Week in Review: Protect health & safety of Illinoisans, COVID-19 vaccine and more


Our greatest responsibility is to protect the health and safety of Illinois citizens. On Monday, February 22, Governor JB Pritzker signed a controversial criminal justice bill that barely passed at the end of the January lame-duck session of the Illinois General Assembly.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin released the following statement on the signing of House Bill 3653 into law: 
“The Governor’s support of House Bill 3653 is an insult to our first responders, law enforcement and the law-abiding citizens of Illinois who work to live free of violence and destruction from the criminal element. It’s clear that Governor Pritzker does not understand this bill and what it means to our criminal justice system. Illinois and its citizens will not be safer because of this bill.

“We live in a civilized state where our elected officials’ greatest responsibility is the health and safety of Illinois citizens. This past year, Chicago has been traumatized with epic acts of violence through murders and carjackings with no apparent end in sight. At a crucial time when we should coalesce around the good men and women of law enforcement, Governor Pritzker has turned his back on them with his signature on House Bill 3653.”

House Bill 3653 contains many controversial provisions that make extensive changes to Illinois’ criminal justice laws. The legislation abolishes cash bail, makes it more difficult for prosecutors to charge a defendant with felony murder, adds further requirements for no-knock warrants, gives judges the ability to deviate from mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, makes changes to the “three strikes” law, and decreases mandatory supervised release terms.

One of the most controversial aspects of this new law is the numerous changes and additional requirements it places on Illinois’ law enforcement officers. The legislation mandates body cameras be worn by all officers, but there is no funding included to purchase the necessary equipment. The bill creates a new felony offence of law enforcement misconduct, creates an anonymous complaint policy, and makes changes to use of force in making arrest, duty to render aid and duty to intervene. The bill makes significant changes to the law enforcement officer certification and decertification process, including the creation of a new Law Enforcement Certification Review Panel.

House Bill 3653 was approved by the Illinois House on Wednesday, January 13 by the bare minimum of 60 votes (60-50-0), with only minutes to spare before the clock struck to end the 101st General Assembly. It was strongly opposed by Illinois’ law enforcement community, including the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and many State’s Attorneys from across the state.

Percentage of Illinoisans fully vaccinated reaches 4%. Although more than 2 million doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccine has been administered to patients throughout Illinois, two doses are required for full immunization. As of the start of this week approximately 500,000 Illinois residents (4% of the Illinois population) had completed both shots and been fully immunized from the deadly virus.  

Even this very partial progress was showing possible results in terms of positive coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations. Vaccination locations are opening up across Illinois. As the vaccination percentages increase, more people are developing immunity and the virus has less places to go. As of this week, the rolling seven-day Illinois positivity case count had fallen to 2.8% – this was the metric that, during the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19, had risen to close to 10% in Illinois – and hospitalizations for coronavirus were down sharply. This was a sign that fewer people with pre-existing health care conditions were getting sick. It has long been known that there is a strong correlation between pre-existing health care conditions and the likelihood that a coronavirus infection will proceed to life-threatening illness.

The deadly coronavirus continues to be a health crisis throughout the United States. This week the running total of American dead from COVID-19 passed the 500,000 mark, including more than 20,000 deaths in Illinois. At the same time, however, the improving situation among younger Illinoisans was adding to public pressure to reopen schools for in-person learning and activities. It has now been more than 12 months since the pandemic began in the United States.

Elexon to spin off electric generating plants. The announcement of a proposed spinoff was made this week by Exelon Corp. Since its days as the Commonwealth Edison Company, Exelon has owned industrial-sized facilities that make and start electric power down the wires. In today’s largely deregulated marketplace, however, these facilities face very different day-to-day threats, risks, and incentives than those faced by Exelon’s core business: the ‘last mile” local wires that deliver electric power to millions of households and commercial end-users. This week, Exelon announced that it plans to spin off its generating plants into what is expected to be a separate, publicly traded company. The move affects Exelon nuclear power plants nationwide, including plants in Illinois.

The spinoff is expected to create America’s largest carbon-free electric power production company. Subject to spinoff will be Exelon plants that can generate more than 31,000 megawatts of power nationwide. Recent U.S. weather events have redoubled public attention on the ability of U.S. power infrastructure to generate electric power reliably in the massive quantities used to maintain jobs and family homes. While Exelon did not focus on Illinois’ state government in its announcement, the move adds to attention being paid to the utility’s existing investments in its home state. This includes a particular focus on the status of four nuclear-power complexes – Braidwood, Byron, Dresden, and LaSalle – that operate eight reactors in Illinois’ power grid. In May 2020, almost two-thirds (66%) of Illinois’ electric power came from nuclear reactors, among the highest such percentage of any U.S. state. Most of this power came from these four complexes.

Nuclear power has many facts that are already known. One element of this type of generator is that nuclear reactors are exceptionally resistant to weather-based challenges of all sorts. In Springfield, observers expect Exelon or its future generating-company spinoff to seek recognition from the State and its electric ratepayers for the reliability of the non-carbon power these reactors can generate.

Historic Illinois racetrack to close amid possible sale of Arlington Park. The announcement could lead to the end of horse racing at historic Arlington Park, as owner Churchill Downs says the property – in central Arlington Heights and adjacent to a Metra commuter rail stop – is ripe for redevelopment. Arlington Park, including its spacious “backstretch,” contains 327 acres of northern Cook County land. Real estate experts say this will be one of the largest opportunities for Chicago north suburban property development since the closure and build-out of the former Glenview Naval Air Stationin 1995.

Horses have heard the post trumpets at Arlington Park since 1927. Signature contests held at race meetings here have included the Arlington Million and the Arlington Invitational. Churchill Downs Inc., which retains a commitment to gaming, has indicated to market analysts that it is moving its corporate focus to casino gaming such as the Des Plaines-based. Churchill Downs told the press this week that they plan to close out what could be the course’s final season of live racing this summer. After the scheduled race meeting ends on September 25, 2021, and if the track is sold, Churchill Downs stated that it would offer the course’s racetrack license to a legal entity that will continue Arlington’s traditions of live racing. Two other horse racetracks, Fairmount near St. Louis and Hawthorne near Chicago, are expected to continue to operate in Illinois.

UIC study finds Illinois to be second most politically corrupt state in the U.S. The study compared each state’s total population with its number of political criminal convictions. Only Louisiana and the District of Columbia, on a per-capita basis, were more corrupt than Illinois. The numbers, which repeated earlier findings by a parallel study, created statistical evidence that Illinois is #2 in American political corruption. All five of Illinois’ neighboring states – Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin – scored much lower than Illinois on the corruption metric.

In Illinois, elected government officials from every walk of life, from village board member to State governor, have faced charges for alleged criminal offenses. In many cases, these charges have resulted in convictions. In large numbers, former members of the Illinois public sector have served time or are now serving time. Other former officials, including a least one former member of the Illinois state legislature, are believed to be under active investigation. Results of the study, carried out under the auspices of the University of Illinois at Chicago, were released on Monday, February 22.

New telephone area code throughout much of Central Illinois. Starting on Saturday, February 27, users of landline and mobile phones with numbers in the “217” area code will have to dial the full area code when making a phone call. The new code requirement comes because registrants of new phones in this code area will soon start getting numbers with a new “447” area code. The new area code will be overlaid on top of the old one; “447” numbers will start being assigned on March 27, 2021. Established telephone numbers within the “217” area code will not change.

The “217” area code, which is the area subject to this new requirement, covers most of Central Illinois other than Greater Peoria. Affected are the residents of Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Quincy, and many of the rural counties and townships surrounding these cities. The move got final approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) last year. Greater Peoria, which uses the “309” area code in conjunction with the Quad Cities area, is not affected by this change; the “618” area code used in Southern and Southwestern Illinois is also not affected.

I-PASS will remain universal requirement on Illinois toll roads. Until March 2020, the Illinois Toll Highway Authority (ITHA) preferred (but did not require) that drivers pay electronically through the I-PASS transponder system. Registered users of Illinois tollways mount an electronic identification device on their front windshield, and a computer “reads” the device as a motor vehicle passes a toll checkpoint. The I-PASS user is required to post a credit card number, and the transponder joins with the ITHA’s computer system and the credit card company to pay motor vehicle tolls.

From almost the start of the I-PASS system, the ITHA liked I-PASS better than tolls paid in cash. Paying tolls in cash was labor-intensive and comparatively costly in terms of administration costs. However, many drivers continued to prefer to pay their tolls in cash. They continued to have the option of doing so, using special toll-collection lanes, until March 2020 when the cash toll lanes were shut down as part of the initial wave of COVID-19 pandemic activity. Initially billed as a “temporary move,” the new collection system authorized I-PASS electronic only. Compliance with the new, electronic-only system was high enough that this week, the ITHA announced their cash lanes would not reopen after the pandemic. In its announcement, the ITHA stated that 92% of all tolls collected were coming electronically through the I-PASS transponder system.

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