CAPITOL RECAP: Governor asks Supreme Court to rule on masks

CAPITOL RECAP: Governor asks Supreme Court to rule on masks

By CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration said Friday, Feb. 18, it will ask the Illinois Supreme Court for an “expedited review” of an appellate court’s decision not to rule on a lower court order that invalidated COVID-19 mitigation measures for roughly 170 school districts that were parties in a set of consolidated lawsuits.

Late Thursday night, the 4th District Court of Appeals said it would not review the temporary restraining order issued Feb. 4 by a Sangamon County judge, calling the issue “moot” because the emergency rules issued earlier by the Illinois Department of Public Health have expired and a legislative panel in charge of reviewing such rules had declined to extend them.

But the court also said individual school districts remain free to adopt their own mitigation policies, independent of any executive orders or state emergency rules.

“The administration is working with the attorney general to request an expedited review of this decision from the Supreme Court,” Pritzker’s press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement Friday morning. “In the meantime, the governor urges everyone to continue following the doctors’ advice to wear masks so students can remain safely learning in classrooms, and is encouraged that the court made it clear that school districts can continue to keep their own mitigations in place.”

Attorney General Kwame Raoul also issued a statement saying he too was disappointed by the decision.

“The appellate court’s failure to address the important legal issues in question has added to the confusion resulting from the circuit court’s decision prioritizing a relatively small group of plaintiffs who refuse to acknowledge science or the need for public health measures to protect vulnerable Illinois residents,” Raoul said.

It was unclear Friday exactly what, if any, state-issued mitigation mandates remain in place for schools in Illinois.

The 4th District court’s opinion indicated that the Sangamon County restraining order also applied to the governor’s executive orders. But both Pritzker and Raoul have said they believe the executive orders remain in place.

“While the Appellate Court’s ruling does not affect the enforceability of the governor’s executive orders, the decision does fundamentally misapply important principles of Illinois law related to the issuance of temporary restraining orders, such as the order issued by the trial court,” Raoul said in his statement Friday.

Meanwhile, the court’s opinion also said individual districts that are not parties in the underlying lawsuit still have authority to adopt their own mitigation policies, independent of the governor’s executive orders or state agency emergency rules.

* * *

JCAR VOTE: The vote that led the court to issue its ruling cam Tuesday, Feb. 15, when the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted to suspend the latest version of COVID-19 mitigations for public schools.

JCAR voted 9-0, with two members voting “present,” to object to the rules and suspend them from going into effect.

The Illinois Department of Public Health filed the emergency rules late Monday, renewing the emergency rules it had filed in September. The September rules officially expired on Sunday, Feb. 13, because emergency rules cannot stay in place more than 150 days.

However, a Sangamon County judge on Feb. 4 issued a temporary restraining order halting enforcement of those September rules in the 170 school districts that were parties in the lawsuit.

Those rules included requirements that all students, employees and visitors wear face coverings while indoors on school property, that employees either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, and that schools exclude any student or employee from school property or events if they have tested positive or were in close contact with someone else who had either a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 for a certain period.

Among other things, Judge Raylene Grischow said in her opinion that there was no need for emergency rulemaking because COVID-19 had at that time been around for more than a year and a half and that the agency should have gone through the regular rulemaking process, which allows for public comment.

She also said the rule on excluding students and employees from schools amounted to a kind of “quarantine” and that school districts were prohibited under state law from issuing such a quarantine without an order by a court or local health department.

JCAR is a 12-member committee divided evenly between the House and Senate, and between Democrats and Republicans. It is authorized to review agency rulemakings to determine whether they are consistent with state law and legislative intent. At least eight votes are required to block an agency rule from taking effect.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, however, continues to encourage masking in schools.

* * *

LEGISLATIVE WATCHDOG: Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly this week fast-tracked the approval of their party’s appointee to the watchdog position tasked with investigating lawmaker misconduct.

A harshly partisan debate and near one-party approval for the legislative inspector general nominee, former federal Judge Michael McCuskey, came despite members of both parties offering high praise for the candidate. The appointment passed on partisan lines in the Senate and with support of a handful of Republicans in the House.

The post had been vacant since last month, which led Democrats to push McCuskey’s nomination to the floor this week without approval from a search committee defined in law, according to Senate President Don Harmon’s Wednesday nomination of McCuskey in the Senate.

At least one case was pending before the vacant office, making the appointment more urgent, according to Harmon and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside.

“We’ve learned from past experience that the vacancy in that office should be filled very quickly,” Harmon said on the Senate floor. “The Legislative Ethics Commission has been deadlocked for four months now.”

Republicans speaking against the appointment didn’t specifically cite concerns about McCuskey’s background or character, but rather took issue with the Democratic effort to bypass certain steps in the appointment process.

Each party accused the other of political motivations.

McCuskey was approved as a federal judge unanimously by the Republican-held U.S. Senate upon his nomination by President Bill Clinton in 1998, retiring in 2014.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, joined several other lawmakers in stating he believed McCuskey to be a decent man with great integrity who can “call balls and strikes appropriately.”

Durkin voted present on the appointment, as he and fellow Republicans charged the Democrats with bypassing a non-lawmaker review panel and forwarding the nomination to the floor without approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission.

The four-member search committee, made up of lawmaker-appointed former judges or prosecutors, makes recommendations to the eight-member Legislative Ethics Commission, which is made up evenly of Democrats and Republicans.

“If we’re just going to say that the statutes, which are the law of the land, are advisory, we don’t have to follow them, I think it’s a poor reflection upon this process. It’s not a reflection on Judge McCuskey,” Durkin said.

The appointment advanced 37-18 in the Senate Wednesday with only Democratic support. It passed the House 77-16 with 19 “present” votes.

* * *

GOP REMOVAL: The Illinois House voted to remove nine Republican members from the House floor Thursday afternoon for their refusal to comply with face covering requirements, delaying the start of the legislative session for the third straight day.

In a 66-39 vote, Democrats voted to remove Reps. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, David Welter, R-Morris, David Friess, R-Red Bud, Chris Miller, R-Oakland, and Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport.

While most of those lawmakers chose to participate remotely after that action, one, McCombie, remained on the floor, unmasked, without incident for the remainder of the Thursday session.  

The motion for the GOP removal came from Rep. Lakesia Collins, D-Chicago.  

“If you choose not to wear your mask, do that outside of the chamber,” Collins said. “But while we’re in here, I ask that you respect the chamber’s rules, wear your masks, and get the work done.”

House rules require all members to wear a mask unless they are eating, drinking or speaking into the microphone.

The unmasked members speaking on the floor criticized what they called Democratic hypocrisy, citing the fact that Democratic members are frequently seen out in public at fundraising events without masks.

House minority leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, called on Democrats and Republicans to act with “civility” after receiving a letter from House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch about a week ago regarding the chamber’s need to “be more civil and work more collaboratively together.”

“It does not put me in a frame of mind that there is still a place for civility where we can actually have an honest discourse between both sides of the aisle,” Durkin said of the vote to remove members.

Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, noted that the main frustration among Republicans the past few days is there have been two votes to remove Republican members from the chamber, but the body has not yet taken a vote to impose COVID-19 mitigations beyond what has been put forth in executive orders from the governor.

“I find it pretty unfortunate that this is the second vote we’re having to remove members of the body and we haven’t taken one vote or held one hearing on the governor’s mitigations,” Batinick said during floor debate. “You guys have chosen to abdicate your duty to provide oversight. Live with it.”

* * *

DCFS CONTEMPT: For the fourth time in six weeks, a Cook County juvenile court judge has held Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Director Marc Smith in contempt for failing to move a minor into an appropriate placement.

“This really underscores the level of crisis here,” said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert. “They knew about this hearing and even with the hammer of a contempt of court citation over their heads, they were unable to find an appropriate placement for this child.”

Golbert’s office provides legal representation to thousands of abused and neglected children in Cook County who are wards of the court.

There are currently 43 children in the custody of DCFS who are in placements beyond medical necessity, according to DCFS.

“The Department of Children and Family Services is dedicated to keeping children safe and strengthening families,” DCFS spokesman William McCaffrey said in an email. “We are working aggressively addressing the decades-long challenge of a lack of community resources and facilities for children with complex behavioral health needs, which has been exacerbated by an increased demand in social services in recent years.”

The latest case involves a 16-year-old girl who came into the state’s care on Sept. 28. The girl was medically approved for discharge from a locked psychiatric hospital but remained in the hospital for two more months while DCFS tried to find a placement for her, Golbert said.

The girl was discharged from the psychiatric hospital on Nov. 18, but has changed placements 24 times since then, Golbert said. A chart with her placements that was used as an exhibit in court showed the teen was moved up to six times in a week.

Her placements included hospitals, temporary foster homes and emergency temporary shelters, including a shelter in Indiana, Golbert said.

DCFS first recommended a specialized foster home for the girl based on an October evaluation, Golbert said, but then reevaluated her in December and then recommended residential care.

On Jan. 6, a Cook County juvenile court judge ordered DCFS to place the girl in residential care in compliance with their own recommendation. Six weeks later, the girl was still waiting for that placement.

On Thursday afternoon, a judge once again signed a contempt citation against Smith. The girl is currently in a psychiatric hospital.

* * *

IDOC CLOSURES: The Illinois Department of Corrections is making plans to downsize—plans that a major public employee union claims have not been shared with its members.

With inmate population dwindling to 28,000 and mounting maintenance bills on prison buildings at correctional centers across the state, DOC developed a plan which may include significant downsizing at the Vandalia and Pontiac correctional centers.

“These facilities are referenced due to current operational needs,” IDOC chief of staff Camille Lindsay said in an email when asked about a draft plan obtained by Capitol News Illinois.

Under the proposed plan, Pontiac would close the medium security unit and go from 1,740 beds to 642 beds. Pontiac currently houses 1,144 inmates, including a unit that houses seriously mentally ill individuals.

Vandalia Correctional Center currently has a capacity of 1,001 and would be reduced to 401 inmates under the plan.

Both facilities face maintenance costs, including $3.8 million at Pontiac. The reduction of beds at Vandalia will save the state $12 million, according to plan estimates.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said the plan is still preliminary.

The preliminary plan noted that hiring continues to be a challenge at IDOC and staff overtime hours for are “extremely high, especially at Pontiac.”

Lindsay said in an email the department has not started moving people in order to reduce the populations in these facilities.

That claim was disputed by a representative from AFSCME Council 31 – the union that represents IDOC officers.

“The department began moving offenders out of Pontiac last week with no advance notice to the union, the employees or the individuals who were moved,” said Anders Lindall, public affairs director for AFSCME Council 31.

Lindall noted that the union subsequently received notice of IDOC’s intent to reduce populations at Vandalia and Pontiac with a target date of March 16 for the first phase with additional unit closures to be completed by the summer.

Lindall said the union began to hear rumors early last week about possible changes at Pontiac and met with IDOC officials on Feb. 9, during which IDOC denied that possible changes may be forthcoming.

“On Wednesday, seven buses arrived at the facility and began to empty out the medium security units. Only on Friday did they inform us of their plan to close the MSU that they earlier denied,” Lindall said.

In response to questions, Lindsay wrote in an email that “the department has not started moving people in order to reduce the populations in these facilities.”

* * *

HIGHER EDUCATION SPENDING: Gov. JB Pritzker continued to promote his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year Tuesday, Feb. 15, outlining his plan for rebuilding the state’s health care workforce during a stop at a Peoria community college.

He joined local leaders at Illinois Central College to talk about the Pipeline for the Advancement of the Healthcare Workforce program, a proposed initiative modeled after an existing statewide grant program, the Workforce Equity Initiative.

The PATH program would run through the state’s community college system, providing financial assistance to students enrolling in courses to obtain certificates in high-need health care areas. The targeted programs include nursing and certified nursing assistant positions, respiratory therapists and emergency medical technicians.

Assistance would also be available to address other barriers such as transportation, child care, food vouchers and tutoring.

Pritzker has asked lawmakers to invest $25 million in the program in the upcoming fiscal year.

Pritzker also proposed a $2 million increase in funding to the state’s Nursing Education Scholarship program which is aimed at retaining and recruiting nursing professionals. The governor also proposed eliminating licensing fees that will save health care workers about $21 million.

His budget also proposes doubling funding for a Nurse Educator Fellowship program and a Competitive Grants for Nursing Schools program aimed at increasing the number of nursing school graduates.  

Pritzker also touted the Workforce Equity Initiative program, which launched in 2019 with the backing of Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria. That initiative offers 120 training programs through 18 colleges across the state to increase workforce skills and expand training opportunities for minority students. Funds can be used for tuition, child care, transportation and educational supplies, and the program receives about $18.7 million annually.

As of Dec. 31, 2021, the collective outcomes of the FY20 and FY21 grants showed that 5,221 students had enrolled in WEI, with 3,885 being African American students.

In the FY 2023 proposed budget, Pritzker proposed $122 million increase for MAP grants, bringing the program’s total funding over $600 million. He also proposed a $2.5 million increase to Adult Education and Career and Technical programs for community colleges, and $2.3 million for a Minority Teacher Scholarships program.

* * *

DCFS MACE BILL: Republican lawmakers are calling for the passage of legislation that would allow Department of Children and Family Services workers to carry pepper spray for self-defense when investigating allegations of child abuse.

This comes weeks after the death of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas, who died while checking the welfare of six children at a home in Thayer in rural Sangamon County. Benjamin Reed, 32, was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death.

“It is legal for people to carry pepper spray for their own protection, as many do all over this state. Yet, DCFS workers who have to walk into abusive homes are not allowed that same protection,” Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, the sponsor of Senate Bill 4165, said at a news conference.

Rep. Sandy Hamilton, R- Springfield, filed House Bill 5688 that would allow the DCFS employees to carry mace or pepper spray on the job, also requiring them to complete a training program from the Illinois State Police on the proper use of pepper spray.

McClure is also a cosponsor on a bill to increase criminal penalties for attacking a DCFS worker. Gov. JB Pritzker has endorsed that effort. Similar efforts failed in 2019 after the death of DCFS worker Pam Knight, who was fatally assaulted during a child protection call in Milledgeville in northwest Illinois.

Rep. Tony McCombie, R- Savanna, also introduced House Bill 3646  that will allow DCFS caseworkers to carry a concealed handgun during the performance of their official duties.

Since 2017, there have been more than 2.5 million visits to homes and 20 documented incidents where a worker was threatened or assaulted, and all of those incidents were reported to local law enforcement, according to information provided by DCFS last month.

DCFS investigators must complete a six-week training that includes worker safety and within the first 90 days of employment must complete workplace and field safety training. In addition, after Knight’s death, Illinois State Police conducted training for DCFS, covering topics such as de-escalation, active shooter response and situational awareness.

* * *

TIP WAGE: A bill in the Illinois House would do away with the sub-minimum wage paid to waitresses, bartenders and other tipped service workers.

Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, introduced House Bill 5139 last month. If the bill becomes law, workers who supplement their wages with tips will receive the state’s minimum wage starting on Jan. 1, 2025, in addition to their tips.

Its passage may be a tall order, however, as the Illinois Restaurant Association successfully lobbied when lawmakers overhauled the minimum wage schedule in 2019 to allow businesses to continue to pay less than minimum wage to employees who earn tips.

Lilly’s bill has currently not received a full committee assignment and has no cosponsors.

In 2019, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation into law providing a path to increase Illinois’ minimum wage rate to $15 per hour and $9 for tipped workers by 2025. Servers and bartenders who receive tips are currently subject to a $7.20 an hour minimum wage.

At a bill signing for that 2019 law, Sam Toia, president of the Restaurant Association, appeared alongside Pritzker and praised the law for maintaining the credit which allows employers to pay tipped workers 60 percent of the minimum wage if tips make up the other 40 percent.

The IRA did not respond to a request for comment as of this publication.

“Two years ago, we raised the minimum wage, but we left tip workers out,” Lilly said. “This is a way to address that.”

Since 2020, more than a million workers have left the hospitality industry nationwide. In Illinois, about 90,000 workers have left the industry since 2020, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bureau reported that a record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November, but the quit rate in the hospitality and leisure industry was 6.4 percent – more than double the average of all the combined industries.

The virtual news conference on Monday was hosted by the organization One Fair Wage, based in New York.

 

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.

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