Week in Review: State budget, IDES, Jobs & more


As Republicans Push for Subpoenas and Testimony, SIC Democrats Shut Down Madigan Investigation. House Democrats from the Special Investigating Committee (SIC) looking into the ethical conduct of Speaker of the House Michael J. Madigan were successful in shutting down the committee’s work on Monday by refusing to call additional witnesses or to issue subpoenas to Madigan and others with intimate knowledge of a nine-year bribery scheme between Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) and the Speaker. After truncating the committee’s work, Democrats voted that the Speaker did not engage in conduct unbecoming of a legislator which constituted a breach of the public trust. The federal investigation into political corruption and Michael J. Madigan continues. 
The petition to investigate Speaker Madigan’s alleged involvement with the ComEd scandal was filed by House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in late August. After an initial organizational meeting, the panel met in late September and heard testimony from ComEd and Exelon’s Chief Compliance Officer David Glockner. Glockner provided several hours of testimony and outlined a pattern where Madigan’s closest ally Mike McClain pressured ComEd to provide payments, contracts, jobs and a seat on the ComEd Board of Directors in an effort to gain favor with Speaker Madigan. Subsequent emails supplied by ComEd cemented the notion that McClain was acting on behalf of the Speaker and that the Speaker was aware of the scheme.

Following Monday’s abrupt conclusion of SIC hearings, Leader Durkin said, “The Democratic Party shows again today there is no limit to the lengths they will go to protect Speaker Madigan. Chairman Welch, Rep. Hernandez and Rep. Manley have turned the rule of law on its head by refusing to investigate the charges and demand the testimony of Speaker Madigan in this scandal. I call on Governor Pritzker to finally demand Speaker Madigan resign as it is clear he refuses to answer any questions about his corrupt practices.”

After the meeting, State Rep. Tom Demmer, the ranking Republican member of the SIC, called it a “failure of the House of Representatives.”

“It was our duty to conduct this investigation to support and try to rebuild the integrity and trust of the House of Representatives,” Demmer said. “But what we saw under the leadership of Chairman Welch was a process that sought not to hear from additional witnesses . . . and sought to bring the committee to a conclusion before we had the information necessary to make a qualified judgment . . . the people deserve to have a speaker of the House who is not the subject of a federal investigation.”

SIC member State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi stated, “If you’ve read these emails, the conduct of the Chairman defies belief. Today he once again spent valuable committee time prescribing all of the reasons why a subpoena to acquire witness testimony might not work. He’s apparently creating a justification for not doing anything. So the leader of this House ethics investigation is saying that an investigation is too hard and therefore we shouldn’t do it. Allow that notion to search for logic in your brain; too hard equals we can’t and shouldn’t.

“If, as my colleague Rep. Manley claims, there is nothing untoward about the Speaker’s conduct in his relationship with ComEd, then why won’t he assist the committee in clearing his name? In fact, why wouldn’t he insist on it? Why wouldn’t his allies on the committee who see no untoward behavior want his name fully cleared? An investigative committee is charged with doing all it can to get information relevant to its duty, not shying away from it. It takes neither a lawyer nor a soothsayer to connect the dots as to why that isn’t the case with this committee.

“This is why people continue to lose faith in the integrity of Illinois government. I don’t blame them for their frustration and their disillusionment. I’m feeling the same way.”

“The SIC was charged with conducting a thorough investigation, but in the end we met three times and heard from just one voluntary witness,” said SIC member State Rep. Grant Wehrli. “There’s not a soul who can say we conducted a thorough investigation. What we did learn through these three meetings, however, is that House Democrats will go to whatever lengths are necessary to protect Mike Madigan from having to testify under oath about his involvement in the bribery scheme. We also learned that corruption and a lack of ethics runs very deep within the House Democrat caucus, and that House Rules may apply to some lawmakers, but they don’t apply to Mike Madigan.”

Wehrli continued, “After decades of corruption in our state, today we had an opportunity to hold one of our own accountable for blatant unethical and possible criminal behavior. Instead, Chairman Welch and committee members Natalie Manley and Elizabeth Hernandez chose protecting their Speaker over taking any tangible steps that would help restore trust in Illinois government. It’s an embarrassment.”

Illinois’ budget deficit leads to spending cuts, push for higher taxes. House and Senate Democrats passed a blatantly unbalanced budget in May 2020 that included a $6.2 billion deficit. This “budget,” to pay bills in Fiscal Year 2021 (which began on July 1, 2020), pledged money the State of Illinois did not have, and still does not have. When asked about this non-existent money, Governor JB Pritzker and his Democrat allies predicted that additional federal stimulus funds would arrive and that their income tax constitutional amendment would be approved by Illinois voters in November 2020, giving them the go-ahead to scrape up the missing money.

However, the November 2020 tax hike amendment was soundly rejected by the voters of Illinois. The prospects of additional federal relief continue to dim, leading to a major dilemma for the Democrats on how to fill their FY21 budget hole. This week the Governor offered up $711 million in spending reductions, including a hiring freeze, grant reductions and operational savings.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin issued the following statement in response to Governor Pritzker’s remarks on his self-inflicted budgetary disaster:

“Governor Pritzker, President Harmon and Mike Madigan were repeatedly warned about the dire shortfalls in the fantasy budget that relied upon the passage of the graduated tax and a ‘fingers crossed’ hope for a federal bailout. Instead of living within our means, they attempted to trick voters into raising taxes, and were sorely rejected by Democrat, Republican and Independent voters across the state. We hope the Governor uses his authority to call the General Assembly into session so that we can look to move Illinois forward by fixing the problems the Democrats have created.”

Meanwhile, Speaker Madigan faces serious threats from within his own party to his political leadership. Attempting to hold on to the role of Speaker, Madigan is making major promises to members of the House Democratic caucus – including an income tax increase. The Speaker is also positioning himself as the only person with the immense body of political connections needed to pass an alternative package of tax increases that he says are the solution to Illinois’ disastrous finances. The Speaker also soundly rejected the topic of budget cuts in an attempt to put himself in a favorable light within his own tax-and-spend caucus. This position by the Speaker obviously ignores the decades-long span of poor policy choices, fiscal irresponsibility, and alleged criminal conduct in high places over Madigan’s half-century (1971-2020) in office. Our State now has no choice, Speaker Madigan says, but to make him more powerful than ever.

Illinoisans are fighting back against the tax increases “promised” by Speaker Madigan. To show your opposition to higher taxes, please Sign Our Petition to Say NO to Madigan’s Tax Increases!

Vaccinations begin in Illinois. The first Illinois COVID-19 vaccinations were administered on Tuesday, December 15. Only a small number of Illinoisans will be initially eligible for shots, as the vaccine begins to be distributed in limited doses. Front-line health care workers will be first in line for the two-step procedure. Residents and staff at long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, will also have a place in line. Vaccines will be administered in line with nationally coordinated guidelines determined by public health professionals under the supervision of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) will oversee the distribution and administration of the vaccine. IDPH has posted the guidelines that health care providers will use in determining who will get the vaccine in order. In the early stages of vaccination, only hospitals will be approved locations to be vaccinated. The first type of COVID-19 vaccine, from Pfizer, requires chilled storage and handling by skilled personnel. In addition, hospital-trained personnel will be on the lookout for any side effects that the vaccine may produce. Eventually, vaccines will become available in doctors’ offices, retail pharmacies, and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) throughout Illinois.
Statewide Unemployment Rate and Jobs Decline in November. The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) reported this week on the Illinois job situation in November 2020. This was the first month of the “resurgence”-based Tier 3 statewide mitigation guidance imposed by Gov. Pritzker across Illinois. Restaurants, taverns, and other places of public congregation such as health clubs have been forced to close or sharply cut back their operations. As of mid-December 2020 these operational cutbacks, and the layoffs resulting from them, continue to be actively enforced in many regions throughout the state.

Under these unusual circumstances, Illinois saw both its unemployment rate and total job count decline in November 2020. Usually these numbers, for obvious reasons, move apart from each other: if the job count goes down the unemployment rate goes up, and vice versa. The November decline in Illinois jobs was more than matched by a decline in the Illinois labor force, which is the total headcount of Illinois residents who are working or actively seeking employment.

In the posted numbers for November 2020, unemployment declined by 0.5% from the previous month, moving down from 7.4% in October to 6.9% in November. However, in the same month the total Illinois payroll declined by 20,000 paycheck jobs. IDES counted 5,692,600 payroll jobs in Illinois in November 2020, which is down more than 400,000 jobs from the 6.2 million jobs maintained in Illinois in November 2019 one year earlier. By far the largest sector within the overall job-loss picture was posted by the Leisure and Hospitality sector, which covers not only restaurants and bars, but also hotels and tourism. While every sector has declined over the past 12 months, Illinois Leisure and Hospitality has lost more than 150,000 jobs over this period.

In many sectors throughout Illinois, the effects of the current pandemic have been so catastrophic as to convince many Illinois residents to drop out of the labor force altogether. In November 2019, more than 6.3 million Illinoisans were either working or looking for a job. With this number having dropped to 6.1 million in November 2020, more than 200,000 Illinoisans have dropped out of the labor force altogether.

Rep. Keicher, Rep. Murphy call for hearing on rampant fraud plaguing IDES. Two Illinois House Republican legislators are calling for the House State Government Administration Committee to hold an immediate hearing following news of Illinois residents being hung up on, unable to get through by telephone, or having their identity stolen stemming from fraudulent claims for benefits filed in their name with the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES).

State Rep. Jeff Keicher, the lone Republican member of the Agency Operation Subcommittee, said “People across Illinois are having their identity stolen left and right in an avalanche of phony unemployment claims. An estimated 250,000 fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits have been filed in Illinois since the onset of the pandemic. We have a responsibility to act on this matter not only to hold the Administration accountable on behalf of our constituents, but to fix the damn problem that’s been largely ignored thus far.”

“The fraud plaguing the administration’s handling of unemployment claims at IDES is urgent,” said State Rep. Mike Murphy, the Republican member of the Government Process Subcommittee. “We must have public hearings to get to the root problem and find solutions to not only rein in this problem, but to ensure the families rightfully in need of unemployment benefits have access to them.”

Keicher and Murphy believe Democratic and Republican members of the House State Government Administration Committee have a responsibility as a co-equal House and a co-equal branch of government to provide oversight, call witnesses, and get to the bottom of exactly why IDES continues to suffer grievous lapses in its ability to process claims in a timely manner, distinguish between valid claims and fraudulent claims, and protect the personal information of Illinois residents.

The representatives assert the committee should be able to schedule an in-person hearing, in accordance with appropriate health and safety procedures, on fraud within the IDES system now that the Veterans’ Affairs Committee has safely held an in-person hearing on Wednesday regarding the recent COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

“This is a critical support structure for our residents. I’m crushed that we cannot get the Administration to be more responsive in the face of such overwhelming need,” said Keicher, “I’m hopeful Chairwoman Kifowit will agree our work is urgent.”

Hearing on COVID-19 outbreak at LaSalle Veterans Home illustrates Pritzker Administration’s slow response. On Wednesday, December 16, the Illinois House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held an in-person hearing in Chicago in response to the tragic deaths of 33 veterans at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

State Rep. Jeff Keicher participated in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on the recent COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home and the Pritzker Administration’s response.

“The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is thankful for the opportunity to meet safely to work to get to the bottom of what exactly happened at LaSalle Veterans Home. I am determined to honor the lives lost by doing what we can to get answers and provide oversight to avoid another situation like this from occurring in the future,” Rep. Keicher said. “I am encouraged about the implementation of Dr. Avery Hart’s specific recommendations to improve symptom screening, testing and staff management at our veterans’ homes in addition to the plan in place to vaccinate residents beginning later this month in partnership with CVS. However, there were failures here that cannot go unaddressed.”

Rep. Keicher joined all Republican members of the committee in sending a letter on November 10 to Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, the Chairperson of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, requesting an immediate hearing and swift response to the outbreak, pledging to work together on a bipartisan basis. Kifowit did not respond to the Republicans’ request until December 4, and the hearing itself was not held until December 16.

Wednesday’s hearing revealed that, inexplicably, it took twelve days from the initial outbreak at LaSalle before the Illinois Department of Public Health sent personnel to conduct an infection control assessment, by which time the outbreak had spread throughout the Home and lives had already been lost. It was not until December 10 that Governor Pritzker announced that Illinois National Guard medical staff were being sent to the LaSalle Veterans Home to assist with COVID-19 testing and screening at the facility.

“I remain extremely frustrated by the slowness of the Administration’s initial response to the outbreak, and how long it took for this hearing to be scheduled,” Rep. Keicher added. “We grieve the 33 lives that have been lost among our heroes living at LaSalle. They and their families deserved better protection from the state responsible for their care during the crucial first days of the outbreak.”

State Representative Brad Stephens, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, released the following statement after participating in the hearing looking into the Covid-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home:

“During the hearing, we learned that several safety protocols and CDC recommendations were not followed, and the Covid-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home could have been prevented. There were issues with staff not being equipped with the right PPE as well as the home using non-CDC recommended hand sanitizer. It was deeply concerning how asymptomatic workers who tested positive were encouraged to continue working their shift after they learned of their positive test result.

“The testimony from the Department of Veterans Affairs has brought up many more questions than it answered. I am committed to working with both my Republican and Democrat colleagues and the administration to determine the cause of this outbreak and find solutions.

“My heart goes out to the nearly three dozen families that lost their loved one due to this preventable outbreak. At this moment, we don’t need finger-pointing. We need answers. The committee should hold those at fault in the Department accountable, but more importantly, should ensure no other home has an outbreak and that our veterans are safe.”

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.