the revised law would include a threshold for doing away with state mandated COVID-19 protocols — such as if Illinois gets to the point where 70% of its population is vaccinated against the virus.
“I don’t know when COVID-19 will no longer be a public health threat. I don’t know what those thresholds are. I don’t know that you know. And I’m fairly certain you’re going to vote ‘no’ on this,” Harmon responded. “So, if you’d like to work with us to fashion an alternative, I’m happy to listen and see if you want to influence the legislative process. But if you’re just opposed to it, then you can be opposed to it.”
As Pritzker prepares for a trip to Britain next week to promote the state’s efforts to combat climate change and its business climate, his top priority for the fall session was winning approval of a package of incentives to attract electric vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to the state.
Pritzker has aimed to position Illinois a leader in the growing industry, building off the success of the Rivian electric vehicle factory that opened in a former Mitsubishi plant in Normal with state assistance approved under his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Earlier this year, Pritzker announced a $7.9 million tax credit deal that is bringing Montreal-based Lion Electric Co. to the state to build electric buses and trucks in Joliet.
His proposal to create the Reimagining Electric Vehicles in Illinois, or REV, tax credit program was approved by a vote of 55-0 in the Senate and 110-2 in the House.
Supporters of the program — which, among other among things, would create income and property tax incentives for electric vehicle manufacturers and suppliers — say it’s necessary to give Illinois a competitive edge in attracting companies.
Democratic Sen. Steve Stadelman of Caledonia, the measure’s sponsor, acknowledged that he has a “parochial interest” in efforts to have automaker Stellantis transform its Jeep plant in nearby Belvidere into an electric vehicle plant.
But the proposal ultimately could create “thousands of jobs, potentially throughout the state,” Stadelman said.
Testifying on behalf of the Pritzker administration at a hearing earlier Thursday, Deputy Gov. Andy Manar called the plan “a major piece of Gov. Pritzker’s vision of economic growth as we come out of the COVID pandemic as a stronger state.”
“We are not going to heap a mountain of cash on a company to be here,” Manar said. “We’re just not going to do that. That’s not good public policy. But we will have targeted incentives.”
Business interests are divided over the plan, with the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association offering its support but the Illinois Chamber of Commerce expressing concerns that so-called labor peace agreements required under the proposal would cause some major companies to look elsewhere.
“If we want to be in the game, we have to pass the incentive package, and we have to pass it today because these companies have been making decisions and they’re making these decisions between now and the end of the year,” said Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the manufacturers group.
In the House, Republicans who supported the proposal used the opportunity to attack Pritzker for doing away with other business tax breaks in this year’s budget. The House GOP had negotiated for some of those incentives in exchange for supporting Pritzker’s $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” infrastructure plan in 2019.
“How can I tell the businesses who are looking at this incentive here tonight that it won’t be reversed in next year’s budget or the budget after that if the governor suddenly decides that instead it’s a corporate loophole instead of an incentive to attract businesses?” Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon said. “He’s done it before.”
Petrella reported from Chicago.