Week in Review for week ending March 2, 2018

Education – Scholarships
Tax credit scholarship clearinghouse announces more than 33,000 applications. The benchmark news came from Empower Illinois, one of the nonprofit entities overseeing implementation of the Illinois tax credit scholarship program created by the Illinois General Assembly in 2017. Under this new tax credit, Illinois income taxpayers are authorized to donate moneys to an approved scholarship clearinghouse. The moneys will be used to pay for scholarships to be awarded to enable children to attend fee-charging schools. Scholarships that will cover 50 to 100 percent of a student’s tuition and school-related expenses will be awarded to children from income-eligible households.

Empower Illinois’ announcement followed the nonprofit’s previous announcement of a glitch on January 31. When the Empower office first tried to roll out their online scholarship application window, so many applications were submitted that the website broke down. The 33,000 valid applications submitted in the second process, which generated totals announced on Wednesday, February 28, reflect emergency repairs made to the application website. Empower Illinois reported receiving $45 million in pledged donations from Illinois taxpayers. The taxpayers will receive individual income tax credits to cover up to 80 percent of the cost of their donations. Applicant households who do not get into the program this year may choose to reapply again in early 2019.

Environment – Volkswagen settlement
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency releases draft plan. In a widely-covered 2015 automotive story, global automaker Volkswagen was accused of massive air quality evasion. The firm was found to have knowingly installed diesel-powered-vehicle emissions monitoring software intended to be deceptive. As a result of the scandal, Volkswagen was ordered in April 2017 to pay a $14.8 billion U.S. criminal fine for its conduct. The automaker accepted this fine as a component of an overall criminal settlement. Of these moneys, $2.8 billion are slated to be distributed to the 50 states.

Each state with an air quality non-attainment status must use its share of the Volkswagen settlement to mitigate this status. Illinois’ initial share will be almost $108.7 million. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) is the agency that will decide how this money will be used. The IEPA has developed a draft Beneficiary Mitigation Plan for public review. This Plan is not yet a final document, and public comment on the draft will be accepted until April 13, 2018.

The draft plan contemplates use of much of the money as matching-funds grants to be granted out to private-sector entities that are willing to put up some of their own money to reduce the emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx emissions) from machinery units on the motor vehicles and properties they own or operate. An overview of the draft plan, published online by IEPA, indicates that owners of fleets of Class 8 heavy trucks, school buses, shuttle buses, and transit buses are expected to be the largest recipients of these NOx emissions control grants, but there may be other recipients. For example, a railroad yard may have a line of cranes that lift piggyback trailers on and off flatcars and truck bodies. Grant monies from this fund could be used to cover part of the cost of retrofitting these cranes with NOx emissions controls.

Flooding – Disaster areas declared
Gov. Rauner declares three counties to be disaster areas. The proclamation, issued on Friday, February 23, opens the door for disaster relief for flood-affected residents of Iroquois, Kankakee, and Vermilion Counties. The three named counties are all on the eastern border of Illinois, and were affected not only by local precipitation but also by runoff from watersheds in flood-hit Indiana. Owners and occupants of low-lying houses and commercial structures in metropolitan areas such as Danville and Kankakee were only some of the Illinois residents affected by the weather event.

The Governor’s disaster declaration completes the necessary paperwork for emergency supplies already deployed in the disaster area, such as sandbags and Department of Corrections (IDOC) work crews. It also starts the process of official application for federal disaster relief funds that are granted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Governor’s Mansion – Reopening
Mansion reopening date announced. Illinois’ 1850s-era Governor’s Mansion, the capital city home of our chief executive and a key element of Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln heritage, will reopen on July 14. The historic mansion has been closed to the public for two years for major, privately-financed reconstruction work. The 1855 building, together with later additions, had become run down over many years of use. The last cycle of renovation took place in 1972.

The Illinois Governor’s Mansion Association has overseen the $15 million reconstruction work, which has fixed many urgent livability and structural issues affecting the historic site. The rebuilt mansion will have a new roof, new heating/air conditioning, and will be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Visitors will be able to check in at a visitor center, which will host daily guided tours of public spaces within the historic mansion.

The reopened mansion will be the site of rotating art exhibits that will concentrate on Illinois history and heritage. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, will be a feature of the first showing. Visitors will be able to see examples of the first true “World’s Fair” held in the United States, an event that became legendary for its presentation of America’s first Midway and Ferris wheel.

Guns – House debate
Illinois House discusses issues related to firearm possession, safety. After extensive debate on Wednesday, February 28, the Illinois House passed several bills relating to Illinois firearms law. The chamber voted for bills to raise, from 18 to 21, the minimum age to purchase a so-called assault rifle; impose a 72-hour “cooling off” period between purchase and pickup for this class of firearms; ban the sale in Illinois of bump stock modification devices for semi-automatics; and create a gun dealer licensure system in Illinois.

Health care – Hospital assessments
Illinois House passes two-bill package intended to assess hospitals for federal health-care funding. Under current federal law, part of Illinois’ federal funding for health care is raised through an assessment process. Money is assessed upon Illinois hospitals and used as seed money to request matching funds from Washington, D.C. SB 1573, as amended, and SB 1773, as amended, are bills to allow this assessment program to continue, with cash flows reflecting changes in health care and the health care professions. On Wednesday, February 28, the House passed SB 1573 by a vote of 110-0-1 and passed SB 1773 by a vote of 107-0-0.

Passage of these two bills was necessary because the current 2008 hospital assessment program will sunset on June 30, 2018. Enactment of this legislation will bring $3.5 billion in federal money into our State and its health care infrastructure. Representatives of Illinois hospitals, in a six-month-long cycle of meetings chaired on a bipartisan basis by members of the Illinois General Assembly, agreed to the specifications of the new assessment system. One key element of the new assessment system is a program of enhanced funding for challenged Illinois hospitals, including rural and inner-city safety-net hospitals. Of the money generated by these measures, 58% is expected to go to safety-net hospitals. Rep. Patti Bellock and Rep. Tom Demmer, House Republicans, were key leaders in the meetings that enabled this bill package to be put together.

Taxes – Property taxes
Illinois labeled as state with 2nd highest property taxes in U.S. The list of U.S. states and their property tax burdens was compiled by consumer-oriented database WalletHub. WalletHub has previously found that Illinois has one of the highest property tax burdens in the U.S., and their February 2018 findings were in line with previous data generated by the firm. Illinois often competes with high-tax New Jersey for the title of highest property tax burden in the U.S., and this year New Jersey and Illinois once again headed the nationwide list.

While the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average American household spends $2,197 on property taxes annually, WalletHub reports that this burden in Illinois is $4,058 per average household. This burden is more than 2% of the cash value of a typical Illinois residential housing unit, which is $174,800. These average figures for all of Illinois do not represent housing costs and property values in certain regions within Illinois where demand for housing is significantly higher than average.

Illinois Bicentennial
Bicentennial city wins top “Small Business Revolution – Main Street” honors. The video show has conducted a nationwide search to feature a small city (population below 50,000) with aggressive, community lifestyle-oriented small businesses and a historic Main Street. The selection of Alton, founded in the Illinois Statehood year of 1818, will include extensive video coverage of the Metro-East city’s efforts to revitalize its retail and commercial infrastructure, together with a $500,000 prize to be shared by six Alton small businesses to be named during the coverage.

“Small Business Revolution – Main Street,” which is streamed on Hulu and YouTube, features on-screen consultations from show sponsor Deluxe Corp. Deluxe will now lead a process to select the six prize recipients, which will be Alton small businesses. Winners will also receive marketing and self-presentation advice from a Deluxe team headed by the show’s host, Ty Pennington.

Historic Alton, with a population of 27,865, was founded in Illinois’s birth year of 1818. A Bicentennial city, it was built to be a river port on the Upper Mississippi River. Some of its Main Street architecture has been in place since before the time of the Civil War.

Fusion Campaign launched. Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti, Deputy Governor Leslie Munger, and leaders from the Illinois Math and Science Academy have launched the three-year Illinois Bicentennial STEM Fusion Campaign. The Campaign will generate enhanced teacher professional development opportunities and student STEM enrichment programs to participants in 25 selected schools across the State.

The STEM Fusion Campaign pays tribute to Illinois’ heritage in mathematics education. One of the first bills passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 1818 was a measure to set aside a set percentage of the new state’s frontier land as seed money for a public school system to teach English and math. One-thirty-sixth of the new state’s unsettled farmland was set aside for this purpose. Some Illinoisans may still remember hearing that a square mile near their home was once a “school section.”

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