CAPITOL RECAP: Denied marijuana dispensary applicants to get second chance

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UPDATED MONDAY, SEPT. 28

By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – Failed applicants for a marijuana dispensary license will have an opportunity to amend their applications and receive more information as to why they were denied points in the scoring process.

In a news release Monday, Sept. 21, Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation said they came to the decision after a “careful examination” based on “feedback from community leaders and stakeholders.”

The change allows denied applicants to resubmit their applications or have them rescored after receiving a “supplemental deficiency notice” that tells them which specific portions of their application lost points and prevented them from reaching the 252-point perfect score needed to enter the lottery to distribute licenses.

Those receiving a perfect score after this process takes place would be added to the lottery for the first 75 licenses.

An applicant may not, however, change the owners or makeup of its ownership group on resubmitted applications. Officials said the process allowing for rescoring could be wrapped up “this fall.”

The announcement of changes comes after just 21 of more than 900 applicants received perfect scores in the first round of grading by an outside company. That meant no other applicants would be eligible for any of the 75 licenses granted in the first wave of the new program, which sparked an immediate backlash from lawmakers, applicants and activists.

The outside professional services and auditing firm conducting the first round of grading was KPMG, and they will once again be grading the rescored applications, according to the governor’s office. A spokesperson from the governor’s office noted, however, that “IDFPR will ensure strong oversight of the process with KPMG to ensure every step focuses on fairness.”

KPMG received a $4.2 million no-bid contract from the state to score dispensary applicants, as well as a $2.5 million no-bid contract from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to grade applicants who wish to receive a license to grow, transport and infuse cannabis products.

The grow licenses have yet to be awarded, as the process has seen significant delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the news conference Tuesday, Sept. 22, Pritzker and his lead marijuana advisor, former state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, said the General Assembly could amend the legalization law for future waves of licenses to provide a cut-off range for applicants to qualify for a license rather than only accepting the highest scores.

According to Hutchinson, that would allow worthy applicants who don’t achieve a perfect score for reasons such as not having a majority veteran stakeholder to still advance to the lottery stage. But those changes would require action from the General Assembly and be more likely to happen in future rounds, rather than for the first wave of 75 licenses.

“This process is designed for us to see all the things that worked and figure out how to tighten this as we move forward,” Hutchinson said, noting that 75 licenses in the initial distribution is an intentionally small number.

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MADIGAN WON'T TESTIFY: House Speaker Michael Madigan said Friday, Sept. 25, that he will not testify before the House Special Investigating Committee that is probing his role in a bribery scheme involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison.

In a two-and-a-half-page letter to the committee, Madigan called the committee “a political stunt” being orchestrated by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, and said the ongoing federal criminal investigation, “is more important than Mr. Durkin’s political theatrics.”

“For the record, I am not exercising my Fifth Amendment rights by not appearing before the committee,” Madigan wrote. “As I have said before, I have done nothing wrong.”

Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and the longest serving state legislative speaker in U.S. history, was implicated in the bribery scheme in July when officials with ComEd entered a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office in which they admitted that over a period of years, they awarded jobs and contracts to close associates of Madigan in order to curry his favor for legislation that benefitted the company.

Madigan has not been charged, and the deferred prosecution agreement did not explicitly state that he had personally requested the favors or had direct knowledge of them at the time. He is referred to only as “Public Official A,” although the agreement makes clear the public official is the speaker of the Illinois House.

Republicans have filed a charge under House rules accusing him of “conduct unbecoming to a legislator or which constitutes a breach of public trust.” During the committee’s first meeting Sept. 10, GOP members introduced a list of witnesses they wanted to testify voluntarily. The list included Madigan along with several past and current employees of ComEd.

The committee’s next scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 29. In a letter to committee Chairman Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch on Thursday, Durkin indicated that one ComEd representative had agreed to testify and that he and the GOP team’s attorney, Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor, would lead the questioning.

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HEALTH CENTER GRANTS:  Federally Qualified Health Centers in Illinois and other health facilities that have been on the front lines in the state’s battle against COVID-19 are in line to receive $140 million in grants to help them maintain operations.

Gov. JB Pritzker made that announcement Friday, Sept. 25, during a news conference at one such clinic, the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.

“Our state is among the best in class when it comes to fighting COVID-19 because we’ve put people first, and our health care providers have had a key role in making that possible,” Pritzker said. “But for many providers, that work has come at a significant financial cost, from maintaining payroll to spending extra on personal protective equipment, to taking extra precautions in ambulance services for COVID-positive individuals.”

“In short, we’re giving direct dollars to our direct responders,” he added.

Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs, have accounted for a large part of the state’s COVID-19 testing program where tests are available free of charge, regardless of a person’s ability to pay or citizenship status.

In addition to FQHCs, Pritzker said grants will also go to safety-net hospitals and long-term care facilities. In addition, he said, the state plans to launch a web portal next week to allow smaller health care providers to apply for funding.

David Ernesto Munar, president and CEO of Howard Brown Health, said that health center saw a 70 percent drop in its in-person visits due to the stay-at-home order that was in place during the early months of the pandemic. And while he said that was necessary to control the spread of the disease, it cut deeply into the clinic’s regular revenue stream, although some of that loss was offset by a state rule that allowed them to bill for telehealth services.

Funding for the grants comes from aid the state has received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, which Congress passed in March.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: The northwest region of Illinois could be two days away from triggering increased mitigations from the state to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Monday, Sept. 28, announced the rate of positive test results had reached 8 percent in Region 1, which extends from DeKalb and Boone counties west to the Iowa border, on Sept. 25, the most recent day those statistics are recorded. A region that has three consecutive days of positivity rates above 8 percent is subject to increased mitigations that include limited capacity indoors and restrictions for restaurants and bars.

Statewide, the test positivity 7-day rolling average is now at 3.7 percent, an increase of one-tenth of a percentage point since Friday. Total cases of COVID-19 reported in Illinois reached 289,639 the IDPH reported Monday.

Statewide, the test positivity 7-day rolling average is now at 3.7 percent, an increase of one-tenth of a percentage point since Friday. Total cases of COVID-19 reported in Illinois reached 289,639 the IDPH reported Monday.

From Saturday through Monday, the state averaged 1,918 new cases and 52,394 test results daily. There were 1,709 new cases reported in the previous 24 hours Monday, and 13 additional virus-related deaths. There now have been 8,614 Illinoisans killed by COVID-19.

The IDPH reported 52 deaths from Saturday to Monday, bringing the total death count in the state to 8,614 people. With 41,142 tests reported in the previous hours, the test positivity rate statewide was 4.15 percent in the previous 24 hours, the IDPH said. That’s a full percentage point higher than the rate reported Sunday.

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CENSUS STATUS: During a news conference Friday, Sept. 25, Gov. JB Pritzker spoke about news that had just broken that a federal judge in California had blocked the Trump administration’s effort to end early the door-to-door head counting for the 2020 U.S. Census. President Donald Trump had ordered that the census count end next week, on Sept. 30, but barring any reversal of the decision by a higher court, the head count will continue through Oct. 31.

Pritzker urged anyone who hasn’t yet filled out the census to do so online at my2020census.gov.

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GRADUATED TAX AMENDMENT: Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday, Sept..25, took a number of questions regarding the proposed constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot that would allow Illinois to levy a graduated income tax.

Earlier in the day, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, and Deputy Leader Tom Demmer, of Dixon, held a virtual news conference accusing the Pritzker administration of threatening a massive tax increase across the board if voters do not approve the amendment. That was based on comments that Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton had made the previous day, but Pritzker said Republicans were taking those comments out of context.

Pritzker repeated the argument he has often made that the state of Illinois was suffering from a structural budget deficit, even before the pandemic, and he said there are only a certain number of ways to address that.

One, he said, would be to raise the current flat rate by a full percentage point, to 5.9 percent. Another would be to cut state spending by 15 percent across the board, which he said would result in large property tax increases statewide to fund public schools.

The third choice, he said, is the proposed amendment that would raise taxes on people earning more than $250,000, about 3 percent of the state’s population, while leaving tax rates the same or cutting them for the other 97 percent.

“And the best direction that we should go to deal with this is to make sure that we're asking those who are most able to step up to pay to do so – those are the wealthiest in our state … and that's the direction that I think we ought to go. And that's what the lieutenant governor was talking about.”

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GOP ETHICS BILLS: Illinois Senate Republicans unveiled a package of ethics proposals Thursday, Sept. 24, which they say is targeted to stop the type of corruption that has led to the indictment of four legislative Democrats in recent months.

“Today we're introducing a legislative package that targets corruption by focusing on two distinct areas: Enhancing the state’s ability to enforce the laws we already have on the books, and ensuring that legislators are serving the public interest,” state Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, said at a virtual news conference.

To enhance the ability to enforce laws, Republicans are backing bills to: allow the state attorney general to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate, indict and prosecute bribery and misconduct by members of the General Assembly; provide states attorneys with wiretap authority; and grant the Legislative Inspector General the ability to investigate members of the General Assembly without first receiving approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, and changes the composition of the Commission to make its members part of the general public, rather than legislators.

Other proposed measures ban legislators from lobbying other branches of state government or units of local government for compensation . Another bill backed by the GOP senators creates a revolving door prohibition preventing lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office, or until the end of the current term.

Other measures prohibit a legislator from leaving office and continuing to use their campaign fund to support lobbying activities and require further reporting of statement of economic Interests to enhance the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

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CIVIL UNION STEPPARENTS: The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday, Sept. 24, that parents involved in civil unions have the same stepparenting rights as married individuals and that those rights continue even after the death of their spouse.

The case involved a woman, Kris Fulkerson, whose partner, Matthew Sharpe, died in 2017. Sharpe had a child – identified in court documents only as A.S. Sharpe – with his ex-wife, Crystal Westmoreland, before their 2013 divorce.

Sharpe and Westmoreland shared equal parenting time, but A.S. continued to live with Sharpe at their home in the Metro East with Fulkerson and her three children. After Sharpe died, Westmoreland took custody of A.S. and stopped allowing the child to visit Fulkerson or her other children.

Fulkerson filed a petition seeking visitation rights and an allocation of parental responsibilities.

In 2011, the General Assembly passed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, known more simply as the Civil Union Act, as a way to confer most of the rights of marriage to couples who were not legally married. That was prior to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

That law states: “A party to a civil union is entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses, whether they derive from statute, administrative rule, policy, common law, or any other source of civil or criminal law.”

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of stepparent rights Thursday.

“We find that, in enacting the Civil Union Act, the General Assembly intended to create an alternative to marriage that was equal in all respects,” Justice Rita Garman wrote for the court. “This intent was not limited to partners’ rights as to each other.”

The case now goes back to circuit court for a judge to decide how much visitation and parental responsibility Fulkerson will have.

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BREONNA TAYLOR REACTION: Gov. JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned a Jefferson County, Kentucky, grand jury’s decision to not charge Louisville officers in the March shooting death of Breonna Taylor and called for protests of the decision to be peaceful.

“This is, to put it simply, a gross miscarriage of justice,” Pritzker said at a joint news conference with Lightfoot and others Wednesday, Sept. 23. “The circumstances surrounding Breonna Taylor’s death brings an overwhelming sense of rage, of passion, of sorrow, to so many… Our justice system has a long history of failing Black Americans.”

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced Wednesday that only one officer, Brett Hankison, would be indicted on three charges of wanton endangerment for shooting 10 rounds into an apartment neighboring Taylor’s that was occupied by three people. Hankison was fired by the Louisville Metro Police Department in June.

The indictment does not mention Taylor or her death. According to Cameron, the FBI is still investigating whether officers violated Taylor’s civil rights.

Taylor was killed after three plainclothes LMPD officers, including Hankison, were serving a warrant looking for her ex-boyfriend and entered her apartment. Taylor’s current boyfriend at the time, a legal gun owner, fired once, at what he said he believed were intruders, wounding an officer. Officers returned fire more than 30 times, killing Taylor in her hallway.

Anticipating public protest and large gatherings in the aftermath of the announcement, Lightfoot called for peace.

“I know that many, upon hearing of this verdict, will feel confusion and anger and disbelief and many of you will want to express yourselves,” Lightfoot said. “I want you to know that I support you and will do everything in my power to protect you as you voice your righteous anger.”

At an unrelated news conference earlier in the day, Pritzker said the National Guard was at the ready but the state wouldn’t activate soldiers “until they’re needed.”

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POSITIVITY RATE 'TOO HIGH:' While Illinois’ rolling average COVID-19 positivity rate remains lower than surrounding states, Gov. JB Pritzker said once again Wednesday, Sept. 23, it is still too high to resume a level of normalcy beyond mitigations currently in place.

The rolling seven-day average positivity rate in the state remained at 3.5 percent Wednesday for the fifth straight day, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, which reported another 1,848 new cases of the virus among 46,391 test results reported over the previous 24 hours.

“I would love it if we could get below 2 percent, that would be terrific,” Pritzker said. “We're not anywhere near that right now. And what has happened is that Illinois, even though we've got the best positivity rate among all of our neighboring states, it's still a concerning positivity rate.”

The governor once again said unequivocally he is listening to medical experts when it comes to allowing fall sports with a high risk of transmission. The expert recommendations are to not allow contact sports such as wrestling and football at this time. Sports such as football and volleyball have been tentatively rescheduled for the spring.

As for schooling, the state has let local school districts decide the best method for engaging students.

“Our schools are a priority, we want to make sure that kids are back in school,” Pritzker said. “There are many kids who are in hybrid programs, and many kids who are not at all in school, they’re just in e-learning. And the further we can drive this positivity rate down, the more I'm looking forward to the idea that kids will be able to get back in school.”

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DRIVER’S LICENSE DEADLINE EXTENSION: Expiration dates on Illinois driver’s licenses and state ID cards will be extended another three months, Secretary of State Jesse White announce Wednesday, Sept. 23.

White announced expirations for licenses and IDs will be extended until Feb. 1, 2021, so the cards will remain valid throughout that span. The extension applies to those who have October, November, December and January expiration dates.

License plate stickers remain extended until Nov. 1, 2020, as they can be renewed online. White encouraged those who have business with the secretary of state to consider using online services instead of visiting a facility when possible.

Online services at www.cyberdriveillinois.com can be used to renew license plate stickers, obtain a duplicate driver’s license or ID card, obtain a driving record abstract or renew a standard driver’s license through the Safe Driver renewal program.

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UTILITY SHUTOFF MORATORIUM: Several state-regulated utilities have voluntarily extended a moratorium on disconnections into next year after requests from the Illinois Commerce Commission.  

In a Tuesday, Sept. 22, news release, the ICC announced that Nicor Gas and Liberty Utilities have agreed to halt shutoffs due to missed or late payments for all residential customers until March 31, 2021.

Ameren Illinois, Aqua Illinois, Illinois American Water, Commonwealth Edison, Peoples Gas/North Shore Gas and Utility Services of Illinois have agreed to delay disconnections to the same date for residential customers who qualify for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and those financially impacted by COVID-19.

MidAmerican has extended its moratorium on shutoffs for LIHEAP-qualified residential customers until March 31, 2021 as well, and is considering other options, according to ICC.

To qualify for LIHEAP, residential customers’ combined household income for the 30 days prior to submitting an application must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level for their family size. A spokesperson for the ICC said it is strongly encouraging all residential customers of the participating utilities to call their utility to check their eligibility. The LIHEAP application period runs from July of this year to June 30, 2021, or until funding set aside for the program is exhausted.

According to the ICC release, residential customers who have been impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic and cannot pay their utility bill do not need to fill out any forms or provide paperwork to qualify for the moratorium. They just need to “make the phone call and verbalize” their situation to receive a delay on shutoffs if their state-regulated utility is participating in COVID-19 related moratoriums.

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UNEMPLOYMENT UPDATE: The economic effects of COVID-19 and associated economic restrictions continue to show in Illinois and nationwide, according to unemployment reports released Thursday, Sept. 24.

There were 870,000 first-time unemployment claims nationwide for the week ending Sept. 19, including 25,976 in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. For the state, that was a decrease of 1,408 from the previous week, but the number of continued claims rose by 28,938 to 538,496.

The number of nonfarm jobs decreased since last year in all 14 Illinois metropolitan areas in August, with five metro areas at record low payrolls for the month, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor and IDES.

The August unemployment rate was 10.9 percent statewide, the highest rate recorded since 1983, when it was 11.3 percent.

The Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights metro area had the highest unemployment rate at 12.6 percent, up from 3.8 percent during the same month a year ago. The Rockford and Decatur metropolitan areas had the next highest unemployment rates at 11.3 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively, up from 5.9 percent and 5.4 percent a year ago.

Bloomington had the lowest unemployment rate at 7.2 percent, which was an increase from 3.8 percent a year ago, followed by Champaign-Urbana, which increased to 7.4 percent from 3.9 percent.

Other areas ranged from 8.1 percent to 9.6 percent.

 

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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