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CAPITOL RECAP: Democrats choose Hernandez as new party chair

Capitol News Illinois

CNI provides a look back at the week's news in Illinois

HERNANDEZ: The vote for state Rep. Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez as the Democratic Party of Illinois’ first Latino chairwoman was unanimous and uneventful on Saturday, July 30 – the drama had occurred in the days prior in a power struggle of some of the state’s most prominent Democrats.

Hernandez was backed Gov. JB Pritzker and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch. She served with Welch on a special investigating committee of House Speaker Michael Madigan in 2020, which chose to take no action against the speaker for his alleged role in a yearslong bribery scheme with a public utility. Several months later, Madigan was indicted.

The new DPI chair also played prominently in the redistricting process last year in the General Assembly, chairing the House committee on redistricting and frequently stonewalling inquiries as to what data was used to draw new maps. Ultimately, Democrats passed the new maps on partisan lines.

The 34 members of the Democratic State Central Committee – one man and one woman for each of the state’s 17 congressional districts – elected her by voice vote over outgoing chair Robin Kelly, who was backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Kelly, a congresswoman from suburban Matteson, pulled herself from the running less than 24 hours earlier after it became apparent Hernandez had secured the requisite number of votes to replace her.

Kelly was elected chair just more than 16 months ago in what was also a tight and contentious race between her and Pritzker’s chosen candidate, Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris. She maintained strong support this year among some members of the state central committee and drew high praise from its downstate members.

Hernandez offered praise for Kelly in a statement, and the pair shared a brief embrace before the meeting began. But the fact that neither Kelly nor Hernandez took questions from the media underscored the fact that the wounds of the fight might still be fresh.

Kelly read from a prepared statement as well in running her final meeting as DPI chair, saying its been a difficult month and she was proud of how she advanced the party as chair.

Kelly took over after former Speaker Madigan, who led the party from 1998 until February last year. Madigan frequently faced criticism for the party’s lack of outreach and the fact that he mostly used the party to elect state House Democrats. He stepped down after failing to gain reelection as speaker in January 2021.

Some of the committeemen serving downstate congressional districts said Friday once Kelly became chair, it was the first time they felt involved in the party.

State Rep. Will Davis, a Hazel Crest Democrat and member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said he didn’t like how the race played out on racial lines, and how the governor worked so hard to sway support to oust Kelly, the party’s first Black woman chair.

Davis accused the governor of “twisting arms,” saying that while “money and politics reared its ugly head,” Democrats now must work to unify to support candidates in November.

Pritzker’s camp maintained throughout the race that his opposition to Kelly’s re-election centered on the fact that she was a federal officeholder, which meant she wasn’t legally allowed to raise funds to directly support state candidates.

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SALES TAX REDUCTION: Beginning Friday, Aug. 5, and lasting through Aug. 14, the state will reduce its sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 1.25 percent for certain clothing items costing less than $125 and school supplies.

The “tax holiday” was included in Gov. JB Pritzker’s “family relief plan,” one prong of several bills making up the Fiscal Year 2023 operating budget. The tax breaks passed with nearly unanimous support in the General Assembly and provided an estimated $1.8 billion in tax relief for Illinoisans.

The state estimated the sales tax reduction would amount to $50 million in savings for taxpayers.

Included clothing items: The 10-day tax reduction includes clothing items costing less than $125 individually.

Clothing items, as defined by the law, include the standard items such as shorts, pants, skirts, shirts and underwear. The tax reduction will also apply to aprons, hats, caps and earmuffs, coats and jackets, belts and suspenders, rubber pants, lab coats, hosiery, scarves, bathing suits, school uniforms and neckties.

It also applies to footwear – shoes, shoelaces, slippers, insoles, boots, socks and sandals.

Excluded items: But it does not apply to ballet, tap or athletic shoes, roller or ice skates, ski boots, waders, or fins.

Shoppers also should not expect the reduced sales tax rate on accessory items such as briefcases, hair bows, handbags, jewelry, sunglasses or wigs. The reduction also does not apply to sports gloves, goggles, hand and elbow guards, life preservers, wetsuits, shoulder pads, shin guards or mouth guards.

Also excluded are protective equipment items such as breathing masks, hearing protectors, face shields, hard hats and helmets, respirators, protective gloves, safety goggles or tool belts.

Included school supplies: Binders, book bags, calculators, cellophane tape, blackboard chalk, notebooks, erasers, folders, index cards, legal pads, lunch boxes, pencils and sharpeners, supply boxes, protractors, rulers, compasses, and scissors are all eligible for the reduced tax rate.

So are glue, highlighters, markers, crayons and colored pencils.

Excluded items: Shoppers should not expect other art supplies to be eligible for the reduced rate, however. Clay and glaze, paints and paint brushes, sketch pads and drawing pads will all be taxed at the regular 6.25 percent rate.

Textbooks, reference books, maps and globes are all excluded from the “holiday” as well.

Electronics and computers will also be taxed at the regular rate. That includes computers and related supplies such as flash drives, memory cards, data storage, computer cases, cables, printers and ink.

Shoppers also should not expect any breaks while buying cameras, cellphones or handheld electronics.

Guidance from the Illinois Department of Revenue on qualifying items can be found here.

* * *

OTHER TAX RELIEF: Other tax relief measures approved in the budget include a property tax rebate up to 5 percent of the homeowner’s tax bill up to $300, and a one-time income tax rebate of $50 per individual and $100 per dependent, up to a limit of three children per family. Those would be available to individuals with incomes up to $200,000 and joint filers with incomes up to $400,000.

The package also suspends for one year the 1 percent tax on groceries and puts a six-month pause on the automatic inflationary increase in the state’s motor fuel tax, which was estimated to be 2.2 cents per gallon.

The plan also permanently expands the state earned income tax credit from 18 to 20 percent of the federal credit while also expanding the number of households that can claim the credit.

The measure also set an income tax credit for teachers buying classroom supplies at $250 for the current year and $500 beginning Jan. 1, 2023.

* * *

MONKEYPOX: Gov. JB Pritzker issued a public health emergency declaration and declared Illinois a disaster area in response to the monkeypox virus Monday, Aug. 1, a move his office said would help mobilize resources.

The governor’s office said the proclamation will aid in moving vaccines to the most impacted communities and will allow the Illinois Department of Public Health to expand vaccine and testing capacities with the help of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and state and federal funds.

The World Health Organization declared monkeypox a Public Health Emergency of International Concern last week, and Illinois has reported 520 cases thus far, according to the governor’s office.

With 85 percent of the cases in Chicago as of last week, the city had received 18,707 vaccine doses while the state had received 7,371, sending 4,631 of them to Chicago. Another 13,000 additional state doses are expected from the federal government “in the near future,” according to the governor’s office.

Last week, IDPH warned in a news release that vaccine demand was “outstripping supplies.” The department advised local public health officials that “unless people are in certain elevated risk categories, they should receive only an initial dose of the MPV vaccine until more supplies become available.”

According to IDPH, individuals in “high case burden areas” may contact their local health department about receiving the vaccine, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend widespread vaccination against monkeypox at this time.

The vaccine may be recommended to people who have been exposed to the virus or in close contact with someone testing positive for monkeypox.

According to the CDC, monkeypox symptoms can include headache, fever, respiratory symptoms, muscle aches, chills and exhaustion. But the most visible symptom is a rash that may be located on the face, mouth, hands, feet, chest, genitals or other areas. Most people who contract monkeypox will get the rash, which can look like pimples or blisters and may be painful or itchy. The rash goes through several stages, including scabs, before healing, per the CDC.

The disease spreads through close, personal contact, such as skin-to-skin contact, direct contact with the monkeypox rash or through the bodily fluids of an infected person, according to the CDC. It can also be spread by touching objects, fabrics and surfaces that have been used by someone with monkeypox.

A person with monkeypox can spread it to others from the time symptoms start until the rash has fully healed, and the illness typically lasts 2-4 weeks, according to the CDC.

Pritzker described the virus as “rare but potentially serious,” and noted it has disproportionately impacted the LGBTQ+ community.

* * *

INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS: On Wednesday, Aug. 3, Gov. JB Pritzker made stops in Cahokia Heights in the Metro East and Whittington in Southern Illinois to publicize state infrastructure funding for sewer improvements and renovations at the Rend Lake Beach Resort.

Projects in Cahokia Heights, the newest city in Illinois which incorporated in 2021, will receive $21 million, including $9.9 million to revamp its sewer system – correcting a problem that residents said has existed in the area for more than 50 years.

State Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, said at a news conference Wednesday he was raised in Centreville, which is now part of Cahokia Heights.

“The stench of sewer backup – I grew up with it. You grew up with it so much that it became the norm,” he said.

The $9.9 million would be immediately released by the state, Pritzker said, focusing on, among other things, repair or replacement of 35 lift stations and several thousand feet of pipeline repair.

Cahokia Heights Mayor Curtis McCall Sr. said at the news conference “there has never been this type of money” available from the state to fix chronic problems in the area.

“I'm 60 years old, all of my life I’ve been dealing with this,” he said, noting the project will take three to five years to finish but will start showing results in as little as two months.

At another news conference in Franklin County later in the day, Pritzker announced $17.5 million from Rebuild Illinois will go toward the renovation of the Rend Lake Resort at the 3,300-acre Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area, which is operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

It had been closed since December 2016 after IDNR found mold and other maintenance issues on the property.

The resort site features a hotel, conference center, cabins, restaurant, boatel, gift shop, pool, tennis courts and more, most of which will be renovated under the state construction plan, once again enabling the resort to host guests, conferences and other events.

State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton, voted for all three components of the capital plan in 2019. He said the announcement marked one of his two best days in the past six years, the other being when he was elected to the House in 2016.

“The potential is amazing, what it's going to bring back to Southern Illinois as far as jobs,” he said of the resort.

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OPIOID SETTLEMENTS: Gov. JB Pritzker and Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced plans Friday, July 29, for how the state will distribute its share of funds from a national settlement with opioid companies.

Illinois expects to receive approximately $760 million over 18 years from a $26 billion national settlement with three opioid distributers – Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen – and one opioid manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson.

“The opioid crisis will go down as one of the most disturbing examples of corporate greed and medical mismanagement in human history, giving way to an epidemic that has become more deadly almost every year of the last 40 years,” Pritzker said at a news conference in Chicago.

Under an executive order that Pritzker said he would sign Friday, the money will flow through a new Office of Opioid Settlement Administration to be set up within the Illinois Department of Human Services.

That agency will also appoint a Statewide Opioid Settlement Administrator to ensure that the funds are used in accordance with the State Overdose Action Plan, which Pritzker announced earlier this year, and that they are used to fund recovery and treatment programs in the counties and municipalities with the most urgent need.

Allocation of funds will be based on recommendations from a newly created advisory board, chaired by the state’s chief behavioral health officer and made up of state and local appointees. The board will work with an existing state opioid steering committee led by Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and the state’s directors of the Illinois Department of Public Health and IDHS.

“This crisis has reached into urban, suburban and rural areas, every kind of community,” Stratton said at the news conference. “It's also true that opioids have disproportionately hurt BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities. In fact, in Illinois alone, the opioid fatality rate for Black communities was 55.3 per 100,000, and that is the highest of all demographics.”

The settlement, which was first announced in July 2021, resolves more than 4,000 lawsuits that were filed across the country by state and local governments against the drug companies.

In Illinois, Raoul said, 94 counties and 77 municipalities have signed on to the agreement. Terms of the settlement spell out what percentage of the proceeds each community will receive, and they require that at least 85 percent of the funds be used for programs that will help address the ongoing opioid crisis through treatment, education and prevention efforts.

Raoul noted that the state stands to receive even more money in the future from other national cases.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.