SPRINGFIELD — Seasonal decorations are filling the Illinois Capitol rotunda — a holiday tree, nativity scene, satanic sculpture and Winter Solstice sign surround the ever-present “Illinois Welcoming the World” statue in the center of the space.
The display gained national attention in 2018 for the Satanic Temple of Chicago’s contribution of a sculpture of a woman’s left arm, with a snake coiled around it, holding an apple. The statue is a metaphor representing the biblical story of Adam and Eve, according to two leaders of the Temple, who said the apple was to represent enlightenment.
These winter displays are installed for 30 days, and are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s freedom of speech guarantees, a sign posted near the tree states.
“The State of Illinois is required by the first amendment of the United States Constitution to allow temporary, public displays in the state capitol so long as these displays are not paid for by taxpayer dollars,” it reads. “Because the first floor of the Capitol Rotunda is a public place, state officials cannot legally censor the content of speech or displays.”
This is the second holiday season the satanic sculpture is displayed in the rotunda. Its design “keeps with The Satanic Temple’s values of advocating knowledge and rationality over superstition, ignorance, and dogma,” according to a press release.
For the 11th straight year, a Winter Solstice sign, installed by Kathryn Koldehoff of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, will also have a spot in the Capitol Rotunda. It is meant to make “freethought’s presence felt in the land of Lincoln,” according to a press release.
“At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell,” the sign reads. “There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
Winter Solstice, the shortest and darkest day each year, is on Dec. 21. The display represents “the real reason for the season,” Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a press release.
Dave Druker, a secretary of state spokesperson, said on Monday, Dec. 2, the “holiday tree” on display is owned by the state. He does not know whether the state purchased it or whether it was donated because, he said, it “predates” Secretary of State Jesse White’s administration.
The nativity scene was installed by Julie Zanoza of the Springfield Nativity Scene Committee, Druker said. She did not return a request for comment.
While a Chanukah menorah was present in past years, Druker said he is unaware of an application to place one in the Statehouse this year.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Democrat from Chicago and a member of the Jewish Caucus, said she has made an inquiry with the secretary of state’s office about when a menorah will be installed.
MARIJUANA TRAILER BILL: One month before the scheduled rollout of legalized marijuana in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a follow-up bill to the initial reform Wednesday, Dec. 4, and took questions about the next phases of the implementation.
“It’s new territory, we’re seeing that in some of the cleanup that we’re doing in this bill,” said Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who sponsored the initial marijuana legalization measure.
Steans said the bill clarifies that public consumption of marijuana can be done in only a licensed dispensary or a retail tobacco shop. This will be allowed only if a local government authorizes it on the premises.
“They can only be in those two kinds of locations,” she said.
It also requires that individuals who have their records automatically expunged are notified when the process takes place. Medical cannabis patients aged 18-21 will now have full access to cannabis products, including combustible marijuana.
The bill also clarifies a “revolving door” provision of the initial law by prohibiting future members of the General Assembly and their families from having a direct financial ownership interest in a cannabis business until two years after that lawmaker leaves public office.
She said the bill moves up to July, from September, the earliest date municipalities and county governments can begin collecting taxes resulting from marijuana sales.
Steans said while the follow-up measure, referred to as a trailer bill, was mainly about technical changes, more substantial changes could happen in the future.
“We did not want to go back and revisit policy at this point in time,” she said. “We know we may do that going forward but we want to first get this up and running and see how it actually works.”
ETHICS REFORMS: A handful of Illinois House Republicans on Wednesday, Dec. 4, called for a special legislative session – or at least greater urgency in the upcoming regular session – to pass reforms to state ethics laws.
“How can this government possibly move forward with credibility without robust anti-corruption safeguards in place,” Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, asked during a Capitol news conference.
He was joined by four of the more conservative members of the House GOP caucus in arguing that a flurry of investigative activity and federal charges filed against a pair of sitting lawmakers make clear that reforms to state ethics codes and economic interest disclosures are needed to return the public’s trust.
So far this year, Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, was arrested for bribery before stepping down and Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, was indicted on embezzlement charges. He remains in the Legislature. Several other Statehouse regulars, including Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, have had their homes or offices raided by the FBI. Sandoval announced Nov. 27 he was resigning effective Jan. 1.
An ethics commission and lobbyist disclosure bill which passed in the final days of the fall veto session were not nearly enough to reinstate public trust in government, according to Rep. Allen Skillicorn, an East Dundee Republican who spoke during the news conference.
“How do we deal with the state’s issues? How do we deal with a pension debt? How do we deal with skyrocketing property taxes? How do we deal with all this yet there’s a cloud of corruption around this building,” he asked. “How many arrests, how many search warrants, how many indictments will happen before we pass a meaningful and substantial ethics reform here in Illinois?”
LINCOLN ARTIFACTS: The foundation supporting the 16th president’s library and museum announced Wednesday, Dec. 4, it no longer needs to auction off a collection of more than 1,000 Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln artifacts.
Officials with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation secured a three-year extension on a loan used to buy historical items — including the bloody gloves the former president had in his pocket when he died and a huge number of Mary Lincoln documents — from former board member Louise Taper in 2007.
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The terms of the original loan, for $23 million, dictated Lake Forest Bank & Trust Company be paid back in October 2019. After it stopped making significant payments and the state refused to contribute taxpayer dollars, the foundation threatened to sell pieces from the Taper Collection to raise the remaining funds.
But the foundation, a private organization formed in 2000 which retained ownership of the artifacts, now has until Oct. 31, 2022, to repay about $8.8 million it still owes, Nick Kalm, a foundation board vice chairman, said.
“In addition to giving us the flexibility to continue fundraising, this extension means the foundation no longer needs to consider auctioning off any of the artifacts to satisfy the debt,” Ray McCaskey, chair of the foundation’s board of directors, said in a news release. “Selling these unique artifacts was clearly something no one wanted to do. Now, this important collection will remain available to everyone who visits the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.”
Rep. Tim Butler, a Republican from Springfield, said it is “a good sign” the foundation was able to secure the new loan deadline, something he advocated for more than a year ago. The collection, he added, is “one of the crown jewels we own collectively as a state.”
FOOD STAMPS: The Trump administration is about to impose new regulations that would tighten eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, in a way state officials say could cut off benefits for an estimated 140,000 Illinoisans.
The new rules apply to a category of SNAP recipients ages 18 to 49 known as “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or ABAWDs. Currently, who meet the program’s income eligibility limits are limited to three months of benefits during any 36-month period unless they work at least 20 hours a week or are enrolled in a job training program.
Those conditions were part of a 1996 welfare reform law passed during the Clinton administration. But the law also allows states to waive the work requirements if the applicant lives in an area marked by high unemployment or where there is a lack of sufficient jobs.
The new rules, which will take effect in April, will tighten the regulations governing those waivers by limiting them to counties with unemployment rates above 6 percent. It is one of several changes to SNAP eligibility being implemented or considered by the Trump administration.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, said in a document published Wednesday, Dec. 4, that about half of all able-bodied adults receiving SNAP live in areas that have received waivers “despite low unemployment levels across the majority of the country.”
“The strong economy is creating opportunities for all,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said during a telephone news conference Wednesday. “Now is the time for us to engage with this subset of SNAP participants so that they can know the dignity of work and the lasting transformation that it provides.”
But Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker blasted the new rules, calling them “cruel” and suggesting they are being enacted for other political purposes.
“President Trump is now resorting to the ugliest possible tactics to distract the American people from his impeachment and gin up support from the far right – denying food to the most vulnerable people in our society,” Pritzker said in an email statement. “This is cruel and my administration has fought him at every turn.”
USDA estimates the rule change will make about 668,000 people nationwide ineligible for SNAP, resulting in an estimated $5.5 billion savings over five years.
CROP PRODUCTION DECREASES: Agriculture officials are expecting numbers to show a smaller-than-usual 2019 corn and soybean harvest in the state when reports are officially released.
As of Nov. 24, only about 88 percent of corn acres in Illinois had been harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from 100 percent at the same time last year. Soybean harvesting was 95 percent complete, down from 99 percent a year ago.
That delay is the result of historic rainfall in the spring, which prevented farmers from getting seeds into the ground in some cases until as late as June.
Officials at the Illinois Department of Agriculture say the final, official numbers for the 2019 growing season won’t be known until early January. But Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, said all indicators point to a below-average year.
Weinzierl said Illinois farmers planted about 1.1 million fewer acres of corn this year, compared to a normal year, and there was also a big drop-off in soybean acres.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also projecting that each acre will produce less this year than in the recent past – about 179 bushels per acre this year, down from 210 bushels in 2018, which was a record for Illinois.
Last year, Illinois harvested roughly 11 million acres of corn, yielding about 2.7 billion bushels according to USDA estimates. Soybean farmers harvested 10.5 million acres, producing nearly 667 million bushels.
Most farmers who left acres unplanted this year had insurance coverage, but those policies only cover farmers for their input costs such as the seeds and fertilizers that went unused. They do not cover farmers for the loss of income or the cost of land for farmers who lease acreage from other landowners.
A separate report will be released in February detailing the state’s first year of legal hemp production.
SAFE SHOPPING GUIDE: The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has released its annual safe shopping guide ahead of the holiday season to alert families about recalled children’s toys, clothing and furniture.
The report includes information about goods that are a safety hazard and have been linked to infant deaths. Some of the items featured include choking hazards, articles of clothing that do not meet the government’s flammability standard and furniture that can injure children if not assembled correctly.
There are more than 30 products on the list, including certain bath toys, handmade knit dolls, power wheels toys, boots, socks, pajamas and more.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group also released its annual Trouble in Toyland report, which has additional information about potentially hazardous toys. It features goods that pose a choking hazard, and information about toxins found in products and which toys present a privacy risk.
It also cautions consumers that online stores do not always remove recalled items from their sites.
A complete list of product warnings and recall information can be found on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website, www.recalls.gov. Raoul’s office also has a recall hotline, 1-888-414-7678, for Illinoisans seeking more information.