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State of Illinois

CAPITOL RECAP: Governor announces $94 million in airport grants

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Nearly 100 airports across Illinois will receive state funding in the coming months for projects ranging from new runways and road relocations to the purchase of mowers and snow removal equipment.

The money comes from the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan which passed the General Assembly and the governor signed into law in 2019. Another $11.5 million for the projects will be contributed by local sources.

Gov. JB Pritzker was in Moline Wednesday to publicize the funding for 96 airports around the state, including $5.6 million for the Quad Cities International Airport. The Quad Cities funding will go toward entrance road realignment and parking expansion.

The state grants range from $36,000 for the Illinois Valley Regional Airport in LaSalle County to acquire a tractor with a flex wing mower to nearly $11.8 million for the Morris Municipal Airport in Grundy County for a crosswinds runway.

St. Louis Downtown Airport in St. Clair County is slated to receive $5 million for ramp and taxiway access from the airfield, including a jetblast noise mitigation barrier.

St. Louis Downtown Airport is the third busiest airport in Illinois and was recognized by the IDOT Division of Aeronautics as the 2021 Reliever Airport of the Year.

The project has been in the planning stages for several years, and construction is anticipated to begin in 2022.

The Cairo Regional Airport near the state’s southern tip will receive $309,000 from the state, including $72,000 to acquire snow removal equipment and $237,033 to replace airport lighting.

The Tri-Township Airport in Carroll County will receive $171,000 to install new electric airfield security gates.

The Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield will see more than $3 million to rehabilitate its north airport’s public parking lot and roadways.

Bolingbrook’s Clow International Airport will receive $2.8 million, $67,500 of which will help replace its rotating beacon, while more than $2.1 million will go toward the construction of a replacement parallel taxiway.

Southern Illinois Airport in Jackson County will see over $1 million, with $252,000 going toward the relocation of Fox Farm Road and $751,000 going to expand the southeast aircraft parking apron.

The Rebuild Illinois plan is a multimodal infrastructure package covering roads, bridges, waterways, air travel and rail, as well as bike and pedestrian pathways.

The transportation projects in the 2019 plan are largely funded through a doubling of the motor fuel tax to 38 cents, a rate that now goes up annually at the inflation rate. The measure also increased several fees motorists pay to the secretary of state, including registration fees.

A full list of projects can be viewed here.

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REDISTRICTING LAWSUITS: A three-judge federal court panel in Chicago will begin hearing oral arguments Tuesday in three cases that could determine the makeup of state legislative maps in the Chicago area and Metro East region for the next 10 years.

The panel announced during a status hearing Friday that it will go ahead with in-person oral arguments, even though two sets of plaintiffs had said earlier in the week that the case could be decided solely on the briefs and written testimony that have already been filed.

Gov. JB Pritzker signed the maps into law in September.

After that, three groups of plaintiffs filed suits in federal court to challenge them. Among those were the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, which argued that the new plan reduces Latino voting influence in the Chicago area despite the fact that the Latino population grew significantly over the previous decade.

In addition, the East St. Louis Branch of the NAACP, along with the state NAACP and the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, or UCCRO, challenged the districts in the Metro East region claiming they unfairly diluted Black voting blocs in that area.

And Republican leaders in the General Assembly – Sen. Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, and Rep. Jim Durkin, of Western Springs – filed suit challenging both the Chicago and Metro East maps based on arguments largely similar to those of the other two plaintiffs.

All three suits name Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, as defendants, along with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Attorneys for Harmon and Welch have denied the plaintiffs’ arguments, saying the plaintiffs are the ones trying to redraw maps based solely on racial considerations.

The court has put the cases on an expedited schedule in hopes of resolving the issues in time for candidates to begin circulating nominating petitions in mid-January.

The high-profile hearing will take place in a ceremonial courtroom in the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago under strict COVID-19 protocols, which means seating will be limited to about only two dozen members of the media and public.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, with additional arguments Wednesday morning, if necessary.

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RETAIL THEFT BUST: An unrelated arrest by the Chicago Police Department on Sunday led to a state task force this week seizing millions of dollars’ worth of goods stolen from retailers in what Attorney General Kwame Raoul described as an organized retail crime operation.

Raoul announced the raid in a news conference Friday, calling it the “first major bust” resulting from the work of the Organized Retail Crime Task Force overseen by his office.

“The task force brings together law enforcement from federal, state and local agencies, retailers, online marketplaces, to share information and resources to identify and prosecute criminal enterprises frequently behind these well-organized schemes that can sometimes be mistaken for isolated incidents of retail theft,” he said.

The task force seized four semi-truckloads of goods found after a search warrant was served on eight storage units at two separate locations.

Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said the bust announced Friday started with a beat officer who made an unrelated arrest on a gun charge. That suspect was charged with a crime, but the retail theft investigation is ongoing, he said.

While Raoul said a complete inventory was ongoing, the task force seized tens of thousands of items, including apparel, beauty products, furniture, food items and electronics from multiple nationwide retailers. Raoul said they’re worth millions of dollars.

The task force was launched in response to smash-and-grab incidents and other retail crimes in which several individuals clear out retail merchandise from stores in a matter of minutes. Downtown Chicago has seen several such incidents, including at luxury handbag retailers and other high-end stores.

But Raoul said it’s a nationwide problem.

Raoul also said the schemes are more sophisticated than the smash-and-grab videos that circulate online. For example, the loot uncovered this week appeared to have been stolen “at different points along the supply chain,” he said.

Raoul said that often the people seen on videos committing retail theft are not the “kingpins” behind the organized effort.

“Frequently, the criminal enterprises behind these crimes are connected to other crimes, such as the drug trade and human trafficking,” he said.

Deenihan said the retail theft operations were done by criminal networks, “and gangs are involved.”

The bust drew praise from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

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HARRIS TO RETIRE: Illinois House Democratic Leader Greg Harris said Monday he will not seek reelection in 2022 and will step down from the General Assembly after eight terms in office.

Harris, 66, of Chicago, is the first openly LGBTQ legislative leader in Illinois history who spent much of his time in office advancing gay rights, health care reform and social service funding.

“I think it was just, it was just time. At the end of this term, I'll have been there in the General Assembly, 16 years. And that just seemed to be a good amount of time,” Harris said during a phone interview.

Harris said he would finish the rest of his term and would continue to lead the Democratic caucus through the annual budget process in the upcoming 2022 session.

He said he chose to make the announcement now so other potential candidates in the 13th District would have time to decide if they want to run for the office.

Candidates in the 2022 election will begin circulating nominating petitions in mid-January. Harris was first elected in 2006, succeeding former Rep. Larry McKeon who, like Harris, was both openly gay and HIV-positive. He was reelected seven more times and did not face a challenger in any of those elections.

In 2010, Harris was the lead House sponsor of a bill, Senate Bill 1716, establishing the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, which recognized civil unions of same-sex couples in Illinois.

In 2013, he was the lead House sponsor of another bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois. Then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law in November that year, nearly two years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriages legal nationwide.

Other legislative accomplishments during his tenure include reducing economic disparities in accessing mammograms and breast cancer treatment, cutting red tape in the state’s health care system and lowering the costs of prescription drugs.

In 2019, Harris was named House Majority Leader. From that position, he was able to help steer many of Gov. JB Pritzker’s policy initiatives through the House, including state budgets and the $45 billion capital improvements plan, “Rebuild Illinois.”

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CAHOKIA MOUNDS: Visitors of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site can now try experiencing it in “augmented reality,” or AR, to see the Grand Plaza as it appeared 1,000 years ago, the Palisade as it once stood and the exterior and interior of the temple that once stood atop Monks Mound.

Cahokia Mounds was the central hub and largest city built by the Mississippian culture of Native Americans. The site has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark, an Illinois State Historic Site and a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

At its height, Cahokia stretched over six square miles and was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people. Set near the Mississippi River, Cahokia was a trade hub and an agriculture production site. There were 120 mounds in Cahokia, including the largest, Monks Mound. The Mississippians built them between 900 and 1400 AD, according to archeologists.

The augmented reality tour unveiling comes as there is a renewed push to make the site a part of the federal National Park System.

Illinois’ U.S. senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats, sent a letter to President Joe Biden Tuesday asking him to incorporate Cahokia Mounds into the National Park System. In 2016, a study found that Cahokia Mounds met all four of the criteria – significance, suitability, feasibility, and need for National Park Service management.

In April, Durbin introduced the Cahokia Mounds Mississippian Culture National Historical Park Act to change the current designation as a National Historic Landmark to a National Historic Park. This move would add protections for the ancient mounds that straddle St. Clair and Madison counties in southwest Illinois.

Visitors can experience the site in augmented reality by downloading the app at a cost of $4.99 to their Apple device, or they can rent an iPad for $15 at the site. Developers spent five years creating the new application that allows visitors to step back and experience Cahokia as it once was.

The Cahokia AR Tour application was developed and produced by the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society and Schwartz and Associates Creative of St. Louis and was funded by two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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