Week in Review for 2/17/14 through 2/21/14

House Joint Committee hears from budget experts, Democrats move forward with FY15 revenues estimates.  The Joint Committee on Revenue and State Government held a hearing on Tuesday, February 18 to finalize comments from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA), the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB), and the Illinois Department of Revenue (IDOR), on the approaching final tax revenue numbers for FY14, ending June 30, 2014, and the likely numbers for FY15.  CGFA continues to estimate that the State will take in approximately $34.4 billion in general funds revenues in FY15.

The revenue estimate is necessary for the General Assembly to go ahead and start FY15 budget planning.  After Gov. Pat Quinn asked for and received permission to delay his annual budget address to the General Assembly (originally scheduled for Feb. 19) by five weeks, the lawmakers needed to start developing independent information as to what the likely FY15 numbers are going to be so that the House’s appropriations committees may start holding hearings, questioning departmental heads, and discussing possible budget cuts.

The House Revenue Committee’s Democratic chairman introduced resolutions on Wednesday, Feb. 19 that could serve, for the next five weeks, as partial substitutes for the numbers the General Assembly is not yet getting from the Governor.  HR 842 and HJR 80, which were introduced as “shell” bills, will soon set forth the total expected receipts from various major taxes and transfers, including individual income taxes, corporate income taxes, and sales taxes that the State’s budget experts expect Illinois to take in during FY15.  These numbers are based upon current economic conditions, an analysis of ongoing national economic trends, and the pending implementation of a partial income tax rollback on Jan. 1, 2015 under the terms of the 2011 “temporary” tax increase.

Concealed Carry
State Police tracking more than 43,000 concealed carry license (CCL) applications through the e-apply system.  Currently, the Illinois State Police accepts electronic applications for a CCL via their CCL website.

CCL applicants must perform several defined tasks before submitting a final application, including performing up to 16 hours of required concealed carry firearms training carried out by a licensed instructor.  For this reason, the number of late-stage applications is significantly smaller than the number of Illinois residents (believed to be in the hundreds of thousands) who have achieved the startup-stage levels of qualification for a CCL and are expected to apply for a license.  As of Thursday, Feb. 20, 43,072 late-stage applications were being tracked.  These are applications that are approaching the approval stage.  

One final hurdle for late-stage CCL applications to clear is the submission of the applicant’s name and identification information to local law enforcement.  Under Illinois’ concealed-carry law, local law enforcement is given the right to post one or more objections to the granting of a CCL to an applicant.  As of February 20, 788 objections had been posted to 712 late-stage CCL applications.  The number of objections exceeds the number of affected applications because some applications received more than one objection.  Less than 2% of the total number of late-stage applications had been objected to in this way.  

Heroin Epidemic
Bipartisan praise for House Republican heroin epidemic initiative.  The growth of heroin abuse among Illinois high schoolers and young adults, especially in Chicago’s suburbs, led to consultations in the first six weeks of 2014 between House Republicans, addiction treatment experts, and law enforcement professionals.  State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Addison), who is also an experienced prosecutor, led the unveiling on Monday, Feb. 10 of the House Republican heroin epidemic legislative package.

The new proposals contained within the package, which include measures to toughen asset-forfeiture laws affecting criminal gangs involved in the distribution of heroin and other opiates and a toughened State law against krokodil opiate, drew wide praise from a variety of advocates and lawmakers from both sides of the House aisle.  Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) announced on Saturday, Feb. 15 that he looked forward to working with House Republicans to examine heroin issues and develop new ways for treatment professionals and law enforcement professionals to push back against this growing scourge.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) and other caucus members took to the House Floor this week to request that this important heroin epidemic legislative package be brought forward for consideration.

Heroin task force headed to Rockford.  The Young Adults Heroin Use Task Force that was created last year by the Illinois General Assembly will be coming to Rockford to hear local testimony. The task force was created to address the growing problem of heroin use in high schools and communities throughout Illinois.  State Rep. John Cabello (R-Machesney Park) is one of fourteen members appointed to the task force last year.

“Heroin abuse in our communities and schools continues to grow at an alarming rate,” said Rep. Cabello. “We are facing an epidemic that needs a solution to help combat the problem. This task force will use the testimony to construct a statewide report in hopes of creating a roadmap to curving abuse in our schools in communities.” Read more.

When: Saturday, March 1, 2014
Where: Rock Valley College, 3301 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, IL 61114
Location: Woodward Technology Center Room 119, Parking Lot 2
Time: 11:00AM – 2:00PM

Illinois Farms
Federal report shows Illinois farms are growing in size.  Beset by economic pressures similar to many non-farm small businesses, many historic Illinois family farms are facing a “get bigger or get out” situation.  The scope of these farm consolidations was laid out in a report based upon the census carried out every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The results, published on Thursday, Feb. 20, reflect farm census results gathered for year 2012.

The Illinois farm census shows that the number of Illinois farms continues to decrease even as the acreage devoted to farm use within Illinois is slightly increasing.  The count of Illinois farms dropped from close to 77,000 in 2007 to 75,087 in 2012 – less than one farm for every 100 Illinois residents.  

Illinois farm acreage increased by 162,000 acres during the same period, a gain achieved by reuse of private lands by their owners and occupants.  Underutilized lands in fertile areas of Illinois can often be opened up as farmland; examples include areas previously set aside for conservation and historic farm woodlots.  26.94 million acres (42,093 square miles) of Illinois were devoted to agricultural use in 2012, almost three-quarters of the total land of the state.

The average size of an Illinois farm covered by the census rose from 348 acres to 359 acres.  Furthermore, this average included part-time and hobby farms far smaller than the sizes necessary to sustain a full-time family farm operation.  Many Illinois farmer faced continued pressures to sell out in 2007-12, with factors such as fluctuating crop prices and high property taxes continuing to exact a toll upon their numbers.

Illinois Jobs
208,400 Illinois jobs advertised online in January.  The count was tallied by the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) on Tuesday, Feb. 18.  A count of job openings posted online has become a new way for observers to track Illinois’ troubled unemployment picture.  While Illinois jobs continue to be advertised, if the number of new jobs created is no greater than the number of old jobs eliminated, the statewide unemployment rate is likely to remain high or increase.  The jobless rate was 8.6% for December 2013, making Illinois’ jobless rate the 48th-highest in the U.S.

An increasing number of employment opportunities are posted online, sometimes on multiple sites.  Many states, including Illinois, are working to put together a one-stop shop for job postings within their boundaries.

The January 2014 Illinois joblessness rate will be released before the end of February.  This closely tracked rate will show whether Illinois has begun to crawl out from the economic cellar position to which it has been relegated for the five years (2008-13) of the overall national economic downturn.

Motor Fuel Prices
Illinois motor fuel prices once again spike upward, cross $3.50 mark.  The prices paid at the pump for Illinois motor fuel increased sharply in mid-February, touching the $3.50 benchmark on Sunday, Feb. 16 and following days.  After a brief respite associated with exceptionally bad weather and low Illinois demand for motor fuel, thawing weather led to increased demand and a corresponding increase in pump prices.  Prices were even higher in the Chicago area.

Illinois motor fuel is often posted at prices above those paid by motorists in neighboring states.   Tax policies, including the charging of both State motor fuel tax and State sales tax on gallons of motor fuel, are often blamed for these price points.  Supplemental taxes are also charged by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA – mass transit agency) and other local governmental taxing bodies in the Chicago area.

Further increases could be in store for Illinois in spring and summer 2014 as the weather improves, traffic patterns continue their increases, and federal mandates once again require the sale of specific blends of gasoline mixed for sale in the greater Chicago Clean Air Act noncompliance area.  The Clean Air Act mandates are timed to coincide with warm months when additional smog is generated and other demands for motor fuel peak on an annual basis.

Soda Pop Tax
New State tax proposed for sweetened beverages.   Among the new bills scheduled to be considered by the General Assembly in spring 2014 is SB 3524 (Hunter).  The proposed tax bill would impose an additional tax of 1 cent per ounce upon bottled sweetened beverages.  Under this levy, a case (24-pack) of soda pop would cost an extra $2.88.  This new tax would be in addition to the full sales tax that has been imposed on soda pop and other sweetened beverages since 2009.  The tax would apply not only to soda pop but also to other bottled sweetened beverages, such as many lines of sports drinks, iced teas, and prepared coffees.

Advocates say that a supplemental sale tax on soda pop would be a way for Illinois to gather much-needed additional revenue while discouraging consumers from buying the allegedly unhealthy drinks.  Those opposed to the soda pop tax argue that adults should be able to make their own decisions on what beverages to consume and that the State should not be raising taxes on hardworking families struggling to make ends meet.