CAPITOL RECAP: Governor's office gives glimpse into budget proposal

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office says he will propose a budget with no tax increases for the upcoming fiscal year, and the deficit is now projected at about $2.5 billion less than previously thought.

The governor introduces his proposed budget each year, but lawmakers in the General Assembly have the ultimate say as to what funding gets appropriated. Pritzker is scheduled to outline his full budget proposal on Feb. 17 in a virtual message, although details have not been finalized, according to his office.

In a brief, 250-word outline of the upcoming fiscal year 2022 budget proposal, the governor’s office said the state will keep spending flat from a year ago while closing “corporate tax loopholes” worth $900 million. The outline did not identify any specific loopholes.

Pritzker’s office said the FY22 budget will continue to include $700 million in state government spending cuts his administration initiated this year upon the failure of the graduated income tax constitutional amendment.

Cigarette taxes would be moved into the general revenue fund as well, according to the outline. In 2019, the General Assembly increased the tax on a pack of cigarettes to $2.98, up from $1.98. The tax increase was to go to the state’s Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan.

There would also be no new state funding for the evidence-based funding model for K-12 education, according to the outline.

The evidence-based funding model was passed in 2017 and called for an added $350 million in state investment in schools each year to be driven toward the districts that were furthest from funding adequacy based on a number of factors. But this year will mark the second straight in which the state did not direct any new money toward the formula.

In a bit of good news, the deficit for FY22 is now projected to be $3 billion, down from the $5.5 billion of previous estimates, as the state’s economy “performed more strongly than expected.” The governor’s office also cited his decision to expedite repayment of $700 million borrowed from the federal Municipal Liquidity Facility program as a contributing factor to the lowered anticipated deficit.

The new fiscal year begins July 1 and lawmakers generally look to pass the annual operating budget by the time of the scheduled adjournment of the General Assembly on May 31 each year.

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VACCINE PHASE EXPANDED: Gov. JB Pritzker announced Wednesday that the state plans to expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to individuals of all ages who have comorbidities and underlying conditions by Feb. 25.

Speaking at a news conference in Quincy Wednesday, Pritzker said the expansion of eligibility under Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution plan comes as a result of increased availability of doses at the federal level.

Pritzker said the expansion of eligibility would include individuals with comorbidities as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as diabetes, cancer, lung disease or heart disease.

According to a Wednesday news release from the governor’s office, areas that have “substantially completed” their existing Phase 1B population can move ahead with the vaccine expansion earlier than Feb. 25 at the determination of local public health officials and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

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VACCINE UPDATE: Vaccine operations and eligibility are expanding across the state as Illinois’ seven-day rolling positivity rate remained at 3.3 percent for the fourth consecutive day Thursday.

While touring an Illinois Department of Human Services vaccination site at the Elgin Mental Health Center Thursday, Gov. JB Pritzker announced that over the last week, Illinois was the number one state among the top 10 most populous states in the nation for per capita vaccinations.

As of Thursday, a total of 2.3 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered to the state.

Of those, 1.9 million doses have been delivered to health care providers and 456,100 have been allocated to the federal government’s Pharmacy Partnership program for long-term care facilities.

On Wednesday, 69,029 vaccine doses were administered. More than 1.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Illinois, including 226,974 for long-term care facilities.

The seven-day rolling average of vaccines administered in the state is 56,094 doses.

Pritzker’s administration also announced Thursday that, by request of the state, three federally resourced Disaster Survivor Assistance teams will be deployed to assist local health departments at county-run vaccination sites in underserved communities with vulnerable populations.

The first team will be deployed to St. Clair County this week and the two remaining teams will be deployed to assist the Cook County Department of Public Health in the coming days.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: The state reported 2,838 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 Thursday, Feb. 11, out of 96,525 test results reported, including 102 additional deaths.

As of Wednesday night, 1,954 COVID-19 patients were reported hospitalized in Illinois, the first time that number fell below 2,000 since Oct. 14. There were 448 patients reported to be in intensive care unit beds and 227 reported on ventilators.

The state reported a total of 1.15 million COVID-19 cases of 16.9 million total test results, including 19,841 total deaths across the state’s 102 counties since the pandemic started.

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VACCINE QUESTIONS: State senators questioned public health officials regarding the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts in a Thursday hearing, one day after Gov. JB Pritzker announced that the state would expand vaccine eligibility under Phase 1B by Feb. 25.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike and Deputy Director Andrew Friend testified before the committee in a more than three-hour hearing, noting the state faces significant challenges in meeting vaccine demand with limited federal supply.

“Our greatest challenge is that we don’t have enough doses to satisfy all of the people that need it, want it, and that are eligible,” Ezike told the committee.

Ezike said the state is currently recieving approximately 280,000 vaccine doses per week, a number that she expects will steadily increase as the federal government works to ramp up production.

Until then, Ezike stressed continued patience and noted the state will aim to distribute the vaccine as quickly as it arrives.

Some senators questioned why the state saw a lag when compared to other states in its initial per capita vaccination efforts.

Illinois had previously ranked as low as 47th in vaccines issued per capita three weeks ago according to data from the New York Times. The state has since improved to 29th nationwide, according to that database, and is now issuing vaccines at a quicker pace than it is receiving them.

Friend attributed the initial lag in numbers to requests from local public health departments to stay in Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution plan longer than other states.

Phase 1A included frontline health care workers and long-term care residents, while Phase 1B initially included non-health care frontline workers, people aged 65 and older and inmates. The Phase 1B expansion projected to occur on or before Feb. 25 will include residents aged 16 and older with underlying conditions, comorbidities and disabilities.

Friend said the state is fully prepared to administer vaccines at a mass scale as soon as supply thresholds from the federal government are increased. Mass vaccination efforts can begin once the state reaches approximately 900,000 dose deliveries per week, he said.

“Until we get to that point, we’re busy building that capacity and capability across the state so as that vaccine increases, we can get it to as many people as possible,” Friend said.

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JOBLESS CLAIMS: New claims for unemployment benefits continued to fall last week while overall unemployment remained at historically high levels, according to data reportred Thursday, Feb. 11.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security said Thursday that 34,259 Illinois workers filed first-time unemployment claims during the week that ended Saturday, Feb. 6. That was down from 40,008 the previous week, but a 250 percent increase over the number recorded during the same week a year ago.

In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 6,038 Illinoisans filed first-time claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally-funded program that provides benefits to independent contractors, self-employed individuals and others not covered by traditional employment. That was a 46 percent decline from the prior week.

During the week that ended Jan. 30, there were 298,615 people receiving continuing unemployment benefits, down 4.7 percent from the prior week.

The federal agency also reported that during the week ending Jan. 23, another 158,051 people in Illinois filed claims for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, another federally-funded program that provides extended benefits to people who have exhausted their state benefits. That was down 6.3 percent from the prior week.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Labor reported a seasonally-adjusted 793,000 first-time claims for regular unemployment last week, down about 19,000, or 2.4 percent from the prior week.

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HEALTH INSURANCE REOPENING: Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Thursday that enrollment in the Affordable Care Act health insurance marketplace will reopen on Monday, Feb. 15, and remain open through May 15.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, offers subsidized health insurance plans for people who do not have access to affordable health coverage through their employer and who do not qualify for Medicaid.

Enrollment is typically open only during October and November for the following year, but President Joe Biden signed an executive order opening a special enrollment period in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in states that participate in the federal marketplace.

During the special enrollment period, people already enrolled in an ACA plan will also be allowed to change their plan.

In Illinois, the marketplace is known as Get Covered Illinois. People interested in signing up or changing their coverage can visit www.getcoveredillinois.gov.

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NEW HOUSE RULES: The Illinois House adopted new rules on Wednesday, Feb. 10, that Democrats say are intended to make the legislative process more transparent, but Republicans argue they don’t go far enough in reforming how the General Assembly operates.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said the rules are “just a first step in reforming ways of the past and injecting more transparency and accountability, while ensuring our chamber operates effectively and fairly.”

One new rule limits any individual to serving no more than five biennial sessions, or 10 years, in either the office of speaker or minority leader. Madigan served in that role for all but two years from 1983 until this January.

Another major change allows legislative committees to meet and take votes remotely “in the case of pestilence or public danger.” The inability to meet virtually has been a handicap for the House since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which virtually shut down the 2020 regular session as well as the fall veto session.

House leaders have said they plan to limit most legislative activity to remote committee meetings at least through the end of February, and they don’t plan on the full House coming back into session to vote on bills until sometime in March or April.

Other changes are more technical in nature, but still important to the legislative process, including rules that apply to the Rules Committee itself. That’s a committee, usually made up of top legislative leaders, where all bills and resolutions go first and then get referred to other committees.

The committee also had the option of sitting on bills and not referring them to any other committee, thus ensuring they would never receive a hearing or come up for a vote.

Under the new rules, in odd-numbered years, the Rules Committee will be required to refer all House bills it receives to a substantive committee before the deadline for committees to act on bills, as long as the bill was filed in a timely fashion. Exceptions exist if the principal sponsor asks for it to be held for some reason.

Republicans, however, argued that the change would make little difference because individual committee chairs could still stifle legislation, either by never calling a hearing on a bill or by referring it to a subcommittee, which would be under no obligation to ever meet.

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UNEMPLOYMENT ISSUES: Representatives of the Illinois Department of Employment Security on Wednesday testified before the Senate Labor Committee about fraudulent claims, continued delays in responding to unemployment applicants and a multibillion dollar deficit in the fund that pays out benefits.

Acting Illinois Department of Employment Security Director Kristin Richards and members of the department’s staff fielded questions about the backlog that individuals face when they contact the agency with questions about their claims.

While the agency has seen fewer traditional unemployment claims, it has continued to see individuals file roughly 700,000 to 800,000 claims per month since August through the pandemic unemployment programs created through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and other federal programs. Those include the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, and the Extended Benefits program

IDES has put in place a callback system to reduce wait times for callers and a web form online for people to submit questions, but Richards said individuals still wait between one to two weeks for a call back from the agency, depending on the subject of the call.

Richards also announced during the virtual committee meeting that the department will begin to send out waivers next week to individuals who had received an overpayment of benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program providing unemployment benefits to gig workers and others not traditionally eligible for them.

By law, claimants who were overpaid benefits must repay the money they were not due under unemployment laws. The waiver authority provided in federal law allows the state to waive the repayment in certain circumstances if the overpayment was not the fault of the claimant.

The overpayment waivers are available through the federal Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act, or CAA, which was signed into law in December.

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CEJA REFILED: Lawmakers on Tuesday, Feb. 9, reintroduced the Clean Energy Jobs Act, or CEJA, which was originally introduced in 2019 as an overhaul of the state’s energy industry crafted with a focus on carbon reduction as well as social and environmental justice.

Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, House sponsor of CEJA, joined Senate sponsor Sen. Cristiana Castro, D-Elgin, and other advocates Tuesday in pledging to pass CEJA by the end of May.

The Future Energy Jobs Act of 2016 made clean energy one of the fastest growing job sectors in the state and laid the foundation for the future of energy efficiency in Illinois by creating renewable energy credits among other provisions. CEJA is an attempt to build on that existing legislative framework.

Over one year ago, in Gov. JB Pritzker’s State of the State address, he promised that he would prioritize clean energy legislation. But amid the ongoing bribery scandal and the COVID-19 pandemic, CEJA took a back seat to other matters in the General Assembly while advocates continued to push for passage of the energy overhaul.

Yet with the election of President Joe Biden, tackling climate change has become a national priority, and advocates say it’s the perfect time to put CEJA back in the spotlight in Illinois.

Advocates say CEJA would push for a “just transition” to renewable energy for communities affected by the closure of plants that not only provide jobs, but act as a tax base for school districts.

It would do so by creating Clean Jobs Workforce Hubs, which the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition describes as a network of frontline organizations that provide direct and sustained support for minority and disadvantaged communities, including job opportunities.

The 900-page bill, filed by Williams as House Bill 804, would increase development of renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar power, by committing Illinois to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, cutting carbon from the power sector by 2030, reducing pollution from gas and diesel vehicles in the transportation sector, and creating jobs and economic opportunity across the state.

Although the original version of CEJA included provisions to protect consumers and prevent utility corruption, Williams said the bill now contains stronger language in response to the deferred prosecution agreement in which ComEd admitted to a yearslong bribery scheme aimed at influencing the state’s former House speaker, Michael Madigan.

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NEW GOP CHAIR: The Illinois Republican Party Central Committee on Saturday named Springfield attorney Don Tracy as its new chairman, replacing Tim Schneider, who had held the post for more than six years.

Tracy, a partner in the firm Brown Hay and Stephens, also served as chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board during former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.

Tracy was chosen over two other candidates, Mark Shaw, who is the Lake County GOP Chairman and president of the Illinois Republican County Chairman's Association, and Scott Gryder, the Kendall County Board Chairman. Tracy is also the first party chairman since 1988 who is not from Chicago or the collar counties.

He now faces the challenge of unifying the state party organization, where divisions have erupted over the impeachment of former President Donald Trump.

On Thursday, two days before the chairmanship election, the state party issued a statement saying that while it strongly disagreed with U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger and other Republicans who voted for impeachment of President Donald Trump, “we will let the voters be the arbiters of any vote taken by an elected official.”

“The stakes of the 2022 election here in Illinois – defeating Gov. JB Pritzker and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, winning back congressional seats, and electing Republican judges to the Illinois Supreme Court – are too monumental to engage in a circular firing squad,” the statement read.

Republican U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, Darin LaHood and Mike Bost all issued statements Monday praising the choice of Tracy as the new chairman.

“Illinoisans have had enough of the Democrats’ destructive policies in Springfield, and I know Don’s conservative leadership will help put the GOP on a path to help fix the many challenges our state faces,” Bost said in a statement. “I am excited to work with Don and unite our party for victory in 2022!”

Democrats, on the other hand, responded to Tracy’s election by criticizing his ties to both Trump and Rauner, and by criticizing his tenure as chairman of the Gaming Board.

Tracy served as chairman from February 2015 until June 2019 when he resigned following an Office of Executive Inspector General’s report that found he had engaged in improper political activity by making several campaign contributions while serving on the board, in violation of the Riverboat Gambling Act.

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SENIOR RACIAL DISPARITIES: The senior advocacy group AARP is backing forthcoming legislation aimed at addressing racial disparities in health care, economic security and digital connectivity for Illinoisans over 50.

AARP Illinois, alongside community advocacy groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Chicago Urban League and the Resurrection Project, released a report Monday analyzing substantial gaps between white Illinoisans aged 50 and over, and minority groups in that age range.

The research was conducted by Loyola University Chicago.

That report, as part of the “Disrupt Disparities Initiative,” provides several policy recommendations to be taken up as bills in the General Assembly to solve some of the challenges faced by older Illinoisans.

One of the policy recommendations under the subject of economic security is to expand the Illinois Secure Choice savings program, a retirement savings program for workers, to be available to workers at small businesses even if they have just one employee. Currently, businesses that do not provide a retirement plan for their workers are only required to enroll in Secure Choice if they have 25 employees or more and have been operational for two years.

Another policy recommendation to be solved via legislation is the expansion of eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit to include caregivers and adults who are 65 and over. According to the report, Black and Hispanic Illinoisans are overrepresented in low-wage jobs not covered by the EITC.

Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said during a Monday news conference that the process of filing legislation initiating some of the changes is underway.

Many of the health issues highlighted in the report have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black, Hispanic and Asian Illinoisans have died at rates higher than their share of the state population, and at higher rates than their white neighbors.

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NEW SENATORS: Two new Democratic Senators were sworn in Saturday, Feb. 6, to fill vacancies in the Illinois General Assembly.

Doris Turner, a former Springfield city councilperson, and Mike Simmons, former policy director for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are also the two newest members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.

Simmons fills the vacancy left by former Sen. Heather Steans, who resigned at the end of January from her seat representing the 7th Senate District on Chicago’s north side.

He was chosen by the Democratic committeemen and committeewomen from the Chicago wards that comprise the 7th Senate District.

He is the first openly gay person to serve in the Illinois Senate, the first person of color to represent Chicago’s north side lake front district and first Ethiopian-American to serve in the General Assembly, Simmons wrote in a statement on social media.

Simmons is the founder and CEO of Blue Sky Strategies, a firm specializing in “equitable urban planning, youth empowerment, government accountability, and anti-racist public policy,” according to the website.

He also serves as the deputy director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of the Obama Foundation that seeks to build “safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of color where they feel valued and have clear pathways to opportunity,” the website states.

Before that, he worked as a deputy commissioner in the city of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, and as policy director under Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Doris Turner will finish out the term of former Sen. Andy Manar, who resigned last month as Senator of the 48th Senate District in central Illinois to take a job as a senior advisor for Gov. JB Pritzker.

She was appointed Saturday by the Democratic county chairs of the 48th Senate District. The 48th Senate District includes all or parts of Christian, Macon, Macoupin, Madison, Montgomery, and Sangamon counties.

She served on the Sangamon County Board before her election to the city council in 2011, and will step down from her role as Sangamon County Democratic Party chair, said Dan Kovats, who is first-vice chair of the Sangamon County Democratic Party.

Turner, out of eight total candidates, was the unanimous choice of the six county chairs on Saturday, according to a news release. Kovats was the Sangamon County chair proxy for Turner.