It was a history-making year at the Illinois Capitol, with lawmakers legalizing gay marriage, allowing medical marijuana for those with chronic illnesses, permitting concealed handguns and approving major changes to the government worker pension system.
But those high-profile measures represent just a handful of new laws to be put on the books, with more than 200 rules and regulations set to take effect Jan. 1. The laws will affect everything from how students are taught sex education in public schools to who can use a tanning bed to how dogs can be legally tethered outside.
"Obviously, pension reform was the big issue and I think nothing else even came close to that in terms of the importance to the people of this state," said Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. "But I think a lot of the legislation we undertook really reflects the concerns of the day. They are all issues that across the country are very timely right now."
Carrying concealed firearms
After a hard-fought battle, Illinois residents can begin applying for permits to carry concealed guns in public starting Jan. 5. Legislators estimate there will be up to 400,000 applicants.
Illinois is the last state in the nation to approve public possession of a concealed weapon. However, once permits are issued, around 90 days after the application, individuals face another challenge: figuring out where it's legal to carry a firearm and where having a gun could land them in jail.
Driver cell phone ban
A driver who zooms down the road with one hand on the wheel and the other propping a cellphone against an ear soon could find that choice a costly one — a new state law taking effect Wednesday bans the use of hand-held devices while driving in Illinois.
Motorists still can chat and drive, but only if they use hands-free technology such as a Bluetooth device, earpiece, headset or speakerphone. Otherwise, they'll need to put it in park or face fines that start at $75. A handful of towns, including Park Ridge, will issue warnings for the first few weeks of the year, but state police say they'll offer no such grace period.
Under the law, first-time offenders would face a $75 fine. That cost rises to $100 for a second violation, $125 for a third and $150 for each subsequent offense. After four violations, the Illinois secretary of state would have the power to suspend a driver's license.
Disabled parking crackdown
Starting today, fines for unauthorized use of placards for people with disabilities will increase from $500 to $600. Fines for those who make counterfeit placards or use the parking passes in the absence of a qualified holder will double to $1,000. Additionally, doctors who submit false paperwork to help someone get a disabled plate or placard who doesn't need it will face a new $1,000 fine. Penalties increase for repeat offenders.
Those who use handicap placards of people who have died face an even tougher punishment, with fines starting at $2,500 combined with a mandatory suspension of driving privileges for six months. Repeat offenders could have their license revoked for one year.
One of the more controversial changes will eliminate the parking meter fee exemption for those with disability placards. Rather than the blue placards, to park on city streets for free, you'll need a new yellow-and-gray placard.
Chicago is offering a 15-day enforcement grace period for the old blue placards.
70-mph speed limits (except Chicago)
Nearly 90 percent of interstate highway miles in Illinois will have 70-mph speed limits starting tomorrow, but almost all existing posted speeds in the Chicago area will remain unchanged.
Drivers on almost 1,900 of the state's nearly 2,170 miles of interstate will be able to travel at 70 mph instead of the existing speed limits, generally 65 along rural highways, after crews post the new speed limit signs — weather permitting — Jan. 2-17, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
But only about 30 percent of the Illinois Tollway's 286-mile network will get the higher speed limit, according to a map released by IDOT. And in the Chicago area, the 70-mph limit will be posted only on five fairly short stretches of interstate. Those are sections of I-80 and I-55 in Will County, a stretch of I-57 in far southern Cook County and all of Will County, a portion of the I-88 toll road in far western Kane County and part of the I-94 tollway in northern Lake County.
The New Year ushers in the official start of a four-year trial program that would allow patients with certain chronic illnesses to obtain a prescription for medical marijuana. However, the afflicted still are many months from being able to light up legally as state regulators are working out rules and have yet to issue licenses for marijuana growers and dispensing centers.
Supporters say Illinois' medical marijuana law is among the toughest in the nation. Patients cannot legally grow their own supplies and must have an existing relationship with their prescribing doctor. Patients and caregivers will be fingerprinted and undergo background checks, and must promise not to sell or give away marijuana. Workers at 22 grow centers and 60 dispensaries will undergo the same vetting.
Precisely where growers and sellers could locate will be determined by state regulators. While suburbs are putting in place strict zoning laws to limit where marijuana could be sold or grown, local officials cannot prevent such businesses from opening in their towns. Property owners would have the ability to ban marijuana use on their grounds. Employers would maintain their rights to a drug-free workplace, meaning someone with a valid medical marijuana card could be fired for using the drug if their employer prohibits it.
After a 40-year push for gay rights in Illinois, a new law on June 1 will redefine marriage in Illinois from an act between a man and a woman to one between two people. Civil unions could be converted to marriages within a year of the law going on the books. About 6,500 applications for civil unions have been filed since 2011, with about 4,000 originating in Cook County.
Illinois pension reform
The new law will raise the retirement age for many state workers and scale back the size of and even skip some annual cost-of-living increases. In return, the state would put a few hundred dollars into most workers' pockets by slightly reducing the amount of money they have to chip in from their paychecks.
The legislation also keeps intact current benefits for some of the longest-serving, lowest-paid workers who get the smallest retirement checks until their benefits grow to certain levels. In addition, it allows an opportunity for some workers to join a 401(k)-style plan and have more input in managing their retirement nest eggs.
The changes are projected to erase a $100 billion pension shortfall over three decades. If no changes were made, the state would be on the hook for about $374 billion in pension payments over the next 30 years. With the proposed changes, the state's price tag over that same period would drop to $214 billion — a savings of $160 billion.
Public schools that teach sex education will now be required to provide students information about birth control, a departure from previous policy in which abstinence was the only required curriculum.
Backers argue that abstinence-only education is not effective and that students should be taught about other methods of birth control and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Those opposed to the change say parents should decide how to educate their kids about sex.
Schools still have the option to not teach sex education, and the law allows school districts to set their own "age-appropriate" lesson plans and allow parents to examine instructional materials. Parents also can opt to keep their children out of sex education classes without penalty.
Pet shops will be required to disclose outbreaks of potentially life-threatening diseases, and cat and dog owners could receive a refund and return a new pet to a store up to one year after purchase if a veterinarian finds an animal had a hereditary or congenital condition. If an animal dies of an illness, pet shops also could be on the hook for veterinary costs.
Meanwhile, a judge could hand down fines of up $1,500 and jail sentences of up to six months to dog owners who don't follow new rules on how to properly tether their pet outside. A dog's lead must be at least 10 feet and cannot exceed one-eighth of the animal's body weight. It also must be attached to a harness or collar that does not pinch or choke the dog. Tethered dogs must be provided adequate food, water and shelter and be restricted from being able to reach someone else's property or a public sidewalk or road. Penalties increase with subsequent violations. As is usually the case with this type of law, enforcement will be key.
Teen tanning bed ban
Illinois teens under age 18 will no longer be allowed to use tanning beds, even if they have permission from a parent. Previously, children 14 and younger were banned, while those 14 to 17 could use the tanning beds with parental permission. Some cities, including Chicago and Springfield, have policies that ban minors from using tanning beds. Teenagers still could use get a bronzed glow using spray tan machines, which do not use ultraviolet lights.
Teen e-cig ban
Those under 18 also will be banned from buying electronic cigarettes. Meanwhile, smokers of traditional cigarettes could face fines of up to $1,500 and up to six months in jail for not properly disposing of butts after cigarettes were added to the state's definition of litter. It remains to be seen if a judge will mete out such severe punishment, however.
Meth home notication
Another law requires mobile home owners or operators to notify potential buyers if the unit for sale was used to cook methamphetamine.
And Illinois wineries will be allowed to let customers take home an open and partially consumed bottle of wine.
One new measure would crack down on boating under the influence by requiring boat operators to undergo drug and alcohol testing if they are involved in an accident in which someone is hurt or killed. Those who refuse testing, test positive for drugs or have a blood alcohol content limit of .08 or higher could have their driver's license suspended. The law was prompted by the July 2012 death of 10-year-old Tony Borcia of Libertyville, who was killed when he was struck by a speedboat driven by a man who authorities said was found to have alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash on the Chain O' Lakes.
Social media to organize mob action
People who use social media and other forms of electronic communication to organize mob attacks could face tougher penalties under a new law brought about by high-profile incidents in which large groups of teenagers organized on sites like Twitter and Facebook to cause disturbances along Michigan Avenue. Under the law, a judge would have the discretion to impose a more severe sentence on anyone who uses social media, text messaging or email to orchestrate a mob attack.
Legislators also put in place regulations for law enforcement agencies that use drones, requiring search warrants before they could be used to examine private property. Warrants would not be required to patrol state-owned lands, highways or roads. Police would be allowed to use drones to help find a missing person, and could use the unmanned devices to review crime scenes and take traffic crash scene photography.
Stronger parental rights for rape victims
Women who conceive and have a child as a result of rape will get more power to try to deny parental rights to their attackers under another measure. Previously, mothers had to secure criminal convictions before they could prevent their attacker from having visitation, custody on inheritance rights. Now mothers will be able to request fact-finding hearings to determine with "clear and convincing evidence" that a child was conceived through nonconsensual sex. That process is often quicker than court hearings, and in some cases there is enough evidence to prove a child was conceived by rape but not enough to convict an attacker.
Tribune staff writers Ray Long, Ted Gregory and Dahleen Glanton contributedCopyright © 2015, RedEye