Week in Review for week of 3/16/15 - 3/20/15

Governor Rauner – Department of Agriculture
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.

Illinois Budget – FY15
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 and other stories.

Illinois Budget – FY14
Auditor General issues report on Illinois FY14 budget status. The Taxpayer Accountability and Budget Stabilization Act (P.A. 96-1496) requires the Illinois Auditor General to post an annual report on the budget status of Illinois. Auditor General Bill Holland released a report on the most recently completed fiscal year, FY14, on Thursday, March 19.

The report is a rough equivalent of the audited annual reports that business firms and mutual funds must release if they are regulated by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. However, the Auditor General does not claim that this report was compiled in compliance with generally accepted government accounting standards.

The March 19 report indicates that in FY14, the State of Illinois met its overall State spending cap of $39,072,000,000. The State spent less money than their maximum allowable spending total set previously by law. However, revenue fell short of FY14 expenditures and once again the State ended the fiscal year with billions of dollars in unpaid bills and debts.

Illinois Economy – Metro Unemployment
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.

Concealed Carry – Online Applications
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.

Fair Share
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.

Flag Display Law – Keith Sommer
Rep. Sommer calls for recognition of personnel killed on active duty training. State law would be changed to allow the flying of flags at half-staff for Illinois military personnel killed while training on active duty under legislation sponsored by State Rep. Keith Sommer (R-Morton). The bill passed the House Veterans Affairs committee on Thursday by a unanimous vote following testimony from Dale Nannen of Hopedale whose son was killed in a Marine Corps training accident last year.

“This legislation rights a wrong in existing state law which does not allow the Governor to issue an official notice directing the state and national flags be flown at half-staff when an Illinoisan is killed while training on active duty,” Sommer said. “This tribute is owed to all those who make the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”

The legislation was inspired by the funeral of Marine Corps Major Reid B. Nannen of Hopedale, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan who was killed March 1, 2014, when his F/A-18C Hornet crashed at the Fallon Grange Training Complex in Nevada. At the time of his funeral, state law only allowed the Governor to direct flags to be flown at half-staff for members of the armed forces killed by hostile fire, not in training. Read more on this story at The Caucus Blog.

Controversial head leaves Illinois State Lottery. Mike Jones, director of the Illinois State Lottery, has told staff he is stepping down. Jones’ last day is expected to be Friday, March 20. Jones led the Illinois Lottery office during a tumultuous period that included a failed attempt to privatize many of the Lottery’s operations. Jones, which took the Lottery’s helm in 2011, oversaw the agency’s transfer of many of its day-to-day tasks to the Northstar Lottery Group, a private-sector consortium of lottery professionals.

Privatizations of this type often produce good results for both sides. The Illinois State Lottery reorganization under former Gov. Quinn, however, led to disappointing results. Expected increases in State money for education fell far short of targets and the State was forced to partially reverse the privatization in 2014. Under new management, the Illinois State Lottery may be looking at new pathways toward public-private partnership. The Lottery continues to offer a variety of individual ticket and scratch-off-games over the counter and online, including the popular Mega Millions jackpot game.

Minimum Wage
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.

Municipal Bankruptcy
Hearings held on key Sandack 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.

Rep. Barb Wheeler pushes neighborhood compost bill through House committee. HB 437 will authorize municipalities and counties to approve one-day compostable waste collection events. Creation of these one-day events, which will be operated in a manner similar to one-day yard sale event days, will encourage homeowners to work with compostable waste collectors to turn their yard waste and compostable household garbage into useful materials.

As more and more communities ban the burning of leaves and lawn waste, homeowners are facing challenges. In some cases, the anaerobic bacteria active in the final stage of a compost pile can create odors, and the compost pile is not acceptable to neighbors. A neighborhood compostable collection program can move the final stage of the composting process into a low-density residential area and help create a compost chain that will be acceptable to all parties. HB 437 was unanimously approved by the House Environment Committee on Tuesday, March 17. The bill now goes to the full House for further discussion and debate.

Supreme Court
State’s highest court holds unusual evening hearing. Oral arguments in the case of “People vs. Richardson” were presented to the Illinois Supreme Court at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17. Governor Bruce Rauner and members of the Illinois General Assembly were invited to attend the unusual event, which the Court’s staff believes was the first evening proceeding by the State’s highest bench in more than a century. Oral arguments, in cases of appeal and final appeal, serve as the last opportunity for lawyers for both sides to make their cases before the bench. They will already have submitted written briefs to the court, and the oral argument offers an opportunity for the judges to question the advocates about the arguments already presented in written form and demand answers.

“People vs. Richardson” was an appropriate case for legislators to attend, as one of the legal cruxes of the oral argument was the intent that members of the General Assembly had possessed when they passed a bill that became law. When a young man or woman moves from being a juvenile to being an adult, his or her legal status changes; and if he is accused of committing a crime during this transition, the court in which he is charged and the sentence that may be imposed upon him also changes. The timing of this transition, in relation to defendant Melvin Richardson, helped create the case that sparked this oral argument. Richardson had been 17 years old at the time the crime took place. The case has already been decided by an Illinois appellate court and the jurisdiction of the Illinois Supreme Court centers on constitutional questions raised by the case and the appellate decision. As with other cases before the Supreme Court, including a widely-watched pension reform case, the judges will consider written and oral arguments and issue a decision later this spring.

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