CAPITOL RECAP: Pritzker signs bill expanding Medicaid

The credit rating agency S&P Global Ratings upgraded Illinois’ bond rating on Thursday, citing the state’s improved financial condition. It’s the second upgrade from a major credit rating agency to move the state away from the brink of “junk” status.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois residents who have health coverage through Medicaid now have access to a broad range of services including mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, smoking cessation and dental services.

Gov. JB Pritzker on Tuesday, July 6, signed Senate Bill 2294, which passed unanimously out of both chambers during the spring legislative session.

“This legislation that I'm signing into law today is a product of our passionately dedicated, bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators who are part of the Medicaid legislative working group,” Pritzker said at a bill signing ceremony in suburban Chicago. “… For all the naysayers that always seem to bad-talk the state of Illinois, few other states can say that they have an annual commitment shared across both sides of the aisle to hash out how to make health care access for millions of Illinoisans who rely on Medicaid even better.”

Among many provisions, the bill provides that people covered under Medicaid will continue to be eligible throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency and for up to 12 months after the emergency expires.

It also calls on the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to establish a program for implementation of certified community behavioral health clinics by Jan. 1, 2022, and to develop a “comprehensive behavioral health strategy” that is to be submitted to the governor and General Assembly by July 1, 2022.

Other provisions include recognizing veteran support specialists as mental health professionals under the state’s Medicaid plan; coverage of both individual and group tobacco cessation programs; requiring in-patient treatment for anyone experiencing an opioid overdose or withdrawal if it’s determined to be medically necessary; coverage of kidney transplant medications regardless of a patient’s U.S. residency status; and providing a 10 percent increase, through March 31, 2022, in reimbursement rates for supportive living facilities, to be paid for with federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat and member of the Medicaid working group, said this year’s bill is aimed at addressing many of the health care disparities that have existed in Illinois for years but which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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BLOOD SHORTAGE: Gov. JB Pritzker's Tuesday, July 6, bill signing took place at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, a southwest suburb of Chicago, where health care officials were also conducting a blood drive to address a critical shortage that’s being experienced throughout the state and the country.

Bill Rhoades, chief medical officer at the hospital, said blood usage nationwide has risen about 10 percent recently, due largely to increased visits to emergency rooms.

Joy Squier, regional communications officer for the American Red Cross in Illinois, said the shortage is especially critical as the nation heads into the peak of summer activity.

“While summer is traditionally a time when blood donations do decline, this year is particularly challenging as many Americans receive their vaccinations, resume summer activities, and after more than a year of limited interactions, are doing what's fun and what we all want to do,” she said. “But it's leading to lower turnout.”

She said people can schedule an appointment to donate at a blood bank in their area by visiting the website RedCrossBlood.org, or by calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

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ENERGY EQUITY: The language in a comprehensive energy bill aimed at moving Illinois to a carbon-free future has undergone a multitude of revisions, yet the foundation of equity within the bill has remained mostly untouched throughout the process.

It’s still unclear if, or when, a finalized version of the energy bill will be reached, but many equity advocates are cautiously optimistic that a compromise will be made before the end of the calendar year, while businesses groups are calling on the governor to slow the process down.

Rep. Kam Buckner, a Chicago Democrat and chair of the House Black Caucus, is one of four other caucus members involved in the energy negotiations.

Buckner said the pandemic has highlighted the disparities that Black, indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, communities face considering the disproportionate deaths and joblessness related to COVID-19.

The main focus of the equity provisions that are being considered include creating programs to promote economic opportunity and job growth for communities that have historically been left behind when it comes to the skilled labor industry, Pierce said.

The topic of prevailing wages continues to be a sticking point between labor unions and equity advocates as an agreement on how this will be addressed in the omnibus energy bill has yet to be met.

Delmar Gillus, chief operating officer of Chicago-based Elevate, is one of the lead negotiators on the equity portion of a potential energy bill.

While language in the latest draft of the comprehensive energy bill is subject to change, equity advocates said they believe for the most part that the equity provisions will go mostly untouched.

It is the intention of equity advocates to ensure the creation of climate workforce hubs, where nonprofit organizations are selected to participate in intermediary job training programs in the renewable energy industry. These workforce hubs would help potential workers not only access good jobs, but receive the training, education, transportation, supplies and proper equipment necessary to achieve this.

Efforts to increase and diversify investment for contractors and ownership opportunities for BIPOC communities can be seen through contractor incubators and accelerator programs.

Demographic data will be collected across all of the programs within the bill which will allow for policymakers to assess how the programs are working. If the intended goals and targets are not being met, Gillus said, then they will work on adding more definitive measures.

Equity advocates also want annual reporting from companies to ensure that their renewable energy credit proposals are consistent.

There could also be a dedicated block of incentives, or renewable energy credits, specifically for equity eligible companies, which primarily include BIPOC businesses and persons.

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ENERGY BILL PUSHBACK: The equity provisions, renewable energy investments, nuclear subsidies and low-income assistance programs, among other provisions in a massive energy bill being considered in Illinois are largely funded through added charges to ratepayer bills. Cost breakdowns in some of the past public bill language show added costs of $3-4 monthly for the average residential ratepayer.

But a coalition of business groups and labor unions that are involved with maintenance at coal plants held a news conference last week questioning the transparency of ongoing energy negotiations and how extensive the impact will be on businesses. Illinois Manufacturers’ Association President and CEO Mark Denzler said businesses fear there may be a cost shift in future drafts of the bill, charging businesses $12 more monthly, with industrial charges increasing possibly over $1,900 monthly.

“Despite repeated requests, the governor’s office has failed to provide rate cost estimates, studies on reliability, or the impact on job loss from companies who will be asked to pay significantly higher electric bills,” Denzler said at a news conference.

In a statement, Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokesperson for Pritzker, cited Site Selection magazine’s recent ranking of Illinois as the top-ranked state in the nation for sustainability, based on a number of environmental factors.

Site Selection magazine publishes “information for expansion planning decision-makers,” according to its website, and Abudayyeh said the top ranking is “an important selling point to potential businesses looking to put roots down in a state that demonstrates its commitment to the environment and provides them opportunities to contribute to a clean energy future.”

“Bipartisan working groups have met dozens of times over the last year and convened key stakeholders to negotiate the various proposals made in the current draft of the energy bill,” Abudayyeh said. “The Governor has been clear that any energy legislation must address climate change by making meaningful progress toward moving Illinois to a renewable energy future while also protecting consumers, particularly low income consumers.”

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COURT OPERATIONS: State courts in Illinois are preparing to return to normal operations after nearly 16 months of operating under special rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 30, issued two new rules that call for easing social distancing requirements and reimposing requirements for speedy trials in criminal and juvenile offender proceedings.

On March 17, 2020, a little more than a week after Gov. JB Pritzker issued the first COVID-19 disaster declaration, the Supreme Court issued a sweeping order allowing courts to suspend ordinary deadlines in both criminal and civil proceedings and conduct remote hearings, and restricting access to courthouses throughout the state.

A few days later, on March 20, the Supreme Court issued another order that said any delays in criminal proceedings that resulted from the earlier order would not count toward the requirement for a speedy trial outlined in state law, which generally says defendants are entitled to a trial within 120 days from the date they are taken into custody or, if they are released on bail, within 160 days from the date the defendant demands a trial.

On April 20, the court issued yet another order extending the same allowance for delays to juvenile proceedings.

The latest order issued Wednesday calls for returning to normal speedy trial requirements, effective Oct. 1, which gives chief circuit judges 90 days to prepare for the delay to be lifted for both criminal and juvenile proceedings. It also provides that for defendants who were charged before March 20, all days they spent in custody or out on bail will count toward the speedy trial computation.

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VOTING RIGHTS SETTLEMENT: Illinois voting rights groups have reached a settlement agreement with Secretary of State Jesse White over alleged violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and Illinois’ recently passed automatic voter registration law.

The agreement, approved in federal court on Tuesday, June 29, resolves the lawsuit brought last February by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, CHANGE Illinois, Chicago Votes Education Fund, Common Cause Illinois, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The lawsuit argued that the secretary of state’s office, which offers voter registration services, violates state and federal law and “frustrates Illinois citizens’ ability to register to vote.”

Illinois’ automatic voter registration law was passed in 2017, and it requires that the secretary of state’s office automatically register eligible voters who are applying for, renewing or updating a REAL ID driver’s license, unless they opt out.

There is a slightly different procedure for registering voters who are applying for, renewing or updating a non-REAL ID driver’s license.

The secretary of state’s office allegedly failed to provide applicants with required information about voter eligibility, ask applicants about their voter registrations status, and offer information in other languages, as required by state and federal law.

According to the settlement, the secretary of state does not admit to any of the allegations in the lawsuit.

The agreement requires the secretary of state to provide language assistance in areas with high numbers of non-English speakers, such as Cook County, where Drivers Services Facilities must display instructions for registering to vote in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi and Urdu.

It also requires the secretary of state’s office to inform individuals of their registration status at the start of certain transactions, and to provide individuals with federally mandated disclosures, which include information about voter eligibility requirements.

The settlement agreement also requires the secretary of state’s office to screen out any individuals who are non-citizens or under age 18 before their information is sent to the Illinois State Board of Elections, among other provisions of the settlement. 

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CREDIT UPGRADE: Illinois received its first credit rating upgrade in 23 years on Tuesday, July 29, when Moody’s Investors Services raised the state’s rating one notch, citing “material improvement in the state’s finances.”

Although the upgrade still leaves Illinois bonds rated just two notches above so-called “junk” status, Gov. JB Pritzker said it marked a turning point for the state, and he credited the General Assembly and members of his own administration for bringing greater fiscal discipline to the state’s budget.

In a statement, Moody’s said its decision was based in part on the recently passed budget, which increases pension contributions, repays last year’s emergency borrowing from the Federal Reserve and keeps the state’s bill backlog in check, with only “constrained use” of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Moody’s also noted, however, that Illinois still faces significant long-term financial pressures, including its unfunded pension liabilities which the agency said “are routinely shortchanged under the state’s funding statute.”

“These liabilities could exert growing pressure as the impact of federal support dissipates, barring significant revenue increases or other fiscal changes,” Moody’s said.

“That is certainly something that we need to continue to work on,” Pritzker said. “As you know, from the beginning when I took office, we put forward a variety of methods for us to begin to deal with that. One of those has been a pension buyout program that has been successful. And so we're going to continue to work on that to make sure that we expand that and offer buyouts to everybody who is in the retirement system that may want one.”

Pritzker said the rating upgrade would save Illinois taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars” in interest costs paid on its debt, some of which he said taxpayers are already seeing in the form of rates paid on some of the state’s most recent notes.

In addition to upgrading the state’s general obligation bonds, Moody’s also upgraded the state’s Build Illinois bonds – a program begun in 1985 to fund state and local infrastructure, economic development, education and environmental projects – as well as bonds issued by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

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.