Week in Review: Behind locked door, veterans, jobs & more


House Democrats go behind locked door to draw new district maps. Excerpted from a WCIA report this week: Our news cameras were rolling as dozens of House Democrats filed in and out of a locked door on the Capitol Complex grounds. Inside, members of House Speaker Chris Welch’s staff showed members one-by-one where the lines of their new districts could be drawn. 
“Meeting with members is nothing new,” Welch’s spokeswoman Jaclyn Driscoll said in an emailed statement. “In fact, the room we’re talking to members in is actually the same we met in 10 years ago. This is and will remain a transparent process.”

“It’s just preliminary drafts for each district,” Rep. Nick Smith (D-Chicago) said on his way into the room.

Several other state representatives avoided questions about the meetings or gave evasive answers. Others who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that they were reviewing the early drafts of the House district maps. Some members felt there weren’t many recognizable changes, but pointed out that the lines could still change several times before they’re finalized.

Members of the public have yet to see the data or the district lines. The full U.S. Census data isn’t expected to be released until later this fall after the constitutional deadline for the legislature to send a map to the governor’s desk for approval.

House Republican leaders call out House Democrats for lack of redistricting “transparency.” Illinois House Republicans highlighted Democratic “transparency” in the redistricting process by holding a press conference in front of the locked room where House Democrats are drawing a partisan map without allowing the public or Republicans to participate.

State Rep. Ryan Spain, a Peoria Republican, said the American Community Survey data is not accurate and is not appropriate to use when drawing the map.

"That's what the Census Bureau says, that's what advocacy groups across the state of Illinois have testified ... more than 55 groups have said it is not appropriate that we use estimated data sources to do one of the most important things that happens every 10 years, and that is draw this map," Spain said.

"We need to have accurate census data as the methodology that we use to draw this map. This is the doorway to further corruption in the state of Illinois, and it needs to stop."
Rep. Avery Bourne, a Morrisonville Republican, said Gov. J.B. Pritzker is going back on his campaign promise that he would not sign a partisan-drawn map.

"Our Democratic colleagues have called for a fair process ... the governor himself has said that he wants a transparent process. And what we see today, what we saw reported last night, is literally the opposite of a transparent process," Bourne said.

"They are going behind a closed door to pick their voters. Gov. Pritzker previously endorsed a fair map process and went so far as to say that he would veto a map that was drawn by politicians, partisans or their staff."

“When I saw the WCIA report last night on this room, I actually at first laughed, then I cried because what’s happening behind that door is not democracy,” said Rep. Mark Batinick. “You know who agrees with me? President Barack Obama. He spoke to the Illinois General Assembly in 2016 about how gerrymandering is bad for the country and the state. I call on my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to join us and the former President and stop what’s happening behind that door.”

Scathing Report Calls for Immediate Hearings on Veterans Home COVID Deaths and Infections. In light of a scathing new report on the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs’ disastrous failure to protect Veterans Homes’ residents and staff from exposure to COVID-19, State Rep. Randy Frese and House Republican colleagues on Tuesday called on Governor Pritzker and House Democrats to convene immediate House hearings.

During a Zoom Press Conference last Friday, State Representative Dan Swanson lashed out at the Pritzker Administration for details in an Illinois Inspector General Report released earlier in the day investigating the lack of health protocols at LaSalle Veterans Home leading to 36 deaths of Illinois veterans.

“Having seen this report from the Inspector General, to be totally honest with you, I’m mad and upset. These veterans survived battlefield conditions to succumb within the walls of our Illinois Veteran homes,” said Swanson. “This report details a lack of leadership from within the Pritzker Administration. Thirty-six of our hometown heroes are dead as a result. These families and these heroes deserved so much better.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin followed Swanson on the Friday Zoom press conference and called on Attorney General Kwame Raoul to investigate whether criminal charges are warranted, citing a precedence of a grand jury convened by AG Raoul in Adams County following the deaths of veterans from legionnaire’s disease in that facility. Asked whether criminal charges should be filed, Leader Durkin responded, “Yes”.

Addressing his comments directly to the Governor at the Press Conference, Swanson chastised, “Governor, when you made a political issue out of veteran deaths at Quincy, I gave you the benefit of the doubt that it was about protecting our heroes and not scoring political points on dead veterans. Your failures here are your own. You own them. You failed to protect our heroes despite knowing the life and death implications of failing to respond.”

A copy of the Inspector General’s Report can be found here. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet next Tuesday, May 11 to dig deeper into the LaSalle Veterans Home investigation findings.

Illinois set to move to “bridge phase” of coronavirus mitigation. This long-awaited transition will create a rapid pathway towards Phase 5. The Bridge Phase, set to begin on Friday, May 14, will enable expanded table service at Illinois bars and restaurants. It will also loosen remaining restrictions on indoor crowd sizes at weddings, festivals, and group banquet events. Many places of work and personal service, including offices, places of personal care such as hair salons, museums, theaters, amusement arcades and parks, and health and fitness classes, will be authorized to operate at 60% of capacity. During the Bridge Phase, COVID-19 metrics will continue to be monitored closely by the Illinois Department of Public Health, including new coronavirus positivity diagnoses, hospital admissions, and the numbers of persons assigned to ICU beds with COVID-19. The Bridge Phase announcement was made on Thursday, May 6.

The COVID-19 virus continues to be active and contagious. Furthermore, new variants of the virus have been reported from around the world. On the other hand, current data continues to indicate that coronavirus vaccines are relatively effective against all the known variants that have been tracked so far. COVID-19 numbers and hospitalizations are declining in Illinois. Illinois public health leaders treated the May 6 announcement as a sign that Illinois coronavirus vaccination is working, that it is producing healthy Illinois residents who are shielded against the deadly virus, and that those adults who have not yet been vaccinated should consider doing so.

If Illinois’ COVID-19 numbers continue to remain steady, a pathway will open to move to Phase 5 of the State‘s coronavirus mitigation program. Based on current numbers, this move to Phase 5 could happen as soon as June 11. Under Phase 5, most remaining restrictions on businesses and gatherings would be lifted. Illinoisans will continue to be urged to follow guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): these now-familiar guidelines include indoor face masks and social distancing. The continuing contagiousness of the virus was marked by a fresh announcement from IDPH on Thursday, May 6: over the most recent 24-hour period, 1,778 new confirmed and probable diagnoses of coronavirus statewide, and 40 deaths related to coronavirus.

CGFA reports on April 2021 State revenues. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA), a nonpartisan arm of the Illinois General Assembly, tracks State revenue patterns on a month-by-month basis.

The CGFA report for April 2021 shows a sharp increase in State revenues for the month, in relation to the numbers posted one year earlier. The year-earlier period, April 2020, was the first full month of the “stay at home” orders that accompanied the first stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase was particularly dramatic in State revenues that flow through to general funds, that subset of State revenues that covers key expense areas such as education funding. In April 2021, general funds were up more than $1.6 billion from April 2020. Income tax revenue enhancements accounted for more than $1.4 billion of the increase, with personal income tax payments and corporate income tax payments up more than $600 million for each category.

April U of I Flash Index marks largest increase in index history. The April University of Illinois Flash Index jumped to 101.5 from its 97.8 level in March, roaring past the 100-level that divides growth and decline.

This increase was the largest in the history of the index, although the declines of March and April 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis were larger in absolute terms. See the full Flash Index Archive.

As with last month, the strong April reading was the result of both a strong economy and certain technical factors. “The index’s monthly inputs are now being compared to the depressed numbers of last year, indicating marked growth,” said University of Illinois economist J. Fred Giertz, who compiles the monthly index for the University of Illinois System's Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA). “In fact, the April index may underestimate growth because some of the various federal stimulus payments are not directly included in the index’s components.” In constructing the index, individual Illinois income tax collections are used as a surrogate for income, but many of these federal payments are not taxable and do not directly impact tax receipts.

Notwithstanding these technical issues, the Illinois and national economies are exhibiting real strength. Analysts are nearly unanimous in their optimism for the remainder of 2021. First-quarter GDP increased at a 6.4% annual rate. The unemployment rate continues to decline, although it is still more than two percentage points above pre-crisis levels. The unprecedented magnitude of federal income support programs may be slowing the decline.

Illinois’ unemployment rate is still more than one percentage point above the national rate. All three components of the index (individual income, corporate and sales tax receipts) were up strongly from the same month last year.

Legislation moves forward to create more than 300 jobs in Williamson County. Developers at Walker’s Bluff, in southern Illinois’ Williamson County, have submitted an application and background documents to be awarded a license to build a casino, hotel and entertainment complex. The Illinois Gaming Board, whose approval is required, has not yet given final approval to this application. Southern Illinois lawmakers from this area, including State Rep. Dave Severin, have come together on a bipartisan basis to develop legal language to finalize a process that will enable this application to be approved. The proposed construction at Walker’s Bluff will create 1,000 temporary jobs, many of which will be construction jobs. After the facility is built, current plans call for the casino complex to employ local personnel in up to 330 permanent jobs. The proposed Walker’s Bluff language was filed on Tuesday, May 4 as House Amendment #1 to SB 1360.

Lion Electric announces new plant to be built in Will County. The Canadian-based startup manufacturer specializes in electric powered long-chassis motor bodies, suitable for fitting out as school buses, minibuses, light trucks, and passenger vans. The Lion announcement accompanies a major push among American school districts for a “green” alternative to the traditional liquid-fuel-powered school bus. The Joliet-based Lion Electric plant is expected to create about 750 jobs over a three-year period.

Plans call for the annual production of 20,000 long-chassis bodies for use as electric powered buses and trucks. Lion’s plant will be the second Illinois-based manufacturing operation for motor vehicles, after the Rivian plant in Bloomington-Normal. Both Rivian and Lion have reached agreements with Amazon.com to assemble delivery trucks for the retail logistics giant. The Joliet Lion factory is expected to come online in the second half of calendar year 2022.

Invest in Kids program threatened by Governor’s budget proposal. With time running out to enact a State budget for FY22, the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2021, a key feature of Illinois income tax law is endangered by the budget plan put forward by Gov. Pritzker. The Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program offers a 75 percent income tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute to qualified Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The SGOs then provide scholarships for students whose families meet the income requirements to attend qualified, non-public schools in Illinois.

Supporters of these private schools, including the Catholic Conference of Illinois, say these scholarships are an essential part of helping these schools operate and welcome students from all backgrounds. However, the Pritzker budget plan would sharply reduce the tax credits used to fund these scholarships. The future of the Invest in Kids program is at stake and will be part of the State budget negotiations going forward.

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