CAPITOL RECAP: Congressional redistricting hearings begin

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – The process of redrawing congressional district maps in Illinois got off to a slow start Thursday when only one person showed up to testify at the first legislative public hearing, which was held in Chicago.

Ryan Tolley, policy director for the advocacy group CHANGE Illinois, urged the House Redistricting Committee to listen to community groups and afford them more opportunity than they had during the legislative redistricting process to review any proposed new maps before they are voted on.

“I had trouble finding one group that participated in the legislative remap hearings that publicly endorsed the legislative maps. But there are a lot that rejected those maps,” Tolley said. “And I just want us to think about how can we have a map that reflects the interest of communities if almost every group that tries to engage with this process says their voices were ignored and their communities were harmed. Their efforts really should not be in vain.”

In May, and again in August, lawmakers drew new maps for state legislative districts. Those new maps are now the subject of two federal lawsuits – one by Republican leaders in the General Assembly and one by a Latino advocacy group – who argue, among other things, that the new districts dilute Latino voting power.

But lawmakers have not yet addressed the issue of congressional district maps, something required under the U.S. Constitution once every 10 years following the decennial census.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Illinois’ population fell by 18,124 people over the previous 10 years, or about 0.14 percent. As a result, Illinois will lose one of its congressional districts, bringing the number down to 17.

That process will be watched closely at both the state and national level. Democrats hold only an eight-vote majority in the U.S. House while three seats are vacant – two Democratic seats and one Republican seat.

Historically the party that holds the White House – currently, Democratic President Joe Biden – loses seats in the president’s first mid-term election, which means there is a strong possibility that Republicans could regain control of the House.

But Democrats are firmly in control of the Illinois General Assembly, where they hold supermajorities in both chambers, and they hold 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats.

Because of the way Illinois’ population shifted in the 2020 census, the most likely region to lose a congressional seat will be in heavily-Republican southern Illinois. But Democrats in the General Assembly are expected to use their strong majorities to draw maps in a way that will help Democratic candidates in some of the state’s more toss-up regions.

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REDISTRICTING SUIT: Plaintiffs in two lawsuits challenging the state’s legislative redistricting plan have filed new complaints in federal court charging that the district maps that lawmakers approved in August dilute Latino voting power and thus violate the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational fund, or MALDEF, and legislative Republican leaders both argue that while the Latino population in Illinois experienced strong growth over the last 10 years, the new maps actually reduce the number of Latino “opportunity” districts – those in which Latinos make up 50 percent or more of the voting-age population.

Both amended complaints were filed in federal court for the Northern District of Illinois on Friday, Oct. 1, one week after Gov. JB Pritzker signed the newest maps into law.

Both lawsuits name House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, and Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, as defendants, along with the Illinois State Board of Elections and its individual members, as defendants. Both seek to have the redistricting plan invalidated and new maps drawn.

The two sets of plaintiffs originally filed lawsuits shortly after lawmakers passed the first redistricting plan for the Illinois House and Senate during the regular spring session. Those maps were based on population estimates because the Census Bureau had not yet released official census data.

But after the official 2020 census numbers were released in mid-August, the House and Senate came back into session to adopt a second set of maps using the official census numbers.

In both cases, plaintiffs are now asking a three-judge federal panel to declare the maps unconstitutional under the one-person-one-vote doctrine as well as illegal under the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from using any “standard, practice or procedure” that results in the denial of the right of any citizen to vote on the basis of race or membership in a recognized language minority group.

In their suit, Republicans argue that because the first set of maps was unconstitutional, Democrats actually failed to meet a June 30 constitutional deadline and, therefore, the process should still be handed over to such a commission. But judges on the federal panel have indicated that question will probably have to be decided by the Illinois Supreme Court, not a federal district court.

Under federal court rules, the defendants have 21 days, or until Oct. 21, to respond. Both lawsuits are tentatively slated for trial before the same three-judge panel in late November or early December.

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PORT DISTRICT: A proposed river port development in the southern Illinois town of Cairo is drawing much attention and interest from companies that believe it could open up greater access to international markets, officials behind the project said Tuesday, Oct. 5.

The Alexander-Cairo Port District project has been on the drawing board for about 10 years, but it was given a major boost in 2019 when the General Assembly passed a $45 billion capital improvements plan called Rebuild Illinois, which included a $40 million investment in the port project.

If the project is given final approval – officials have said it will require more than 20 state and federal permits – that money is expected to draw an estimated $300 million in private investment, creating hundreds of construction jobs and many more permanent jobs with supporting industries.

John Vickerman, a design consultant working on the project, said his firm performed a “macroeconomic” market analysis to identify the domestic industry sectors that would most likely benefit from such a port. He said those include such products as non-GMO soybeans, coal, coiled steel, scrap metal, agricultural fertilizer, biofuels and wind energy equipment.

The port is envisioned as a public-private partnership between the Alexander-Cairo Port Authority – a governing board that includes officials from Alexander County, the city of Cairo and the Cairo Public Utility Company, which owns the land where the port would be located – and a private port operator.

It would involve building a large landing facility on the Mississippi River, about five and a half miles upstream from the confluence with the Ohio River. It would also include a large system of cranes that would lift cargo containers off of barges or other vessels that come upstream from New Orleans – many of which would originate in Asia and pass through the Panama Canal – and load them onto rail cars and semi-trucks.

One of the keys to making the project viable is making sure there is enough cargo originating from Illinois and the Midwest to put back on the vessels so they don’t have to return to New Orleans empty, something that project officials say they’re still working on.

If the project remains on schedule, he said, groundbreaking would take place near the end of 2022 and the port could become operational late in 2024.

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LGBTQ AGING: The Disrupting Disparities: Challenges and Solutions for 50+ LGBTQ Illinoisans report released Tuesday, Oct. 5, by the senior advocacy group AARP Illinois and the LGBTQ advocacy group SAGE shows many aging LGBTQ Illinoisans face barriers to health care and financial security and fear discrimination in senior communities

Mary Anderson, director of advocacy and outreach at AARP Illinois, said the report was an effort “to take an up-to-date look” at the issues facing the community as 24 percent of the state’s estimated 506,000 LGBTQ individuals are over age 50.

Nearly one-third of LGBTQ older people live at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, she said. The disparities are multiplied for LGBTQ individuals of color, she said.

The study showed more than 60 percent of LGBTQ older adults fear neglect, abuse, or verbal or physical harassment when seeking senior care. As well, 48 percent of big-city respondents and as low as 10 percent of rural small-town respondents said they have access to “LGBTQ-inclusive elder services.”

The study also said 34 percent of LGBTQ older adults and 54 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming older adults fear they will have to “re-closet” themselves when seeking senior living.

The report said LGBTQ individuals have faced “a lifetime of employment discrimination…resulting in lower earning power and lower payments or income from Social Security, retirement, or pensions.” As a result, 44 percent of LGBTQ older adults report being concerned about having to work well beyond retirement age compared to 26 percent of non-LGBTQ people.

The report also identifies several policy changes for lawmakers to consider, some of which Department on Aging Director Paula Basta said she has already worked to implement.

The agency has specific objectives for LGBTQ adults, provides cultural competency training for its employees and provider agencies, and has LGBTQ representation on the advisory Illinois Council on Aging.

The state should also establish a statewide commission on LGBTQ aging, and should create LGBTQ-inclusive state and area plans on aging. State officials should also issue more detailed guidance on treating older transgender Illinoisans, and should adopt an LGBTQ long-term care residents’ bill of rights.

The report also calls on the state to fund LGBTQ-specific programming, expand outreach targeted to LGBTQ aging populations and collect data on include LGBTQ status when it collects demographic data, and create an ombudsperson on LGBTQ aging.

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SUBMINIMUM WAGE ORDER: Gov. JB Pritzker signed an executive order Monday, Oct. 4, that would prevent companies contracting with the state from paying disabled workers at less than the minimum wage.

Pritzker took the action in what he said was a broader effort to try to push federal lawmakers to change the law that allows companies to pay disabled people less than the minimum wage.

Pritzker said the order requires state agencies currently contracting with vendors that pay a subminimum wage to renegotiate those contracts. Barry Taylor, vice president of civil rights at the disability advocacy group Equip for Equality, said there would be about 35 contracts renegotiated due to the order.

Specifically, the order applies to the State Use Program, which “encourages all agencies to purchase products and services produced and provided by people with disabilities,” according to the governor’s office.

The State Use Committee, a preexisting unit in state law, will review contract amendments “to ensure they are fair and reasonable and are not substantially more than a competitively solicited price,” according to the order.

The order would only apply to companies contracting with the state. Provisions in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act section 14(C) allow employers to obtain a certificate to hire disabled individuals at less than minimum wage. Private companies in Illinois will be able to continue to take part in that federal program despite the executive order.

Karen Tamley, president and CEO of the disability advocacy group Access Living, said the federal 14(C) program “allows disabled workers to be paid pennies on the dollar for work that's often performed in segregated or sheltered settings.”

Taylor said the federal law dates back to the New Deal era, when it was passed in 1938 in an effort to provide a temporary launching point for disabled workers, before allowing them to “move into competitive and integrated employment.”

But, “that promise didn't happen, unfortunately,” he said at the news conference, “And so people have been stuck in these jobs, in these places, obviously for 80 years now.”

Taylor said advocates are now calling on the General Assembly “to take the next step, and eliminate the use of subminimum wage for people with disabilities in all jobs.”

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CHILD EXPLOITATION CRACKDOWN: State Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined local and federal prosecutors Monday, Oct. 4, to announce new efforts to combat a rise in online child exploitation in Illinois.

The efforts include greater outreach and education for parents and teachers, and a new mobile computer forensics unit that will be deployed throughout the state, he said.

The efforts are being coordinated through the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a federally funded project within the attorney general’s office that includes state, federal and local law enforcement agencies.

It receives tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, investigates child sexual exploitation crimes, trains law enforcement agencies, and provides online safety education to children and adults. The task force operates in all Illinois counties except Cook County, which has its own task force.

In 2018, Raoul said, the attorney general’s office managed over 3,300 cyber tips. That increased to 4,300 in 2019 and to 5,100 in 2020. This year, that number is expected to grow 23 percent, in part due to increased reporting and awareness by social media and apps.

Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly said the ICAC Task Force has dramatically increased the state’s ability to arrest and prosecute those who prey on children online.

In 2018, the year before the task force began, ISP investigated only nine leads of internet crimes against children and made one arrest. In the first year of the initiative, that increased to 71 leads and 19 arrests, and in 2020, the agency pursued 99 leads and made 24 arrests.

To help educate adults about how to identify cyber threats to their children, Raoul said the task force will teach about the apps children and teens might be using, how to help youth navigate aggressive online behavior, and how to identify signs that a child or student might have been the victim of online child solicitation.

The series will begin Oct. 7, and webinars will take place at 6:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. People interested in participating can email karilyn.orr@ilag.gov to register.

To report suspected online child sexual exploitation, please contact local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline at 1-800-843-5678.

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UNEMPLOYMENT DEFICIT: The deficit in the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund remains over $4.3 billion and interest payments on the debt began accruing on Sept. 6.

Thus far, more than $6 million in interest has accrued on the money Illinois owes the federal government, according to the U.S. Treasury, and interest will continue to accrue at a rate of 2.27 percent. The state earmarked $10 million for interest payments this fiscal year.

Less than three weeks ahead of the fall veto session scheduled for Oct. 19-21 and Oct. 26-28, lawmakers have still not devised a plan for paying down the federal debt.

The ongoing interest accrual is one of two time-sensitive factors in addressing the deficit in the trust fund, which is the pool of money that is paid into by employers to fund unemployment benefits.

The second is that Illinois law has “speed bumps” written into it that would, beginning in January, shorten the benefit period for someone claiming benefits from 26 to 24 weeks, lower wage repayment for claimants from 47 percent to 42.4 percent, and increase by 16 points the state “experience factor” which determines an employer’s tax rate, while adding a 0.325 percent surcharge to employer tax rates.

Those “speed bumps” are built into law at regular intervals as a method of encouraging negotiations between business and labor based on the needs of the unemployment system.

Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Swansea Democrat and one of the lead negotiators on unemployment issues in the House, said there’s no wider agreement between stakeholders for a veto session policy solution. But one option is putting off the effective date of the speed bumps until sometime in the future. While that would give lawmakers more time to understand the scope of the problem, it would also mean interest would continue to accrue at a rate of tens of millions of dollars annually.

In its September report to the Employment Security Advisory Board, the Illinois Department of Employment Security estimated the deficit could reach as high as $5.14 billion next year.

Illinois still has between $4 billion and $5 billion in unspent money received through the American Rescue Plan Act from the federal government. Hoffman said “there's a good argument to be made” that federal funding should be dedicated to reducing the deficit, but any discussion of doing so would be part of budget negotiations next year.

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.