Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is tentatively scheduled to testify before the Senate Public Health Committee at 10 a.m. Wednesday on her bill to add an admission surcharge to strip clubs that allow patrons to drink alcohol. The money would go to fund rape crisis centers. Simon talked to Ward Room about that bill, as well as about her and Gov. Pat Quinn’s support for gay marriage.
Q: What's the cut in rape crisis center funds? How much was cut that you're trying to put back in?
A: Over the past five years, there've been about 28 percent cuts to these centers across the state, and these are all non-profit places, people who work on a shoestring of a salary, so when you make a cut to a place where people are earning less than $30,000, you cut into available staff time right away at all these places.
Q: Why are you turning here to replace rape crisis funds. Do you see a connection between strip clubs that serve alcohol and sexual assaults?
A: There's definitely a connection, and there's been research done in communities across the United States that all come to the same conclusion that where you have a strip club that serves alcohol, there's an increase in crime. It's an increase in both sexual assault and other crimes that I would not have suspected before starting to look more closely into this part of the economy. The men who go to strip clubs are going to a place where they're not going to want to spend money on their credit cards, and so have a lot of cash and consume alcohol and are considered soft targets for crime, because they're less likely even to report what's going on.
Q: One thing that struck me when I saw this was that this would be a tax that would be paid almost entirely by men. Is that fair?
A: You know, I hadn't thought about it that way, but it probably will be overproportionally paid by men.
Q: Is that fair? To have it all paid by one sex?
A: I think it's fair to have the industry that is causing some of these problems and is profiting from some of these problems to pay for help responding to the problems.
Q: I understand there's opposition from the liquor industry, because they see this as a connection between their product and sexual aggression. Are you experiencing opposition from them, and what would be your response to that objection?
A: I think what's interesting at this point is we have actually some agreement with the folks in the strip club industry, who have, to their credit, from the very beginning of this process, said "We don't want to kill the bill, we want to make it work for everyone."
Q: I see that on the fact sheet. It's gone from a $5 surcharge to a $3 surcharge. So what about the liquor industry?
A: We're not saying that this is an ill that is strictly the result of liquor, because obviously there are many more bars in the state of Illinois than there are strip clubs that serve alcohol, and this focuses only on the strip clubs that serve or allow to be served alcohol.
Q: Has the governor made a statement on this?
A: We've been working with the governor's staff but I don't think he's said anything publicly on it yet.
Q: And it looks like you have bipartisan sponsorship here, too. Do you see it as an issue that has something for liberals and conservatives alike?
A: I do. I think you could come to value this legislation from any number of different perspectives, whether you're a law enforcement officer who wants to make sure the folks you work with get good training, whether you work at a hospital and you want to make sure victims are protected, or whether you're wanting to make sure that industries who profit from this activity are more responsible.
Q: I could see that groups that are opposed to pornography or drinking would also come out against this.
A: Exactly. Let me just take a very brief detour to say that we have been really scrupulous from the very beginning to make sure that this statute is constitutional and that is does not infringe on people's speech rights, and the reason why we've copied it off of the Texas law is that went through a pretty thorough vetting, went all the way to a unanimous judgment of the Texas Supreme Court, and the United States Supreme Court declined to review.
Q: Last week on Twitter, I saw you tweeted in favor of gay marriage. That wasn't something you and Gov. Quinn campaigned on in 2010. What's brought you to this point, where the both of you are now in favor of gay marriage?
A: It wasn't something I campaigned on, because I think economic issues were the biggest concern, but it's something I was very up front about throughout the course of the campaign is I've been a supporter of gay marriage for a long time.
Q: What role did President Obama's statement have in having you and the governor go public on this?
A: Again, I've been there.
Q: I've never seen you come right out tweet it and put it out as publicly as you did.
A: Windy City Times interview during the campaign, I was very straightforward about it. So anyone who asks, I've got the answer there. The impact of the president's statement, it's put a little more focus on the issue and maybe gotten a few people to re-think public positions. I think the reason why all of this is happening is real life in America. Another time I brought it up that we need to work for marriage equality is when the civil unions bill was signed. There was a lot of advocacy and people doing great work, but more important than the legislative advocacy was same-sex couples who take their kids to soccer practice, who are members of the PTA, who are in church with their friends on Sundays. It's just a part of life in America, and I think people really want to recognize and support committed relationships.
Q: There's a gay marriage bill in front of the legislature right now, but there hadn't been much action on it. It's still stuck in the Rules Committee. Do you think this is going to give it a push.
A: You know, I've talked with [Rep.] Greg [Harris] about this, and I think his understanding is that this is like civil unions. It took several times for it to be introduced, and a lot of work to get a change in the law, but it was worth the years of work, and I think that eventually we'll get to that point in Illinois as well.
Q: But do you think it's going to happen this session?
A: I would be surprised, just because we have some pretty high priority things: pension, Medicaid budget to work out first, and after everyone comes up for air after that, then we can focus on other things.
Q: Some people say issues like this are causing the Democratic Party a problem in your area of the state. How do you go back to Southern Illinois and sell gay marriage?
A: You know, I'm in Southern Illinois right now. I'm on my way to Harrisburg. Southern Illinois is no different from Northern Illinois in that regard, in that gay members of the community are parts of our workplace, of our families. There might be some outspoken people who are more conservative, but I think there's, across the state, a good number of folks who are supportive of civil rights of friends of theirs.
Q: But do you think it would be a tough political issue for the Democrats in Southern Illinois if gay marriage were passed? Are civil unions themselves a tough issue for Democrats in Southern Illinois?
A: I don't see civil unions being a tough issue here, and I think marriage is that next step down the road, but I think it's not something that people will make a single issue choice on.
Q: What message would it send about Illinois around the country if we pass gay marriage?
A: I think it would send a tremendous message around the state, and I think we're finding more and more particularly larger businesses recognize that having civil unions in the state is an asset for recruiting folks to work in their businesses. I think we'll find the same thing about marriage.
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