Chesney’s Weekly Roundup- week ending November 16, 2019

ETHICS REFORM

House Republicans call for passage of sweeping ethics reform package. In the wake of even more federal corruption investigations entangling multiple layers of Illinois government, House Republicans continued to press the case for comprehensive ethics reform. Tuesday morning, members of the House Republican caucus held a Capitol press conference to call on the General Assembly to take up a sweeping package of legislation to tackle the long overdue problem. This is the third such press conference to call for ethics reform in as many weeks.

“How many more times do we need to play this broken record?” said Rep. Grant Wehrli. “We stood here two weeks ago to call for the General Assembly to take some basic action to rein in our own bad actors, and as we spoke another influential public official was standing before a judge. There can be no more excuses for inaction.”

At that press conference two weeks ago, Wehrli called for House Bill 361, which dramatically increases the fines legislators face for engaging in numerous restricted activities, to be released from the House Rules Committee.

Additionally, Rep. Tony McCombie filed House Joint Resolution 87 to create the State Ethics Task Force two weeks ago in the leadup to the Fall Veto Session. Despite the bipartisan nature of this legislation, McCombie says the legislation is “unfortunately, unlikely to be called for a vote by the Speaker during the Fall Veto Session.”

“I implore our leaders to assign HJR 87 to tomorrow’s Executive Committee,” Rep. McCombie said on Tuesday. “This is a way we can take long term action on the ethical issues we are facing here in Illinois. Both short-term and long-term solutions are needed and they are needed now.”

“Illinois taxpayers are sick and tired of corruption.  There is no time in recent history when more active investigations were going on regarding untoward actions of elected officials in Illinois,” Rep. Andrew Chesney continued.  “This is not only an issue of good public policy, but speaks to the trust of Illinois citizens in their government officials.  I will not allow fear to guide my actions, but, rather, faith that we can and must do better.”

In response to the federal corruption probe that has widened further since two weeks ago, House Republicans upped the ante with a new package of legislation introduced at the end of last week.

“These ethics reform bills are common sense, and a direct response to the wrongdoings we have learned from the current federal investigations,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said. “I am calling on the legislative leaders and the Governor to support these initiatives and begin moving them forward this week so they can become law.”

The ethics package includes:

  • House Bill 3954 that will revise statements of economic interests to include more details similar to the information required for judicial statements of economic interest. This forces full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and provides greater transparency for members of the General Assembly;
  • HJRCA 36 will require a special election to fill General Assembly vacancies through the same laws governing party primaries. This will prevent political powerbrokers from picking their preferred candidates for vacancies;
  • House Resolution 588 will allow a Chief Co-Sponsor of any bill with five co-sponsors from each party to call it or an up or down vote in a substantive committee;
  • House Bill 3947 would ban members of the General Assembly, their spouses, and immediate live-in family members from performing paid lobbying work with local government units. Currently, members of the Illinois General Assembly – state representatives and state senators – are prohibited from lobbying the State of Illinois, but are not prohibited from lobbying local government units, such as a counties or municipalities;
  • House Bill 3955 will create mandatory and publicly available documentation of General Assembly communications with any state agency regarding contracts. 

“There is no pressing issue that needs to be addressed with more urgency than ethics reform. We are gathered in the last legislative week of 2019,” said Rep. Ryan Spain. “These are transformational changes to improve the conduct of our state government, which is urgently needed.” 

Ignoring Republican reforms, Democrats pass watered-down ethics legislation.  On the final day of the fall Veto Session, the Illinois General Assembly passed several ethics reform measures that do not fully address concerns over recent federal indictments and ongoing political corruption in Illinois.

The Democrat majority filed legislation in the middle of the night in a last-minute attempt to provide cover for their members, while refusing to take any votes on the House Republicans’ ethics reform package. The legislation passed Thursday should only be considered a small first step on the path to ending political corruption in our state. While most House Republicans reluctantly supported these watered-down bills, much more work needs to be done to end the culture of corruption.

“There is so much low-hanging fruit on reform that the tree is about to fall over,” Representative Chesney retorted at the news that Democrats will punt on ethics by pacing out a taskforce while corruption reports continue to occupy daily headlines in Illinois media.  “To not take up the substantive measures proposed by Republicans and to allow some of these practices to continue one minute more really put the truth to the lie of concerns over corruption by Illinois democrat lawmakers.”

“Their Democrat colleagues have been caught allegedly self-dealing and with their hands in the cookie jar and their colleagues respond by saying, let’s study the issue,” Chesney continued.  “Then the Commission to study this is stacked with Democrats instead of equal representation.  The lack of self-awareness is simply unbelievable!”

House Joint Resolution 93 creates the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform to review Illinois’ ethics laws and lobbyist registration requirements. The Democrats’ resolution postpones the final report of the Commission until March 31, 2020, after the Primary Election.

Senate Bill 1639 requires lobbyists to disclose if they are elected officials, if they lobby a local government that requires registration, and requires the disclosure of who a sub-registrant lobbyist is hired to help lobby. Nothing in SB 1639 bans legislators from being paid to lobby local governments.

As House Democrats moved to adjourn the fall Veto Session, House Republicans demanded a roll call vote on the adjournment motion, voting against adjournment because our work on ethics reform is far from over. House Republicans called on Speaker Madigan to bring the House back into special session to fully debate and vote on our ethics reform package, which contains much stronger reforms to curtail political corruption in Illinois. After recent revelations of federal investigations and indictments against current and recently resigned legislators, we must do more to restore the public’s trust in our government.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY

Second week of fall veto session in Springfield; calendar posted for 2020.  The General Assembly met this week for the final three days of veto session. This marked the final scheduled legislative action of calendar year 2019. The House and Senate are scheduled to reconvene on Tuesday, January 28. There will be perfunctory sessions held prior to that time for the members to file new bills for consideration in the 2020 spring session. The 2020 spring session House calendar lists the session days for the months of January through May.          

GAMBLING

Chicago casino legislation fails to advance.  Revised language to allow a Chicago casinoto move forward was presented to the House for future discussion and debate.  Chicago casino language was introduced as Floor Amendment #3 to SB 516.  The proposal would shift millions of dollars in gambling tax money away from State infrastructure needs to the future casino owner.  Defenders of the shift pointed to a summer 2019 study, carried out by a Las Vegas-based gaming consultancy firm, which claimed that current state law imposes a tax burden on the proposed Chicago casino that is so high that no firm will invest in the money needed to develop it.  In response, advocates pointed out the successful development and operation of central-city casino hotel complexes in Milwaukee and Detroit.

Push for sports betting.  While Illinois lawmakers enacted the Sports Betting Act in June 2019, key rules to put sports betting in place have not yet been adopted by the Illinois Gaming Board.  At the Board’s November 7 meeting, administrator Marcus Fruchter stated that based upon his staff’s current timeline, he expected that rules would be released prior to the Board’s December 2019 monthly meeting. 

Release of rules by the Gaming Board will lead to two key future events.  Firstly, the rules release will enable firms to apply for permission and commence operations of sports-betting wire rooms.  Sports betting in purpose-fitted locations is a familiar sight on the Las Vegas Strip.  It is very similar to the technology used to pay off horse racing bets at racetracks and at off-track-betting parlors around the United States.  Sports betting wire rooms are already operating in the neighboring states of Indiana and Iowa, and Indiana wire rooms are advertising for bettors throughout the Chicago area.

Secondly, the release by the Illinois Gaming Board of administrative rules to implement the Sports Wagering Act, enacted in spring 2019, will start up an eighteen-month countdown to move toward a second stage in Illinois sports betting.  After eighteen months of Illinois location-based sports betting operations, Illinois will award supplementary licenses to allow sports wagers to be placed online.  This mobile sports-betting technology is already used successfully by two firms, DraftKings and FanDuel, to sell sports betting services in New Jersey.

Illinois Gaming Board sports betting rules will be scrutinized by a panel of the General Assembly, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which has legislative responsibility over administrative rules promulgated by State agencies.

HEALTH INSURANCE

House approves legislation to cap some insulin copays.  Many Illinois residents have diabetes, and many diabetics must take insulin to survive.  Pharmaceutical manufacturers are influenced by a wide variety of variables when they set prices for medicines, with one of these factors being the fact that a medication is necessary for a person with a chronic illness to live a healthy life.  Some people with diabetes are reporting that they must pay high prices, and must make high co-payments, for essential insulin supplies. 

House legislation, enacted as House Amendment #1 to SB 667, deals with prescription insulin drugs that are covered by insurance programs regulated by the State of Illinois.  The legislation imposes a co-pay cap of $100 per month on this insulin.  Some health programs are covered by federal law, and are not regulated by the State and are not affected by this new law.  SB 667, as amended, was approved in the House on Wednesday, November 13 by a vote of 100-13-1.  A Senate concurrence vote of 43-1-0 sent this measure to the Governor for final action.

Rep. Andrew Chesney voted YES on SB 667 when it came before the Illinois House.

JOBS

Illinois jobless rate sticks at 3.9% in October 2019.  The historically low unemployment rate was reported by the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) on Friday, November 15.  6,192,300 nonfarm Illinois payroll checks, a record number, were paid out in October.  The job total reflected job growth in educational services, health services, leisure, hospitality, and government.  Traditional sources of employment, such as construction, mining, and manufacturing, were flat or declined in Illinois payroll size in October 2019.  The 3.9% figure was unchanged from the previous month, with September 2019 also posting 3.9% Illinois joblessness.  IDES has posted a spreadsheet setting forth and briefly analyzing the numbers.

The jobless rate for October was a reflection not of the total number of people who would like to work, but of the smaller number who are actively looking for Illinois employment and cannot find it.  Some workers have become discouraged and have dropped out of the labor force, or are looking for new prospects in other states; if they are in these categories, they will be counted in other categories maintained by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics not be counted as “unemployed” in Illinois.   

Unemployment continued to be slightly higher in Illinois than in most states of the U.S.  The 3.9% October 2019 Illinois unemployment rate was 30 basis points higher than the 3.6% national rate for the same month.

PENSIONS

Police and firefighter pension consolidation plan sent to Governor.  The idea for consolidation came from the Governor’s bipartisan Pension Consolidation Feasibility Task Force that met eight times throughout the past year and issued a report in October recommending that downstate police and fire pension system assets be consolidated to achieve higher investment returns and lower the cost of managing the funds. The task force’s report estimates that over the next five years, consolidation could lead to an additional $820 million to $2.5 billion in investment returns alone, which could mean lower contributions funded by property taxes.

Illinois has nearly 650 separate pension funds, the second-highest number of pension plans of any state in the country. Held and managed separately, these funds earn significantly lower investment returns than larger pension plans like the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF). According to most recently available estimates, Illinois’ 649 downstate and suburban police and fire pension funds are underfunded by a whopping $11 billion.

Opponents to the consolidation plan, like Rep. Andrew Chesney, were not convinced that Springfield, with its dismal pension record, can take effective forward-working action on pension issues. Powerful arguments were put forth by both sides. The pension consolidation plan was contained in SB 1300, which was approved by the House on Wednesday, November 13, by a vote of 96-14-3.  Senate concurrence on Thursday, November 14, by a vote of 42-12-0, sent this measure to the Governor for final action.

STATE GOVERNMENT

Department of Children and Family Services reported for poor treatment of children.  The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has the legal responsibility of looking after and helping children under threat, including foster children.  However, many children under threat have suffered harm and in a few cases, children under DCFS “supervision” have died or been killed.  Other children are still alive but have suffered ill-treatment.  In a report published on Wednesday, November 13, the Chicago Tribune detailed cases where foster children were transported in handcuffs and leg shackles.  The story has been corroborated by other news reports

House Republican members, including Rep. Steve Reick, have joined the DCFS inspector general in the comprehensive investigation of deadly mistakes and wrongdoing at DCFS.  In a wide variety of cases involving numerous children and young people, some of the agency’s personnel have been reported as acting in an unprofessional manner and being out of compliance with child welfare best practices.  The Task Force on Strengthening Child Welfare Workforce for Children and Families is looking into DCFS personnel policies and practices in an effort to create adequate supervision of the child welfare agency with heavy responsibilities.