Comptroller to end state assistance in red-light camera debt collection
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Comptroller to end state assistance in red-light camera debt collection

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SPRINGFIELD — Pressure is mounting on red-light camera operators as Democratic Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced Monday, Jan. 6, that, beginning Feb. 6, her office will no longer assist municipalities in collecting fines for violations caught by the devices.

“Over the years, it has become clear that these red-light cameras were less about keeping people safe and more about collecting revenue,” Mendoza said in a street-corner Chicago news conference overlooked by a red-light camera.

The cameras are automated devices that photograph vehicles if they pass through a red light without stopping, and generate a citation to the vehicle’s owner. Local governments typically split the revenue from citations with vendors that place the cameras.

“They were sold as a way to prevent motorists from racing through the intersections, but the stories have shown they are now more about charging people high fines for failing to come to a complete stop as they make a right turn on red at intersections where right turns on red are allowed,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said the comptroller’s office has been helping collect red-light fines since 2012 after the General Assembly allowed municipalities to use the comptroller’s offset system — which withholds state income tax refunds or other state payments — to collect traffic fines including red-light violations.

Historically, this system had been used to collect child support, overpayment of benefits and other types of debt, the comptroller’s office said.

Mendoza said her office helped collect about $11 million in revenue specific to red-light cameras last year.

The comptroller’s office said it does not collect red-light camera fines for Chicago, but a growing percentage of offset collections have involved violations from the city’s suburbs. Beginning Feb. 6, that arrangement, which Mendoza called “plain rotten,” will end.

“It exploits taxpayers and especially those who struggle to pay the fines imposed, often the working poor and communities of color,” she said.

Beyond that, red-light cameras have been a source of public corruption and FBI scrutiny, the comptroller said.

When federal agents in September raided the Statehouse office of former Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, they were looking for information on SafeSpeed LLC, a politically-connected red-light camera company based in Chicago.

The company has been named in several other news reports regarding the ongoing federal corruption probe of several Statehouse insiders and local government officials, although its CEO denied any wrongdoing from the company in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in October.

In a news release, Mendoza urged municipalities to “take a second look at any contracts with red-light camera companies and determine if those contracts were procured properly in light of recent news reports and criminal investigations concerning the red-light camera industry and its relationship with government officials.”

FDA rule

Some Illinois lawmakers say a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy responding to a growing trend of youth e-cigarette use does not go far enough.

The federal public health watchdog announced in a memo last week it would crack down on the “manufacture, distribution, and sale” of fruit- and mint-flavored electronic smoking cartridges for cigars, hookahs and cigarettes, among others. The guidance excludes menthol and tobacco flavors.

But that addresses only part of the problem, say health advocates and legislators who sponsor related bills.

Even though the U.S. Congress banned all flavored cigarettes — except for menthol — over a decade ago, menthol is still popular among youth. A 2016 study found more than half of those smokers use menthol-flavored cigarettes, compared to roughly one-third of adult smokers.

Vicki Vasconcellos, president of The Smoke Free Alternatives Coalition of Illinois, does not dispute that youth are “abusing” flavored products. She argues, though, lawmakers’ priority should be enforcement of the Tobacco 21 statute which prohibits the sale of products containing nicotine to those under the age of 21.

Deerfield Democratic Sen. Julie Morrison said she is “glad they went as far as they did,” but a loophole remains in curbing youth’s access to flavored products.

“The FDA was ruling only on the pods, and one of the other sources obviously is the large containers that are sold so you can fill your own,” she said. “I think that should be subject to the same restrictions.”

Her legislation, proposed in late October, would prohibit all flavors of those goods — bottled liquid users need to fill cartridges themselves — and other nicotine devices.

Sexting in sex ed

Sex education in Illinois middle and high schools would be required to include a discussion on sexting if a bill introduced in the state House of Representatives becomes law.

House Bill 4007, introduced by Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, would require sex education curriculum in grades 6-12 to include material on the legal and social risks of sharing sexually explicit images, messages and videos.

“This is something that a lot of our students are dealing with and are partaking in without really understanding what the consequences could be,” West said.

Issues surrounding sexting that would be required in curriculum include long-term consequences, bullying and harassment, resisting peer pressure and using the Internet safely. Lessons would also have to highlight school and community officials who students can reach out to with a problem.

“There’s no telling what our children are doing on their phones,” West said, “so instead of trying to intrude into their privacy, let's just make sure they're educated on even the things that make us adults uncomfortable.”

The bill defines sexting as “sending, sharing, receiving, or forwarding a sexually explicit or sexually suggestive image, video, or text message by a digital or electronic device, including, but not limited to, a mobile or cellular telephone or a computer.”

Illinois would become only the second state to require teaching about sexting in sex education, according to Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy at the nonprofit Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which advocates for modern and comprehensive sex education.

New Jersey’s law, signed in 2018, requires schools to teach the “social, emotional, and legal consequences” of sexting.

Transgender therapy

The Illinois Medicaid program now covers medical procedures for people transitioning from one gender to another.

The Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the state’s primary Medicaid agency, published new administrative rules that spell out the types of “gender-affirming” services covered and the conditions under which the program will reimburse providers for those services. The rules became effective Dec. 23.

The department announced in April that it would develop such a policy. Previously, Illinois specifically excluded what had been referred to as “transsexual surgery” from Medicaid coverage.

The procedures are available to people diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a recognized condition in which people experience distress or discomfort because the gender they were assigned at birth does not match the gender with which they identify. Researchers say it occurs in only a small percentage of all individuals.

Under Illinois’ new policy, coverage is available to people over age 21, although it can be provided to some people younger than 21 if it’s determined to be medically necessary.

Procedures covered include genital surgery as well as breast or chest surgery. To qualify for genital surgery, a patient must submit letters from two qualified medical practitioners, including the patient’s primary care provider, who have each examined the patient independently. Non-genital surgery requires only one letter from the primary care provider or a gender-related care physician.

To qualify for genital surgery, patients first must undergo hormone therapy, unless they are medically unable to do so. They also must have lived for at least the past 12 months in the gender role to which they are transitioning.

According to the advocacy group Movement Advancement Project, 20 states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia now cover gender affirmation procedures in their Medicaid programs. Nine states explicitly exclude that coverage. The others have no specific policy.

Isolation rooms

Legislators and advocates began discussions Tuesday, Jan. 7, of what action the state can take to counteract the overuse of physical restraint and forced isolation of students in Illinois schools, particularly those serving students with special needs.

At a joint Illinois Senate and House committee hearing in Chicago, several of those who spoke credited revelations unearthed by a Chicago Tribune and ProPublica investigation published in November for the increased interest in the topic.

That investigation showed there were more than 20,000 documented incidents of isolation used in the state from the start of the 2017-2018 school year through December 2018.

In Illinois, it is legal to isolate students if they pose a safety threat to themselves or others, the report found, but the practice is used far more than in such situations.

“Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork, for swearing, for spilling milk, for throwing Legos. School employees use isolated timeout for convenience, out of frustration or as punishment, sometimes referring to it as ‘serving time,’” according to the report.

The report also found that while schools must document isolation instances, that documentation often goes unread, and the Illinois State Board of Education had not collected any data on the practice at the time the article was published.

The investigation prompted ISBE to initiate emergency rules banning the use of isolated seclusion in “any educational entity serving public school students in Illinois” in November. A news release at the time said ISBE would begin collecting data to “increase accountability and transparency for all instances of timeout and physical restraint.” The board proposed permanent rules in December.

At the committee hearing Tuesday, Amanda Elliott, co-director of legislative affairs at ISBE, said the emergency rules allowed ISBE to collect data on the use of seclusion and restraint in prior years. She said ISBE is reviewing the data for violations which would prompt investigations and potential disciplinary action. She said nine investigations are pending as a result.

She said sanctions resulting from violations could result in licensure suspension, professional development requirements or even criminal charges for individuals. For schools, recognition status could be affected, which would impact funding, she said.

Property taxes

A task force formed to study ways to reduce property tax burden on Illinois residents is calling for consolidation of school districts and other local units of government and a boost in the state’s share of funding for K-12 education.

Those and other recommendations are part of a draft report circulated among the 88-member Property Tax Relief Task Force that state lawmakers formed during the 2019 session. A final report is expected to be released before the 2020 legislative session begins Jan. 28.

The bill creating the task force was part of a package of legislation also including a proposed constitutional amendment to allow for a graduated income tax. And while the draft report does not mention the proposed amendment, which will appear on the November general election ballot, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said that he wants at least some of the new income tax revenue to be used for property tax relief if voters approve the amendment.

Rising property taxes have been a political flash point in Illinois for many years. The current system dates back to a 1901 Illinois Supreme Court decision that overturned the tax levying method that was used until that time, according to the draft report.

The report notes, however, that property ownership today is no longer the indicator of wealth and ability to pay that it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also states the current system is full of special exemptions for select groups of property owners — including Tax Increment Financing districts, or TIFs, that have the effect of shifting the tax burden on to other property owners.

The document also notes that local governments in Illinois — school districts in particular — rely more heavily on property tax revenue than in other states. Local property taxes account for two-thirds of all funding for public schools in Illinois, while state funding accounts for only about 26 percent.

The report argues the property tax system should be reformed on several levels, including how property values are determined, consolidating townships and other local units of government, and reducing or eliminating some property tax exemptions.

But addressing the issue of education funding would likely have the biggest impact because school taxes make up the bulk of most people’s property tax bills.

House GOP objections

Illinois House Republicans on Wednesday, Jan. 8, blasted a draft final report from the special Property Tax Relief Task Force that lawmakers formed last year. They said the panel’s Democratic majority summarily rejected dozens of proposals from Republicans.

“Following the release of their draft within the last week, we once again see [House Democrats] refuse to be serious … at a time when our citizens are so desperate and wanting for change in state government,” House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, said during a news conference in Chicago.

The draft report has been circulating among the 88 members of the task force — or about half of the General Assembly — as the group prepares to issue a final report to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the legislature ahead of the start of the 2020 legislative session Jan. 28.

It calls for, among other things, having the state take over a greater share of funding responsibility for public schools, consolidating potentially hundreds of elementary school and high school districts into full K-12 “unit” districts, and extending the state sales tax to various services that aren’t currently taxed to raise state revenue that could be used to lower local property taxes.

Among the Republican proposals not discussed in the draft report, according to Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, of Elmhurst, was cutting pension benefits for new employees of local governments and school districts and capping pensions for school administrators.

“We propose capping administrator pensions so that they can’t exceed the average household income in the state of Illinois, because administrative pensions are going absolutely crazy and driving costs up,” she said. “None of these were up for debate or up for consideration.”

Property tax reform is expected to be a significant topic in the upcoming legislative session and Gov. Pritzker has made it a high priority for his administration.

Electric utilities refund

Two of the state’s largest electric utilities owe their customers a combined $543 million in refunds, according to state regulators, but there is sharp disagreement over how much time the companies should have to pay it back.

At issue for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison, also known as ComEd, is money they collected to pay future tax bills before federal tax cuts which took effect in 2018 lowered those anticipated rates.

When the corporate tax rate was slashed from 35 percent to 21 percent, both companies found themselves holding onto large surpluses, known as “excess deferred income taxes,” or EDIT.

For ComEd, which serves 4 million customers in Chicago and northern Illinois, the excess amounted to $385 million. For Ameren, which serves about 1.2 million customers in central Illinois and the Metro East area, it amounted to $158 million.

In a pair of rulings last year, the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates public utilities, said ComEd could pay off its EDIT over 38 years and Ameren could pay off its bill over 35 years. But on Monday, Jan. 6, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced he is asking the ICC to reconsider that decision and shorten the payout period to just five years.

“Consumers paid public utility rates to ComEd and Ameren reflecting the higher federal tax rate, and now that the federal tax rate has lowered, fairness dictates that consumers should get that money back,” Raoul said in a news release. “Allowing an unreasonable refund period of close to 40 years nearly guarantees many customers will never get their fair share of the refunds.”

n testimony before the ICC, both Raoul’s office and the Citizens Utility Board argued future customers are not entitled to the benefit of a refund because they aren’t the ones who paid the higher-than-necessary rates. They also argued the longer payout period will mean that many customers who were charged higher rates prior to the change in tax law will never see their full refund.

CUB argued in favor of a seven-year payout schedule while Raoul’s office argued for five years.

The ICC has not said whether it will grant the request for reconsideration.

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SIUC got about $345K to recruit 20 paraprofessionals (AKA teacher’s aides) from across Southern Illinois and convert them into full-fledged, certified special ed teachers. A year later, 18 of the 20 remain in the rigorous program, working toward their bachelor’s degrees and teaching certifications while continuing to work in special ed classrooms.

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