CAPITOL RECAP: GOP takes another crack at redistricting reform

SPRINGFIELD -- Republicans in the General Assembly have introduced a new bill that would hand over the process of drawing new legislative and congressional district maps to an independent commission that would be required to use official Census Bureau, rather than survey estimates, to draw the maps.

The latest bill, introduced Tuesday as an amendment to Senate Bill 1325, mirrors a proposed constitutional amendment that was introduced in 2019. That proposal, which had 37 cosponsors, died in the 101st General Assembly without receiving a hearing.

Every 10 years, states redraw their legislative and congressional district maps to align with the most recent decennial census. That process is being complicated this year, as the census data needed to complete those tasks has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.

The Census Bureau has said that the data needed for congressional redistricting will be available by April 30. But the more detailed, block-level data that most states need for legislative redistricting won’t be available until the end of September.

But the Census Bureau has also said it will have the more detailed data available in another, less user-friendly format – what’s known as the Legacy Format Summary Redistricting File – by mid- to late-August.

Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, have suggested they can meet the constitutional deadlines by using population estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But Republicans are objecting to that idea, saying that data is flawed because it is based on only a sample of all households.

The bill calls for the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court and the most senior member of the court who is from a different political party to appoint a 16-member Independent Redistricting Commission. It would be composed of seven Democrats, seven Republicans and two independents, and no one who has been elected to a state, federal or local government office within the preceding four years would be eligible to serve on the commission.

The bill also anticipates that the commission will not complete its work by the constitutional June 30 deadline and that an eight-member Legislative Redistricting Commission would also be appointed.

The independent commission would then wait to receive the Legacy Format Summary Redistricting File from the Census Bureau and, within 30 days after that, submit a plan for new state legislative maps to the Legislative Redistricting Commission while submitting its plan for congressional redistricting to the General Assembly.

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VOTE-BY-MAIL: A bill to expand the use of vote-by-mail and curbside voting in future elections passed the Illinois Senate Thursday, March 25, meaning it needs only a signature from the governor to become law.

House Bill 1871, which was approved by the House last week, would revise the state election code to make permanent some of the changes that were widely adopted across Illinois for the 2020 general election in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the bill is sent to the governor and signed quickly enough, it would take effect immediately, possibly in time for the April 6 elections.

The changes include allowing election authorities to install drop box sites where voters can submit mail-in ballots without postage during and on Election Day. The bill also permits curbside voting where people can fill out ballots outside the polling place during early voting and on Election Day.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Julie Morrison of Lake Forest, would also require election authorities to accept mail-in ballots with insufficient or no postage.

The bill states that ballots turned in after the close of business “shall be dated as delivered the next day, with the exception of ballots delivered on election day, which shall be dated as received on election day.”

Thomas Bride, executive director at Peoria County Election Commission, said this provision was carried out in his county by installing a locked cover on the drop box by 7 p.m. on election night.

The bill passed out of that committee on partisan lines Wednesday and advanced to the Senate floor for a vote, where it was approved on a bipartisan roll call with 48 votes in favor and seven against.

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HEALTH CARE REFORM: A massive health care reform bill, the fourth and final pillar of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus agenda, passed the state Senate Thursday, March 25, the final step before heading to Gov. JB Pritzker for a signature.

House Bill 158 aims to address access to health care, hospital closures, managed care organization reform, community health worker certification and reimbursement, maternal and infant mortality, mental and substance abuse treatment, and medical implicit bias.

HB 158 passed with a 41-16 vote after revisions to the original version, which failed to pass in January’s lame duck session.

The new version of HB 158 eliminated provisions that would have replaced the state’s Medicaid managed care program with a standard fee-for-service payment system.

A last-minute amendment, which enhanced dementia training requirements for the Illinois Department on Aging, was also added before HB 158 went for a full vote in the House last week. It passed the House with a 72-41 vote.

Most of the items included in the bill are subject to state appropriation, meaning future General Assemblies will have to decide whether to allocate the money to fund them.

House and Senate Republicans shared concerns about the total cost of implementing this legislation. In the Senate floor debate, Republican Sen. Steve McClure of Springfield said he doesn’t believe the state can afford to implement all the provisions in the bill

Another significant provision in HB 158 would put a halt on hospital closures for up to 60 days after the effective date of the act, which is an effort to prevent hospital closures in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Closures are also deferred until either the state or U.S. are no longer under disaster declaration or public health emergency.   

HB 158 would also create a Health and Human Services Taskforce and an Anti-Racism Commission to make recommendations for tangible solutions to be enacted by hospitals, health care organizations and the General Assembly as the conversation and analysis of racial inequities in the health care system continue.

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PRETRIAL INTEREST: The Illinois Senate passed a bill Thursday, March 25, to allow victims in personal injury and wrongful death cases that reach a verdict to collect interest on money they receive from court, with the intent of incentivizing settlements in these cases.

Gov. JB Pritzker vetoed an earlier version of the bill that was approved by both chambers in the January lame duck session.

The current version of the bill, Senate Bill 72, will now head to Pritzker’s desk for his signature after passing the House last week.

Senate President Don Harmon, who sponsored the current version of the bill, said the purpose is to level the economic playing field in personal injury and wrongful death cases in which the defendant — or the entity being sued — is usually a hospital or health care provider. Most often, the insurance company representing the entity being sued will cover the costs of the defense in court.

Meanwhile, Harmon said, the plaintiff — or the person who is suing the entity — often faces loss of income while he or she awaits the verdict.

“This simply tilts the scale a little bit in favor of a prompt settlement of a meritorious (personal injury or wrongful death) claim. It encourages the settlement,” Harmon, D-Oak Park, said.

SB 72 reduced the amount of interest charged from the previous version of the bill, from 9 percent to 6 percent. It would only apply in personal injury and wrongful death cases that reach a verdict. It passed the Senate Thursday, 37 to 17.

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ASSAULT WEAPON BAN CHALLENGE: Legal challenges against a ban on assault weapons in suburban Deerfield have reached the state’s highest court. Two consolidated lawsuits against the Lake County suburb were among the 14 total criminal and civil cases that the Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to hear on appeal.

Guns Save Life Inc., the Second Amendment Foundation and Illinois State Rifle Association sued Deerfield shortly after the village amended its assault weapon ordinances in June 2018 to ban the civilian use of assault weapons and large capacity magazines.

The groups argued that the ban violated amendments to the Concealed Carry Act and FOID Card Act that govern the processes for certain municipalities to impose limits on gun ownership beyond state laws.

When state lawmakers amended the FOID Card Act in 2013, they added a provision that allowed municipalities with a population of at least 25,000 to adopt stricter gun laws if the municipality passed an ordinance regulating gun ownership within 10 days of the law becoming effective on July 9, 2013.

Deerfield passed a new ordinance on July 1, 2013, that regulated the storage and transportation of assault weapons. The village’s assault weapon ban in 2018 amended this 2013 ordinance.

The gun rights groups maintained the amendments to the FOID Card Act should be interpreted as preempting the authority of local municipalities to pass gun ordinances that are more restrictive than state laws. The Lake County judge hearing the cases consolidated the lawsuits.

In 2019, the Lake County trial judge ruled in favor of the gun rights groups by finding that the FOID Card Act amendment in 2013 intended to create a 10-day window for municipalities to “ban ownership or possession of assault weapons,” the judge found.

Deerfield appealed this decision to the 2nd District Appellate Court, and in December 2020, the court reversed the trial judge’s decision and found Deerfield’s assault weapon ban did not violate the FOID Card Act.

The appellate court also ruled that the village’s ban on large capacity magazines, to the extent it regulated hand gun ammunition, violated the FOID Card Act.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last week.  

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AUTO DEALERS SUE: The Illinois Automobile Dealers Association has filed a lawsuit against Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office, alleging that White is allowing unlicensed, unregulated dealers to operate in Illinois, in violation of state law.

At issue in the case is whether automobile manufacturers should be allowed to own and operate their own dealerships rather than contracting with independent dealership franchises, which has been the case in Illinois and most other states for decades.

But in recent years, there has been a growing trend of “vertical integration” within the industry, especially within the electric car industry where manufacturers like Tesla and others have insisted that they have a right to sell their own products directly to customers.

Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the operations of two electric vehicle manufacturers, Rivian and Lucid Motors, which the lawsuit says are both taking online orders for sales directly to the public in Illinois.

In their complaint, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, IADA, along with several local dealer associations and numerous individual auto dealers, argue that under a decades-old Illinois law, no one is allowed to engage in the business of selling new vehicles unless they are a licensed dealer, and the only way to become a licensed dealer is to have a contract with a manufacturer establishing a franchise agreement.

According to the complaint, White’s office, which is responsible for administering the state’s vehicle laws, first granted Tesla permission to sell new vehicles directly to consumers in 2009.

In May 2019, all the parties entered into an administrative consent order that limited Tesla to no more than 13 dealerships in the state at any one time.

The plaintiffs are seeking an order directing White’s office to enforce the state’s Vehicle Code and stop Rivian, Lucid and other car dealerships from directly selling vehicles in-state. They also are seeking an injunction against Rivian and Lucid to prevent the ongoing sale of vehicles to Illinoisans until a decision is reached.

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QUALIFIED IMMUNITY A measure to end qualified immunity as a legal defense for law enforcement officers advanced out of the House Restorative Justice Committee at a Thursday, March 25, hearing.

House Bill 1727, introduced by Rep. Curtis Tarver, D-Chicago, would create the Bad Apples in Law Enforcement Accountability Act. It aims to remove the court doctrine of qualified immunity for officers, opening them up to civil litigation if they participate in the “deprivation of any individual rights” guaranteed in the Illinois Constitution. The liability is created even for officers who fail to intervene if such a deprivation is otherwise occurring. 

The bill would also require local municipalities to disclose information about settlements with law enforcement officers.

Tarver and proponents of the legislation said the concept of qualified immunity emboldens some officers to make reckless decisions that could cost lives, as in the case of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last year.

Opponents argued the bill would contribute to ongoing problems with retaining and recruiting police officers who have cited recent changes to state law as reasons to not enter the law enforcement field in Illinois.

“We have the membership rolls, we see the outcome, we know we're losing membership,” said Andrew Bodewes of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police. “We're concerned that a change like this would further complicate that.”

Jim Kaitschuk of the Illinois Sheriffs Association told the committee the legislation could also result in complicating an officer’s decision-making process when arriving on a scene.

Tarver argued that if law enforcement officers leave the field as a result of the proposed legislation, they did not belong in the field to begin with.

Opponents on the committee, including Reps. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, and Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, argued the bill goes too far to target a legal defense that is rarely used in Illinois.

Windhorst said that a decertification bill that was signed into law earlier this year serves as a sufficient punishment to “bad apples” in law enforcement, and that the bill calls for a commission to study the effects of qualified immunity.

The bill passed committee on a 4-2 partisan roll call, with support from only Democrats.

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UNEMPLOYMENT UPDATE: First-time unemployment claims fell sharply last week as both the state and national economies have begun gradually reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security said Thursday, March 25, that 15,595 Illinois workers filed initial claims for regular unemployment benefits during the week that ended March 20. And while that number would normally be considered high, it was down 78 percent from the week before. It was down 88 percent from the same week a year ago, at the start of the pandemic, when more than 126,000 people filed first-time claims.

That decline was in line with a national trend. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the total number of initial claims nationally fell by more than 42,000, to 241,745.

IDES also announced Thursday that the state’s preliminary unemployment rate dropped three-tenths of a point in February to a seasonally adjusted 7.4 percent as the economy added 21,100 nonfarm jobs. Those numbers reflect activity for the week of Feb. 12.

That rate was 1.2 percentage points higher than the national rate and it was 3.8 percentage points higher than February 2020, just before the pandemic forced a shutdown of major parts of the economy.

The biggest job gains in February were in the leisure and hospitality industry, which added 32,300 jobs. That sector was among the hardest hit during the pandemic because of restrictions placed on bars and restaurants, hotels, airlines and the cancellation of many conventions. Compared to a year earlier, the sector was still down by more than 185,000 jobs.

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COVID-19 UPDATE: COVID-19 hospitalizations and case positivity rates continued to trend upward Monday, March 29, leaving entry into a recently-announced “bridge” phase of reopening uncertain even as the percentage of seniors vaccinated continued to increase.

The COVID-19 case positivity rate was 3.3 percent Monday, having risen for the fourth straight day. It marked a 50 percent increase since March 14.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced 1,761 new cases Monday out of 49,449 test results reported over the previous 24 hours. Another five COVID-19 positive individuals were reported to have died Monday as well.

As of Sunday night, COVID-19 patients occupied 1,352 hospital beds, the highest point since Feb. 26. The 280 intensive care unit beds in use by COVID-19 patients marked a high since March 1, while 128 COVID-19 patients were on ventilators Sunday.

Meanwhile, 68.9 percent of seniors have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but even if that number reaches 70 percent, a “bridge” phase to expanded capacity limits at restaurants, other businesses and social gatherings is on hold until the hospitalization metrics and number of new cases reported stop climbing.

Last week, the state authorized counties to expand vaccine eligibility to all Illinoisans age 16 and over ahead of the April 12 date on which the expansion is scheduled to go live statewide. Gov. JB Pritzker said allowing county-level expansions was an effort to get more people vaccinated in counties with low demand for those in the categories currently eligible for the vaccine.

Over the past seven days the state has administered 103,769 vaccine doses on average, and more than 5.5 million doses have been administered since the vaccination effort began. More than 2 million Illinoisans, or 16.3 percent of the state’s population, are fully vaccinated.

Vaccination appointment and location information can be found at coronavirus.illinois.gov or by calling 833-621-1284.

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.