Week in Review: Redistricting, FOID, veto session & more

Congressional redistricting hearings begin. The General Assembly has not yet enacted a map to govern the election, starting in 2022, of the Illinois members of the U.S. House of Representatives. As with maps for the Illinois General Assembly, the new maps are supposed to reflect the population numbers generated by the 2020 U.S. Census. Close observers of Illinois politics believe that the Democrats will introduce a map that will have boundary lines drawn to help members of their party and hurt Republicans. 
Starting this week, the Illinois House Redistricting Committee is holding a series of seven hearings in Chicago, Joliet, Waukegan, Springfield, Peoria, and Edwardsville. The hearings began on Thursday, October 7, and are scheduled to conclude on Thursday, October 15.

The first hearing in Chicago saw little public input, as only one witness provided testimony. Ryan Tolley, policy director for the advocacy group CHANGE Illinois, urged the Illinois House Redistricting Committee to listen to community groups and afford them more opportunity than they had during the legislative redistricting process to review any proposed new maps before they are voted on.

State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, the minority spokesman on the redistricting committee, said he fully expects Democrats to engage in gerrymandering in order to protect Democratic congressional candidates.

“Illinois has a terrible history of drawing grotesquely gerrymandered districts for political power,” he said. “And it’s been done on a bipartisan level. The current map that we’re in, certainly the congressional district that I live in — the 13th congressional district — was no-bones-about-it drawn to try to elect a Democrat by linking together university towns from Champaign, Normal, Springfield, Edwardsville across the state in a diagonal manner, where friends and neighbors get divided for pure political gain.”

After the Illinois House of Representatives Redistricting Committee concluded their first public hearing on the redistricting of Illinois’ Congressional map, U.S. Representatives Darin LaHood (IL-18), Rodney Davis (IL-13), Mike Bost (IL-12), Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), and Mary Miller (IL-15) released the following joint statement on the Illinois Democrats’ sham redistricting process:

“In Springfield and Washington, Illinois Democrats like to talk about empowering voters, but their sham redistricting process shows they only care about protecting their own political power. Illinois citizens have been clear that they want an independent redistricting process free of political influence, but as we speak, Democrat lawmakers are picking their own voters behind closed doors.

“We would hope Governor Pritzker keeps his campaign promise to veto any map drawn by politicians, but our failed governor has shown twice already that he’s perfectly fine with lying to the people of Illinois if it means his party can stay in power. The Democrats’ corruption in Illinois will continue as long as Pritzker and Democrats in Springfield can pre-ordain the results of elections before voters cast a ballot.”

General Assembly map takes additional hits from plaintiffs. Federal court litigation continues regarding the State of Illinois’ redistricting map for elections to the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate. This map was first enacted in May, was superseded by Census numbers in August, and was immediately replaced by a new late-August map. Plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against the May map have amended their complaints to reflect the late-August map.

New complaints against the current, so-called ‘final” General Assembly map include demographic evidence that the late-August act of computer cartography improperly diluted the voting power of Illinois Latino voters. This is important because, under federal law, a lawsuit against a map on the grounds that it is “unfair” may not win at trial. Overall unfairness is not an element that the court will use to strike down an existing map. However, it is clear federal statutory law, backed up by numerous decisions of case law, that no map can improperly dilute the voting strength of certain recognized communities of voter interest recognized by the federal Voting Rights Act. The amended complaints against the current General Assembly map fit into the category of elements that a federal court is bound to consider when preparing for trial to consider the overall fate of the map.

Defendants, representing the State of Illinois under its current Democratic Party leadership, have until October 21 to respond to the most recent set of plaintiff pleadings. The case is being heard by a three-judge federal panel. A trial date is expected in late November or early December.

CGFA issues September 2021 revenue report. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA), a nonpartisan budget watchdog arm of the Illinois General Assembly, monitors Illinois revenue cash flows and economic trends.

Economics experts from CGFA warned this week that the COVID-19 pandemic, particular the renewed outbreak of the “Delta variant,” is holding back Illinois’ recovery from the pandemic. U.S. hospitalizations and deaths have risen back to late-2020 levels, prior to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. While some Illinoisans have been vaccinated and some have not, the decline in consumer confidence caused by the “fourth wave” of the virus is affecting everyone. Declines in consumer confidence often precede drops in home purchases and motor vehicle purchases. This, in turn, can be expected to affect future revenues from sales taxes and real estate transfer taxes.

Looking backward, Illinois’ revenue picture continued to be healthy in September 2021. Measured on a year-over-year basis in which the “base month” was the severely pandemic-affected month of September 2020, several key revenue gauges were up in Illinois. Personal income tax receipts were up $191 million year-over-year, corporate income tax payments increased by $528 million, and sales tax moneys forwarded to the Illinois Department of Revenue rose by $140 million. Overall general funds tax revenues were up by $892 million, and total general funds receipts from non-federal sources were up by $925 million, during the same period.

Illinois needs revenue increases to support its increasing debt load. During a six-week period beginning in mid-August and ending September 30, Illinois sold $493 million in new State general obligation and Build Illinois bonds, both backed by State tax revenues. The three bond sales included in this package of debt transactions will be covered by relatively low interest payments, with the tax-free bonds paying true interest of 1.25% to 1.31% and the taxable bonds paying true interest of 2.72%. Although Illinois taxpayers continue to bear the burden of higher interest costs resulting from Illinois’ subpar credit rating, this burden is less than in much of the 2018-21 period.

Court finds Pritzker overreach, nonpublic-school mask mandate enforcement rolled back under pressure. Under current State law, the State Superintendent of Education – the head of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) – has the right, under emergency circumstances, to abruptly “withdraw recognition” of individual schools and school districts. If and when this happens, a school is going to find it very difficult to insure its operations, move money around to pay its teachers and workers, play sports against other schools, or participate in a transaction when a student transfers from one school to another.

This level of sanction is meant to be applied only for use in extreme situations. However, Governor Pritzker has decreed a series of universal mandates that cover students, teachers, and educators and include various levels of public facemasks, COVID-19 testing requirements, COVID-19 vaccine requirements, and mandatory quarantines. Many schools have taken steps to comply with some or all of these mandates, and some have not complied. The State Superintendent has taken steps, in a context of nonpublic schools, to withdraw recognition from some allegedly noncompliant schools without any sort of due process or fact-finding procedure. As of September 15, nine Illinois nonpublic schools had been abruptly “nonrecognized.”

After orders of this type went out against the Parkview Christian Academy in Yorkville, the Academy sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the State decree. A court has found that the ISBE acted improperly in the Parkview case. Even if the State agency was perceiving real challenges at Parkview, fair procedure required that they put the targeted school on probation, institute a disciplinary fact-finding procedure, and gather facts.

Following the Parkview decision, ISBE let stakeholders know this week that they would no longer seek to implement summary withdrawals of recognition against nonpublic schools in a time frame that is less favorable than their non-recognition procedures against public schools and public school districts. Challenges to the mandate regimen continue. Other state and federal court decisions have upheld various aspects of Gov. Pritzker’s facemask, testing, and vaccine mandates.

Infections caused by Delta-driven “fourth wave” continue to drop in Illinois. Public health experts measure COVID-19 in Illinois through a series of statistical data sets, including positive cases per 100,000 Illinois residents. As the virus began circulating in Illinois, COVID-19 cases spiked to a high in May 2020. Various public-health mandates, including quarantines and stay-at-home orders, have slowed down the virus but have not stopped it. Additional virus spikes were charted in Illinois in November 2020 and May 2021. The “Delta variant” spike, also called the “fourth wave” of the pandemic, generated rising case rates in August 2021, with a high in the first week of September. Statistics gathered by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) indicate significant drops in new Illinois COVID-19 infections since this peak. Illinois hospitals are also reporting lower coronavirus patient admissions.

Despite the drop in new cases and hospitalizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the IDPH continue to recommend that all eligible Illinois residents be vaccinated for COVID-19, and carry out public prevention measures including the continued wearing of face coverings in public places. These guidelines now include a recommendation that, after a six-month interval, eligible persons who received a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination get a booster shot. Eligible persons include those aged 65 and over, persons in long-term care settings, and persons aged 50 to 64 with underlying medical conditions. This recommendation does not yet apply to persons who received a COVID-19 vaccination from Moderna or Johnson & Johnson.

Illinois Auditor General releases FOID card/concealed carry application process report. As violent crime and illegal drug activities continue to mount throughout Illinois, many State residents are turning toward personal protection. The U.S. Second Amendment guarantees the rights of all adult Americans to own and possess one or more personal firearms. However, under State of Illinois law, this right currently requires an Illinoisan to hold a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card issued by the Illinois State Police. With respect to the right to carry a concealed firearm in a public place, a parallel law requires Illinoisans to undergo training, apply for, and possess a concealed carry license. Concealed Carry licenses are also issued by the State Police.

Illinois lawmakers have heard many reports from their constituents about delays that happen when an Illinois resident files a valid application for an FOID card, or a concealed carry license, and then does not hear back from the State Police. These reports have multiplied during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In contacts with the State Police, House Republicans have learned that the State Police believes they are doing their best to keep up with a current, unprecedented surge in FOID and CCL applications. The State Police adds that their application system was never designed to work well during a time of pandemic. The constant appearance, at numerous stages of the application processes, of confidential information (particularly HIPAA-protected healthcare information) requires firewalled computer databases and secure telecommunications lines.

After numerous reports of FOID application and concealed-carry license delays, the General Assembly asked the Illinois Auditor General to audit the current implementation of the State’s FOID card law and concealed carry license law. Illinois law directs the State Police to turn around card and license applications within 30 days (for FOID cards), 90 days (for concealed-carry license applications submitted with fingerprints) or 120 days (for concealed-carry license applications submitted without fingerprints. The Auditor General team examined the application paper trail, compiled a statistical table, and found that as long ago as 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out) the State Police had failed to comply with these statutory deadlines.

Reports indicate that the delay situation hit a peak during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some improvement since that time. Some firearms advocates and lawmakers are calling for rethinking the Illinois FOID card law. State Representative C.D. Davidsmeyer points out that 46 of the 50 U.S. states do not have any equivalent for Illinois’ FOID card requirement. Current federal litigation, scheduled to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, could reconfigure the laws that govern the applicability and enforcement of the Second Amendment.

Preparations for fall veto session. After holding two brief special sessions in August and September, the Illinois General Assembly is scheduled to return to Springfield in late October for the traditional fall veto session. The General Assembly will convene on Tuesday, October 19, and is scheduled to adjourn on Thursday, October 28.

A major topic for the upcoming veto session will be passage of a new congressional redistricting map. The General Assembly could also take steps to address the looming threat of more than $4.3 billion in emergency debts borrowed by the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. Interest (charged at a rate of 2.27%) has begun accumulating on this debt, which was borrowed to pay unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

White Sox begin play in American League Division Series. The division-winning Chicago White Sox closed out their season on Sunday, October 3 with a record of 93-69. They progressed to play the AL West-winning Houston Astros during the first full week of October. As a team in the National League, the Astros lost to the White Sox in the Chicago squad’s last World Series appearance in 2005. The Astros moved to the American League in 2013, enabling the use of a designated hitter in slugger-friendly Minute Maid Park. The Houston team has since notched a streak of six ALDS appearances during the 2015-21 seven-year period.

The 2021 Chicago White Sox marked several achievements that drew the eyes of baseball fans from around the county, including the 117 runs batted in (RBIs) by slugger Jose Abreu and the 38 pitching saves notched by league-leading closer Liam Hendriks. 2021 marked the first year in White Sox history when the team achieved back-to-back postseason stints, following their three-game wildcard appearance in 2020.