Capitol Recap: A look at recent legislative action in Springfield

Capitol News Illinois. Aug 5, 2019

New laws aim to protect law enforcement, roadside workers

SPRINGFIELD – Drivers in Illinois who injure roadside workers or fail to obey construction zone signals now face the possibility of enhanced fines, and even jail time.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a package of bills Tuesday, July 30, that he said are aimed at protecting law enforcement, first responders and road workers.

Among them was Senate Bill 1862, which provides enhanced penalties for violations of “Scott’s Law,” a state law requiring motorists to slow down and, if possible, change lanes when approaching a law enforcement vehicle or other emergency responder that has pulled over on the side of the road.

“Since 2002, Scott’s Law has said that drivers approaching a vehicle with their hazard lights on must slow down and move over. This is not optional,” Pritzker said in a statement announcing the bill signings. “This is how we keep our heroes and first responders as safe as possible in their line of work.”

Scott’s Law was named after Lt. Scott Gillen of the Chicago Fire Department, who was struck and killed by an intoxicated driver while assisting at a crash scene.

The bill increases the minimum fine to $250 for a first violation of Scott’s Law, and to $750 for a second violation. It also adds a $250 fee for any violation, with that money going into a new fund to pay for driver education materials.

In addition, the new law allows drivers to be charged with a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, if the violation results in damage to another vehicle. For cases in which the violation results in the injury or death of another person, drivers can be charged with a Class 4 felony, punishable by one to three years in prison.

The new law takes effect immediately.

So far in 2019, three Illinois State Police officers have been killed in traffic accidents on state highways, including two incidents that involved violations of Scott’s Law.

State Fair opens Thursday

The 162nd Illinois State Fair is set to open Thursday, Aug. 8, in Springfield, and fair officials said they expect this to be one of the best iterations in years.

The 366 acres the event spans have never looked better; buildings, some over 100 years old, have been remodeled; and 50 new vendors have been added, state officials said.

“What an experience this has been,” John Sullivan, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said Thursday, Aug. 1, during a media preview of the event. “I’d say over the last 30 days, to watch the fairgrounds transform into what you see here today, is just quite remarkable.”

This is Sullivan’s first year as director of the state agency overseeing the fair, the theme for which is “Building Our Future.”

Adult admission prices were slashed from $10 to $5 Sunday through Thursday, Gordon said. Tickets for seniors remain at $3 and are free for children ages 12 and younger.

Back this year is the Coliseum, which was closed for renovations in 2016 because of “structural issues,” Sullivan said. The construction crew removed the roof and wooden “skeleton” of the building and replaced it with steel.

After roughly a $12 million restoration, it will be a “highlight” of the fair, Sullivan said.

But a focus on Illinois’ agriculture community will be an important focus this year, too, he said.

“The fair was created as an ag fair and it kind of drifted in and out with the focus, but I am trying to bring that focus back, because I think agriculture is the number one business in this state — $19 billion it generates in revenue,” Sullivan said. “We want to highlight what agriculture means to the state.”

Report: Exploting college aid loophole

A pair of Illinois House committees have scheduled a joint hearing next week to explore recent news reports about wealthy parents exploiting a legal loophole in order to draw down more student financial aid for their children.

The story was first reported online Monday, July 29, by ProPublica Illinois, which said it identified nearly four dozen cases of parents in suburban Lake County, north of Chicago, who had assigned guardianship of their teenage children to a friend or relative, thus allowing their children to declare themselves financially independent of their families so they could qualify for federal, state and college financial aid.

Of particular concern to Illinois lawmakers is the state-funded Monetary Award Program, or MAP grants, which are awarded on the basis of financial need.

“Particularly in the wake of former Governor (Bruce) Rauner’s budget crisis in which these students took the brunt of the pain, it is outrageous to learn that some wealthy families have decided to game the system at the expense of those who truly need help affording an education,” Chicago Democratic Rep. LaShawn K. Ford, who chairs the House Higher Education Budget Committee, said in a news release announcing the hearings.

In addition to the legislative inquiry, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he is directing his staff to investigate to determine how widespread the problem is in Illinois.

The legislative hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Bilandic state office building in Chicago.

Equal pay for men and women

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Wednesday, July 31, a bill aimed at equalizing pay between men and women.

House Bill 834 prohibits employers in Illinois from asking job applicants about their salary history. Advocates say the measure will help stem wage inequality among men and women.

“In 2019, women in Illinois still make roughly 20 percent less than their male counterparts, and for women of color the disparities are even greater,” Rep. Anna Moeller, an Elgin Democrat and the bill’s House sponsor, said in a statement. “HB 834 is aimed at closing that wage gap. It ends the pernicious practice of using prior wages to determine future pay, and increases the penalties on companies and organizations that utilize discriminatory pay practices.”

The new law will take effect in 60 days and will also prohibit employers from preventing employees from discussing their salary, benefits or other compensation with colleagues.

While the bill prevents a potential employer from seeking salary and benefit history from a previous employer, there are some exceptions. It does not prevent an employer from looking up a salary that is a matter of public record or available through the Freedom of Information Act, and it does not apply if an applicant is a current employee seeking another job within the same company.

If an applicant voluntarily discloses their salary or benefits history, an employer is not in violation of the law unless that information is used as a factor in determining whether to hire the person or determine their future wages.

If an employer violates the salary history provisions, the applicant may be eligible for up to $10,000 in damages and other fee reimbursements through civil litigation. Any legal action must be brought within five years of the alleged offense.

Language standards in school

Foreign language teachers in Illinois are being asked to update the way they teach those courses starting in the upcoming school year by putting more emphasis on world cultures and how to use languages across different academic disciplines.

The Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday, July 31, released its newly-updated educational standards for world languages, replacing ones that were adopted in 1997.

“The Illinois State Board of Education supports biliteracy, not only to prepare students to thrive in an increasingly global society and economy, but also to build stronger and more connected communities here at home,” State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen Ayala said in a news release. “Exploring and interacting with different cultures and perspectives strengthens students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills.”

Traditionally, foreign language classes have focused on memorizing vocabulary lists and rules of grammar so students gain a functional understanding of the printed and spoken word of another culture.

But Kim Johnson, a consultant with ISBE’s Curriculum and Instruction section, said the new standards go beyond that by focusing on the people and the culture behind the language in order to give students studying that language — whether it be Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese or Russian — a broader, more multicultural view of the world.

Criminal justice reform

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 1965 on Wednesday, July 31, expanding access to jobs in the health care industry for people with arrest or conviction records.

Currently, people with arrest or conviction records for certain kinds of crimes are barred from working in a number of health care fields unless the employer seeks a waiver from the Department of Public Health. That can happen only after the employer makes a conditional job offer and requests a fingerprint-based background check.

Pritzker’s office said in a statement the new law provides a more timely and efficient waiver application process.

Among other things, it allows certain workforce “intermediaries” who provide job training as well as organizations providing pro bono legal services to initiate the background check process. It also allows people with disqualifying records to apply for waivers before they are extended a job offer.

“Over 4 million Illinoisans have an arrest or conviction record – that includes over 40 percent of our working age population,” Pritzker said in a statement. “This vicious cycle of poverty, crime and injustice – which disproportionately impacts communities of color – does a disservice to everyone involved, from affected families to employers to taxpayers. I’m so proud that this legislation will dismantle another part of the wall that blocks people with records from living a dignified life.”

Before a hospital closes

Hospital corporations in Illinois now have to jump through more administrative hoops before they will be allowed to close or downsize a health care facility.

A new law that took effect this month requires the owners of those facilities to obtain a permit from the state’s Health Facilities and Services Review Board before they can close a hospital, ambulatory surgical treatment center, nursing home or other health care center. It also limits the number of times they can apply to discontinue a category of services to just once every six months.

Those new provisions were included in Senate Bill 1739, which Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law July 15.

The bill was prompted by a controversy in Cook County earlier this year when California-based Pipeline Health announced plans to shut down Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park, a hospital that serves a large number of low-income patients.

Pipeline had purchased the 230-bed hospital in January, along with hospitals in Chicago and Oak Park. It initially said it planned to keep Westlake Hospital open, only to reverse that decision within a few weeks.

Under a state law known as the Health Facilities Planning Act, operators of health facilities are required to obtain a permit from the review board before they can build a new facility or modify an existing one by demonstrating there is a need for such a facility. But until passage of the new law, they could apply for an exemption from the permitting process in order to close or downsize a facility.

Clincs that declined federal funds

Health clinics overseen by Illinois organizations that opted not to receive federal family planning dollars may have to return or destroy contraception and other medication purchased at a discount.

All three of the state’s family planning groups — the Illinois Department of Public Health, Planned Parenthood of Illinois and Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness — are declining millions in federal grants after a court allowed new rules governing the Title X program to take effect.

Forgoing the funding removes the organizations, and the clinics they oversee, from the family planning program. The decision might also eliminate the clinics’ eligibility for a federal drug pricing program that allows safety net facilities to purchase medications directly from drug manufacturers and wholesalers at discounted prices.

Once clinics are no longer participants, they are not permitted to keep any of the birth control medication, intrauterine devices, treatments and other drugs purchased through the initiative.

The amount of medication Illinois clinics will need to dispose of depends on the facility, with factors including how many patients it serves and its inventory, a spokesman for HRSA said in an email. He clarified the rules apply to the products purchased through the program at a discounted price from a drug manufacturer or wholesaler.

There are 1,423 health facilities that participate in the drug pricing program in Illinois. Of those, 68 are Title X grantees, according to HRSA data.

Planned Parenthood’s clinics will not be affected by the organization’s departure from the Title X program, Brigid Leahy, senior director for public policy, said.

It is unclear how the 72 clinics overseen by the Department of Public Health might be impacted.

A spokesperson for Aunt Martha’s also did not return a request for comment about how its nine clinics might be impacted.

Less interest on consumert debt

Illinois residents who have had judgments entered against them for consumer debts will soon start paying less interest on those debts, and collectors will have a shorter timeframe in which to collect on those debts.

That’s the result of a new law Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Monday, July 29. House Bill 88, known as the Consumer Fairness Act, reduces the interest rate charged on post-judgment debt of $25,000 or less to 5 percent, instead of 9 percent. It also reduces the time for collecting on a judgment to 17 years, instead of 26 years.

The new law takes effect Jan. 1, 2020.

In a statement, Pritzker said the intent of the legislation is to relieve consumers from the burden of high-interest debt.

The bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Will Guzzardi and in the Senate by Sen. Iris Martinez, both Chicago Democrats. It passed both chambers by unanimous votes without opposition from debt collectors or other financial institutions.

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Safe closure of coal ash pits

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a new state law Tuesday, July 30, aimed at ensuring safe closure of toxic coal ash pits and financial protections for taxpayers should the pits cause environmental disaster.

Coal ash is the byproduct left behind when coal is burned to produce power, and it contains harmful heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic which can seep into groundwater. In many cases, coal ash is placed in unlined pits, where it remains long after the power plants are closed.

Senate Bill 9 requires a coal ash impoundment owner to submit to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency a “closure alternatives analysis” addressing several closure scenarios and options laid out in the legislation. It would give the EPA the authority to choose the safest plan for coal ash remediation.

It also creates initial fees of $50,000 for each closed coal ash plant and $75,000 for those that have not yet been closed. Owners of operational impoundments would then pay an annual fee of $25,000, and a $15,000 fee would be charged for closed plants that had not yet completed “post-closure care.”

The fees would be paid into the Environmental Protection Permit and Inspection Fund to be used for regulation purposes.

Senate Bill 9 also prohibits coal ash discharge into the environment and directs the IEPA to propose new rules to the Pollution Control Board governing the regulation of coal ash, including permit application requirements and what the threshold for “complete removal” is.

While advocates said the bill was a significant step forward for clean air and water, opponents including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce said changes were needed to the bill moving forward.

Rep. Mark Batinick, a Plainfield Republican, warned during a May floor debate that financial provisions in the bill might cause companies to go bankrupt and be unable to pay for safe coal ash removal.