CAPITOL RECAP: 5/7/2022
Lawmakers react to leaked draft abortion decision
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SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois Democrats warned of an “end to the constitutional right to privacy” if a leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade becomes finalized as precedent.
“It means women who lose access to the full suite of medical advances that give them choices in how and when they want to start a family are at risk,” Pritzker said at a morning news conference in Chicago.
At the same time, however, the Democrats touted a recent string of Illinois laws aimed at protecting the access to an abortion for Illinoisans and those visiting the state to receive reproductive health care.
The news conference was called in response to a Monday evening report from Politico that outlined the leaked draft decision that would strike down Roe v. Wade, a decision which has protected abortion rights as constitutional rights for nearly five decades.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start” and the issue of regulating abortion must be returned to the states.
Pritzker said that if the ruling stands as a reversal of 50 years of settled law, the implications on privacy and health care access could be dire.
“It's not just that they're taking away reproductive rights,” he said. “It's that this is a slope that they're headed down that is going to take away all of the rights that were granted as a result of the right to privacy. It's a constitutional right to privacy, determined by the court 50 years ago and reinforced along the way, and now they're taking it away.”
Advocates said overturning Roe would be devastating for millions who will be forced into unwanted pregnancies and that it will lead to illegal alternatives that could put the mother’s life at risk.
Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, said she worries that Black and Latino communities, which are already disproportionately impacted by lack of health care access, will be targeted and criminalized by anti-abortion laws.
Rep. Kelly Cassidy said uprooting the precedent in Roe could affect interpretations of law regarding birth control and marriage equality.
While Democrats said overturning Roe would mark a “dark day in our nation's history,” they also credited their party for creating a “forcefield” to guarantee a women's right to reproductive health care in Illinois.
In 2019, Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act enshrining in state law the fundamental right to an abortion. In December 2021, he signed a law ending a requirement that doctors must notify parents of a minor seeking an abortion 48 hours prior to the procedure.
Planned Parenthood of Illinois projected that an additional 14,000 women from Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee would likely travel to southern Illinois for abortion care if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
GOP REACTION: GOP governor candidate and current state Sen. Darren Bailey, of Xenia, said in statement that he is “proudly pro-life” and that if elected governor, he will promote policies and groups that would empower women with “real options.” While he didn’t directly comment on the draft opinion, he said he would try to scale back recent changes made by Democrats.
“As governor, my focus will be restoring parental notification, ending taxpayer-funded abortion, and prioritizing and ensuring viable options that save lives and support women and families before, during and after pregnancy,” Bailey said.
Bailey has received endorsements by the Illinois Federation for Right to Life, Illinois Citizens for Life and Illinois Family Action.
GOP governor candidate Jesse Sullivan said in a news release under the headline “prayer works” that he is “overjoyed at what could be a generational change in the soul of our country.”
He noted that with the Supreme Court decision putting power back in the hands of the state, it “threatens to make Illinois’s current abortion laws even more heinous” and called for the end of late-term, partial-birth abortions and rollbacks of recent Illinois laws.
Gary Rabine, another GOP governor candidate, also said he welcomes the court's reversal.
Richard Irvin, the Aurora mayor who has received the financial backing of megadonor Ken Griffin, was not among those issuing a statement, with his campaign declining to do so until a final decision is rendered by the court. His running mate, Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, is one of the staunchest anti-abortion lawmakers in the General Assembly.
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RATINGS UPGRADE: Fitch Ratings on Thursday raised the state of Illinois’ rating for general obligation bonds two notches, to BBB+, while S&P Global Ratings on Friday upgraded state bonds by one notch.
That means all three major credit rating agencies have updated Illinois credit by two notches in the past year.
“The upgrade to 'BBB+' reflects fundamental improvements in Illinois' fiscal resilience including full unwinding of pandemic-era and certain pre-pandemic non-recurring fiscal measures, meaningful contributions to reserves and sustained evidence of more normal fiscal decision-making,” Fitch said in its announcement.
Fitch is one of three major credit rating agencies that grade government-issued debt. Moody’s Investors Service raised Illinois’ rating on April 21 this year after giving the state its first upgrade in 20 years in July 2021. S&P’s Friday upgrade came after it previously raised Illinois’ rating one week after Moody’s did in July 2021.
“The upgrade reflects what we view as improvement in the state's financial flexibility and monthly revenue reporting transparency, continued timely budget adoption and elimination of the bill backlog, as well as recent surplus revenues being used to promote what we view as longer-term financial stability, although credit pressures remain,” S&P Global stated.
Before those changes, Illinois had suffered multiple credit downgrades, many of which were driven by the two-year budget impasse from July 2015 to August 2017, leading the state to the lowest investment-grade rating available.
The move by Fitch puts Illinois’ bond rating three notches above “speculative grade,” or what is commonly known as “junk” status. Bonds in that category generally cannot be held by institutional investors such as mutual funds or pension systems and, therefore, are subject to higher interest rates.
In its analysis, Fitch noted that Illinois’ financial performance has improved recently but remains weaker than other U.S. states. It gave the state credit for shoring up its cash reserves, reducing its backlog of past-due bills, retiring some outstanding debt and “smoother fiscal decision-making.”
But it also noted that the state continues to face large unfunded pension liabilities, currently estimated at more than $130 billion.
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PENSION BUYOUT: Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday signed House Bill 4292, which authorizes $1 billion in borrowing to extend a program that allows workers in the state’s five pension systems to take early buyouts of their benefits.
That program, first launched under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, was set to expire in 2024. The new legislation extends that to 2026.
Pritzker said recent credit rating upgrades were the result of passing four consecutive balanced budgets, including the one just passed for the upcoming fiscal year that dedicates $1 billion to the state’s so-called "rainy day fund” and another $500 million above what’s required by law to reduce the state’s pension liability.
He said the buyout program so far has reduced that liability by more than $1.4 billion and extending the program for an additional two years will reduce it even further.
The bill passed with bipartisan support, 108-2 in the House and 52-1 in the Senate.
Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, who is stepping down from the General Assembly this year, was a cosponsor of the bill and one of the chief sponsors of the original legislation.
“I said back in 2018 when the ‘Batinick Buyout’ first passed through the General Assembly that we had to make changes to our pension system if we were going to solve our long-term fiscal problems in Illinois,” he said in a statement. “I am delighted to see this program extended after successful implementation that has saved the state over $1 billion on our unfunded pension liability. I look forward to seeing how much more we can save to finally overcome and move past our state’s longtime pension crisis.”
Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza also praised the legislation as another move to stabilize the state’s fiscal situation.
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LAW ENFORCEMENT MEMORIAL: As rain steadily fell in Springfield Thursday, May 5, there was a somber feeling among the law enforcement officers and elected officials that gathered at the Illinois State Library to honor 11 fallen officers killed in the line of duty in 2021.
The 11 officers honored were officer Joseph T. Cappello III of Melrose Park Police Department; officer Gary Steven Hibbs of Chicago Heights Police Department; trooper Todd A. Hanneken of Illinois State Police; Lt. James J. Kouski Jr. of Hometown Police Department; officer Allen Serta Giacchetti of Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department; officer Christopher Neil Oberheim of Champaign Police Department; officer Brian Russell Pierce Jr of Brooklyn Police Department; officer Ella Grace French of Chicago Police Department; officer Tyler Nathaniel Timmins of Pontoon Beach Police Department; Deputy Sean Ian Riley of Wayne County Sheriff’s Office; and Sgt. Marlene R. Rittmanic of Bradley Police Department.
The names of the fallen officers will be engraved on the memorial statue that sits on the west lawn of the State Capitol. Family members of the fallen officers were presented with plaques from Gov. JB Pritzker and received a wreath to commemorate their loved one.
Amber Oberheim, widow of Officer Neil Oberheim, said in a follow-up interview that the event speaks volumes to lawmakers and elected leaders because when someone loses a loved one while on duty, they all feel it.
Officer Oberheim was shot and killed on May 19, 2021, at 3:20 a.m. while responding to a domestic disturbance call at an apartment complex in Champaign.
Comptroller Susana Mendoza said the law enforcement is too often a thankless job and the individuals “willingly choose to take an oath to protect and serve” people who they have never met and are willing to give their life to protect others.
She shared the story of her brother, who worked at the Chicago Police Department for more than 20 years, didn’t always make the healthiest lifestyle choices and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
In November 2020, Mendoza said her brother was hospitalized for more than 17 days with COVID-19 and struggled with life-threatening conditions, such as a stroke and losing both kidneys. She said he survived and is slowly recovering but that his life will never be the same.
Mendoza said she wants every officer to understand that “you’re human and it’s okay” to ask for help.
Pritzker also recognized Knox County Deputy Nicholas Weist who was killed in the line of duty April 29, 2022, while responding to an emergency call.
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DENT DENIED: Former Chicago Bear, Pro Football Hall-of-Famer and 1986 Super Bowl MVP Richard Dent sought the identities of three employees of energy supplier Constellation NewEnergy Inc. in pretrial discovery in an effort to sue the individuals for defamation.
But in a 4-2 decision, the Illinois
Supreme Court ruled that the accusers in this case have a “qualified privilege” to anonymity, which Dent failed to overcome, because their claims were made during a workplace investigation of sexual harassment.
Dent’s team blasted the decision as “without precedent” Friday and said it was planning to file a petition asking the court to revisit the decision, alleging it misunderstood or overlooked facts.
The basics of the case are that Dent’s energy supply, products and services company, RLD Resources, had several contracts with Constellation that were severed in 2018 after Constellation investigated a claim from a female employee who accused Dent of telling her she had a “butt like a sister” in 2016 in Philadelphia and groping her at an event in Chicago in 2018. The only named witness said they had seen Dent acting “drunk and disorderly” at a separate Chicago location prior to the alleged groping. Dent has denied the allegations.
The contracts were at-will, so Constellation had a legal right to sever them without cause. Dent was not suing Constellation for defamation, but for the names of the accusers who he believes defamed him.
Republican Justice Michael Burke wrote the majority opinion. Democrats Robert Carter and Mary Jane Theis joined Republican David Overstreet in the majority.
The opinion quoted a 1999 ruling in Vickers v. Abbott Laboratories, which stated, if “no privilege existed, then victims of harassment and companies with a goal of preventing harassment would be ‘handcuffed’ by a fear of defamation liability.”
While Dent didn’t know who the accusers were, Constellation did divulge the alleged misconduct. And in his petition to the court, the majority wrote, Dent failed to establish “any reckless act showing a disregard for Dent’s rights” – a necessity to overcome the privilege.
Republican Justice Rita Garman wrote the dissent on behalf of her and Democratic Justice P. Scott Neville, stating she was “troubled” that the majority believed a party seeking defamation claims would have to allege concrete facts against a person whose identity is not known to overcome the privilege.
“I am concerned that the majority opinion essentially treats the qualified privilege as an absolute privilege, which in turn endows a private company and its third-party investigators with quasi-judicial status and impermissibly deprives a class of individuals of the ability to restore their reputations following investigations that arguably lack procedural safeguards,” she wrote.
Dent’s attorney, Paul Neilan, said the team would petition the court for a rehearing under Supreme Court Rule 367, and he also took issue with giving the witness of “drunken disorderly conduct” the same privilege, even though he didn’t testify to the alleged groping.
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STANDARDIZED TESTS: Teachers and other education professionals are urging the Illinois State Board of Education to reduce the amount of time students spend on standardized tests each year and to adopt a new testing system that produces more useful information to help teachers improve their instruction.
Under state and federal law, all students in grades 3-8 are tested each year in English language arts and math. They are also tested in science in grades 5, 8 and 11. In Illinois, those tests are known as the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, or IAR, and are taken by students in the spring.
Nationwide testing mandates are a product of the 2002 federal law known as the No Child Left Behind Act which uses them to hold teachers, schools and districts accountable for meeting state educational standards.
Recently, though, the State Board of Education has considered overhauling its testing system and at one point proposed replacing the single year-end test with three smaller tests that would be given in the fall, winter and spring. The plan also would have given districts the option of testing children in kindergarten through grade 2.
Amid pushback from teachers unions and others, however, ISBE backed away from that plan last year and instead commissioned a survey from the national Center for Assessment to get feedback from teachers, administrators, parents, students and others about ways to improve the state’s testing system.
The results of that survey were presented to the board April 20. Among the key findings was that many people found the current testing system doesn’t provide much instructionally useful information because the tests are administered in the spring and results aren’t released until the next fall after students have already advanced to another grade.
Many respondents also said too much time is devoted to preparing for and administering tests, taking away from actual classroom instruction.
Many people surveyed also suggested the state could provide more resources to help local districts give interim tests at different times of the year – tests that would be completely separate from the accountability tests given in the spring – to help teachers tailor their instruction to meet their students’ immediate needs.
Finally, the report recommended that ISBE take its time and move deliberately before making any major changes to the testing system.
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MORTGAGE ASSISTANCE: Gov. JB Pritzker was joined by the Illinois Housing Development Authority and local elected officials in Chicago Friday to promote the Illinois Emergency Homeowner Assistance Fund for struggling homeowners.
Overseen by IHDA, the emergency assistance fund is funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act and is dedicated to assisting Illinois homeowners who have struggled to pay their mortgage or other housing expenses such as utilities and home energy services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ARPA was passed by Congress in 2021 and Illinois received $309 million to cover housing costs such as past-due mortgage payments, property taxes, property insurance, and delinquent homeowner and condo association fees. Part of the delay in setting up the fund was a wait for federal approval.
Homeowners can apply for a grant up to $30,000 in mortgage support that will eliminate or reduce payments associated with homeownership.
To be approved, homeowners must consult with a certified Housing and Urban Development counselor or speak to their mortgage service provider to ask for help and then, depending on the outcome, apply for assistance through the IHDA online portal.
Applicants are required to have a certificate from a HUD-certified housing counselor or a letter from the mortgage servicer detailing efforts to resolve the delinquency.
To qualify, homeowners must be at least 30 days behind on their mortgage, have household income at or below 150 percent of the area median income, own and occupy the property as their primary residence and have experienced financial struggles directly related to COVID-19 on or after Jan. 21, 2020.
When applying, homeowners will need to provide proof of identification, household income, household occupancy, ownership and delinquency of the mortgage, property tax, or insurance statements.
People can apply for funds at no cost until the end of May through the IHDA website at www.ihda.org, or they can contact the Housing Assistance Fund call center for assistance at 866-454-3571.
The IHDA has also partnered with nonprofit housing counseling agencies, community-based organizations and legal aid groups to assist homeowners facing language or technological barriers to the online application portal.
Renters can apply for assistance through the Illinois Department of Human Services. Eligible households could receive up to 15 months of rent payments, including previous rent owed from June 2020 through August 2021.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.