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With 3 weeks left before lawmakers leave Springfield, here are 10 things they’ve done – The State Journal-Register

With 3 weeks left before lawmakers leave Springfield, here are 10 things they’ve done – The State Journal-Register

The Illinois legislature has three weeks left until its April 8 deadline for wrapping up its spring session. Since they started in the first week of January, lawmakers have introduced thousands of bills. Those bills have brought with them everything from unanimous support to bitter partisan fights. What are lawmakers working on right now and what have

The Illinois legislature has three weeks left until its April 8 deadline for wrapping up its spring session. Since they started in the first week of January, lawmakers have introduced thousands of bills. Those bills have brought with them everything from unanimous support to bitter partisan fights. What are lawmakers working on right now and what have they accomplished so far? 

Assembling a state budget 

One of the most important tasks of the legislature is putting together and passing a state budget. Illinois has a history of contentious budget battles, with one fight between Democrats at the Statehouse and former Gov. Bruce Rauner leading to the state operating without a financial plan for more than two years, from July 1, 2015, to Aug. 31, 2017. 

This year’s budget process formally began Feb. 2 when Gov. Pritzker pitched his own $45.4 billion budget proposal to the legislature. 

So far this session, lawmakers have been going through the process of meeting with representatives of dozens of state agencies to hear out their budget requests. Because this is one way the legislature can express oversight on other parts of government, agency heads often highlight the work they have accomplished. 

“The Illinois EPA performs many functions, such as performing 4,800 compliance inspections per year and issues over 7,000 permits annually to industrial facilities, landfills, public water supplies and wastewater treatment plants,” said Illinois Environmental Protection Agency John Jim at a March 7 budget hearing.

Illinois politics: Gov. JB Pritzker’s $45.4 billion budget plan includes $1 billion in tax cuts

The IEPA asked for $544.9 million, an increase of a little over $17 million, which Kim said was mostly directed at personnel costs and technology upgrades. 

Lawmakers will continue to work on their budget as the session draws to a close. Last year, they worked right up until their May 31 deadline to pass a budget. 

Setting the rules for what happens when a teacher gets COVID

Lawmakers have been working for months to pass a bill outlining the rules for what happens when a school teacher contracts COVID-19 or has to stay home because someone in their household caught the virus. 

They initially passed legislation that would have given teacher’s the ability to use paid administrative leave, not sick days, in an effort to ease some of the burden of the pandemic on teachers. 

That was vetoed by the governor, who then struck a deal with the state’s two largest teachers unions to implement a largely similar policy, with the caveat that only vaccinated teachers would be able to use administrative leave.  

That bill passed in the House of Representatives and is now in the process of being considered by the Senate. 

Addressing the teacher shortage

One of the state’s ongoing issues has been a shortage of teachers, leading to school districts struggling to fill vacancies. This issue is particularly bad in west-central Illinois.

Several bills like one introduced by Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, would make it easier for substitute teachers to enter the classroom and stay there. Turner’s bill, which lengthens the maximum number of days a substitute teacher can be in one classroom at a time, passed in the Senate and is working its way through the House. 

Other bills take a longer term view of the issue. Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, introduced legislation to create a program that offers tuition reimbursements for students at Illinois’ public teaching colleges. 

“It was designed off of a program that was offered in the early 70s that was very, very successful,” said Scherer when debating the bill on Mar. 2. 

Her critics, like Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, lamented the cost and lack of means testing in the proposal. 

“It is a $1.4 billion hit to taxpayers and we are subsidizing rich families who can afford to pay their tuition,” said Bourne. 

The bill passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. 

Outside of the legislature, the issue also brought Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton to Springfield recently on a statewide tour of public teacher colleges.

Responding to the death of Deidre Silas

Early on in the session, in the wake of the death of Department of Family and Children Services investigator Deidre Silas, Springfield-area lawmakers took up a bipartisan effort to give DCFS workers more protections against violence on the job. 

Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, introduced legislation in February which would give DCFS employees the option of carrying mace or pepper spray on calls. 

“This bill will give DCFS investigators another tool that they don’t currently have that could buy them enough time to escape a potentially deadly or violent situation,” said McClure when his bill passed in the Senate. 

More coverage: Mother of infant who died says DCFS failed to intervene amid abuse allegations

On the other side of the aisle, Turner brought forward a proposal in January to give the families of DCFS workers who die on the job the same educational and pension benefits as police officers and fire fighters.

Both proposals await action in the House. 

Modernizing mental health in Illinois

Democrats in the Senate have been working on a package of bills aimed at “modernizing” mental health care in Illinois, most notably through an omnibus bill containing. 

“In Illinois, we want to make sure that mental health and physicals health are viewed as one and the same,” said Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, in a March 10 press conference. “You really can’t have one without the other.” 

The wide-ranging bill includes provisions for a new grant program for mental health clinics to hire interns and train new mental health care providers, creates tax credits for businesses who hire people in recovery from substance use disorders or mental health and makes changes to the way the state’s Medicaid system handles mental health services. 

There is also a proposal from Sen. Meg Loughran Cappel, D-Shorewood, from the Senate which would create the “Children’s Mental Health Council,” a group tasked with researching children’s mental health issues in Illinois and reporting back to the legislature. 

Both bills passed unanimously in the Senate in early March and await action in the House. 

Making sure that patients are allowed visitors

The top Republican in the Senate, Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, backed legislation from February which would guarantee that residents of health care facilities are allowed at least one in-person visitor.

“This legislation makes it clear that allowing visitors in hospitals and long-term care facilities is a priority when at all possible,” said McConchie in February when the bill passed unanimously in the Senate. 

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McConchie said he was inspired to take up the issue when a constituent’s family lost a loved one during the pandemic and was unable to visit him in his final days. 

Having visitors in hospitals and long-term care facilities has been a topic of debate throughout the pandemic, when some hospitals and long-term care facilities reduced or outright blocked people from visiting. 

McConchie’s bill is awaiting debate in a House committee. 

Forming a new caucus to represent the interests of Assyrian-Americans  

Legislative caucuses are groups of lawmakers who work together on specific issues. Perhaps the most well known is the 31-member Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which was instrumental in passing a wide-ranging criminal justice reform package last year. 

In March, 18 lawmakers formed the Assyrian-American caucus to represent the interests of Assyrians, an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East.  

“Assyrian Americans deserve a voice in state government and the formation of the Illinois Assyrian Caucus is an important step in ensuring that this vibrant, unique community is heard,” said Rep. Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview. “I’m proud that Illinois is leading the way with the first statewide caucus on Assyrian issues in the nation.”

The caucuses members are all Democrats and hail from Chicago and its suburbs. 

There are more than 100,000 Assyrians in and around Chicago, according to the non-profit group Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation. 

Setting the boundaries for judicial subcircuits 

The legislature has also accomplished a few things that have become law and gone into effect. One of the first actions taken this year was to formally finish the decennial redistricting process by approving newly drawn judicial districts on Jan. 6, the legislature’s first day back in session.

Most notably, this included the creation of new “subcircuits,” areas within judicial circuits with additional restrictions based on residence on who can be elected to the judiciary. 

Local news: 16-year-old Springfield High School student still detained after court hearing

Springfield got new subcircuits which will go into effect for the 2024 elections. This has the effect of requiring that three judges in Sangamon County live in an area roughly the same size as the city of Springfield. 

This came at the end of a long and partisan fight over redistricting which resulted in a federal lawsuit from Republican leadership and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. 

Selecting a new ethics watchdog

Lawmakers also took on the task of finding a new ethics watchdog for the General Assembly. In February, they appointed Judge Michael McCuskey as the new legislative inspector general, a role responsible for overseeing complaints against lawmakers and legislative staff. These complaints can include everything from ethical breaches, corruption and sexual harassment. 

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said McCuskey’s appointment was “probably the most important decision we’re going to make this session” at the time. 

The appointment came after more than a month-long vacancy in the office following the resignation of former Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope on Jan. 6. Pope left after criticizing the legislature for what she viewed as not empowering her office to effectively hold officials accountable. 

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Republican critics of the process, such as Legislative Ethics Commission Chair Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, were frustrated at the time by what they viewed as Democrats circumventing the process laid out in statue to hire a legislative inspector general. 

McCuskey, a former federal and state judge, was praised by members of both parties for his character and integrity. 

Masks in schools  

Though not a piece of legislation, lawmakers on an influential oversight committee took part in the fight over masks in schools. 

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan group which approves the rules that govern state agencies rejected a set of rules from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) which would have reinstated a requirement that masks be worn in schools, among other COVID-related restrictions. 

Those rules were the subject of a lawsuit which eventually landed in the Illinois Supreme Court. When JCAR rejected IDPH’s rules, the Fourth District Court of Appeals was assembling a ruling on the case. 

“Acting now would be premature given that pending ruling and also given the fact that the previous rule amounted to guidance without any real enforcement,” said Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, at the time. 

Contact Andrew Adams: aadams1@gannett.com; (312)-291-1417; twitter.com/drewjayadams.

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