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A bill is born: House Bill 180 demonstrates democracy in action

State Rep. Kay Hatcher (right) Gayle Deja-Schultz sit wait present HB 180 Criminal Law committee Springfield Feb. 24. The committee

State Rep. Kay Hatcher (right) and Gayle Deja-Schultz sit and wait to present HB 180 to the Criminal Law committee in Springfield on Feb. 24. The committee is the first stop for bills on the long road to becoming a law. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 24, 2011 8:13AM

Between March and October this year, the Illinois General Assembly introduced 6,000 bills. These bills covered almost every imaginable topic, from restructuring teacher pensions to adjusting the nominating rules for the Senior Illinoisans Hall of Fame.

Of the proposed bills, just 640 made it to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk, and he vetoed 24 of those.

This is the story of a survivor: House Bill 180.

On Aug. 14, House Bill 180 became law in Illinois. Quinn signed it on a stage at the State Fair in Springfield. The signing ceremony probably represented the public’s most common view of legislation: the governor at a desk, holding a commemorative pen, surrounded by grieving families/smiling kids/photogenic legislators. The moment is part publicity stunt, but also part celebration. With a few strokes of a pen, the democratic process has changed the rules.

House Bill 180 would not be considered a major bill because it targets an uncommon occurrence. Before it passed, those who intend to disrupt a funeral could be charged with a misdemeanor if they didn’t stay at least 200 feet away for 30 minutes before and after the memorial service. House Bill 180 simply extended that distance another 100 feet.

As Quinn signed the bill at the State Fair, the ceremony was oddly disconnected from the bill’s origins or life cycle.

House Bill 180 was brought to life nine months after it was conceived as part of a sociology class project at Northern Illinois University’s Naperville campus. Neither the governor nor the legislators who championed House Bill 180 ever met the person who first dreamed it up.

On stage, everything looked clean and easy, as if the bill had sailed through the legislative process untouched. Not many people on stage realized that, along the way, House Bill 180 had faced near death, constitutional challenges and reconstructive surgery.

More than a grade

The assignment in Professor Jack King’s fall 2010 Organizing for Social Action class was straightforward, but complex: Students were assigned to propose a new law or adjust an existing law. The 17 students then would present their bill to class. Christine Peters knew right away what she wanted to target. Peters, 50, of Villa Park, had returned to school after being laid off from a real estate agency.

As she thought about the assignment, she couldn’t shake the image of the protesters who had been showing up at soldiers’ funerals. Her husband had been in the service for 10 years. What if he hadn’t come home? What if while “Taps” was being played, publicity hogs chose to stand in the cemetery, screaming about who God does or doesn’t like?

Peters figured out that the law in Illinois — on the books since 2006 — required protesters to stay at least 200 feet away from the memorial service for 30 minutes before or after the service. Peters counted off 200 steps from her front door. It didn’t seem very far.

The more Peters thought about it, the more outrage she felt. When her research showed that some of Illinois’ neighbors (Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin) provided bigger funeral buffers (300 feet and one hour), Peters switched from worrying about a grade to looking for justice. One problem: She wasn’t sure how to get from the classroom to Springfield. She figured she could write letters to — or maybe go to — a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rally, where there were sure to be people who would sign a petition to protect veterans.

It turned out Peters already had the best asset sitting in her class: somebody who knew somebody. Fellow student Gayle Deja-Schultz once had been an intern for 50th District state Rep. Kay Hatcher, a Yorkville Republican.

speed date

At 7:45 a.m., Feb. 24, 2011, Deja-Schultz was in the first row in a long, stale room on the first floor of the Stratton building in Springfield. In front of her, the seven members of the Criminal Law Committee sat in three rows of blue chairs, flanked by young aides on each side.

Deja-Schultz was nervous, fidgety. House Bill 180 was expected to get its first public vetting, and Hatcher had asked her to speak about the bill.

“Is there going to be any opposition? I went on the Web last night ...,” she whispered to Hatcher, letting the thought trail off. “Will they ask questions?”

“No tough ones,” Hatcher assured her. “This isn’t an angry mob. This is people who have an interest.”

Although she was still a relatively new representative, Hatcher had plenty of legislative experience. She’d served on the Oswego School Board for five years, then the Kendall County Board for 11. She is known for fiscally conservative values, a friendly but straightforward demeanor and the brightly colored jackets she usually wears.

She finds potential bills all over the place — estate sales, village meetings — but most often, when people call her office. That’s the ideal: to back a bill of someone from her district rather than one she dreamed up herself.

“I don’t look for bills, but sometimes one smacks you in the face,” she said. “I’m more of a practical legislator than a change-the-world” one.

While some politicians are known to put more energy into the press release than their bill, Hatcher’s doesn’t treat legislation as a game. But that doesn’t mean she’s without strategy.

Hatcher had entered House Bill 180 early in the legislative session — 180 meant it was the 180th bill filed — so there was less chance of the bill getting caught in a time crunch. The bill was assigned to the Criminal Law Committee and scheduled for a first reading on Feb. 24. It would be an important step. Legislators like to see bills reach the House floor that passed unanimously through committee. Bills that squeak by send up flares.

The committee hearing also was the time when opponents were likely to emerge. Hatcher believed in the bill. She had decided to set the parameters at 1,000 feet, one hour before and after the funeral. She knew there might be free-speech concerns, but for her, that didn’t override the important right to grieve in peace and privacy. She also realized, however, every bill carries unintended consequences. Each one could have an unexpected impact on a group of seemingly unassociated people. A bill that mandated safer tires might drive up the cost of farm equipment. Many of those concerns arose at committee.

And so Deja-Schultz and Hatcher waited nervously. Committee sessions are like speed dating: Sit down for a few minutes, figure out if there’s a match, and schedule a second date if there’s chemistry.

On Feb. 24, there were 31 bills scheduled for a meeting expected to last less than two hours. Committee chairperson Constance Howard warned that not every bill might be called.

“That could be the kiss of death,” Hatcher whispered to Deja-Schultz.

In rapid fire, bills were called, questioned and voted on. Back-to-back, the committee approved bills that weakened and strengthened the state’s sex offender laws.

At 8:25 a.m., House Bill 180 was called. Hatcher and Deja-Schultz stepped to the microphone. Hatcher outlined the proposed changes.

“I believe everybody has a right to mourn in peace,” Deja-Schultz added.

Howard’s aide read off the bill’s supporters, including the Illinois Police Chiefs Association and Illinois Funeral Home Association — groups Hatcher had reached out to for letters of support. Two people were listed as opponents, but no one came forward to speak.

There were no questions. Four minutes after it was called, the bill passed committee, seven to zero. It was on to the House.

House rules

There are three key points where the entire future of a bill is winnowed down to the whims of one person. Depending on whom you talk to, this is decidedly undemocratic or an important safety valve.

In the Illinois House, the gatekeeper is Speaker Michael Madigan. The 69-year-old Chicago representative is politically powerful in every sense. He is the behind-the-scenes general manager for the Democrats — organizing trades and devising political strategy — while also serving as the on-the-floor point guard who dishes out assists and makes more than few blocks. He has been in the House since 1971 and been speaker for all but two years since 1983. There is good argument to be made that he and Senate President John Cullerton have substantially more power than the governor. Any bill that hopes to be a law, including House Bill 180, must pass through them.

Madigan stands at a lectern in front of the room, with every desk angled toward him. At his fingertips is a computer screen with an electronic blueprint of the floor. During votes, he can immediately see who has voted for and against the bill, or who hasn’t voted yet. By touching the screen, he can cut off a representative’s microphone at any time. All bills that make it through committee are passed along to the House, where he decides whether to call them for a vote. If he rolls his hand, it will get a debate. If he cuts his neck, that bill has just been decapitated.

Since the day House Bill 180 was first introduced, it had been picking up “co-sponsors.” Essentially, co-sponsoring a bill is an endorsement — a signal the legislator intends to vote it. Becoming a co-sponsor is as simple as filling out a piece of paper. Popular bills (especially ones that might look good on a re-election brochure) tend to get plenty of co-sponsors. By the time House Bill 180 was scheduled for a vote in the House, 32 representatives had signed on.

The detractors also had emerged. Hatcher was right: There were unintended consequences. Unions were raising concerns.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents about 500 workers in the funeral industry, sent letters to legislators urging them to oppose the bill.

“Changing the distance restriction to 1,000 feet will completely remove employees from their work site during a work-related dispute,” SEIU president Thomas Balanoff wrote. “Changing the time to 60 minutes … when there are upwards of three burials a day at some cemeteries, will make respectful work-related action impossible.”

The push-back was quiet — no one wants to be seen siding with the funeral protesters — but firm. With unions under attack in Wisconsin, many Illinois leaders were hesitant to cede any ground, anywhere.

So Hatcher was unclear what might happen. Unions were powerful voices in the political process. Would one of them have enough sway to get the bill voted down, or even keep it from getting called?

On March 29, after hours of debate and discussions on other bills, House Bill 180 was called. Madigan rolled his hand, and Hatcher rose to introduce the bill.

The House meets in a spectacular room that would seem to inspire deep debates of great importance. House Bill 180 would not be one of those. With no disagreement, the bill passed 114 to zero. It should have been a celebratory moment, but there were still lingering clouds. Three weeks before the House vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the protests conducted by a Kansas church were protected speech, so the members had a right to be there. Hatcher felt House Bill 180 would survive any constitutional challenges because, unlike an outright ban, it still allowed for protesting within certain limits.

There was a more pressing concern. The unions still had a chance to kill the bill. If they could get a sympathetic senator to sign as the sponsor in the Senate, then sit on it, the bill could expire at the end of the session without a vote.

Hatcher had to make sure the senator would take the bill seriously. But sponsorship would be first-come, first-served. Hatcher thought 28th District state Sen. John Millner, R-Carol Stream, a former police chief, or maybe another veteran might help.

“I just don’t know if I’ll get to him fast enough,” she lamented. “It’s gamesmanship. It’s really sad.”

Indeed, before Hatcher could get to Millner, a Joliet senator had already snatched up the bill.

Experienced legislator

The staff in 43rd District state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi’s office spotted House Bill 180 right away. They knew Wilhelmi, a 43-year-old Democrat, would want to grab the bill before anyone else.

Wilhelmi, an attorney specializing in real estate and corporate litigation, was appointed to the Senate in 2005, making him practically an infant in the senior chamber.

When he was appointed, Wilhelmi had almost no political experience and had never held office. So when then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn approached him in 2006 about sponsoring a bill, Wilhelmi was happy to oblige. That bill was called the “Let Them Rest in Peace Act” and established the first boundaries to protect families mourning at funerals. Despite opposition from unions and the American Civil Liberties Union, and two months of stalling, the bill passed. “It was a moment I’ll never forget,” Wilhelmi said.

Signing on as House Bill 180’s Senate sponsor was a natural fit. But Wilhelmi had a concern. If the bill passed in the form that Hatcher proposed, he was not sure it would last long. His staff’s research revealed that no state had 1,000-foot or 60-minute barriers. Without any precedent, Wilhelmi felt the bill was constitutionally vulnerable. And if House Bill 180 later was struck down in court, the original bill would evaporate, too. An effort to expand the protection zone would have the unintended consequence of eliminating it.

After the bill passed out of the Senate’s Criminal Law Committee, Wilhelmi added an amendment that left the time restrictions at 30 minutes and reduced the area to 300 feet.

The amended bill passed the Senate on May 23, in a 58-to-zero vote. Five days later, the House approved the Senate’s amendment. The new House Bill 180 was ready to become law.

Pomp and consequence

When House Bill 180 was signed into law, Wilhelmi and Hatcher were there, alongside representatives from the Illinois National Guard, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and veterans. Wilhelmi, the Democrat, and Hatcher, the Republican, got their picture snapped with the governor — each of them beaming.

“We signed something that will make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what this is all about,” Wilhelmi said later. “It was a good day.”

The bill’s original mother, Peters, read about it later. She’s back in school and thrilled she was part of what she calls “an amazing process.”

“It really works,” she said. “The process works much better than people think it does. Here I am, an ordinary citizen, and I had a chance to affect legislation for the state. That’s wild.”

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