CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker funnels $50 million to pro-graduated tax group; opposition launches coalition and vows 'resources'



By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD  – Days after the governor donated $51.5 million of his personal fortune to a committee supporting a graduated income tax constitutional amendment, a new coalition has begun an effort to defeat the measure.

At stake is Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature policy proposal – a constitutional amendment scrapping the state’s protection of a flat-rate income tax for a new structure allowing lawmakers to tax different levels of income at fluctuating tax rates. A rate structure that would take effect if the amendment passes is expected to bring in more than $1 billion in additional state revenue this fiscal year and more than $3 billion annually when it is implemented for a full fiscal year.

Pritzker’s whopping check, reported over the July 4 holiday weekend, went to the Vote Yes for Fairness ballot initiative committee, to which he had already donated $5 million. The only other donation to the committee was for $250, so the governor is basically self-funding the committee’s push for the constitutional change from his estimated $3.4 billion fortune.

On Tuesday, July 7, in four cities, a group of business-tied organizations – including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Farm Bureau, National Federation of Independent Business-Illinois and the Technology and Manufacturing Association – called concurrent news conferences in four cities to make their case against the proposal.

Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber, said at the news conference the coalition – which he is hopeful will grow to include several more business groups – was “not prepared” to address how much it was willing to spend on the fight.

“However, there will be resources,” he said. “But again, the important thing is we don't need to match the proponent spending. We only have to go ahead and be competitive. We don't need to spend dollar for dollar because this is, frankly, an unpopular idea once voters figure out what's really going on. … If the proponents were certain that they had this in the bag, would they have written a $51 million check? I don't think so.”

The news conference prompted a swift pushback from pro-amendment groups, including from Vote Yes for Fair Tax, another committee backed by community and advocacy groups, labor organizations and faith groups.

“Working people overwhelmingly support the fair tax amendment because everyone who makes under $250,000 will get a tax cut or pay no more,” John Bouman, the group’s chairman, said in a news release.

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COVID-19 HEALTH STATISTICS: The state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate remained at 3 percent Monday, July 13, as the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 883 new confirmed cases of the virus.

The 30,012 test results reported Monday followed more than 70,000 total reported the previous two days, driving Illinois to more than 2 million tests conducted since the pandemic began. Illinois became the first state in the Midwest to reach that milestone and the fifth state in the U.S., following California, New York, Florida and Texas.

The six deaths reported Monday brought the number of COVID-19 casualties in Illinois to 7,193 out of 154,799 confirmed cases throughout the state’s 102 counties.

Monday’s results mean there has been an average of 991 new cases reported each of the past seven days, an increase of 219 from the previous seven-day period. The seven-day rolling test positivity rate has settled at 3 percent, remaining at that level for the past three days after 23 days below it.

According to Gov. JB Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, any of the state’s four regions can me moved back to a more restrictive phase of the plan if there is a sustained rise in positivity rate, a sustained increase in hospital admissions for COVID-19 like illness, a reduction in hospital capacity threatening surge capabilities or a significant outbreak in the region that threatens the public health.

Hospitalizations, however, remain at their pandemic lows. There were 1,362 COVID-19 positive persons hospitalized at the end of Sunday, 334 of which were in intensive care unit beds. The latter number has not fallen below 300 at any point since the state began reporting the metrics in April.

The 136 ventilators in use by COVID-19 patients also represented a near-low for the pandemic.

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REMOVING STEPHEN DOUGLAS?: Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on Thursday, July 9, called for removing statues and portraits of the 19th century U.S. Senator Stephen A Douglas from the Statehouse along with other known slaveholders.

“While reading Sidney Blumenthal’s book ‘All the Powers of Earth’ concerning the pre-Civil War period a few months ago, I learned of Stephen Douglas’ disturbing past as a Mississippi slave owner and his abhorrent words toward people of color,” the Chicago Democrat said in a statement. “I advised my staff to research and confirm the history to support removing the Douglas portrait from the House chamber.”

Douglas was a prominent Democratic politician in Illinois during the 1840s and 1850s. He served briefly as secretary of state and, later, as associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court before he was elected to the U.S. House in 1842. The General Assembly elected him to the United States Senate in 1847 and he served there until 1861, just as the Civil War was beginning.

Douglas’ tolerance for slavery has long been known, but the fact that he actually owned slaves in another state was not widely known before the publication of Blumenthal’s book last year.

Madigan said he plans to offer a resolution to replace Douglas’ portrait in the House chamber and replace it with one of former President Barack Obama, calling that “a more fitting representation of the modern-day Democratic Party.” In the meantime, he said he is looking into ways to cover the portrait immediately.

He also called on the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, which supervises all repairs and alterations to buildings in the Capitol Complex, to move swiftly to remove statues of Douglas and Pierre Menard, a slave owner and the state’s first lieutenant governor, while relocating a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. to a more prominent location.

He said that office should also conduct a review of all statues, portraits and symbols on the Capitol grounds in order to identify and remove any “inappropriate” fixtures.

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MARIJUANA SALES LICENSES: One of the few things unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic’s presence in Illinois has been recreational marijuana sales.

The $47.6 million spent on the product in June was the highest single-month amount since recreational marijuana use became legal at the beginning of the year, and sales have increased each month since February even amid strict stay-at-home orders.

Still, while sales boom, the facets of the landmark legalization law that were put in place specifically to diversify the largely white male-dominated industry have not moved forward as planned.

A round of dispensary licenses scheduled for release on May 1, as well as craft grower and other licenses scheduled to be granted July 1, have been indefinitely delayed.

Toi Hutchinson, a former state senator and Gov. JB Pritzker’s lead cannabis policy advisor, said the state is doing all it can to expedite the licensing process but the pandemic created a “perfect storm.” That has led to the delays for application filers and a third-party grader that was enlisted to make sure nobody gets an undue leg up in the application process.

“That's one piece, but the other piece is that all government shut down,” Hutchinson said in a phone call Wednesday, July 9. “It didn't stop the work but it's slowed it… People had to figure out how to do what it is we needed to do on almost hourly basis for a novel virus that we didn't see coming.”

On Thursday, July 10, Hutchinson gave a ballpark date as to when the applicants might have that clarity.

“Well, we know that by the date that we filed the permanent rule for the tiebreaker scenario…will be in place in September,” she said. “The minute those things are in place we can go to the tiebreaker phase.”

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LOCAL GOVERNMENTS: Local government officials in Illinois have their hands “tied behind their back” when responding to COVID-19-related economic struggles, three community and business advocacy groups argued Thursday, July 9.

“Burdensome, unnecessary” state rules dictating how federal CARES Act — Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security — funds are allocated to local authorities will “likely” make fewer dollars available to officials to use as they deem appropriate, Brad Cole, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, said at an outdoor event in Springfield.

Instead, the state will “reallocate” that money to other areas and “limit economic recovery in communities,” he added.

But a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said that assertion is “simply false” and the situation is more complex than the Municipal League, Retail Merchants Association and Manufacturers’ Association are portraying.

Congress approved just over $4.9 billion for Illinois based on its population. That money is required to be used toward costs related to the public health emergency.

Chicago and counties with more than 500,000 residents — Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will — received direct payments totaling about $1.39 billion. The rest, around $3.5 billion, was sent to the state to allocate.

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MASK MANDATE?: Testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security Wednesday, July 8, Gov. JB Pritzker said he would like to see a coordinated national COVID-19 containment strategy that requires people to wear masks, and he reiterated the need for a federal financial support package for states.

He was once again critical of the White House’s response in the early days of the pandemic’s arrival in the U.S., pointing to “broken promises on testing supplies and PPE (personal protective equipment) deliveries.”

“We were in a bidding war for life-saving supplies against each other and against our international allies,” Pritzker said of the effort to purchase supplies as other states were bidding on the same stock. “We were paying $5 for masks that should have cost 85 cents… In the midst of a global pandemic states were forced to play some sort of sick ‘Hunger Games’ game show to save the lives of our people.”

When asked about the response later, Pritzker said the president should have used the Defense Production Act earlier in the pandemic to compel U.S. companies to produce PPE and testing supplies.

The governor also suggested President Donald Trump has consistently contradicted guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or muzzled public health officials. He also criticized the president’s recent call to open schools for the fall term without providing proper guidance.

Pritzker testified with local government and health officials from other states at the virtual hearing, and all of them said masks should be mandatory and a more unified federal response is needed.

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LAWMAKER LAWSUIT: The Illinois attorney general’s office on Tuesday night, July 7, asked a downstate judge to address the one outstanding issue in Rep. Darren Bailey’s lawsuit challenging Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Until Clay County Circuit Court Judge Michael McHaney decides whether Pritzker’s April 30 emergency declaration correctly defines COVID-19 as a disaster, the state is procedurally barred from asking a higher court to reconsider the Xenia Republican representative’s lawsuit.

On July 2, the judge sided with Bailey on two of the four arguments he presented in his case, nullifying all of the governor’s executive orders related to the novel coronavirus pandemic since April 8. His ruling also declared that the Illinois Department of Public Health has the “supreme authority” to close businesses and restrict residents’ activities in a public health crisis.

Bailey, Pritzker’s office and legal experts disagree on the scope of the order — some assert it applies statewide while others maintain it affects only Clay County.

In a court document filed around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, the attorney general’s office also raised a question about whether McHaney had authority to rule in the case. The federal court that denied the state’s request to take over the lawsuit did not formally hand the case back to the Clay County circuit court until July 6, four days after McHaney handed down his order.

The one active issue in Bailey’s lawsuit is “moot” and should be dismissed, the attorney general’s office argued, because any ruling “would not have any practical effect.”

The points raised in the representative’s arguments were “incorporated” into the two issues he won, and the judge’s order effectively rendered the April 30 disaster proclamation void, the attorney general’s office wrote.

McHaney denied Bailey’s request to issue a ruling without a trial that COVID-19 did not meet the definition of a disaster, but the judge never formally ruled on that matter. This last issue could result in a full legal proceeding, depending on what the judge decides.

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ILLINOIS ECONOMY: The Illinois economy shrank at an annual rate of 5.4 percent during the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous quarter, according to federal data released Tuesday, July 7, an indicator of just how severely the COVID-19 pandemic affected commercial activity.

The gross domestic product figures for the January-through-March period represent the total value of goods produced and services provided during the quarter.

University of Illinois economist Fred Giertz said in an interview that virtually all of the decline occurred in the final weeks of March, after Gov. JB Pritzker issued a statewide stay-at-home order that forced many businesses, schools and other employers to shut down or scale back operations.

“All the evidence suggests that the first two months of January-February were not impacted very much by the virus issue, but then they have a huge impact and in March even though the formal shutdown didn't begin until the last week or so of March,” he said.

Nearly all sectors of the economy took significant hits during the quarter led by arts, entertainment and recreation, which took the biggest hit with a 36 percent rate of decline. Accommodations and food service fell at a rate of more than 27 percent.

Other sectors taking big hits included finance and insurance, down 10.6 percent, and transportation and warehousing, which includes airline and rail transportation, which fell at a 9.8 percent rate.

The only bright spot in the report was the agricultural sector – one area of the economy that was not affected by the stay-at-home order – which grew quarter-to-quarter at a rate of 183 percent.

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JOBLESS CLAIMS: The state of Illinois saw slight decreases in the number of people filing first-time unemployment claims as well as the number of people receiving continuing benefits during the week that ended July 4.

But those gains were more than offset by increases in the number of people applying for and receiving benefits under another program designed for people who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security said Thursday, July 9, that it processed 39,015 initial unemployment claims during the week, which was shortened by the Independence Day holiday weekend. That was down from 43,934 initial claims filed the previous week, a decline of 11 percent.

At the same time, however, the U.S. Department of Labor reported a sharp increase in first-time claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the federally-funded program for independent contractors and others who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment insurance. Initial filings under that program rose 31 percent to 42,785.

That brought the total number of people filing first-time claims under both programs to 87,682, up from 78,339 the week before.

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BALLOT ACCESS FOR REFERENDA: An Illinois group trying to get a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot is not entitled to looser regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, July 8.

The Committee for the Illinois Democracy Amendment is advocating for a state constitutional change mandating the General Assembly to take roll call votes on legislation proposing “stronger ethical standards for Illinois public officials.”

It would also allow residents to introduce related bills by submitting a petition including at least 100,000 signatures.

In a lawsuit filed against the secretary of state’s office and State Board of Elections, the organization’s attorneys argued Gov. JB Pritkzer’s social distancing and stay-at-home orders unconstitutionally prevented canvassers from securing the required 363,813 hand-written signatures — or, 8 percent of votes cast for governor in the last election — by May 3.

The three U.S. Court of Appeals judges wrote that the committee brought the problem on itself. The group was founded April 1, according to documents filed with the State Board of Elections, almost 17 months after Illinois rules permitted signature collection to begin and one month after Pritzker issued executive orders to manage COVID-19’s spread.

Committee members “had plenty of time to gather signatures before the pandemic began,” the judges wrote in their ruling. “That’s a good reason to conclude that they are not entitled to emergency” considerations.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn, an attorney representing the committee, said in an interview Friday he and his clients are “disappointed.”

Their options, he said, include appealing the decision — the committee is “free” to pursue the issues in this case in a district court, the judges wrote in their ruling — or attempting to change the law “so voters have the option to sign petitions electronically during the pandemic, which is not going away.”

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BALLOT ACCESS FOR CANDIDATES: Illinois’ chief election authority told a federal appeals court Monday, July 6, it wants to continue its appeal of looser election rules for third-party candidates.

If an appeals court agrees, the matter is unlikely to be settled before the July 20 petition filing deadline granted by Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois. She extended the cutoff established by statute in response to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s election rules during COVID-19.

While the appeals court’s decision is unlikely to affect ballot access for third parties in the current general election cycle, its decision could have implications on future elections as the state continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its court filing, the Illinois State Board of Elections acknowledged that date is “quickly approaching,” but points out “it has not passed.” The issue presented in the case — “a District Court’s authority to rewrite Illinois’ statutory requirements that govern how the board conducts an orderly election during the COVID-19 global pandemic” — is one that might resurface.

The novel coronavirus is present in Illinois, the board argued, and will remain so for an “unknown” amount of time.” Because confirmed cases are rising in a number of other states and might climb in the Land of Lincoln, “it is possible it could last beyond the 2020 election and into future elections,” according to the document.

The State Board of Elections is asking the 7th ­­U.S. Court of Appeals to agree the case should proceed and to set a schedule for both sides to file their arguments. It wrote in its document it does not want oral arguments.

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REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: A U.S. Supreme Court decision this week that could make it more difficult for women to access birth control will not impact Illinois law, state officials and advocacy groups say.

The nation’s highest court upheld a federal rule established in 2018 that allows employers with moral or religious objections to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health insurance cover the cost of birth control. The act includes an automatic exemption only for houses of worship. Under the Trump administration rule upheld Wednesday, essentially all non-governmental employers now have the ability to opt out.

Those organizations were required to actively withdraw from coverage they disagreed with so their insurance companies could offer free alternatives to employees.

In a statement, the Illinois Department of Insurance said the state’s reproductive health care coverage requirements for women and men “will continue to be enforced for plans subject” to the department’s oversight.

Those mandates were included in a sweeping overhaul of Illinois statute last year. The Reproductive Health Act, sponsored in the General Assembly by Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, and Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, declared access to contraception and other benefits as a fundamental right. That means no level of government in Illinois can infringe upon a person’s access to those services.

The RHA also specified that private insurance companies regulated by the state must cover abortions if they also cover pregnancy-related benefits.

That “monumental measure affirms women, not politicians or employers, can and should make their own decisions,” Bush said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm that focuses on defending religious rights, said the firm agrees the Supreme Court’s ruling does not affect Illinois regulations. Michael McHale, an attorney with the firm, said the decision “is to be applauded.”


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