Week in Review: Taxes, Education, Coronavirus & More

Governor Pritzker delivers State of the State address to Illinois General Assembly. In an annual tradition, a joint session of the General Assembly listened to the State of the State address by Gov. Pritzker on Wednesday, January 29th, where the Governor laid out his priorities for the 2020 spring sessio

Responding to recent federal investigations and charges against current and former legislators, Governor Pritzker called for swift action on ethics reform to end the culture of corruption.

“We must root out the purveyors of greed and corruption,” Pritzker said. The Legislature must pass “real, lasting ethics reform” this session.

House Republicans have introduced a sweeping ethics reform package that directly addresses issues from the federal investigations. These are common sense measures - prohibiting lawmakers for being lobbyists, expanding statements of economic interest for lawmakers to mirror what judges have to submit, and requiring documentation of any communications between elected officials and state agencies. We are pleased that the Governor indicated his support for several of these House Republican-backed measures.

The Governor also urged the General Assembly to tackle the issue of property tax relief. Too many Illinois families and seniors are being forced from their homes due to skyrocketing property taxes. Unfortunately, House Democrats have only paid lip service to the problem, convening a Task Force that did not produce a final report on time and that, instead of providing concrete steps to reduce property taxes, actually proposed increasing taxes on Illinois working families.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin praised Pritzker’s bipartisan approach to balancing the budget and infrastructure spending, agreeing the state is better off now than it was a year ago.

“There was a true collaboration — first time in a long time — between the Democrat leaders and Republican leaders and a Democratic governor,” Durkin said.

For Durkin, the main impediment to ethics reform is not Pritzker, but Madigan.

“I don’t have the authority to be able to call an ethics bill,” Durkin said. “I’m leaving it up to the speaker to see whether or not he’s going to be cooperating with myself and the governor to begin this process of changing this culture in Illinois.”

Durkin said he was disappointed Pritzker did not mention redistricting reform, saying the governor previously said he supports a non-partisan map for the state’s legislative districts, but so far has not done anything to back up his pledge.

Earlier this week, the House Republican leadership team repeated the belief of the Caucus that there can be no true ethics reform without fair maps. Legislative maps frame and define the districts from which each lawmaker gets elected or selected. New maps will be drawn in 2021 following the reporting of the national census population numbers for 2020. HJRCA 10, sponsored by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin and more than 40 colleagues, sets forth a legal pathway for the people of Illinois to take action at the November 2020 general election that will conclude in the drawing of fair legislative maps and districts for all Illinois voters.

With the drawing of the new maps quickly approaching, the Democrats must get serious about real, independent redistricting reform and fair maps. The Governor himself has said he would not sign a gerrymandered map. He even went so far as to say that he would veto any map that was drawn by lawmakers, political leaders, or their staff. House Republicans plan to hold him to that promise.

Nearly 3 out of every 4 Illinois residents – including a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – support fair maps. We have a little over 3 months to pass a constitutional amendment referendum that will allow voters to weigh in on this critical issue in the upcoming General Election. We owe it to the people of Illinois to get it done.

House Republicans call for real action on property tax reform. As part of the kickoff to the 2020 spring session, House Democrats are calling for real action on Illinois property tax reform. With much fanfare, the General Assembly convened the bicameral Property Tax Reform Task Force in 2019. The Task Force is now nearing submission of its final report, however, and House Republicans have learned that the majority party currently does not plan to propose any changes that will offer real relief to Illinois homeowners who have to pay their property tax bills every year. Illinoisans have (by various measurements) either the highest, or the second-highest, property tax burdens among the 50 states. The state of New Jersey shares this dubious distinction. House Republicans demand real property tax reform, including consolidation of duplicative or unneeded governmental units. Illinois currently maintains more almost 7,000 separate units of local government.

House Republicans want investigation of Automatic Voter Registration program. A glitch-filled program operated by the office of the Secretary of State is supposed to make it easier to register to vote. The program works by automatically registering people who have certain types of defined official contacts with the State office, such as getting a driver’s license. However, the troubled program has not been successful at clearly distinguishing between people who have the right to drive a car, but not register to vote, and people who have the right to do both. In at least one case, the program appears to have signed someone up to vote who had specifically asked not to register.

Officials now admit that the Illinois Automatic Voter Registration program has allowed more than 4,500 pre-voting-age teenagers, young adults age 16 and 17, to improperly begin the voter registration process. In addition, the troubled program has given more than 540 registered-voter cards to people who should not have had the right to sign up. Persons to whom voting cards have been handed out have included persons with noncitizen residency status – persons with a legal right to live in Illinois, for purposes such as work or study, who are citizens of other countries. An unknown number of these non-citizens have used their voting cards to cast ballots in Illinois.

Many House Republicans have called for a full investigation of these events, and for a suspension of the glitch-filled program while this investigation is taking place. The March 2020 primary and November 2020 election are both getting closer. Despite these calls, Gov. Pritzker has so far refused to take steps to suspend the program.

High demand for “Invest in Kids” private school tuition aid slots. The program offers a 75% income tax credit to individual and businesses that donate part of their incomes to qualified scholarship granting organizations. Eligible qualified scholarship granting organizations are organized funds that provide scholarship assistance with reference to tuition-charging private schools. The organizations and their funds, which are affiliated with specific private schools and groups of private schools, provide help to students from households that face challenges in meeting a school’s tuition bills. The Illinois Department of Revenue is authorized to issue up to $75 million in tax credits per calendar year to donors to the Invest in Kids program.

In its first year, 2018, Invest in Kids raised $61.4 million for scholarship assistance. Almost three-fourth of these funds were raised by Empower Illinois, a Chicago-based 501-c-3 organization that has taken a key role in implementing the Invest in Kids program and fighting to ensure its support base. In the current cycle of Invest in Kids scholarship applications, which opened on January 15, 2020, and will cover tuition for the 2020-21 school year, Empower Illinois reported that they received nearly 25,000 applications for scholarship assistance. The inquiries came in during a 36-hour period after the 2020-21 application window opened. While this level of public interest may mean that not everyone who applied will be able to get aid in the 2020-21 school year, the high level of popular support indicates the continued vital nature of this program. House Republicans played a key role in helping to enact Invest in Kids in 2017 and are fighting to protect and extend the life of this vital program.

Illinois State Police offers testimony to General Assembly on DNA testing backlog. In action taken in 2019 by the Illinois General Assembly, the State Police was instructed to look at its storage shelves containing months of untested genetic material. This is material that is of potential value in bringing cases to trial and even solving unsolved criminal cases, including cases of criminal sexual abuse and criminal sexual assault. Representative Margo McDermed took the lead in the House in demanding that the State Police take action. McDermed was the lead House sponsor of SB 1411, a measure to push forward the chains of evidence in Illinois cases involving sexual assault evidence tracking. The Illinois General Assembly, in its balanced FY20 budget, appropriated new funds to the State Police to implement the new law.

Some movement is taking place at the State Police to deal with their untested inventory. In testimony offered to a state Senate committee this week, State Police Director Brendan Kelly and forensics division leader Col. Sean Cormier offered disclosures on the current state of the backlog. Kelly and Cormier told the panel on Tuesday, January 28 that the State Police’s moves to increase the priority of moving its testing chain forward has reduced the backlog by 16% since last year. The State Police now has the resources to hire chemists and technicians to conduct testing work at a pace that is reducing the backlog.

The State Police also indicated that the current revolutionary changes taking place in DNA testing technology are increasing the burdens on their crime-lab chemists and technicians. New ability to match minimal crime-scene evidence to an individual criminal’s DNA is highly valued by courts of law, turning this evidence into gold-standard evidence and increasing demand for the trained personnel whose services are necessary for the work. Popular video entertainment plotlines, which show “impossible” law enforcement triumphs achieved by DNA forensic technology, further increase this burden by placing high expectations upon the people who do this work.

Coronavirus outbreak reaches greater Chicago area. The rapid spread of a highly contagious illness, Wuhan coronavirus, has created concerns in many parts of the world. Widespread illness and death has been reported from infected regions in central China which have now been placed under quarantine. Well more than 100 patients in China have died. The virus has jumped ahead of the quarantine, though, with cases diagnosed in several locations within the United States, including greater Chicago. Within Illinois, one person has transmitted the coronavirus to her spouse. Both Illinois residents with the virus were reported on Thursday, January 30, to be hospitalized in stable condition.

Public health authorities are responding to the appearance of Wuhan coronavirus in greater Chicago. Cases have been diagnosed, and field workers are using contact tracing to get in touch with people who have been in contact with these patients or who may have been exposed to them. Casework is moving forward in DuPage County and in northwest Indiana’s Porter County. As of Thursday, January 30, 21 persons were under investigation for coronavirus in Illinois.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site will utilize augmented reality app technology. The installation will be done with money brought in through a successful grant application pushed by private citizens who have banded together in the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, the State of Illinois/Native American site’s 501-c-3 arm. Grant money will be used to install an Augmented Reality App with transmissions accessible to visitors with smartphones. After the installation is completed, smartphone users will point their phones, and will then see recreated scenes from that exact location in old Cahokia come to life on their device screens. They will be able to compare surviving fragments of the lost city, such as Monk’s Mound and Woodhenge, with depictions of what these wonders of North America looked like when they were in thriving use as the centerpieces of a great Mississippi River-based cultural network.

Cahokia Mounds, North America’s first large city, was a metropolis in AD 1050 – at that time, more people were living on this site than in any location in the English-speaking world of Europe, including London. The cultivation of corn had just blossomed into full life in the center of North America, creating vast opportunities for cultural life and human prosperity. The Cahokia Mounds Augmented Reality App will be keyed to scenes from the year 1050.

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