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Capitol Recap: Illinois Senate to elect new president in special weekend session

Staff Report

SPRINGFIELD (CAPITOL NEWS ILLINOIS) – The Illinois Senate will hold a special meeting Sunday, Jan. 19, to elect a new chamber president.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, surprised his colleagues at the end of the fall veto session Nov. 14 by announcing his plan to retire from the Senate in January, once a new president is chosen.

There are two announced candidates for the job that have received the most media attention – Sen. Don Harmon, of Oak Park, an assistant majority leader; and Sen. Kimberly Lightford, of Maywood, the majority leader. Sen. Elgie Sims, of Chicago, had sought support for a run at the presidency as well, but media reports as to whether or not he is still seeking the seat have been conflicting. A Chicago Sun-Times reporter tweeted Wednesday that Sims would not comment on the race for president.

There is also the possibility that someone else could enter the race if none of those candidates secure enough votes within the Democratic caucus to guarantee their election.

The president will be chosen in a vote of the full 59-member Senate. It takes at least 30 votes to win. Democrats hold 40 seats and Republicans hold 19.

According to Senate staff, the tentative plan is for the Democratic caucus to meet behind closed doors at 11 a.m. to select a nominee. That meeting is not open to the public or news media. Cullerton has said he will not vote in that meeting.

Following that meeting, the full Senate will convene, at which point Cullerton will resign his leadership post. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker will then preside over the election. One or more names will be placed in nomination. Senators will announce their votes aloud, in alphabetical order.

Once someone receives the necessary 30 votes, Cullerton is expected to submit his resignation from the Senate. That will trigger a process in which party officials in the 6th District will elect someone to serve out the remainder of his term, which expires in January 2023.

The Senate president is considered the most powerful person in the upper chamber. Among other things, the president designates the majority leader and assistant majority leaders as well as the chairs and vice chairs of various committees.

The regular session of the General Assembly begins Tuesday, Jan. 28.

EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT: Two years after Illinois’ Legislature approved new language for the U.S. Constitution codifying that rights cannot be denied due to gender, the Equal Rights Amendment gained enough state support to be ratified.

Its potential implementation is more complicated, though.

Virginia’s General Assembly on Wednesday, Jan. 15, backed the addition of protections for women in the country’s governing document. After both chambers accept each other’s initiative, the commonwealth will become the 38th to ratify the amendment, pushing it across the necessary legal threshold for passage.

But opponents argue that does not matter — when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced and passed by Congress in 1972, the body set a seven-year deadline for state ratification. It was later pushed to 1982. By then, only 35 states formally supported the language, five of which — South Dakota, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee — withdrew their backing for the measure in the 1970s.

Proponents point out the Constitution does not provide states the ability to rescind their support, or enforce a deadline for ratification. They also assert Congress’ placement of its cutoff is important.

Attorneys general from three states — Alabama, South Dakota and Louisiana — filed a lawsuit in December to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being added to the Constitution even with Virginia’s approval. 

In response to the suit, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a memo that Congress’ deadline is constitutionally allowed and therefore prevents the amendment’s passage.

Former state Representatives. Steve Andersson,  a Republican from Geneva and one of the amendment’s sponsors two years ago, and Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, who sponsored a bill in the House calling for Illinois’ approval of the Equal Rights Amendment for about 25 years. agree the question will go straight to federal courts to settle. Litigation is “ramping up as we speak,” Andersson said.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement that he has been a lifelong advocate for women’s rights.

“I’m overjoyed to see three-fourths of the United States ratify the Equal Rights Amendment,” Pritzker said. “These 24 words cement women’s equality into our Constitution and open a new chapter in American history where discrimination on the basis of sex is no longer tolerated. Our nation has a moral imperative to adopt this groundbreaking and common-sense statement as the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

LOBBYING REFORM: Government reform advocates in Illinois are urging state lawmakers to impose stricter rules on lobbying activity at the Statehouse, including a ban on lawmakers themselves working as lobbyists with other levels of government.

Their testimony before a special legislative committee Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Chicago came against the backdrop of a sprawling federal investigation that has focused in part on potentially corrupt lobbying practices.

Former Rep. Luis Arroyo, who also lobbied the city of Chicago, was forced to resign last year after he was indicted for attempting to bribe a state senator on behalf of one of his lobbying clients.

Utility giant ComEd has also been the subject of federal investigative activity. Chicago area news outlets have reported that the investigation has centered, at least in part, on ComEd’s alleged hiring of politically-connected individuals in exchange for favorable legislative action.

“We need a concerted effort to restore Illinoisans’ trust in government,” Ryan Tolley, policy director for the group CHANGE Illinois told the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform during its meeting. “Undoubtedly, it has been shaken by the ongoing monthslong FBI investigation that is engulfing lawmakers, lobbyists and private interests seeking to influence our government for personal gain.”

Tolley was part of a panel that testified before the committee in favor of stricter lobbying limits. The panel also included representatives from the Chicago-based Better Government Association, the Center for Illinois Politics, Common Cause Illinois and Reform for Illinois.

All of the groups urged the panel to recommend a so-called “revolving-door” law that would prohibit elected officials from going to work as lobbyists for a specified period of time after leaving office.

The advocates also called for barring lawmakers from working as lobbyists at other levels of government.

House Majority Leader Gregory Harris, a Chicago Democrat, questioned how far that limit should extend, saying it could interfere with a lawmaker’s ability to talk to local governments on behalf of a constituent. But members of the panel said that shouldn’t be a problem and that a ban should extend only to working for pay on behalf of a private client.

Other recommendations from the panel included requiring lobbyists to disclose how much their clients pay them, something Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed but which lawmakers have not yet endorsed.

FARM FORECAST: The state’s climatologist is predicting Illinois farmers are likely to endure more burdensomely wet weather while they try to plant cash crops this spring after suffering major losses as a result of a record-wet planting season last year.

April through June is likely to be wetter than normal in Illinois, according to rainfall projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, posing a challenge to corn and soybean farmers in the heart of planting season.

Right now those farmers are calculating their losses after suffering through the wettest January to June in state history last year.

Wettest of those months was May, which pushed planting of Illinois’ top two crops into June and July, when in an ideal year they can be in the ground in April.

The result: Corn and soybean production dropped 18 percent and 20 percent, respectively, according to final yield numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Farmers should expect to deal with an increased frequency of wet winters and springs,” said Illinois’ State Climatologist Dr. Trent Ford, who expects wetter-than-normal conditions to become routine.

After last weekend’s rainstorms, Ford said all but far northwest Illinois has had above-average January precipitation with half the month still to go. NOAA also projects a wetter-than-average February and March.

“The last couple of decades especially we’ve seen our winters be wetter than previous decades,” Ford said. “That doesn’t mean more snow necessarily, it just means overall more precipitation.”

Delayed planting causes delayed harvest, which can lower end-of-year yields like farmers saw in 2019. Late harvests also leave farmers less time for tilling fields before it gets too cold, which breaks up compacted soil and deep field ruts that can hold too much water.

LAWMAKER PAY: Illinois’ chief fiscal officer announced a plan this week to remedy the “ridiculous” law that allows legislators to be paid for days they did not hold office.

Representatives and senators are paid in 12 equal disbursements on the last working day of each month. Current law allows lawmakers to receive a full salary as long as they hold office at least one day in each pay period.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza proposed prorating legislators’ pay, ensuring they are only paid for only the days they hold office. She also wants to shift their salary schedule to be the same as it is for other state officials and employees — twice monthly.

Her legislative partner on the initiative, Elgin Democratic Sen. Cristina Castro, said the change would bring the legislative branch in line with the private sector.

“This is a glaring loophole that has been exploited far too many times at the taxpayers’ expense, and I’m sick of it. It needs to be closed,” Castro said in a news release.

The bill appears to have bipartisan support. Republican Rep. Mike Murphy, of Springfield, proposed a near-identical measure 12 months ago. The initiatives differ in one respect — when they take effect. Murphy’s bill would become enforceable immediately; the Democrats’ plan would begin at the start of the 102nd General Assembly in January 2021.

Altering lawmakers’ pay during terms for which they are elected is unconstitutional, a spokesperson for Mendoza said, which is why the measure’s effective date is later.

The initiative is one Castro said the newly-formed ethics reform commission will consider as part of its recommended ethics overhaul legislative package.

GUN DEALERS: New rules governing how retail gun dealers do business went into effect Jan. 3, and include the types of records they must keep, how weapons and ammunition are to be stored and the kinds of video surveillance and security systems they must maintain.

The rules, established by the Illinois State Police and scheduled to be published in the Illinois Register on Friday, Jan. 17, went into effect nearly one year after Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Firearm Dealer License Certification Act into law. The Act requires firearm dealers who have a federal firearm license to also obtain a state certificate and comply with state regulations.

Pritzker signed the bill, the first of his administration, after it passed during the 2018 legislative session. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was in office when it passed, but Democratic Senate President John Cullerton used a procedural maneuver to hold onto the bill because Rauner had vetoed similar legislation that spring.

The bill was viewed at the time as a response to rising gun violence in parts of Illinois, especially Chicago. It was aimed at preventing theft or other diversion of guns from firearms dealers and to crack down on so-called “straw purchases” in which someone buys a gun on behalf of someone else who is legally prohibited from owning a gun.

ISP initially proposed administrative rules in August and held a public hearing on Oct. 24 in Springfield. But those proposed rules sparked fierce pushback from gun dealers around the state who said compliance would be excessively expensive.

Of particular concern was a proposed rule that would have required dealers to maintain video surveillance at several points in their stores. Dealers would have also had to maintain those recordings for 90 days and back them up to an offsite storage system such as a cloud or server.

Gun dealers also complained about other proposed rules that would have required them to have written plans for storing all inventory, both during business hours and after closing, and to keep ammunition in a restricted area of the store not accessible to customers. Some gun shop owners said compliance would be impossible.

Following that hearing, ISP revised many of the proposed rules, eliminating the requirement for backup storage of video surveillance, according to a copy of the rules provided by ISP. But that pushed the rulemaking process beyond Jan. 2 when gun dealers were to come into compliance with many portions of the new law.

As a result, ISP is using its emergency rulemaking powers, which allow regulatory agencies to put rules into effect immediately, for a maximum of 150 days, while final rules are being drafted. Those proposed final rules could be subject to another public hearing, further revision, and review by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR).

AG SECRETARY RESIGNS:  The state’s agriculture director resigned last weekend at the request of Gov. J.B. Pritzker for failing to disclose contents of a 2012 email that pointed to the possible cover-up of a “rape in Champaign” and government “ghost workers,” the governor’s office said Monday, Jan. 13.

John Sullivan, a Democratic state senator from 2003 to 2017 who became ag director last year, knew about the July 2012 email “contemporaneously” but did not disclose its contents to state investigators, Pritzker’s office said.

The email in question was uncovered in an open records request by WBEZ-FM radio station in Chicago last week. It was sent by Michael McClain – a former lobbyist for the public utility ComEd and a close confidant of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan – to two high-ranking members of then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s staff seeking leniency for a state employee facing disciplinary action.

“He has kept his mouth shut on Jones’ ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items. He is loyal to the administration,” McClain said of the employee in the email obtained by WBEZ.

There were no other details regarding the possible cover-ups, and it is unclear who “Jones” is pertaining to the ghost workers. Pritzker’s office has forwarded the matter to the Office of the Executive Inspector General. The Illinois State Police and Office of the Attorney General are working with the Champaign County state’s attorney on the matter as well.

Pritzker’s office said he “sought and accepted” the resignation from Sullivan over the weekend when new information came to light.

The employee referenced in McClain’s 2012 email was Forrest Ashby, of Quincy, who was a constituent of Sullivan’s 47th Senate district at the time. McClain’s home in Quincy was raided by FBI agents in May as part of a wide-ranging probe of several Statehouse insiders.

WBEZ reported Monday that Sullivan was contacted by Pritzker’s general counsel “about a document that mentioned his name that was sought by WBEZ in a pending open-records request.”

Lines were busy when Capitol News Illinois tried to contact Sullivan’s residence Monday. In a statement first reported by WBEZ, however, the former ag director said the inquiry from Pritzker’s general counsel led him to a “review of my own personal emails from that same period of time.”

“My search discovered a forwarded copy of McClain’s July 31, 2012, email reported by WBEZ. I shared this information with Governor Pritzker’s general counsel,” he said in the statement.

Sullivan said summer 2012 “was a stressful time” as he was in the middle of a re-election campaign and preparing for cancer surgery in Baltimore.

“I was already well aware of McClain’s efforts to keep me informed of his advocacy on behalf of Ashby, and l simply did not read the entire forwarded email,” he said.

“Had I read the email thoroughly, my reaction would have been disgust and I would have immediately notified proper authorities. Nevertheless, the email was in my inbox and not reading the entire email led to my failure to immediately respond as I would have.

“Bottom line, I accept responsibility for what was truly an unintentional oversight and the subsequent inaction.”

ABORTION LAW: An Illinois anti-abortion advocacy group argues the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing the procedure is outdated and “out of step with modern science.”

The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm, filed a brief last week on behalf of Illinois Right to Life in the highest court’s first abortion-related case in years.

It challenges whether a Louisiana law mandating doctors who perform the procedure have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals is “unduly burdensome.” The Society’s filing is technically in support of the Louisiana law, but its focus is on the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling.

Roe v. Wade should be revisited, according to the brief, because its three major tenets are no longer applicable: pregnant women and mothers do not face “substantial social burdens” as they once did; the scientific community agrees life begins at conception; and 38 states now have some version of a fetal homicide law.

Together, those assertions are enough for the highest court to reassess whether fetuses qualify as “persons” under the law and can be granted the protection of the 14th Amendment, Thomas Olp, the Society’s vice president and senior counsel, said.

That amendment ensures government does not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or “the equal protection of the laws.”

“There have been significant changes, and the court should take a new look at Roe in terms of those changes,” he said. “Just as it’s important that slaves were human beings and therefore persons protectable by law, now we need to … agree preborn human beings are entitled to protection.”

ILLINOIS ECONOMY: The Illinois economy grew at a slower pace than most neighboring states and the nation as a whole during the third quarter of 2019, according to new figures released Friday, Jan. 10.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which tracks state-by-state economic trends, said overall, the state’s economy grew at a modest annualized rate of 1.4 percent, well below the national rate of 2.1 percent.

Illinois ranked 41st in the nation for GDP growth during the quarter, according to the data. Texas showed the fastest-growing economy, at nearly 4 percent, while Delaware came in last with no measurable growth.

The bureau measures the gross domestic product, or GDP, for each state. That’s the total value of goods produced and services provided during a given period.

The biggest area of growth during the third quarter came from the professional, scientific, and technical services category, which accounted for nearly 9 percent of Illinois’ GDP during the quarter. That sector grew at an annualized rate of 5.8 percent, which translates to nearly $1 billion in economic activity compared to the previous quarter.

That sector was closely followed by nondurable goods manufacturing, which accounted for 6.3 percent of the Illinois economy during the quarter. That sector grew at a rate of 7.7 percent, or $961 million.

But the growth in those areas was offset by steep declines in the finance and insurance sector, which shrank by more than 6.5 percent. That sector makes up nearly 9 percent of the state’s economy, so the decline there translated to more than $1.1 billion in economic activity.

CROP PRODUCTION: Production of Illinois’ two most valuable crops fell by roughly one-fifth last year, according to final crop yield numbers released Friday, Jan. 10, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Corn and soybean growers saw production drop 18.6 percent and 20.4 percent respectively compared to 2018.

Farmers harvested just more than 1.8 billion bushels of corn, down from more than 2.2 billion the year before. Soybean production decreased from around 667 million bushels to just more than 532 million.

2019 was the worst year for corn since 2012, when farmers produced about 1.3 billion bushels. Soybean production had its worst year since 2013, which saw 461 million bushels.

Yield per acre was down 14 percent for corn at 180 bushels and 15 percent for soybeans at 54 bushels. That’s the lowest for corn since 2015 and the lowest for soybeans since 2013.

Wetter-than-normal planting and growing conditions are to blame for last year’s stunted production, said Mike Doherty, senior economist at the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington.

“We had the latest-planted corn crop at least in my history of 30 years as an ag economist here” because of record-breaking spring rain, Doherty said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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.


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