Illinois House Speaker Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch doesn’t rule out putting abortion rights on 2024 ballot

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch on Wednesday vowed there wouldn’t be another attempt to ask voters to approve a graduated-rate income tax, but did not rule out putting a proposed constitutional amendment codifying a women’s right to abortion on the 2024 presidential election year ballot to drive Democratic turnout.

House Republican Leader Tony McCombie, meanwhile, acknowledged that while her caucus does not have a single lawmaker who supports abortion, she would be open to supporting a suburban GOP candidate who supports the procedure. Republicans were once the dominant party in the suburbs but their hard-line positions on social issues, including opposition to abortion, has eroded the party’s support.

Abortion was one of a number of issues discussed by the state’s top legislative leaders during a panel discussion in downtown Springfield hosted by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, and moderated by Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated-rate income tax amendment was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2020. But when Welch became House speaker in early 2021, he suggested the state make another attempt to put the question to voters, with the intention of helping to pay down Illinois’ massive pension debt.

On Wednesday, he conceded that such a proposal is off the table.

“One of the things I’ve learned is you learn a lot from losses. You know, we got our butts kicked on that. And we had to find a different way to go,” Welch said.

Welch, a Democrat from Hillside, said the state is showing signs of financial stability, citing the recent series of credit upgrades and a projected surplus in the latest budget proposal. “Illinois is on the right track,” he said.

Asked about a ballot question on adding abortion rights to the state constitution, Welch said a “working group” composed of Democratic abortion rights supporters has been “looking at ways to continue to make Illinois a place that trusts women.”

In rattling off abortion rights legislation the Democratic-led legislature has passed in the last few years, including the 2019 Reproductive Health Act, Welch hinted that an abortion rights amendment could provide an extra jolt of motivation for the state’s Democratic voters in November 2024.

“We have done a really good job in Illinois at being the place that folks across the country know is a place where we value women, we trust women,” he said. “The issue is one that is pretty clear here, especially here in Illinois. If it is on the ballot, it could potentially help Democratic turnout.”

While the Reproductive Health Act made abortion a “fundamental right” in Illinois, the law could be repealed in the future if anti-abortion lawmakers assume majority status in the legislature. But repealing an amendment enshrined in the state constitution would be significantly more difficult, requiring another amendment.

To pass, amendments enshrined in the state constitution require 60% of those voting on the question to vote “yes,” or more than 50% of all ballots cast to vote in favor of the question.

Last year, a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Pritzker told CNN that the right to choose should be put “on every ballot across the country in 2024,” especially “where right-wing politicians are stripping those rights away.”

But after delivering keynote remarks at Wednesday’s luncheon, Pritzker deferred to the General Assembly when asked about the chances of a proposed abortion amendment on the 2024 ballot.

“I do think it’s important for people to be able to weigh in on this subject and of course we’ve guaranteed it in the Reproductive Health Act in Illinois, a woman’s right to choose and reproductive rights. So we’ll have to see what the legislature decides to do on it,” the governor said.

During the panel discussion, McCombie acknowledged that she’d support a “pro-choice” Republican from the Chicago suburbs, but she also said some of the state’s recently enacted abortion laws are “too much,” particularly the repeal of parental notification requirements for minors getting the procedure.

“I know our caucus supports human rights,” said McCombie, who’s from Savanna in northwestern Illinois. “For us, it’s about legislation going too far.”

Around the same time as Pritzker’s keynote remarks, anti-abortion rights advocates gathered outside the Capitol to rally against legislation that would penalize so-called crisis pregnancy centers if they’re found to spread false information and interfere with patients’ access to abortions.

The measure passed through a House committee Tuesday by a 5-3, party line vote, and moves to the full House floor for consideration.

Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, accused Pritzker and his Democratic allies in the legislature of “trying to silence pregnancy care centers.”

“The only choice they want economically disadvantaged Illinois women to have is abortion,” Scheidler said in a statement. “If Illinois Democrats really believed in choice, they’d be subsidizing pregnancy care centers, not trying to shut them down.”

Pritzker told reporters that it’s inappropriate for women to be deprived of their reproductive rights, and the bill now before the House would guard against that.

“We need to prevent the kind of fraud that we’ve seen by folks who are taking out retail establishment locations next to Planned Parenthood, next to clinics where people seek their reproductive rights, and then trying to convince them to go in a different door where they won’t be offered reproductive rights, where actually they’ll be dissuaded from exercising those and won’t be allowed to get them,” Pritzker said. “That’s improper. We want to protect women in this state.”

Chicago Tribune’s Angie Leventis Lourgos contributed.

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April 26, 2023 at 07:22PM

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