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Lawmakers try to address Rauner’s marijuana decriminalization concerns

By Monique Garcia, Chicago Tribune

The Illinois Senate took another stab at decriminalizing marijuana statewide, approving a measure Tuesday aimed at satisfying Gov. Bruce Rauner’s concerns that led him to veto a similar bill last year.

The idea is that people caught with small amounts of marijuana would be fined instead of receiving jail time. The first-term Republican governor contended the old version would have let people carry too much marijuana and set fines too low.

The new edition drops the number of grams allowed from 15 to 10 and raises the range of fines from $55 to $125 to between $100 and $200.

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Opponents argued that amount was still too lax, saying it was the equivalent of as many as 20 cigarette-sized joints. Supporters joked about that.

“Quite frankly, they can be different sizes,” said sponsoring Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago. “One of my colleagues says the way she would roll them, it’d be about three.”

Towns could add to the fines and put in place other penalties, such as requiring drug treatment. Citations would be automatically expunged twice a year, on Jan. 1 and July 1.

The bill also would loosen the state’s zero-tolerance policy for driving under the influence. As it stands, a driver can be charged if any trace of marijuana is detected, even if it was ingested weeks before and the driver shows no signs of impairment. Under the newest proposal, drivers would not be charged with a DUI unless they have 5 nanograms or more of THC in their blood, or 10 nanograms or more of THC in their saliva.

While some Republicans raised concerns that the legislation would encourage drug use, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said the administration was “encouraged to see the General Assembly on a path to accept the governor’s changes and will continue monitoring the legislation as it moves forward.”

The measure now heads to the House and could provide a rare point of agreement for Rauner and Democrats who remain locked in a 10-monthlong battle over a state spending plan.

Indeed, Democrats and Republicans continued to bicker over how to keep state universities afloat amid the budget impasse, with dueling proposals emerging Tuesday on how to funnel money to struggling schools.

House Democrats took a triage approach, advancing a measure in committee to free up roughly $160 million to keep the state’s most financially troubled schools operating through July 1, the end of the current budget year. The idea is to provide just enough money for cash-strapped schools “to keep the lights on” while a broader deal is worked out, according to sponsoring Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan.

Under her proposal, money would be shifted from specialized funds and distributed to Chicago State University, Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, Northeastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University. More stable schools such as University of Illinois and Illinois State University would not receive any help under the proposal.

Chicago State declared financial crisis and moved up the end of the semester amid concerns it would not be able to pay staff beyond the end of April. Eastern has laid off nearly 200 workers; Western plans to cut more than 100 staff members; Northeastern and Southern have put in place mandatory furlough days and cut some worker salaries.

Republicans said the measure did not go far enough to provide support for all state universities and community colleges, or to fund scholarships for low-income students known as the Monetary Award Program.

“How much money does the bill allocate to the University of Illinois? I’ll answer that. Zero dollars,” said Rep. Adam Brown, R-Champaign. “What would you say to the 40,000 students who can’t attend the University of Illinois?”

Mayfield noted another bill on Rauner’s desk that would address Brown’s concerns: legislation earmarking nearly $4 billion for universities, scholarships and human service programs. The governor has vowed to veto it, saying lawmakers did not include a way to pay for the spending.

Instead, Rauner has thrown his support behind a competing measure introduced by Rep. Mike Fortner, R-West Chicago. It would spend $558 million to prop up all state universities, fund scholarships for one semester and help the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. The plan also relies on tapping into special funds, as well as loosening contract requirements at schools – a move Rauner has long pushed for as a way to cut overhead.

“[This bill] should give the certainty that we can open in the fall, as well as provide us time to get a real, permanent solution,” Fortner said. “This is not a tenable situation, but I think a stopgap is the best we can do this week. We’re not going to get a whole budget this week, but I think we can get this done, this week.”

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(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

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