Big crowd fills Capitol to protest abortion bills
By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS
Legislators, advocates and hundreds of Illinoisans crowded the rotunda of the Capitol on Wednesday, March 20, to condemn a package of reproductive health measures that would revise abortion law.
The bills are proposed by four Democrats from both chambers of the General Assembly. One would allow a minor to get an abortion procedure without notifying her parent or guardian. The other would repeal and replace the state’s abortion statute with language supporters say is more up-to-date.
“Politicians who do not put life first cannot be trusted,” Mary Kate Knorr, executive director of Illinois Right to Life Action, said. “So we are here today to tell our legislators that if they do not put life and women first in the State of Illinois, they do not have a place in our Statehouse.”
Knorr’s group was one of the organizers of the rally. The others were the Pro-Life Action League and the Illinois Family Institute.
The coalition opposes legislation to repeal the Parental Notification of Abortion Act, which mandates a minor consult her parent or guardian before having an abortion.
Parents should not be “kept in the dark” about medical decisions their children are making, or procedures they are getting, said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Action League.
“Adolescents simply lack the judgment and experience necessary to make critical medical decisions all by themselves,” he said. “They should not be abandoned when it comes to those decisions.”
Democrats voted the Senate version of the bill out of committee Tuesday. It is now before the full chamber. The House version of the bill appears to be stalled.
The group more fervently protests the Reproductive Health Act, a bill that, among other things, would create reproductive health care as a fundamental right in Illinois; require private health insurance companies that cover pregnancy-related benefits to also cover abortion procedures; and allow physician-assistants to perform abortions.
“I feel a little bit like I’ve fallen through the rabbit hole,” Rep. Terri Bryant, a Republican from Murphysboro, said. “Everything is upside down, backwards and inside out in just using the name.”
SPORTS GAMBLING BILLS: An Illinois lawmaker leading the charge to bring sports betting to the state has laid out the first concrete details on how that might happen.
Four amendments were filed to Riverside Democratic Rep. Michael Zalewski’s House Bill 3308 Thursday, March 21, each of them providing a different avenue for legalizing sports betting in the state.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker supports and has already budgeted to bring in more than $200 million of new state revenue next fiscal year from licensed sports gambling. But that revenue hinges on the ability of the Legislature to pass a sports betting bill by May, a task Zalewski thinks will be difficult.
Pritzker’s office did not specify which of the early plans is most desirable, but said the governor looks forward to “bringing sports betting off the illicit market and into a legal, regulated space.”
While no two proposed systems are the same, Zalewski said the “classical” New Jersey model is the most likely to get broad support from Illinois stakeholders.
That model, according to one of the amendments filed Thursday, would allow for both brick-and-mortar betting at the state’s casinos and racetracks and online betting on digital platforms, with a tax rate of 15 percent for the former and 20 percent for the latter.
Licenses in the New Jersey-based plan would cost $10 million with a $250,000 renewal every five years, while each licensee would be allowed two contracts with partners to provide mobile and online betting – known as skins – at $1 million per skin with a $500,000 renewal every five years.
The second amendment to HB 3308 contains details for the “Mississippi Model,” which allows for brick-and-mortar betting at the state’s racetracks and casinos, but limits online betting to 10 operators that must be partnered with brick-and-mortar properties.
The $10 million license fee is the same as in the New Jersey-based model, but must be renewed at higher costs along with other fees totaling $850,100 every four years. Both plans would be overseen by the Illinois Gaming Board.
The third option, called the “Professional Sports Leagues” plan, connects sports betting in the state to the leagues on which people bet by limiting the gaming facilities to sports venues, giving a .25 percent royalty on wagers to the leagues, and providing for data sharing between sports betting operators and the leagues for accuracy and to watch for illicit activity.
Details for the administration of this plan are less clear than the first two.
The fourth plan, meanwhile, gives the Illinois Lottery jurisdiction over all the state’s sports betting operations by relying on just one state-issued license. The tax rate on this plan would be 50 percent.
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GRADUATED TAX ADS BEGIN: A dark money group that counts Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker among its donors has launched its first television advertisement supporting the governor’s signature graduated income tax proposal.
Think Big Illinois, whose other donors have not yet been made public, launched an ad called “hole,” framing Pritzker’s tax plan as a solution to Illinois’ $3.2 billion budget deficit. It will run in media markets across the state, the group announced Thursday, March 21.
“There’s a $3.2 billion hole in Springfield. And after years of ignoring it, we can’t keep doing more of the same,” a narrator in the ad says over informational graphics and video of Pritzker engaging with constituents.
Minutes after Think Big announced the 30-second spot in a press release Thursday, Ideas Illinois, a dark money group on the opposite side of the tax fight, announced a longer digital-only ad in a press release.
“Pritzker and Madigan want to change the constitution to allow a permanent jobs tax on middle class families. ‘Trust us,’ they say: we’ll use your money to fund our schools, fix our roads, shore up pensions and cut property taxes. Do you trust them?” a narrator asks.
Passage of a constitutional amendment to allow for Pritzker’s graduated tax plan would require approval from 60 percent of those voting on the question or half of those voting in the November 2020 presidential election, should the Legislature muster the three-fifths majorities in each chamber to put a question on the ballot.
If the constitutional amendment is successful, the Legislature would have the authority to pass a graduated structure, and the one proposed by Pritzker lowers the tax rate modestly for all single- or jointly-filing earners with an income of $250,000 or less in a year.
Per this structure, fewer than 20,000 Illinois households claiming more than $1 million in taxable income would provide $2.7 billion of an estimated $3.4 billion in added revenue, according to the governor’s office.
The ads have been launched a full 20 months ahead of the November 2020 election, which is the earliest the question could be put on the ballot.
CLEAN WATER JOBS: A coalition of environmental groups, lawmakers and employee unions will seek $1 billion or more in funding from a potential capital bill this year to update the state’s aging water infrastructure.
Discussions of the state’s first capital projects bill in 10 years are in a fledgling state, and the list of requests for infrastructure improvements to roads, bridges, state-owned college and university buildings, and other deferred maintenance projects has been seemingly endless since new Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office.
But the advocates taking part in a Clean Water Workforce Pipeline news conference Wednesday, March 20, at the Statehouse said the fundamental importance of clean drinking water earns their initiative a spot near the top of the infrastructure list in importance.
“The best and healthiest and the most affordable drink that we all should have access to is a cool, clear drink of water straight from the taps in our homes,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. “But to make that glass of water safe and accessible to everyone, which everyone deserves, takes a lot of work.”
Darin said that list of work includes wastewater treatment, replacement of old lead pipes, protecting groundwater and more.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat, is the lead Senate sponsor of Senate Bill 2146, while Rep. Justin Slaughter, also a Chicago Democrat, will carry the legislation in the House with HB3349.
Slaughter said Illinois received a C-minus grade for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure from a 2018 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers. He added Illinois accounts for 25 percent of all lead service lines still in use in the U.S.
While Darin said the capital needs for revamping water infrastructure are in the “tens of billions,” the initial ask for this year would be closer to $1 billion.
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BANKS & MARIJUANA: A state Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday, March 20, to advance a bill that would prevent state banking regulators for punishing banks or credit unions that do business with the state’s medical marijuana industry.
Even if that bill becomes law, however, those financial institutions would still be at risk of being prosecuted under federal laws.
“I would say this is kind of the grey area we’re in right now,” Jerry Peck, of the Community Bankers Association of Illinois, told the Senate Financial Institutions Committee. “This is still illegal federally.”
Senate Bill 2023 is being pushed by Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Chicago Democrat, and State Treasurer Michael Frerichs. It would prohibit state banking regulators from taking action against any bank or credit union in Illinois that provides accounts for businesses engaged in the legal production and sale of marijuana products.
According to a November 2017 listing by Governing magazine, marijuana was legal in some form in at least 31 states plus the District of Columbia. In 2015, Illinois legalized marijuana for treatment of certain medical conditions under a pilot program that is set to expire this year, and state lawmakers are expected to vote later this session on whether to make that pilot program permanent, and whether to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use.
But in Illinois and many other states, banks will not do business with companies involved in growing or selling marijuana because federal banking regulations prohibit it.
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MARIJUANA DEMAND: Representatives for some medicinal marijuana growers are claiming they have the existing capacity to provide for initial cultivation demand increases caused by legalization of adult recreational cannabis use should it become law this spring.
According to a study commissioned by the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois, the industry will be able to handle two to four years of cultivation demand following potential adult-use legalization.
“Our study indicated we could meet the demand for three years successfully, but in talking with the sponsors and the stakeholders, we have agreed that, minimally, for the first two years, the existing cultivation square footage approved by the state of Illinois can meet the demand,” Pamela Althoff, a former Republican state senator and current executive director of MCAI, said Wednesday, March 20.
The study, which was conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group consulting firm, said that initial demand will be for more than 550,000 square feet of cultivation space, and cultivation space already licensed under the medicinal program exceeds 870,000 square feet. As the program grows, the demand could grow to 1.5 million square feet in about five years.
While the study said the industry can currently meet cultivation needs, the market in Illinois has room for 463 dispensary facilities despite only 55 being currently licensed.
Althoff said the MCAI believes the state should develop a methodology to determine when additional licenses should be issued for cultivation centers and dispensaries once demand increases.
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DETENTION CENTER BAN: A bill banning for-profit prisons in the state, including immigrant detention centers, advanced out of committee at the Illinois Capitol this week.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, is the lead sponsor of House Bill 2040, which passed 18-10 out of the House Labor and Commerce Committee Wednesday, March 20. She called it “critically important” to Illinois remaining “welcoming” to all people.
“There is an effort afoot to bring a private, for-profit ICE detention center to the state of Illinois,” she said at a Thursday press conference. “And yesterday we said ‘slow your role. Hold up here. That’s not who we are, that’s not how we operate. We don’t believe in making money out of putting humans in cages, and we’re going to do everything we can to stop the advance of this effort.’”
Recently, trustees in Dwight, a village about 80 miles Southwest of Chicago, voted to annex and rezone 88 acres to be used for a detention center run by Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America, the Associated Press reported.
Cassidy’s bill would prohibit the state or any unit of local government from operating private detention facilities, and would prohibit the entering of contracts, receiving payment or providing payment to a facility owned, managed or operated by a private company or person.
The bill would take immediate effect if passed by both houses and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. It has 19 co-sponsors in the House.
PENSION CONSOLIDATION: Illinois lawmakers resumed discussion Thursday, March 21 of consolidating the state’s 656 local downstate police and firefighter pension funds into a single system.
Currently, there is one pension fund for downstate nonuniformed municipal workers called the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, or IMRF. But the communities outside of Chicago that operate full-time, paid police and fire departments all have separate retirement funds for those employees, each with its own board of trustees and administrative staff.
Of all the public pension funds in Illinois, IMRF is in the best financial shape, with a 90 percent-funded ratio. That, however, is because state law requires local governments to make their required contributions each year, even if that means raising property taxes or cutting funding for other public services.
Until a few years ago, that was not the case with police and firefighter pension funds, which have often gone underfunded during lean years for local governments. In addition, officials said, public safety pension funds have been further limited because of statutory restrictions on the types of investments they are allowed to make.
As a result, officials said, the downstate police and firefighter pension funds are, on average, only about 55-percent funded.
Juracek said consolidating the funds would save local governments a combined $21 million a year in administrative costs alone, or about $1,000 per-member, money she said could be added to the pension pool instead.
If the 69 public safety funds operated by communities in the Northwest Municipal Conference had earned the same kind of returns that IMRF saw over a 12-year period from 2003 to 2015, Juracek said “those assets would have grown by an additional $978 million.”
That means the unfunded liability of those funds, estimated at $2 billion in 2016, would have been cut roughly in half, from a little over $2 billion to just over $1 billion, without raising local taxes, she said. And those funds would have gone from being 61-percent funded to being 80-percent funded.
The Northwest Municipal Conference and Illinois Municipal League put forth several options for consolidation.
Those include merging all the funds into the IMRF and allowing the IMRF board to manage investments as well as day-to-day administrative duties; setting up a separate statewide system to manage only downstate police and fire pensions; having a single fund and allowing the existing local trustees or local governing bodies to make day-to-day administrative decisions; and setting up two separate statewide plans – one for police and one for firefighters.
But officials in charge of those local pension funds, as well as many of their members, said they remain skeptical to the idea of consolidating.
Among the concerns that the local funds and their members have is the cost of transitioning from 656 funds into a single fund, estimated to be as high as $150 million.
James McNamee, president of the Illinois Public Pension Fund Association, said that would be a cost that could take as long as 10 years to pay off.
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TEACHER SHORTAGES: A bill touting three solutions to help address Illinois’ teacher shortage passed out of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, March 19.
The first would reinstate a 6 percent cap for teacher salary increases to be paid by the state. The current cap is 3 percent, lowered from 6 percent in the previous General Assembly.
The second would allow student teachers to be paid.
The third and most significant of the changes, according to the bill’s sponsor, would get rid of the basic skills test that some groups say is an unnecessary obstacle to gaining teacher qualification.
“Teaching is an art and a science, and not accurately measured by a standardized test,” said Aviva Bowen, spokesperson for the Illinois Federation of Teachers union.
Bowen added that there are plenty of other tests, including those on the specific material they will teach, that Illinois teachers must pass to get their license.
Mark Jontry, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents, added concerns that the test puts Illinois teachers at an unfair advantage, because out-of-state teachers who are already licensed do not need to take it to teach in Illinois.
Both organizations support Senate Bill 1952, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Andy Maner of Bunker Hill. The bill goes to the Senate, where lawmakers can add amendments.
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ABORTION NOTIFICATION: Illinois Democrats are one step closer to repealing legislation requiring that a minor consult her parent or guardian before getting an abortion.
The bill, sponsored by Chicago Sen. Elgie Sims, Jr., passed out of a Senate committee Tuesday, March 19, without Republican support after about an hour of testimonies and debate.
Sims said the goal of his measure was not to “attack the role between parents and children,” as was suggested during the hearing, but to encourage families to have “authentic conversations.”
“This bill is not an anti-family bill, it is a pro-family bill,” he said. “We cannot have and force inauthentic conversations between families. The State of Illinois has no place.”
It would strike from state law the Parental Notification of Abortion Act of 1995, which requires a minor inform her parent or guardian of her intention to get an abortion. It does provide a minor an avenue to petition a circuit court to issue a waiver of that notification if she does not feel safe, for example, having a conversation with her parent or guardian.
And there are exceptions for a minor if she is a victim of sexual abuse or neglect by an adult family member.
Part of the General Assembly’s interest in passing the Act, the body wrote, is that “Parental consultation is usually in the best interest of the minor and is desirable since the capacity to become pregnant and the capacity for mature judgment concerning the wisdom of an abortion are not necessarily related.”
The law took effect only about five years ago after having been tied up in the courts.
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TAX DATA: Fewer than 20,000 Illinois millionaires would account for 80 percent of an estimated $3.4 billion in added income tax revenue under a graduated tax plan being touted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, his office said in a release Friday, March 15.
Per Pritzker’s projections, 19,939 Illinois taxpayers whose income exceeds $1 million would pay an added $2.72 billion in combined taxes to the state; 37,391 filers earning between $500,001 and $1 million would pay an added total of $629 million; and 117,535 filers earning between $250,001 and $500,000 would pay an added total of $361 million.
The other 6 million-plus Illinoisans would see their total combined tax burden shrink by about $177 million.
In recent days, conservative think tank Illinois Policy has suggested Pritzker’s estimates for increased tax revenue were exaggerated by $1 billion or more, and the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government research organization, said it could not duplicate Pritzker’s estimates.
A news release from Pritzker’s office said the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget worked with the Illinois Department of Revenue “to arrive at a realistic projection for the amount generated by the fair income tax.”
The graduated tax would require a constitutional amendment, which needs approval from voters to become law, so its passage is not possible until 2021 at the earliest.
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CATHOLIC CLERGY: Nearly 400 Catholic clergy members and church staff in Illinois, some still working, were named in a report released Wednesday, March 20, by a Minnesota-based law firm accusing them of sexual misconduct.
The 185-page report, published by Jeff Anderson & Associates, includes the names, assignment histories, photographs and background information of 395 individuals associated with churches throughout the state, in the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Dioceses of Belleville, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield.
The law firm represented, by its count, hundreds of Illinoisans who were the victims of child sexual abuse.
“Those at the top have chosen not to believe so many survivors for so many years who have come forward with reports and have chosen, then, to keep secret not only the identities of those offenders, but (also) those who have been complicit in that concealment at the top,” said Jeff Anderson, the trial attorney who heads the firm that published the report,
Each of the clergy and staff members listed is accused of sexual misconduct with minors, and many were the subject of a lawsuit. The report is careful to mention “the vast majority” of those cases were settled or not “fully evaluated” by a court.
“Accordingly, in most cases the allegations have not been proved or substantiated in a court of law,” according to the report. “Consequently, unless otherwise indicated, all of the allegations should be considered just allegations and should not be considered proven or substantiated in a court of law.”
There are about 115 clergy members from the Archdiocese of Chicago named in the report, 22 from the Diocese of Belleville, 43 from Joliet, 29 from Peoria, 22 from Rockford and 23 from Springfield.
Nearly 150 laypersons in Illinois are named as well. They include clergy who are not bound to a specific geographical area and staff members who work in Catholic establishments, such as teachers and coaches.
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DISABILITY WAGES: Illinois lawmakers are looking to phase out a system which allows certain employers to pay disabled persons far less than the statutory minimum wage that applies to all other state workers.
Provisions in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act section 14C allow employers to obtain a certificate to hire individuals at less than minimum wage, and advocates say a review of state records shows some certificate holders have paid wages far lower than $1 hourly.
Despite the fact that the 14C exemption is part of a federal program, state Rep. Theresa Mah, a Chicago Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor, said six states have implemented programs to mandate a living wage at a statewide level, and Illinois’ effort would mirror those of other states.
“There’s a real sincere drive here to just get right with history,” said Ryan Croke, executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living.
House Bill 3340, called the Illinois Dignity in Pay Act, would call for the state’s Department of Human Services to develop and implement a plan over the next five years to phase out subminimum wage procedures at 14C-licensed sheltered workshops.
“So we can grow as a state and make sure that we are really being a cutting-edge employer for people with disabilities, it’s time now to be able to phase out to say that people with disabilities are worth competitive wages,” said Rahnee Patrick, director of independent living at Access Living, an advocacy group for disabled persons.
Disability self-advocate Megan Norlin read a statement from fellow self-advocate Mary Hettel at a press event for the bill Tuesday, March 19.
“I graduated college with a BSW, and the Department of Human Services paid for my education. I understood that they would help me find employment. This has not happened,” Norlin read.
To ensure employment access to disabled persons, the bill would also create a 14C worker protection fund, establish customized work plans for each worker currently in a 14C position, freeze the issuance of 14C certificates, and require reporting and evaluation on the progress of reforms.
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MEDICAID BUDGET: Officials in charge of managing the Illinois Medicaid program told state lawmakers they are focused on improving services and reducing the program’s cost to taxpayers, but that will depend on whether lawmakers are willing to impose a new tax on insurance companies.
“This budget proposal has been referred to technically as a maintenance budget, but to us that means far from business as usual,” Theresa Eagleson, the new director at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, told a Senate appropriations committee Tuesday, March 19. “The governor has vowed to preserve Medicaid funding, and under this budget not a single person will see their health coverage or their child support assistance reduced in any way.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker is proposing a total operating budget for DHFS of $25.1 billion, or about $900 million more than the current year’s budget. The vast majority of that is for the state Medicaid program, which is jointly funded with state and federal money to provide health coverage to more than 3 million low- and moderate-income people in Illinois.
However, under Pritzker’s proposal, the cost to Illinois taxpayers would actually be about $700 million less than it is this year. That’s because within the Medicaid program, Pritzker is proposing to levy a host of new taxes that would go into a special fund used to reimburse health care providers while at the same time drawing down additional federal matching funds.
Those new taxes include an assessment on certain insurance companies known as managed care organizations, or MCOs, which are the type of companies that now administer most of the state’s Medicaid program. Pritzker is also seeking a 32-cent per-pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax as well as new taxes on e-cigarettes.
Among the things the new money would pay for would be the hiring of 59 additional staff members to coordinate physical and behavioral health care for Medicaid patients.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.