- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Throughout his campaign for governor, Bruce Rauner asserted he didn’t have a social agenda and was focused solely on Illinois’ deepening financial crisis.

He’ll now be forced to stake out positions on a range of social issues thanks to the majority-Democrat General Assembly passing proposals this spring that would, among other things, reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, ban therapists from trying to change a young person’s sexuality and ensure employers pay women at rates equal to men.

Any of the bills could spark the controversy the first-term Republican hoped to bypass.

“The campaign was all about laying low on all the social issues and stressing the tax and economic issues,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “This is time to begin to find out where he really stands.”

Rauner hasn’t signaled how he’ll proceed. Six months after taking office, he still refuses to detail his stance on same-sex marriage or immigration reform. When pressed about four issues in particular - decriminalizing marijuana, legalizing the drug for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, requiring equal pay and banning gay conversation therapy - a Rauner spokeswoman emailed a standard reply: “The governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk.”

How Rauner acts could further complicate his relationships in Springfield. Signing the bills may irritate his GOP base, while vetoing could irk Democrats. He’s already deadlocked with Democrats over a state spending plan and is trying to influence public perception through critical television ads. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has accused Rauner of being “extreme” in budget talks. He’s also in the middle of negotiations with Illinois’ largest public employee union after some aggressive attempts to curb union power.

“He doesn’t want to make a lot of public policy statements, which is pretty odd for a governor,” said Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, who’s sponsored marijuana-related bills. “But just because he said that doesn’t mean he has abdicated his role as governor.”

Democrats have denied the bills are an effort to test Rauner publicly, saying each one stands on its merits, and that several of these issues have cropped up before.

One of them is the gay conversion therapy ban, which would keep therapists from trying to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person under 18. Providers who don’t comply face disciplinary action. Supporters argue conversion therapy has been discredited and can be harmful. But opponents question whether therapists would be punished unfairly and say a ban limits parents’ treatment decisions.

Rauner may have an opening to sign the measure as public awareness is increasing. In April, President Barack Obama signaled his support for banning the therapy. Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a similar New Jersey law in 2013, and California and Washington, D.C., have approved bans.

In Illinois, a handful of Republicans, including legislative leaders and state Sen. Chris Nybo of Elmhurst voted in favor of a ban. The Republicans didn’t agree to interviews, but Nybo said in an email that he “thoroughly” reviewed the plan and voted how most residents of his suburban Chicago district feel.

When it comes to medical marijuana, Rauner has already had to walk a fine line. He’s said he’s not a fan of the idea - even disagreeing with his hand-picked lieutenant governor who’s in support - while having to implement the program.

Illinois’ experiment with medical marijuana began in 2013 when lawmakers approved a pilot program for those suffering from dozens of diseases and illnesses. But not a single patient has been able to use medical cannabis yet: Rauner halted issuing licenses shortly after taking office because of problems he blamed on predecessor Democrat Pat Quinn, but quickly issued licenses without explanation. Since then, Rauner has said the four-year program shouldn’t be extended until it’s fully reviewed.

Four states already have legalized marijuana outright, which Rauner opposes.

One medical pot-related measure, which has bipartisan support, classifies PTSD as a debilitating illness which could be treated with medical marijuana. Pushing Rauner a step further will be a plan proposing to decriminalize marijuana possession. Those caught with up to 15 grams would be issued tickets up to $125, and records of the ticket would be expunged after six months.

Chicago police already have the power to issue tickets instead of making arrests of those caught with small amounts, and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office has also said it’ll stop prosecuting cases dealing with misdemeanor level amounts.

Measure sponsor Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, has said the bill seems to fit Rauner’s goal of reducing the prison population, but an analysis by the governor’s prison reform task force questions that claim.


Burnett reported from Chicago. Follow Sophia Tareen at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.



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