Week in Review for 8/22/16 - 8/26/16

General Assembly – Redistricting
Independent Maps referendum language thrown out by Illinois Supreme Court. The 4-3 decision, which fell along partisan lines, found that the Independent Maps amendment to govern the way Illinois draws its lines for General Assembly seats should not appear on the November 2016 ballot. The decision, which cannot be appealed to any higher panel, will make it impossible for Illinoisans to speak out on the process used to elect members of the Illinois General Assembly.

Three members of the Supreme Court, speaking out in dissent, strongly criticized the majority decision. Justice Robert Thomas labeled the decision a “nullification” of plain language of the Constitution allowing the voters the right to circulate petitions to amend that article of the State’s fundamental law that governs the organization and operation of the General Assembly. This limited initiative right was inserted in the Constitution of 1970 as a common-sense response to the likely conflicts of interest to be faced by future General Assemblies when looking at questions involving the Legislative Article of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court majority, led by Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, said that Illinoisans can circulate a petition to change the way that Illinois legislative districts are mapped whenever they want to do so, but the Supreme Court will not advise them in advance of what the language on the petition should say if the amendment is to be drafted properly; and the Supreme Court reserves the right to throw out any language that it likes if it believes that the language has been drafted improperly. Persons who commented on the Supreme Court decision were left puzzled as to what kind of recourse is provided by current case law to voters who are not satisfied with the current system of drawing legislative maps in Illinois.

Health Care – Affordable Care Act (ACA) Rates
Rates soar for Obamacare customers in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Insurance announced this week that Illinois residents and households who buy individual health insurance on the Get Covered Illinois ACA insurance exchange will face major increases next year. Rates for a typical health insurance plan are set to increase by an average of 43%.

The rate increases follow a major shakeout in the Illinois ACA marketplace, with co-op Land of Lincoln Health liquidating its coverage rolls and for-profit giants Aetna and United Healthcare withdrawing from the market. Remaining participants in the Illinois ACA exchange face less competition and will be able to dictate more terms to potential patients and health care providers. Rate increases could be especially high in Downstate Illinois, where much of the effects of this shakeout are concentrated. For example, ACA customers in the Metro-East could see “silver-plan” increases as great as 70%. According to the Department of Insurance, patients in eight Illinois counties are going to find that only one insurance firm will be willing to sell ACA-compliant policies to them.

Pensions – TRS Annual Rate of Return
Discussion comes in context of globally low interest rates. Actuaries who occupy key consulting roles with the Teachers Retirement System (TRS), Illinois’ largest state-guaranteed pension system, discussed this week whether to recommend lowering the pensions system’s expected future annual rate of return. This “future annual rate of return,” seen by many as a technicality, is highly important to the State’s budget; current State law requires the General Assembly to appropriate sufficient monies to TRS and other state-guaranteed pension systems to make up the long-term cost to the system of a projected decline in long-term future investment returns. When the expected annual rate of TRS return was lowered from 8.0% to 7.5% in 2014, that act alone gave TRS the statutory duty to ask for and receive an additional $200 million/year from State general funds.

Expected annual rates of return tend to rise and fall in line with long-term trends in interest rates. Global interest rates paid by borrowers in developed countries have hovered close to 0.0% since the severe economic downturn of fall 2008. Under these circumstances, the only options available for pension funds that have a statutory duty to pay out defined benefits to retirees is to invest in equities and other non-fixed-interest-bearing investments. The Teachers Retirement System enrolls more than 400,000 teachers and other educators. It serves the public-school community everywhere in Illinois other than the city of Chicago. The unfunded status of current TRS funds already makes up the largest share of an estimated $111 billion liability in unfunded public-sector State-guaranteed pensions. Any reduction in TRS future annual rates of returns could increase this State of Illinois unfunded pension liability. Gov. Bruce Rauner expressed strong concerns this week about the proposed TRS move.

Budget – Unpaid Bills
Past-due bills jump over $8 billion mark. Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger publishes a webpage that shows how many unpaid bills are in her office and the offices of various state agencies awaiting payment. The backlog of unpaid bills rose above $8 billion this week. Numbers published by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) continue to show Illinois “general funds” revenue streams falling far short of the outflows required by law.

News accounts this month talked about Illinois being forced this summer to “spend down” what was described as a “rainy-day fund,” but insiders responded that Illinois has never had a formal rainy-day fund and the only thing that had been spent down was a small amount of cash on hand that was dwarfed by the multi-billion-dollar burden of unpaid Illinois bills. Substantial sums of unavailable money are due to health care providers, providers of social services, units of local government that sell electricity and water to Illinois, and other creditors.

Criminal Law – Gun Trafficking
Governor Rauner signs firearms trafficking bill to help protect communities from gun violence. Governor Bruce Rauner signed HB 6303 into law this week to strengthen laws against gun trafficking in Illinois. The bill enhances penalties for firearms trafficking and aims to reduce the growing gun violence epidemic. This will help keep our kids and communities safe by allowing our law enforcement agencies to take action on those who are trafficking guns.

“We must stand up and help our kids and our communities find safety from violence,” said Governor Rauner. “Children are often in the crossfire. They’re vulnerable and impressionable. They deserve to see better things in the world. They deserve to feel safe in their own homes. They should not fear that guns will take the life of their friends, their family members, or even themselves. They should not live in fear or have their innocence shattered.”

The Governor signed the bill at the Illinois State Police (ISP) crime lab in Chicago and was joined by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), the chief legislative sponsors of the bill.

“425 people have been murdered by firearms in Chicago this year and another 2320 have been shot and wounded. Each weekend in Chicago is bloodier than the last,” House Republican Leader Durkin said. “Many of the shootings involved illegally acquired guns by Chicago street gangs. It is estimated that approximately 60 percent of guns used to commit violent crimes in Chicago were purchased outside of Illinois. The laws are more focused on holding the shooter accountable, but not the person who armed the shooter. That changes today with House Bill 6303.

“This law targets straw purchasers – those who skirt Illinois firearm laws by buying guns in other states with the intent to resell in the illegal black markets of Illinois,” Leader Durkin added. “The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office brought this legislation to me and I am honored to have sponsored the bill in the Illinois House of Representatives. I thank the Illinois General Assembly for their bi-partisan unanimous support.”

“The statistics clearly demonstrate a continuing and increasing trend that jeopardizes public safety in Illinois,” Senate Republican Leader Radogno said. “People who cannot legally purchase guns in Illinois are going to states with more lax background check requirements and bringing them back into our state with criminal intent. These weapons are quickly used in the commission of crimes and add to the unconscionable gun violence here. This new law will be another tool to stop the flow of these illegally transferred weapons.”

HB 6303 makes it a felony for a person who has not been issued a FOID card to bring firearms into the state with the intention of selling or delivering them. Furthermore, if the individual trafficking in gun sales has previously been convicted of an unlawful use or delivery of a firearm, gunrunning or firearm trafficking, they will face even stiffer penalties. It is important to note that this bill does not take guns out of the hands of anyone that safely and legally has or carries a firearm. It exempts FOID card holders specifically for that reason. The bill is designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and off our streets.

Criminal Law – Juveniles
Juveniles get a clean slate after non-violent crimes through signing of Wheeler expungement bill. Legislation sponsored by State Rep. Barbara Wheeler that allows juveniles to have court records for non-violent offences expunged was signed into law Friday by Governor Bruce Rauner.

Through HB 5017, juveniles may petition the court at any time for expungement of law enforcement records and juvenile court records for non-violent offenses at any point after the termination of all court proceedings relating to the incident. “Criminal records can follow an individual for years past the date of a crime and well past the period of rehabilitation,” said Wheeler. “The same is true for juvenile offenders, who often make a poor choice before their impulse control mechanisms are fully developed. This new law allows juveniles to truly start with a clean slate after making reparations for their non-violent crimes.”

According to Wheeler, the need for the bill was brought to her attention by a 15-year-old from District 64 who was concerned that a few bad decisions that landed him in police custody would damage his chances of getting into college and having a good future. The previous law only allowed for expungement in rare cases, or after the individual turns 21 years old.

“All kids make mistakes; they all make occasional bad choices,” said Wheeler. “If society is going to hold those bad choices over juveniles’ heads as they attempt to build a successful future for themselves, we are doing nothing to improve society or to address Illinois’ need for juvenile justice reform. Every child should be given every opportunity to have a fresh start upon entering adulthood as long as their crime was not of a violent nature, and by wiping their slate clean, troubled teens can become successful and contributing adults.”

HB 5017 was a bipartisan initiative, with Wheeler carrying the bill in the House and Democrat Kwame Raul of Chicago carrying it in the Senate. Click here to hear Wheeler speak about the provisions of the bill.

New laws, executive order helps 16,000 kids. The laws and executive order are oriented towards 16,000 children under the legal care and supervision of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). It is the universal goal of youth authorities, when a child needs a guardian, to select an adult relative or friend from the child’s background, but this is not always possible. In some cases, a court assigns guardianship over a young person or pre-adult to the State of Illinois. Young people in this category were traditionally called “wards of the state,” and one of the effects of this policy change will be to request that people in this standing now be called “youth in care.” Gov. Rauner signed the executive order on Friday, August 19.

The Youth-in-Care executive order was signed in conjunction with the Governor’s signing of a package of bills dealing with adoption and child welfare issues. For example, HB 5665, sponsored by Rep. Christine Winger, was signed as part of this package. Aimed at normalizing the lives of young people in foster-care settings, HB 5655 gives caregivers the right to grant or not grant permission to a child to participate in extracurricular, enrichment, cultural, and social activities. Examples of group activities for which parental or quasi-parental permission is necessary include sleepovers, church camps, and scouting camps. Prior to the passage of HB 5665, the caregivers had to get a signoff from DCFS personnel in order to be able to grant quasi-parental permissions of this type. HB 5665 was signed into law as P.A. 99-839.

Education – ACT Scores
Small rise in ACT scores reflects gains in English, reading comprehension. The increase by Illinois high school seniors, from 20.7 to 20.8 on the widely-taken standardized ACT test, reflects gains in college preparation by many Illinois high schools and their pupils. The improved score was recorded for the 2015-16 school year.

Despite improved numbers, reading comprehension continued to be a problem in Illinois, with high school pupils coming in below the nationwide average in this sub-area. They were even with, or higher than, the national average in English, math, and science portions of the ACT test.

Comparisons with future years may be challenging, as the Illinois State Board of Education is in the process of transitioning the standard Illinois college-preparation test from the ACT platform to the platform provided by its principal competitor, the SAT exam.

Energy – LIHEAP
Enrollment for winter heating assistance program opens on September 1, 2016. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will begin accepting applications for winter heating assistance on Thursday, September 1. The program makes heating bill payments on behalf of households.

September applications to the program are welcome from seniors and persons with disabilities who meet the income guidelines included in the program. Persons with income challenges who are eligible for LIHEAP through other pathways, such as households with young children and households that have had their utility services disconnected, will be asked to wait until a second series of application opportunities opens staring October 1.

The LIHEAP program is operated by the Office of Energy Assistance within the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Illinois residents who need guidance on whether they are eligible for the program, or who wish to apply for admission to the program, should contact the Office of Energy Assistance. In many cases, applicants will be asked to make a contribution toward the total energy bill under the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) program within LIHEAP.

Health Care – ‘Don’t Ask’ Drug Bins
Walgreens sets up safe-disposal bins. Both law enforcement and environmentalists have expressed concerns about the safe disposal of prescription pharmaceuticals. These chemicals are, in some cases, controlled substances that are prescribed only to patients that have conditions that warrant taking them. In other cases, prescription pharmaceuticals are being disposed of in ways that can pollute the environmental and cause human hazards. In a few cases, some over-the-counter pharmaceuticals may fall into this second category.

In some cases, people do not know what to do with old and unused pharmaceuticals. The most common example of this situation involves drugs that have expired and should no longer be safely taken for the purpose for which they were prescribed. Other examples include the contents of a medicine cabinet of a person who has died or moved to a care facility. Too often, drugs like these are thrown into the standard waste stream; in a few cases, they may be resold on the street.

Walgreens has taken steps to install more than 500 “Safe Medication Disposal” kiosk bins in drugstores across the U.S., including 45 bins in Illinois. The kiosk bins will offer friends and family members of persons who no longer need their drugs a safe place to dispose of the special waste. The automated bins will create an opportunity for the secure removal of dangerous drugs, such as opiate painkillers, from a household that no longer needs them. Both prescription and non-prescription (over-the-counter) medications may be disposed of in the bins.

Human Trafficking
Two bills signed into law to fight against human trafficking. Gov. Rauner signed both bills into law on Sunday, August 21. HB 2822, sponsored by Rep. Sheri Jesiel, creates the Human Trafficking Task Force to look into and discuss recommendations for reducing Illinois incidents of human trafficking. The Task Force has been asked to report its findings no later than June 30, 2017.

SB 3007 will speed up the process of granting victim status to persons who have undergone human trafficking, reducing barriers to the provision of medical benefits for these individuals.

Human trafficking refers to the involuntary importation of persons into the United States and into Illinois for purposes of exploitation, typically sexual exploitation or labor exploitation. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), a private-sector reporting center, counted 122 human-trafficking cases in Illinois in 2015. In the first half of 2016, 94 additional cases were reported by or through NHTRC, marking an intensification of patterns of human-trafficking activity in Illinois through June of this year. The Resource Center operates a 24/7 toll-free hotline, at 1-888-373-7888, to report allegations of human trafficking.

Natural Disasters – Illinois – Louisiana
Help from Illinois for flood-drenched Pelican State. The aid, provided by Illinois’ Department of Central Management Services (CMS), includes supplies intended to help rain-slammed parishes around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Illinois help includes sleeping cots for persons rendered homeless by flood damage, and water-purification systems for areas where conventional water supplies have been damaged by flooding or forced to shut down.

In mid-August 2016, more than 20 inches of rain fell in large areas of southern and central Louisiana, and local damage was heavy. Although New Orleans was spared from the worst belts of rainfall, many of the hard-hit areas were – like New Orleans – built in locations that are historically wetlands challenged by potential flooding. Over 40,000 homes are said to have been damaged or destroyed.

Outdoor Sports – Fishing
Bowfishing for catfish permitted. Bowfishing, the taking of fish by a spear or by a bow and arrow, is a growing sport in Illinois. Until this summer, Illinois law told fisherman the only fish they could go after with a spear or a bow-and-arrow were carp, buffalo fish, suckers, gar, shad, drum, and bowfin. There are plenty of catfish in Illinois waters, but they were not on the Fish Code list and the law did not allow the whiskered fish to be taken by these methods.

Representative Charlie Meier worked to change that. This spring, he sponsored HB 5788 to amend the state’s Fish Code and add catfish to the list of fish that can be taken with sharp weaponry. After unanimous approval in both houses of the General Assembly, the Governor signed the new law as P.A. 99-867 on Monday, August 22.

Outdoor Sports – 2016-17 Late Winter Deer Hunting Dates
IDNR finalizes dates for winter deer hunting season. The agency that issues Illinois deer hunting licenses has issued dates for the late-season deer hunting seasons. The Late-Winter Antlerless-only season is oriented toward the 24 counties where surplus deer have been counted, and the Special CWD Deer Hunting Season is aimed at thinning out the deer population in 14 specific counties that are places at or adjacent to locations where chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been diagnosed.

Late-Winterless Antlerless counties can be found throughout Illinois. The Special CWD counties are all in northern and central Illinois. The posted dates for both hunts are December 29, 2016 through January 1, 2017 and again from January 13, 2017 through January 15, 2017. Lists of the eligible counties can be found here.

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