Week in Review: Tribute to Fallen Peace Officers, LaSalle Veterans Home findings, energy costs & more

Peace Officer Memorial Service 2022

Audit slams Pritzker Administration for failed response to deadly COVID outbreak at LaSalle Veterans Home. In total, 36 residents of the LaSalle Veterans’ Home died due to COVID-19. The deaths occurred between November 7, 2020, and January 1, 2021. By November 15, 2020, 17 residents had lost their lives from COVID-19 at the LaSalle Home.

Multiple legislative hearings in response to the deaths at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home uncovered lack of management and health protocols to keep veterans safe in the Home and a lack of response from the Governor and his Administration. In response to the unanswered questions about the tragic deaths and the lack of response by Governor Pritzker’s Administration, House Republicans filed HR 62 (Welter). The resolution directed the Auditor General to conduct a performance audit of the State's response to the management of the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans' Home. On April 28, 2021, the House adopted HR 62.

On May 5, 2022, the Office of the Auditor General released the report of its Performance Audit of the State’s response to the COVID-19 Outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. The audit report contains seven key findings and three recommendations. Two recommendations were directed to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and one was directed to the Department of Public Health. The Departments agreed with the recommendations.

Key Findings:
Although the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) officials were informed of the increasing positive cases almost on a daily basis by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA) Chief of Staff, IDPH did not identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak. It was the IDVA Chief of Staff who ultimately had to request assistance. The IDVA Chief of Staff inquired about a site visit and about rapid tests (November 9th), and inquired about getting antibody treatments (November 11th) for LaSalle Veterans’ Home residents. From the documents reviewed, IDPH officials did not offer any advice or assistance as to how to slow the spread at the Home, offer to provide additional rapid COVID-19 tests, and were unsure of the availability of the antibody treatments for long-term care settings prior to being requested by the IDVA Chief of Staff.
  • The outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home occurred at a time when COVID-19 cases were trending up statewide. Positive cases in Region 2 (where the LaSalle Home is located) increased from 12,108 in October 2020 to 37,825 in November 2020, an increase of 212.4 percent. Also, the outbreak occurred prior to the COVID-19 vaccine. Prior to the 3 outbreak that began at the end of October 2020, only six staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. Even though the LaSalle Home had designated areas for isolation and quarantine, once the virus entered the Home, it spread very rapidly. 
  • The time it took to receive staff COVID-19 testing results from the IDPH lab was lengthened by the collection method used by the LaSalle Home. The Home tested staff over a three day period. As a result, new tests of staff collected on November 3rd, 4th, and 5th were not delivered to the IDPH lab until Thursday, November 5th, even though the first two staff members from the outbreak were found to be positive by Sunday, November 1st. The IDPH lab published the majority of the test results on either Friday or Saturday. Therefore, the delay in getting testing results was primarily due to the collection method used by the LaSalle Home. Additionally, the testing method, collecting tests over three days, was not in compliance with the facility’s policy, which allowed for testing over two days. 
  • IDVA provided auditors with new infection prevention policies on June 17, 2021, which were drafted with the assistance of IDPH, which were officially implemented on April 23, 2021. The purpose of these policies was to establish a comprehensive and integrated infection prevention and control program at all Illinois veterans’ homes. A system-level Infection Prevention and Control Committee was tasked with standardizing policies and procedures and was required to oversee infection prevention at the Illinois veterans’ homes. These policies also updated infection prevention training requirements for staff at Illinois veterans’ homes. 
  • The LaSalle Veterans’ Home implemented several infrastructure improvements during FY20 and FY21 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and outbreak at the Home. Prior to the outbreak, external firms were commissioned to design and build airborne infection isolation rooms at IDVA Homes, including the LaSalle Home. The construction of the isolation rooms was initiated in March of 2020 and operational by May 23, 2020. Payments made for the construction of the isolation rooms totaled $1,057,470. In total, the cost for all infrastructure improvements from March 2020 through June 2021 totaled $1,162,719. 
  • The State expended approximately $3.4 million between FY20 and FY21 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. According to documentation provided by IDPH and IDVA, expenditures included PPE, infrastructure improvements, and COVID-19 testing for both the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole and the outbreak at the LaSalle Home that began in late October 2020. Auditors concluded that the outbreak did not significantly add to the Home’s overall COVID-19-related costs during FY20 and FY21. 
  • The Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General (DHS OIG) investigation reported that the significance of the outbreak was not being meaningfully tracked by the IDVA Chief of Staff. In fact, auditors found the Chief of Staff provided detailed information to IDPH that was used by the Director of IDPH in her daily COVID19 briefings. IDPH and the First Assistant Deputy Governor for Health & Human 4 Services were provided detailed emails of COVID-19 positive cases and related deaths for each of the four State veterans’ homes by IDVA on November 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 13th. The primary finding of the DHS OIG report, which indicated the “absence of any standard operating procedures in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak,” was flawed. Auditors identified hundreds of pages of guidance provided by IDPH and by the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, COVID-19 policies were formulated by IDVA specifically for the LaSalle Veterans’ Home as well as a Continuity of Operations Plan that was reviewed by Illinois Emergency Management Agency and was provided to IDPH back in March 2020.
Key Recommendations:
  • IDVA should ensure each of its Veterans' Homes have policies and procedures in place that mandate timely testing of its residents and employees during COVID-19 outbreaks, and should ensure that residents and employees are tested according to the policy. 
  • IDPH should: (1) clearly define its role in relation to monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks at Illinois Veterans’ Homes; and (2) develop policies and procedures that clearly identify criteria which mandate IDPH intervention at Veterans’ Homes during an outbreak of COVID-19. 
  • IDVA should ensure that: (1) the IDVA Director works with the Department of Public Health and the Governor’s office during COVID-19 outbreaks to advocate for the health, safety, and welfare of the veterans who reside in the Homes under IDVA’s care; and (2) the Senior Home Administrator position is filled and the duties of the position include monitoring and providing guidance to the Veterans’ Homes during COVID-19 outbreaks.
Illinois House Republican Conference Chair Rep. David Welter issued the following statement in reaction to the Auditor General’s findings on the Pritzker Administration’s response to the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans Home in the fall of 2020 that claimed the lives of 36 of our state’s heroes:

“The Governor’s Office previously testified how the IDVA Director duped them regarding the outbreak’s severity. Today’s report from the Auditor General proves Governor Pritzker was the one who deceived us. His office had information from day one and failed to act. The Governor’s investigation into the matter was flawed, too narrowly focused, and purposely removed him and IDPH’s leadership team from scrutiny until today’s independent findings. The Governor can no longer cover up the truth, and he must be held accountable for his collapse of competence. Legislative hearings must be scheduled to determine how the administration failed so greatly in protecting our state’s heroes.”

House Public Utilities Committee holds hearing on possible changes to CEJA, concerns over electric rate increases. At a Springfield hearing this week, members of the House Public Utilities Committee discussed proposed modifications to the state’s new clean energy law amid warnings of electric rate increases and possible rolling brownouts throughout central and southern Illinois.

Electricity costs will soar beginning in June in central and southern Illinois, due to inadequate power supplies following coal-fired plant closures. Ameren Illinois is within the MISO grid covering much of downstate Illinois.

Critics of policies phasing out coal and natural gas in favor of renewable power are seeing their doomsday forecasts start to come true far faster than even they thought. The price shock downstate also hands Republicans who didn’t support Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s sprawling, costly Climate & Equitable Jobs Act, or CEJA, last year an issue in the upcoming election.

The statute requires the closure of all fossil fuel power plants in Illinois no later than 2045. Effectively, it’s made the usual method of addressing power-supply shortages—construction of new natural gas-fired plants—uneconomic and significantly reduced the tools available to address the shortage that’s emerged.

The Illinois Manufacturers’ Association says families in central and southern Illinois could soon be paying nearly $600 more in annual electricity costs since they say there will be less reliability for the MISO power grid. Many Republicans also argue wind and solar won’t be able to provide enough power downstate. […]

Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield) said most of the people who negotiated and voted on CEJA won’t be affected by the elimination of coal-fired power plants because they live in or near Chicago.

“We have gone down and chosen to go down the path because of legislation like this to become California,” Butler said. “And I can tell you, folks, you’re going into an election year and your constituents can’t turn on the lights and they can’t power their AC when it’s 90 degrees outside. You’re going to hear about it.”

Bally’s chosen for $1.74 billion casino complex in Chicago’s River West. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has picked Bally's Corporation's $1.74 billion plan for a casino at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center in River West as her choice for Chicago's first gambling complex.

"A city casino signals to the world that our economy is on a strong path towards recovery, ready to develop new and lucrative projects that will benefit all of our residents. It will also serve as a catalyst for additional large-scale economic developments that will only accelerate our city's post-pandemic recovery, which by the way is well underway," Lightfoot said at an announcement Thursday morning. "So many people, so many industry sectors, so many labor unions, and others will directly benefit from this historic investment."

The mayor's pick still requires approval by the City Council, and needs the Illinois Gaming Board to approve a casino license for Bally's. […]

Lightfoot is counting on the city's first casino to help shore up the city's underfunded police and firefighter pension systems, with approximately $200 million in annual tax revenue.

Another $200 million in annual tax revenue would go to the state.

The project also is expected to be a boon for the city's economy, by bringing in new tourism revenue, while creating an estimated 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs at the proposed casino resort, which would include the casino, hotel, and more. Bally's has promised 60% minority hiring.

Boeing headquarters leaving Chicago for Washington, D.C. Boeing announced Thursday that it plans to relocate its corporate headquarters from Chicago to the Washington, D.C. area.

The move will not lead to major Chicago job cuts or relocations, and the company will continue to employ more than 400 people in the city, Boeing spokesman Paul Lewis said. Still, the company will cut office space, needing less as telecommuting has led to more flexible work options.

Two decades ago, Illinois officials offered Boeing a $51 million package of tax breaks and incentives to lay down roots in Chicago. The state forked over $30 million, down from its original offer of $41 million that lawmakers ultimately deemed too hefty. An additional $21 million of deal sweeteners came from Chicago.

In exchange, Boeing was supposed to bring 500 top-level jobs to its new home—or at least that’s what public officials had advertised. Subsequent reporting by the Better Government Association shows Boeing has received more than $60 million in tax breaks despite falling short of the 500 job mark in at least four of the years since it moved.

Batinick Buyout Extension Becomes Law. On Thursday, legislation to extend the successful “Batinick Buyout” program for state pensions was signed into law by Governor Pritzker. House Bill 4292 passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support and Rep. Mark Batinick was a chief co-sponsor.

“I said back in 2018 when the Batinick Buyout first passed through the General Assembly that we had to make changes to our pension system if we were going to solve our long-term fiscal problems in Illinois,” said Rep. Batinick. “I am delighted to see this program extended after successful implementation that has saved the state over $1 billion on our unfunded pension liability. I look forward to seeing how much more we can save to finally overcome and move past our state’s longtime pension crisis.”

HB 4292 amends the General Obligation Bond Act and authorizes an additional $1 billion to State Pension Obligation Acceleration Bonds. These bonds make accelerated pension benefit payments and participants can receive these payments instead of pension benefits or for reductions in the increases to their annual retirement annuity and survivors’ annuity. This extension is now June 30th, 2026.

Democrats fail to pass legislation to divest Russian assets from Illinois’ pension funds. The Better Government Association reported this week that despite a public outcry following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, legislation designed to force divestment languished unpassed in the Spring session of the Illinois General Assembly. Lawmakers say they intend to take the issue up again in the Fall.

Despite strong rhetoric from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other top state officials demanding public pension funds divest more than $100 million in Russia-based assets, state lawmakers now say they won't act until the Fall veto session.

A key legislative proposal to force the pullout in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine died in a Senate committee awaiting a vote.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, declined to be interviewed for this report, but his staff suggested the Senate had too little time before the session closed on April 9. The House bill — which passed by a vote of 114-0 on April 5 — was never taken up in the Senate chamber.

Liz Mitchell, Harmon’s spokeswoman, said the plan is to review the measure and take it up when they return in the Fall veto session.

Critics say that’s too little, too late.

“When you have a supermajority in both chambers and a Democratic governor, it’s a massive failure,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, the House Minority Leader. “It’s the right thing to do at the right time, and they have failed to do anything. It’s embarrassing. We could have been a leader on this.”

Durkin’s GOP divestment bill never made it out of committee.

Peace Officer Memorial Service held in Springfield. In Springfield Thursday, lawmakers, first responders, and families honored the lives of police officers who made the ultimate sacrifice across our state. The Illinois police officers we lost since we last had the Peace Officer Memorial are:
  • Officer Joseph T. Cappello III, Melrose Park Police Department (End of Watch: April 24, 2020)
  • Officer Gary Steven Hibbs, Chicago Heights Police Department (EOW: March 12, 2021)
  • Senior Master Trooper Todd A. Hanneken, Illinois State Police (EOW: March 25, 2021)
  • Lieutenant James J. Kouski, Jr., Hometown Police Department (EOW: April 3, 2021)
  • Officer Allen Serta Giancchetti, Cook County Sheriff’s Police (EOW: April 30, 2021)
  • Officer Christopher Neil Oberheim, Champaign Police Department (EOW: May 19, 2021)
  • Officer Brian Russell Pierce, Jr., Brooklyn Police Department (EOW: August 4, 2021)
  • Officer Ella Grace French, Chicago Police Department (EOW: August 7, 2021)
  • Officer Tyler Nathaniel Timmins, Pontoon Beach Police Department (EOW: October 26, 2021)
  • Officer Nicholas Kozak, Forest Park Police Department (EOW: November 27, 2021)
  • Officer Jeffrey Dela Cruz, U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Customs and Border Protection – Office of Field Operations, US (EOW: December 23, 2021)
  • Deputy Sean Ian Riley, Wayne County Sheriff’s Office (EOW: December 29, 2021)
  • Sergeant Marlene R. Rittmanic, Bradley Police Department (EOW: December 30, 2021)
Thank you to our police officers for your service, sacrifice, and courage to protect our communities across Illinois.