Illinois lawmakers Wednesday voted to make a $53.1 million down payment toward reconstruction of the troubled Quincy veterans’ home and to grant a legal boost to families suing the state over the Legionnaires’ disease-related deaths of loved ones at the facility.
The moves — triggered by a seven-month WBEZ investigation — highlighted a busy day that also included Senate passage of a $38.5 billion budget for Fiscal 2019 and the historic ratification of the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by the House.
The flurry of activity came as an adjournment deadline for the spring legislative session loomed Thursday.
Lawmakers also gave their final approval to statewide teacher pay minimums, to a new bid to license gun dealers and to a boost in the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. Additionally, the House supported a bill favored by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to allow police to deploy drones for surveillance at large public events. That measure awaits Senate approval.
Movement on a budget offered the rare promise of fiscal détente for the nation’s fifth-largest state. Last summer, Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the legislature ended a record-setting, acrimonious stalemate that left Illinois without an operating budget for two years.
The budget plan now awaiting House action drew votes from both parties and represents nearly a $1 billion increase in spending over the Fiscal 2019 spending proposal that Rauner outlined in February. As of late Wednesday, the governor’s posture on the budget was unclear as he stayed uncharacteristically silent on the measure, but one GOP ally called it an “impressive display.”
“Considering where we’ve been in the last 12, 24, 36 months, it is a bit of a turnaround, and it’s not been achieved easily,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon.
Included in that package was a significant financial commitment toward rebuilding the Illinois Veterans Home, where 13 residents have died and dozens more residents and staff have been sickened by recurring Legionnaires’ outbreaks in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Still, the $53.1 million appropriation falls far short of the $245 million that a Rauner-appointed task force said earlier this month was needed to rebuild the state’s largest and oldest veterans’ home.
Rauner’s office did not respond to a WBEZ query about whether he supported the amount lawmakers appropriated. The administration has estimated the rebuild could take up to five years.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat who has co-chaired legislative hearings into the Quincy outbreaks, said the money would cover about 18 months of work at the Quincy complex.
The House also passed another Quincy-related measure that could greatly affect negligence lawsuits against the state from 11 families that lost loved ones in the 2015 outbreak.
Since 1972, Illinois law has limited the state’s liability for accidents or injuries at state facilities to $100,000, a cap that now is tied for lowest in the nation. The bill that passed both legislative chambers Wednesday would boost the limits on awards to $2 million and was made retroactive to include all 11 Legionnaires’ lawsuits.
The bill’s chief House sponsor, Rep. Al Riley, an Olympia Fields Democrat, said the measure gives “a modicum of respect” to the families of those who died from Legionnaires’ at the veterans’ home.
And state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, an Aurora Democrat, specifically singled out the case of Dolores French, who died from Legionnaires’. The local coroner estimated she had been dead for up to 48 hours before her body was found in her room.
“Nobody can replace the heroes we lost in Quincy. But this can help the families. And this is, by far, more honorable than the $100,000 we have today,” Kifowit said.
Rauner’s administration expressed opposition to the bill, but it did not publicly indicate a reason why. A query by WBEZ to the governor’s office went unanswered Wednesday.
The measure, which awaited Senate approval before moving to the governor, could put Rauner in a bit of an election-year trick box.
His administration has refused to acknowledge negligence occurred at the Quincy facility in those cases. If the legislation gets to him, vetoing or rewriting it would position him even more forcefully against the families who lost loved ones at the facility – all in the heat of a pitched re-election battle where the governor is expected to court the votes of veterans.
Dave McKinney covers state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.
Tony Arnold contributed to this report.