The 2022 spring session turned out to be a relatively calm one.
"To be frank, it's an election year when everybody's up," said Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th). "I think for both sides, that meant there was a real picking and choosing about which ones were going to be the fights."
The budget passed without GOP support; other big actions were taken on reforming some nursing homes, to tie Medicaid funding to staffing levels and how well their employees are paid, and some law enforcement reforms.
"There was a lot of negotiating to make sure that we did not have a very bad, tough-on-crime 2022," Peters said. He cited debate over the SAFE-T Act, the criminal justice reform package the General Assembly passed last year.
"It could have been even more '90s-esque. There was very much an attack by the minority party to go after the SAFE-T Act and to drive a narrative to go after the SAFE-T Act. And there could have been a real risk to watering down the SAFE-T Act.
"I think we've done a relatively good rebutting the minority party's statements around the ending of cash bail, pointing out that cash bail changes a system that's based on wealth to a system based on safety," he added.
The two local state senators, Peters and Mattie Hunter (D-3rd), still pursued and passed their own bills in the session. Both are seeking reelection unopposed this November.
Peters touts budget's investments for domestic violence organizations
The state's $46.5 billion includes a boost, Peters pointed out, in domestic violence services funding from $20 to $70 million.
"It could continue; that would be something that we'd have to fight for in every budget, but from $20 to $70 million is a $50 million increase to domestic violence and sexual assault services. That's a huge thing that I cared a lot about," he said.
Peters did not know how the state will allocate money in grants, but he said support services, but he said that those organizations are having serious workforce issues, overwhelming their capacities in the face of rising domestic violence and sexual violence.
"It's a knockdown effect," he said. "It's important to remember if one entity providing service is experiencing a shortage or a higher level of cases or issues and they don't have the amount of staff to deal with it."
The pandemic and its resultant economic changes are driving this, he said. As has been widely reported, the pandemic lockdowns made a bad situation worse for people who had to hunker down at home with abusers.
"A lot of people are going through a lot of pain. Domestic violence is up. Road rage has been up. There's a lot of things in the emotional anger spaces where we see violence up, gun violence up, shootings up," said Peters. "We see suicides up. Black suicides are up particularly higher. Rural suicides are higher. There's just a whole host of things in this sort of mental-emotional space during the pandemic where people are acting violently."
Hunter gets ban on hair discrimination in workplace passed
After the legislature banned hair discrimination in the schools last year, it banned the same practice among employers this year. Senate Bill 3616, which passed the General Assembly unanimously, amends the Illinois Human Rights Act so that "race" includes hair texture and hairstyles associated with race, including but not limited to braids and dreadlocks. Should Pritzker sign it, Illinoisans will be able to sue if they are hair-discriminated in the workplace.
"There are so many issues with hair all the time, you know? So to me, that's a biggie, whether some people like it or not. It's a big deal for African American women and women of color," Hunter said. "It's not only Black women; it's for women of color, because there are other nationalities whose hair has the other kind of structure and texture as ours. And not only women; it's the men as well, because men wear locs and the twists. It'll benefit the people in general, whoever's hair has that texture."
A former radical activist, Hunter wore an afro as a graduate student at Monmouth College, an hour south of the Quad Cities, in the early '70s.
"Many of the white students didn't appreciate it, but nobody ever said anything about it. But not only the white students, there were some Black students who couldn't stand me wearing my hair like that," she said. "I'm looking professional, and some of my Black professional friends would pull me to the side and say, 'Why do you still wear your hair like that?' Because they want me to wear my hair like that, which is straight or relaxed."
Hunter said she hasn't worn chemicals on her for decades; she sometimes wears braids today, and she started wearing wigs when elected to the Senate 20 years ago and her schedule got significantly more packed. Her public service work began taking her downtown more often, and she would occasionally get her hair shampooed at salons there frequented by white "influential, high-powered women." She was surprised to see them getting weaves.
"I said, "Oh, my God!" Their hair was much shorter than mine, you know? It's just interesting," said Hunter. "The fact of the matter is, what I've learned from that experience is that we are all women, we all have a very busy schedule. We all either like our hair or don't like the hair. We don't like the length, the texture or the color of it. And so the beauty of being a woman is that we have so much flexibility that we can do whatever the heck we want to do with our hair."
Other Peters bills
Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II filed House Bill 4580, which would require Chicago Public Schools to assess its enrollment boundaries every five years, and Peters sponsored it in the Senate. Tarver filed it because Kenwood Academy has had its borders remapped since it was established in the 1960s.
"I know of people who have been wanting to get into Kenwood and couldn't. I think Tarver just touched on a reality," said Peters, a Hyde Park local and graduate of Mount Carmel High School, 6410 S. Dante Ave. Despite the name "Kenwood Academy," North Kenwood high school students are zoned into attending Dyett High School in Washington Park, 555 E. 51st St.
Peters' SB 3470 ensures that youth in the care of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) have access to any government benefits to which they are entitled, like Social Security. "I think the main part is starting off your aging-out period on a good footing. It’s vitally important," he said.
HB 4165, filed by North Side Rep. Kelly M. Cassidy (D-14th), would require the installation of life preservers along the Lake Michigan coast. "I would hope that Promontory Point is part of this," Peters said when asked.
HB 4556, filed by Northwest Side Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-39th), expands access for pharmacists and other health care professionals to distribute fentanyl testing strips to help reduce opioid overdoses. The testing strips can detect fentanyl in counterfeit pills and drugs.
The bill is designed to expand on the Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction Act, passed in 2019. That law authorizes government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to create needle access programs aimed at reducing HIV and other bloodborne diseases.
Programs are community-based and provide a range of preventive services and educational information on overdose prevention and intervention, monitoring programs for opioids and other prescriptions, and safe drug disposal of unused medications.
All testing supplies for fentanyl must be stored in a licensed pharmacy, hospital, clinic or other health care facility. Peters said interactions there could be points of opportunity for users to get sober.
"It's a harm-reduction tool," he said, adding that the practice has already been adopted by the Cook County Department of Public Health. "The idea is to pair this with a Good Samaritan law, but we're going to have to come back to that."
Other Hunter bills
Her SB 4000 allows retired CPS teachers to come back and teach for 120 days in a school year while still keeping their pensions, done in order to deal with a current shortage of teachers in the district. She said this policy is already in place in Central and Southern Illinois, and her bill has a 2024 sunset provision.
Hunter also passed several bills creating task forces. HB 2382 provides that the departments of Agriculture and Commerce and Economic Opportunity establish a Healthy Food Development Program to work towards providing assistance to groceries, farmers markets and other food retailers in identified food deserts.
Spearheaded in the House by local Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th), HB 3988 would create the Task Force on Missing and Murdered Chicago Women. Hunter said the Chicago Police Department's backlog of untested rape test kits originally prompted her involvement in the matter. She said the police department told her that they sent the kits to the State Police for testing without response. After back-and-forth, she started planning a legislative hearing, and then, she said, there was movement from the police department on getting the kits to the State Police.
"I am officially going to call it a gap in services or a lack of communication, but I truly believe that most of the crime that occurs not only in this city but anywhere … can be solved within a timely, respectable manner if you have more cooperation between law enforcement," Hunter said. "The local city, county and state. The State Police finally said 'we can do it, but we need more moneys to bring on more people and to improve our capacity.' So we told them to put in the request, and we made sure that they had the moneys to get that done."
The Tribune published an exposé about the backlog two years ago, but Hunter said the backlog is "finally cleaned up."
Through that involvement, Hunter heard from members of community groups on the South and West sides that friends, nieces, daughters granddaughters were missing or found murdered. Hunter and South Side Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-16th) held hearings; Hunter said she wants the task force to bring political entities, law enforcement organizations and nonprofits together to come up with a plan and "bridge that serious, fatal gap."
Hunter said victims' families are talking to law enforcement, but she said other witnesses "somewhere, who saw something or heard something," aren't. "Those are the people we want to come out, to come forth, to say something," she said. "You need a good detective to connect all the dots."
"They're not catching these people," she said. "There's all kinds of evidence that's out there, but they're not sending fingerprints or whatever to the FBI labs, and the state has a wonderful lab. Everybody has some sort of labs where you send evidence in. We should be able to get evidence in within a timely manner.
When interviewed in February, Hunter spoke about her concerns for DCFS workers' safe working conditions. One worker was killed while doing a home safety check outside of Springfield in January. Hunter had filed a bill that would have created a State Police security force for the department, but it did not pass the General Assembly. She said there were concerns around cost.
In March, Hunter voted with Peters and the local state representatives for Illinois to use $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) aid to pay down debt in its unemployment trust fund; $1.8 billion in debt remains. She said there were "big plans to utilize those dollars" until the state government realized the shortage in unemployment funds.
She said state legislators are not concerned about the Washington money spigot running dry, as the money has been spent sensibly, in the state general revenue fund to pay for government operations and on pension debts.
After the retirement of former House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie and Kwame Raoul's election as attorney general, Hunter is the last local legislator to have served in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when state finances nationwide were reduced to deep austerity measures. She is also the last, after Juliana Stratton's election as lieutenant governor and Christian Mitchell's hiring as deputy governor, to have served during the state's 2015-17 budget impasse.
"When I first walked in in 2003, we had just taken over the government from the Republicans," she said. (It was the first year of Rod Blagojevich's administration.) "We couldn't even get too much of a handle on the deficit; it was anywhere between a $7 and $10 billion dollar deficit then. Ever since I've been there, we've been playing catch up. And so slowly, by putting in some very strong fiscal policies and changing the way things were going, we were able to finally — finally — get a handle on some of our spending. As a result, we were able to improve our ratings."
Her HB 4645, filed by Metro East Rep. LaToya Greenwood (D-114th), creates the Equity and Representation in Health Care Workforce Repayment and Scholarship programs administered by the Department of Public Health, to give health care providers, including nurses, access to loan repayment assistance.
Her HB 4674, filed by Rockford Rep. Maurice A. West, II (67th), puts in a requirement for 10 hours of continuing education every year for licensing employees who inspect and evaluate nursing homes.
And her HB 5225, filed by South Side Rep. Sonya M. Harper (D-6th), is the Job Training Assistance and Support Services Pilot Program Act, which would have the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity create a pilot program to award grants for cost-of-living expenses for people participating a qualified apprenticeships.
Capitol News Illinois reporter Grace Kinnicutt contributed from Springfield. Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.