Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday, Aug. 27, signed the final three bills of the 599 sent to him by the Illinois General Assembly during the spring legislative session.

Per the final tally, Pritzker signed 591 of the bills into law, while vetoing seven and sending one back to the General Assembly with an amendatory veto. The General Assembly will return in late October and early November to discuss new legislation and consider overriding any of the vetoes.

Among the final measures signed by the governor this week was the Home Energy Affordability and Transparency Act, which aims to provide greater regulation on alternative energy providers, many of whom go door to door locking customers into high energy rates.

The measure, Senate Bill 651, was an initiative of Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who said the purpose of the legislation was to take aim at alternative energy suppliers who use “sales gimmicks and misleading sales pitches” to “lure consumers into high-priced energy contracts.”

Per the new law, alternative energy suppliers will be required to provide consumers with information about rates, fees and early termination charges, and they will be required to obtain consumers’ express consent before the contract is switched from a fixed rate to a variable rate.

Suppliers must also notify customers before their rates rise, and must report their rates to the Illinois Commerce Commission and the attorney general’s office. They must also end solicitations if the consumer does not understand English.

“Illinois residents deserve to know what they’re getting into when signing up for alternative utility suppliers, and often that means high costs and deceptive practices,” Pritzker said in a news release.

Among the other bills signed by Pritzker since Friday is Senate Bill 162, which expands health insurance coverage for mammograms and other breast cancer screenings beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

The governor also signed House Bill 465, which creates a regulatory framework for pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, which negotiate drug prices and benefits on behalf of insurance plans.

Prior to the bill, PBMs went largely unregulated in Illinois and were not subject to auditing or transparency laws despite the fact that they manage public money through the Medicaid program. The new law brings PBMs under regulation by the Illinois Department of Insurance beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

Financial report

The state of Illinois ran up a deficit of more than $7.7 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018. But as bad as that sounds, it was only about half as bad as the $14.6 billion deficit amassed the year before.

That’s one of the conclusions from the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report that Comptroller Susana Mendoza released Thursday, Aug. 29. It’s the first such report released since the end of the state’s historic two-year budget impasse during former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.

The 397-page report offers an intensely detailed look at the state’s overall financial condition as well as an analysis of economic factors that could affect state finances into the future.

It notes, for example, that spending on health and social services accounted for the largest single area of state spending during the year, totaling nearly $28.9 billion, or almost 41 percent of the state’s budget. That was followed by education, including K-12 and higher education, which accounted for $20.2 billion, or 28.5 percent of state spending.

According to the report, the state’s overall financial condition improved during that fiscal year, which began July 1, 2017, largely because the final budget plan that passed in late August of that year included significant increases in both individual and corporate income tax rates coupled with authority to issue bonds backed by future tax receipts that were pledged to pay down debts that were incurred in prior years.

The report noted that the state’s overall “net position” – essentially the difference between all of its tangible assets and all of its liabilities, a statistic used to measure the overall financial health of a business or government – was a negative $136 billion.

Still that was also better than the negative $184 billion net position reported at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, an indicator that the state’s overall financial health improved during the year.

Delay reported

A major tech failure at two of Illinois’ largest agencies and a lack of a uniform financial system contributed to officials publishing a key document detailing the state’s fiscal health eight months late.

The Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, released Thursday, Aug. 29, is used by ratings agencies to determine Illinois’ credit rating, which affects the interest rates it receives for bonded projects.

Auditor General Frank Mautino and Comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose offices contribute to the document, agreed a primary reason Illinois’ report was the last one completed in the country was due to the loss of one quarter of the state’s Medicaid data.

The Department of Human Services and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services both use a system that determines residents’ eligibility for public assistance, for which the state receives federal reimbursements. When a third-party technology vendor was completing an update to that system, 25 percent of Illinois’ Medicaid program data was deleted, Mautino said.

Agency officials asked for an extension to work with the federal government to verify the accuracy of information lost in that erasure. Before the CAFR can be completed, auditors verify the books of each agency, sending that data then to the comptroller’s office.

“This is the thing that’s different this year that I don’t know of has happened anywhere at any other time,” Mauntio said. “It’s a big factor.”

The mistake was additionally impactful because of the two agencies it affected. Combined, Mautino said, they make up 28 percent of the revenue and 31 percent of the expenditures of all governmental funds in Illinois.

Corporate board diversity

Public corporations with headquarters in Illinois will soon have to file public disclosures about the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of their boards of directors.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday, Aug. 27, signed House Bill 3394 into law, saying it will eventually lead to better business performance in the state.

“Better diversity among leadership leads to reduced turnover, increased growth and improved market share,” Pritzker said at a bill-signing ceremony in Chicago. “That’s good business, and it advances my vision of an Illinois where both businesses and working families thrive.”

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, and it originally contained much stronger language, requiring every corporation headquartered in the state to have at least one African-American and one woman on its board of directors.

The bill was based on a 2018 California law that requires corporations headquartered in that state to have at least one woman on its board of directors.

The bill sparked heated debate in March on the House floor, where it passed by a 61-27 vote. Then the Senate made significant changes, removing the requirement for minority and female representation on boards and replacing it with a requirement to file reports on board diversity with the secretary of state’s office.

The revised bill also calls on the University of Illinois System to analyze the data and publish reports providing aggregate data as well as individualized ratings for each corporation.

That bill passed the Senate 38-16 and the House later concurred with the changes 105-0.

Back pay lawsuit

The state’s attorney general says two former lawmakers should not receive back pay for frozen cost-of-living increases and forced furlough days because they previously voted to approve the two laws and waited “for so long” to file a lawsuit challenging their constitutionality.

Those laws, a Cook County judge ruled last month, violated an article of the state’s governing document that dictates legislators’ wages cannot be changed during the terms for which they were elected.

Judge Franklin Valderrama’s ruling was a partial win for two former senators — Democrats Michael Noland, from Elgin, and James Clayborne Jr., from Belleville — who sued for lost wages.

The lawsuit is applicable only to Noland and Clayborne, but its outcome could create an avenue for other lawmakers to seek the same financial reimbursement.

Potentially, those lost wages could be sought by and paid out to all members of the General Assembly who were affected by the statutes the judge deemed unconstitutional — the cost-of-living freeze, effective from July 2009 through June 2018, and the furlough days, effective from 2009 through 2013.

But the Illinois attorney general’s office argued in a court document filed Aug. 5 that Noland and Clayborne’s voting history — each “voted repeatedly in support” of the pay freezes and furloughs — and lack of previous legal action negates their claim for lost wages.

The lawmakers’ lawyer responded in a court filing Wednesday, Aug. 27, that said the attorney general’s office’s argument “has no merit” because it was the state that waited too long to challenge the suit, filed in June 2017.

The next hearing in the case is set for Sept. 9.

Charter schools

The state commission that oversees charter schools is set to be abolished next year while its powers and duties will be transferred to the Illinois State Board of Education.

That’s the result of Senate Bill 1226, sponsored by state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Aug. 23.

Charter schools are a unique and sometimes controversial kind of public school. They are generally set up for specific purposes such as focusing on college preparation, science and technology education, or serving students with special needs. Most are run by private, nonprofit organizations, but they operate within a public school district and receive public funding.

Under state law, organizations wanting to establish a charter school must apply for a charter through a local school district, which has the authority to grant the charter for a specified length of time or deny it.

There are 140 charter schools operating in Illinois, 126 of which operate within Chicago Public Schools, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Until 2011, charter applicants that were denied a charter by a local district could appeal to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Sean Denny, a lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in an interview there have been growing concerns about the commission in recent years because of the number of times it reversed decisions of local school boards.

Under the new law, beginning July 1, 2020, the State Charter School Commission will cease to exist and the terms of its members will end. The Illinois State Board of Education will then inherit all of the powers and duties of the commission, including the power to reverse local board decisions, and it will take over responsibility for any charter school previously authorized by the commission.

The new law also provides that local districts may not “arbitrarily or capriciously revoke or not renew a charter,” and that decisions by the State Board of Education are subject to judicial review.

Flooding relief

Illinois is officially seeking its first federal disaster declaration since 2013 to help businesses, local governments and homeowners recover from damage caused by several months of major flooding.

Democratic Gov. J.B Pritzker announced the request in a Thursday, Aug. 29, news release which detailed more than $69 million in direct losses caused by the flooding, including $61 million in losses for state, county and local governments and more than $8.2 million in losses for individuals. 

That number is more than triple the $19.2 million – or $1.50 per Illinois resident – in damages necessary to qualify the state for aid through the federal government’s Robert T. Stafford Act which governs disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The state requested assistance in 33 counties, with 21 of them receiving both individual and public assistance, 11 receiving just public assistance and one receiving just individual assistance.

The state’s application was submitted to FEMA, which will make a recommendation to Republican President Donald Trump as to whether disaster should be declared based on several factors, including the cost of assistance and localized impact.  The president has the final say as to whether it will be granted, and there is no deadline as to when a decision is due.

Gun dealer regulation

Following through on a new law that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in January, the Illinois State Police published a set of proposed new regulations requiring gun dealers in Illinois to comply with stricter security and recordkeeping requirements.

That law, however, is being challenged in Sangamon County Circuit Court by the Illinois State Rifle Association and a number of gun dealers in the state who argue it’s an unconstitutional infringement on their right to keep and bear arms.

Known as the Firearms Dealer License Certification Act, the state law requires anyone who holds a federal firearms license to also obtain a state “certificate of license” and comply with state regulations.

Those proposed new regulations were published in the Illinois Register on Friday, opening a 45-day public comment period. After that, ISP may amend the proposed rules based on the feedback it receives. It then must publish a second notice and forward the proposals to the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR. That opens another 45-day comment period, after which JCAR can either approve the rules for adoption or request additional changes.

Under the proposed new rules, starting Jan. 2, 2020, all licensed and certified gun dealers who maintain an inventory will be required to have electronic security alarms that notify local law enforcement of any unauthorized intrusion into areas where firearms are kept and maintained.

Also beginning in 2020, all licensed and certified dealers operating retail locations must implement electronic record systems to track their changing inventory. That means recording all sales and purchases within 24 hours of the transaction and recording shipments from manufacturers or wholesalers within 24 hours of unpacking the shipment.

They will also be required to maintain records of sales, including a copy of the buyer’s photo ID, for at least 20 years, the same length of time required under federal regulations.

Maternal mortality

Illinois is taking steps to combat troubling maternal and infant mortality statistics after one lawmaker was moved to action by a series of reports which showcased the state’s and country’s maternal health shortcomings, particularly among African-American women.

The lawmaker is Chicago Democrat Mary Flowers. The troubling statistics: Pregnancy-related complications kill more mothers in the United States than in any other developed country, and African-American mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers.

“What is happening and what has been happening is truly unacceptable,” Flowers said. “I can only go back to the articles that I read about the unconscious bias and untreated conditions and unrecognized factors that lead to poor outcomes when it comes down to African-American women and women of childbearing age. It’s unacceptable.”

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the last bills from a package of new laws to create new maternal legal rights and a task force to study the high death rate among African-American mothers and babies, to force hospitals to collect more accurate data on maternal mortality and be better equipped to treat pregnant women, and to mandate proper training for medical staff that are likely to treat pregnant women.

The racial disparities are driven home in a report by the Illinois Department of Public Health which said an average of 73 women in Illinois died each year from 2008 to 2016 within one year of pregnancy, and  African-American women were six times more likely to die of a pregnancy-related condition during that span. According to the report, 72 percent of those deaths and 93 percent of violent pregnancy-associated deaths were preventable.

State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Chicago Democrat and Senate sponsor of several of Flowers’ maternal health care measures, said the disparities existed across income and education levels.

“We found that a lot of highly educated black women in high paying careers are more likely to die as a consequence of childbirth than a white woman without even a high school diploma,” she said.

Raoul criticized

An anti-abortion law firm official said Monday, Aug. 26, that Attorney General Kwame Raoul was “interfering” in Indiana’s health care regulation system when he filed a court document in support of an abortion facility trying to open there.

The state of Indiana denied Whole Woman’s Health Alliance’s license application to open a medication abortion clinic in part because the organization did not disclose information about its affiliates in other states. Fourteen other attorneys general signed on to the document Raoul submitted to the court in favor of the Alliance.

Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel for the Thomas More Society, said officials in South Bend, Indiana, the selected site of the facility, have a “right to ensure that all businesses operate in a safe manner.” He is a former state representative from Lombard, and was the minority floor leader in the previous General Assembly.

“This affront is akin to a group of health inspectors from around the country trying to block Chicago from closing a restaurant for code violations,” Breen said in a news release.

Raoul’s filing of the court document comes after Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act into law. It ensures no level of government in Illinois can restrict access to a woman’s or man’s access to pregnancy care, birth control, abortion procedures or other related services or benefits.

The statute makes Illinois an “aberration in the Midwest,” Breen said.

“Not content with setting itself up to be America’s ‘abortion destination,’ its attorney general has now led a group of East and West Coast states in attacking our neighbors in Indiana for their attempt to safeguard their women and children,” he added.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.