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Gubernatorial candidate says he wouldn’t threaten companies over COVID-19 rules
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Steven Devine
Candidates--Statewide (12)

Republican Gubernatorial Darren Bailey says if he was governor he would expect the Illinois Department of Public Health to make recommendations surrounding the pandemic.


But Bailey says unlike Governor Pritzker, he wouldn’t threaten businesses to do something about.


He says he would never force schools, businesses, and churches to shut down but he would be on the front lines telling people what is available.


Bailey sued Pritzker over the mask mandate when it was put in place.


He also says that he is okay with local government bodies making their own rules on masks and vaccinations.


Bailey did not tell if he himself was vaccinated.


During the campaign stop north of Ottawa yesterday, Bailey says that Illinois is broken and he wants to fix it.


On the issue of the Second Amendment Bailey says purpose of the right to bear arms is to protect ourselves.


He also says we should let the police just do their jobs.


Bailey says guns are not the problem, but can be part of the solution.


Bailey says it’s an important, God given right.

Senate committee considers bill seeking to streamline construction process for some IDOT projects
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Joel Ebert
Transportation (91)

A Senate committee on Thursday heard from witnesses who encouraged lawmakers to support a bill that would change the way certain state-led transportation and infrastructure projects are done in Illinois.


A Senate committee on Thursday heard from witnesses who encouraged lawmakers to support a bill they said would speed up some state-led transportation and infrastructure projects.


Under SB 2905, which was introduced in late May and sponsored by Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), the Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois Tollway Authority would be given the authority to use what’s called a design-build process for highway construction projects.


Today, construction projects overseen by the two state agencies operate with what is called a design- bid-build process. With that system, state transportation officials initiate a procurement process between designing and building a project to award work to a company.


But under a design-build process, a contractor would be able to design a project and present it with their bid, which witnesses on Thursday called a more streamlined system that could save the state money and ultimately get people to work sooner.   


Villivalam noted Thursday his proposal comes more than two years after lawmakers approved the Rebuild Illinois capital plan that has already helped fund hundreds of infrastructure projects throughout Illinois. “The historic $45 billion plan is delivering results in every community across the state,” he said. 


Since the passage of Rebuild Illinois, Villivalam, who is chair of the transportation committee, introduced a measure (HB 253) that seeks to add transparency to the state’s selection of which transportation and infrastructure to fund by requiring the Department of Transportation to use performance metrics in evaluating projects. Lawmakers unanimously approved HB 253 during the spring session. It is one of the hundreds of bills awaiting final action by Gov. JB Pritzker. 


But unlike the infrastructure transparency measure, HB 2905 would make a substantial change to how the Illinois Department of Transportation and Tollway Authority operate. And in the past, agency officials and others have been hesitant to embrace such changes. 


Roger Driskell, a former longtime Illinois Department of Transportation employee who is currently working for engineering consulting firm Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, said 10 years ago, when design-build was new, Illinois state agencies and contractors were hesitant to adopt it. 


“Everyone was comfortable with design-bid-build, the traditional way to deliver projects,” he said. “As other states did that, Illinois I think paused because it was new...to see if it was going to be a success.” 


Kevin Artl, president of American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, noted Illinois was one of four states that don’t allow their departments of transportation to use alternative delivery methods like the design-build system. 


“Some would say we’re behind,” he said. “I’d prefer to recognize Illinois as patient and diligent.” 


Artl said Illinois is well positioned to evaluate how design-build has been used in other states and consider how to overcome the challenges other states faced. 


Driskell said Villivalam’s bill has attempted to address some of the “problems” discovered in other states that adopted design-build, including their difficulties meeting women- and minority-owned business goals. 


Other witnesses, including Jacob Perez of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Chetan Kale of the U.S. Minority Contractors Association, praised the bill for its provisions related to goals for women- and minority-owned businesses. 


Throughout the hearing, the Department of Transportation’s previous resistance to design-build appeared to be on the forefront of members’ minds. Villivalam asked Holly Bieneman, director of planning and programming for the department, whether the agency and the Pritzker administration supported his bill.

“I think we’re generally supportive of having it in the toolbox given the right circumstances,” she said. 


Later, Sen. Don DeWitte (R-St. Charles) wondered whether the Department of Transportation’s “current culture” was “ready for a change.”


Artl said there would be a “culture change” for the state agencies, labor organizations and others. “It will take a change but as [Bieneman] mentioned, this is a tool that they want,” he said. 


Most witnesses who testified Thursday told members of the Senate Transportation Committee they supported the adoption of SB 2905.


“The Illinois AFL-CIO supports the use of alternative project delivery methods, especially the use of design-build, because the state has a pressing need to get workers back to work and repair its crumbling infrastructure,” said Magda Derisma, the legislative director and staff attorney for the Illinois chapter of the AFL-CIO. 


Derisma said the use of the design-build method would integrate the role of designers and builders into one entity, which would allow projects to move faster and save money. She said the process would save contractors and the state money by avoiding “costly mid-project construction changes.” 


Marc Poulos, executive director of the Indiana Illinois Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting, said the current design-bid-build system “takes time.”


“What we’re talking about today is a more integrated delivery method,” he said, noting under a design-build system, the liability for a project can fall on the design and construction team rather than the public body overseeing the project. 


Poulos said while the private sector has been utilizing the design-build system for years, he was “glad” to see the idea was “in play” in Villivalam’s bill, which he noted maintained the current “standards of excellence” that companies operate with, including maintain the prevailing wage and other labor standards common in Illinois. 


Although both Democrats and Republicans expressed support for the measure on Thursday, the Illinois Department of Transportation’s adoption of alternative delivery methods has been unsuccessful in the past. Villivalam noted discussions like the one on Thursday have been “happening over the last decade” with different legislative measures introduced during that time. 


“From my point of view, I wanted to introduce this legislation, start a conversation and look to see if we can find an agreement to move forward,” he said. 


Tricia Walsh of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association praised Villivalam’s bill for providing the Department of Transportation a “tool” for a “portion” of their projects.


Driskell noted the “vast majority” of the two state agencies’ projects would continue to use the design-bid-build system.


Poulos said the passage of Rebuild Illinois, the March approval of the American Rescue Plan Act and the potential for a federal infrastructure bill present a rare opportunity for the state. 


“This is infrastructure construction like we have never seen,” he said. 


“Allowing for additional types of delivery methods that can both…get shovels in the ground quicker, people on the jobs sites quicker and get these projects moving quicker, the more chances we have of taking advantage of all the federal funds that become available to us,” Poulos said. 


Driskell said the adoption of design-build in other states has allowed them to “take advantage” of previous federal funding that’s been available to fund “shovel-ready projects.” 


“With design-build you could have accelerated those projects,” he said. 


As the hearing concluded, Villivalam said he was looking forward to continuing the conversation in the “weeks to come” with the goal of coming to an agreement.

State expanding apprenticeship program with competitive funding opportunity
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   By Editor
DCEO (formerly DCCA) (31)

The state this month announced an $8 million expansion of the Apprenticeship Illinois program.


The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will expand innovative and high-quality apprenticeship programs to prepare Illinoisans for jobs in high-demand industries.


The state aims to serve an additional 750 apprentices across key industries, with plans to reach underserved populations as well as industries heavily impacted by COVID-19.


The state says it will leverage $2 million in United States Department of Labor funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and $6 million of additional funding under the USDOL State Apprenticeship Expansion, Equity and Innovation grant program, to develop innovative new pathways in communities throughout the state. The training programs are to be aligned with current labor market/force needs, the state said.


The state will also seek to boost capacity of existing apprenticeship pathways in all sectors which are offered in partnership with hundreds of employer-led navigator partners across the state.


The investments are intended to help “more Illinoisans get back to work in well-paying jobs, while developing strong talent pipelines for the future,” said Gov. JB Pritzker.


DCEO will expand apprenticeship opportunities geared toward restoring the creative arts and entertainment sector, while increasing training opportunities for underserved populations.


Apprenticeship expansion dollars will also grow the capacity of pathways currently offered and which have been impacted during the crisis – including those ranging from health care to hospitality, tech to transportation, manufacturing and more.


Expanding the Apprenticeship Illinois program will provide workers access to comprehensive training and credentials “for jobs Illinois employers are looking to fill today,” said DCEO Acting Director Sylvia Garcia.


The state will supplement funds for workers in the creative, hospitality and service sectors to participate in training programs that build capacity for underrepresented populations for jobs in these industries. The program was informed by a workforce study conducted by the Arts Alliance of Illinois, which found over 60 percent of workers from arts related businesses and organizations in Illinois have either been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.


“The arts and entertainment industry was among the first to be shuttered due to COVID-19, forcing devastating consequences for workers in every corner of Illinois,” said Claire Rice, executive director of the Arts Alliance.  “New investments by the state to develop first-ever apprenticeship training pathways come at a crucial time and will help as we work to achieve greater diversity in our industry.“


To increase equity in the workforce, DCEO and its partners will also leverage program expansion dollars to increase apprenticeship participation by underrepresented populations – including low-income individuals, older workers, women, returning citizens, persons with disabilities, veterans, youth and more.


To reach more residents across the state, particularly in underserved communities, DCEO will utilize the DCEO navigator and intermediary partnership models first piloted last year, and as a result of the Pritzker administration’s efforts to invest an additional $4.7 million to grow the program. These apprenticeship partners will work to recruit from areas of the state which are underrepresented – including rural areas – and to prioritize diversity and inclusion within the Apprenticeship Illinois community.


Belleville company affected


“The apprenticeship program provides a standard of excellence in the development of valuable, marketable skills for our teammates, while providing access to opportunity for people within our community who may not have had that access through any other means,” said Jeff Horvath, vice president of TerraSource of Belleville. “That is a win for our company and a win for the individual – these apprenticeships let us “grow our own” talent, adding good jobs to the St. Clair County and Metro-East St. Louis economy by filling roles that are critical to the growth of our business.”

The Apprenticeship Expansion Program design is centered on supporting businesses and individuals. Expanding apprenticeships helps businesses with their current and future workforce needs as well as individuals with a career pathway, which includes work-based learning. DCEO will accept proposals that expand registered apprenticeships in Illinois. A fundamental goal of this NOFO is to increase apprenticeship opportunities for minorities and targeted populations that are underrepresented in registered apprenticeship occupations in Illinois.


“We have more than a thousand employers in our community that provide our students with workplace learning opportunities with the goal of helping to develop their talent pipeline,” said Dr. Lazaro Lopez Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning for High School District 214, in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  “Many of these employers are engaging with our district to offer youth apprenticeships as a workforce development tool. Students are ready for their future by gaining valuable work experience, earning competitive wages and industry credentials without taking on student debt, with a pathway to economic mobility right in our backyard.”


Funding will be provided for 10 -12 navigators and 16-20 intermediary grantees, who will develop industry aligned curriculum to train participants; and navigators who will work with employers to match residents to skills training opportunities.  Applicants will be prioritized based on the quality of their proposal, demonstrated plans to serve targeted populations outlined in the Illinois WIOA Unified Plan, as well as projects to serve industries recovering from the pandemic.


In addition to expanding apprenticeship networks throughout the state, the Pritzker administration is focused on building apprenticeship capacity in a number of ways. This includes the launch of the apprenticeship tax credit program to incentivize apprenticeships at small and large sized businesses, creation of new apprenticeship networks in all ten economic development regions, and the work to stand up the Illinois Works program within DCEO, which will soon launch additional grants to expand pre-apprenticeship training programs in the trades.


The NOFO application is located on Apprenticeship Illinois website, with a deadline of Sept. 15, at 5 p.m. Residents and employers seeking to join the Apprenticeship Illinois program may also visit the website ApprenticeshipIllinois.com to learn more and to find their local apprenticeship navigator.

Sterling, Dixon main streets receive grants to help businesses with economic recovery
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Rachel Rodgers
Business (10)

The Dixon and Sterling main street organizations will be receiving $30,000 to help businesses with economic recovery. (Alex Paschal)

Sterling Main Street and the Dixon Chamber of Commerce and Main Street will both receive $30,000 grants to go toward helping underserved businesses.


Earlier this month, Gov. JB Pritzker announced $9 million to go toward 13 organizations including Illinois Main Street, which awarded 21 grants to main street organizations throughout the state to be part of the Illinois Small Business Community Navigator Program.


“We are thrilled to provide Illinois Main Street communities and their small businesses with this much-needed support,” Joi Cuartero Austin, director of the Illinois Main Street Program, said in a news release. “After a difficult year for Illinois’ small business owners, these services will be crucial in strengthening our downtowns and commercial districts in the next phase of recovery. The 21 local programs work with their business community daily and are well positioned to continue supportive efforts.”


The program tasks organization “spokes” to assist underserved businesses with access to grants, financial planning, marketing outreach, and technical assistance.


Those who qualify as underserved include minority, rural, veteran and women-owned businesses.


Community Navigator assistance may include applying for Economic Injury Disaster Loans, Shuttered Venues Operators’ Grants, Restaurant Revitalization Grants, traditional Small Business Administration loans, and future opportunities that may come from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.


“This Community Navigator Program will help state, local and federal agencies connect with small businesses that have historically been left behind,” SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman said. “The smallest of the small—in rural and urban America—and small

businesses owned by women and people of color have suffered the greatest economic loss from the pandemic. At the SBA, we’re focused on reaching these underserved businesses to ensure they have the support they need to recover and build back better.”

Chicago gets elected school board — Pritzker signs bill opposed by Lightfoot, looks ‘forward to ongoing conversations’ with her
Chicago Sun Times
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Rachel Hinton
Chicago--Schools (18)
The legislation, which the governor signed into law without the fanfare that has accompanied other bill signings, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees — including the board president — and 10 elected members.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday signed legislation ushering in an elected school board in Chicago over the strong objections of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

That legislation, which the governor signed into law without the fanfare that has accompanied other bill signings, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees — including the board president — and 10 elected members.

The mayor currently appoints a seven-member board, including the president, without an approval process. She has been a vocal opponent of the new legislation, characterizing it as creating an “unwieldy” school board.

In a statement, Pritzker said the plan laid out in the bill he signed will “help students and their families have a strong voice in important decisions about the education system in Chicago.

“I applaud the members of the General Assembly for working together on behalf of their constituents to pass legislation that required compromise and thoughtful deliberation,” Pritzker said. “I look forward to ongoing conversations with the General Assembly and mayor, in particular about the district’s finances, board members’ compensation and campaign rules.”

Since the General Assembly’s spring session adjourned, Pritzker has held a series of bill-signing ceremonies to spotlight legislative victories ahead of his reelection campaign. The events typically feature speeches from legislators and advocates, souvenir signing pens and holding up copies of the newly minted laws for the cameras. Pritzker held four this week alone — two in one day.

But a high level source close to Pritzker said the governor opted to avoid such an event for the school board bill because he didn’t want to “poke [Lightfoot] in the eye” on what was for her a major defeat.

Like Pritzker, the lawmakers took their victory laps through written statements.

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, who championed the bill in the House, said, “I know what a significant win this bill is for the community I serve.”

“To see it come to fruition is a testament to Chicagoans’ ability to take back their power when it comes to our kids’ futures,” Ramirez said. “An elected school board is what democracy looks like.”

Lightfoot also put her thoughts in writing.

In a letter to Pritzker sent Thursday, Lightfoot said she’s “long argued that we need a paradigmatic change in the governance of our school system,” but the bill sent to Pritzker wasn’t the best way to bring reform to the city’s schools.

“I remain extremely concerned about various proposal components, many of which revolve around CPS finances, and the district’s future ability to function without appropriate safeguards, recognizing the district has remained solvent due to annual City of Chicago subsidies,” Lightfoot wrote in the letter.

“If Springfield draws these districts based on population, the true diversity of CPS could be under-represented on the Board ... While the current language of HB 2908 fails to address these concerns, I am hopeful that by working together with the bill’s sponsors and other stakeholders, we can agree to trailer bill language that does so.”

State Sen. Robert Martwick said he wasn’t “terribly surprised” by Lightfoot’s response.

The Northwest Side Democrat said he was grateful Pritzker signed the legislation but wished there had been a ceremony to celebrate the work of the organizers who made it possible.

“I remain grateful to the governor for his commitment to this,” Martwick said. “I’m so glad that he lived up to his promise to sign this bill. He was steadfast from his very first campaign in the Democratic primary that he would support this ... I wish he would have given the people who have spent so much time and effort and energy on this a worthy celebration, but we’ll figure that out.”

In its statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the new law ends a “decades-long fight by parents, rank-and-file educators and community activists to provide our school district the same democratic rights afforded to every other district in the state of Illinois.”

“Students, families and educators will now have the voice they have long been denied for a quarter of a century by failed mayoral control of our schools,” the statement continued. “Chicago will finally have an elected board accountable to the people our schools serve, as it should be.”

“We are also thinking tonight about our beloved President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT. This victory is hers as much as it is a victory for our city. Here’s to you, Karen.”

The newly signed law mandates that the first elected members would run in the November 2024 general election for a four-year term. Though the mayor would continue picking the board president, the City Council would need to confirm that pick.

After two years, the seats of the board president and the 10 appointees would become elected ones in January 2027 through a November 2026 election. Those members would also serve four-year terms.

The city would initially be divided into 10 districts for the 2024 school board elections, then expand to 20 districts for the 2026 ballot. That map would need to be drawn by February 2022.

All elected board members would run in a particular district other than the board president, who would run at large. The vice president would be a member elected by the rest of the board.

The bill also sets a moratorium on school closings, consolidations or phase-outs until the new board members take office in early 2025, and it would move appointment of the CPS inspector general from the mayor’s purview onto the elected board’s plate.

The legislation goes into effect next June.

Earth gets a boost from suburban Chicago mayors
Chicago Sun Times
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Editorial  |   EDITORIAL BOARD
Global Warming
Acting together, mayors can help offset inaction in Congress and the Legislature.

As legislation to protect the Earth from climate change stalls in Congress and the Illinois Legislature, large cities have stepped up with their own pro-environment policies, but that gets us only so far.

Now, Chicago’s suburbs are getting into the act along with Chicago, and environmentalists say their strategies are solid.

The suburbs laid out their plans in a report earlier this month, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus’ 124-page “Climate Action Plan for the Chicago Region.” The mayors caucus, which includes leaders from the region’s 275 cities, towns and villages issued the report to lay out guidelines for every community to follow.

The idea behind the Climate Action Plan, which received input from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other climate change experts, is that smaller communities can do a lot to mitigate the effects of climate change if they work together. The plan lays out goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 80% within 30 years, boosting clean energy, getting people to drive less, making buildings more energy efficient, sequestering carbon in ecosystems and doing a better job of managing water and waste.

If all the communities act together to meet these goals, it can make a big difference.

“I think it’s huge,” Highland Park Councilwoman Kim Stone, who also is co-chair of the Transit Electrification Task Force of the Climate Reality Project Chicago Metro Chapter, told us. “Each municipality can take actions that collectively have a much bigger impact than we have on our own.”

It’s encouraging that local leaders are rolling up their sleeves on climate change without waiting for stalled reforms in the Legislature and Congress. Environmentally-minded lawmakers in Springfield have been trying to pass a major climate bill for years, but have been unable to do so. Congress can’t seem to agree on enacting anything comprehensive.

They are running out of time. Somebody has to act. Just look around.

The American West is the driest it’s been in four centuries. Heat domes this summer have spread misery around the country. People have died, and another triple-digit heat dome is expected next week, nicknamed “The Ridge of Death.” The magnitude of Europe’s floods earlier this month stunned scientists. A storm last week poured a year’s worth of rain on Zhengzhou, China. As of Saturday, 86 wildfires had scorched 1.5 million acres across the country.

Lake Michigan’s rapid rise in six years from a record low to a record high last year raises questions about whether Chicago can cope with steep swings in water levels. No place is safe.

‘Untold suffering’

On Wednesday, almost 14,000 scientists released a climate emergency paper warning the human race faces “untold suffering” if people don’t get serious about global warming immediately. Emissions of greenhouse gases are at an all-time high, and glacial ice thickness is the lowest on record.

Environmentalists say the action plan’s call for local collaboration is a big deal because so many policy decisions happen at the municipal level, including building regulations and land-use policies. That makes municipal leaders collectively significant figures addressing climate change. Collaboration is especially important in the Chicago area, which is fragmented into many municipal governments.

That said, some environmentalists say they wish Chicago would assume a stronger leadership role in the effort. They say that after Rahm Emanuel took the helm, Chicago stopped being as active in the mayors caucus as it was in the days of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, which may be why Highland Park, Evanston and Geneva, for example, have been doing a better job of building up infrastructure for electric vehicles. Chicago also has disbanded its Department of the Environment.

The suburban mayors don’t have the financial resources to bankroll big projects, such as vast solar installations or meaningful subsidies for electric vehicles. Funding for those has to come from the Legislature and Congress. But there is much they can do acting as a unit.

The Climate Action Plan, which took about two years to draw up and will take years to implement, is important at a time when fires, flooding and extreme heat are showing the effects of climate change are already here, not something that will happen far in the future. Municipalities that were built up in a different era are not ready.

The mayors caucus have laid the groundwork for a greener metropolis. It’s an important step, but they need to follow through.

State’s new ‘thought leader’ on equity focused on ‘long game:’ Moving Illinois from diversity to equity
Chicago Sun Times
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Rachel Hinton
Pritzker, J.B.
Nearly three and a half months after joining Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, Sekile Nzinga will get to put her theory into practice as head of a new office of equity that the governor plans to create Friday through an executive order.

Diversity is not the end point, but the starting line.

That’s what Sekile Nzinga believes.

Nearly three and a half months after joining Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, Nzinga will get to put that theory into practice as head of a new office of equity that the governor plans to create Friday through an executive order.

“I think diversity is our basement, it’s our sub-basement,” Nzinga told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Yes, every place in our world is diverse, and so why wouldn’t our agencies be diverse? So that’s the basement — that’s the minimum standard.”

The finish line is equity.

Named the chief diversity officer in April, Nzinga said she changed her title to chief equity officer because her goal is “to get to equity, to move us off the sub-basement, but recognizing that the sub-basement is where we start.”

Calls for more equity and inclusion intensified after the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

Nzinga told the Sun-Times that Pritzker’s administration, as well as others around the country, have “really been responsive to the need to elevate equity as a very key and critical part of their commitment.”

“I think the combination of these [issues] has elevated the critical need to have an arm within the governor’s office dedicated to ensuring that the people of Illinois are cared for in an equitable and fair and just way,” Nzinga said, expressing excitement to “be part of developing that office.”

Nzinga’s new office will be tasked with taking the lead on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, legislation and policy, as well as identifying barriers to equity, for the state and coordinating trainings.

All state employees will be required to participate in annual trainings focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Diversity” is often defined as referring to all the many ways people differ – including, but not limited to, race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. “Equity” is centered around fairness for all those different groups, whether in access, opportunities, advancement or other areas. “Inclusion” involves the welcoming of those differences.

One expert uses a dance as a metaphor to explain the differences.

“Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party,” according to Robert Sellers, the University of Michigan’s chief diversity officer. “Equity means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. Inclusion means that everyone has the opportunity to dance.”

Nzinga’s role, among other things, entails supporting “equity-oriented efforts throughout the State to ensure services and resources are available and accessible to all in Illinois” and creating “a sustainable infrastructure and equity-oriented systems, policies, and procedures that operationalize diversity, equity, inclusion within state agencies,” according to language from the executive order provided to the Sun-Times.

The state’s equity officer has also set some goals for herself and her colleagues, with the chief one being to establish a structure for diversity, equity and inclusion that’s “sustainable and, in many ways, goes beyond me because I’m establishing the office.”

Nzinga also wants to grow the number of leaders within state agencies, the governor’s office and on her team who are already focused on equity and inclusion initiatives and recognize those who’ve already been hired to do that work.

“My intention is to coordinate, to convene, to offer guidance, to offer support and think about systems for accountability, and to integrate much of the work that we’re doing so that we can have best practices and shared ways of doing the work across the agencies and also support each other in the work,” Nzinga said.

She also envisions herself as the state’s “thought leader” on equity and inclusion within the governor’s office, partnering with other teams that advise Pritzker to make sure they’re “centering equity in everything that we are doing” and engage with communities and advocacy groups through roundtable discussions.

Nzinga’s previous roles will likely provide her a strong foundation for leading the office. She has previously served as the interim chief diversity officer at Northwestern University as well as the school’s associate provost for diversity and inclusion, and the director of the women’s center at the school.

Equity work is a “long game” and Nzinga said she’s had a “long-standing” commitment to it, both through her work in the classroom and roles she’s taken outside of it. She doesn’t focus on the terminology, but on the work, her record and moving the state forward.

“I believe in strengthening and supporting public systems and public policy and public institutions,” Nzinga said. “The name ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ can fall away as far as I’m concerned — my commitment is to that, and so because that is my commitment before I came to this office, and it will be my commitment after I leave this office, that is where I focus my work on.

“What does it mean to strengthen systems, policies, procedures so that I better serve — and I help agencies and my colleagues better serve — the people of Illinois?”

As Lollapalooza begins, Cook County added to indoor masking advisory for ‘substantial’ COVID-19 spread; Illinois mandates masks in all state buildings
Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   By Gregory Pratt, Dan Petrella, John Byrne and Tracy Swartz

Hours after Lollapalooza got underway Thursday, Cook County was added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of areas experiencing “substantial” COVID-19 transmission.

Citing that development, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker later Thursday announced a new mask requirement for everyone in state-run facilities, including those who are vaccinated, starting immediately.

Cook now joins DuPage, McHenry and Will counties in the Chicago area, and 80 others statewide, in meeting the threshold where masks are recommended for everyone indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The CDC announced the new guidelines Tuesday for counties experiencing “substantial” or “high” transmission, and state health officials quickly adopted the revised recommendations, which come as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the country. Federal officials have said recent data suggests fully vaccinated people can spread the more contagious strain.

The state has not reinstituted any mask requirements after lifting nearly all remaining coronavirus-related restrictions last month.

That news came after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she expects the city to start recording 200 new daily COVID-19 cases but noted that other key metrics give reason for “optimism, in quotes.”

Lightfoot earlier this week told the New York Times she would consider a mask mandate and other restrictions once the city returns to having at least 200 cases per day on average.

The mayor did not say whether she will implement restrictions soon but reiterated her call for people to get vaccinated, especially as the delta variant rages through the country.

“Without that protection, you’re playing Russian roulette,” Lightfoot said.

The city’s average number of daily new cases inched up to 190 on Thursday, up from 185 the previous day and 117 over the previous week, but far below an April peak of nearly 650 new cases per day. Hospitalizations remain low, averaging eight new instances daily, while the average number of daily deaths related to COVID-19 remains below one.

Statewide, 1,691 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 were reported Thursday, bringing average of new daily cases to 1,543, down slightly from Wednesday’s average of 1,587.

Lightfoot also said she’s looking at the possibility of mandating vaccinations for Chicago city workers, but she said she’s still having conversations with workers unions.

“We’re looking at what’s happening in other circumstances and crafting a strategy that works for Chicago,” she said.

As for kicking off a music festival as COVID-19 cases continue to rise — one expected to attracts hundreds of thousands of people to Grant Park over the next four days — the mayor said safety is a “primary consideration” at such gatherings, “and certainly this year.”

“We have had very robust planning around safety for weeks if not months leading into the start of Lollapalooza today,” she said, adding there’s been an effort to identify and mitigate “soft spots” around the perimeter of the festival site.

In a departure from past practice, the city told the Tribune it would not provide daily updates of the number of arrests made, citations issued and attendees sent from Lollapalooza to nearby hospitals.

Mary May, spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said the city this year dropped that practice because officials wanted “to report complete numbers at one time” at the end of the event. May said the change had nothing to do with the potential that attendees would be transported to hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms.

Lightfoot faces a complicated balancing act on the pandemic. She has encouraged residents to get vaccinated and warned about possible restrictions if the city sees spikes. But she also has made a point of emphasizing her desire to keep the city as open as possible. At times, it has led to some mixed messaging.

As cases rose last October, for instance, she regularly warned about tighter restrictions being forthcoming — then criticized Pritzker for again shutting down indoor dining.

Lightfoot is also facing some criticism from people who think Lollapalooza shouldn’t be allowed to happen this year as cases swell, or that more restrictions need to be imposed on the festival. Attendees must show they’ve been vaccinated or that they’ve received a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours before entering. That standard was loosened from a previous 24-hour window.

But at a news conference Thursday, Lightfoot noted that she’s concerned about rising cases but they aren’t doubling at the same rate they did last spring or fall.

“We’re not seeing a huge surge in hospitalizations. That’s important. Or ICU beds. Or people on ventilators,” she said.

Chicago will get elected school board after Illinois governor signs long-sought measure over opposition from Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Dan Petrella, Gregory Pratt and Tracy Swartz
Chicago--Schools (18)

Chicago voters will elect their full school board beginning in 2026 under a measure Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Thursday, fulfilling a campaign pledge and delivering a political defeat to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

The board overseeing Chicago Public Schools will become a hybrid panel in 2025, with 10 members elected from geographic districts and 11 members, including a board president, appointed by the mayor. The appointed members would be replaced with elected ones following the 2026 election.

After supporting an elected school board during her 2019 mayoral campaign, Lightfoot, who currently appoints the board’s seven members, backtracked and pushed for a hybrid panel. But state lawmakers rebuked the mayor during their overtime session in June, approving a transition to a fully elected board over her objections.

“An elected school board will help students and their families have a strong voice in important decisions about the education system in Chicago,” Pritzker said in a statement. “I applaud the members of the General Assembly for working together on behalf of their constituents to pass legislation that required compromise and thoughtful deliberation.”

But the measure, which was just formally sent to the governor’s desk earlier Thursday, was signed without the fanfare or formal ceremony that sometimes accompanies bill signings.

“I am grateful to the governor for signing the bill and living up to his commitment that he made in his campaign,” said Democratic state Sen. Robert Martwick of Chicago who has been working on the issue for several years.

Martwick said he was “disappointed that (the governor) didn’t find time in his schedule to celebrate the accomplishments of people who worked for decades to bring democracy to Chicago Public Schools.”

The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Delia Ramirez, called the plan “a significant win ... for the community I serve.”

“The community has led this push for decades, and to see it come to fruition is a testament to Chicagoans’ ability to take back their power when it comes to our kids’ futures,” the Chicago Democrat said in a statement. “An elected school board is what democracy looks like.”

Lightfoot and other opponents have criticized the size of the new board and argued that taking away mayoral control would politicize school governance, threaten academic gains and give too much power to the Chicago Teachers Union, one of the mayor’s chief political nemeses.

The mayor reiterated her concerns in a letter Thursday to the governor, among them that a 21-member board would be “unwieldy” — the largest elected school board in the country — and that it might not adequately reflect the diversity of the city, that there are no campaign spending limits and that the measure doesn’t allow voting regardless of immigration status.

She asked Pritzker to urge lawmakers to enact further legislation to address some of these matters.

“On an issue this significant for the third largest public school district in the country, we must find common ground and pass a workable plan,” the mayor wrote.

Lightfoot backed an elected school board during her campaign for office and even included a reference in her first televised ad. She also regularly expressed her support for an elected board during candidate forums, while other rivals said they support hybrid models or oppose having any elected members.

But as mayor, she has emerged as a vocal advocate for mayoral control over the school system.

In a New York Times interview earlier this year, Lightfoot said the Chicago Teachers Union is trying to take over the entire city government and said schools wouldn’t have reopened without mayoral control.

Historically, Chicago’s chief executive rules over a bevy of government agencies that have more autonomy in other cities. Mayors in Chicago have near total control over police, public housing, transportation and schools, unlike many other municipalities

The elected school bill has faced criticism from people who argue that it will make it harder to hold the system accountable if there isn’t a single person like the mayor in charge.

“The loss of mayoral oversight and accountability over the schools is a huge loss to the city and I think puts schoolchildren at risk,” said Peter Cunningham, a former aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Schools are a vital economic engine, they have a lot to do with Chicago’s attractiveness and coming here and staying here. Without oversight, parents won’t feel like they know where to go to.”

But others said the mayor has historically had too much power. University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dick Simpson said the city needs to be “moving towards a more deliberative, participatory democracy than Chicago is used to under the boss mayor system and machine control that goes back nearly 100 years.”

But, he added, the city still needs “a reasonably strong mayor who’s providing a central focus and leadership. You can’t devolve entirely into anarchy. But the balance has been historically in the direction of an all-powerful mayor.”

Stacy Davis Gates, the CTU vice president, previously told the Tribune that the mayor’s office has historically had too much power.

“What we’re seeing now is the right-sizing of the mayor’s office,” Gates said.

After the governor signed the measure into law, the CTU issued a statement calling it a “historic achievement.”

“Students, families and educators will now have the voice they have long been denied for a quarter of a century by failed mayoral control of our schools,” the teachers union said.

Even after lawmakers approved the plan last month, Lightfoot said she believed she could still negotiate changes, such as reducing the size of the new board and instituting campaign finance “guardrails” for the newly elected positions.

The plan’s supporters have acknowledged that follow-up legislation will be needed to address some issues, including campaign finance rules and how to deal with financial agreements between the city and CPS, but they have held firm on the size of the board and other specifics.

Pritzker acknowledged these unsettled issues in his statement.“I look forward to ongoing conversations with the General Assembly and mayor, in particular about the district’s finances, board members’ compensation and campaign rules,” he said.


Illinois announces winners of 55 marijuana store licenses — but judge delays awarding them amid lawsuit challenging process
Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Robert Mccoppin
Marijuana, Medical, Recreational

After more than a year of waiting, Ambrose Jackson learned Thursday that his team was one of the lucky few to win rights to open a new marijuana retail store in Illinois.

Combined with the craft grower license they won earlier this month, his group is poised to become a vertically integrated company, producing and selling in what’s expected to be a $2 billion industry this year.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “I was fortunate, but everybody who wasn’t is still in a holding pattern.”

Jackson was among 55 winners of a state lottery to award recreational dispensary licenses among 626 entrants who scored 85% or better on their applications. Since the state legalized recreational marijuana last year, only previously existing medical marijuana dispensaries have been allowed to also open retail shops. A batch of 75 new licenses has been delayed more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and problems scoring the complicated applications.

Just a day before the lottery, though, a judge ordered that the licenses can’t be awarded until he rules on a lawsuit challenging the process. Cook County Judge Moshe Jacobius allowed the state to hold the lottery, which allows winning applicants to start proceeding with business plans, but the licenses may not yet formally be awarded.

The ruling comes in the case of Wah Group LLC and Haaayy LLC versus the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, Deputy Director Bret Bender, KPMG LLP, which scored the applications, and Roe Corporations.

The plaintiffs had asked for an injunction against the lotteries. They are challenging a provision that awarded majority veteran-owned companies an extra five points. As it turned out, only applicants with perfect scores initially qualified for licenses, and only veteran-owned teams got perfect scores.

In addition, the two companies bringing the suit claim that some applicants had unfair advantages, such as those with ties to lobbyists or to former state cannabis regulators.

The lawsuit was one of several claiming that the initial scoring last year was unfair, with different scores for identical applications. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration delayed the lottery for a lengthy rescoring process, and plans two more lotteries Aug. 5 and 19 for different qualifying categories.

The next hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Aug. 9.

Winners must pay license fees and satisfy other procedural requirements before receiving their licenses. They then have one year to become operational, though officials expect some to open well before that.

Applicants were allowed to submit multiple applications at a cost of $5,000 each, and some had dozens of chances to win. Winners in the initial lottery could win only two licenses, while ultimately applicants may win up to 10. Winners must also pay license fees of $30,000 per license and meet other procedural hurdles before getting a conditional license.

Up to 97% of those who qualified were social equity applicants, meaning they lived in areas designated as disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, such as the South and West sides of Chicago, or they or their family members had been arrested or convicted of a minor cannabis offense.

Such applicants got a 20% bonus in scoring and pay half the fees.

But during the year-plus delay in awarding licenses, many applicants paid their employees or paid rent to continue to meet requirements for a license. Some burned through their life savings, which hurt the very people the program was meant to help. Many applicants hope Illinois will reimburse them for losses caused by the state’s delays.

Jackson, president and CEO of Helios Labs and Parkway Dispensary, credited large cannabis company Cresco Labs of Chicago with helping his team enter the industry through its business incubator program.

Now, lottery winners need to start fundraising to build and open their facilities. Jackson estimates his team will need around $10 million to build and open its facilities. Family and friends already invested about $250,000 to get this far.

“Some friends and family didn’t invest the first time, they thought we were crazy,” Jackson said. “Now that we won, they want in.”


Illinois lawmakers should be more transparent about pension reform
Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Letter to Editor  |   Ray Sanders, president, Municipal Employees Society, Chicago
Pensions (70)

Let us take a good look at the recent editorial “Will Illinois Democrats ‘Let the people vote!’ on pension reform?” (July 26) and the stances of right-wing politicians and public policy groups on pensions. First, let’s recall the good old days of the 1980s and ’90s, when Illinois lawmakers used budget tricks called pension holidays and other underfunding maneuvers. Each pension holiday was actually a borrowing by the state and residents against the future pensions of municipal employees: custodial workers, teachers, teacher aides, firefighters and police officers, among others.

These are your neighbors. No one seemed to mind borrowing from them with a constitutional mandate and signed contracts to pay the funds back. Complaining about this agreement didn’t happen until the time came to pay the borrowed money back.

Now let’s use the “pension voting” rationale and call it debt reform. How about mortgage payment holidays? Or credit card payment holidays? Wait a minute; you don’t see any editorials saying to “let the people vote” on mortgage or credit card holiday reform.

The average retiree receives about $24,000 per year in real benefits. If you net out the fact that many of these people do not qualify for Medicare, the final amount falls below the poverty line. This is a standard of living that is unimaginable to those now calling for “pension reform.”

We must ask: Why is there no real discussion of reforms to free up the spiraling middle-class incomes heading for the poverty line while struggling retirees are framed as the bad guys? Because all the money in politics comes from billionaires and large corporations. Their donations guarantee that their interests take priority over those of the retiree who can hardly afford his or her food and medical expenses, let alone match the political contributions of the “reformers.”Why not give the public all the facts before letting them decide not to honor the IOUs that have been sitting in municipal pension funds for years?

Illinois’ unemployment agency has another fraud problem: Thieves ‘hijacking’ people’s payments
Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Joe Mahr
Unemployment (93)

Warren Winston thought he’d escaped all the unemployment fraud occurring across the country.

For months, the unemployed contract pharmacist said, he received his benefit payments with no problem. But then somebody hacked into his account and directed his money to an obscure bank 1,300 miles away.

That was in April, more than three months ago. He said he quickly complained to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, law enforcement and regulators, but it kept happening. So far, four of his nine most recent payments, for a total of $3,262, have been diverted — including one as late as July 14.

“Somebody robs a bank in Pittsfield, and the cops get there in five minutes,” Winston told the Tribune. “Somebody robs a bank in IDES, and nobody does anything about it for three months. It’s unthinkable.”

What’s happening to Winston is called account hijacking, and it’s another variation on the fraud entangling Illinois’ unemployment agency, which has led to calls for state hearings and audits to figure out what went wrong.

This type of theft is different from impostor fraud, in which criminals file fake claims in the names of real people. In account hijacking, qualified people start getting their benefits and then somebody, somehow, directs that cash elsewhere. In the past year, cases of it have surfaced in news media including WLS-Ch. 7 and WBBM-Ch. 2.

As with the fraud involving fake claims, the administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker is providing few details on the scope of the problem, as Pritzker gears up for a reelection battle with Republicans looking to question his record.

IDES has declined to provide figures on how many people have reported being robbed of their benefits, and how much money was taken. IDES records show people have filed hundreds of affidavits this year saying they never got their payments, but one industry expert, Haywood Talcove, suggested the total is likely higher because not all victims report the crime.

Talcove, an executive with LexisNexis Risk Solutions, said the solution is simple and relatively cheap: a security protocol called multi-factor authentication. Used by private industry for years, it typically requires people to enter their passwords, then type in an additional code sent to their phone or computer.

“Account takeover is 10-year-old stuff,” he said. “It shouldn’t be happening anywhere. There’s no excuse for it.”

So far, account hijacking has been overshadowed by reports of impostor fraud. The Tribune reported in late June that the state had failed to follow federal guidelines to limit that kind of crime. And a state audit released Wednesday, covering the early months of the pandemic, found IDES’ verification process was so weak that it paid hundreds of claims to people whose listed birthdays would make them older than 90 or younger than 14. In some cases, the birth date was the same as the date the claim was filed, or years into the future.

IDES previously told the Tribune the agency works “vigilantly” to combat fraud but said federal officials should provide states with better tools, while also noting that efforts to block out fraudsters can also unintentionally delay or reject the claims of legitimate filers. IDES told auditors it had stepped up some vetting last fall and this spring.

Still, state Senate Republicans on Thursday called for a broader state audit of IDES’ woes and accused the administration of Pritzker, a Democrat, of trying to hide the scope of the problems.

“If you look at the state of California, a blue state, they’re releasing unemployment fraud information,” state Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Vandalia, said at a news conference. “If you look at red states like Kansas, they’re doing the same.”

Illinois’ Senate Republicans said they hoped their Democratic colleagues would agree to a deeper audit. But an earlier effort by Republicans in the House failed to gain traction.

Talcove, whose firm sells fraud-fighting services, recently told the Illinois House Committee on Cybersecurity that Illinois likely lost a billion dollars, if not more, to impostor fraud.

He told the Tribune on Thursday that thieves could hit the state even harder if Illinois doesn’t improve its approach to cybersecurity, which Talcove said remains too decentralized and bureaucratic.

The July 15 hearing didn’t get into account hijacking, and no IDES officials spoke. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Lamont Robinson, D-Chicago, said he expects to hold a separate hearing focused on IDES’ fraud issues within a month.

Robinson blamed the fraud problems in part on IDES being “gutted” under the previous governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, and said IDES was caught off-guard when the pandemic hit. He said he’s working with the Pritzker administration to assess fixes and called for IDES to release more information about the problems, saying politics shouldn’t get in the way.

“Look, the cat’s out of the bag,” he said. “The director knows she has an issue. The governor knows it’s an issue. I don’t think anybody’s hiding anything.”

But Robinson said he will support a deeper audit only if he feels the issues aren’t adequately addressed at his next committee hearing.

Melissa Matarrese of Wicker Park is among those waiting for answers.

Her benefits had been deposited into her bank “pretty seamlessly” beginning in the fall, Matarrese said. Then, on June 28, she got an email from IDES stating that the direct deposit information on her account had been changed two days earlier.

She called and left a message on IDES’ fraud line, then tried to log into her IDES account, but her password didn’t work. She said IDES called the next day and promised to fix the problem.

But Matarrese hasn’t gotten payments since and still can’t log into her account, despite repeated phone conversations with IDES. The cycle goes like this: She calls and leaves her contact information in a voicemail. In a day or two, an IDES employee calls back. By her count, she’s had eight phone calls with IDES so far, totaling nearly four hours.

“While they’ve been pleasant, nothing’s happened,” Matarrese said.

IDES has said it cannot by law discuss individual cases. In what little IDES has said about account hijacking, the agency has suggested that beneficiaries are falling for scams that allow thieves to steal their login information and redirect the cash, as opposed to hackers breaking into computer systems used by IDES.

Even if that’s true, IDES has yet to explain how it has been unable to stop repeated thefts from the same accounts, even after fraud was reported.

That’s the case with Winston. Winston, who lives about 45 miles southeast of Quincy, on the state’s western border, provided records to the Tribune showing that payments were being sent to his bank near Springfield through late March.

When an IDES email alerted Winston in April that his direct deposit information had been changed, he called IDES to report the fraud, then dug into it more himself.

Logging into his account, he saw his bank’s name had been erased from the direct deposit screen, and the routing and account numbers had been replaced.

Winston traced the routing number to a bank registered in Sandy, Utah, tied to Go2Bank. That’s an affiliate of the branchless Green Dot financial services firm that scammers have used to quickly transfer cash online or siphon it out through prepaid cards.

IDES told Winston to reenter his banking information online, and he did. Winston said he changed his IDES account password, to better protect himself, and also reported the fraud to Green Dot. So both IDES and the bank were on notice, according to a complaint Winston later filed with the state. Yet weeks after the first fraudulent transfer, another one was sent to the same Go2Bank account, Winston’s records show.

Talcove said this shouldn’t happen. Even if states don’t adopt two-factor authentication, states should be able to trace past changes to accounts, deduce how the fraud occurred and put special conditions on previously hijacked accounts that avoid another fraudulent takeover.

Winston said IDES told him the problem would be fixed. And, through May, he got his payments. But then came another email notification from IDES, and sure enough, his next payment went to the same Go2Bank account.

He complained to IDES and Green Dot again, along with the FBI, who he said directed him to file a complaint with the Illinois attorney general’s office. In the complaint, he theorized the state system, not his computer, had been hacked by criminals and wrote: “This should be given the highest priority by all authorities.”

In a statement, Green Dot’s chief risk officer, Philip Lerma, said the firm couldn’t discuss Winston’s specific complaint but said in general that Green Dot works with states and others to stop fraud, as part of an “ongoing process of learning and refinement across the industry.”

Nonetheless, it happened to Winston again. On July 14, he said, an IDES representative went over his correct bank account information on the phone with him before authorizing payment. But that payment, somehow, still went to a Green Dot account.

Winston said all the IDES workers have been friendly, and he’s been told he’ll be reimbursed for his hijacked payments once IDES completes a review to confirm they were stolen. He also said his last payment went to his real bank. But he is still worried about future payments and wonders when the state will fix the bigger problems.

“Once you call IDES and say, ‘I didn’t change my bank account number,’ that should be a big enough red flag, a big enough warning, that they should start an investigation and lock down the account. And that was in April,” he said, “and here we’re still worrying about it.”


Keep up heat on pensions
Chicago Tribune
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Letter to Editor  |   John Kavouris
Pensions (70)

I hope the Tribune Editorial Board keeps screaming about Illinois’ pension problem. It’s an easy issue to forget about unless you are in a union and directly benefit from lawmakers sticking their heads in the sand.

But it’s mind-boggling how voters can allow the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to continue ignoring the problem, considering those same voters will be ground zero when the system implodes. And it will implode.

Maybe Democrats should stop telling us they won’t put pension reform on the ballot because we are not smart enough to understand the issue. There are a lot of smart people in Illinois who clearly see the pension vise closing in on Illinois taxpayers. It’s more proof that the unions are running Illinois instead of the people we elect.

If Democrats really want everyone to have a voice like they say, stop the hypocrisy and let us vote on pension reform.

— John Kavouris, Winfield

Cook County residents advised to wear masks regardless of vaccination status
Crain's Chicago Business
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Stephanie Goldberg

While Illinois “fully aligns” with the CDC’s masking recommendations, it hasn’t issued another mandate.

People in Cook County are once again being urged to mask up.

Individuals, including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, should wear a mask in public indoor settings now that the area’s community transmission risk has moved to “substantial” from “moderate,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cook County this week has 51 cases per 100,000 people, up 78 percent from the prior 7-day period, CDC data shows. Under the federal agency’s recommendation, areas of substantial transmission are those with 50 to 99 cases per 100,000 people over a 7-day period, while areas of high transmission are those with more than 100 cases per 100,000.

The CDC guidance assumes “that jurisdictions will follow suit, and we certainly will,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, who co-leads the Cook County Department of Public Health, which covers 2.5 million residents outside Chicago, Evanston, Skokie, Oak Park and Stickney Township.

Chicago is inching closer to triggering widespread mask recommendations.

The average number of new cases per day is 192, according to Chicago Department of Public Health. Once the city crosses the 200 daily case threshold, it moves into the “moderate” risk category, CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady has said.

The CDC in May said fully vaccinated people no longer would be required to wear masks in most indoor settings. Following the guidance, Gov. J.B. Pritzker rescinded emergency rules enforcing masking and social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings. 

The problem with not requiring vaccinated people to mask in public indoor settings is that "you don’t know who’s really vaccinated and who isn’t when they come inside a place,” Rubin said. “You have to trust that people will be honest, but it only takes a few who are not to spread the virus around.”

While the state “fully aligns” with the CDC’s masking recommendations, it hasn’t issued another mandate.

Separately, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office on Thursday announced that face coverings are now required in all state facilities, regardless of vaccination status, to protect employees. The move comes as counties across Illinois see COVID cases increase, due largely to the more contagious delta variant.“The state will continue to evaluate the need for additional mitigations and will not hesitate to put them in place as needed to protect the health of Illinois residents,” the Thursday statement says. 

Fully elected school board becomes law in Chicago
Crain's Chicago Business
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   A.D. Quig
Chicago--Schools (18)

Gov. Pritzker signed the legislation that expands the board from seven to 21—and delivers a blow to Mayor Lightfoot, who fought the measure.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker today signed the bill paving the way for a fully elected school board in Chicago in the coming years, ending a long era of mayoral control of the city's Board of Education. 

The bill, HB2908, was sent to the governor earlier today. The signing of the bill is a blow to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has fought the measure, calling the expansion unwieldy. She's losing the power to appoint all seven members of the board, and in a letter to the governor today said she has "significant concerns about the implications of this bill in its current form." Read Lightfoot's letter to Pritzker below.

While Lightfoot campaigned on a fully elected board, she shifted her stance, instead supporting a hybrid option that she said would include the voices of undocumented families. Her administration has also argued it would be difficult to untangle the financial ties between the city and its school district; the city picks up certain pension costs for nonteaching staff and chips in tens of millions of dollars in tax-increment financing each year to help pay for capital improvements at schools. 

The signing of this bill—late on a Thursday afternoon, without a news conference—was uncharacteristically muted, compared with other major pieces of legislation the governor has signed in recent weeks.

"An elected school board will help students and their families have a strong voice in important decisions about the education system in Chicago," Pritzker said in a statement.

But Pritzker also hinted there's still tinkering to be done to the bill, which doesn't go into effect until June 2022. 

"I look forward to ongoing conversations with the General Assembly and mayor, in particular about the district’s finances, board members’ compensation and campaign rules," he said.

In her letter, Lightfoot expressed a litany of concerns about the implications of the current bill "and urge your support in ongoing negotiations on a needed trailer bill to address those matters."

Chief among the worries: finances.

CPS "is expected to continue to rely upon the city for more than $447 million in employer pension contributions on behalf of non-classroom employees. Those obligations will increase that subsidy to approximately $600 million per year later in this decade," Lightfoot wrote. The current bill doesn't address those entanglements, and Lightfoot believes the city's investment must come with "a voice at the governance table."

She also repeated her concerns about the size of the board and whether it will represent CPS' student population, which is 36 percent African American and 47 percent Hispanic. She also wants to see limits on campaign spending and a voice for the city's immigrant population. 

"As you sign this bill, I respectfully ask you to urge the Legislature to pass trailer bill language addressing the above points," she wrote.

The new law bars further school closures and creates a mayoral appointed Chicago Board of Education Diversity Advisory Board, "to help guide issues before the board," Pritzker's statement said.

The new board will be 21 members—up from the current seven, and the largest of any major city. By 2027, all members would be elected: Twenty would be elected from districts drawn across the city, and the board’s chairman would be elected citywide.

In the interim, a board of 11 appointed and 10 elected members would join the board in January 2025. The 10 members, including the chair, would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the Chicago City Council, and would serve a two-year term. The first elections—for 10 of the 21 members—will be held in November 2024. The election to pick the remaining board members and board president will be held in 2026.

Teachers and other Chicago Public Schools employees cannot not serve on the board, but the bill otherwise imposes no limits on the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to finance and campaign for board candidates.

Latino children and COVID: A worsening crisis
Crain's Chicago Business
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   SYLVIA PUENTE NOREEN SUGRUE

To head off potentially devastating health and economic outcomes, officials must ensure that trusted community partners are given all the resources they require to vaccinate members of the Latino community.

The common belief that children do not get sick and that COVID is not a problem for kids is false. All children are at risk, especially Latino children.

Vaccines are the most effective firewall against infection, hospitalization, and death. But because those under 12 are still ineligible to receive a vaccine and the Latino population skews young, large numbers of Latinos are unable to be vaccinated. In addition, in Illinois among all racial/ethnic groups between the ages of 20 and 59, Latinos have the highest rate of COVID cases. Those under 59 are most likely to be working and parents to young children. With Latinos overrepresented in essential high-risk occupations and also having limited access to vaccines, as Lucy’s story illustrates, they bring the virus home and infect young unvaccinated family members.

Lucy, an essential hospitality worker with a seven-year-old and a toddler, reported that she has had to reschedule her vaccine appointment on three occasions. Every time she went to the drugstore at the appointed time she was told she had misunderstood and there was no vaccine. It was not until she contacted a community-based organization where workers spoke Spanish that she was able to secure a vaccine.

While Lucy was attempting to get a vaccine she continued to work, she says, “with not very much protection.” Lucy was not able to socially distance or isolate from others at home because her housing circumstances are like those of many Latinos: multi-generational, multi-family, and crowded. Lucy and her children share a small apartment with her sister and nephew. Lucy’s children, sister, and nephew were all at risk for infection because of her job, the lack of worker protection, and her inability to easily access a vaccine. While Lucy has not been diagnosed with COVID, her two-year-old was, but was not hospitalized. Her nephew was sick but never diagnosed.

We are facing an increasingly dire situation in Illinois’ Latino community. Latinos have the highest rates of illness among the young, schools are reopening with a CDC recommendation but no state or federal mandate for masking, and parents are working in high risk jobs with many still having trouble accessing a vaccine.

To head off potentially devastating health and economic outcomes, lawmakers and public health officials must ensure that trusted community partners and community health workers are given all the resources they require to vaccinate members of the Latino community. Also required are legal guarantees that all workers are afforded the necessary protections against infection as well as paid time off should they become ill. And like CPS, every school district must follow the American Academy of Pediatrics and mandate that all be masked in schools. With back-to-school season around the corner, these changes could provide the best chance for heading off a tsunami of COVID cases among Latino children, and protecting all children in the process. We’d be smart to start these efforts now, before another wave with dire social and economic consequences is in full swing.

So, who's going to take Pritzker down? One of these three would like to try.
Crain's Chicago Business
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Column  |   Greg Hinz
Candidates--Statewide (12)

Despite having plenty of material to work with, the three Republicans lining up to challenge the governor have a lot to prove. And that's barring the late entry of a congressman who's said to be weighing a run.Now that Gov. J.B. Pritzker has officially announced his candidacy for a new term, the challenge for the Illinois GOP is to prove to the world—and, frankly, itself—that it still can compete in a state which for decades was considered swing territory and which elected Republican Bruce Rauner governor as recently as 2014.

There’s plenty of good campaign material to use, even if billionaire Pritzker will try to bury whoever runs in negative TV ads. Unfunded pension liability continues to soar and soak up money needed for education, health care and public safety. The state’s economy continues to lag the nation’s. Organized labor increasingly has a headlock on legislation, demanding a cut of anything that comes up. And while the Chicago Democrat Pritzker has merely rolled his eyes at the problem, the Legislature refuses to enact real ethics reform even as member after member heads to federal prison.

So, there’s potential there. The question is whether the GOP is up to the task.

At the moment, there are three officially declared candidates.

One is McHenry County businessman Gary Rabine. His media spokesman sounded quite chipper about the prospects of getting his candidate on the phone to talk about issues when I called. But then another interview Rabine granted to downstate TV reporter Mark Maxwell exploded in his face, with Rabine saying he would not encourage people to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and the spokesman having to walk back Rabine’s suggestion without proof that the vaccines have caused thousands of deaths.

Oh well.

I was able to catch up with the second candidate, southern Illinois conservative firebrand Sen. Darren Bailey, and he certainly lived up to his reputation.

Bailey said he and his neighbors are tired of “endless government” and called for zero-based budgeting through state operations. “I live on a budget. Unfortunately the state doesn’t.” OK so far. But then he went on to call for abolition of firearms ID cards, terming them “an infringement on our rights.” He said Pritzker has “destroyed” the state with COVID-related controls. Then he refused to say whether he thinks Illinoisans should be vaccinated: “That’s up to people to decide.”

We didn’t get to Donald Trump and the events of Jan. 6—or Bailey's tweet calling on the Illinois GOP to “condemn” U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger for criticisms of Trump.

That leaves candidate No. 3, ex-Marine, former Illinois attorney general hopeful and ex-state Sen. Paul Schimpf from the Metro East area near St. Louis. Maybe it was the sheer comparison, or the fact that his campaign website labels him a “common sense conservative we can trust.” But I was rather impressed.

Pritzker “has refused to stand up to the entrenched special interests on spending and other matters," he says, but Rauner “missed an opportunity” to right the ship of state because he never realized governing means “building relationships and working together,” Schimpf said. When the state has extra cash, like now, it ought to pay down pension debt to save money long term, Schimipf continued. “I encourage people to consult with their physician and be vaccinated if it makes sense,” like he has, he said. And Trump, who sponsored him for a federal judgeship, “had his day in court and lost. We as Republicans need to be focused on what we can do to unite the country and be stronger.”

Not bad.

Perhaps they’re waiting for U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis to enter the fray, something he has hinted he’ll do if dominant Springfield Democrats give him an unfriendly map in which to seek re-election. Maybe that’s why state GOP Chairman Don Tracy wouldn’t get on the phone to discuss prospects for defeating Pritzker.

Still, it’s getting late for someone else to run. Odds are rising that, in the end, the three names above are the ones Illinois Republicans will have to choose among in their 2022 primary.

Pritzker orders masks inside all state buildings
Daily Herald
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Jake Griffin

People working or visiting inside a state-run building will have to wear masks again, even if they're fully vaccinated, following an order issued Thursday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The edict comes days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised anyone in counties experiencing substantial or high COVID-19 exposure risk to wear masks in public indoor settings.

The governor's order is broader and covers all facilities, regardless of the virus' transmissibility threat in those counties, "given that the majority of the state is experiencing substantial or high COVID-19 transmission as measured by the CDC," Pritzker said.

The move comes the same day Cook County joined DuPage, McHenry and Will counties in the Chicago area as counties with a substantial transmission risk, which is any county experiencing 50 to 99 new cases per 100,000 residents over a week's time, according to CDC standards. High risk is 100 or more new cases per 100,000 residents.

"The safety and well-being of state employees and residents remains top priority for the state and this decision supports our efforts to provide a safe environment for our workforce and the people we serve," said Janel L. Forde, director of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services. "Masking up is a step that we all can take to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help ensure that state facilities can continue to operate safely."

The Cook County Department of Public Health endorsed the CDC mask recommendaton and said it will issue new guidelines Friday.

Federal, state and local health officials say the new safety measures are necessary to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 that has become the predominant strain in the U.S.

"While the vaccines have been proven to be effective against the delta variant at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, with this new evidence of breakthrough spread, we are adding another layer of protection for state employees and the people we serve," said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike.

New Illinois law aims to expand affordable housing through $75M investment, tax credits
State Journal Register
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Jerry Nowicki
Housing (51)

Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday signed a measure aimed at increasing affordable housing investment in Illinois, as well as a measure expanding the state’s low-income energy assistance program.

House Bill 2621 aims to create incentives for building and maintaining affordable housing projects through investment of federal funds and tax credits. Pritzker signed the bill at the Hope Manor II affordable apartment complex in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

Nancy Hughes Moyer, the CEO and president of Volunteers of America Illinois which developed and owns Hope Manor II, said the facility is an example of “affordable supportive housing at its best.” The campus-style facility is specifically designed for head-of-household veterans and their families.

The Englewood community has seen its population decline from just less than 100,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to less than 30,000 today. The Hope Manor development and the area around it aims to bring people back to the community with “high quality affordable housing,” Moyer said.

“Affordable housing is a very, very powerful tool in creating and advancing community revitalization,” she said. “It brings people and density, and often replaces vacant land and abandoned properties with vibrant positive developments and activity. And what is least understood about the potential of affordable housing, is that it can be a very effective pipeline for home ownership, especially in communities struggling with negative perceptions and a desperate need of population density.”HB 2621, sponsored by Chicago Democrats Rep. Will Guzzardi and Sen. Mattie Hunter, aims to incentivize further development of housing complexes similar to Hope Manor II. It is expected to fund the development and preservation of up to 3,500 affordable rental homes and apartments by the end of 2024, according to the governor’s office.

The new law directs the Illinois Housing Development Authority to launch a COVID-19 Affordable Housing Program and directs $75 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to support the construction and rehabilitation of affordable rental housing in areas most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds will be directed to projects in “disproportionately impacted areas” based on metrics such as unemployment rate, students on free lunch programs and poverty rates.

The measure also extends through 2026 an affordable housing tax credit that would have expired by the end of the year. That credit is for 50 percent of the value of a qualified donation to affordable housing developments. Donations for the program that began in 2001 have included land, buildings and funding.

Karen Davis, assistant director of the state’s Illinois Housing Development Association, said “Illinois was already facing a shortage of safe, affordable housing for extremely low-income households” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the state would have to add 250,000 affordable housing units to meet the current demand for such facilities. She said the extension of the tax credit is important, as it has created or supported 21,000 affordable housing units since its creation in 2001.Another provision in the bill directs chief county assessment officers to create special assessment programs to reduce the assessable property value for newly built and rehabilitated affordable housing developments that serve seven or more families. While the program is required in counties with more than 3 million inhabitants, which includes only Cook County, all other counties can opt out by passage of an ordinance.

Pritzker also signed Senate Bill 265, a measure expanding access to the state’s Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program to undocumented individuals and prioritizing families with children under the age of 6 years old when it comes to distributing funds. LIHEAP helps low-income families pay heating, gas, propane and electricity bills.

The General Assembly dedicated more than $252 million to LIHEAP from the American Rescue Plan Act in its current-year operating budget.

The law is also changed to expand eligibility to households earning up to 60 percent of the median income level.

The formula for the fee on utility bills funding the LIHEAP program will change beginning in January 2022. It will be a 48-cent base fee for residences, and will increase by 16 cents each year in which at least 80 percent of LIHEAP funds are spent, capping at 96 cents for residences.

The bill will be 10 times the base amount for non-residential customers using fewer than 10 megawatts of electricity and 4 million therms of gas, and 375 times the base rate for those using above that amount.

Previously, those fees were 48 cents for residences, $4.80 for non-residential and $360 for higher-use non-residential bills.

The changes in the fee structure are aimed at doubling participation in the Percentage of Income Payment Plan program by 2024. That program allows utility customers to pay a certain amount of their income to a utility bill. The law is also expanded to include customers of smaller utilities.

Audit shows $155 million in unemployment paid fraudulently in just six weeks
Friday, July 30, 2021  |   Article  |   Matt Roy
Unemployment (93)

For more than a year, our project illinois team has been investigating the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), trying to find out how much money has been wrongfully paid out to fraudulent claims.

Thursday, we finally have an answer.


When the pandemic hit, the federal government passed the CARES act, which created programs like the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or the PUA.


Illinois began to pay PUA claimants by mid-May.


But, a new audit from the Illinois Auditor General shows from mid-May until June 30th of 2020 nearly $155 million was paid to potentially ineligible claimants.


How is that possible?


Page 27 of the report states "The Department of Employment Security (Department) did not implement adequate controls over the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program processes."


Meaning the state did not implement safeguards to catch ineligible payments.


In response to the audit, IDES released a statement saying, "Throughout the pandemic, IDES has been transparent as to the challenges created by the previous federal administration’s decision to leave each state to stand up their own PUA system with poorly designed and constantly changing federal guidance. Today’s audit findings are the result of that burden placed on state unemployment systems across the country as they simultaneously worked to quickly get billions of dollars into the hands of an unprecedented number of claimants in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis. It is no surprise that in states across the country the PUA program has been the epicenter for widespread fraud and overpayments, not to mention the issues legitimate claimants may have accessing the system. The Department agrees with the auditors recommendations and has already been working to make improvements to the program that address the recommendations based on the department’s own internal reviews."


In a press conference Thursday, IL Senate republicans placed all blame at the feet of Governor JB Pritzker.


"Today, we are here because Governor Pritzker has, once again, failed the people of Illinois," Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Vandalia, said.


"The auditors even stated that eligibility for the pandemic unemployment assistance program couldn't be property audited due to the pritzker administrations failure to document eligibility," Senate deputy minority leader Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said.


A spokesperson for house Speaker Chris Welch, D-Chicago, released a statement saying, "The Speaker has not gotten a chance to read the full report after it was released yesterday, but he looks forward to reviewing it in its entirety. What we do know is that there were fraudulent claims. There were people who took advantage of a global pandemic with record-number unemployment claims when our state departments worked to get resources to families as quickly as possible so they could keep a roof over their heads and put food on their tables. We also know that we are not the only state in this position, and scammers nationwide benefited from goodhearted efforts to keep our citizens afloat. Republicans choosing to lay this at the feet of any single person is pure political posturing and instead we should be united in the fight to hold bad actors accountable here in Illinois."


And John Patterson, spokesman for Senate President Don Harmon said, "We continue to monitor the situation and weigh options."


The report also found out how much money went out to unemployment claims of dead people, children, and people with unvalidated identities.


Thursday, Senate Republicans held a press conference condemning the Governor and demanding a full performance and financial audit of IDES - spanning the time from March 2020 to September 2021.


The Republican senators say the ILAG's report shows the true inadequacies of IDES.


Rezin says they seen a whole, comprehensive view of the issue at hand.


"This isn't a partisan issue," Plummer said. "This is a human thing and Republicans and Democrats need to work together to fix this, hold the governor accountable, and make sure it never happens again."


We reached out to Governor JB Pritzker today but did not receive a response.