By Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Despite opposition from Republicans as well as reform groups, Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday signed into law the revised state legislative district maps that lawmakers passed in August, opening the door to almost certain court challenges.
“These legislative maps align with the landmark Voting Rights Act and will help ensure Illinois’ diversity is reflected in the halls of government,” Pritzker said in a statement.
But not everyone agrees that the maps do reflect the state’s diversity. The political action arm of the reform group CHANGE Illinois issued a statement arguing that they actually dilute minority voting power.
“Many major groups agree the new maps reduce the numbers of majority Black voting age population districts and majority Latino voting age population districts,” the group said in a statement. “The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s lawyers have said they believe the state representative and Senate maps dilute Latino voting power. The Latino Policy Forum asked Pritzker to veto the maps for the same reason. Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting also said the maps do not create enough Black majority voting age districts.”
Lawmakers initially adopted maps during the spring legislative session in order to meet the state constitution’s June 30 deadline, despite the fact that they didn’t yet have the official, detailed U.S. Census data needed to draw districts with nearly equal population.
Republican leaders, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, quickly filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago arguing that they were unconstitutional because they were based on population estimates from survey data rather than official census numbers.
When the official numbers finally came out in mid-August, they did in fact show that population variances between districts were far outside what is allowed under U.S. constitutional law, prompting Democratic leaders to call a special session to adjust the new maps.
Republicans argue, however, that those maps were passed well after the state constitution’s June 30 deadline and, therefore, the task should be given to a bipartisan commission, a process in which Republicans would have a 50-50 chance of gaining a partisan advantage.
That decision will ultimately be up to the courts.
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STATE INVESTMENTS: Gov. JB Pritzker announced Thursday, Sept. 23, that the state will award more than $40 million in workforce training grants, focusing on communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and youth who are particularly at risk of violence.
That includes $40 million in Workforce Recovery Grants that will go out in two phases over the next year, plus another $4.4 million in career training grants that have already been awarded to 20 training programs that focus on at-risk youths. Funding for both programs comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.
Applications for the first round of Workforce Recovery Grants totaling $20 million opened Thursday. Information about how to apply for those grants is available on the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s website. A second round of applications is expected to open in the spring.
Pritzker made the announcement at a training center on Chicago’s west side, Revolution Workshop, which is partnering with one of the youth grant recipients, BUILD Chicago Inc.
The Workforce Development Grants will be used to expand access to training, job placement and other services that prevent people from gaining employment, the administration said in a news release. Funding is also available for individuals with emergency costs for basic needs that prevent them from participating in training programs or employment.
The administration expects roughly 1,500 individuals in areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic will receive services.
The youth training grants are being distributed to organizations throughout the state that provide education and training in career pathways for youth who may be at risk of dropping out of school or experiencing violence.
Thursday’s announcement came just days after Pritzker announced that another $327 million would be made available this year to help low-income individuals pay their utility bills and meet other expenses. That includes the Low-Income Household Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and the Community Services Block Grant Program, which offers expanded services to help residents pay rent, utilities, food and other household expenses, regardless of immigration status.
In addition to those measures, Pritzker also announced Thursday the formation of a new Commission on Workforce Equity and Access, which will study ways to diversify existing training programs to promote equity and inclusion across all industries.
The commission will be headed by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford and Deputy Gov. Andy Manar.
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EVICTION MORATORIUM: The state’s moratorium on enforcement of residential evictions will expire on Oct. 3, according to Gov. JB Pritzker’s latest COVID-19 executive order issued Friday.
Pritzker had extended the order each month with minor to substantial revisions since March 2020. The extensions have come in 30-day windows, coinciding with his monthly reissuance of a disaster proclamation in response to the pandemic.
The most recent iteration of the moratorium, which will expire Oct. 3, allows for court proceedings but prevents law enforcement from carrying out an eviction. It also allows for evictions in health and safety circumstances, and for “uncovered persons,” which include those who refuse to fill out paperwork for assistance, who can’t prove loss of income from COVID-19 or who earn more than $99,000 individually or $198,000 as a joint-filing household.
In a statement, Pritzker’s office pointed out that Illinois remains one of the top states in distributing emergency rental assistance funding from the federal government. Illinois has distributed almost $330 million of $630 million allotted, placing it sixth out of all states, according to a database maintained by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
A state Supreme Court order preventing certain judgments in covered eviction cases was extended Tuesday to Oct. 3 as well, coinciding with the governor's order.
Last week, the Supreme Court announced a court-based rental relief program received $60 million in funding to provide a “safety net for litigants who are on the brink of eviction,” according to the court. That program is available outside of Cook County, which is expected to launch its own court-based assistance program sometime in October.
Per the latest Supreme Court order, any summons in an eviction case must be accompanied by a form informing the tenant and landlord of the court-based program. It includes information on the program, what documentation is needed and the web address for the court-based aid, ilrpp.ihda.org. The Illinois Housing Development Authority call center can be reached at 866-454-3571.
Those who have lost income due to COVID-19 may be eligible for up to 12 months of past due rent and three months of future rent to prevent eviction, per the program. The check would be paid directly to the landlord, who would be required to agree not to evict the tenant for nonpayment of the rent that is repaid.
Assistance may also still be available in certain areas through the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Housing Development Authority, the two state agencies overseeing disbursement of federal funding, at https://www.illinoisrentalassistance.org/providers.
Free legal assistance may be accessed through Eviction Help Illinois by visiting evictionhelpillinois.org or calling 855-631-0811.
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RIVER PORT PROJECT: Cairo, Illinois, on the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers, is the county seat of Alexander County, which once boasted a population of more than 25,000. It is now down to just 5,240, according to the 2020 U.S Census. That was a drop of 36.4 percent just in the past 10 years, the biggest population decline of any county in the nation.
Alexander County is not alone among its southern Illinois neighbors in seeing dramatic population declines in recent years. In fact, all five counties that border the Ohio River saw significant declines. Pulaski, Pope and Hardin counties all saw declines of more than 15 percent, while Massac County lost about 8.2 percent of its population.
Throughout America, the 2020 census revealed a sizeable shift from rural counties to more urban and suburban areas. But the dramatic drop in Alexander County – and Cairo in particular, which is now down to just more than 1,700 people – is unique.
Larry Klein, a lifelong resident of the area, believes a new development project which is getting a big boost from the state with $40 million from the Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program will help turn things around. Klein serves as chairman of the Alexander Cairo Port District, which is in charge of the project to develop an enormous river port along the Mississippi River at Cairo.
It’s estimated that about 80 percent of all the barge traffic in the United States passes by or through the confluence of the two great rivers. The river port at Cairo is envisioned as a facility where barges, as well as larger “river vessels,” would unload cargo containers that come upstream from New Orleans onto rail cars and semis for distribution throughout North America.
The site where the river port is planned is about five and a half miles upstream from the confluence along the Mississippi. The land is owned by the Cairo Public Utility Company, a nonprofit company that serves the community and, oddly, also operates the town’s only hardware store. The plan is that when the port is operational, the revenue would be split between Alexander County, the city of Cairo and the utility.
The hope is that the project will spur hundreds of construction jobs, and then hundreds more permanent jobs for workers at the port – workers who, it is hoped, would buy homes in the area and provide an economic base for the redevelopment of grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations and other basic amenities lacking in the town.
The port district recently signed a project labor agreement, ensuring that an estimated 500 construction jobs will be filled by union labor, a key element in securing state funding from the Rebuild Illinois program.
Still, the project is not a done deal. Klein noted that more than 20 state and federal permits must be obtained, including environmental permits as well as an OK from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the rivers.
“They are willing to bend over backwards,” Klein said of the Corps of Engineers. “In our conversations we've had with them, they've never told us no.”
Assuming the permits all fall into place, Klein said construction could begin in 2022 and the port could be operational in 2024.
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SUPREME COURT DEFAMATION CASE: A case before the Illinois Supreme Court centers on whether a former Super Bowl MVP has a right to learn the identity of a woman who accused him of sexual harassment, allegedly leading to the termination of contracts between his energy services company and a subsidiary of Exelon Corporation.
Richard Dent, a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer and Chicago Bears defensive lineman from 1983 to 1993, is the proprietor of RLD Resources LLC, a business specializing in energy products and services, according to its website. RLD had several energy supply and marketing contracts with Constellation NewEnergy Inc. and related companies, according to court documents. Constellation is a subsidiary of Exelon.
But Dent’s lawyers alleged that those contracts were terminated on Oct. 1, 2018, after Dent was informed in a Sept. 14, 2018, meeting with two of Constellation’s lawyers that he was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint by a female employee of Constellation.
A letter sent from Constellation to Dent’s lawyers in December 2018 concluded that “although Mr. Dent denied the allegations, his denials were not credible and the investigation concluded that the reports accurately described behaviors that were, at a minimum, in violation of Exelon's code of business conduct, completely outside the norms of socially acceptable behavior, and demeaning to Constellation employees.”
Now, the court is asked to decide whether the employee – identified in Dent’s court petition as Person A – and a witness to separate “drunk and disorderly” conduct by Dent at a different location than where the alleged harassment occurred – identified as Person B – are protected by the court principle of “qualified privilege,” allowing for their anonymity in a sexual harassment case.
Dent’s lawyers argued that he’s entitled to know the identities and locations of Person A and Person B through the pre-suit discovery process because their statements were false and defamatory. The individuals, not Constellation, are the publishers of the defamatory claims, his lawyers argued.
Constellation’s lawyers argued the employees should remain anonymous because their statements were made as part of a privileged confidential workplace investigation of sexual harassment.
Dent’s petition is also seeking the identity of Person C, which his legal team identified in the court filing as an “investigator” examining the harassment claims on behalf of Constellation.
The case started in 2019 in Cook County Circuit Court, which sided with Constellation. But the 1st District Court of Appeals sided with Dent, which led Constellation’s legal team to bring the challenge to the Supreme Court.
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.