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Welch: Legislature Considers Abortion, Gun Ban Measures | News

SPRINGFIELD — Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who recently announced his endorsement for another term as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, says he hopes to govern with an even larger majority than his first two years.

“Growing our congregation has definitely been a priority of mine,” he told the Illinois Capitol News. “But from a policy perspective, we want to continue to build on the budget work that we’ve done. Expanding our caucus wouldn’t be possible if people didn’t believe Democrats were doing the right thing.”

Welch, a Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Hillside, was elected speaker in January 2021 after a majority of the Democratic caucus refused to support longtime Speaker Michael Madigan, who was embroiled in a bribery scandal and has since been indicted on corruption charges.

During his first two years, Democrats held a 73-45 advantage in the House of Representatives, and Welch used that to pass landmark legislation, including the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which provides state support for carbon-free energy production and seeks to phase out fossil fuel power plants until 2045

That supermajority also allowed Democrats to control the redistricting process when lawmakers drew new maps for the General Assembly, congressional districts and the Supreme Court.

In subsequent elections, Democrats increased their majority in the House of Representatives and also captured a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court.

Overall, while Democrats running for public office averaged about 55 percent of the vote, Democrats captured roughly 66 percent of state legislative seats.

Asked if gerrymandering played a role in those results, Welch said no.

“I would say that the maps reflect all the diversity of our state,” he said. “And one of the things I said as our caucus leader and speaker of the House last year as we went through this process was that any fair map would reflect the diversity of our state. And if you look at the election results, the election results show that.”

He said the results in the House were an example of that.

“We elected our first Vietnamese to the House of Representatives,” he said. “We elected our first Korean American to the House of Representatives. We elected our first Arab American Muslim to the House of Representatives. We elected our first Indian Muslim to the House of Representatives. We elected our first South Asian Pacific Islander to the House of Representatives. Diversity is well represented in the Illinois House, and we look like Illinois, and we look like America. And we should be proud of it.”

Welch said one key factor in the election that worked in favor of Democrats was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade. This ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization said that the US Constitution does not protect a woman’s right to an abortion, effectively giving states the power to regulate the procedure as they see fit.

“It definitely played a role in what happened on November 8,” he said. “You know, I’ve said this in a number of speeches here during the campaign that November is coming. And when you look at what happened here in Illinois and across the country, that decision really got women to the polls. 18-24-year-old people came to the polling stations, and they voted en masse.”

When the Dobbs case was decided, Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly immediately called for a special session to call for even greater protections for abortion access in Illinois. Likewise, a few weeks after the mass shooting at the July 4th parade in Highland Park, they called for a special session to call for more restrictions on assault weapons in Illinois.

But in the weeks that followed, both those issues were put on hold as various “working groups” were formed with lawmakers and stakeholders in an attempt to reach consensus on what measures could actually be taken.

Although Illinois has one of the least restrictive abortion laws in place, Welch said the state could do more, perhaps including an amendment to the state constitution to protect abortion rights.

“That’s definitely one of the questions that exists, and it’s a strong possibility,” he said. “But again, I don’t want to preempt the task force or the recommendations that they formally present. I’m sure that’s one of the things on the table.”

As for regulating assault weapons, Welch said the issue would have to wait until the start of the 2023 session in January, when new laws need a simple majority to take effect immediately. That’s because the Illinois Constitution requires a three-fifths majority for bills passed after June 1 to take effect immediately.

“Whatever we’re doing on assault weapons, we’d like to see it go into effect immediately,” he said. “And I just don’t think we’re going to have 71 votes to do anything in this abbreviated veto session. But I believe we can ban assault weapons for Illinoisans next year, and we’re going to work very hard to make that happen.”

Lawmakers still have three business days before the veto session ends, Nov. 29-Dec. 1. Welch said a top priority these days will be making “clarifications” to the SAFE-T Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform package passed in January 2021 that includes, among other things, the elimination of cash bail effective Jan. 1, 2023.

In particular, according to him, the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement agencies have disagreements about what should happen on January 1, when people are already being held in custody on bail. The law does not specifically say what happens to these individuals, which has led some to argue that it could lead to their widespread release from prison.

“They interpret it to mean that they have to open the prison doors at midnight,” he said. “And even if that’s not true at all, we’re going to add some wording to make it clear how this transition should work.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed in more than 400 newspapers across the state and hundreds of radio and television stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.


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