Week in Review: Mask mandate, crime, gov't transparency & more


House Republicans lead JCAR vote to halt Gov. Pritzker’s school mask mandate. On Tuesday, February 15, the bicameral Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) voted 9-0-2 to block re-implementation of Governor JB Pritzker’s mask mandate for K-12 public and private schools in Illinois in the wake of the February 4 temporary restraining order issued by Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow declaring the Governor’s emergency rules as they apply to schools "null and void."

“Parents and children across Illinois deserve certainty and clarity amid all the confusion and chaos created by Governor Pritzker’s decision to continually go it alone and work only through the courts instead of with stakeholders and families,” Representative Wheeler said in a statement. “Locally elected school boards who are accountable to parents and know best for their districts, along with their local health department experts, should be allowed to make decisions on COVID mitigations that fit their communities best. With JCAR’s bipartisan ruling today, there is no statewide mask mandate in effect for schools, and the decision now belongs with the local school districts.”

All three House Republican members of JCAR voted to reject re-implementation of the Governor's mask mandate, including Deputy GOP Leader Rep. Tom Demmer, Assistant GOP Leader Rep. Keith Wheeler, and Rep. Steve Reick.

The Governor’s emergency rule on COVID mitigations for Illinois schools expired on Sunday, February 13. The Administration immediately re-filed the rule on Monday, putting it back into effect unless JCAR voted affirmatively to block it with a minimum of 8 members on the 12-member committee. Nine members voted to suspend the Governor’s emergency rule, with zero voting to keep it in place and two members voting "Present."

During the hearing, Representative Wheeler suggested to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) official testifying on behalf of the Pritzker Administration that the agency could have shown respect for the ongoing judicial process by issuing guidance to Illinois schools on recommended COVID mitigations instead of re-filing them as mandates in the form of an emergency rule. The IDPH official rejected that suggestion, reiterating the agency's position of pressing forward with mandates rather than guidance. Moments later, JCAR voted to approve a motion blocking re-implementation of the Governor's mask mandate via emergency rule.

Appellate Court dismisses Governor’s appeal of school mask mandate. Late Thursday night, Governor Pritzker’s quest for unending executive authority was handed another defeat by a three-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court.

The Governor’s appeal of a Sangamon County Judge’s decision to place a temporary restraining order on his school mask mandate was dismissed. This is a significant development for the more than 800 school districts and the millions of school students that have operated and lived under the Executive Orders of Governor Pritzker for 23 months.

The dismissal of the Governor’s appeal comes after Illinois House Republican members of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules led an effort earlier this week to block a new emergency rule from being implemented that would have reinstated Governor Pritzker’s mask mandate in schools.

Now that another co-equal branch of government, the 4th District Court of Appeals, has weighed in, it is clear Governor Pritzker has no authority to force schools to impose masking on our school children.

As House Republicans have been saying all along, local school boards and parents have the right to make decisions that are best for their students.

The Governor’s continued insistence that he can rule the state through unending Executive Orders is coming apart at the seams. It is time to move on and allow students and schools to return to normal and begin the process of repairing the damage that has been done during the last 23 months.

In light of his defeat by the legislative and judicial branches this week, we urge Governor Pritzker to abandon any plans to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court and save all Illinoisans the time, money, and angst that will certainly follow.

We celebrate the Appellate Court’s decision along with the millions of parents, students, teachers, and school administrators that may now address the learning deficit this mandate has caused for our students and begin back down the path to normal life.

Rep. Haas Introduces Legislative Package to Support Police and Deter Crime. State Representative Jackie Haas was joined by Kankakee County Sheriff, Michael Downey, and Kankakee County State’s Attorney, Jim Rowe, during a press conference this week to introduce a package of bills designed to support police and deter crime.

“In December, my district was struck by tragedy when Bradley Sgt. Marlene Rittmanic was killed in the line of duty,” said Haas “Following this tragic event, I knew I needed to take action, so I worked with my local sheriff and state’s attorney to develop a legislative package that will support our police officers and hold criminals accountable for their actions.”

Haas’s legislation does the following:
  • HB 4809: Makes taking an officer’s body camera, or any part of that camera, in order to prevent arrest or prosecution an obstruction of justice.
  • HB 4808: Creates the offense of a habitual misdemeanant. If a person has 3 or more pending charges for misdemeanor domestic battery, battery, violation of an order of protection, or criminal damage to property of a family or household member, then that defendant may be charged as a habitual misdemeanant offender. This would be a Class 4 felony.
  • HB 4684: The SAFE-T Act requires that once a person has been detained they must be brought to trial within 90 days, HB 4684 would extend that time to 120 days to ensure there is adequate time to prepare to bring a case to trial.
  • HB 4683: Provides that the penalty for aggravated domestic battery is a Class X felony when the person committing the domestic battery strangles another individual. Thereby making the sentence to no less than 6 years and no more than 30 years.
“We need all the support we can get,” said Kankakee County Sheriff, Michael Downey. “Each of these bills have my full support because not only will they help us do our jobs, but they will keep our communities safe and our officers safe while they work to protect those communities.”

“This legislative package gives state’s attorneys a whole new set of tools to keep violent offenders off our streets,” said Kankakee County State’s Attorney, Jim Rowe. “I hope the General Assembly will work together, in a bipartisan way, to get these bills passed. I believe they will make a big difference.”

“Despite the disappointment that these bills were not called given a fair hearing this week, I want to thank these gentlemen for working with me on this critical issue,” said Haas. “This package is truly a testament to what can be accomplished when we work together, in a bipartisan way, to address a common concern. I hope that members on both sides of the aisle can come together to get this package passed into law.”

Friess Seeks Transparency in Fire Department Hiring. In response to recent reports of a convicted arsonist being made chief of a small-town fire department, State Representative David Friess filed legislation to combat this lack of oversight in the form of HB 5693. The bill would make it so that a person applying for a position in a fire department or fire protection district, must disclose if he or she has been convicted, arrested, or charged with arson or other criminal damages by means of fire. Representative Friess spoke this week on his bill:

“Illinois politics never ceases to amaze me. Last year Governor Pritzker pardoned a convicted arsonist and because of that, this individual was able to become chief of the Prairie du Pont Fire Department. I brought forth HB 5693 to prevent this from happening. Local fire departments are an integral part of rural communities. If you appoint a convicted arsonist as fire chief, you are going to lose the faith and trust of your community. Case in point, eleven volunteers resigned following this appointment. This is very unfortunate,” said Rep. Friess.

The legislation was born, in part, due to this individual being pardoned last year by Governor J.B. Pritzker. It raises the question about the governor-appointed Prisoner Review Board which, for some time, has served with three vacancies and nine members who have not received Senate approval. Before his clemency, the individual in question had many other instances of run-ins with the police up until very recently, leaving the question, why would Governor Pritzker pardon such an individual?

“It’s very unfortunate that the Governor would do this,” Rep. Friess continued. “It appears that political connections to the Governor were to play in this scenario and paved the way for this individual’s pardon. Despite discrepancies between what he claimed then and what he’s claiming now, it’s concerning the Illinois Prisoner Review Board would allow such an individual to be approved for clemency. Again, it’s unfortunate, and our communities have a right to know exactly who is going to be their fire chief.”

Drastic downsizing in the works for Pontiac and Vandalia prisons. With a sharp increase in the number of Illinois-arrested individuals who are adjudicated into something other than a prison term, there are fewer prisoners in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). With a tight budget in other parts of state government, IDOC is under pressure to shut down some prison wings and reduce its maintained cell count and bed space. Reports currently indicate that Pritzker administration staff is looking hard at two of Illinois’ older prison facilities, located in Pontiac and Vandalia.

As the IDOC facilities are among the largest employers in Downstate’s Fayette and Livingston Counties, these indications are drawing deep concern from local House Republican lawmakers. In addition, many point out that it is not appropriate to reduce prison capacities in Illinois when violent crime is rising rapidly throughout the state.

Report finds Downstate Medicaid “medical deserts.” The reports centers on problems in reimbursing Illinois medical care providers, including physicians, under the new Medicaid rules implemented by the State of Illinois and the Pritzker administration. Under these rules, all Illinois Medicaid billings have to be submitted through an insurance-firm-like medical care accountancy oversight office, or “gatekeeper.” The gatekeepers are supposed to maintain the integrity of the system by matching billed care to diagnostic codes. Unfortunately, many Medicaid claims submitted by doctors and other medical care providers to the current Illinois Medicaid gatekeeper system are getting rejected. The insurers say that many doctors are not submitting exactly the right paperwork, with an endless series of code numbers attached to each item billed.

Fed up, many doctors and other medical care providers are talking about shutting down their Medicaid practices. Some will no longer see new Medicaid patients, while other are leaving the profession. A sharp shutdown of Medicaid-available care slots in many areas is creating what a report calls “medical deserts” in underserved areas, including many Downstate regions. Throughout rural Illinois, Medicaid-eligible families who need specialized medical care are not able to find board-certified specialists, because no one in their area with board certification is taking new Medicaid patients.

Burdened by more than $100 billion in unfunded debts, Illinois pension systems hope for relief. The unfunded debts stand for the future expenses of paying pensions to teachers, State employees, and other public-sector workers and leaders. The Illinois public sector has a series of “defined benefit” pension systems, which create a legal obligation upon the pension systems to pay out promised benefits. This Illinois pubic-sector pension deficit has recently been estimated to top $130 billion. Many private-sector pension systems have switched over to “defined contribution” programs, in which future retirees must save for their own retirements.

Under the Constitution of 1970, Illinois public-sector pension beneficiaries have, according to the state Supreme Court, a contractual right to the defined benefit contained in their pension programs. This right can, however, be bought out. Illinois public-sector pension vestees can be offered a lump sum payment that will enable them to take control over their own savings futures. A proposal currently moving through the Illinois General Assembly calls for Illinois to borrow an additional $1 billion in debt. The money would be offered in buyouts to persons who have vested rights in a future Illinois public-sector pension. Actuaries report that borrowing $1 billion could reduce Illinois’ unfunded pension obligations, resulting in a net benefit to the overall credit rating of the State.

Illinois Department of Revenue Highlights Senior Citizens Tax Deferral Program Ahead of Tax Deadline. The Illinois Department of Revenue highlighted the Senior Citizens Real Estate Tax Deferral Program which allows qualified seniors to defer all or part of their property taxes and special assessment payments on their principal residences. Seniors needing assistance paying their property taxes have until March 1st to apply for the program.

The program, which works like a loan, allows qualified seniors to defer a maximum of $5,000 per tax year (including both first and second installment payments). Deferred amounts are borrowed from the State of Illinois, who pays the tax bill to the County Collector's Office.

Interest on the amount paid by the State accumulates and a lien is placed on the property for all deferred tax payments and interest, payable upon death of the homeowner, at the time the home is transferred to a new owner, or sooner, if the program participant chooses to pay off the deferred tax payments and interest.

To qualify for the Senior Citizens Real Estate Tax Deferral Program, a property owner must:
  • be 65 years of age or older prior to June 1 of the year that the application is being filed with the County Collector's Office,
  • have a total annual household income of no more than $55,000,
  • have owned and occupied the property or other qualifying residence for at least the last three years,
  • own the property, or share joint ownership with a spouse, or be the sole beneficiary, or the property owner and spouse be the sole beneficiaries of an Illinois land trust,
  • have no unpaid property taxes and special assessments on the property, and
  • have adequate insurance against fire or casualty loss.
To apply for the program, seniors need to contact their local County Collector's Office to receive an application. Once completed, the application must be filed with the Collector's Office on or before March 1 of each year they wish to defer their property taxes or special assessments.