Week in Review: Ethics, COVID-19, budget and more…

ETHICS

As election approaches, taxpayer-funded ethics reform commission falls silent.  The Illinois taxpayer money that funds the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform was used to hold hearings and gather evidence on the current state of pay-to-play politics in Illinois.  The Commission, which is staffed by taxpayer-funded public sector employees, was created in the wake of serious allegations made against lobbyists and members of the General Assembly – including politicians who have resigned from office under federal indictment.

The Commission gathered extensive evidence of the rampant corruption and unethical behavior of certain legislators and lobbyists.  Promises were made that the Commission, after holding hearings, would brief the people of Illinois on their findings, and issue a published report.  The report, due March 31, 2020, was supposed to propose changes to the existing ethics and lobbying laws of Illinois.  The deadline passed and was followed by six months of silence.  To date, no report has been issued. 

In August, Illinois House and Senate Republicans demanded that meetings of Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform resume immediately.  Republican demands for reform were met with silence from the Democrat majority.

On Tuesday, October 13, the Better Government Association, Reform for Illinois, Common Cause Illinois, and CHANGE Illinois joined forces to demand that the long-silent Commission publish a report on their findings.  These groups included many nonpartisan advocates whose calls for reform had led to the General Assembly setting up the Commission in the first place.  They expressed deep concern this week that their efforts had led to what appears to be a blind alley, with the Democrat leadership stymieing meaningful action on ethics reform.

COVID-19

Illinois death toll tops 9,000.   New numbers from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) are coming in at a rate of more than 80,000 tests performed per day.  These tests are returning about 4,000 positive cases every day – 4,015 new positive cases on Thursday, October 15 – which indicates the continued seriousness of the contagious virus throughout Illinois.  As of this week, there have now been confirmed more than 330,000 positive coronavirus cases in Illinois.  The death toll from this disease has now passed 9,100.  More than 6.5 million coronavirus tests have been administered.

Drawing special concern from many is the number of Illinois residents in hospital beds right now with COVID-19.  While it is true that some people test positive for coronavirus, do not get acutely ill, and appear to make a full recovery, others are not so fortunate.  As of Thursday, October 15, 2,016 patients were in Illinois hospitals with COVID-19.  

BUDGET

Emergency loans could multiply.  The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB) is preparing paperwork for a second massive loan request from the U.S. Federal Reserve system.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit Illinois and the nation in March 2020, Illinois tax revenues collapsed and spending swelled.  Other U.S. states have faced similar challenges this year, but they were exacerbated in Illinois due to the ongoing fiscal crisis in Springfield.  The General Assembly met in May for a special session to deal with pandemic-related questions and the Illinois budget crisis.  During the special session, the Democrat majority enacted legislation authorizing Illinois to borrow billions of dollars from the U.S. Fed to produce a “balanced” budget.  Within weeks, Pritzker’s GOMB had issued $1.2 billion in Illinois debt to the U.S. Fed.  This is debt that Illinois taxpayers have pledged to repay when the current budget crisis ends.

This first round of debt, massive as it was, has now almost all been spent, and Illinois needs more.  The Governor has asked his agencies to prepare emergency cuts to their spending streams, and has also asked his GOMB staff to get the paperwork ready to go back to the Fed for another loan.  Like the first loan, the money would be lent by the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) within the U.S. Federal Reserve.  The MLF is a loan window created by Congress under emergency March 2020 legislation intended to help the hardest-hit units of local government, such as urban cities and states, during the COVID-19 pandemic.   

FIREARMS

Director of Illinois State Police reports to General Assembly panel on FOID card delays.  The Director’s report covered both firearm owners’ identification (FOID) cards and concealed carry licenses (CCLs).  Illinoisans must possess a valid FOID card to purchase firearms or ammunition from a licensed dealer.  They must possess a valid CCL to carry a concealed firearm on their persons in a public place. 

Statutory language setting forth clear requirements for Illinois residents to apply for an FOID, or to apply for a CCL, has been enacted into law by the General Assembly.  Money has been appropriated to the Illinois State Police to process FOID card applications and to scrutinize CCL applications, and to approve and mail out the cards and documents.  However, many Illinois constituents are telling House Republican lawmakers that they sent in all required documents months ago and have not yet heard back.  Furthermore, these delays and backlogs have been a longstanding problem.  The State Police blames a time-and-resources crunch created by the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in demand for increased access to firearms. 

This issue was heard at a public hearing this week held by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), which has oversight powers over the State Police’s administrative policies put into place to issue FOID cards and CCL licenses.  Lawmakers told spokespersons for the State Police that the current situation is highly unsatisfactory.  Director Kelly also asked the General Assembly for increased resources and personnel to deal with the surge in FOID and CCL applications.  The request was made during a teleconference meeting of the Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission (RICC), the coronavirus oversight panel of the Illinois General Assembly.   

HEALTH CARE

Temporary law allows telehealth consultations; advocates want permanency.  Under conditions created by the current COVID-19 pandemic, many Illinois patients are choosing to talk to and consult with their medical care providers via telemedicine.  By using telemedicine, a patient can describe their symptoms and get medical advice without exposing himself or herself in a health care environment.  This is important for all patients, but is especially significant for some patients with pre-existing health conditions or who live at a significant distance from healthcare professionals with whom they must remain in consultation.  Under these circumstances, telehealth medicine can be extremely valuable and, in some cases, even a lifesaving actor in maintaining health.

Ongoing studies have looked at the status of Illinois telehealth and telehealth patients.  In April 2020, nearly half of the Illinois residents who required professional medical care used telehealth services.  Telehealth is now a reality in Illinois.  The “window” for Illinois telehealth will shut, however, as soon as the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end.  Telehealth advocates are working to establish a coalition of stakeholders who will work to enact permanency for telehealth medicine in Illinois.

Several U.S. states have already enacted permanent telehealth laws that have been in place for a multi-year period.  For example, in 2015 Arkansas enacted a telehealth law covering video-link telemedicine by Medicaid patients, private-health-care insurance patients, and participants in state public-sector health plans. 

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

Major grant to help broadband installation in southern Illinois.  The $46.4 million grant will come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which works with Congress to handle rural broadband-access issues.  The grant and subsidized loan will enable the installation of broadband cable to customers served by Hamilton County Telephone and Flat Rock Telephone in Saline, Williamson, Franklin, White, Lawrence, and Crawford Counties.  These counties are located in areas of southern Illinois where prosperity was closely connected with coal mining.  With coal in decline, private-sector investment into this region is a challenge – even investment in vital services such as broadband cables. 

The USDA says that the grant will help connect 19,749 people, 462 small businesses, 347 farms, 16 schools and educational facilities, and four fire response stations.  The Illinois Farm Bureau helped facilitate the grant award.

HALLOWEEN

Local public health officials urged to play a role in Halloween festivities this year.  An overall guidance issued by Illinois’ statewide public health officials urges Illinois residents and families to practice a wide range of public social distancing for the fall holiday season.  Aware that there are significant differences between the health statuses of different counties and regions within Illinois, the statewide guidance did not try to ban Halloween trick-or-treating statewide this year.  The statewide guidance strongly discourages many forms of indoor Halloween traditions, such as indoor costume parties.  The guidance also notes that Halloween costume masks are not nearly as effective is discouraging viral transmission of COVID-19 as are cloth masks.

However, with some sections within Illinois showing spreading outbreaks of coronavirus, local trick-or-treat ban orders are possible.  Families should pay close attention to local news media for guidance on the individual situations in their communities.  Community groups are encouraged to set up trick-or-treat tables as a preferred substitute for door-to-door tricking or treating.

WEEK IN REVIEW

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