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Capitol Recap: Illinois Statehouse Republicans choose new leadership

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SPRINGFIELD — Republicans chose new leadership for their caucuses in the Illinois General Assembly on Tuesday night, Nov. 15, while the two Democratic leaders have each announced they have the votes to maintain their positions.

House Republicans elected Tony McCombie of Savanna and Senate Republicans chose John Curran of Downers Grove.

The change in leadership comes after Democrats maintained control of every statewide office and had strong gains in last week’s elections across the rest of state government, aside from in the state Senate.

In that chamber, Curran will preside over a Republican caucus outnumbered by Democrats by a likely margin of 40-19 after GOP candidate Patrick Sheehan conceded to Democrat Michael Hastings in the 19th District Wednesday. That means the GOP will have picked up one seat.

First appointed in 2017 to the suburban district where former GOP Senate leader Christine Radogno was previously seated, Curran won reelection in 2018 and ran unopposed in 2022. He previously served as an assistant Cook County prosecutor and DuPage County Board vice chairman, and he is now a private practice attorney.

“We stand ready, with our focus directed toward the future, on developing solutions that will address the critical issues facing our state,” Curran said in a statement. “We are equally dedicated to growing our ranks, which will give all Illinoisans greater representation and balance in their state government.”

He replaces Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, who was chosen as Senate minority leader after the 2020 elections.

McCombie previously served as mayor of Savanna and was first elected state representative in 2016, defeating incumbent Democrat Mike Smiddy for the seat in the Quad Cities area. She easily won reelection in 2018 and 2020 and ran unopposed this year.

“The House Republican Caucus is focused on helping Illinois families by offering common sense solutions to the many problems our state faces,” McCombie said in a statement. “We will be a unified force that will grow our party by sticking to our core values and ending the corruption that has pervaded state government.”

After House Republicans lost at least four, or potentially five, net seats in this year’s general election, giving Democrats up to a 78-40 supermajority, Minority Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, announced he would not seek another term as leader.

Durkin had served as minority leader since 2013 and said last week the near decade run has “been the honor of a lifetime.”

Senate President Don Harmon also announced he had the votes to retain that title Tuesday night.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced that he had the votes for another term last week.

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John Curran - Mug

Curran 

CURRAN INTERVIEW: Senate Minority Leader-elect John Curran will take over a caucus that’s more than doubled in size by the majority-party Democrats.

His goal: “Bring balance to state government.”

In January, he’ll take over for Minority Leader Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican who was chosen for the post in November 2020, but whose caucus chose a new route by electing Curran this week.

“There's no pivot,” Curran said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois. “We all sit at one table, this is a few people changing seats, just a couple of different roles as we go forward. But, you know, really, this is about us being a unified caucus.”

Curran brings a track record of working with Democrats to his leadership role as the caucus looks to navigate a likely 40-19 Democratic majority.

“Our obstacles are the lack, at times, of the majority party to respect and include the minority party in a meaningful manner in public policy discussions,” Curran said. “I, as an individual legislator, have found ways to have some meaningful participation in that process and getting members of the other side of the aisle to respect my policy objectives and getting them included in the ultimate product. We need to do that as a caucus.”

He was the lone Republican standing with Democrats in Springfield when the governor signed a health care reform backed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in 2021. He was also a lead voice in an effort to drastically curtail allowable emissions of ethylene oxide in Illinois, a cancer-causing gas used in medical supply sterilization that’s been tied to an elevated cancer risk in the Willowbrook area.

When Democrats worked to pass a transformative energy policy, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, that subsidizes renewable and nuclear generators while aiming to take fossil fuel producers offline in the next two decades, Curran was one of two Republicans casting a “yes” vote.

He was the lead Senate GOP voice on ethics reforms passed in 2021. While House Republicans quickly called news conferences to call that bill watered down and ineffective, Curran at the time appeared with Democrats and spoke to reporters individually about how he worked with the majority party to strengthen the bill.

He has also been an opponent of the criminal justice reform known as the SAFE-T Act, arguing that while he’s not opposed to ending cash bail, he believes the system that will replace it has several shortcomings.

Aside from a message of balance, he said he’d be active in Republican fundraising, aiming to diversify donations from just one or two megadonors. In recent election cycles, the two major funders of the state GOP were shipping magnate Richard Uihlein and hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, who recently moved his business to Florida.

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House Minority Leader-elect Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, speaks at a news conference in her soon-to-be office once she officially assumes the GOP leadership title in the 103rd General Assembly in January.

MCCOMBIE INTERVIEW: State Rep. Tony McCombie said Wednesday that her top priority when she becomes the next House minority leader will be to rebuild the GOP caucus following last week’s elections that were, for Republicans, a disappointment.

“The top priority is to bring balance to the Republican Party,” she told reporters during her first Statehouse news conference since being elected leader. “I mean, we need some numbers, seriously. We need to collaborate on our messages. We need to bring our caucus all together to have opinions.”

McCombie said Republicans in Illinois must hone their message to appeal to more voters.

“Well, I think we need to have a message, right,” she said. “We're starting a message right now – you’ve just elected the first female Republican House leader. I think that should show folks across the state that we are inclusive, we are diverse, and we are welcoming all people to come in.”

During the 2019-2020 election cycle, she served as chair of the House Republican Organization, which raises money and coordinates a statewide campaign to elect GOP House members.

Even before the 2022 elections, Republicans were in a 73-45 superminority in the House. Unofficial returns so far show they lost at least four of those seats, with one race still too close to call as of Wednesday, Nov. 16.

With those kinds of numbers, McCombie said, it will be important to work collaboratively with Democrats if Republicans hope to achieve any of their priorities.

“I'm going to do what I do now,” she said. “I have friends on both sides of the aisle. I work to develop relationships and friendships, and you all may not know me, but I'm very honest and transparent. And I'll continue that kind of conversation with the folks across the aisle.”

As one who is known for being more conservative than Durkin, McCombie said she will seek to moderate policies in the state that she says have been driven by the left wing of the Democratic Party.

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Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis asks a question during oral arguments in a case where Lisle's Benedictine University hosted the court in 2016.

NEW CHIEF JUSTICE: Mary Jane Theis was sworn in as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court on Monday in a public ceremony, becoming the fourth woman to hold the gavel since the court was created in 1818.

By next month, the Democrat will find herself presiding over a new historic first for the court, as women take a 5-2 majority for the first time in Illinois’ history.

Democrats will also take a 5-2 majority on the court next month, an expansion of partisan power from the current 4-3 split after Democrats won two judicial races in the 2nd and 3rd districts in last week’s elections.

But the bipartisan message Monday during a swearing-in ceremony from the Springfield Supreme Court building was a unifying one: The rule of law, not partisan politics, governs how the justices approach their work on the bench.

“Here in Illinois, we've just come through a bruising election,” Theis said. “A time where, over and over, the people of the state of Illinois were told that the judiciary is just another place of partisan politics, that what we do is gamesmanship. I will tell you that is not my experience. That is not the truth.”

In that election, the television airwaves were filled with messages about Republicans’ real or perceived stances on abortion and Democrats’ alleged involvement in partywide corruption.

Retired Justice Rita Garman, a Republican, was one of three speakers at Theis’ swearing-in ceremony. Garman had served on the high court since 2001 until her July retirement, while Theis has served since 2010.

Garman said she became friends with her fellow justice at the Supreme Court’s living quarters in Springfield where the justices stay when in town for deliberations.

“She was always thoughtful and willing to offer input and suggestions,” Garman said. “I can assure you she is committed to the rule of law.”

Garman was replaced by Lisa Holder White, the first Black woman to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Theis was officially sworn in Oct. 26, but the ceremony took place Monday as the justices returned to Springfield for their regular term.

Theis is from the court’s 1st District, which encompasses Cook County and elects three of the court’s seven justices. She was chosen for the post through the court’s standard process of naming a chief justice, which gives the position to the most tenured justice who has not yet held it. She was retained for another 10-year term during the Nov. 8 election.

Her duties as chief justice will include serving as the court’s chief administrative officer, which oversees more than 900 judges in the statewide judicial system. The chief justice also selects Supreme Court agenda items, supervises all Supreme Court committee appointments, chairs the executive committee of the Illinois Judicial Conference and presents the court’s budget request to lawmakers.

The student loan debt plan is on hold, again, and no one knows if or when it's coming. What could this mean for you? Host Teri Barr is talking with Cecilia Clark, a student loans expert with Nerd Wallet, to learn why this newest hold on the program could take awhile and three things you need to know about right now, including making your loan payments again in the New Year.

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SAFE-T ACT CHANGES: Changes may yet come to the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform before its Jan. 1 effective date, but some of its major proponents in the General Assembly said the results of the Nov. 8 general election have signified that the ship has sailed on drastic amendments to it.

Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, said at a news conference with the law’s advocates on Wednesday, Nov. 16, that the changes were likely to be technical in nature and aimed at ensuring rollout goes smoothly for the wide-ranging reform that passed in January 2021.

The provision to end cash bail, known as the Pretrial Fairness Act, takes effect Jan. 1, and Peters said there’s no appetite among advocates to push that date back further.

The PFA eliminates cash as a determinant for pretrial release, replacing it with a system that gives judges authority to detain individuals accused of certain crimes while they await trial.

The law’s standards regarding when a judge can order pretrial detention have been among the most hotly contested provisions in the run-up to the November elections.

As written, the law creates a presumption in favor of pretrial release for lower-level offenders, including most charged with misdemeanors and low-level, non-violent felonies such as possession of small amounts of drugs. Officers would be instructed to release those individuals with a citation and a notice to appear in court within 21 days, but they would still have the authority to arrest the individual and take them into custody if they deem them to be a threat to the public safety.

Advocates say that presumption is necessary to avoid overworking the courts, giving them more time to focus on pretrial detention cases involving dangerous or potentially dangerous individuals. The law also gives the accused individual the right to an attorney beginning with their first appearance in court.

Detainable offenses include non-probationable forcible felonies such as murder, aggravated arson and residential burglary; domestic violence offenses where the abuse victim is a family or household member, or if the defendant was subject to the terms of an order of protection; gun offenses; and several specified sex offenses.

Persons deemed to be “planning or attempting to intentionally evade prosecution” may also be detained pretrial under what is called the “willful flight” standard if they’ve been charged with a crime greater than a Class 4 felony – such as property crimes, aggravated DUI and driving on a revoked license.

An amendment backed by Sen. Scott Bennett, a Democrat from Champaign, would widen judicial authority to detain a defendant charged with any crime if the court believes they are a serious risk of skipping trial, pose a danger to the community, or are likely to threaten a potential witness or juror.

It would also remove language regarding the “presumption in favor of pretrial release.”

Domestic violence victim advocates that helped draft the proposal have argued that those sections of Bennett’s amendment would gut the original law’s intent by keeping the court system clogged with low-level non-violent offenders.

Peters on Wednesday did not directly criticize Bennett’s proposal, contained in Senate Bill 4228, as “gutting” the PFA, but he said he disagreed with it.

What changes will be made, however, is unclear as negotiations continue.

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A look at construction on the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council-Quad Cities Campus, located at 4th Avenue and Illinois 92, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in East Moline. The 50,000 sq. ft. building will be used as its new Apprenticeship Training Center.

AMENDMENT PASSAGE: Illinois voters have approved a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing workers the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

Estimates compiled by multiple media outlets projected Tuesday that the ballot measure had support on an estimated 53% of the total ballots cast in the election, with more than 95% of the ballots counted. That’s enough for approval under one of two paths to passage for a constitutional amendment in Illinois.

The amendment, which will be added to the Bill of Rights of the Illinois Constitution, states that employees have a fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively “for the purpose of negotiating wages, hours and working conditions, and to protect their economic welfare and safety at work.”

It also prohibits state and local governments from enacting laws that interfere with that right, including passage of so-called “right-to-work” laws, which prohibit requiring membership in a union as a condition of employment.

On election night, the Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights campaign declared victory, but media outlets were slow to confirm that due to the complicated rules in Illinois for passing a constitutional amendment.

The state constitution provides two pathways for passing an amendment. It must either be approved by 60% of all those voting on the measure or by more than 50 percent of all ballots cast in the election.

According to projections, the amendment received about 2.1 million “yes” votes and 1.5 million votes against. That’s 58.4% of the votes cast on that issue but about 53% of all the ballots cast in the election.

The amendment will become effective once the Illinois State Board of Elections certifies results of the election. The board is scheduled to meet Dec. 5.

The American Farm Bureau Federation reports the average cost of a Thanksgiving dinner has risen this year.

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