Capitol Recap: An interview with the governor

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SPRINGFIELD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he will consider ideas for directing hundreds of millions of new dollars toward K-12 education in the upcoming fiscal year, but proponents of such spending must offer up ways to cut government spending or raise necessary revenues elsewhere.

He made those comments in an interview with Capitol News Illinois Monday, one of several interviews he did with news organizations to mark one year since the COVID-19 pandemic changed daily life for residents of Illinois and beyond.

“If somebody proposes an idea for spending new money…or continuing the tax expenditures of corporate welfare, I’m open to conversations and discussions about that,” Pritzker said regarding his proposed state budget. “But they’ve got to tell me what else it is that they want to cut or where they’re going to come up with revenue to make sure that we can balance the budget.”

Pritzker also discussed whether the pandemic has affected his relationship with lawmakers and whether his use of executive authority over the past year has redefined the powers of the governorship.

He said while some Republicans have “politicized” the pandemic, he believes he and Democrats in the General Assembly have a united focus as to where money should be spent.

Pritzker first issued a stay-at-home order almost exactly one year ago and has since issued dozens of executive orders in response to the pandemic. Asked if his use of executive authority has redefined the governorship, Pritzker downplayed the idea.

REOPENING, VACCINE ELIGIBILITY: All Illinoisans 16 years of age and older outside of Chicago will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations beginning April 12, and the state announced a “metric-based” phase-in to greater reopening Thursday.

The so-called “bridge phase” to reopening can begin when 70% of seniors 65 years of age and older have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, according to the governor. As of Thursday, that number stood at 58%.

It is also dependent on at least 20% of intensive care beds being available. Other metrics, such as COVID-like illness hospital admissions, mortality rate and case positivity rate over a 28-day monitoring period, must “hold steady.”

Gov. Pritzker said all regions of the state will move to the bridge phase and beyond as one, rather than individually.

The state also updated current Phase 4 mitigations so that anyone with proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test one to three days before an event or outing do not count against capacity limits.

The bridge phase will include higher capacity limits at places like museums, zoos and spectator events and increased business operations, according to the governor’s office.

But the state can revert back to an earlier phase if it “experiences an increasing trend” in COVID-19 transmission rates and hospitalizations over a 10-day period.

If the numbers hold steady for 28 days in the bridge phase, the state must reach a 50% vaccination rate for residents age 16 and over in order to enter Phase 5. Currently, about 28% of that population is vaccinated.

Masks will continue to be mandatory in the state until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determine that they are no longer needed, the governor said.

As of Thursday, the state was averaging 99,210 vaccine doses administered daily on a seven-day rolling average. Vaccine information and locations can be found at coronavirus.illinois.gov, and the state has a hotline to make appointments for those without internet access at 833-621-1280.

Pritzker also said there will be “additional announcements to come” regarding other populations that will be eligible for the vaccine ahead of the April 12 expansion.

COVID-19 UPDATE: The Illinois Department of Public Health announced Friday that more groups of people will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of April 12, when everyone over age 16 will become eligible.

Starting Monday, March 22, higher education staff, government workers and members of the media will be eligible to receive shots.

A week later, on March 29, restaurant staff, construction trade workers and religious leaders will become eligible.

As of Thursday night, according to IDPH, a little more than 4.5 million doses of vaccine have been administered in Illinois, including 359,850 for long-term care facilities.

On Thursday, 135,525 doses were administered. The seven-day rolling average for doses administered daily stood at 102,775.

During a news conference in Belleville on Friday, Pritzker said a little more than 60% of seniors age 65 and over had received at least one vaccine dose. Under a plan announced earlier in the week, when that number reaches 70%, and as long as certain other metrics are met, the state will enter what he is calling a “bridge phase” to full reopening of the economy that will allow for larger capacity limits in public gatherings.

IDPH reported Friday that 2,380 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 had been recorded over the previous 24 hours out of 92,161 tests performed. The seven-day rolling average positivity rate of new cases as a percent of total tests stood at 2.5%, up one tenth of a point from the day before.

As of Thursday, 1,132 patients were reported hospitalized with COVID-19 while 29% of the state’s hospital beds remained available. Of those, 242 were being treated in intensive care units, while nearly 27% of the state’s ICU beds were available. There were 105 COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

IDPH also reported Friday that 12 additional residents had died of COVID-19 over the previous 24 hours, bringing the statewide death total since the pandemic began to 21,034 out of a total of just over 1.2 million cases of the disease.

HEALTH CARE BILL PASSES: The Illinois House passed a massive health care reform bill Thursday, marking the passage of the final of four legislative agenda pillars outlined by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus last year.

House Bill 158, a 227-page bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Camille Lilly of Chicago, contains dozens of provisions meant to eliminate race-based and other inequities in the Illinois health care system and expand the medical services available to low-income residents and residents of color. A last-minute amendment added Thursday also enhanced dementia training requirements for the Illinois Department on Aging.

HB 158 includes several standalone acts to combat health inequities: developing community health workers statewide, amending the prescription monitoring system to better combat the opioid epidemic, funding safety-net hospitals, and creating a program to prevent and treat sickle cell anemia among dozens of other provisions.

Gone from the bill relative to its lame duck counterpart are provisions that would have replaced the state’s Medicaid managed care program with a standard fee-for-service payment system.

Multiple House Republicans praised Lilly for the intent of the bill and the changes made from the lame duck version but expressed that they still had unaddressed concerns regarding the total cost of HB 158 and its implementation.

“For many of us on this side of the aisle we are hearing some pretty astounding numbers… According to our figures to fully implement this would be somewhere between $12 and $15 billion,” State Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, said on the House floor Thursday.

Lilly disputed those figures and said Democrats were still working on an estimate for the total cost. The bill is also subject to appropriations, which Lilly said will result in Democrats working with Republicans to determine what parts of the bill will be fully funded, and what provisions will see a cut when it comes to negotiating the state’s operating budget.

HB 158 passed the House 72-41 and now heads to the Illinois Senate for consideration.

ELECTIONS BILL: The Illinois House passed a bill Thursday that would make permanent the vote-by-mail and curbside voting expansions that the state adopted ahead of the 2020 presidential election due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Bill 1871, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Katie Stuart of Edwardsville, passed 70-41, and takes effect immediately. Under the bill, Illinois can use federal funds distributed to states for election administration through the 2002 Help America Vote Act to create and maintain secure collection sites for mail ballots.

The bill also allows election officials to legally maintain postage-free collection sites where voters can return their mail ballots.

“As I said before, I think we need to make these drop boxes available across the board,” Stuart said on the House floor. “I look forward to working with people across the aisle to come up with ways, and come up with the regulations that we are going to put on those drop boxes.”

It would not require local election officials to mail or email vote-by-mail ballot applications to voters who cast a ballot in previous elections. This measure was included in the previous vote-by-mail law for the 2020 general election but will not be extended.

Curbside voting, which allows for an individual to fill out a ballot from their vehicle in a designated zone outside the polling place, would be allowed in all elections for certain persons, if local election authorities choose to use them.

REDISTRICTING OPTIONS: Ben Williams and Wendy Underhill, both of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, briefed the Senate Redistricting Committee Wednesday about the basics of the redistricting process and what options states have other than using census data.

Using data other than the Census may be necessary this year because the COVID-19 pandemic forced delays in the Census Bureau’s work. Although the numbers needed to draw congressional districts are scheduled for release in late April, the detailed, block-level data that states use to redraw their legislative district maps won’t be available until late September.

Census blocks are the smallest geographic units used by the Census Bureau for tabulating populations.

Williams noted the state constitution sets an early deadline of June 30 in the year following the census to approve a set of maps. If lawmakers go past that deadline, the process is handed to a bipartisan legislative commission to draw the maps. As well, the state’s congressional and legislative primaries are in early March, so maps must be completed in time for the primary filing process.

The state constitution does not require that census data be used to draw maps, however, so other options are available.

One option is to use population estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That survey is conducted every year, but Underhill noted that the Census Bureau compiles rolling five-year estimates that provide the kind of block-level data that can be used for legislative districts.

Another option is to use the Census Bureau’s 2020 population estimates for Illinois, although those do not provide block-level detail.

Other options include asking the Illinois Supreme Court for relief or passing legislation moving back the candidate filing deadlines and the date of the primary election.

Still another option would involve drawing maps based on data that is known to be inaccurate, and then coming back for a special session after the detailed census numbers are released to make adjustments.

But Republican Sen. Jason Barickman, of Bloomington, said he had significant concerns about using anything other than official census numbers.

MANDATORY SEX ED: An Illinois House committee advanced a bill Wednesday  that would mandate all public school districts in the state provide a comprehensive, age-appropriate curriculum on sex education, sexual abuse awareness and healthy relationships for all grades, K-12.

Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, House Bill 1736’s chief sponsor, said the bill calls for developing three curriculums. For students in kindergarten through 2nd grade, it would focus on personal safety, identifying trusted adults and respecting others. For grades 3-5, it would focus on personal safety and healthy relationships, bullying prevention, harassment, abuse, anatomy, puberty, hygiene, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expressions.

In grades 6-12, the curriculum would include instruction in the concepts of consent, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, the benefits of abstinence, pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted infection prevention.

The bill calls for the Illinois State Board of Education to develop educational standards for each grade level, but it would allow local districts to develop their own curricula. 

The bill would also allow parents to opt out of allowing their children to receive the instruction.

Julia Strehlow, a licensed social worker with the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, said she believes it’s important to begin educating children about sexuality and abuse in early grades. Nationally, she said, the median age of child sex abuse victims is 9, and in the Chicago center where she works, the median age is 8.

Portions of the bill, however, are drawing strong opposition from anti-abortion groups who argue that the upper grade-level curriculum amounts to promoting abortion.

According to the bill, the grades 6-12 curriculum would have to include “unbiased information and non-stigmatizing information about the options regarding pregnancy, including parenting, adoption, and abortion.”

It also calls for instruction in “Diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions, including affirmative representation and health-positive instruction.”

“So both of these situations are indoctrinating our students in the public schools, against their beliefs against their parents’ beliefs,” said Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for Illinois Right to Life Action and the Pro Family Alliance.

PARENTAL NOTIFICATION OF ABORTION: Some Democratic lawmakers want to repeal an abortion law that requires girls under the age of 18 who are seeking an abortion to notify their parents at least 48 hours before the procedure, with some exceptions.

Under the current law, the notice requirement doesn’t apply if a minor is accompanied by an adult family member, such as a parent, grandparent, stepparent or legal guardian, or if an adult family member waives the notice in writing.

Additionally, there are exceptions for minors who are victims of physical or sexual abuse or neglect by an adult family member. Exceptions to the 48-hour notice requirement also apply in cases where the minor is married, divorced or widowed, if the minor has been legally emancipated, or if the health care provider determines that there is a medical emergency.

The final exception in the law, referred to as “judicial bypass,” allows for minors to obtain a waiver of the notification requirement from the courts.

Through the judicial bypass process, minors can petition the court to show that they are mature and well-informed enough to make the decision to obtain an abortion, or that it is not in their best interest to notify an adult family member.

The attempt to repeal is the latest development regarding the law that was entangled in court battles since it passed in 1983 until the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2013 decision upholding it as constitutional. The law was revised in 1995 to the current iteration.

House Democrats, including Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, of Hillside, and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, of Chicago, sponsored a bill to repeal the parental notification law in the previous General Assembly but it never moved out of committee.

Welch and Cassidy are now sponsoring House Bill 1797, along with Democratic Reps. Margaret Croke and Greg Harris, both from Chicago, and Anna Moeller of Elgin.

HOUSING ASSISTANCE: State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, reintroduced a bill on Wednesday that would offer emergency support to tenants, landlords and homeowners struggling to make payments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Bill 2877, known as the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Act, would create a process for allocating funding for rental support that was made available in federal stimulus packages since December. It would also expand the sealing of eviction records in the state through July of 2022.

Ramirez, who previously introduced the legislation during the lame duck session in January, said the new bill offers “a comprehensive approach” to addressing what she referred to as “a crisis of housing instability” as a result of COVID-19.

Since the outset of the pandemic, Ramirez has been working to introduce legislation that would provide additional support to renters, landlords and homeowners who are unable to make rent or pay their mortgage due to financial hardship during the pandemic.

The legislation Ramirez originally introduced in January aimed to back Gov. Pritzker’s eviction moratorium by enshrining the executive order into state statute and extending it into late 2022.

Opponents of the bill, including State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, cited concerns that the legislation does not require a written lease to apply for additional rental support, which she argued could lead to fraudulent claims.

Ramirez responded that in order to attain additional rental assistance in accordance with federal requirements, residents would have to provide written documents proving their residency that their landlord would need to sign.

Ramirez also said the U.S. Treasury Department was clearer on eligibility requirements in the latest COVID relief package, allowing the state to ensure that residents who most need rental support would be the ones receiving it.

HB 2877 was advanced to the house floor with support from only Democrats.

GUILTY PLEA DECISION: The Illinois criminal code does not require a trial judge to inform a person who enters a guilty plea that the plea could affect his or their employment if the plea wasn’t made during the initial court hearing, the Illinois Supreme Court decided on Thursday.

In a 17-page opinion, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled against allowing Chaleah Burge, a certified nursing assistant who pleaded guilty in 2017 to stealing $280 from her home health client, from withdrawing her guilty plea.

Burge argued she should be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea because the trial court judge didn’t inform her that her plea and criminal conviction could result in her losing her job.

Burge’s argument focused on a section of the Illinois Criminal Code of Procedure, section 113-4(c), which does not specifically mention arraignment.

This section requires the court to inform a person charged with a crime that a plea of guilty may impact that person’s ability to, among other things, “retain or obtain employment.”

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected Burge’s argument that section 113-4(c) requires the trial judge to advise a person charged with a crime of the various consequences at all times when the person pleads guilty, not just at arraignment.

GOP AGENDA: Illinois House Republicans released a new legislative agenda Wednesday in an effort to rebrand the party’s role in Illinois politics.

Reimagine Illinois, unveiled by the House Republican Caucus at a Wednesday news conference, asks voters to “imagine an Illinois free of corruption and with responsible fiscal leadership.”

A website outlining the initiative was also launched containing multiple podcasts and videos from GOP lawmakers discussing their priorities for the session and goals they have for reforming the state’s government and finances.

Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, chairs the initiative. At Wednesday’s news conference, Murphy said he was asked by Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs several months ago to lead the group.

“I expressed some concerns about us being the party of ‘no’ a lot of times,” Murphy said in a podcast uploaded to the Reimagine website, reimagineillinois.com. “We need to do a better job of messaging rather than just saying what’s being proposed is bad.”

The campaign is based on four policy pillars: public safety, anti-corruption, economic opportunity and fiscal responsibility.

The anti-corruption platform, headed by Rep. Blaine Wilhour of Beecher City, aims to enact a lobbying ban for members of the General Assembly and make it easier for Illinois residents to add amendments to the state constitution via referendum.

Durkin said he’s open to working with Democrats on anti-corruption and transparency measures, a notion that House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch has reciprocated.

The public safety platform focuses on two major developments Republicans seek to address. Those developments include the long delays in FOID and Concealed Carry License applications being processed for Illinois residents wishing to legally own firearms, and the massive criminal justice reform omnibus package signed into law last month by the governor amid heavy opposition from Republicans and law enforcement groups.

Republicans said they’ve filed 81 bills as part of the Reimagine Illinois effort.

ENERGY BILLS ADVANCE: The Illinois House Energy and Environment Committee advanced a pair of energy bills that would overhaul the state’s energy industry to the House floor Monday.

House Bill 804, otherwise known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act, or CEJA, would put Illinois on track to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. House Bill 2640, known as the Path to 100 Act, also passed the committee Monday night. It would increase the cap on energy bills from about 2 to 4 percent to provide funding for renewable projects, avoiding what its advocates call the “solar cliff.”

Sponsored by Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, CEJA would increase development of renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar power, commit Illinois to cutting carbon from the power sector by 2030, reduce pollution from gas and diesel vehicles by electrifying the transportation sector, and create jobs and economic opportunity across the state, according to sponsors.

Both bills moved out of committee on 18-11 votes after hours of discussion on Monday.

Opponents of CEJA said they are ready for the transition to clean energy, but are concerned about the reliability and affordability for utility companies and customers if CEJA becomes law.

Williams said she is committed to working with the opposition before bringing the bill back to committee with amendments. In the previous General Assembly, lawmakers considered folding CEJA, the Path to 100 and other energy legislation into a massive energy regulation omnibus bill.

“It’s definitely an ongoing conversation, and we need to work closely with our partners in organized labor and other stakeholders to reach consensus… I feel very positive about the momentum that the fight for clean energy gained last night,” Williams said in an interview.

The bill would create Clean Jobs Workforce Hubs, which the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition describes as a network of frontline organizations that provide direct and sustained support for minority and disadvantaged communities, including job opportunities.

“I think CEJA is the bill that will accomplish all of our clean energy goals, including addressing the climate crisis, bringing jobs and economic development to underserved communities. And, of course, finally putting an end to the backroom deals and profit driven energy policies of the past,” Williams said.

VETERANS HOMES UPDATE: At a committee hearing Tuesday, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs officials reported that all four state-run veterans homes have no staff or residents currently positive for COVID-19, but the agency is still working to produce uniform infection control procedures for the facilities.

IDVA Chief of Staff Tony Kolbeck, who testified during the virtual House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, said he expects those protocols will be finalized within two weeks.

The update comes after three of the four facilities — in LaSalle, Quincy and Manteno — experienced outbreaks of COVID-19. Those outbreaks resulted in 19 resident deaths at Manteno and 24 resident deaths at Quincy since the outbreak began.

The most severe outbreak was reported at the LaSalle home where 36 residents have died of COVID-19 since November, or roughly one-quarter of the resident population.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.


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March 20, 2021 at 01:57PM

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