* Brian Mackey interviewed Senate President Don Harmon this week. Let’s start with crime…
Brian Mackey: House Republican Leader Jim Durkin is pushing for a new crime of organized retail theft punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Would you support something like that? Do you support moving back into the realm of enhancing penalties, as they say?
Senate President Don Harmon: I don’t think that penalty enhancements work. I think the real motivator is the swiftness and certainty that there will be some punishment. I know Leader Durkin went to the press room and made a big to-do about his proposal. Meanwhile, we Democrats have been working with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association that represents most of the businesses that are directly affected, and are working on putting together a plan that is sensible, that doesn’t revolve around penalty enhancements, but addresses the problem in a direct and honest way. I think you’ll see a significant proposal coming out of the Democratic caucuses in both the House and the Senate on that topic.
Mackey: Can you say more about what what that will look like if not increasing penalty enhancements, and how that will work?
Harmon: Part of it is trying to make sure we devote the resources to this to make sure that police departments have the personnel to tackle this particular problem. Part of it is trying to shut off the aftermarket. If people can’t sell these things they’ve stolen, easily, they will have much less of an incentive to steal them in the first place. And part of it is looking at how these organized crime rings are actually organized, and seeing if we can’t chip away at their ability to put these conspiracies into place.
Mackey: …There is this tension out there between, on criminal justice, you have progressive activists, who you know favor anything from sort of raising the dollar amount one can be convicted for on retail theft, to abolishing prison altogether. That’s on the one hand. And then on the other hand, you have people in economically distressed black communities that want more and better policing. How do you reconcile those competing demands on your side of the aisle?
Harmon: I think a good dose of common sense goes a long way. I don’t think there’s any reason to treat someone who steals baby formula and diapers the same way as someone who organizes a mass assault on a shopping mall, where 100 people simultaneously smash glass and steal goods. They’re both retail theft, but I think everyone can see the difference. And that’s why we’re trying to be smart on crime, and to draw those sorts of distinctions and actually hold people accountable for the gravity of what they do, not just merely checking the box of a particular crime or not.
* Mackey also asked Harmon about some poll questions I posted the other day about the state budget…
Mackey: I’d kind of like to ask if you support or oppose some of these ideas. One would be for as you just mentioned, freezing property taxes statewide for the budget year.
Harmon: Freezing property taxes is something that’s been entertained before. Simple solutions to complicated problems are rarely simple or solutions. It’s maybe something that we could do for a year, but it’s not going to solve the problem. I think if we’re going to tackle property taxes, honestly, we have to do it more holistically. Again, the Fair Tax would have been the precursor, in my view to significant property tax reform. But we’re gonna have to go back to the drawing board based on the results of the referendum on that question.
Mackey: …There’s been a lot of attention on inflation. So this poll also asked about eliminating the scheduled increase to the gas tax, or maybe suspending the grocery tax for a year.
Harmon: We’ve looked at issues like that. The grocery tax actually is quite nominal. It’s only one and a quarter percent. And it all goes to local governments. The state long ago eliminated the state sales tax on groceries. So we could do it, but we wouldn’t provide a lot of relief for struggling families. The gas tax, we’ve been in the process of reconfiguring that to essentially devote all of the resources to improving our transportation system that has been neglected for decades. There’s a portion that still goes to the general revenue fund. I think we can look at that, but we don’t want to do something that is flashy showbiz but doesn’t provide real relief to people.
Mackey: What about the idea of direct cash payments? This was poll tested: $200 per child for every family earning less than $50,000 a year. And we’ve seen Andrew Yang proposing sort of, I mean, this goes to the universal basic income argument I guess. But, is there any appetite for that? Or is Illinois just maybe not in a fiscal position to even entertain something along those lines?
Harmon: I’m certainly in a position to entertain it. Republicans have done something like that in the past. It smacks of electoral politics, frankly. Now, that being said, the federal program that provided a child tax credit was enormously successful and popular, a nice confluence of policy and politics working out. But that’s not going to be extended. So, certainly, I think that’s something we would look at, if it’s something that Illinois could afford. But I come back to that basic principle, a responsible and durable state budget is the foundation on which all these other opportunities has to be built.
Mackey: Republicans have been making the point for, it’s going on two years now, that the General Assembly ought to be more engaged in the policy response, particularly when it comes to things like the mask mandates, test or vaccinate rules, business closures. The governor has been handling most of that through the executive department. Has the General Assembly ceded too much authority to the governor in terms of the pandemic response?
Harmon: A prior General Assembly sometime ago had the foresight to pass a law that said in times of pestilence the governor has certain extraordinary authorities to deal with that issue. And the governor has used that, I think, responsibly and effectively. The General Assembly remains a check on excesses. And we have been partners with the governor in passing budgets the last two years to make sure we’re devoting resources to small businesses and to families struggling in the in the wake of the pandemic. It’s a partnership. It’s a check, it’s a balance. But I think the governor is following the law enacted by a prior General Assembly that had never heard of COVID.
Mackey: Why not make the mask rules more codified though, for example? You could be triggers based on, you know, certain case rates or something like that in state law?
Harmon: By design, the legislative process is a bit slow. And these sorts of responses need to be nimble. If we put in some sort of a mandate, it would be difficult to withdraw it without essentially ceding control to the governor to lift it, for instance. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is. We could pass a law giving the governor the same powers that he has to react in real time, but essentially, that’s the framework we already have.
* On that Quinnipac poll we covered here…
Mackey: …There was a recent Quinnipiac University poll that asked a sample of Americans whether they think the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse. ‘Yes’ was the answer from 56% of Democrats, 57% of independents and 62% of Republicans. I guess that’s a rare example of bipartisan agreement, although sort of a horrifying one. Do you think American democracy is in danger of collapse?
Harmon: I don’t, but I’m glad we’re all worried about it, if that makes sense. Our democracy is a very fragile thing. I have great faith in its resilience. The longer I serve in this role, the more faith I have in the system, which sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. But it won’t be resilient if we’re all not mindful of those risks. Democracy exists only so long as we all believe in it and work for it. So it’s troubling that so many of us are concerned about it. But in the end, that might be what saves it.
There’s more, so click here for the whole thing.