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CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker puts criminal justice reforms atop 2020 agenda


Monday, January 13, 2020  |  Article  |  Capitol News Illinois

Pritzker, J.B.

In year two, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will focus on ending cash bail, reforming low-level drug crime sentencing and reducing mandatory minimum sentences, he announced in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 9.


Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, both Democrats, laid out their plan at a news conference at Kennedy-King College. Stratton said real justice reform in Illinois will require more than just policing prisons.


“Justice reform is about striving to make equity and economic opportunity a reality for every community and every Illinoisan, because we simply cannot have justice without equity and opportunity,” Stratton said.


Stratton spearheads the Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative, established by a Pritzker executive order last February to study the subject. She submitted a report to the governor this month outlining goals of the Initiative.


Those include addressing social determinants of crime and incarceration; improving equitable deflection and diversion opportunities from the justice system; improving conditions and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations in correctional facilities; and supporting positive re-entry outcomes to reduce recidivism.


The Thursday announcement comes as state’s attorneys throughout Illinois are initiating the process of expunging thousands of low-level stand-alone marijuana offenses in compliance with the state’s adult-use legalization law.


Pritzker said top priorities include eliminating cash bail and reducing mandatory minimum sentences, “giving judges more discretion to take into account circumstances in each case.”

“Those two things will have, I think, a significant impact on incarceration, on reducing incarceration in jails and in prison,” he said. “We have a prison population of 40,000 in this state, we can reduce that and we can do it prudently.”


Pritzker didn’t give specifics on the mandatory minimum reforms or which minimums would be changed, but said “we’re looking at all the mandatory minimums.”


Pritzker said “pieces” of the legislative effort will be introduced this session, which begins in late January and is scheduled to conclude in May.


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ILLINOIS ECONOMY: The Illinois economy grew at a slower pace than most neighboring states and the nation as a whole during the third quarter of 2019, according to new figures released Friday, Jan. 10.


The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which tracks state-by-state economic trends, said overall, the state’s economy grew at a modest annualized rate of 1.4 percent, well below the national rate of 2.1 percent.


Illinois ranked 41st in the nation for GDP growth during the quarter, according to the data. Texas showed the fastest-growing economy, at nearly 4 percent, while Delaware came in last with no measurable growth.


The bureau measures the gross domestic product, or GDP, for each state. That’s the total value of goods produced and services provided during a given period.


The biggest area of growth during the third quarter came from the professional, scientific, and technical services category, which accounted for nearly 9 percent of Illinois’ GDP during the quarter. That sector grew at an annualized rate of 5.8 percent, which translates to nearly $1 billion in economic activity compared to the previous quarter.


That sector was closely followed by nondurable goods manufacturing, which accounted for 6.3 percent of the Illinois economy during the quarter. That sector grew at a rate of 7.7 percent, or $961 million.


But the growth in those areas was offset by steep declines in the finance and insurance sector, which shrank by more than 6.5 percent. That sector makes up nearly 9 percent of the state’s economy, so the decline there translated to more than $1.1 billion in economic activity.


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CROP PRODUCTION: Production of Illinois’ two most valuable crops fell by roughly one-fifth last year, according to final crop yield numbers released Friday, Jan. 10, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Corn and soybean growers saw production drop 18.6 percent and 20.4 percent respectively compared to 2018.


Farmers harvested just more than 1.8 billion bushels of corn, down from more than 2.2 billion the year before. Soybean production decreased from around 667 million bushels to just more than 532 million.


2019 was the worst year for corn since 2012, when farmers produced about 1.3 billion bushels. Soybean production had its worst year since 2013, which saw 461 million bushels.


Yield per acre was down 14 percent for corn at 180 bushels and 15 percent for soybeans at 54 bushels. That’s the lowest for corn since 2015 and the lowest for soybeans since 2013.


Wetter-than-normal planting and growing conditions are to blame for last year’s stunted production, said Mike Doherty, senior economist at the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington.


“We had the latest-planted corn crop at least in my history of 30 years as an ag economist here” because of record-breaking spring rain, Doherty said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”


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INVESTIGATION CALLS: Lawmakers from both parties are calling for an investigation of a 2012 email exchange between a government insider and then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s staff regarding a possible cover-up of rape and other criminal activity.


The bombshell report was published Tuesday, Jan. 7, by Chicago National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ-FM detailing emails from former Commonwealth Edison lobbyist Michael McClain and Quinn’s staff. WBEZ reported that McClain — a close confidant of Illinois Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan — “sought leniency” for a state worker facing disciplinary action, calling the employee “a good compliance person.”

“He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the administration,” McClain said of the employee, according to an email obtained by WBEZ via an open records request.


No further information about the alleged cover-ups was revealed in the email exchange, and the disciplinary hearing that prompted McClain to email the administration was apparently postponed. McClain responded to the news at the time with an email noting “nothing happens accidentally.”


Lawmakers and advocates responded to the report swiftly Wednesday, Jan. 8.The Illinois Senate Women’s Caucus, among others, called for a criminal investigation.


“That email is horrifying. If anyone has any information about this crime, please contact authorities,” said Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat and co-chair of the caucus. “Sexual assault will not be tolerated. We need to get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable.”


Sen. Sue Rezin, a Morris Republican who also co-chairs the caucus, agreed.


“I am stunned and disturbed that keeping quiet about a rape was so casually offered up as proof of loyalty. This needs to be investigated thoroughly, and anyone who helped cover it up needs to face the consequences,” she said.


House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, called the report “one of the most disturbing and shocking set of facts” he’s ever seen and called for accountability.


House Speaker Michael Madigan said Thursday, Jan. 9, he will not initiate a House-led inquiry.


Durkin sent Madigan a letter Thursday requesting a House committee be given full subpoena authority to launch an investigation.Madigan denied the request in a response letter.


In response, Durkin said the House Republican caucus will “continue to fight to investigate this disturbing revelation and will do everything we can to restore pride in state government.”


Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference Thursday the matter was forwarded to the Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General for investigation.


“I think all of us want to know, what are they referring to, because I don’t think it’s clear yet what circumstances are being referred to in this email,” he said. “… In order to get the answers, we’ve gotta do an investigation, we’ve gotta figure out what the real facts are … and then we’ve gotta hold those accountable who are responsible for perpetrating either the crime, the cover-up or the threats that are associated in that email.”


Late Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, of Bloomington, sent a letter to Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly requesting he initiate a criminal investigation.


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FDA RULE: Some Illinois lawmakers say a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy responding to a growing trend of youth e-cigarette use does not go far enough.


The federal public health watchdog announced in a memo last week it would crack down on the “manufacture, distribution, and sale” of fruit- and mint-flavored electronic smoking cartridges for cigars, hookahs and cigarettes, among others. The guidance excludes menthol and tobacco flavors.


But that addresses only part of the problem, say health advocates and legislators who sponsor related bills.


Even though the U.S. Congress banned all flavored cigarettes — except for menthol — over a decade ago, menthol is still popular among youth. A 2016 study found more than half of those smokers use menthol-flavored cigarettes, compared to roughly one-third of adult smokers.


Vicki Vasconcellos, president of The Smoke Free Alternatives Coalition of Illinois, does not dispute that youth are “abusing” flavored products. She argues, though, lawmakers’ priority should be enforcement of the Tobacco 21 statute which prohibits the sale of products containing nicotine to those under the age of 21.


Deerfield Democratic Sen. Julie Morrison said she is “glad they went as far as they did,” but a loophole remains in curbing youth’s access to flavored products.


“The FDA was ruling only on the pods, and one of the other sources obviously is the large containers that are sold so you can fill your own,” she said. “I think that should be subject to the same restrictions.”

Her legislation, proposed in late October, would prohibit all flavors of those goods — bottled liquid users need to fill cartridges themselves — and other nicotine devices.


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SEXTING IN SEX ED: Sex education in Illinois middle and high schools would be required to include a discussion on sexting if a bill introduced in the state House of Representatives becomes law.


House Bill 4007, introduced by Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, would require sex education curriculum in grades 6-12 to include material on the legal and social risks of sharing sexually explicit images, messages and videos.


“This is something that a lot of our students are dealing with and are partaking in without really understanding what the consequences could be,” West said.


Issues surrounding sexting that would be required in curriculum include long-term consequences, bullying and harassment, resisting peer pressure and using the Internet safely. Lessons would also have to highlight school and community officials who students can reach out to with a problem.


“There’s no telling what our children are doing on their phones,” West said, “so instead of trying to intrude into their privacy, let's just make sure they're educated on even the things that make us adults uncomfortable.”


The bill defines sexting as “sending, sharing, receiving, or forwarding a sexually explicit or sexually suggestive image, video, or text message by a digital or electronic device, including, but not limited to, a mobile or cellular telephone or a computer.”


Illinois would become only the second state to require teaching about sexting in sex education, according to Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which advocates for modern and comprehensive sex education.


New Jersey’s law, signed in 2018, requires schools to teach the “social, emotional, and legal consequences” of sexting.


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TRANSGENDER THERAPY: The Illinois Medicaid program now covers medical procedures for people transitioning from one gender to another.


The Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the state’s primary Medicaid agency, published new administrative rules that spell out the types of “gender-affirming” services covered and the conditions under which the program will reimburse providers for those services. The rules became effective Dec. 23.


The department announced in April that it would develop such a policy. Previously, Illinois specifically excluded what had been referred to as “transsexual surgery” from Medicaid coverage.


The procedures are available to people diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a recognized condition in which people experience distress or discomfort because the gender they were assigned at birth does not match the gender with which they identify. Researchers say it occurs in only a small percentage of all individuals.


Under Illinois’ new policy, coverage is available to people over age 21, although it can be provided to some people younger than 21 if it’s determined to be medically necessary.


Procedures covered include genital surgery as well as breast or chest surgery. To qualify for genital surgery, a patient must submit letters from two qualified medical practitioners, including the patient’s primary care provider, who have each examined the patient independently. Non-genital surgery requires only one letter from the primary care provider or a gender-related care physician.


To qualify for genital surgery, patients first must undergo hormone therapy, unless they are medically unable to do so. They also must have lived for at least the past 12 months in the gender role to which they are transitioning.


According to the advocacy group Movement Advancement Project, 20 states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia now cover gender affirmation procedures in their Medicaid programs. Nine states explicitly exclude that coverage. The others have no specific policy.


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ISOLATION ROOMS: Legislators and advocates began discussions Tuesday, Jan. 7, of what action the state can take to counteract the overuse of physical restraint and forced isolation of students in Illinois schools, particularly those serving students with special needs.

At a joint Illinois Senate and House committee hearing in Chicago, several of those who spoke credited revelations unearthed by a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica investigation published in November for the increased interest in the topic.


That investigation showed there were more than 20,000 documented incidents of isolation used in the state from the start of the 2017-2018 school year through December 2018.


In Illinois, it is legal to isolate students if they pose a safety threat to themselves or others, the report found, but the practice is used far more than in such situations.


“Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork, for swearing, for spilling milk, for throwing Legos. School employees use isolated timeout for convenience, out of frustration or as punishment, sometimes referring to it as ‘serving time,’” according to the report.


The report also found that while schools must document isolation instances, that documentation often goes unread, and the Illinois State Board of Education had not collected any data on the practice at the time the article was published.


The investigation prompted ISBE to initiate emergency rules banning the use of isolated seclusion in “any educational entity serving public school students in Illinois” in November. A news release at the time said ISBE would begin collecting data to “increase accountability and transparency for all instances of timeout and physical restraint.” The board proposed permanent rules in December.


At the committee hearing Tuesday, Amanda Elliott, co-director of legislative affairs at ISBE, said the emergency rules allowed ISBE to collect data on the use of seclusion and restraint in prior years. She said ISBE is reviewing the data for violations which would prompt investigations and potential disciplinary action. She said nine investigations are pending as a result.


She said sanctions resulting from violations could result in licensure suspension, professional development requirements or even criminal charges for individuals. For schools, recognition status could be affected, which would impact funding, she said.


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PROPERTY TAXES: A task force formed to study ways to reduce property tax burden on Illinois residents is calling for consolidation of school districts and other local units of government and a boost in the state’s share of funding for K-12 education.


Those and other recommendations are part of a draft report circulated among the 88-member Property Tax Relief Task Force that state lawmakers formed during the 2019 session. A final report is expected to be released before the 2020 legislative session begins Jan. 28.


The bill creating the task force was part of a package of legislation also including a proposed constitutional amendment to allow for a graduated income tax. And while the draft report does not mention the proposed amendment, which will appear on the November general election ballot, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said that he wants at least some of the new income tax revenue to be used for property tax relief if voters approve the amendment.


Rising property taxes have been a political flash point in Illinois for many years. The current system dates back to a 1901 Illinois Supreme Court decision that overturned the tax levying method that was used until that time, according to the draft report.


The report notes, however, that property ownership today is no longer the indicator of wealth and ability to pay that it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also states the current system is full of special exemptions for select groups of property owners — including Tax Increment Financing districts, or TIFs, that have the effect of shifting the tax burden on to other property owners.


The document also notes that local governments in Illinois — school districts in particular — rely more heavily on property tax revenue than in other states. Local property taxes account for two-thirds of all funding for public schools in Illinois, while state funding accounts for only about 26 percent.


The report argues the property tax system should be reformed on several levels, including how property values are determined, consolidating townships and other local units of government, and reducing or eliminating some property tax exemptions.


But addressing the issue of education funding would likely have the biggest impact because school taxes make up the bulk of most people’s property tax bills.

HOUSE GOP OBJECTIONS: Illinois House Republicans on Wednesday, Jan. 8, blasted a draft final report from the special Property Tax Relief Task Force that lawmakers formed last year. They said the panel’s Democratic majority summarily rejected dozens of proposals from Republicans.


“Following the release of their draft within the last week, we once again see [House Democrats] refuse to be serious … at a time when our citizens are so desperate and wanting for change in state government,” House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, said during a news conference in Chicago.


The draft report has been circulating among the 88 members of the task force — or about half of the General Assembly — as the group prepares to issue a final report to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the legislature ahead of the start of the 2020 legislative session Jan. 28.


It calls for, among other things, having the state take over a greater share of funding responsibility for public schools, consolidating potentially hundreds of elementary school and high school districts into full K-12 “unit” districts, and extending the state sales tax to various services that aren’t currently taxed to raise state revenue that could be used to lower local property taxes.


Among the Republican proposals not discussed in the draft report, according to Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, of Elmhurst, was cutting pension benefits for new employees of local governments and school districts and capping pensions for school administrators.


“We propose capping administrator pensions so that they can’t exceed the average household income in the state of Illinois, because administrative pensions are going absolutely crazy and driving costs up,” she said. “None of these were up for debate or up for consideration.”


Property tax reform is expected to be a significant topic in the upcoming legislative session and Gov. Pritzker has made it a high priority for his administration.