Senate Week in Review: May 10-14, 2021

SPRINGFIELD – Despite claims from Democratic leaders about a fair and open redistricting process, a recent news story showcased the real, closed-door process taking place in Springfield.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars in federal funding are coming to Illinois, but with some stipulations that could make the state budget process a little more difficult than expected.

Also during the week, lawmakers continued to investigate the tragic and deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, including a recent report highlighting mismanagement of the crisis.

But in brighter news, $250 million in road projects are moving forward across Illinois.

Media Showcase Democrats’ Closed-Door Process

A recent news report from WCIA TV showed video outside the House Democrats’ locked-door redistricting office in the Stratton Office Building in the Capitol Complex. The reporter attempted to interview Democrats on their way in and out of the map room, questioning their claims of an “open process” when the work was being done behind locked doors out of the view of the public.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have still refused to clarify exactly what data they are using to draw maps behind closed doors. While the decennial census data is designed for the very purpose of drawing district lines, that data will not be released until at least late summer. Democratic leaders have said that they will at least partly use information from the American Community Survey, a significantly less accurate source of data.

Fifty-nine advocacy organizations, good-government groups, and political experts and activists recently penned a letter to “unequivocally affirm the basic principle that it is not appropriate to implement electoral district lines based primarily on American Community Survey (ACS) data.” The groups taking part in the letter include organizations ranging from the NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center to the League of Women Voters and National Urban League.

Republican lawmakers from both chambers used the opportunity to remind Gov. JB Pritzker of his campaign promise to veto any legislative map drawn by lawmakers, and called on him to provide leadership in an independent map-making process.

State Sen. Brian Stewart (R-Freeport) says there is still time for the Governor to provide leadership on the issue by making it clear that he will veto a map drawn by lawmakers, a promise he explicitly made to voters when he was campaigning for Governor. Pritzker is the one person in the best position to stop the current partisan map-making process from moving forward.

Federal Rules Throw Wrench into State Budget

Between the costs of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s built-in structural fiscal issues, the influx of nearly $8 billion in federal money from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act was being eyed to plug a number of holes.

Gov. Pritzker had hoped to use some of the federal money to pay back $3.6 billion that the state borrowed last year. However, an interim federal rule states that potential uses for the money “would not include interest or principal on any outstanding debt instrument.” That rule is currently being interpreted by budgeteers to mean that the funds couldn’t be used to pay back the loan.

The Illinois Comptroller’s office has stated that they are working to get further clarification on the rule.

Additionally, the federal rules state that money can’t be used to cover tax breaks, directly or indirectly, going so far as to empower the U.S. Treasury Department to claw back funds equivalent to any decrease in state tax revenue. This rule has been interpreted to mean that if Illinois accepts the ARP funding, it can’t offer any new tax breaks, credits, or reductions, including tax credits designed to help grow jobs or help reduce property taxes for struggling homeowners.

Attorney Generals from 21 states threatened to sue the U.S. Treasury Department over the ARP tax rules, with the majority of them having followed through on that promise. Illinois has not joined that effort.

Lawmakers Continue to Grill Officials About LaSalle Veterans’ Home Deaths

During the week, the Senate and House both held hearings on the recent report from the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Inspector General’s report on the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home.

Thirty-six veterans died during the outbreak, equivalent to a quarter of the entire population of the home. This was the deadliest outbreak at a state-run facility in Illinois history.

According to the Inspector General’s report, the Administration failed to identify the severity of the outbreak despite receiving daily positivity numbers. The Illinois Department of Public Health didn’t conduct an onsite visit until the 13th day of the outbreak. The report also noted that the Administration had completely ignored numerous recommendations from a 2019 report on the Legionnaire’s disease at the Quincy Veterans’ Home, recommendations that could have prevented or at least reduced the severity of the outbreak in LaSalle.

$250 Million in Capital Funding

Another round of road construction projects are about to get started across the state. This week, Illinois Department of Transportation officials announced $250 million in new grants from the Rebuild Illinois capital program.

The funds are part of the fourth of six installments that are spread out over three years. So far, more than $1 billion in capital funds have been distributed for transportation projects.

A full list of the grants can be found at: https://idot.illinois.gov/Assets/uploads/files/Transportation-System/Pamphlets-&-Brochures/Local-Roads/MFT/Yearly/RBI/RBI%20Disbursement%20-4%20Transaction%20List.pdf

Preposterous Proposals at the Capitol

Thousands of new bills are filed every year by lawmakers in Springfield. Some of them feature popular, widely-accepted ideas to make the state better, while others seem a little more out of left field.

Every week, the Senate Republican Caucus is highlighting legislation that is outlandish, not very well thought out, or just plain bad for the people of Illinois. This week we take a look at:

  • House Bill 724: Would grant lawmakers the authority to arrest and detain individuals.
  • Senate Bill 1554: Expands “Good Samaritan” immunity to include drug-induced homicide and aggravated battery violations. If this becomes law, an individual could attempt to murder someone with drugs, but as long as they call an ambulance for the victim, even if the victim dies, they could potentially be able to claim immunity from prosecution for the crime.