Legislative Update: March 23, 2015

Governor Celebrates National Agriculture Day; New Ag Director Confirmed
The Illinois Department of Agriculture is the State agency that oversees Illinois’ production of food and fiber.  This week, the appointment of Philip Nelson as new Director of the Department was confirmed.  A fourth-generation grain and livestock producer, Nelson is a past president of the Illinois Farm Bureau and past president of the Illinois Soybean Association.  The confirmation vote by the state Senate came on Thursday, March 19.

With Director Philip Nelson, Governor Bruce Rauner celebrated National Agriculture Day on Wednesday, March 18 and called for continued support for family farms throughout Illinois.  Farm advocates point out that Illinois’ 74,000 farms, which occupy more than four-fifths of the Prairie State, accounted for 9.6% of Illinois’ total economic product in 2012.  These numbers indicate that each Illinois farm generates more than seven Illinois jobs, including positions physically located off the farmstead. Jobs created by farms include positions in transport, retail, financial trading, and the processing of farm products.

Local Groups Visit Capitol
On St. Patrick's Day last Tuesday, I was visited in Springfield by students from Rantoul (photo at right) and Danville (photo at left),
who are studying Technology and Engineering. These bright students proudly displayed their projects in the rotunda of the Capitol. Their projects were very impressive!

Negotiations Continue to Fill Budget Hole
Many questions are being asked about the current status of the FY15 budget, featuring spending commitments by the State of Illinois for the fiscal period ending June 30, 2015.  Funds need to be shifted around in this budget in order for the State to keep certain commitments to prison guards, court reporters, providers of subsidized child care services that are mandated to be available, and other essential State services. 

Governor Rauner has outlined a proposal to enact emergency fix-up measures to plug these holes in the FY15 budget.  These holes became inevitable when former Gov. Quinn signed a Democrat-passed budget that was deliberately unbalanced.  Check out the House Republican Caucus Blog for updates on this ongoing story.   

Department of Employment Security Issues Monthly Report on Illinois Joblessness in Metro Areas
The report, which counted the jobless in January 2015, covers unemployment in fourteen areas defined by the U.S. Census.  The Department found that for the eleventh month in a row, unemployment areas fell in each major Illinois metro area compared to year-earlier levels.  However, joblessness remained very severe in significant manufacturing-oriented metro areas in Downstate Illinois.  For example, pink slips remained a fact of life in hard-hit Decatur, with joblessness counted at 8.0% in January. 

The report followed the Department’s report on March 12 that Illinois statewide unemployment, before seasonal adjustments, had fallen to 6.9%.  This level signaled continued slow recovery from severe recession conditions.  Economic experts continue to report that joblessness is not falling fast enough in Illinois to enable wage levels to increase under current market conditions. 

Metro areas with lower-than-statewide-average unemployment in January 2015 included Bloomington-Normal (5.4%), Springfield (6.0%), and Lake County (6.5%).  With local economies oriented toward specialty health care and health products, higher education, agriculture support, and the service sector, some Illinois metro areas continue to move towards recovery. 

State Police Open Internet Window to Online Concealed Carry Applicants
Up until this month, the Illinois State Police have required Illinois firearms owners to submit paper applications for a concealed carry permits.  However, starting this month, the State Police have begun to accept concealed carry permit applications online.  This follows up on the startup period of the Firearm Concealed Carry Act, in which more than 91,000 Illinois residents have earned permits that enable them to carry concealed firearms.  The Act became state law in July 2013 as Public Act 98-0063.

The Firearm Concealed Carry Act, which made Illinois the 50th and final state to have a concealed carry law on the books, was enacted as the result of a strong push from members of the Illinois State Rifle Association, which held their annual lobby day this week at the Illinois State Capitol.  Gun owners gathered in Springfield on Wednesday, March 18 to push to defend and expand the law.  Illinois residents continue to be subjected to time-consuming requirements as elements of the concealed-carry permit application process under current law.  

The State Police, which also operate the familiar FOID Card system for firearm owner’s identification (FOID) cards, took this March 2015 changeover opportunity to also make changes in the way they accept FOID applications.  As of March 9, they no longer accept FOID paper applications.

Firearms dealers also contact the FOID database when firearms are being transferred from seller to buyer.  The State Police, as part of their movement online, is encouraging dealers to use the access-restricted website when making a firearm transfer inquiry.   

Governor Issues Compulsory Union Payment Orders
Continuing his fight to remove union dues from the paychecks of non-union members, Governor Bruce Rauner has instructed State departments under his control to refrain from withholding compulsory union payments from nonunion employee paychecks until the issue can be further adjudicated.  Under State practice prior to 2015, nonunion State employees in offices that had been organized by labor unions have been required to submit to withholding payments made over to the unions that have been recognized as representing their offices.  These moneys are then paid to the unions.  Labor calls these payments “fair share” payments, and says they should be turned over to cover what is described, by the unions, as the cost of being prepared to represent the nonmembers in labor-management disputes.  Unions called the Governor’s moves non-contractual and unauthorized.     

Minimum Wage Bill Clears Committee
HB 3345 would raise the Illinois minimum wage from $8.25/hour to $9.00/hour, starting in July 2015.  Most Republicans, led by Governor Rauner, support examination of comprehensive reform of the State’s business climate laws and laws governing labor-management relations and practices.  Areas ripe for discussion include issues of tort reform, workers’ compensation, and local worker freedom, seen by the Governor and many Republicans as necessary moves that must be included with an increase in the minimum wage. HB 3345 would further raise the Illinois minimum wage to $10.00/hour in July 2016.  A separate increase in the Chicago minimum wage would not be affected by HB 3345.  The measure moved this week from the House Labor and Commerce Committee to the Illinois House floor for further discussion.  

Hearing Held on Municipal Bankruptcy Bill
As fiscal pressures grow on Illinois local governments, residents and lenders are starting to look at ways that challenged units may be allowed to use in the future to reorganize their obligations.  HB 298 (Sandack) would amend the Municipal Code to allow cities, towns, and villages to file petitions and exercise powers pursuant to applicable federal bankruptcy law. 

Some municipalities in other regions of the U.S., such as Central Falls, Rhode Island, and Detroit, Michigan, have declared bankruptcy through the laws of their states.  HB 298 was this week posted for subject-matter hearing and a separate full hearing by the House Committee on Judiciary – Civil Law on Friday, March 20 in Chicago.

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