SPRINGFIELD – The state is accepting applications for the first $50 million in disbursements of a $420 million grant program aimed at increasing internet access across the state.
Gov. JB Pritzker announced the release of funding Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Ridgely Elementary School in Springfield, noting that the rights to “health care and education and economic opportunity” are all “tied to digital connectivity” in the 21st century.
“I want to be clear though,” he said, “this isn't about a person's ability to go online and just look at their Facebook page. This is about a small business owner having the tools that she needs to reach new customers. This is about an elderly couple’s ability to get access to medical experts anywhere in the nation, even if they live in a rural community. This is about giving children like the ones that are here today the ability to research their homework assignments online.”
The program, known as Connect Illinois, is part of the $45 billion capital infrastructure plan that the General Assembly passed last year.
Applications for the first $50 million can be submitted through Friday, April 3. Applicants can receive up to $5 million per project as part of the first round of funding, but they must provide at least 50 percent of the project’s funding.
Matt Schmit, head of the office of broadband within the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said he expects applicants to include internet service providers, rural broadband cooperatives and possibly communities looking to invest in broadband.
“We’ll have an inclusive process when it comes to applicants,” he said. “The point is that you've got to have a strong track record of demonstrating that you can do this kind of work. And so we're going to be very diligent in making sure that any applicant that the state partners with is up to this work, and that we're making sound investments for the long haul.”
He said he also expects to see community and provider partnerships in some circumstances.
“And we want to hear ideas, we want to hear from you,” Schmit said. “Because this is not a state-driven approach. This is a partnership between our providers, our communities and folks who are interested in getting a better connectivity future for our communities around the state.”
Pritzker likened the need for broadband in rural communities to a period when rural communities lagged behind on electricity. He also noted several neighborhoods in Chicago lack reliable internet access.
Grant information can be found here: https://www2.illinois.gov/dceo/AboutDCEO/GATA/Pages/2366-1333.aspx.
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MOVING KIDS TO MANAGED CARE: An estimated 2,500 children and young adults in Illinois who had been in the custody of the state’s foster care system within the last year abruptly lost their health coverage on Feb. 1.
That was just one of many problems that occurred over the weekend when the state shifted some 19,000 former foster children into its privatized “managed care” health coverage system. Children’s advocacy groups warned Tuesday that more problems may lie ahead as the state works to move approximately 17,000 current foster children into that same system.
“These are not glitches, these are major flaws,” Danielle Gomez of the Cook County Public Guardian’s office told a state Senate panel Tuesday, Feb. 4. “I am not sensationalizing the issue when I say that children will die as a result of the stubborn resolve to continue moving forward.”
Illinois began transitioning its Medicaid program from a traditional fee-for-service model to managed care in 2011. Under managed care, the state contracts with a number of private insurance companies and pays them a flat monthly fee for each patient they enroll.
In turn, the companies, known as managed care organizations, or MCOs, are supposed to manage those patients’ care by making sure they have complete health screenings and regular checkups. MCOs are also supposed to coordinate care between the patient’s primary doctor and any specialists they need.
Today, nearly all regular Medicaid recipients in Illinois are enrolled in a managed care plan. But there have been widespread reports of MCOs denying claims and delaying payments, often because their enrollment with the MCO wasn’t completed correctly or the provider that a patient went to see wasn’t in the MCO’s network.
But two groups the state did not immediately put under managed care were current and former foster care children, a population that includes victims of abuse and neglect, many of whom have highly complex physical, mental and behavioral health issues.
State officials announced in 2017 that they intended to move those groups into managed care, but the official launch date was delayed several times. Finally, after extensive negotiations with ACLU attorneys, the state announced last month it had reached a deal: Former foster children would be shifted into managed care on Feb. 1, but current foster children would not be shifted into the new system until April 1.
ACLU of Illinois attorney Heidi Dalenberg described the process of shifting current and former foster children into managed care as a “herky-jerky journey for the entire state.”
Both Dalenberg and Gomez urged lawmakers to halt the transition to managed care and to delay the rollout until the state is certain all the glitches have been fixed.
Kristine Herman of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the agency that runs the state Medicaid program, described the deactivation of 2,500 children from the system as a “glitch” in a computer program that was quickly fixed. And she said the agency is working hard, along with the Department of Children and Family Services, the state’s foster care agency, to resolve other issues.
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LEGISLATIVE INSPECTOR GENERAL: All three people who have held the position of legislative inspector general in Illinois told a joint ethics panel Thursday, Feb. 6, the office needs more independence to police the General Assembly and maintain the public’s confidence in the process.
Carol Pope, the current officeholder, and former Inspectors General Julie Porter and Tom Homer appeared before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, a group that is to make recommendations for governmental ethics reform in the state by the end of March.
Porter, who left the job in February 2019, has been the most outspoken about the need to strengthen the office. In April, she wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune calling the system “broken” because it allows a small group of legislators to stifle an investigation or bury a report.
On Thursday at the Statehouse, she echoed that theme, arguing that the process will remain flawed as long as the LIG is answerable to the eight-member group of lawmakers known as the Legislative Ethics Commission That body has authority to deny permission to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas or even publish reports.
“The legislative inspector general cannot be independent, and having a legislative inspector general is a waste of resources, if a Legislative Ethics Commission staffed by legislators — all appointed by the House and Senate leaders — presides over her investigations and has the power to kill them,” Porter said in written testimony submitted to the panel. “That is precisely the system we have now in Illinois: The fox is guarding the henhouse.”
In her op-ed column last April, Porter outlined two cases she had investigated in which she found substantial evidence to support allegations of misconduct by sitting legislators, but because of confidentiality rules she was not allowed to discuss the details.
In the first case, the commission denied her request to publish her report, effectively burying the allegation. The second, she said, was passed on to her successor, Pope, who did not even forward it to the commission.
“It was obvious, I suspect, that the Legislative Ethics Commission would bury it, just like it buried my other report on a similar topic,” Porter said.
Pope, the current LIG, agreed the office should have more independence and shouldn’t have to get permission from lawmakers – the very people the LIG is supposed to oversee – to perform its job.
Pope said the LIG’s investigations should be confidential until he or she is ready to issue a report. But she said that’s not possible under the current system because in order to launch an investigation or issue subpoenas, the office has to inform the eight members of the Legislative Ethics Commission.
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PRIMARY MOVE? Earlier this week, Gov. JB Pritzker indicated he would like to see Illinois as the home of the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary elections in the future. On Wednesday, Feb. 5, reporters asked if it would be wise to move the state up considering recent flaws in the state’s automatic voter registration system.
“Well, we've been running elections for an awful long time, and I want to be clear with everybody. This state is a diverse state in so many ways, in ways that Iowa, New Hampshire are not,” Pritzker said.
He said the state is more representative of the nation in the “rural, suburban, urban environments,” and in the “technology industry and the farming industry, the agriculture industry.”
“We represent every aspect of the United States in Illinois, and I think it is appropriate for us to put ourselves forward as the first in the nation,” he added. “If you can win in a state like Illinois, with so many different regions, so many different types of people from all over the state. If you can win in a state like this, then you're worthy of being the nominee of your party.”
Pritzker was also asked about the potential of Illinois’ weather hindering an early primary.
“First of all, Illinoisans are tough. Illinoisans come out to vote in any weather,” he said, noting that politicians collect signatures to be on the ballot in nasty weather, and that even March can produce bad weather.
He also touted Illinois’ primary process over caucus systems used in Iowa which he called “much more difficult for people to access.”
“If you are a busy working person with a family, to show up on a Monday evening at 7 p.m. to, you know, stand there for perhaps a couple hours in a caucus process, that's limiting. Many people just choose not to do it because they can't afford to do it,” he said.
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AUTOMATED VOTER REGISTRATION: A programming error in Illinois’ automatic voter registration system that mistakenly enrolled more than 500 people was a “wakeup call,” the state’s top elections official said Wednesday, Feb. 5.
One string of code among 8.5 million others controlling the “hundreds of functions” of the secretary of state’s office resulted in 574 people who identified themselves as non-U.S. citizens being registered to vote, the agency’s senior legal advisor, Nathan Maddox, said.
Of those people, 15 cast ballots. Only one was not a citizen, Maddox said.
“I think that if there’s a silver lining to this, it’s going to cause us to make sure that our systems are as good as they can possibly be,” Steve Sandvoss, director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said.
Four Republican representatives spent more than an hour Wednesday, on the eve of early voting opening for the state’s March 17 primary election, questioning secretary of state and elections board officials. Springfield Rep. Tim Butler said several instances caused “fears that our elections system is compromised,” and asked what can be done to alleviate further issues.
“What has come to light in the past few weeks — from self-identified non-citizens registering, to 16-year-olds being forwarded through the system, to people who opted out of registering actually being forwarded, to this week’s revelation ... that almost 800 previously incarcerated Illinois citizens had their voting rights cancelled — has certainly wounded the integrity of voter registration here in Illinois,” Butler said.
Secretary of state officials, who took responsibility for the errors, said legislative solutions are not necessary to address lawmaker concerns. Ultimately, Maddox said, “there is no part of this that is not going to be reviewed.”
Rep. Joe Sosnowski, of Rockford, asked both agencies to update the General Assembly on the progress of any steps that will be taken in May before it adjourns.
Gov. JB Pritzker said state agencies are “making sure that it's being done in an appropriate fashion, making sure all the rules are being followed.”
“I don't think the public would want it done any other way,” he said. “And so there's just a very careful process going on. And of course, as each of these things have been revealed, where there may have been a challenge, right, that each of those agencies is looking to make sure that that's not affecting them, or if it is, that they're addressing it.”
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RACKETEERING CASE: Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval and SafeSpeed LLC, the red light camera company at the center of federal corruption charges against him, are now the targets of a racketeering lawsuit that seeks to void tens of thousands of traffic citations issued through the company’s devices.
Lawrence Gress, a Downers Grove resident and lead plaintiff in the case, filed the suit Monday, Feb. 3, under the federal Racketeering, Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law most often used to prosecute organized crime syndicates. But RICO also allows for private civil suits for actions that are part of a criminal enterprise.
The lawsuit alleges SafeSpeed, its officers and employees, paid bribes to Sandoval and several other local government officials to gain approval for placing its red light cameras at various intersections in Chicago-area suburbs.
Sandoval and the other government officials, the lawsuit alleges, were paid as “undisclosed sales agents” or “consultants” based on a percentage of the revenue generated by the cameras.
Sandoval served in the state Senate from 2003 until Jan. 1, when he resigned amid the corruption scandal. Starting in January 2009, he was chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee and was instrumental in securing passage of last year’s $45 billion capital improvements program known as Rebuild Illinois.
He was removed from his chairmanship in October, just weeks after federal agents executed a search warrant on his Statehouse office in Springfield where they seized a number of computers, cellphones and boxes of documents.
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Sandoval pleaded guilty to one count each of federal bribery and tax fraud charges as part of a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to cooperate with their ongoing investigations.
The RICO lawsuit, however, is separate from the criminal case, but it is based largely on the same set of facts to which Sandoval has already pleaded guilty.
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VETO OVERRIDE: Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker was dealt his first veto override Wednesday, Feb. 5, when the state Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass a bill that retroactively extends a sales tax exemption for aircraft parts and equipment.
House Bill 3902 passed the General Assembly during the 2019 fall veto session. It reinstates a tax break that was in place starting in 2010, but which was allowed to expire in 2015 without state tax officials or other public bodies taking note.
From 2015 through last year, many manufacturers in Illinois continued selling their products without collecting the tax, resulting in an estimated $50 million in unpaid taxes owed to the state, according to one aviation industry estimate.
The bill reinstates that tax break through Dec. 31, 2024. It also provides that the tax exemption applies “continuously” from Jan. 1, 2010, through 2024, including the years during which it had actually lapsed. It does not, however, allow any manufacturer who charged the tax during that time to claim a tax credit or refund.
The tax exemption applies to the sale of “materials, parts, equipment, components, and furnishings incorporated into or upon an aircraft as part of the modification, refurbishment, completion, replacement, repair, or maintenance of the aircraft.”
The Senate action came one day after the House voted 107-0 to override the veto, with two House members voting “present.” The Senate vote was 54-1, with recently-appointed Democrat Patrick Joyce, of Essex, voting against.
In his veto message Nov. 25, Pritzker argued the state was not in a position to offer retroactive tax breaks. And in an email Wednesday, his press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, said that is still the governor’s position.
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INMATE VOTERS: Nearly 800 former inmates may have had their voter registrations incorrectly canceled “due to a data-matching error” between the Illinois State Board of Elections and the Illinois Department of Corrections, the elections board announced Monday, Feb. 3.
ISBE said in a news release it had notified 59 local election authorities of the issue, which stemmed from an incorrect classification of the 774 former inmates as “currently incarcerated.”
Matt Dietrich, public information officer for the elections board, said it had not heard of voters being turned away because of the issue, which occurred from 2014 until it was discovered in 2019. He said those who may be affected would have been able to cast a provisional ballot or file for same-day registration.
“So we don't think that anyone was turned away. We don't have any knowledge that anyone was unable to vote,” he said.
The news release said ISBE has worked directly with IDOC to identify the affected individuals, whose records were among more than 126,000 shared between the two agencies between 2014 and 2019. ISBE also provided each local election authority with voter information on the affected individuals so their registrations can be reviewed for reinstatement by the start of early voting on Feb. 6.
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STATE POLICE LAWSUIT: A pair of gun rights advocacy groups are suing the Illinois State Police, its director and the chief of the Illinois State Police Firearms Services Bureau for “not acting in a timely manner on Firearm Owner Identification card and concealed carry applications.”
The Illinois State Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging violations of Second Amendment rights.
“The citizens of Illinois have been delayed getting their FOID cards for months,” ISRA Executive Director Richard Pearson said in a news release. “We have tried to work with the State Police on this matter, but nothing is happening. We are left with no other choice but to file a lawsuit.”
The gun rights groups said the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Illinois residents Ryan A. Thomas and Goran Lazic in the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division federal court. The news release said Thomas and Lazic have been waiting for their FOID cards and licenses for three years.
The lawsuit contends the State Police, “has swept or transferred funds totaling more than ($29.5 million) from the State Police Firearms Services Fund, the State Police Operations Assistance Fund, and the State Police Services Fund away from these funds and into other accounts.”
According to the complaint, the money should have been used for the administration of the FOID card act, background checks for firearm-related services, and concealed carry licensing.
ISP spokesperson Beth Hundsdorfer, however, said in a statement the ISP does “not have the authority to ‘sweep’ funds.”
She added that 90 percent of FOID applications were on average processed in fewer than 30 days and it took an average of 65 days to renew a FOID card in 2019.
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TAX AMNESTY: A tax amnesty program created during the passage of last year’s state operating budget has brought in nearly $240 million — approximately $60 million more than was expected — the Illinois Department of Revenue announced Tuesday, Feb. 4.
The Illinois Tax Amnesty Program, proposed by Gov. JB Pritzker and passed as part of Senate Bill 689, allowed qualified taxpayers to pay off any outstanding state tax liability and have corresponding penalties and interest forgiven.
IDOR said in a news release that 63,006 taxpayers have taken advantage of the program, which brought in a verified $237 million as of Jan. 31.
More than $60 million of that money will go to local governments and approximately $7.5 million will go to the city of Chicago, according to a news release. The program ran from October to mid-November, and before its launch, the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget estimated it would recover $175 million in outstanding liabilities.
“The Tax Amnesty program proved to be successful, and we are pleased so many taxpayers took the opportunity to come into compliance and earn a clean slate with the state of Illinois,” Acting IDOR Director David Harris said in a news release.
The department will continue to process and certify tax amnesty payments over the next several months to “ensure that the payments comply with the provisions of the program,” according to the release. The department expects to verify “tens of millions more toward unpaid liabilities” despite the program’s November end date.
Taxpayers eligible for the amnesty program would have incurred a tax liability after June 30, 2011, and before July 1, 2018, according to IDOR. Those participating had to fully pay their tax liability and submit original returns for any unfiled periods and amended returns for periods being adjusted.
More than 90 percent of the money brought in by the program came from payments for liabilities related to the business income tax, the sales tax and the individual income tax, according to the release.
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SOYBEAN EXPORTS: After a promising trade deal with China last month gave farmers hope amid an intense trade war, the deadly Wuhan coronavirus currently overwhelming China is also damaging its economy.
The country’s economic slump is now sowing fears that China might not be able to buy all of the $32 billion of U.S. agricultural goods it promised for 2020, including soybeans from Illinois, America’s top soybean-producing state.
“This kind of big shock to their economy diminishes their demand for a lot of primary products” like soybeans, Todd Hubbs, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Monday, Feb. 3.
“There was a lot of skepticism on whether they can hit those targets,” he said. “That was before coronavirus.”
China has confirmed more than 17,000 cases of coronavirus as of Monday, including 361 deaths. The country has slowed imports and shut down much of its international trading infrastructure in order to focus on fighting the disease.
“You’ve got what looks like a pandemic, possibly, on top of an uncertain trade deal,” Hubbs said. “It’s just a lot of uncertainty.”
In 2017, the last full year before America’s trade war with China, soybeans accounted for more than half of U.S. agricultural exports to China. In 2018, soybean exports fell 75 percent as China bought from other countries in retaliation for U.S. tariffs imposed on Chinese exports.
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