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CAPITOL RECAP: With Stimulus On the Way, Lawmakers Want a Say

Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois · The Pandemic, One Year In
Lawmakers from both parties told officials from Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration on Thursday, March 11 that the General Assembly should have some say in how the state spends the $7.5 billion in federal funds that Illinois expects to receive from the newly-enacted American Rescue Plan.

Those comments came during a virtual hearing of the House Revenue and Finance Committee that took place just hours after President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill into law.

“I think the legislature would like a say in appropriating money, given our role,” Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, said to the director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, Alexis Sturm. “So my hope is that you could convey that to the governor’s office and we can develop a framework to work together on that.”

Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the same moments later.

Thursday’s hearing coincided with the one-year anniversary of the day the World Health Organization declared coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic. The following day, Gov. JB Pritzker declared a statewide disaster. Over the next several days, he issued further orders closing K-12 schools, shutting down bars and restaurants, and a general “stay at home” order that effectively shut down major parts of the state’s economy.

Also around that time, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, which sent roughly $3.5 billion in relief money to the state. But lawmakers generally left it up to the Pritzker administration to decide how to spend those funds.

That was due, in part, to the fact that federal rules put strict limits on how it could be spent. But it was also because the General Assembly itself all but shut down its own operations until late May when it reconvened for an abbreviated four-day session to pass some essential legislation, including a state budget.

But the state is expected to have considerably more flexibility in deciding how to spend the latest round of relief funding because much of it is intended to replace the revenue losses that state and local governments around the country suffered as a result of the pandemic.

In a separate interview Thursday, however, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said officials should not get too excited over the sudden influx of federal money, because much of it is spoken for.

In late June, just as the previous fiscal year was coming to a close, Illinois borrowed $1.2 billion from the federal reserve to make up for the revenue losses it suffered during the initial phase of the pandemic in April and May. That money must be repaid before the end of the current fiscal year.

Later, in December, the state borrowed another $2 billion, which must be repaid over the next three fiscal years.

* * *

ANOTHER FEDERAL STIMULUS: Democratic state officials in Illinois applauded the final passage Wednesday of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion federal relief package, which includes billions of dollars in aid to cash-strapped state and local governments.

The “American Rescue Plan” passed the U.S. House on Wednesday, 220-211, largely along party lines. No Republicans voted in favor of the bill while only one Democrat voted against it. The White House has indicated that Biden plans to sign the bill Friday.

The bill includes direct payments of up to $1,400 for most Americans, which people should receive by the end of the month. But it also includes aid for state and local governments that suffered massive revenue losses after much of the U.S. economy was shut down last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats, the bill will send $7.5 billion directly to the state of Illinois. It also provides another $5.5 billion for city and county governments in the state as well as another $5 billion for Illinois K-12 schools.

“I am grateful to Senators Durbin, Duckworth, and our congressional delegation for making sure Congress took bold, swift action,” Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, said in a statement. “Once guidelines are issued by federal authorities, I look forward to working with the Pritzker administration and our budget leaders on how to best appropriate these funds so they meet the needs of our most vulnerable communities. While I know the road to recovery will not be easy, this bill gives us the funds necessary to simultaneously address this health and economic crisis.”

“This financial relief is needed in Illinois to pay back billions of dollars we borrowed from the Federal Reserve that allowed us to cover the state’s health care bills as we fight our way through this pandemic,” Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said in a statement, noting that the state still faces considerable economic challenges due to the pandemic.

Republicans in Illinois’ congressional delegation, however, remained critical of the package. U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, of Murphysboro, issued a statement saying Democrats should have worked harder to find bipartisan consensus.

* * *

K-12 FUNDING: Illinois State Board of Education officials on Monday made their case for an added $362.1 million to the state’s evidence-based funding formula and $50 million in early childhood education grants, pushing back on the governor’s proposal to keep state K-12 education funding flat next fiscal year.

In total, the board recommended a $406 million, or 4.6 percent, increase in fiscal year 2022 in state general revenue funding, increasing the state’s share of education funding to $9.3 billion for the budget year that begins July 1.

The evidence-based funding model was passed in 2017 in an effort to direct new education funding to districts that were furthest away from funding adequacy based on a number of factors, including class sizes, local capacity to fund education and more. The formula created a target of $350 million in new state funding to be pumped into K-12 education each year in an effort to have all districts at 90 percent of adequacy by 2027.

ISBE Superintendent Carmen Ayala told the committee that in fiscal year 2018, there were 168 school districts at or below 60 percent of funding adequacy. Three years later, only 10 districts are at or below that number.

But the COVID-19 pandemic scrapped new funding for the current fiscal year, and in his budget address last month, the governor proposed taking the same approach in fiscal year 2022.

If the funding formula is to be successful in driving districts to the 90 percent adequacy target by 2027, Ayala said, the state would need to allocate an added $799 million each year for the next six years. Thus, the $362.1 million increase to the formula is the middle ground, according to ISBE officials.

Board officials also requested an added $50 million in funding for early childhood block grants to allow an estimated 9,400 additional Illinois children to take part in the program in the upcoming fiscal year.

Board officials also argued for flat funding for transportation expenses for Illinois’ public school districts, as opposed to a $7.7 million reduction in that line item proposed by the governor.

ISBE also made requests for added funding for teacher recruiting and retention programs, some of which were initiated with federal coronavirus relief funding. ISBE requested $17 million for various programs aimed at addressing the teacher shortage.

* * *

LAWMAKER FOR MAYOR: State Rep. Thaddeus Jones’ name was legally placed on a February primary ballot seeking the Democratic nomination for Calumet City mayor, according to an Illinois Supreme Court opinion released Thursday.

But it’s unclear whether the opinion authorizes the Calumet City Democrat to be sworn in as that city’s mayor if he wins the April 6 General Election and remains a state lawmaker, according to an attorney for the city. That’s still in question, because the residents of Calumet City passed a referendum in November prohibiting anyone who holds an office created by the state’s constitution from serving as mayor.

The Supreme Court was ruling on an issue of timing regarding the local referendum’s effective date, not on the legality of Jones holding both positions – state law allows members of the General Assembly to hold another elected office.

Jones filed his nomination papers for Calumet City mayor on Nov. 16. Nearly two weeks earlier, on Nov. 3, voters in Calumet City passed a local referendum that prohibited a person from seeking mayoral office “if, at the time for filing nomination papers, that person also holds an elected, paid office created by the Constitution of the State of Illinois.”

The referendum applies to “all persons seeking nomination or election to, or who hold, the office of Mayor of the City of Calumet City at the February 23, 2021 Consolidated Primary Election and each election thereafter.”

But the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the referendum did not take effect until the election results were certified on Nov. 24.

So while the referendum was not in effect when Jones filed, it will be in effect when it comes time for him to be seated. 

“But as of now, he’s not allowed to be a state representative and the mayor,” Ross Secler, attorney for the city, said in an interview. “That’s my understanding of the current situation.”

According to Secler it is possible that Calumet City, the Cook County State’s Attorney or the Illinois Attorney General could seek to enforce the newly passed referendum and prevent Jones from being seated as mayor.

Or, Secler said, it is possible that Jones will resign from his position as state representative.

* * *

INTERNET PRIVACY: State lawmakers are considering changes to an internet privacy law that recently led to a $650 million settlement between Facebook and more than 1 million of the website’s users in Illinois.

A state House judiciary committee advanced House Bill 559 on Tuesday, March 9, a measure that would revisit the Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2008, known as BIPA, to include provisions which sponsors say will protect small businesses but detractors say will render the privacy law obsolete.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, introduced the bill, saying thousands of BIPA related lawsuits have been filed against big businesses and small businesses alike, hitting the “small guys” the hardest.

The bill advanced to the House floor on a 10-5 vote Tuesday, with five Democrats opposed and one voting present. The committee vote in favor was bipartisan, although most of the support came from Republicans.

Durkin said he is concerned that the language of BIPA is outdated and that it has created a “cottage industry for a select group of lawyers to file class action lawsuits against big and small employers and nonprofit agencies.”

BIPA requires Illinois business owners that collect biometric information, such as fingerprints or face prints for facial recognition, to have certain policies in place for the collection, storage and use of this personal identification.

The business is required to notify the employee or customer and obtain a written release from the individual if biometric information is being collected. BIPA also states that the business is not authorized to disclose this biometric information to a third party without the individual’s consent.

If a private entity, which is defined as any individual, partnership, corporation, limited liability company, association or other group, violates any portion of this policy, the individual has a right to take legal action.

The current law allows for “liquidated damages” or penalties for breaking the BIPA law, which are numbered at $1,000-$5,000 in existing law depending on whether the offense was negligent, reckless or intentional.

The change would allow consent to be gathered electronically instead of through a written release and would eliminate the minimum numbers for liquidated damages among other changes.

* * *

EDUCATION EQUITY: Gov. JB Pritzker joined members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus on Monday, March 8, to sign a measure aimed at advancing equity in education in the state.

House Bill 2170, contains over 20 provisions aimed at decreasing racial gaps in opportunity and attainment that currently persist in the state’s education system.

For early education, HB 2170 will require the Illinois State Board of Education to conduct an annual assessment of all public school students entering kindergarten and expands the Early Intervention Program for 3-year-olds who were previously cut out of the program if they had a birthday between May and August.

Most of the bill’s provisions are targeted at K-12 education. HB 2170 adds new graduation requirements for schools in line with what’s necessary for entry at state universities.

Students entering 9th grade in the 2022-23 academic school year will need to take one computer literacy course. For those entering high school in 2024-25, two years of laboratory science will be an additional requirement, and for those entering in the 2028-29 school year, two years of foreign language courses will be necessary.

The bill also expands social studies to include more mandatory coursework on Black people and Black Americans, from the pre-enslavement of Africans, to the American slave trade, to the American Civil Rights renaissance. HB 2170 establishes the unpaid Whole Child Task Force to expand school services for students suffering from trauma.

On higher education, the bill reduces the contribution schools must make to a grant program aimed at keeping high-performing students in the state in an effort to target income-based opportunity gaps.

The AIM HIGH grant program will now operates on a sliding scale for the school’s commitment based on the percentage of low-income students enrolled. Public Illinois universities with 49 percent or more undergraduate students eligible for federal Pell grants only need to match 20 percent of the state’s AIM HIGH contribution. Universities with under 49 percent Pell-eligible population still only need to match 60 percent of the state’s contribution. Previously, public universities were required to match 100 percent of the state’s contribution.

* * *

CAMPAIGN FUNDS FOR CHILD CARE: Senate Bill 536 would amend the state election code to allow candidates to spend political committee funds on part-time or full-time child care or dependent elder home care expenses, as long as those expenses are “necessary for fulfillment of political, governmental or public policy duties, activities or purposes,” the bill states.

It passed committee Wednesday, March 10.

The bill would also apply to candidates running for political office, as well as officeholders, campaign staff or volunteers.

Sen. Melinda Bush, a Democrat from Grayslake who sponsored SB 536, said the measure “helps us level the playing field for people that want to run for office, and maybe don't have the financial wherewithal to cover those childcare, and eldercare expenses.”

“How this started really is as the byproduct of traveling around the state,” Bush told the Senate Executive Committee, noting she talked to many women who “felt as if it was prohibited to run for office” because they were caring for children or elderly relatives and “there was no way to cover the cost of that.”

Bush said a similar measure was approved last session by the Senate but was not taken up for a vote in the state House of Representatives. Unlike the bill introduced last session, SB 536 includes covering the expenses for elder home care.

* * *

PHARMACY ACCESS: House Bill 591, introduced by Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, would prevent any Medicaid managed care organization that contracts with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services from restricting a person’s access to a certain group of pharmacies.

Those in the state’s Medicaid managed care assistance program would be able to receive pharmacy services of their choosing, as long as the pharmacy is licensed under the Pharmacy Practice Act and accepts certain fees as determined by DHFS.

It would also allow DHFS to negotiate with any pharmacy that has merged with or been acquired by another company in an effort to maintain continuity for those receiving care.

The state would also be required to conduct a study of managed care services to identify “pharmacy deserts.”

The bill advanced on partisan lines with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans against in a Tuesday, March 9, committee hearing.

Ford and proponents of the bill said the legislation would be key to increasing health care access for populations that do not have easy access to pharmacies due to distance, such as residents on the south and west sides of Chicago and some rural parts of the state.

Opponents to the legislation, including Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said the bill would not relieve other pressures that lead to pharmacies closing, including financial pressures.

“A pharmacy could still have other business pressures that jeopardize their success, individuals could just choose not to go to a certain pharmacy and that could lead to their closure,” Demmer said. “There are a number of factors at play there.”

* * *

CHANGING BIRTH RECORDS: House Bill 9, introduced by Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview, amends the Illinois Vital Records Act, aiming to allow an easier process for transgender, non-binary and intersex individuals to change their sex on their birth certificate.

The bill would remove a requirement that a transgender or intersex individual would need a signed statement from a healthcare professional, allowing them to initiate the change on their own.

“This aligns with the requirements for driver’s licenses in Illinois that do not require a doctor’s note,” Gong-Gershowitz said.

Myles Brady Davis, press secretary and director of communication at Equality Illinois, described needing a letter from a healthcare professional as an “unnecessary barrier” that could exclude trans and non-binary individuals who have chosen to not undergo a medical transition.

The bill advanced on partisan lines in the House Human Services Committee Tuesday, March 9, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans against. No opponents spoke against the bill in committee.

* * *

ACCESS TO BENEFITS: House Bill 88, introduced by Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, aims to remove prior felony drug convictions as a barrier to receiving federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits in Illinois.

Flowers said the change would be similar to a measure passed by the General Assembly in 2014 to remove felony drug convictions as a barrier to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. 

“This bill stops the continuing punishment of people who have served their time,” Flowers said. “This ban is an antiquated policy that subjects a subset of people to life sentencing.”

Niya Kelly, legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said barring individuals from receiving benefits under TANF was a “racist” policy stemming from the war on drugs, which disproportionately targeted low-income communities of color.

“We want to follow the lead of other states and repeal this drug felony ban that we have on folks who are coming back into their community, getting their lives back in order, raising their children and attempting to be able to meet all of their basic needs,” Kelly said.

The bill advanced on partisan lines Tuesday, March 9, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans against. No opponents spoke against the bill in committee. 

* * *

BREWING MEAD: A Senate committee on Wednesday, March 10, advanced a bill that would enable breweries in the state to sell mead, an alcoholic beverage produced by fermenting honey.

Republican Sen. Jason Barickman, of Bloomington, said he sponsored Senate Bill 297 in response to one his constituents, Brian Galbreath, who owns Unpossible Mead in Dwight and is unable to grow his business without an amendment to the state Liquor Control Act.

The bill amends the Liquor Control Act to define mead, which was previously not defined under state law, as a type of honey wine, and to include mead as one of the alcoholic products that breweries can sell to customers and other distributors.

Danielle D'Alessandro, executive director at Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, said this bill would apply to the fewer than 10 existing meaderies in the state.

In her testimony before the committee, D’Alessandro said SB 297 would provide these few meaderies with the ability to sell directly to breweries and to their retail consumers, both of which are not allowed under the current law.

“It would just be a natural extension for brewers to offer that product,” she said of mead being included in the state Liquor Control Act.

The bill unanimously passed to the Senate floor.

* * *

HOUSING ASSISTANCE: Kristin Faust, IHDA Executive Director, provided an update Wednesday, March 10, on two state initiatives that leverage funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to help tenants and homeowners who experienced a loss of income due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those are the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program.

From the federal CARES Act passed last March, IHDA received around $325 million in funding to give landlords direct back-payments for missing rent and homeowners for delayed mortgage payments.

Between September and December, Faust said IHDA provided $225 million in rental assistance through $5,000 grants to around 46,000 renters, and $100 million in grants up to $25,000 for approximately 10,000 households to make mortgage payments.

IHDA is now looking at how it will distribute approximately $500 million the department expects to receive from the second federal stimulus package passed under the Trump administration in December. Faust said IHDA hopes to have the program operational before May 1.

The Illinois Rental Protection Program, which will be the state’s new method of providing tenants and landlords assistance for missed payments, will feature a number of changes from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Per those changes, a tenant will not need to produce a written lease to apply, as Illinois law does not require written leases for tenants to rent property. Landlords and housing providers will be able to apply on behalf of tenants.

Grants distributed through the program will be in exact amounts according to the tenant’s situation rather than a fixed $5,000 sum. The threshold for eligibility will be adjusted for family size instead of being a uniform number for all households, and applicants who are unemployed and earn less than 50 percent of the Area Median Income, based on U.S. Housing and Urban Development data, will receive prioritization for grants.

The new program will not have mortgage assistance, which was absent from the December stimulus package.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a third round of coronavirus stimulus on Wednesday. The bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, puts $1.9 trillion dollars towards COVID-19 relief nationwide, and Faust said it would include mortgage assistance.

* * *

BALLOON RELEASE BAN: The Illinois House Energy and Environment Committee advanced a bill in a Monday, March 8, hearing that would ban ceremonial balloon releases.

House Bill 418, introduced by Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, would impose a $500 penalty for first-time offenses when knowingly releasing balloons into the atmosphere, as in the case of celebrations and special events.

“Obviously, there are significant ecological impacts and there's also significant infrastructure impact when these balloons land,” Yingling said. “Not only are they dangerous for our habitat but they also complicate our storm sewer systems and our water systems.”

While the bill passed unanimously, some representatives expressed concern that the initial fine was too steep a penalty.

Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, said individuals holding personal celebrations should not be subject to the penalty, while larger events such as weddings and special events should be subject to the higher penalties.

Yingling said the intent is to “prevent organized release of large quantities of these balloons.” He said he was working with representatives from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on amendments to include clarifying language, and said the fine could be decreased or eliminated for first-time offenses, or language shifted to focus more on organizational release of balloons.

* * *

GAS LEAK REGULATION: House Bill 705, introduced by Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, aims to close what he described as a “gap” in the state’s environmental policy pertaining to responsibility for gas leaks. It passed committee Tuesday, March 9.

Morgan said the legislation was inspired in the wake of an investigative story that exposed methane gas leaking from a Nicor underground storage facility in LaSalle County.

Per the bill, gas companies would be responsible for a number of actions following the discovery of a facility leak, including installing monitors, offering gas-water separators, providing lodging accommodations when gas levels are deemed explosive, and undertaking comprehensive inspections.

The Illinois Environmental Council spoke in favor of the bill, while Nicor Gas took no position.

“We want to make sure these communities are protected when these leaks occur, and our bill sets parameters on how residents and property owners are to be treated in the case of a verified leak,” said Ariel Hampton of the Illinois Environmental Council.

Litesa Wallace, director of government relations for Nicor Gas, said Nicor “did as it should have” in response to the initial leak that sparked the legislation, and conversations are continuing on how the bill could be adapted and how the company could further protect communities from gas leaks.

The bill passed unanimously, but Morgan said he would plan to take steps to impose additional regulations on the issue moving forward.

“I do think that we have a gap that we need to address. This legislation does not do that,” Morgan said. “But I will be pushing forward with conversations with this committee and the legislature to make sure that we address it to keep people's water safe.”

* * *

DCFS CONSENT DECREE: Lawyers who represent children in the state’s foster care system plan to ask a federal judge this week to take enforcement action against the Department of Children and Family Services, claiming the agency is still out of compliance with a nearly 30-year-old consent decree.

“This December will mark the 30th anniversary of the consent decree in this case. Yet even after three decades, DCFS remains in woeful violation of most all of its promises to the children under this decree,” Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert wrote in a letter to the judge overseeing the case. “In fact, DCFS is in the worst shape it’s been in for at least a decade and continues in its decline.”

At issue is what’s known as the “B.H.” consent decree, which grew out of a federal class action lawsuit the ACLU originally filed against DCFS in 1988 alleging the agency was failing to provide adequate services to children in its care. The parties entered the consent decree in December 1991, requiring DCFS to make extensive changes over the next two and a half years.

The court retained jurisdiction over the case and appointed a monitor to oversee compliance. But in all the years since then, the agency has never been found to be in full compliance with the consent decree.

In 2015, the court appointed a panel of experts to evaluate services and placements provided to children in state care, especially those with psychological, behavioral or emotional challenges. That panel also came up with a list of “overarching outcomes” to measure the safety, permanency and well-being of children in DCFS care.

The next status hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, March 12, before U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso in Chicago.

In his letter to the court dated Monday, Golbert said the state “still is not anywhere close to where it needs to be” in achieving those overarching outcomes.

“Moreover, DCFS continues to trend in the wrong direction for most of the measures,” Golbert wrote.

* * *

CONCEALED CARRY LAWSUIT: A lawsuit, filed Friday, March 5, by four individuals as well as the Illinois State Rifle Association and the gun-rights group Second Amendment Foundation, claims the state’s concealed carry law is unconstitutional.

Under Illinois law, the Illinois State Police must either approve or deny an application for a CCL card within either 90 days if the application includes fingerprints or within 120 days if the application does not include fingerprints.

The law requires that an individual obtain a Concealed Carry License from the state before he or she is able to carry a firearm concealed.

“But despite this statutory command, the ISP commonly does not approve qualified residents’ CCL applications within 90 or 120 days,” the lawsuit claims. “Instead, the ISP leaves applicants in limbo for months, with residents commonly waiting many additional months to receive a CCL. That has been true for some time, and it has only become worse as applications for CCLs have surged in the past twelve months.”

The lawsuit argues that this delay by ISP in issuing denials or approvals for licenses amounts to an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, as well as the 14th Amendment right to due process.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to find that ISP’s failure to issue CCLs to qualified applicants within the required 90 or 120 days violates the Second and 14th Amendments.

It also asks the court to either order the state to immediately issue CCLs or immediately process the CCL applications for the four individuals named in the lawsuit and for members of ISRA and SAF who applied for CCLs more than the required 90 or 120 days ago, who have not had their applications approved or denied.

An ISP spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

In December, Kelly called the delays “unacceptable” in a news release. At that time, ISP estimated the average processing time as 145 days for new CCL applications.

* * *

ANIMAL CRUELTY, GUN VIOLENCE BILLS: House Bill 168, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove, would amend the Humane Care for Animals Act to remove domestic pets from the household of persons known to the courts as a danger to animals. It passed out of committee Tuesday, March 9.

Individuals who have been convicted at least twice of aggravated cruelty or violations such as dog fighting are barred from owning or having custody of any animal. Didech’s legislation would give discretion to judges to extend that prohibition to other members of the offender’s household to remove any access they may have to an animal, even if the pet belonged to a spouse, sibling or roommate.

The prohibition would be lifted for the others involved once they no longer shared a home with the offender. The length of the ban would be left up to the judge presiding over the offender’s case.

Another bill, introduced by Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, as the Firearm Violence Prevention and Reduction Study Act, would create a 10-year study on methods Illinois can pursue to decrease deaths and injury caused by guns.

While the legislation calls for the study to be conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health, Harper said she is also looking into whether the Department of Human Services would be better suited to take on the study.

The bill would provide $150,000 annually to the department conducting the study.

Committee member Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, questioned why the Illinois State Police wasn’t being considered to conduct a study into stopping gun violence.

Ultimately, both bills received unanimous approval from the committee, receiving 19 votes to be advanced to the House floor, with sponsors acknowledging further changes could be made to the bills before they come to a House vote.

* * *

EXPUNGEMENT BILL: Backed by Chicago Democrat Rep. La Shawn Ford, House Bill 434 would greatly expand the ability of Illinoisans to expunge arrest and court records. It passed committee in a partisan vote Tuesday, March 9.

The bill would allow for defendants whose criminal charges are dismissed with prejudice or result in acquittal to have records relating to those charges immediately expunged at no cost to the defendant.

The defendant or their attorney could file a petition for expungement at any time. The only exception under the law would be minor traffic offenses.

Prosecutors and judges involved in the case could choose to oppose the petition.

Republican Rep. Patrick Windhorst of Metropolis raised the question of cases where multiple charges stemmed from the same arrest or investigation and only some charges were dismissed or resulted in acquittal while others resulted in conviction.

Windhorst asked if sealing, which hides records from public view but does not destroy them as is the case with expungement, would be more appropriate in those cases.

The bill ultimately was advanced to the House floor with the 12 Democrats on the committee voting for its passage and the 7 Republicans voted against it.

* * *

TRAILER TOLL DECREASE: A House transportation committee on Monday, March 8, advanced two bills, one lowering toll rates for small trailers and another creating a forum on future railway infrastructure.

House Bill 394 and House Bill 399were both sponsored by Rep. Martin Moylan, D-Des Plaines. Both received a unanimous 13-0 vote to move to the House floor.

HB 394 states that the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority shall not charge a toll for a vehicle pulling a single axle trailer at a rate higher than twice the regular car rate. For example, if a toll is $1.40, then the small trailer should only be charged an additional $1.40 for the extra axle, Moylan said this would be more reasonable.

“If you're driving your car on the tollway and you're pulling a small motorcycle, a small trailer with a four wheeler or a jet ski, or even if you're going to cut your grandmother's lawn, and you're hauling a lawn mower, you are paying between $6.80 and $9.25 per toll, sometimes as high as $18,” Moylan said.

Currently, drivers pulling a single-axle trailer are being charged the same as a double-axle trailer, which is equivalent to pulling a large boat or small semi-truck.

The Tollway is opposed to the legislation due to concerns of the General Assembly setting toll rates and the inability to differentiate between trailer sizes with existing technology.

Kevin Donahue, the government and legislative affairs manager for the Toll Highway Authority, said in his testimony the Tollway lacks the funds to upgrade its technology to identify the difference in trailer sizes.

Several representatives questioned whether there was a simpler solution, such as embedding IPASS devices or transmitters in license plates.

Donahue said he would look into the feasibility of that option, but expressed overall concern about violating the Tollway’s trust indenture agreement with bondholders.

Donahue said per that agreement, the Tollway, not the General Assembly, has the exclusive right to set toll rates, as the revenues the rates create are used a guarantee that the Tollway can pay its bonds. 

He said in a worst case scenario, changes in revenue could open the Tollway to litigation from bondholders.

* * *

RAILWAY COMMISSION: House Bill 399, which would create the High Speed Railway Commission to explore new infrastructure for electrified trains and buses, also advanced in committee Monday, March 8.

The commission would create a statewide plan for a high-speed rail line and feeder network connecting St. Louis and Chicago that includes current existing Amtrak and Metra services. It would also connect the cities of Rockford, Moline, Peoria and Decatur and use inner city bus service to coordinate with the rail line.

Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the High Speed Rail Alliance, said in his testimony that the commission would create a forum for people to talk about what the statewide transportation network looks like and how it can be implemented.

“As we reinvent ourselves as a state post COVID, trains and buses can play a major role in creating new connections,” Harnish said. “In some cases, it might mean upgrading the existing Amtrak service, it may mean reinventing the way Metra operates. Certainly feeder buses play a major role and we believe that new infrastructure for electrified high speed trains need to play a major role.”

The commission would be required to conduct a ridership study and provide findings and recommendations for a governance structure, the frequency of service and a plan for implementation, according to the bill.

HB 399 advanced to the House floor with a unanimous 13-0 vote on Monday.

* * *

EVICTION MORATORIUM: Gov. JB Pritzker’s latest executive order extending the eviction moratorium for residential tenants adds a new legal protection for tenants who are unable to pay rent due to the pandemic.

Executive order 2021-05, issued on Friday, prevents landlords from pursuing legal action in court against a tenant as long as the tenant gives notice of their inability to pay, and the tenant is not “a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants or an immediate and severe risk to property.”

Pritzker’s moratorium on residential evictions, first issued in late March 2020, applies to renters who submit a declaration saying they are unable to pay rent as a result of the pandemic and would be rendered homeless if they were evicted. Eligible renters must earn less than $99,000 annually if filing taxes as a single person, or $198,000 if filing tax returns jointly.

The most recent order clarifies that renters can be protected from eviction as long as they submit their declaration form, even if they submit the form after their landlord began legal action to evict them.

Previous executive orders on the eviction moratorium established that law enforcement could not enforce a court order to evict tenants if brought by a landlord, said Michael Steadman, a Chicago attorney who represents landlords.

Steadman, a sole practitioner, said the new executive order effectively extends the period of time in which renters can make the written declaration, which is a form provided by the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

“Whereas before, if (renters) didn't make the written declaration before a landlord filed their eviction case, the case could move forward, although the eviction couldn't. Now, they can freeze the eviction case, even after the case is filed,” Steadman said in a phone interview Monday.

Pritzker has renewed his eviction moratorium through several executive orders since March order expired.

Steadman, who works on Chicago’s southwest side, said some of his clients who only own one or two buildings are struggling.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday announced a new initiative focusing on vaccine access for rural parts of the state and said he is “cautiously optimistic” about future reopenings and public gatherings.

Speaking in a news conference at a mass vaccination site at Shabbona Middle School in Morris Thursday, Pritzker said he is encouraged that the state is “getting to the end” of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he continued to stress patience as the state works to vaccinate residents.

One week after announcing a vaccine equity initiative for urban areas and communities of color, the state on Thursday announced that it would also begin to direct federal deliveries of doses to nine downstate critical access hospitals. The nine locations include hospitals in downstate Christian, Ford, Hamilton, Logan, Mercer, Montgomery, Tazewell, Vermillion and Wayne counties.

“Rural communities deserve the same protections from the virus that suburban and urban communities get,” Pritzker said. “While national demand is still higher than national supply, my team is allocating what we receive from the federal government across the state as soon as we get it.”

Public health officials announced that a total of 112,776 vaccine doses were administered across the state on Wednesday, the second consecutive day that over 100,000 doses were administered in a single day.

The state’s seven-day rolling average for doses administered stands at 98,116, the highest mark to date, while the seven-day rolling COVID-19 positivity rate stood at 2.2 percent, matching a pandemic low.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced an additional 1,700 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 on Thursday out of 89,893 total test results. IDPH announced 55 additional deaths due to COVID-19 Thursday, bringing the state’s death toll to 20,863.

A total of 1,118 individuals were reported to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and of those, 231 were in intensive care units and 102 were on ventilators – all were at their lowest point of the entire pandemic.

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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