Week in Review for 9/22/14 - 9/26/14

Economy – food stamps
Count of new Illinois food stamp recipients exceeds count of new jobs created in Illinois. Throughout the United States, both food stamp application numbers and new job creation numbers are carefully tracked, and their ratio yields a picture of the overall economic activity of each state. Data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in Illinois, starting from the base year of 2010, food-stamp enrollment has outpaced job creation by a rate of two to one; for every new job created during this four-year period, two Illinoisans have been forced to demonstrate eligibility and apply for food stamps. This four-year period coincides with the period designated by nationwide economists as the “economic recovery” from the so-called Great Recession.

During the entire length of the Great Recession and “recovery” starting in 2008, more than 740,000 Illinois residents have been added to the food stamp rolls. During the same period, Illinois has lost almost 300,000 jobs; more than half a million jobs disappeared during the actual downturn in 2008-2010, and less than half (240,000) have been created in the years since. Illinois remains in a net-job-loss situation relative to its position as of the economic crash of 2008.

As a result of these trends, currently more than 2 million Illinois residents are dependent upon food stamps. On Monday, September 22, the nonpartisan “Illinois Watchdog” reported on these findings to readers of the “Quincy Journal” here.

Smoking ban – patios 
Proposed new rule will prohibit smoking on restaurant patios; comment deadline approaching. The Smoke-Free Illinois Act asks operators of public places in Illinois to take steps against second-hand smoke. This law has been enforced in indoor locations for several years, and ashtrays on the indoor tables of taverns and restaurants are now a memory in Illinois. Many sections of Illinois have local zoning rules, however, that allow the setup of outdoor smoking tables and serving areas. The Illinois Department of Public Health has now published proposed new administrative rules that would contravene these zoning ordinances and local customs, and would ban outdoor smoking in areas where food or beverages are served. This includes restaurant and tavern patios, beer gardens, rooftops, and concession areas.

Concerns about the proposed new rule can be submitted to the Department. This form can be used to submit public comments. The Department’s commitment to accept comments on the proposed new rule will expire on Monday, September 29, the comment deadline. After comments are submitted, the proposal may be submitted to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) for final scrutiny and filing as Illinois administrative law.

Parties opposed to the new rule assert that the right of the government to make this demand upon the private sector rests upon Illinois Supreme Court case law (City of Zion v. Behrens) that authorizes the public sector to protect indoor places. They assert that neither the Smoke-Free Illinois Act nor case law provides sufficient legal justification for the proposed new rule. Parties that support the proposed new rule assert that, even when outdoors, second-hand tobacco smoke is dangerous to public health.

Funds – more than 900 State funds
Comptroller Topinka points out Illinois maintains more than 900 state funds. “Dedicated funds” are routinely set up by the state to collect money from individual taxes and fees and to protect these monies for the purposes designed when the fee was first levied. As of September 2014 these funds collectively contain as much as $11.3 billion, all of these sums earmarked for different public causes and programs. The Illinois Road Fund is the best-known of these dedicated funds, but all of them exist separately by law and are listed in the State Finance Act.

Based on Illinois’ current governmental operations and financial status, Comptroller Topinka asked on Wednesday, September 24 whether maintenance of all of these separate funds, with the administrative burdens required to track and monitor them all, is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ resources. Illinois currently maintains about 260 separate financial reporting systems, many of which operate incompatible software. The added cost of data transfer not only maintains unnecessary public-sector work, but also clouds the overall financial condition of the State. Topinka pointed out that other states are able to operate few fewer autonomous state funds; for example, neighboring Wisconsin has 60 funds.

Topinka’s revelations, made to the “Belleville News-Democrat”, can be found here.

Health insurance – state retirees
Raymond Poe bill pushes to return money to retirees. A State employee retiree health insurance bill was enacted in the 2012 spring session. Sponsored in the House by Speaker Madigan (SB 1313) and signed into law by Gov. Quinn (P.A. 97-695), it sharply increased the retirees’ cost share of the health insurance policies provided to them under previous State law. Pursuant to the law, the Department of Central Management Services (CMS) began demanding that annuitants, survivors, and other retired employees pay sharp increases in their health insurance premiums and health insurance co-pays.

After these payments had been made by affected senior citizens for some time, the law was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court in July 2014. The decision was “Kanerva v. Weems.” The Court found that the health insurance program and system in place for retirees prior to P.A. 97-695 was a benefit to members in a State pension system within the meaning of the pension protection clause of the Illinois Constitution of 1970.

Legal byplay has so far delayed the repayment, by the State to retirees, of the health insurance premiums improperly billed under the unconstitutional law. Representative Raymond Poe has taken the lead to claw this money back. HB 6301, filed on Wednesday, September 17, directs the Director of CMS to certify monies to be paid to each annuitant, survivor, or retired State employee, and requires the State Comptroller and the State Treasurer to transfer the required amounts to a dedicated account that will be used, subject to appropriation, solely for these repayments as provided by court order.

Indiana Tollway – bankruptcy
Toll road operator files for bankruptcy; expects to continue in operation. The Indiana Toll Road is operated by the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company, a public-private partnership venture. The concessioner filed a “pre-packaged” bankruptcy plan on Monday, September 22. The bankrupt toll road connects with Illinois highways through the Chicago Skyway, a partner in both toll roads’ “E-Z Pass” system.

Experts agree that the Concession Company has been successful at increasing private-vehicle usage of the Indiana toll road. Unfortunately, the concession company’s pre-2008 financing package fell victim to changes in the global economy that accompanied the global banking crash in September of that year. Toll road vehicle usage did not increase as fast as predicted, and a commitment by the concessioner to pay high interest rates to its lenders did not fit in well with the post-2008 net negative interest rate environment.

The “pre-packaged” nature of the concession company’s Chapter 11 filing means that key creditors have already agreed to major components of the workout plan in principle. The Indiana Toll Road is expected to continue to operate smoothly during the legal process.

Jobs – unemployment 
August 2014 Illinois unemployment numbers remain almost steady at 6.7%. The monthly summary of Illinois’ jobless numbers is generated by the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The August 2014 number, released on Thursday, September 18, displayed a statistically minimal change from 6.8% in July to 6.7% in August. Further information on the August statewide numbers can be found here.

The IDES estimates that more than 419,100 Illinois residents remained jobless and actively looking for work in August 2014. The manufacturing sector continued to shrink throughout Illinois in real terms, giving up 3,700 additional jobs from August 2013 through August 2014. Weakness in this key sector continued to drive even higher unemployment numbers in specific geographic areas of Illinois in August 2014, including Danville (9.7%), Decatur (9.4%), Kankakee-Bradley (9.0%), and Rockford (9.4%). Illinois August 2014 jobless rates by major geographic area can be found here.

Kmart layoffs
Three Downstate Illinois superstores close; approximately 200 jobs lost. Sears Holdings announced the approaching closure of three Kmart superstores in Danville, Decatur, and Peoria this week. The shutdowns, which will take place in December 2014, are meant to reduce the mounting financial losses suffered by Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings. The retail giant posted nearly $1 billion in red ink during the first half of 2014.

Sears Holdings operates both Sears and Kmart-branded superstores and department stores. The beneficiary of a controversial December 2011 bailout bill signed by Gov. Quinn (), Sears and Kmart have faced continuous challenges from both brick-and-mortar competitors and the movement of substantial slices of retailing activity to the Internet. In a story published on Thursday, September 25, GateHouse Media describes the Illinois Kmart closure story, which is described as part of a comprehensive cutback of Kmart operations throughout key Midwestern states.

O’Hare Airport
Sharp expansion in international takeoffs and landings. O’Hare International Airport, once the “world’s busiest airport,” lost this title to Hartsfield-Jackson International in 2005 when the Atlanta airfield surpassed O’Hare in terms of takeoffs and landings. Implementation of O’Hare’s current runway reconfiguration/expansion plan could be changing things, however. New runways have opened for use, and the Chicago airport has succeeded in getting the federal government to lift the limit on takeoffs/landings that was in place throughout much of the 2000-09 decade. On Wednesday, September 24, the city of Chicago (which owns and operates O’Hare) announced that 2014 monthly totals of takeoffs and landings at both airports, tallied from January 1 through August 31, show that O’Hare is on pace to regain this distinction for calendar year 2014. Final figures will not become available until after the end of the calendar year.

The new runways at O’Hare International Airport, especially 10C-28C (opened in October 2013), are designed for use by aircraft of all sizes, including places used in international jet traffic. Transoceanic jet arrivals/departures have become a key segment of O’Hare’s daily operations, and are helping Chicago surpass Atlanta so far this year. International O’Hare passenger arrivals/departures were up 8% in the January-August period this year. However, these heavy passenger and cargo jets also generate considerable airport noise. This affects the quality of life of persons who live or work around the airport. Many House Republican members, led by Representative Michael McAuliffe, have taken the lead in asking O’Hare and the federal government to work together to reduce airport noise impacts on O’Hare’s neighbors and adjacent property owners.

A news story from the “Chicago Tribune” on O’Hare’s fight to regain its historic title can be found here.

Police – traffic fines
Yet another add-on traffic fine may raise money for police body cameras. A $6 supplemental levy would be added to eligible fine schedules, such as those paid by a person convicted or granted court supervision for a traffic offense. Money from the fine would be placed in a dedicated fund, the Law Enforcement Camera Grant Fund, to be earmarked for the purchase of body cameras for police officers assigned to street duty. Body cameras, familiar to watchers of sports channels and the video website YouTube, are light cameras that can be strapped to a uniform as part of day-to-day work or recreation. Their video records can be frequently downloaded to a centralized database.

Sponsors of the measure, which is House Amendment #1 to HB 3911, say that the dissemination of body cameras is a response to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Police forces would apply for grants to lease or purchase body cameras through the Law Enforcement Training and Standard Board, a State panel. The situation is summarized in the “Elgin Courier-News” in a story dated Monday, September 22.

Public health – West Nile Virus
Two deaths reported in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Public Health has reported the first West Nile-related deaths of the 2014 summer season. In a press release dated Thursday, September 18, the Department summarizes that it has compiled 15 West Nile-related case reports from local Illinois health providers. In two of the cases, both in northern Illinois, the patients have died. These numbers are ongoing and more reports are expected prior to the end of the 2014 mosquito season. This compares with 2013, in which 113 Illinois patients were diagnosed with West Nile-related illnesses and 11 deaths were reported.

West Nile virus is vectored by mosquitoes. Apparently originating in Africa or Asia, the virus and the variant mosquito that carries it have come to the United States. The virus is spread through mosquito bites to humans in Illinois and other states. Public health experts urge concerned Illinois residents to police their properties and remove all installations in which rainwater can collect into mosquito-breeding pools of standing water. A simple plastic garbage can, standing in a field, can become a happy home for a mother mosquito and swarms of offspring. Illinoisans should also take standard precautions against mosquitoes, including the use of chemical repellants. The vast majority of U.S. mosquito bites do not transmit the virus.

Road salt – approaching winter
Fears expressed that road salt supplies may run short this coming winter. The chipped de-icer, a necessity on winter streets and roads, is being hoarded in the wake of the “polar vortex” winter of 2013-2014. Supplies of road salt, which is bought and sold by the ton, are relatively fixed by the industrial technology used in the mines, especially in Louisiana and Michigan, where it is produced. However, road salt demand spiked upwards last winter as blizzards of snow fell across Illinois.

This September, municipalities and road districts are finding that road salt costs more than twice as much as prices quoted in September 2013. For example, the Chicago suburb of Park Forest was able to buy road salt last year for less than $50/ton. This fall, the best price they can find is in excess of $109/ton. The road salt price spike also is expected to affect operations of the Illinois Department of Transportation, which maintains State roads and highways.

Many public-sector entities, bound by limited allocations within their budgets for salt purchase, are contracting for delivery of a smaller salt tonnage than last year. This creates a wager, which may or may not pay off, that this year’s upcoming winter months will be less severe than 2013-2014. Observers fear that a second successive severe winter season could generate record prices for road salt, especially if the de-icer must be bought on the spot market this coming January or February. Subscribers to the “Chicago Tribune” can read a story dated Wednesday, September 24 on the road salt price spike here.

Shop Illinois Saturday
Day to commemorate buying local; discounts for shoppers. “Shop Illinois Saturday,” set for Saturday, October 4, will commemorate Illinois-originated goods, including farm products, foodstuffs, and handicrafts. Goods grown or made in Illinois are eligible to participate in the Buy Illinois program.

Selected small businesses in six Illinois communities – Alton, Canton, Carbondale, Genoa, Pontiac, and Springfield – will offer discounts to mark the day. The Associated Press describes preparations for the shopping day.

State pie – pumpkin 
Puréed pumpkins could show up in Illinois’ state pie. HB 6292, sponsored by Representative Keith Sommer, seeks to create Illinois’ first-ever state pie. More than half of the pie pumpkins grown in the U.S. uncurl from vines planted in the Illinois River valley, and factories located throughout the greater Peoria metropolitan area, including Sommer’s east Peoria-based district, can or freeze the orange pulp for nationwide desserts.

The pumpkin has been a favorite crop in Illinois since Native American times, with the orange vine vegetables and their close relatives, the squashes, grown in large quantities. English-speaking settlers put grated pumpkin and sugar-maple syrup together with something from the home country they already knew how to make, piecrust, to invent pumpkin pie. It is likely that the first pumpkin pies were baked on or soon after the date of the first Thanksgiving, in New England in 1621. The University of Illinois maintains a website dedicated to the history and culture of pumpkins in Illinois and across the U.S. This website, which is searchable by county, lists some of the pumpkin farms of Illinois that welcome customers to their barnyards and roadside stands.

Illinois has enacted laws to recognize seventeen state symbols, including a state fruit, the Goldrush apple and a state snack food, popcorn. Our state symbols are recognized in 5 ILCS 460, the State Designations Act, part of the Illinois Compiled Statutes.

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