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CAPITOL RECAP: Oral arguments begin in state redistricting challenges

CAPITOL RECAP: Oral arguments begin in state redistricting challenges

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

CHICAGO – Oral arguments began Tuesday, Dec. 7, in three lawsuits challenging the new legislative district maps that lawmakers passed earlier this year with three federal judges asking detailed questions of all the parties in the cases.

Each case centers on the question of whether Democrats in the General Assembly violated the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 in drawing the maps by diluting the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities – specifically, Hispanic voters in the Chicago area and Black voters in East St. Louis and the surrounding Metro East region.

All of the parties have spent the last several weeks filing thousands of pages of written briefs, depositions and other documents to bolster their cases, but on Tuesday it was the judges’ turn to focus the attention on the few questions that could be pivotal in deciding whether the maps that lawmakers approved will stand for the next 10 years or whether changes need to be made to protect minority voting rights.

Among the questions the judges asked was if voters of different races and ethnicities In Illinois still vote as identifiable blocs, whether the exact composition of a district really matters, or if there is enough “crossover” voting in the state that minority groups can still win representation in the General Assembly even though they are minorities within their own districts.

“Illinois in 2020 is not your grandfather’s Illinois,” Sean Berkowitz, an attorney defending the maps passed by the General Assembly, told the judges.

Berkowitz pointed to the fact that there are a number of Black lawmakers in the Statehouse who do not come from predominantly Black communities. He also pointed to the fact that even though whites make up the largest racial group in Illinois, the current lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state are all Black while one U.S. senator, Tammy Duckworth, is Asian American.

“Crossover voting in Illinois is the norm, not the exception,” he said.

Plaintiffs in the cases include a group of Latino voters in the Chicago area represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Black voters in the Metro East region represented by the state and local branches of the NAACP as well as the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, or UCCRO; and Republican leaders in the General Assembly who are challenging both the Chicago and Metro East redistricting plans.

Those attorneys spent the morning trying to convince the judges that racially polarized voting does continue to exist in Illinois and that if the maps approved by the legislature are allowed to stand, Latino and Black voters will lose political influence in state government.

The cases are moving through the court on an expedited schedule in hopes of having a decision in time for candidates in the 2022 elections to begin circulating nominating positions in mid-January.

* * *

PENSION REPORT: The state saw its unfunded pension liability decrease in fiscal year 2021, due in large part to investment returns exceeding 20 percent, according to a new report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability released Wednesday, Dec. 8.

Unfunded liabilities – or the amount of debt the state pension funds owe that they can’t afford to pay – dropped by nearly 10 percent, to $130 billion in FY 2021 from $144 billion in the previous fiscal year. That put the state’s five pension funds at 46.5 percent funded, up from 39 percent the previous year.

It’s the third decrease to unfunded liabilities in the last 15 years. Otherwise, unfunded liabilities have risen annually from $42.2 billion in 2007.

But the report also noted that not much has changed to alleviate the underlying financial pressures that have caused unfunded liabilities to triple since the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

The returns of 22.9-25.2 percent for FY 2021, which ended June 30, far exceeded the anticipated 6.5 percent to 7 percent returns.

The report was otherwise substantially similar to countless other pension reports in recent years, particularly because it once again called on the state to revamp the much-maligned 1994 “Edgar Ramp” 50-year plan to bring the state’s five pension funds to 90 percent funded by 2045.

The actual target should be a 100 percent within the next 25 years or preferably sooner, according to a letter attached to the COGFA report from its actuary, Segal Consulting. Only then would the state begin to see sustained reductions to its unfunded pension liabilities.

But increasing pension payments is easier said than done, Alexis Sturm, director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, said in a letter accompanying the report.

Changes to the current 90 percent target must be reviewed “carefully within the context of the impact on the state’s budget,” she wrote.

The $8.6 billion pension payment in FY 2021 was 20 percent of the state’s $42.9 billion General Revenue Fund budget, and pensions are routinely the state’s largest GRF expense outside of K-12 education.

According to the report, if the state wants to contribute at a rate approved by actuaries, it will need to contribute nearly $14.9 billion in FY 2023, which begins July 1, or 38 percent higher than what is provided for via the Edgar Ramp.

* * *

INFRASTRUCTURE: Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday, Dec. 8, made multiple stops in southern Illinois to tout the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan he signed in 2019.

The governor appeared at the Benton Municipal Airport with area Republican lawmakers and Illinois Department of Transportation officials Wednesday to promote a widening of Interstate 57 in the southern Illinois region.

He was accompanied by Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, and Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton.

About $268 million from the $33.2 billion in transportation-related expenditures in the Rebuild Illinois plan will go toward I-57 reconstruction or improvements, according to the governor’s office. Next month, work will begin on a $67.6 million project to expand nine miles of I-57 from four to six lanes from north of Illinois 149 to south of Illinois 154.

The project will install a median barrier, resurface existing lanes, update guardrails and add rumble strips. It also includes bridge replacement over the Big Muddy River. The project is expected to conclude in 2025.

Another $164 million in future years of the Rebuild Illinois plan would fund an expansion of the interstate to Mount Vernon, as well as bridge replacements at Marcum Branch, Gun Creek and Dodds Creek. It would also include reconstruction of the interchange of I-57, I-64 and Illinois 15.

Pritzker also highlighted another $28.4 million in motor fuel tax headed to southern Illinois counties for infrastructure projects, along with $33.5 earmarked to municipalities in the IDOT District 9 territory, which includes Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Saline, Union, White and Williamson counties.

The Rebuild Illinois plan was largely funded through a 2019 bill that doubled 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.

Rebuild Illinois also has a vertical infrastructure component to fund construction and improvements on state buildings. Those projects are funded through revenues resulting from a massive 2019 gambling expansion and an increase to taxes on cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

Also on Wednesday, Pritzker visited Carterville in Williamson County for groundbreaking at the future site of the Walker’s Bluff Casino Resort. The site would have a casino, 116-room hotel, event center, multiple restaurants and other attractions.

* * *

COMMISSARY SHORTAGES: A recent report from the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, detailed widespread supply shortages at Illinois Department of Corrections prison commissaries around the state. Soap, deodorant, detergent, writing materials, thermal shirts, socks, underwear and canned meat and noodles are all in short supply.

“It’s not like luxury items like candy bars or the hot new Christmas gift. These commissaries provide items that are basic necessities,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. Mills has litigated prisoner civil rights cases for more than 40 years.

An IDOC spokesperson wrote in an email that COVID-19 has impacted global supply chains, leading to shortages. Essential raw materials are not making it to distribution centers and there is a shortage of workers in manufacturing centers and logistic companies, she wrote.

But the John Howard report released Monday points to a new vendor and a contentious bidding process. In June 2021, Keefe Group was awarded the contract for the entire IDOC system. The contract award was contested by another vendor that was not awarded the contract. IDOC then contracted on an emergency basis with Keefe to provide items.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the executive director for the John Howard Association, believes both things are contributing to the shortages.

IDOC received approval and entered into five emergency contracts with vendors, according to an IDOC spokesperson. The department expects that the expanded contracts and more available avenues for purchasing will allow for the restocking of prison commissaries.

Two weeks ago, IDOC distributed bags of food and hygiene items, toothpaste and brushes, into care packages to all inmates.

It’s a nice short-term solution, Mills said. But with an agency facing staffing shortages and a global pandemic, Mills said this should be an easy fix.

Under current security protocols, care packages from the public cannot be accepted at IDOC prisons. The John Howard Association put forth the suggestion to allow friends and family members of inmates to purchase care packages from already approved vendors so they could be shipped directly to inmates.

“Right now, that is not approved, but we hope they will consider it,” Vollen-Katz said.

* * *

JUDICIAL REDISTRICTING: The Illinois Supreme Court will lift its pause order on judicial redistricting on Jan. 1, fully implementing new judicial boundaries passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker earlier this year.

The judicial district boundaries will change or the first time since they were established in 1964.

The court entered the order on June 7, pausing the transition to a new judicial redistricting statute. Beginning Jan. 1, appeals filed in the circuit will go to the appellate district determined by the new map. The redistricting process was paused to allow for planning and implementation, according to a news release from the Illinois Supreme Court.

The new map extends the 4th District, which currently runs across central Illinois from Kankakee County to the Quad Cities. The new 4th District would gain Peoria County and the Quad Cities region, both formerly in the 3rd District. Winnebago and DuPage Counties would move to the 4th District from the 2nd District.

The main points of the Supreme Court order are:

Circuit Courts will remain subject to the rule that states appellate court decisions will bind the decisions of circuit courts in their districts. In a redistricted circuit, the appropriate district will be the district in which the circuit was located at the time the circuit court case was initiated.
If a case is heard by one appellate district on appeal and then there is a subsequent appeal is heard by a new appellate district, the new district will treat the decision of the prior district as the law of the case.

The Supreme Court shares district lines with the state’s appellate courts. The proposed maps will not impact the tenure of current appellate and Supreme Court justices.

Under the Illinois Constitution, incumbent judges can either run for retention in the counties comprising the district that elected the judge or in the counties comprising the new district where the judge resides.

* * *

WASTEWATER FUNDING: Gov. JB Pritzker Pritzker also made a stop in Alto Pass in Union County on Wednesday, Dec. 8, announcing $16.8 million in funds will be released to five communities throughout the state through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Unsewered Communities Construction Grant Program.

The state’s Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan included $100 million for sewer projects across the state over the next five years. Alto Pass will receive $4.4 million in state funding for infrastructure replacement.

Other grants include $2.2 million to the city of Freeport in Stephenson County to provide sewer service in a subdivision currently utilizing private septic systems; $5 million for the village of Westfield in Clark County to construct a wastewater treatment plant; and $2.2 million in the city of East Dubuque in Jo Daviess County to extend the sanitary sewer to 84 residences that are currently on private systems.

The Northern Moraine Water Reclamation District and the village of Holiday Hills in McHenry County will receive $3.5 million for the first phase of the extension of sanitary sewer service to 276 single-family residences in Holiday Hills and 29 homes in in another subdivision.

* * *

WATER BILL ASSISTANCE: Gov. JB Pritzker’s office on Tuesday, Dec. 7, announced $42 million is available to help Illinois residents avoid water shutoffs.

The Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP, is funded through the federal American Rescue Plan Act and other federal sources. The program was authorized in the state’s operating budget.

Residents unable to pay a water or sewer bill can find more information on applying for assistance at www.helpillinoisfamilies.com. The funds are available to low-income families who are facing disconnection, those who have already been shut off, or those with outstanding bills of $250 or more.

Applications are available online now through August 2023, or whenever funds are exhausted. Eligible Illinoisans must be at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, meaning a family of four would have a combined income of $54,000 or less.

More than $200 million in Low-Income Household Energy Assistance Program funding remains available as well, according to the governor’s office. More information is available at Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s website, helpillinoisfamilies.com, or by calling 1-833-711-0374.

* * *

RENTAL ASSISTANCE: The application portal is now open for another $297 million of rental assistance for Illinoisans who lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state announced Monday, Dec. 6.

The Illinois Rental Payment Program, or ILRPP, money comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. It will be administered by the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

The application portal is available at illinoishousinghelp.org. To be eligible, a tenant must have an unpaid rent balance on a rental property which is their primary residence. They must have experienced a financial hardship due to the pandemic, have a household income below 80 percent of the Area Median Income and must be an Illinois resident.

Proof of citizenship is not required, and assistance is available for renters of state- or federally-subsidized housing.

The portal for the latest round of funding will be open until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 9. IHDA said it expects that 32,500 households will receive assistance through this round of funding. Approved applicants will receive one-time grants of up to $25,000, paid directly to their landlords on their behalf, and IHDA said it would begin releasing funding by the end of the year.

Rent owed from June 2020 through April 2022 is eligible for repayment, with renters able to receive up to 15 months of back rent and three months of future rent. If a landlord chooses not to participate in the program, tenants may be able to receive payments directly, according to IHDA.

A renter may still apply if they have previously received federal rental assistance, but they cannot cumulatively receive more than 18 months of assistance.

The Illinois Department of Human Services also has rental assistance available, and assistance is also available through a court-based program. IDHS also provides utility and legal assistance, which can be accessed at https://www.illinoisrentalassistance.org/.

The state is also preparing to launch a Homeowner Assistance Fund program to distribute federal resources for mortgage assistance in the spring. Information on that program is also available at illinoishousinghelp.org, where those seeking mortgage assistance can sign up for a mailing list for program updates when they are available.

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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