Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday August 6th, 2015, 2:04pm

Illinois Legislature Recognized For Passing Key Progressive Policies In 2015 (UPDATED)

Illinois got a nod in a new top 10 list of progressive policies passed during state legislative sessions this year.

The State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a group working with state legislators to advance progressive policies across the country, compiled the list. SiX was formed in an effort to counter the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that crafts and pushes conservative, corporate-friendly state legislation.

According to SiX's review, the top 10 state-level progressive measures approved thus far in 2015 involve the following: closing the wage gap for women and minorities; accommodating pregnant workers; implementing earned sick leave; expanding access to higher education; tackling the student debt crisis; reducing carbon emissions; modernizing voter registration; repealing the death penalty; increasing police accountability and public safety; and preventing abusers and stalkers from obtaining guns.

"We are convinced that progressives are right on the issues and the SiX review of the states bears that out. From advancing the economic security of working families to improving access to voting we saw that even in a map that is deeply red, progressives were able to achieve some important policy victories in 2015," SiX Executive Director Nick Rathod said in a statement. "I'm confident that as SiX grows and is able to better resource, train and organize legislators around the country, we can help to see that progressives are able to achieve more of the types of policy victories like those that made the list this year."

Illinois got a thumbs up for equal pay legislation approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature in late May. The legislation, HB 3619, is currently awaiting action from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

HB 3619, sponsored by state Sen. Michael Noland (D-Elgin) and state Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) in their respective chambers, would extend requirements of the Illinois Equal Pay Act to all employers, as opposed to only those with four or more employees. The measure also seeks to set up a two-tiered civil penalty system, under which employers with three or fewer employees would see smaller fines for violations compared to larger employers.

The governor's press office did not return a request by deadline seeking Rauner's position on the bill.

In addition to Illinois, five other state legislatures passed pay equity legislation this year, including Connecticut, Delaware, New York, North Dakota and Oregon, according to SiX.

Overall, Oregon earned the biggest kudos for its "grand slam legislative session." Oregon enacted legislation making it the second U.S. state to offer a free community college education to its residents and the fourth to pass a statewide paid sick leave law. Among other major progressive policies, Oregon adopted automatic voter registration.

"In Oregon, we just completed one of the boldest, most successful legislative sessions for working families in recent history," Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters. "We pledged to voters last year that we would prioritize policies that improve the everyday lives of all Oregonians, particularly those who've been left behind by the economic recovery. We delivered on an agenda that expands opportunities, makes our communities safer and healthier, and levels the playing field for working people."

Among other victories, SiX applauded Nebraska for abolishing the death penalty and South Carolina for approving the first statewide police body camera law as well as legislation that resulted in the Confederate flag being removed from the state's capitol grounds.

SiX also highlighted successful efforts to beat back state legislation representing the "worst excesses of the corporate special interests." On the topic of education, Illinois was among four states that got a pat on the back from SiX for stalling or rejecting proposed school voucher and charter school bills. Here are other examples of thwarted legislation cited in the report:

RFRA: So-called state 'Religious Freedom Restoration Acts' (RFRAs) or 'religious refusal' laws, which allow individuals to cite religion as a rationale for discriminating against others, were proposed in a number of states. It passed in only one - Indiana - where popular outcry and threats by prominent state institutions and businesses to relocate forced the legislature and the Governor to quickly backpedal. Similar bills in Arkansas, Louisiana and Michigan were subsequently rejected.

Guns: In the midst of yet another series of mass shootings in states across the country, legislators rejected some of the most dangerous proposals to loosen gun safety laws, despite tremendous resources devoted by the gun lobby. Concealed carry laws were defeated in 15 states, as were bills to allow concealed weapons on schools grounds. 'Campus carry' bills that would have forced colleges to allow guns on campus were defeated in 14 out of 16 states, passing only in Texas (legislation is still pending in Ohio). And in Iowa, legislators rejected efforts to repeal the state's permit-to-purchase requirement, a top gun industry legislative priority.

Environment: In Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, bills to cut back state support for renewable energy failed to pass. Last June, the federal Environmental Protection Agency took the long-overdue step of limiting carbon dioxide pollution from coal plants. Organizing state-level attacks on that plan has been a major corporate priority over the past session. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted a model bill at its 2015 kick-off meeting that creates new hurdles for implementing the Clean Power Plan in states, including requiring state legislatures to approve any plan. Legislation reflecting language in this model bill was proposed in more than a dozen states but only enacted into law in West Virginia, the heart of the coal industry.

Voting: Of 52 restrictive ID bills introduced so far in 2015, only one, in North Dakota, passed this legislative session. Voter ID bills failed in states as diverse--and conservative-dominated--as Nevada, Maine, Nebraska, and New Mexico (Arkansas and Missouri failed to muster the popular support to rewrite restrictive ID laws struck down by the courts). Bills to limit early voting and purge voter rolls were rejected in Georgia and Texas, respectively.

UPDATE (3:47 p.m.): Asked about the governor's position on HB 3619, a Rauner spokeswoman issued this comment to Progress Illinois: "The governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk."

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