Interview With Rep. Greg Harris, Sponsor of Illinois’ Marriage Equality Act

By Mike Fourcher | Thursday, June 6, 2013
Rep. Greg Harris (D-13) fights to hold back tears on the Illinois House floor as he announces that he will not call the Illinois Marriage Equality bill for a vote.

Rep. Greg Harris (D-13) fights to hold back tears on the Illinois House floor as he announces that he will not call the Illinois Marriage Equality bill for a vote. Image from Livestream.com

Illinois State Representative Greg Harris (D-13) shot to the center of national attention last Friday evening with his impassioned speech announcing he would not be calling legislation making gay marriage possible for a vote in the Illinois House. Combined with the General Assembly’s failure to pass state employee pension reform this legislative session, Harris has since been buffeted by a renewed wave of frustration in the gay community and across Illinois with state government’s inability to act.

On Monday, Harris, who represents Uptown, Ravenswood, part of Andersonville, and since last year’s redistricting, most of Lincoln Square, sat down with Center Square Journal to talk about the last legislative session, the budget, our state’s social safety net, and what’s next for the marriage equality bill.

Full Disclosure: From 2008 to 2010, I was a paid political fundraiser for Harris, but I have not done any work for him since.

Center Square Journal: Public response to the Spring Session has been pretty negative. What’s your take on it?

Harris: There were some huge things that we didn’t get done. The House passed one pension bill the Senate passed another, neither passed both and sent them to the Governor. The House passed the cost shift which was defeated in the Senate which deals with the other half of the pension crisis. Marriage equality did not pass. Concealed carry did and there are some people who think that’s a good thing in response to the Supreme Court’s decision. It was something I voted against. But there was a lot of unfinished work to do.

CSJBesides marriage equality, what has been your top priority this session?

Harris: Budget. I’m chairman of the Appropriations Committee that is responsible for the Departments of Aging, Health Care and Family Services, DCFS, Public Health, Human Services, which accounts for about 50% of the state budget and we were able to pass a budget there that lived within our means, for the first time in many years. It meant some cuts to the operations of all departments and 1% across the board cuts to many grant programs but we were able to sustain the funding at an equal level for things like homeless youth, child care, mental health, substance abuse. We were able to add money in to cushion the impact of the transition to the Affordable Care Act ["Obamacare"] for people with AIDS and women with breast cancer who the Governor’s budget had cut substantially. We were able to create and fund a new adult protective services unit to protect all adults with disabilities in the state from abuse neglect and exploitation in response to a series of horrific deaths that occurred this year.

So, there some good things that we got done. In the other appropriations committees we kept education funding level. The Governor’s education budget had requested a substantial increase in education funding. It was the House and Senate’s view that keeping core human services in our neighborhoods and education unharmed was key.

CSJObviously social services has been one your big focuses in this session and in previous years. What with the current budget situation would you say with social services are most threatened?

Harris: Very, very few. And actually we took a lot out of danger. The Community Cares program that provides in-home services to seniors the home services program for adults with disabilities–we had not paid our bills since FY12 for some of those programs. So the individual care providers and agencies were, if some had not already gone out of business, many were at risk of going out of business and forcing seniors out of their homes–we were able to fully fund those things. We were able to eliminate our–we paid down $411 million of back bills to other human service providers.

State Rep. Greg Harris at the Montrose and Damen intersection near his district office. Credit: Mike Fourcher

State Rep. Greg Harris at the Montrose and Damen intersection near his district office. Credit: Mike Fourcher

CSJBut a lot of that is sort of luck of the draw this year because there was an unexpected increase in tax receipts.

Harris: Absolutely. A lot of this was due to the fact that the House and Senate very,very conservatively budgeted our income projections for FY13, having been burned before by making to many optimistic projections, which in this economy were not met. In FY13 we made very conservative ones, and as the economy slowly recovered, revenues came in above our projections. But the one thing nobody had counted on was at the end of last year, in anticipation of changes of the federal tax code due to the sequester, a lot of people were going to sell assets to protect capital gains. That put a huge spike into the April revenues–that’s a one-time thing–but we were able to pay down several hundred million dollars of old bills that we had already incurred to nursing homes, doctors, pharmacies, child care, and we were also able to return dollar for dollar federal match and bring more revenue into the system. So it was a very good thing.

CSJNow that you’re the chair of the Appropriations for Human Services Committee in the House, what perspective do you have that you didn’t have a year or two ago?

Harris: Just how fragile our systems are. I mean because we were lucky this year with revenues, we were able to avoid devastating cuts to human services to education to seniors to public safety. Should the economy turn down slightly or substantially in the future, those gains could be erased or taken back. Should we not solve the pension crisis, in the future, these problems are going to continue to haunt us. Pensions now are the one thing we have to focus on getting done.

CSJThat’s an interesting question, because there are a lot of critics who say neither of the two pension bills moving through the legislature, Senate President John Cullerton’s in the Senate and Speaker Mike Madigan in the House, will make a big enough impact on spending to reverse the problems. If pension reform can’t fix state spending, where do you go next, what do you do?

Harris: These are highly complex calculations based on how many employees, what their ending salaries are, what their retirement rate is, what the COLAs are, how long they will live, what future funding of the pension systems will be, what the rate of interest being paid on investments or investment gains or losses, twenty, thirty and forty years from now. It’s a hugely complex transaction.

I think that a lot of people would say that the House proposal is by far the most conservative and would cut the year-to-year expenses the most and reduce the on-going liabilities the most, I think President Cullerton would say that their solution, while probably not returning as much immediate gain as the House, also would have a better chance of passing court muster if there were a constitution challenge against it.

Either way, whichever plan that moves, we’re pretty sure that somebody, of all the thousands of employees and retirees in this state, the university, public employees, teachers retirement system, somebody is likely to file a lawsuit and then we’ll find out what the court decides.

CSJFour years ago school funding reform, moving funding from local property tax to state income tax, was the big issue. And it never really got anywhere. It just died. Is pension reform potentially going to face the same fate?

Harris: This is a problem that just because of the power of compound interest, every year this does not get fixed, just becomes worse, and the solutions more horrific. There are no easy answers now, but the answers aren’t going to get better with time. And eventually, if you couple that with a cyclical or some other downturn in the economy, it could be calamitous. You may see in the next week or so the credit rating of Illinois reduced to junk bond status inhibiting our ability to borrow money to operate or pay for capital plans, and that’s a consequence.

CSJYou were Ald. Mary Ann Smith’s Chief of Staff for 14 years in the 48th Ward. Aldermen get a lot of attention in Chicago media, whereas state legislators don’t. That’s not the case downstate. Are Chicago legislators at a disadvantage to their downstate colleagues because of this?

Harris: I think that sometimes you could say we don’t get a lot of attention. So, yeah. But, people are paying a lot of attention to the pension crisis. I get more messages about that. People are really aware of just how precarious this situation is. People are really concerned about education funding. People are concerned about the most vulnerable. I think people are paying way more attention than we used to, because people are just sensitive to what the success or failure of Springfield means to them and their families.

CSJYour district boundaries changed this year. What new territory do you represent?

Harris: I picked up a good deal of the 40th Ward, some of the 47th Ward, some of my 46th Ward boundaries and 49th Ward boundaries. I’ve got a precinct in the 39th Ward and some in the 33rd Ward.

CSJSo you go pretty far west. To the river?

Harris: And beyond!

CSJLast weekend, Tracy Bain from the Windy City Times said you should resign if marriage equality didn’t pass this year. And then today, the two of you put out a joint statement saying that everyone needs to work together. Do you feel personally responsible for the bill not going for a vote?

Harris: The decision, when to call the bill and not call the bill, ultimately rests with the chief sponsor, and that is me. So it was my decision to do it. But I think that since some of my colleagues who had been committed to voting yes had said at the eleventh hour that they wish to hold back their votes until they had time to get back to people in their community and respond to some of the negative messaging and some of the untruths our opponents had been saying about religious freedom, they were going to withhold their vote, that it would have caused the bill to fail.

I think that holding this for a successful vote, even though painful, was the right strategy, versus going up on the board and show a failure.

CSJThe amount of vitriol and intense emotion in the gay community is really more than I think you’ve seen for a lot of different things, and a lot of it has been focused on you. Do you think of your seat as a “gay seat”?

Harris: No. I think of my seat as a 13th District seat. There are a lot of things I work on. Immigrant and refugee issues and homeless youth issues, and breast cancer and protecting adults with disabilities. And marriage equality is one of the top among those. It’s something I think, that whoever occupies this seat, straight or gay, marriage equality is certainly going to be a big priority to them. But we also have to remember that education, seniors, immigrants and refugees, those who are most frail and vulnerable who don’t have lobbyists in Springfield, I also think I need to go down and stand up for them.

CSJCan you give us a little bit of an insight into what happened? How come the bill wasn’t called for a vote?.

Harris: Sure. At the eleventh hour, some members who had said they were inclined to vote yes became very nervous. We’d been in Springfield for a very long time, and back in their district forces who oppose equality had been out organizing robocalls and such things saying the bill was going to attack religious freedom and take the rights away from churches–those kinds of things are not true. If you read the bill, you can read it, it’s two paragraphs, it pretty much says it straightforward, what the bill does and doesn’t do, providing broad protections for religious freedom.

They felt that politically for themselves they needed to go back to their district and do work educating their constituents before they they cast their vote.

Then, you look at two, there are so many other things going on. You have the tension between the House and the Senate on the pension issue. You had the Republican Caucus, who had members who came out early on also the Chairman of the Republican Party, who came out early on saying a vote for fairness and equality keeping big government out of people’s bedrooms was the conservative thing to do.

You had immense blowback from the right wing of the Republican Party, you had people starting to come to a conclusion they wanted to potentially be a vote, then you had an announcement maybe two, three weeks ago that the House Republican Leader [Tom Cross] that he might run for Attorney General, which started a scramble in that caucus that people who thought, “Oh, I can be the next House Leader,” saying, “Well how do I cobble together my majority? I need to tack way to the right to appease the Tea Partyists and the right wing people in order to get this new job.” So all kinds of things happened behind the scenes.

CSJDo you think that the internal dynamics created a cannibalism within the Republican Party has affected members of the Republican Party ability to vote their conscious on bills like this?

Harris: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Everyone has to go home and run within their own districts and run within their own parties. I think that at the end of the day there are different political realities within the City of Chicago and on the North Side and on the West Side and the South Side. There are different political realities and changing political dynamics in the suburbs big time. Central Illinois, downstate have their own, whether it’s a rural area or manufacturing town whether it’s a college town. All politics is local. I guess as chief sponsor my job is to keep a pulse on 118 different people, of whom I need 60 to vote with me. Realizing the positions continually change every hour. It’s a lot of pulse-taking. I want to be sure where people are when I put that up on the board. I don’t want a surprise.

CSJPastors Larry Trotter and former State Senator Rev. James Meeks, from the African-American Clergy Association said that it was a victory last week that the bill was not called for a vote for the “the God-fearing Black Caucus members” and that’s great that the Black Caucus stood strong against the measure. Is this creating a wedge in the progressive community between progressive whites and progressive Blacks?

Harris: I hope it doesn’t. Because if you look at all the caucuses, the Downstate Caucus, the Republican Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Latinos, there were no caucus positions on this issue. People were really doing what they thought was politically and morally right. You clearly had some members of the Black Caucus who for their reasons, very legitimate, would probably never have voted for this bill regardless. You had many who regardless of what happened believe it is absolutely the right thing to do, who would have voted for it. Then there is a group in the middle who are struggling to find their way how to vote for it.

So, to try to drive a wedge between the gay community and and other progressives is… Back in 2009 some confidential documents and strategy plans were released from the National Organization for Marriage, which is the anti-marriage equality organization nationally. And it is their strategy to try to drive wedges nationally between Black communities, Latino communities and the gay communities. All of us who struggle cannot let that happen. We cannot be divided.

CSJYour speech on the House floor, that the bill won’t be called, has become nationally famous. [video here] Do you think the national attention on a bill nobody voted on will make a difference for passing marriage equality in Illinois?

Harris: You know talking to some folks over the weekend, some of my colleagues, I think it certainly raises the stakes in how important this really is and how all eyes are going to be on Illinois when that bill comes to a vote.

CSJ: Does Illinois matter more than states like Iowa and Minnesota?

Harris: Every state matters. I mean equality in one place, equality in the next place, it is something that we have to work for in every state. And remember, in just a couple weeks the Supreme Court is going to opine on the Proposition 8 case from California and the Defense of Marriage Act case that is before them too, so that could also dramatically change the landscape. This is an issue of just tremendous national scrutiny.

Governor Pat Quinn threatened to call a special session to get pension reform and marriage equality passed. Can he bring anything new to the table that hasn’t already been done?

We’ll see as things progress, how votes progress, how people progress, how coalitions progress, but bottom line those of us who wish to fight for equality, we have to double down, get back into the communities, get back with our allies, and continue to do the right thing.

CSJWhen you have some free time, anything you’re hoping to do to relax this summer?

Harris: I don’t have any free time in the foreseeable future. [Laughs.]

CSJSo, nothing.

Harris: Apparently not!

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