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CAPITOL RECAP: Hundreds of bills will head to Pritzker

CAPITOL RECAP: Hundreds of bills will head to Pritzker

By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – With the first year of the 102nd General Assembly mostly wrapped up, lawmakers as of Friday had officially passed 664 bills through both houses for eventual consideration by the governor.

Gov. JB Pritzker had signed 17 of them as of Friday, including the Thursday signing of the state’s operating budget and a bill making several changes to the state election code.

Charlie Wheeler, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield who covered the Illinois General Assembly for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than two decades, said he was struck by the “progressive nature” of the bills passed by the General Assembly this year.

“The voting legislation, for example, you look at what other states are doing and then you look at what we did, that was kind of an example” of the strongly Democratic legislation that passed this year, Wheeler said.

Like next year’s budget, the elections bill passed with support from only supermajority Democrats – a common theme for some of the more controversial legislation that has passed during Pritzker’s time in office. Partisan bills included a 2019 minimum wage hike, placing an ill-fated graduated income tax on the 2020 ballot, criminal justice reforms that passed in January, and newly drawn legislative maps that will likely help Democrats maintain those supermajorities.

While there have been bipartisan victories as well, such as the budget and capital infrastructure plans passed during Pritzker’s first year in office, legalization of adult-use marijuana, and expanding gambling, the partisan makeup of the General Assembly has allowed the governor to use his veto sparingly.

Wheeler said it’s common to see fewer vetoes in such a situation. But he also noted Pritzker has worked well with Democrats in the General Assembly, despite some reported clashes, particularly pertaining to negotiations behind an energy bill that has repeatedly stalled when nearing a vote this year.

Pritzker has used the veto just 11 times as governor.

* * *

COAL ASH LAWSUIT: The Illinois attorney general on Tuesday sued a Delaware company that owns the now-closed Vermilion Power Station over claims of illegal pollution at the former coal plant, resulting from the storage of coal ash at the site.

The six-count lawsuit against Dynegy Midwest Generation LLC claims the company’s disposal of coal ash in three unlined pits violated the state’s Environmental Protection Act by contaminating the groundwater with toxic pollutants contained in the coal ash, including lead, arsenic and mercury.

The groundwater at the site flows into the three coal ash pits, which contain a total of 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash located at the site of the former Vermilion Power Station, and discharges into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, which flows into the Vermilion River. The Vermilion River flows to the east into the Wabash River.

Long-term groundwater monitoring at the plant revealed that concentrations of certain toxic pollutants — including arsenic, boron, sulfate and iron — exceeded the groundwater quality standards outlined in the state’s administrative code.

The lawsuit, in Vermilion County court, was brought at the request of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which found in 2018 the company’s disposal of coal ash violated the state’s groundwater quality standards.

Raoul’s office also filed an interim agreed order on Tuesday that would require Dynegy to prepare a safety response plan for the coal ash ponds at the site, as well as interim corrective actions that would be subject to approval by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Corrective actions in the interim order include requiring Dynegy to create written scopes of work for a groundwater collection trench and dewatering of the ponds, and to conduct riverbank inspections at the site.

Dynegy would also be required to prepare reports for public meetings where the company will discuss plans for removing the coal ash currently in the ponds.

The interim order has not yet been approved by a Vermilion County judge.

Vistra Corp, which merged with Dynegy in 2018, issued a statement Wednesday praising the agreement.

* * *

MURDER CHARGE VACATED: A woman found guilty of a McHenry County murder had her conviction vacated last week after serving 19 years of her 27-year sentence and maintaining her innocence throughout her imprisonment.

With the help of the lawyers from the Illinois Innocence Project, Jennifer McMullan was released from prison June 16 as a result of a plea agreement entered in McHenry County court.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally’s plea deal to grant McMullan’s release and vacate her murder conviction depended on if she agreed to plead guilty to an armed robbery charge in the case.

Stephanie Kamel, one of McMullan’s attorneys at IIP, said her client faced an extremely difficult decision of whether to accept a plea to a lesser charge or remain wrongfully imprisoned for years to come.

“Driving her decision was her father, whose health is deteriorating rapidly due to Alzheimer’s disease,” Kamel said in a news release. “While we would like to have seen Jennifer’s conviction vacated with no plea agreement required, we are glad she is finally free and reunited with her family after an almost 20-year absence.”

McMullan was one of four people — along with Kenneth Smith, David Collett and Justin Houghtaling — who were arrested for carrying out the attempted robbery and fatal shooting of Raul Briseno at a McHenry restaurant in March 2001.

McMullan’s release comes less than two months after a federal appeals court released Smith from prison and vacated his murder conviction, overruling prior Illinois state courts’ decisions in his case.

The convictions of McMullan and Smith were based on Houghtaling’s confession to police days after the murder. Houghtaling, who confessed in exchange for a lesser sentence, later recanted his confession.

After McMullan and Smith were found guilty at trial, their appeals focused on an alternate group of suspects — known as the DeCicco group — who confessed to the murder on multiple occasions but also later recanted.

* * *

RAUNER SETTLES LAWSUIT: People targeted by a campaign robocall from former Gov. Bruce Rauner since his first campaign in 2014 will be eligible to earn a portion of a $1 million settlement agreement that was reached last month in a class-action case.

The agreement would end the federal lawsuit against the former governor and his campaign entity, Citizens for Rauner, that was brought by Peter Garvey, an Illinois resident who received three prerecorded voice mails from Rauner’s campaign in 2018.

The amount owed to each person has not been determined, according to the settlement notice website, because the total number of class members and the costs of settlement administration, as well as attorney’s fees, haven’t been finalized.

The number of class members could exceed 35,000 people, according to Garvey’s lawsuit.

As part of the settlement agreement, Rauner and his campaign deny all allegations of wrongdoing and liability made it the lawsuit.

The campaign robocalls that left prerecorded voicemails to Garvey’s cellphone encouraged people to vote for Rauner in the upcoming March 2018 primary election.

The 30-second message featuring Rauner’s voice said, in part, “Illinois is worth fightin’ for and with real reform together we can bring back Illinois and provide the future our children deserve. Please join me in the fight against Mike Madigan and his special interest allies. I’m askin’ for your vote on Tuesday, March 20.”

The messages were left through so-called “ringless voicemails,” which is technology used to deliver voicemail messages the same way as text messages.

The lawsuit claimed that the ringless voicemails made to class members, like Garvey, violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Last month, a federal judge preliminarily approved the proposed settlement agreement. The final hearing on the agreement is set for Sept. 7.

More information about the settlement or submitting a claim is available at www.CitizensForRaunerTCPASettlement.com.

* * *

FAITH-BASED CARE CASE: A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision evoked a 10-year-old controversy in Illinois over whether faith-based charities can be prohibited from contracting with the state for foster care and adoption services on the grounds that they refuse to work with unmarried or same-sex couples.

In a 9-0 decision Thursday, the nation’s high court ruled against the city of Philadelphia, which had refused to renew a contract for foster care services with Catholic Social Services, arguing that the church-based agency’s refusal to place children in the homes of unmarried and same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination clause in the agency’s contract with the city.

Illinois went through a similar controversy in 2011, shortly after the state legalized civil unions among same-sex couples, when the Department of Children and Family Services refused to renew a contract with Catholic Charities of Illinois over a similar policy.

At that time, however, a circuit court judge in Sangamon County sided with the state and dismissed a lawsuit brought by Catholic Charities.

In last week’s Supreme Court case, Fulton v. Philadelphia, the court faced an almost identical question – whether the non-discrimination clause in the contract violated Catholic Social Services’ First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

In this case, the court ruled that it did, but the justices decided that issue on narrow grounds that some legal experts say only applies to the city of Philadelphia.

Normally, the court would uphold the right of a state or local government to enact a requirement that might burden the free exercise of religion as long as the rule is both neutral and generally applicable to all individuals and groups, regardless of religious affiliation. That standard comes from a 1990 Supreme Court case involving the Oregon Division of Employment Security.

But in Philadelphia’s case, the justices said, the rule is not generally applicable because the contract contains a clause allowing for exceptions to be made “at the sole discretion of the Commissioner” of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, said that distinction makes the Philadelphia case markedly different from the 2011 case in Illinois.

* * *

ELECTION CHANGES: Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law Thursday, June 17, a bill making several changes to the state’s election code.

That elections law, which took effect immediately upon the governor’s signature, will instructs election authorities to create a permanent vote-by-mail list which voters may choose to join. It also makes Election Day 2022 a state holiday and requires election authorities to create a central voting site where all residents within the authority’s jurisdiction can cast a ballot on Election Day 2022.

It also allows political candidates to use campaign funds for child care and care for other dependents, and requires that any vacancy in the General Assembly be filled in an open meeting, rather than behind closed doors. It beefs up cybersecurity requirements as well.

It allows—but does not require—county jails to establish polling places to allow an inmate to vote if they are a resident of the county and have not been convicted of the offense for which they are in custody. It also creates provisions for curbside voting during early voting and on Election Day.

* * *

TWO-DAY SESSION ENDS: Illinois lawmakers finished a two-day special session Thursday, June 17, by passing some important legislation but without reaching agreement on the one issue they had hoped to resolve – an energy bill that would phase out all carbon emissions from power plants over the next 30 years.

Topping their list of accomplishments was the final, slightly amended passage of a $42.3 billion budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year, something they thought they had completed when they first adjourned June 1, but which Gov. JB Pritzker was forced to send back for a minor change to correct drafting errors regarding the effective date of various provisions.

The budget provides essentially flat funding for most state government operations, with the exception of K-12 education, which will see the $350 million increase called for in the evidence-based funding formula, and some human services such as Medicaid.

The bill also calls for using about $1 billion in federal funds from the recently-passed American Rescue Plan Act to get an early start on infrastructure projects that are part of the Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program of 2019, something Pritzker said would create new jobs throughout the state and help accelerate the state’s economic recovery.

Republicans, however, harshly criticized that spending, arguing that the projects were hand-picked solely by Democratic lawmakers.

They also criticized the budget for not addressing the large deficit in the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which some have estimated may be as large as $5 billion.

Democrats, however, countered that the trust fund deficit can be addressed at a later time, possibly with additional federal relief.

In addition to fixing the budget bill, lawmakers also passed legislation this week to ensure that people who, through no fault of their own, received more unemployment benefits than they were entitled to will not be required to pay back those overpayments.

They also passed legislation aimed at clearing up a backlog of applications for Firearm Owner’s Identification cards as well as legislation providing for a first-ever elected Chicago school board, an issue that had divided legislative Democrats and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

* * *

VACCINE LOTTERY: Any vaccinated Illinoisan will be automatically entered into a lottery for $10 million in prizes without having to take any extra steps to enter.

Gov. JB Pritzker announced the “all in for the win” vaccine lottery Thursday, June 17, at an event in Chicago, noting it would award $7 million in cash prizes for adults 18 years of age and older, as well as $3 million in scholarship awards for Illinoisans ages 12 to 17.

The first drawing will be conducted by the Illinois Lottery on July 8 and drawings will continue into August. Prizes will include cash payments from $100,000 to $1 million. Scholarships would be in the form of Bright Start 529 savings plans worth $150,000 each.

The money is allocated from federal American Rescue Plan funding, of which the state received more than $8 billion.

Drawings will be conducted statewide and individually in the state’s Restore Illinois regions that coincided with mitigation efforts throughout the pandemic. In the final drawing August 26, the winners of the final two of three $1 million prizes will be chosen from a statewide pool.

To receive a vaccine, Illinoisans were required to give their information to the medical professional who administered the vaccine, so Pritzker said that is how the names will be chosen for the drawings. Anyone having received at least their first dose by July 1 would be eligible for prizes in the first drawing.

Those who win would be contacted by the Illinois Department of Public Health, who will seek permission to share the winner’s name with the Illinois Lottery. IDPH will not share information without a recipient’s consent, according to a news release.

More information is available at allin.illinois.gov.

Nearly 70 percent of the state’s 18-and-older population had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Thursday, June 17, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. That number was 67 percent for Illinoisans 12 and older, and 89 percent for those 65 and older.

For full vaccination, the number as of Thursday was 50 percent for 12 and older, 53 percent for 18 and older, and 73 percent for 65 and older.

Pritzker and IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said they were hopeful that the lottery would increase vaccine participation to continue to drive positivity rates and hospitalizations downward. They noted vaccinations remain free for Illinoisans at a variety of locations, such as mass vaccination sites, local health departments, chain and small pharmacies, doctors’ offices and Federally Qualified Health Centers.

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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