Week in Review: Partisan maps, public safety, Faith's Law & more

Redistricting case heard by three-judge federal panel. Three separate plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ groups have joined forces in the current case. Working from different perspectives, they pointed out parallel constitutional challenges to the current Illinois General Assembly map. This map, enacted after a State constitutional deadline, purports to grant equal protection to all of the people of Illinois who will cast future ballots for members of the Illinois House and Senate.
Because of America’s history, past Congresses and federal courts have enacted a massive quantity of statutory and case law intended to buttress claims of equal protection when they are mounted by specific groups of people who have been the targets of past discrimination. At least two advocacy organizations, the NAACP and MALDEF, possess historic ties to Illinois’ African-American and Mexican-American communities, and both groups have taken legal action against the current map. Both groups report that the partisan map dilutes the voting strength of specific groups, and thus compromises their ability to run a candidate, win a primary and get elected.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin and his caucus joined the Senate Republicans in also filing a lawsuit against the partisan map. Testimony on this challenge, including evidence presented by plaintiffs, began this week on Tuesday, December 7.

Cases continue to climb upwards in Illinois; first Omicron cases reported. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reported this week that Illinois positive test results, hospitalizations, and death counts were approaching levels set in earlier peaks of the long-running pandemic. As of the second week of December 2021, these numbers were overwhelmingly attributed to the “Delta variant” of COVID-19, which is highly contagious and has a significant mortality rate. However, the “Omicron variant” has now also been detected in Illinois.

In addition to Delta, the “Omicron variant” of COVID-19 is expected to spread rapidly throughout Illinois in the very near future. Many reports indicate that Omicron is even more contagious than earlier versions of the coronavirus. Public health experts continue to believe, however, that Omicron is much less likely to cause severe illnesses in persons who have already been vaccinated for coronavirus. The current recommendation is for most adults age 18 and up to choose three separate injections; this includes the two Moderna/Pfizer injections that make up a first-level vaccination, plus a third injection which for most Illinois adults is classified as a “booster shot.” At the same time, the initial two-shot Pfizer vaccination procedure has been approved for all children aged 5 to 17.

Police make preliminary plans to seal off downtown Chicago. The plans came in the wake of reports of growing “flash mob” activity in which large groups of people talk or text in code and then gather “spontaneously” in a single location. Outbursts attributed to flash-mob action were reported in downtown during the weekend of December 3-5. Twenty-one arrests were reported. The disorders let to injuries of law enforcement officers and public personnel, and spurred urgent calls for a return to civil peace in Chicago’s key downtown neighborhood.

Flash mob activity can lead to looting and violence. Retail stores are often targeted by these mobs. In the wake of widespread unrest, the Chicago Police Department has made plans to step up law enforcement for the weekend of December 10-12. These plans were slated to include possible moves that could include sealing off sections of Chicago’s downtown. Sealing moves, such as raising some of the bridges over the Chicago River, could delay or discourage mass activities and mob actions.

Illinois’ Cook County, Madison County, and St. Clair County once again called “judicial hellholes.” The American Tort Reform Foundation’s Judicial Hellholes report has once again

labeled the county-based circuit courts of Cook County, Madison County, and St. Clair Counties the fifth-worst “judicial hellhole” in the U.S. The designation placed three of Illinois’ busiest circuit court systems in the “Top 5” of dishonor, along with courts in California, New York, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. According to the ATRF report, “This trio of Illinois counties is a magnet for asbestos litigation and “no-injury” lawsuits stemming from the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). Making matters worse, the Illinois General Assembly is one of the most plaintiff friendly legislatures in the country and Governor J.B. Pritzker supports a liability-expanding agenda to the detriment of Illinois citizens and small businesses.”

Republican lawmakers call for more support for law enforcement. The call came in the context of the new Illinois House Public Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force, which held a summit meeting on Monday, December 6. Although Illinois’ overall population is declining, criminal acts tabulated by the FBI showed sharp expansions in calendar year 2020. In Illinois, murders were up 38% in 2020, and overall violent crime was up 4%. Preliminary numbers indicate that these figures are worsening further in calendar year 2021.

This trend line is sharply different from other U.S. states that have expanding populations and decreasing crime rates. It comes in the context of a significant criminal justice “reform” bill, pushed toward passage in January 2021 by the Illinois Democrat majority, which turned its back on law enforcement recommendations made by officials throughout the state. Illinois law enforcement officials continue to call for rational, targeted bail bond policies to ensure oversight for persons accused of violent criminal acts. In direct violation of this call, the criminal justice “reform” measure eliminated cash bail.

House Republicans intend to use the new Task Force to renew their demand that politicians listen to street-level law enforcement officers when rewriting the criminal laws of the state. Illinois must increase its support for day-to-day law enforcement, and must move away from “reform” measures crafted in circles that are hostile to law enforcement.

New law adds safeguards to protect students against sexual abuse. Fulfilling a commitment made as a result of his service on the Make Sexual Abuse Fully Extinct (Make S.A.F.E.) Task Force to protect students from sexual abuse in school, State Representative Jeff Keicher announced that House Bill 1975, also known as Faith’s Law, was signed into law last Friday by Governor Pritzker. The legislation adds safeguards by expanding the definition of grooming in the criminal code, increasing resources and protections for sexual abuse survivors and their families, and requiring school districts to develop a sexual misconduct code of conduct, review employment history, and increase training for educators.

“We listened, we brainstormed, and we came together not as Republicans or Democrats, but as mothers and fathers from all walks of life dedicated to one purpose, eradicating the sexual abuse and exploitation of Illinois students,” Rep. Keicher said. “Serving on the task force, we were deeply troubled by the harrowing revelations of sexual abuse in the Chicago Public Schools system in recent years and the need to make absolutely certain that we close the gaps in protecting children from this day forward. I co-sponsored Faith’s Law, named for victims’ advocate and sexual abuse survivor Faith Colson, and worked with the State Board of Education and my colleagues in the legislature to get this bill passed and onto the Governor’s desk this year. I am immensely gratified that our efforts will provide children with the protection and support they need in school settings.”

The legislation closes a prior loophole and expands protections for students by expanding the definition of grooming to include acts performed in-person, through direct communication or a third party, or written communication. Under previous law, grooming only included internet-based communication.

The law requires the Illinois State Board of Education to create a parent resource guide, which would serve as a centralized source of assistance and provide resources available to the parent or guardian of a student who is or may be the victim of sexual abuse. Schools are required to notify parents of the guide at the start of each school year and provide copies to parents by request.

House Bill 1975 was co-sponsored by many House Republicans and passed the House unanimously during the October Veto Session.

Special CGFA Briefing on status of Illinois’ public-sector pensions. One of the largest categories of unfunded liabilities generated by Illinois’ public sector has been, and continues to be, the insufficient moneys set aside in Illinois pension funds to keep the promises that have been made to vested public-sector pensioners – a group that includes state employees, teachers and higher education personnel.

These unfunded liabilities are of great significance to every Illinois General Assembly annual budget, because ongoing State laws give our pension system a head-of-the-line call on any new money that shows up in Illinois state taxes. As these unfunded liabilities swell, the ability of the State of Illinois to deal with other ongoing challenges diminishes. The General Assembly asks the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA), its nonpartisan budget arm, to report annually on the status of the State-managed pension systems.

The current report shows that the unfunded liabilities of the five State-managed pension systems continue to be severe. As of FY21, the five systems have, in actuarial terms, a collective unfunded liability of almost $130 billion. This represents the $242.9 billion that vested persons with pension rights will ask for during their retirement years, minus the $112.9 billion represented by current pension-fund assets plus compound interest expected to accrue between FY21 and the time the pensions will be paid out. The difference between these two numbers, $130.0 billion, represents the unfunded liability of the five systems.

The five Illinois State-managed pension funds are funds that pay pensions to teachers, State employees, employees of the State universities, members of the State judiciary, and members of the Illinois General Assembly. The CGFA Special Pension Briefing was published on Tuesday, December 7.

Section of Interstate 57 in Southern Illinois to be widened as part of National Highway Freight Network. State Representative Dave Severin says long overdue highway funding is finally coming to Southern Illinois.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation has announced an ongoing and future expansion of Interstate 57 from Mount Vernon to Johnston City,” Severin said. “This investment and expansion will not only improve safety and reduce congestion but help improve economic growth throughout the state.”

Severin says the project is separated into six segments, representing a total investment of $257.8 million for southern Illinois, with $224 million coming from the 2019 Rebuild Illinois capital program. The program was the first major capital investment program passed in over a decade. Severin says his support helped bring dollars home to Southern Illinois that will create jobs and improve transportation and public safety.

“I was a supporter of the capital program so that we can get Illinois moving in the right direction to fix our crumbling infrastructure,” Severin said. “I helped secure more than $1 billion in road projects just like this one that we’ll benefit from in Southern Illinois for decades to come. When we invest, we grow, and that’s what Southern Illinois needs.”

By undertaking the I-57 expansion and other projects in the years to come, Severin says IDOT will ultimately create safer roads for Jefferson, Franklin and Williamson counties.