Week in Review: Ethics reform, IDES & COVID-19

House Republicans demand action on ethics reform. The past twelve months have seen several bombshell revelations about key leaders and former members of the Illinois General Assembly. In October 2019, longtime Chicago Representative Luis Arroyo was charged with conduct that involved political bribery. In January, former Senate Transportation Committee chairperson Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to federal charges of bribery and tax fraud. Now in July, a federal grand jury subpoena is enforcing a look by law enforcement at the office papers of the Speaker of the House, Michael J. Madigan. 
In response to these events, House Republicans led by Grant Wehrli, Deanne Mazzochi, and Dan Ugaste called this week for a special session of the Illinois General Assembly to deal with Illinois political corruption. The Representatives, speaking on Tuesday, June 21, pointed out that Gov. Pritzker has the power to call this special session. In light of the serious nature of this month’s revelations, Illinois’ legislators must demonstrate their loyalty to the Rule of Law.

“Let's get back to good governance,” said Rep. Mazzochi. “Real change; and a culture of public servants who finally choose the people over power. Silence is corruption.”

In the wake of Sandoval’s guilty plea, there appeared to be a consensus that bipartisan actions would be taken to strengthen Illinois’ current political ethics laws and toughen enforcement upon key state political figures, including lawmakers, administrators and lobbyists, to do the right thing. However, no substantive action has taken place. The House Republican call for a special session is an intensification of the demand that the General Assembly take action to fight political corruption. House Republicans demand that, in addition to a special session, the State take real action to address corruption and ethics reform.

It is past time to end the silence on corruption in Illinois state government. Corruption costs every Illinoisan. Keeping silent in the wake of corruption condones it. Simply put, silence is corruption.

Sign our petition to demand that Governor Pritzker call a special session so lawmakers can pass real ethics reform to end the culture of corruption that has cost Illinoisans dearly.

Localized regional monitoring. In its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pritzker administration proclaimed its intention to gather data and make policies for Illinois based upon statistics gathered within four extremely large regions within Illinois. These super-regions contained dozens of counties within large sections of Illinois. At the time, this move was described as an attempt to help public health experts and epidemiologists gather large quantities of statistically significant data for each super-region. The data gathered within each super-region would determine the ability of the region to partly reopen its economy and maintain the productive lives of the communities within it.

House Republicans sharply criticized and pushed back against this super-region decision and policy. As representatives of local communities, they are aware of localized health conditions on a ground-level basis that is far more detailed than the blurry picture generated by the mass data generated by super-regions. Starting in April 2020, House Republicans called upon the Pritzker administration to adopt a finer-grained local data gathering and policymaking process based upon smaller regions more attuned to local conditions.

The Pritzker administration has now moved towards greater regionalization of Illinois coronavirus response. Illinois will now be divided into 11 separate COVID-19 response regions, up from four regions. The change was announced on Wednesday, July 15, three months after House Republicans had begun to call for it. In analyzing this major change in Illinois’ response to the coronavirus, critic pointed to recent statistics showing the appearance of COVID-19 “hot spots” in specific local areas within Illinois. Based on current positive case counts and reports, the Metro-East counties of Madison and St. Clair, adjacent to St. Louis, appear to be one of these hot spots.

Lack of oversight under current executive decrees. The COVID-19 pandemic has now been a feature of Illinois life since March 2020, a four-month period of time. During the beginning weeks of this pandemic, Illinois General Assembly members of both parties accepted the role of executive leadership in setting forth the initial guidelines and parameters to govern public life during the pandemic. Now that four months have gone by, many are asking what will be the next step. What facilities will there be for public input into the policies necessary to maintain Illinois’ community life and economy for the duration of this public health crisis? Representative Avery Bourne spoke out on the questions of long-term Illinois life and policy under COVID-19 that many are asking.

Grants for homeless victims. With access to federal money appropriated by Congress, the State of Illinois will provide $7.1 million in grant assistance to local service providers that specialize in justice-related COVID-19 pandemic relief. Eligible applicants will include service providers that can demonstrate that they provide services to crime victims, including victims of domestic violence, who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless during the pandemic.

Statues and paintings of Stephen Douglas, other historical figures under review. One of the faces that people see as they walk toward the east front of the State Capitol in Springfield is that of former U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The pre-Civil War Illinoisan was one of the leaders of American politics in the 1850s. Several times, Douglas fought election battles against his fellow Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. Douglas and Lincoln held a memorable series of debates throughout Downstate Illinois in 1858, with both men seeking one of Illinois’ two Senate seats. After defending the American South and the “right” of its white landowners to own persons in slavery, Douglas narrowly won the election and held on to his seat in the Senate.

In a comeback push, Lincoln again faced Douglas in 1860, this time in the race for U.S. President, and this time Lincoln won. For many decades after 1860, old-fashioned history books treated the two figures as epic antagonists who were both men of heroic stature and who both deserved memorial recognition. Today, many people are re-thinking the historical role of Stephen A. Douglas. In his lifetime, Douglas was a defender of what he considered to be the “rights” of people who thought themselves to be the owners of enslaved persons. Calls are rising for the removal of Douglas’s statue from the Illinois Capitol Complex. Other images of Douglas, including a painting that hangs in the Illinois House chamber, may also be removed.

Illinois House develops new committee procedures. During the Illinois General Assembly’s special session held in May 2020 in Springfield, “normal” committee work was largely suspended and the Illinois House did much of its work meeting as a full body. Moving forward, the House has adopted new rules for its meetings. New committee guidelines reflect these rules.

Under the Illinois House’s new committee rules and guidelines, the public is strongly encouraged to continue participate in the work of shaping the laws of the State. This participation should, during the near future, be done by: (a) communicating electronically with lawmakers; and (b) submitting written testimony to committees of the House. Committees will welcome written testimony, which will become part of the permanent records of the committee to which the testimony was submitted and the legislative record of the bill for which the testimony is offered.

Committee hearing rooms will be semi-open to the public, with physical attendance restricted so as to maintain face-masked social distancing between physical attendees. Witnesses are encouraged to testify in writing rather than in person. The House will retrofit two key committee hearing rooms with new audio-visual equipment to improve the ability of the General Assembly to work with the Office of the Clerk of the House to stream video of House committee work over the Internet.

House GOP Demands Governor Take Action to Fix Systemic Failures and Rampant Fraud at Illinois Department of Employment Security. Illinois House Republican members State Rep. Terri Bryant, State Rep. Tim Butler, State Rep. Dan Ugaste, and Congressman Rodney Davis held a video press conference on Friday, July 24 to address systemic failures and rampant fraud at the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES).

“For the entirety of the State of Illinois’ pandemic response, my office has been inundated with calls from out of work Illinoisans that cannot get through to file for unemployment,” Rep. Bryant said. “Now, my office is being flooded with calls from people that have received unemployment benefits that they did not apply for and do not want. One of my constituents that received a benefits card is Congressman Mike Bost! He obviously would not have applied for unemployment benefits, but still received a debit card. Why and how is this possible? When people do their best to call IDES to return these fraudulent cards, they cannot get through. The failure is epic, and unacceptable.”

State Rep. Tim Butler says administrative oversight is woefully lacking, and demanded Illinois House Democrats hold hearings on the systemic failures and fraud happening at IDES.

“I want to start with hearings, in public, where we can question agency officials and get to the bottom of the failed response, and the data breach and fraud, and make sure something like this can never happen again in Illinois,” Butler said. “Governor Pritzker has finally admitted there are problems at IDES, but his go-to move has been to blame the Federal government. His response to Illinois workers in this time of crisis has been nothing short of a disaster.”

State Rep. Dan Ugaste echoed Butler and Bryant’s criticisms.

“People in Illinois are suffering,” Ugaste said. “They can’t get through to IDES to receive their owed unemployment benefits, and they can’t reach the agency to report fraud. This is an unacceptable situation and has been for months now, yet the problems at IDES just don’t stop. Instead of worrying about who is to blame, Governor Pritzker needs to fix the problems immediately.”

New IDES chief after Unemployment Insurance problems persist. The Illinois unemployment insurance (UI) system provides temporary aid payments to unemployed persons who have been laid off through no fault of their own. Under the current COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020, Illinois UI is a primary means of support right now for hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans and their families. The Illinois UI system is operated by the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Illinois House Republican lawmakers, and many other leading Illinoisans, have reported widespread UI problems created by IDES actions and inactions. In one May 2020 incident reported by leaders that included Representative Terri Bryant, an apparent major security breach involving a database operated by a contractor under the name of IDES appears to have opened the Social Security numbers of thousands of Illinois residents to potential public scrutiny and hacking. Many other problems have been reported, including delays faced by hundreds of thousands of unemployed Illinoisans in getting through to the IDES database and filing valid UI claims. As recently as this week, ABC7 Chicago reported that Illinois continues to owe UI back payments to what could be thousands of Illinois residents.

A change has now taken place at IDES’s top rank. Kristin Richards has been named as the new acting director of the agency. Richards has spent 18 years in public service and most recently served as chief of staff to Illinois Senate President Don Harmon. The change was accompanied by promises of better performance in the future. Richards was appointed by Gov. Pritzker on Thursday, July 9.

June 2020 unemployment rate announcement. New unemployment numbers for June 2020 indicate partial continuing recovery in the Illinois jobs picture from the spike in layoffs created by the COVID-19 pandemic and gubernatorial shutdown orders. The May rate of 15.3% indicated the scale of the situation faced by the State and its workers and families in that month. As Illinois moved to a lower level of economic shutdown in June, many workers were called back. The statewide Illinois unemployment rate dropped 0.7% in June, to 14.6%.

While this was a hopeful sign, the Illinois jobless rate continued to exceed the 4.0% rate posted in June 2019, which had signaled near-“full employment” at that time. Furthermore, the June 2020 Illinois unemployment rate of 14.6% was 3.5% higher than that nationwide jobless average of 11.1%.

A table of economic sectors for June 2020, showing where Illinois jobs and joblessness were concentrated, demonstrate the importance of the leisure and hospitality sector in the current pandemic. With many restaurants completely shut down in May, employment in the leisure-and-hospitality sector dropped by almost one-half in May 2020 compared to the prior year’s total of 622,100 jobs. The sector partly reopened in June 2020, and 58,700 positions were filled. Many hospitality workers were called back or re-hired.

The IDES sector table also depicts the continuing decline of the mining sector as a contributor to Illinois jobs. Paced by declines in coal mining, this sector yielded 800 more positions in June 2020 even as hiring numbers rose for most other sectors in Illinois. There are now only 6,900 remaining Illinois workers engaged in full-time-equivalent work in Illinois mining, signaling the effects of many coal mine closures across the state.

Get the Week in Review emailed directly to your inbox! Sign up today to get a first-hand look at the continuing legislative and fiscal challenges facing policymakers in Springfield.