Sen. Toi Hutchinson

Sen. Toi Hutchinson

KANKAKEE — Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, is no backbencher in Springfield.

During this year’s legislative session, which ended Sunday, Hutchinson played a prominent role. She carried bills to legalize recreational marijuana and set progressive income tax rates if voters pass a constitutional amendment.

Photos of her have appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s pages at least three times in recent days. In one, she cheered the passage of her marijuana bill. In another, she was talking to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker

Hutchinson, whose district includes Kankakee County, has represented the 40th Senate District since 2009.

Similar to most years, all the major pieces of legislation this year were passed in the five-month session’s final days.

While some lawmakers complained they had no chance to read hundreds of pages of bills, Hutchinson seemed fine with the situation.

“This is a product of five months of work. We had a deadline to meet, and we met it. We had a lot of big pieces of legislation,” Hutchinson said in an interview.

In the session’s last days, a bipartisan majority of the legislature doubled the state’s 19-cents-per-gallon gas tax to 38 cents, which takes effect July 1. Hutchinson was among the supporters.

The state has not increased the tax since 1990, with inflation eating it away ever since. If the tax had kept pace with inflation, it now would be 37 cents.

Hutchinson said the gas tax had to be increased because of the “absolutely horrendous state of disrepair” of roads and bridges.

“We let things go for a very long time,” she said.

Hutchinson makes no bones about her support for recreational marijuana.

“The situation we have now is untenable,” the senator said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate that we do nothing. There is easy access to cannabis now. We should be regulating it.”

She said the government needs to get “in the middle” of the drug trade, requiring documentation from participants.

“Right now, it’s all in the dark. Marijuana is laced with God knows what. We need to do the same thing we did with alcohol. We need to regulate and tax it. We can’t let criminals run it,” Hutchinson said.

She said she has engaged with critics of legalization, including Kankakee County Coroner Bob Gessner, who is among the most vocal locally.

“Bob and I had a great conversation,” the senator said. “I explained from my heart how I feel about it.”

One controversial issue with the budget was it includes a $1,600 bump in state lawmakers’ pay for next year. Some legislators said this was included by mistake. Hutchinson, though, noted lawmakers hadn’t received a pay increase in 10 years, not even one to reflect the cost of living.

All in all, she called the latest legislative session successful.

“This is the first time in as long as I have been in the Senate that we ended with a budget. We ended on a very bipartisan note,” she said. “The bills were the work of a lot of people who took time to really negotiate hard things from different perspectives. It was refreshing. I was really proud of what we were able to do.”

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