Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said he wants to raise the state’s usage tax on tobacco products.

In a proposal supported by anti-smoking advocacy groups, the Chicago Democrat said Tuesday, May 7, he will introduce legislation to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1, to $2.98. That is about triple the 32 cents Gov. J.B. Pritzker initially proposed in his February budget outline.

Cullerton also would include a bump in taxes on all other tobacco products — cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff, to name a few — by 64 percent of the wholesale price.

Many of the bills that we vote on in Springfield deal with money and in fact, I would say most of them do. Since I’ve been here, the bills that I’ve been most interested in working on are bills that you can vote on where you actually save lives,” the Senate president said. “This is another example of that. ...That is about the most rewarding thing anybody can do in the Legislature.”

Hiking Illinois’ usage tax on tobacco products would generate about $180 million in revenue, said Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association — more than $159 million from the increase on cigarettes and $20 million to $25 million from the increase on other tobacco products.

But the plan would also save the state money in long-term health costs, as well as provide an incentive for current smokers to quit and potential smokers not to start.

The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network commissioned a survey to poll voters about the favorability of the tax increase. It found 58 percent of Illinoisans support the $1 proposal. But when given information about the state’s budget deficit, and that the revenues generated from the tax increase might help pay that down, the support grew to 66 percent.

The poll also found voters prefer the $1 increase over the governor’s 32 cent proposal by a 2-to-1 margin.

Pritzker is counting on the General Assembly to pass a slew of new or heightened taxes to make his budget work, including those on plastic bags. His budget also needs revenue from the legalization of recreational marijuana, and expansion of the state’s sports betting industry.

It’s going to be tough to pass some of these bills that raise revenue, but there’s one revenue-raiser — the cigarette tax, and for that matter, e-cigarette taxes — where the public actually supports a tax increase. There’s not very many of those,” Cullerton said. “This is probably the only one that comes to mind, so when all those things converge, it makes it really obvious that this is what we should be doing.”

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GAS TAX: A bipartisan coalition laid out a plan Wednesday, May 8, that would raise $2.4 billion for road and bridge infrastructure improvements by hiking the state’s gas tax and a series of license fees.

State Sens. Martin A. Sandoval (D-Chicago) and Don DeWitte (R-St. Charles) were joined by leaders from commerce, organized labor and the construction industry as they advocated for a 25-cent increase to the state’s gasoline tax, which they say is needed to address years of neglect.

We all agree and know that our state's infrastructure needs improvements through strategic, sustained, bold leadership and efficient planning,” Sandoval said. “We haven’t had a capital bill in 10 years. It's time to modernize our transportation funding formula to make it sustainable and consistent.”

Sandoval is sponsoring House Bill 3233, which would provide $2.4 billion in funding through increases to Illinois’ motor fuel tax, vehicle registration fees, driver licensing fees and title certificate fees.

While DeWitte spoke in favor of a gas tax increase, he said he would advocate for a removal of the sales tax the state levies on motor fuel. Thanks to a 2016 “lock box” amendment to the Illinois Constitution, motor fuel taxes are mandated for use on road and bridge safety, while sales taxes are not.

DeWitte said he had not yet signed on as a co-sponsor to Sandoval’s bill because it does not repeal the sales tax, but he said he supports the premise.

These funding increases currently being debated in this Legislature will provide a steady stream of funding for years to come,” DeWitte said. “And they're guaranteed, most importantly for taxpayers, they are guaranteed to go where promised as they are strictly dedicated to transportation-related issues.”

The bill calls for raising the motor fuel tax from 19 cents to 44 cents, which would generate an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue. The bill would also hike the tax on special fuels, which includes diesel and biodiesel, from 21.5 cents to 52 cents, bringing in an estimated $478 million. Those increases would be indexed to increase with the rate of inflation.

Vehicle registration fees would go up as well, with passenger vehicles and class B trucks increasing to $148 from $98 and electric vehicles seeing a major spike to $1,000 from $17.50. Those rates would be indexed for inflation as well and would generate approximately $458 million in revenue.

Other truck registration fees would all increase by $100, raising about $30 million. Driver’s license fees would all double as part of the plan as well, going from $30 to $60 for the original license in most cases. Certificates of title would increase from $95 to $155.

* * *

HOUSE REPUBLICANS: One day after lawmakers learned the state collected $1.5 billion more in tax revenue than was expected in April, House Republican leadership argued Wednesday, May 8, that the good news is proof that new taxes are not needed to right the state’s financial ship.

The numbers are clear,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) said at a Capitol news conference. “We now have the money to balance the budget with no new taxes, no tax increases. There's no need to talk about raising taxes on bags, cigarettes, businesses or the middle class. And there is certainly no reason to be even considering a graduated tax.”

On Tuesday, the greater-than-anticipated revenue was announced in a letter written by Department of Revenue Director David Harris and Alexis Sturm, director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

As an immediate result of the strong April performance, coupled with revenue collections year-to-date, the State of Illinois will be able to address most of the $1.6 billion shortfall in the enacted (Fiscal Year 2019) budget because of the April revenues alone,” Harris and Sturm stated.

The Department of Revenue also raised its official estimate of next year’s tax collections by $800 million. That allowed Gov. J.B. Pritzker to scrap an unpopular proposal that would have decreased the statutorily-mandated state contribution to the pension fund for fiscal year 2020 by about $800 million, allocating the money to other state spending.

The thought of another pension holiday as a shortcut to meaningful budget negotiations was simply wrong,” Deputy House Minority Leader Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) said. “And I'm glad we were able to take that bad idea off the table for now. And I’m hopeful that it stays off.”

The “pension holiday” was part of several facets of Pritzker’s budget proposal. Others include licensing fees from legalized marijuana and sports gambling, a tax on plastic bags, and an assessment on Medicaid managed care organizations that would bring an estimated $390 million in added revenue into the Medicaid system.

Deputy House Minority Leader Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) said House working groups have been seeking to balance the budget without including any of the proposed new revenues included in Pritzker’s budget address.

Brady said a higher education working group was able to identify 6 percent cuts, while Demmer said the news of the added revenue projections was a “positive step for the working groups to consider.”

Demmer said “as a sign of good faith” in budget negotiations, House Republicans would be prepared to put “a proportionate number of votes behind” the MCO tax and the sports gambling legislation.

* * *

MARIJUANA BILL: A 532-page proposal to legalize adult-use cannabis in Illinois by Jan. 1, 2020 was filed in the state Senate Monday, May 6, but the state’s powerful House speaker said its passage is “not guaranteed today.”

Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 7, carried by Chicago Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans, allows Illinois residents to possess 30 grams of cannabis, five grams of cannabis concentrate and 500 milligrams of THC contained in cannabis-infused products. Visitors from other states could possess half of those amounts.

Up to five home-grown plants would also be allowed, provided certain safety conditions are met.

Adult-use legalization coupled with criminal justice reforms were campaign promises of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose office said in a press release Saturday that the proposal “will be a starting point” for debate.

But House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, told a group of graduate student reporters from the University of Illinois Springfield’s Public Affairs Reporting program Monday that it could be difficult to get 60 House lawmakers – the threshold needed for the bill to pass that chamber – to agree on some of the language in the proposal.

The bill allows for the expungement of misdemeanor and Class 4 felony marijuana convictions and makes a special designation in the licensing process for “social equity applicants,” or businesses having a majority of owners or employees from communities that were “disproportionately impacted” by the war on drugs.  

The bill gives those applicants access to funding from a newly-created $20 million low-interest state loan program, according to Pritzker’s release, and allows for reduced licensing fees in certain circumstances.   

There are some very controversial aspects to the proposal. No. 1 would be the proposal for the expungement of criminal records,” Madigan said. “The key on that issue is how far do you go in terms of expungement? If we're talking about some teenager who was doing drugs and found guilty of possession, that's one thing. If you're talking about people who were actually in the business, dealers, and you want to expunge those records, that's a different case.”

Convictions for possessing, growing, manufacturing and delivering cannabis were all included as eligible for expungement in a document released by Pritzker’s office, which said the expungement provision would only apply to standalone offenses not accompanied with other convictions.

Madigan said he wasn’t speaking to the bill’s specific expungement language, but to the idea in general.

I'm not sure how they treat that in the proposed language, but that will be very important in terms of finding 60 people in the House to vote for the bill,” he said.

* * *

MADIGAN INTERVIEW: House Speaker Michael Madigan doesn’t make a lot of media appearances, but Monday, May 6, he talked with student journalists who are covering the Statehouse in a graduate school program.

In his visit with the Public Affairs Reporting program class at the University of Illinois Springfield, Madigan (D-Chicago) said legislative committees in control of budget appropriations have taken Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed levels of spending in next year’s budget and “ratcheted them down” in case measures supporting that spending do not pass.

Those measures include legalizing recreational marijuana and sports betting, which Madigan said are “not guaranteed today.”

And while he supports Pritzker’s attempts to change the state’s income tax structure from a flat to a graduated rate, Madigan said the Senate moved too quickly when it debated for only 7 minutes Wednesday, May 1, before passing a bill and resolution that would put an amendment question on the 2020 ballot. He said the Senate should have "given it more time."

Madigan’s comments indicate a slower-than-expected pace of passing new legislation with Democrats in control of the Legislature and governor’s office.

Have you ever worked with Democrats?” he joked.

Of Republican lawmakers who say they are not being included in the legislative process, he said they have a “pretty clear record of non-participation,” especially regarding the budget, in recent years, but that he is “willing to work with them.”

Responding to a question about running for reelection in 2020, Madigan said, “Why not?”

* * *

CANNABIS OPPOSITION: A coalition opposed to recreational marijuana legalization shared concerns about public safety effects they say will result if the measure before the Illinois Senate becomes law.

The Smart Approach to Marijuana coalition, which spoke at an Illinois Statehouse news conference Wednesday, May 8, included police chiefs, sheriffs, representatives of the NAACP, the Catholic Conference of Illinois and other advocacy organizations.

They warned that “commercialization and normalization” of marijuana resulting from the language in Senate Bill 7 could lead to increased usage and more instances of people driving under the influence.

We’re concerned about mainly two things: The addictive potential of recreational marijuana, as well as the questionable wisdom of the state commercializing a drug into an industry that will profit from it,” said Bob Gilligan of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

Gilligan said proponents are incorrectly categorizing legalization as a social justice issue, and he noted language to expunge the records of people charged with marijuana offenses could be filed independently of the legalization bill.

Theresa Haley, president of the civil rights organization NAACP, said despite supporters’ claims that the bill contains equity language, legalization would target poor communities for profit.

You're creating an addiction; you're adding to an addiction that's already out there that's illegal and you're making it legal and more people are going to suffer,” Haley said. “Again, rich people are getting more rich on the backs of poor people.”

Des Plaines Democratic Rep. Marty Moylan urged his colleagues to oppose the legalization effort, framing it as a “David vs. Goliath” fight against big money. He likened the marijuana industry’s push for legalization as “another big tobacco.”

Bruce Kettelkamp, Christian County sheriff, cited a Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas study which said marijuana-related traffic deaths more than doubled from 55 deaths in 2013 to 125 deaths in 2016.

I’m trying to protect everybody in the state of Illinois from having this bill passed,” Kettelkamp said.

* * *

VIDEO GAMBLING: Randy Rehmer, owner of Waterloo’s Double R Bar just south of East St. Louis, says raising taxes on video gambling will eat at the $70,000 he makes each year off the machines alone.

Besides bringing more customers to his business, Rehmer says video gambling revenue has helped him remodel the building, hire an extra employee and give his staff pay raises.

I’ve got nothing against raising the minimum wage,” Rehmer said. “But the state is telling me to pay people more at the same time that it takes money away.”

Rehmer joined several other small business owners at a news conference Wednesday, May 8. He was referring to a possible tax increase on video gambling terminals, which show up in almost 7,000 local establishments across the state.

While no legislation has been introduced, a tax increase has the backing of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who first mentioned it in his late-February budget address.

Companies that own and operate terminals pay a 30 percent tax on video gambling revenue. The remaining money is then split, with half going to the retailer and half to the operator.

Pritzker’s proposal, advocates say, would raise the tax rate to 50 percent, leaving less money for businesses and video gambling operators to collect.

* * *

SPORTS GAMBLING: There are now almost as many different plans to legalize sports betting in Illinois as there are states that have legalized it in any fashion.

As Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday, May 8, signed a sports betting bill in that state – making it the ninth state to do so since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year allowed the practice – lawmakers in Illinois unleashed two more plans for stakeholders to consider, bringing the total number of plans in Illinois to seven.

The two plans were filed just hours before a House subcommittee met to discuss sports gambling in Illinois, leaving testifiers the difficult task of deciding their stance on the new plans without having had much time to review them.

Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside), who has taken the charge on legalizing sports betting in Illinois, filed the two amendments to House Bill 1260 early Wednesday morning.

Each amendment outlines yet another system by which lawmakers hope to support Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s goal of bringing more than $200 million in sports wagering revenues to Illinois in the next fiscal year.

The first plan would allow both online sports gambling and brick-and-mortar betting at the state’s casinos, race tracks, betting parlors and video gambling terminals. Licensing fees would range from $5 million to $10 million, while wagering would be taxed at 25 percent. 

Under that plan, the Illinois Lottery could also allow wagering in 2,500 retail locations, with a $30 million initial license fee and a 100-percent tax.

The second plan limits the number of licenses to seven for brick-and-mortar locations and three for online operators. Licensing fees in this plan range from $5 million to $20 million, but the 25 percent tax on wagering stays the same.

Zalewski, the amendments’ sponsor, encouraged stakeholders at the end of the hearing to figure out exactly what parts of each plan they support, and how many votes the provisions would garner in the General Assembly.

* * *

ABORTION BILLS: House Democratic legislators are the subject of an open letter penned by nearly 200 women who wrote they are “alarmed by the lack of action” on a bill that would rewrite Illinois’ abortion law.

They are pushing Democrats to “take action” on the Reproductive Health Act, legislation introduced in February that would replace the state’s abortion statute with language proponents and opponents agree would be the most liberal reproductive health care law in the country.

Women and the vast pro-choice majority across the state cannot sit idly by and wait to see how these [U.S. Supreme Court] cases sort out and how our rights are affected in Illinois,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We urge the Democrats in the Illinois House to take action in Springfield and protect our reproductive health care choices here in Illinois.”

When sponsor Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, announced the bill, it received much attention from backers and detractors. But the act has been sitting for more than two months in the same subcommittee as all other abortion and reproductive health care-related bills introduced this session.

After waiting for action on the RHA in the Illinois House, we have come together to speak with one voice to demand that our leaders take action on the RHA before the end of the session,” Andi Friedman, an attorney and reproductive rights advocate who was among the signers of the letter, said in a news release.

Cassidy said she is “frankly frustrated” the act has not advanced. She said she knows how important the tenets of the Reproductive Health Act are to women in Illinois, but it is a matter of convincing others of her bill’s significance.

I think that there’s been a failure to understand the real urgency on this issue. The cases that are in the pipeline come very close to home, and the laws that are on the books will rise like zombies at the point that Roe (v. Wade) falls,” Cassidy said. “I think people have a false sense of security around these issues, when the reality is that women are in real danger in Illinois as the result of our inaction.”

* * *

DCFS IMPROVEMENTS: Since July, 112 children who were in contact with Department of Children and Family Services personnel have died. DCFS inspector general Meryl Paniak on Wednesday, May 8, identified four starting points for making improvements in protecting children in cases the agency is investigating.

They are safety assessments, training, supervision and manageable caseloads, Paniak told lawmakers in the House Adoptions and Child Welfare Committee. 

Supervision is “key,” she said, but it will require updated, recurring training.

We need to look into the complex need of the families,” Paniak said. “We need to start by asking staff what they need to do their job.”

She said there are 60 job vacancies in DCFS child protection statewide, and 400 of the 1,200 active cases have gone more than 90 days without agency intervention.

We all know that workforce problems will negatively affect family outcomes,” Paniak said.  “Leaders need to set a vision and drive change for staff. Staff will drive change for families. Families need to change so children can be safe.”

Marc Smith, acting director of DCFS, said he wanted to be “thoughtful” in his approach to addressing the agency’s deficiencies.

During the meeting, it was reported DCFS had already made changes following discussions held April 30, including adding a phone line lawmakers can now call to receive updates about any constituent who approaches them about his or her case.

* * *

FINANCIAL AID ACCESS: The Illinois Senate on Wednesday, May 8, passed and sent to Gov. J.B. Pritzker a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to receive state-funded student financial aid to attend college.

House Bill 2691, known as the Retaining Illinois Students and Equity, or RISE Act, passed the House on April 11. It also would extend eligibility for the state’s Monetary Award Program, or MAP grants, to certain transgender individuals who are disqualified from state or federal financial aid because they have not registered for the draft.

Just because someone is undocumented doesn’t mean they aren’t members of our society. It doesn’t mean that they don’t contribute to our society,” Sen. Omar Aquino, a Chicago Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said during floor debate. “Undocumented families in Illinois are Illinois families. They are Illinois residents that pay taxes – taxes that actually, because they are undocumented, they are not able to receive the return on those taxes back to them.”

But the idea provoked strong opposition from Republicans, who argued that expanding the pool of students who are eligible for MAP grants by allowing noncitizens to receive them would crowd out legal citizens from getting them.

Ladies and gentlemen, the math is simple,” Sen. Jim Oberweis, a Sugar Grove Republican, said. “Each and every one of us have students in our districts who are relying on MAP funding. If we’re going to take some of that funding away from our citizens and give it to noncitizens, that means we’re depriving some of our citizens, some of our students, from being able to have that funding to help with their education. This is just absolutely, fundamentally wrong.”

The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 35-to-15, and will head to Gov. Pritzker.

* * *

HUMAN SERVICES: Organizations that provide home and community-based services for low-income, elderly and disabled people in Illinois told lawmakers Wednesday the reimbursement rates they receive through the state’s Medicaid program do not cover their cost of providing services.

Some might go out of business if they don’t see substantial rate increases soon, they warned.

Providers in all fields report that current rates fail to keep up with the pace of actual costs of basic operational and administrative support needed to stay in business,” Judith Gethner, executive director of Illinois Partners for Human Service, told a Senate budget committee. “Of course, most have little choice but to accept the contracts.”

The committee is considering a batch of bills, each of which would increase reimbursement rates for one category of providers. They include home health aides, community mental health centers, adult day care providers for the elderly and disabled, assisted living centers and children’s health care centers and alcohol and drug abuse treatment centers, among others.

Most of those services are designed to enable people to continue living in their homes rather than being institutionalized in more expensive nursing home settings. Others, like children’s health care centers, provide intermediate-level health care for those who are not yet ready to return home, but do not need to continue staying in more expensive hospitals.

Most are also eligible for Medicaid reimbursements, which in Illinois means the federal government picks up half the cost.

Some of those providers said they have not had a rate increase in 15 years or more, and that the reimbursements they now receive do not even cover the cost of the services they provide. Meanwhile, they added, as costs have been rising, funding for human services as a share of the state’s total budget have been shrinking as the state has been forced to increase funding for things like pension obligations, debt service and K-12 education.

The solution is to increase the piece of the pie that goes to human services,” Gethner said. “After years of stagnant reimbursement rates, it’s imperative to increase these rates and grants so the sector can design and implement services.”

The bills pending in the budget committee would only authorize higher reimbursement rates for various services. Actual funding to pay those rates would have to be included in the final budget bills that lawmakers are expected to pass at the end of the month.

* * *

LOST DOGS: Dog owners who have their four-legged friends microchipped hope doing so will speed the dogs’ return if they get lost.

Legislation being considered in the General Assembly might also help speed that process.

The Senate last month passed SB1572, which requires people who find a stray dog to bring it to their local animal control agency or police department within 48 hours so the dog can be scanned for a microchip. If not brought, those who find stray dogs face fines from $50 to $500.

The bill then moved to the House for consideration, but was sent back to a House committee on Wednesday, May 8, where it awaits further action. 

Rep. Diane Pappas (D-Itasca), who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said that while the law wouldn’t likely be enforced often, it’s only fair to people who’ve gone to the trouble of microchipping their pets to have a good-faith effort put into returning them.

I think this bill strikes a good balance between protecting the rights of the owners of the dog who went through the expenses of having the dog microchipped … and the rights of the person who finds the dog and wants to keep the dog,” Pappas said.

Rep. Margo McDermed (R-Mokena) called the legislation “such a suburban bill” and questioned if there is a cost associated with having a pet’s chip scanned.

Also, she said the law would be unfair to those in rural communities because of the extra effort it might take for someone to bring a recovered pet to animal control.

This assumes they own a car,” McDermed said. “This assumes it's a five-minute drive to the vet. What if it’s out in the country and it’s a 30-mile drive?”

* * *

APRIL REVENUES: The state of Illinois received some unexpected good news Tuesday, May 7, when officials reported that revenues received in April came in $1.5 billion higher than expected.

That news was delivered in a letter to legislative leaders and top-ranking members of the House and Senate appropriations committees from Department of Revenue Director David Harris and Alexis Sturm, director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

As an immediate result of the strong April performance, coupled with revenue collections year-to-date, the State of Illinois will be able to address most of the $1.6 billion shortfall in the enacted (Fiscal Year 2019) budget because of the April revenues alone,” Harris and Sturm stated.

The main reasons for the boost in April were higher-than-expected receipts in both personal and corporate income taxes.

Much of that, however, may be a one-time occurrence that resulted from strong stock market performance and recent changes in federal tax law. Because individuals can no longer deduct taxes they pay to state and local government on their federal returns, many filers did not adjust their state tax withholdings and ended up owing money in April. Harris and Sturm said many other states also saw higher tax collections in April.

But they also said there were other factors at work, including strong job growth, that will continue into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

As a result, the Department of Revenue raised its official estimate of next year’s tax collections by $800 million, bringing the new estimate to $22 billion.

Harris and Sturm said Gov. J.B. Pritzker is recommending that money be earmarked for making the state’s required payments into state pension systems.

* * *

DCFS AUDIT: The Illinois Auditor General’s office said Tuesday, May 7, that understaffing at the state’s child welfare agency led to a massive backlog of cases of suspected child abuse or neglect during the administration of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It also said the agency often failed to follow its own protocols for investigating cases and filing timely reports.

The audit report paints a picture of the Department of Children and Family Services as an agency overwhelmed by a growing volume of cases with investigators under pressure to close cases quickly, “even when they had not performed basic tasks such as contacting police and doctors.”

There is every indication here that there are problems,” Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, said during a news conference shortly after the report was released.

The Illinois House ordered the audit in June 2017 when it passed a resolution that cited a number of concerns about how the agency was being managed.

The audit examined activity at DCFS between July 2014 and June 2017. That included the two-year period when the state government operated without a budget amid a stalemate between the Rauner administration and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. 

According to the auditor’s report, DCFS saw a 10.8-percent spike in the number of cases it was called on to investigate during that time.

During that time, however, there was also a sharp decrease in the percentage of cases where investigators said they found credible evidence of abuse or neglect. And in nearly two-thirds of the cases where credible evidence was found, auditors could find no documentation about whether those families had received or even been informed about available services to help them.

Meanwhile, the report indicated, the agency was unable to handle the volume of calls coming into its hotline, and in some cases it took the agency a week or more to return messages that were left on an answering machine. Investigators were also routinely assigned more new cases in a month than is allowed under a federal consent decree.

The report spells out 13 specific recommendations for DCFS to improve its handling of abuse and neglect cases, ranging from improving data collection and reporting requirements to ensuring that critical investigations are completed within the required 60 days, and that extensions on that time limit are granted only for good cause.

* * *

DCFS CAUCUS: Sara Feigenholtz said there’s a need to “modernize and improve” the state’s Department of Children and Family Services.

The Democratic state representative from Chicago spoke Tuesday, May 7, about a new DCFS Child Welfare Reform Caucus that intends to promote legislation during the last month of the 2019 session. She said she hopes that is done through a “bicameral effort.”

During a news conference at the Capitol, Feigenholtz referenced Senate Bill 193, which came out of the Senate last month with language that children served by DCFS would receive services until age 21 instead of 19.

Feigenholtz is now proposing to add new language that would address “vertical accountability” in the agency.

I want to make sure there are other sets of eyes in these cases that are so difficult,” Feigenholtz said.

The bill would require an internal review of a randomly selected 5 percent of cases and involving children 5 and younger.

Cases involving young children have been under scrutiny with the recent death of A.J. Freund, 5, of Crystal Lake, whose body was found in a shallow grave and whose parents allegedly were drug users.  DCFS had contact with AJ’s family dating back to 2012.

Also, in February, police arrested Twanka Davis in connection to the death of her daughter Ta'Naja Barnes ,2, who froze to death in Decatur. Barnes had been placed in foster care in 2018 while her mother was investigated for child abuse.

It’s clear that the state failed AJ, and it’s clear that we must make changes to fix our child protective care system,” state Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin) said Tuesday.

We’re seeing a pattern that these are the children that are falling victim to this,” Feigenholtz said.

* * *

SECOND ATTEMPT: At a Tuesday, May 7, press event billed to “discuss new legislation” in response to a graduated tax constitutional amendment, Illinois House Republicans introduced an identical bill to one that failed to advance in the Senate.

The Republicans’ measure would require a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber to raise any tax rates in the future.

Senate Democrats already advanced a graduated income tax rate structure last week which would become law if an amendment is approved by the House, then by Illinois voters. That rate structure would lower the income tax rate for earners with $250,000 or less in taxable income, while the tax rate would increase on earnings above that threshold.

The higher taxes on those earning more than $250,000 would provide more than $3.5 billion in estimated revenue, and Democrats say it is the only legislative plan that can balance a long-term structural deficit of about $3.2 billion.

Democrats have said the other options for balancing the budget are an increase to the flat tax rate from 4.95 percent to 6.95 percent or 15 percent cuts to all state departments, including education.

The nine House Republicans at Tuesday’s event did not reveal a counterplan to close the structural deficit, but they did say greater taxpayer protections are needed as the state awaits “structural spending reforms.”

House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 34 does not address those structural reforms, but Republican Rep. Thomas Morrison, of Palatine, said it does give taxpayers “protection.”

Going forward, it just takes a simple majority to raise taxes, and we believe that that is not a great enough protection to taxpayers,” Morrison, the amendment’s sponsor, said.  

The Democrats’ graduated tax amendment does not lessen the amount of votes – 30 in the Senate and 60 in the House – needed to raise taxes, but Republicans claim it will make it politically easier to sell a tax increase to the public by allowing the General Assembly to raise the rates on only a certain portion of the public.

The Republican amendment to require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, however, remains in the House Rules Committee.

The graduated tax amendment passed the Senate by a 40-19 vote and will need support from 71 lawmakers in the House to be put on the 2020 ballot.

There are now 73 Democrats in that chamber after the seat of conservative Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello II, of Smithton, was vacated Tuesday when he accepted a post at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Costello, who was a co-sponsor on a resolution opposing the graduated tax, will be replaced within 30 days after a vote by the Democratic Party chairmen in Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair and Perry counties.

* * *

CANNABIS COALITION: A group supporting recreational marijuana legalization spoke outside the governor’s office Tuesday, May 7, touting a recently-filed legalization plan while suggesting a few changes.

The Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition lobbied for “no fine, no time” for people younger than 21 who are caught in possession of marijuana under the new legislation. Instead, they said, penalties should be placed on those selling the drugs.

We are here to ensure a system that puts black and brown folks at the forefront for opportunity, specifically those that were targeted by the war on drugs,” said Alexandria Boutros, who led the Coalition’s rally.

The group shared stories of friends and family who were incarcerated for drug possession, and said those whose records are expunged as part of the bill should have an opportunity to find employment in the industry.

There has been a harm committed in our communities,” equity advocate Alonzo Waheed said. “This is the time that we can come forward and make it right.”

Waheed said barriers to the industry need to be reduced for communities impacted disproportionately by the war on drugs. He also suggested the legislation should create workforce development, skills trainings and outreach programs to create opportunity in those areas.  

Still, he said expungement is the most important measure.

None of that means anything if you do not release individuals and clear their backgrounds,” he said. “For us to have true equity, we need to transform. That’s transforming our mindsets, transforming our policies, and we need to start doing that today.”

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MOODY'S WEIGHS IN: One of the nation’s leading credit rating agencies said Monday, May 6, that adopting a graduated income tax system in Illinois probably would provide some much-needed revenue, but whether state’s credit rating would be improved depends on how the state uses the new money.

The report, by Moody’s Investors Service, came in response to a proposed constitutional amendment that proposes to replace the state’s current “flat” income tax rate of 4.95 percent with a graduated system where higher rates would apply to people with higher incomes.

The Illinois Senate voted last week to approve the amendment. It is now pending in the House and, if approved there, would be placed on the November 2020 general election ballot for voter approval.

If the constitutional amendment ultimately passes, its impact would depend on the degree to which the state derives new resources and uses them to address core credit challenges, most prominently pension obligations,” the report stated.

To be sure, a neutral outcome is possible if a new tax system yields only minimal revenue gains and has little effect on the state's economy or budget,” according to the report. “A positive outcome for the state's credit standing would require that the new system yield substantial net new revenue, without material damage to the economy, and that the new revenue be largely allocated to addressing the state's retirement benefit liabilities on a recurring basis.”

A negative outcome — characterized by growing economic challenges and scant progress addressing pension funding needs — is also possible,” the report stated.

Moody’s rates Illinois bonds as Baa3, the lowest investment-grade rating available. Any further downgrade would put the state into what many refer to as “junk bond” status.

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ESTATE TAX: Members of a liberal House caucus on Friday, May 3, announced their opposition to the Senate’s move to strike Illinois’ estate tax from statute, a measure unexpectedly included in a package of bills to change the state’s income tax structure.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said the state is at a “critical moment.” The General Assembly is negotiating the terms under which to implement a graduated income tax system, and repealing a tax on the transfer of property, he said, “is a move in precisely the opposite direction.”

The measure, contained in Senate President John Cullerton’s (D-Chicago) Senate Bill 689, passed the Senate with 33 votes after unexpectedly being added to a package of bills which can only become law if the voters approve a graduated tax constitutional amendment in November 2020.

Six Democrats joined all but one Senate Republican in voting against the measure. State Sen. Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican, said the estate tax repeal is generally supported by Republicans, but his opposition was based on the fact that the repeal could be reversed at any time.

The estate tax currently only applies to estates worth more than $4 million, and it produces $305 million in revenue according to a 2020 estimate from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

Guzzardi said that revenue would have to be made up elsewhere or the budget would have to be cut to account for the $305 million – even with the estimated $3.5 billion in revenue that would be gained from a proposed graduated tax structure.

Guzzardi said the Progressive Caucus supports the graduated income tax proposal because Illinois does not have the financial resources to fund services its members see as ones a government should provide — quality public schools, affordable health care and access to social programs.

He said he is “optimistic” the constitutional amendment necessary to enact the new tax structure will receive enough votes to be presented to voters in 2020. The bill needs 71 votes in the House, which has 74 Democratic members.

But either way, removing current law that taxes the transfer of property is not something Guzzardi said he thinks will be successful in his chamber.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operatedby 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.