Legislative Update: March 16, 2015

Agencies to Offer Free Mental Health First Aid Certification
The Human Resources Center of Edgar and Clark Counties and the Vermilion County 708 Board, in cooperation with the IL Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health are offering a free certification course in Mental Health First Aid on March 31. The 8:00-5:00 course will take place at the Housing Authority Administration Building, 1607 Clyman Lane, in Danville, and a $10 lunch option is available when registering. Those who attend will learn what initial help should be provided to a person showing symptoms of mental illness or a mental health crisis until appropriate professional help arrives at the scene. Enrollment is limited and registration is required. For additional information, please contact Ken at Kenneth.polk@hrcec.org or at 217-465-4118.

Slow Economic Growth continues in Illinois

The staff of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) presented their FY16 Economic Forecast  in Springfield on Wednesday, March 10.  COGFA is the nonpartisan economic think tank of the Illinois General Assembly, and their Revenue Update for FY15 and numbers for FY16 will be key background data to be used by the General Assembly as they modify the State’s FY15 budget and craft a FY16 budget to meet the urgent fiscal needs of the State. 

COGFA’s numbers confirm that the post-2009 Illinois “recovery” has been the slowest economic expansion of the post-World War II period.  In each previous recession, not only were the rates of decline in economic output less severe, but the ensuing recoveries were faster and steeper.  Illinois economic trend lines, starting in 2010, show steady but very shallow, palely upward-trending movements.  New jobs are created in relatively low numbers and are being created, in Illinois, in insufficient numbers to force increases in median overall wage rates.    

The pale post-2009 “recovery,” combined with the pushdown of State income tax rates in January 2015 are two forces that continue to combine to create a worsening State of Illinois budget crisis.  A spreadsheet presented to staff by the Commission shows net income tax revenues dropping more than $4 billion in FY16, below what would have been paid to the State under the tax rates in effect in FY14.  Growth rates in tax revenues attributable to underlying rates of growth in the Illinois private-sector economy are expected to make up only $500 million of the lost income, leading to a structural deficit of $3.5 billion in FY16.  To this number is supplemented accumulated past-year deficits and unpaid State bills of many billions of additional dollars, plus the spending pressures created by many “entitlement” lines within the State’s budget.   

Unemployment Remains Higher than U.S. as a Whole, but Drops another 0.1%
The figures for January 2015, reported on Thursday, March 12 by the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), show that Illinois’s jobless rate fell from 6.2% to 6.1% in January 2015.  The same number was 8.2% in January 2014, down 2.1% over the 12-month period.

Soft spots in the statewide economic picture complicated the continued trend toward lower unemployment. Illinois employment – the number of Illinois residents with nonfarm payroll jobs – also dropped by 7,100 jobs in the same month.  The declining employment and unemployment numbers reflected a stagnating Illinois population and the continued movement of many Illinois residents out of the labor force altogether. 

Tourism Group Visits State Capitol
Last week I had an opportunity in Springfield to sit down and talk with a group promoting tourism and the hospitality industry in Champaign County. We discussed their interest in getting the IHSA State Basketball Tournament to move back to Champaign’s Assembly Hall, and plans for a new 104-room hotel on Neil Street in Champaign. We also discussed several other tourism opportunities that could bring travelers to the County.

Last week I also had the opportunity to attend a Cable TV & Communications Association Event, where I met five-time Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair. Originally from Champaign, Bonnie is a hometown hero for her success as a speed skater in four different Olympic Games. In addition to her five gold medals, she also won one bronze medal, and she remains one the most decorated athletes in Olympic history.

Clock is Ticking on FY15 Budget Crisis Situation
The decision by the General Assembly and former Gov. Quinn to pass and sign an unbalanced FY15 budget in spring 2014 continues to endanger many Illinois residents.  These are persons who are paid from, or dependent on, budget lines in the FY15 State budget where the amounts set aside were not enough to fully fund the expense item until the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2015. 

Examples of groups affected by unfunded FY15 budget expense lines include providers of subsidized Illinois child care, Illinois prison guards and circuit court reporters.  These are individuals and contractors who have been told of a fast-approaching date when Illinois must find more money to pay them.  Gov. Bruce Rauner has presented a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly to move money around within the budget to cover these anticipated urgent needs, but factions in the General Assembly who are politically opposed to the Governor have so far refused to allow this plan to come to the House floor for a vote.       

Many Parents Call for Allowing their Children to Opt Out of PARCC Tests
PARCC standardized tests, which utilize an online platform that students are expected to interact with as they take the test (rather than the format, familiar to their parents, of filling in bubbles on a piece of paper) began to be administered throughout Illinois on Monday, March 9.  The testing cycle is expected to continue for approximately four weeks.  Data from the test will be used to evaluate Illinois public and charter school students, teachers, schools and school systems.

Many parents are concerned about the new PARCC system, which from their point of view was sprung on their children without recourse and without sufficient warning.  No current law allows parents to withdraw their children from the PARCC test, which is supposed to be given to every eligible child in order to generate statistically significant results that can be used to gauge everyone’s performance.  Furthermore, the federal government has sent warning letters to Illinois’ State Board of Education to remind educators of the nexus between federal school aid and compliance with the order that students all take the test.

Attitudes by parents toward the PARCC mandate is becoming increasingly coordinated with resistance toward other mandates imposed by schools upon children, such as mandated sex education and compliance with certain health benchmarks.  Bills have been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly to discuss the issue.  The “Chicago Sun-Times” describes the issue from the standpoint of concerned parents.  

Comptroller Munger Urges Illinois Individual Income Taxpayers to Register
The Illinois Tax Refund Alert system, rolled out this spring by new Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger, allows taxpayers to monitor the status of their Illinois tax returns, including an automated text-messaging system.  Similar to the familiar warnings that many of us get when our phone or cable bill is due, the test message will tell eligible taxpayers of their payment notifications.   Registration is free through the portal.

Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Pension Case
The Illinois pension reform law enacted in December 2013 faced questions before the Illinois Supreme Court at oral arguments on Wednesday, March 11.  The Illinois Solicitor General, advocating for the law, stated that the controversial law had been enacted to solve a fiscal emergency.  Established constitutional law authorizes a state, in furtherance of its constitutional duty, to exercise what are called “police powers” that potentially override other considerations.  Plaintiffs seeking to strike down the law say that it improperly violates a section of the state Constitution.  Illinois has the worst-funded pension system of the 50 states.  A decision by the state Supreme Court, which is expected later this spring, could affect budget and pension law policies that will be before the General Assembly as it approaches the May 31 adjournment date.         

U of I Moves Forward with Plans for New Medical School at Champaign-Urbana Campus 
The facility for specialized medical education would be physically separate, and separate in its mission statement, from the existing “U of I” school on the Medical Campus of the West Side of Chicago.  University President Robert Easter announced on Wednesday, March 11 that he would recommend that the Board of Trustees approve the Champaign-Urbana medical school project.

Under the proposal, the University of Illinois’ Downstate hub campus will become the center of a cooperative center of medical education and bioengineering research and development.  The proposed medical school will leverage the University’s established Champaign-Urbana presence in engineering sciences.  The medical school is expected to work in financial and clinical affiliation with the Urbana-based Carle Foundation Hospital System.  The Carle alliance could create a platform to test new medical devices and therapies in a clinical setting.  This potential Champaign-Urbana operating model contrasts with the traditional teaching-hospital role of the Chicago-based University of Illinois-Chicago medical school and hospital. 

President Easter’s staff and consultants will present a spreadsheet binder to the trustees that will indicate that the injection of additional Illinois taxpayer funding to operate the new medical school will not be required.  The new (2014) Western Michigan University medical school in Kalamazoo offers a financial model for a bioengineering-driven, self-supporting medical school complex.  The trustees will be asked on Thursday, March 12, to approve the University of Illinois proposal. 

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