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State of Illinois

CAPITOL RECAP: Latest COVID-19 surge has likely peaked, Pritzker says

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Capitol News Illinois
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After weeks of dire warnings and spiking cases and hospitalizations, state leaders expressed their hope for good news...

COVID-19: Gov. JB Pritzker said Wednesday, Jan. 19, that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the recent surge in COVID-19 cases spurred by the omicron variant has peaked, but he cautioned that another variant could appear at any time and continued to urge people to get vaccinated and wear face coverings when in public.

“Over the last two years, I've said over and over that you don't know when a surge has reached its peak until you're on the other side of it,” Pritzker said during a news conference in Chicago.

As of late Tuesday, 6,507 Illinoisans were hospitalized with COVID-19, a relatively high number but still down 11.8 percent from the peak recorded on Jan. 13 when 7,380 were hospitalized.

Of those hospitalized, 1,085 were in intensive care units and 608 were on ventilators, also high numbers but still down from their peaks of about a week earlier.

On Wednesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 26,491 new cases of the virus out of 194,306 tests performed. Over the previous seven days, the case positivity rate averaged just over 12 percent. But IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the reported number of cases is no longer the most important statistic to track.

“I am absolutely moving away from the cases because we know that that's not even the full story, given all the home tests and all the positives that are happening at home that are not recorded in any of our Department of Public Health databases,” she said. “But the hospitalizations, you can't hide a hospitalization. And so as we look at those hospitalizations and understand where those numbers are going, …that is definitely a clear signal of the direction we're moving in.”

The news conference took place on the same day the U.S. Postal Service officially opened a new website on which people can order free home testing kits. Every household can order a package of four individual rapid antigen tests that will be shipped in late January. That website is https://special.usps.com/testkits.

Despite the downward trend, Pritzker and Ezike both urged residents to get vaccinated, to get booster shots when they’re eligible and to continue wearing face coverings in public places.

“The omicron surge has tested and proven once again that vaccines and masks are our best tools to keep most people safe from each variant of COVID-19,” Pritzker said. “Nevertheless, omicron's high transmission rate caused more COVID hospitalizations than ever before. The vast majority unvaccinated. Our hospital systems and health care workers have battled to treat and to save not just COVID-19 patients, but every patient who walks through their doors.”

* * *

GOP PUSHES TO REPEAL SAFE-T ACT: Republicans are calling for their Democratic counterparts in the Illinois House to join them in efforts to repeal criminal justice reforms, known as the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, commonly known as the SAFE-T Act.

Reps. Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, and Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, joined House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, at a news conference Thursday, Jan. 20, to announce their support for legislation, House Bill 4499, introduced a week ago, to repeal the SAFE-T Act.

Spain called the SAFE-T Act “damaging and dangerous with real consequences for the people of the state of Illinois.”

Democratic proponents of the SAFE-T Act, who called the effort by super minority Republicans “all for show,” pointed out that many of the substantive changes created by the bill had not yet taken effect.

That includes a measure that would eliminate cash bail in favor of a pre-trial detention method that prioritizes aspects such as the level of danger a suspect poses rather than their ability to post bail. The exact parameters for pre-trial detention will be determined by the courts. That measure takes effect in January 2023.

The original SAFE-T Act also changed use-of-force guidelines for law enforcement, created a new police certification system and expanded detainee rights.

Spain said crime has skyrocketed in Illinois with increases in retail theft, carjacking and murders, citing 800 murders last year in Chicago.

“Illinois has become the wild, wild Midwest,” Durkin said.

Tweaks to the bill, including a measure passed last year diluting some of the use-of-force language in the original bill, aren’t good enough, the Republicans said on Thursday, and the SAFE-T Act should be repealed entirely. Mazzochi said it would only take a few Democrats to cross over to get it done.

* * *

I-80 CONSTRUCTION: Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday, Jan. 20, announced the beginning of the next phase of construction along the Interstate 80 corridor that will modernize Houbolt Road in Joliet.

The state investment in the public-private partnership is $32 million, according to the governor, who continues to highlight the ongoing benefits of one of his major first-year legislative accomplishment, the Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan. The infrastructure plan passed with bipartisan support in 2019.

The state’s investment will widen the road and reconfigure the I-80 interchange into a diverging, diamond design.

“This project will go a long way to alleviate congestion and improve safety,” Omer Osman, Illinois Department of Transportation director, said. “The work that will be taking place here over the next several years is transformational.”

Improvements are expected to minimize emissions caused by traffic, cut down a long commute, make the daily drive safer and provide more business to the surrounding communities.

* * *

DIVERSITY IN CLEAN ENERGY PROJECTS: Aiming to increase diversity in wind and solar jobs, a proposed measure in the Illinois General Assembly would require more transparent reporting on the level of participation of minority-owned businesses in clean energy jobs.

Rep. William Davis, D-Hazel Crest, advanced House Bill 4217 through the House Energy and Environment Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 19. The measure aims to increase “diverse participation in projects that could include African-Americans, Latinx, and women-owned firms.”

In the bill, energy suppliers who generate more than 500 kilowatt hours of electricity with at least 100,000 customers and companies that develop, install, or maintain a renewable energy project with annual revenues over $15 million would be required to submit annual reports on procurement goals and spending on contracts with female-owned, minority-owned, veteran-owned companies and small businesses.

Annual reports would need to outline a buying plan for specific goods and services the company plans to procure in the next six to 18 months, include any procurement codes used by the company. It’s an effort to assist entrepreneurs and diverse companies in understanding upcoming opportunities with the company submitting the buying plan, according to the bill.

“Part of our effort, as we have done in many other sectors, is to start by trying to ask those individuals that are doing it, to supply reports, to fill out reports and show us what they are doing relative to diversity, and not only what their numbers look like but also, in some cases, the plan to increase that diversity over time,” Davis said.

Businesses that make less than $15 million a year would possibly be exempt from filling out diversity reports but would still have the opportunity to do so if they desired.

* * *

EDUCATOR SHORTAGES: School officials across Illinois say a shortage of teachers and substitutes is forcing them to cancel course offerings, move them online or fill open positions with people who are not fully qualified.

Those are the findings of the latest survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, the fifth such survey the organization has conducted in as many years.

“Our schools need help, now more than ever,” said Mark Klaisner, IARSS president. “For five years of our study, we have shown how schools are struggling to find qualified teachers and are under tremendous stress to provide the best education possible while understaffed and overwhelmed. COVID-19 has only made those challenges worse.”

The survey included responses from 663 of the state’s 852 school districts, representing 78 percent of public schools in Illinois. It was conducted in the fall of 2021 by Goshen Education Consulting, based in Edwardsville.

Overall, 88 percent of the districts responding said they had a shortage of full-time teachers, while 96 percent said they had a shortage of substitute teachers. Districts responding reported a total of 412 classes were canceled and 385 were converted to online instruction because of teacher shortage issues.

More than 2,000 positions are either not filled or filled by someone not qualified to teach there, more than double the number reported from last year. That includes the increased use of paraprofessionals – people who are not fully licensed as teachers but who are credentialed to work under the direction of a licensed teacher.

The shortage is most acute in the east-central and west-central regions where more than 90 percent of the districts responding said they had a teacher shortage problem. But even in the northeast region where the shortage appeared to be least significant, 79 percent of districts reported a teacher shortage, while overall 77 percent of districts said the shortage is getting worse.

* * *

REPUBLICAN AMENDMENTS: Republicans in the Illinois Senate have again introduced a package of proposed constitutional amendments that they argue would give voters more of a direct say in the legislative process.

“We're reintroducing these constitutional amendments in order to really put the people back in charge again,” Senate GOP Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Jan. 18.

The package includes a renewed call for an independent redistricting commission. Other amendments would give voters greater power to amend the Illinois Constitution, as well as the power to repeal legislation and the power to recall elected officials at all levels of government.

Specifically, Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 13 would remove the current requirement that each Senate district be divided into two House districts and would incorporate provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 into the constitution while requiring that districts be compact and contiguous.

It would also establish a 17-member Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw legislative and congressional district lines starting in 2023. The commission members would be drawn from each of the state’s 17 congressional districts and would be made up of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and three unaffiliated voters.

* * *

BUDGET NEGOTIATING TEAM: Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced a new House budget negotiation team Tuesday, Jan. 18, led by House Majority Leader and chief budgeteer Greg Harris, D-Chicago.

Former Speaker Michael Madigan appointed Harris to be the chief budgeteer during the Rauner administration. Harris, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, announced in November that he would not seek re-election after the completion of his current term this year. Harris said he will share his knowledge and experience of the budget process with the team to “pass the mantle.”

“We need to continue to keep moving forward,” Harris said in an interview. “Illinois just had its first bond rating increase in a quarter of a century. We need to continue to keep that going strong.”

Harris will lead the group rounded out with Reps. Will Davis, D-Homewood; Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero; Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside; and Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, during this legislative session.

“We have made great progress putting Illinois on the path toward financial stability,” Welch said in a statement. “With the stewardship of Leader Harris and this incredibly diverse group of state representatives, I am confident we will have a fiscally responsible budget that prioritizes the needs of hardworking Illinoisans.”

The budget negotiation team will meet with caucuses and then work with the Gov. JB Pritzker’s office to determine priorities for the next fiscal year.

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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