By Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval entered a plea deal Tuesday, Jan. 28, in which he admitted to receiving more than $250,000 in bribes over a three-year period and filing a false tax return.
In exchange for his plea, Sandoval agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in other ongoing investigations and he will not face sentencing until he is finished cooperating. That cooperation includes the possibility of testifying against other defendants who may be charged.
The bribery charge stems largely from Sandoval’s relationship with a company that installs and operates red light cameras for local governments in the Chicago area. Those are devices that automatically photograph and issue citations to people who fail to come to a full stop at red lights. Revenue collected from those citations typically is split between the municipality and the camera company.
STATE OF THE STATE ADDRESS: Gov. JB Pritzker struck a tone of optimism and accomplishment in his annual State of the State Address on Wednesday, Jan. 29, declaring “the old patronage system needs to die” as he outlined his policy goals for 2020.
“Those who would shout doom and gloom might be loud – using social media bots and paid hacks to advance their false notions – but they are not many,” Pritzker said in his speech to members of the House and Senate on the floor of the House. “You see, we’re wresting the public conversation in Illinois back from people concerned with one thing and one thing only – predicting total disaster, spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting it, and then doing everything in their power to make it happen.”
The governor laid out broad policy goals in the speech, emphasizing a need for ethics reform in the wake of an ongoing federal investigation which resulted in a guilty plea on bribery and tax fraud charges from former Democratic state Sen. Martin Sandoval on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
But for Republicans watching the speech there was a major omission: a commitment to a proposal they call “fair maps,” which would take the power of drawing legislative districts out of the hands of lawmakers and give it to an independent commission.
FISCAL STATE OF THE STATE: Illinois’ top fiscal and investment officers touted some of the economic policy initiatives laid out by Gov. JB Pritzker in his State of the State speech Wednesday, Jan. 29, and stressed the importance of continuing to balance the budget.
The credit ratings agencies’ view that Illinois has better financial stability than it did a year ago means “more dollars are going into our roads and bridges and our schools than into Wall Street bankers’ pockets,” Treasurer Michael Frerichs said.
Ethics reforms will ensure state officials are “always looking for the opportunity to stand up for taxpayers and to be an advocate for them,” Comptroller Susana Mendoza said. Her office is backing measures to address the current “corrupt” red light camera system and eliminate the “exit bonus” some lawmakers get when they leave office.
ETHICS PANEL: Government reform advocates told a panel of state lawmakers Thursday, Jan. 30, that Illinois has some of the weakest governmental ethics rules in the country and that lawmakers should put more teeth into them if they hope to regain the trust of the public.
“For me, the disheartening part of all of it is not that so many lawmakers at all levels of government have strayed so far from the rules and have overshadowed the good work of ethical lawmakers, but that so many across our state kind of react to this news with a shrug,” said Georgia Logothetis, assistant director of the watchdog group Common Cause Illinois. “It’s a kind of disheartened acceptance that, well, this is just the way things work in Illinois.”
Logothetis was part of a panel of reform advocates who testified before the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform. The commission was formed last year in the wake of federal investigations that led to indictments against three sitting state lawmakers, two of whom have since resigned.
VOTER REGISTRATION POLICY CHANGE: While the information for about 4,700 16-year-olds was forwarded from the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office to the Illinois State Board of Elections as part of an automatic voter registration program, no underage people were registered to vote, nor did they receive information about registering to vote, according to representatives of those two agencies.
“To be clear, no 16-year-olds were registered to vote,” Henry Haupt, deputy press secretary for the secretary of state’s office, said in a phone call Thursday, Jan. 30. “In fact, the election authorities throughout the state have long had a system in place preventing them from registering anyone under age to vote.”
Automatic voter registration became law in 2017, providing that Illinois citizens are automatically registered to vote whenever they apply for or renew a driver’s license unless they opt out. Under that system, the secretary of state’s office shares a database with the state elections board.
The transmission of 16-year-olds’ information through that system was an issue of policy and not related to a previous glitch in the voter registration system which allowed 545 self-identified non-citizens to register to vote, according to officials.
CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: The spouse of the first Illinoisan confirmed to have novel coronavirus has also tested positive for the illness and is being monitored, health officials said Thursday, Jan. 30.
The case is the first confirmed person-to-person transmission of the virus in the U.S. and the sixth confirmed case in the country.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike hosted a news conference with county and city health officials in Chicago and said “the risk to the general public remains low.”
EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT: Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and two other state attorneys general filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday, Jan. 30, to ensure the Equal Rights Amendment officially becomes the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Americans have long agreed that discrimination based on sex is unacceptable,” Raoul said. “But by enshrining that shared value in our Constitution, we have made a commitment never to go back.”
The states filing suit – Illinois, Virginia and Nevada – were the final three states to ratify the ERA. Nevada signed on in 2017, Illinois in 2018 and Virginia two weeks ago, allowing the amendment to meet the 38-state threshold to be added to the Constitution.
HOUSE GOP PRIORITIES: Remodeling how Illinois’ political districts are drawn is the key to addressing the “dark cloud” of ethical violations hovering over state government, House Republican leaders said Tuesday, Jan. 28
Communities are grouped “primarily for political advantage,” Dixon Republican Rep. Tom Demmer said, restricting residents’ ability to hold their legislators accountable.
“These political entrenchments — these situations in which politicians pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians — had a chilling impact on our ability to debate the important issues of the day here in Springfield,” he added.
BUSINESS POACHING: Two Democratic lawmakers unveiled legislation Tuesday, Jan. 28, to form a multistate compact in which each member state would vow not to use company-specific tax incentives to lure businesses away from another member state.
Rep. Bob Morgan, of Deerfield, and Sen. Ram Villivalam, of Chicago, introduced identical legislation that would establish the “Phase Out Corporate Giveaways Interstate Compact.”
“These kinds of tax breaks have historically been justified as a necessary evil,” Morgan said during a Statehouse news conference Tuesday. “A necessary expense to bring jobs and business to our state, but in many ways to keep jobs from leaving the state of Illinois as they hold us hostage, because other states are offering them tax incentives.”
The proposal is part of a nationwide effort to phase out all tax incentive programs aimed at luring businesses to move across state lines, or to prevent them from moving. Similar legislation has already been introduced this year in New York, Florida, New Hampshire, Hawaii, West Virginia, Iowa and Maryland.
LIVE ANIMAL PRIZES AT FAIRS: It is a mainstay of fairs and carnivals around the country: sink a ping pong ball into a fish bowl and win the goldfish swimming inside.
But if a bill in the Illinois Senate becomes law, carnivals would no longer be allowed to award live animals – such as fish, reptiles, and hermit crabs – as prizes.
Illinois’ Humane Care for Animals Act already prohibits rabbits, ducklings and baby chicks as carnival prizes, but Senate Bill 2472 would expand the law’s protections to all animals – including the goldfish that winners can take home in a plastic bag.
Illinois would join Iowa, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Vermont as states that outlaw all live animals as prizes, according to Fish Feel, an advocacy organization for the humane treatment of fish.
DNA TESTING BACKLOG: When an Illinois Senate panel met last March to discuss the state’s backlog of untested forensic evidence, there were more than 70 DNA samples in murder cases more than a year old awaiting action from Illinois State Police forensic investigators.
That number is down to 14, representatives of the Illinois State Police told the same Senate Public Health Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 28, but they noted the number is still too high and standard wait times for DNA processing are still too long.
“We know that there’s a lot of DNA evidence that’s not being analyzed, and as a result, we walk among murderers. We know we’re walking among murderers,” Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, the committee’s chair, said before testimony.
Robin Woolery, the assistant deputy director for ISP’s forensic science department, said while turnaround on the oldest cases has “drastically improved,” ISP is “still not where we want to be.”
KOBE BRYANT HELICOPTER CRASH: The luxury helicopter that crashed Sunday, Jan. 26, in California, killing all nine people on board including former NBA star Kobe Bryant, was once owned by the state of Illinois.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was built in 1991, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft registry. The state of Illinois used it from 2007 to 2015, according to helicopter information database Helis.
Under the direction of former Gov. Bruce Rauner, the state sold the helicopter along with four other surplus aircraft in 2015 for $2.5 million. Rauner said selling the aircraft “also avoided an additional $1 million in inspections and repairs,” according to an Associated Press story after the sales.
INSULIN PRICE CAP: Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill into law Friday, Jan. 24, capping the out-of-pocket cost of prescription insulin for many people in Illinois.
Senate Bill 667, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, caps the cost at $100 for a 30-day supply, a significant reduction for many diabetes patients currently paying hundreds of dollars per month for the life-saving medication.
The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2021. Each year after that, insurers are allowed to raise the out-of-pocket cost by the rate of health care inflation.