Week in Review for 6/27/16 - 7/1/16

Budget – stopgap budget deal enacted
New FY17 spending bills will enable full K-12 school operations for entire school year. By contrast, however, many other State operations will only be funded through December 2016. The “stopgap” bills do not balance the budget and do not solve Illinois’ fiscal woes. The State’s leaders believe that the current Springfield policy gap has achieved dimensions great enough that only the voters of Illinois, in the November election, can choose which path the State should follow. One of the key bills was the measure that actually appropriated money for FY16 and FY17; it was SB 2047, which was passed by the House and Senate on Thursday, June 30. Some elements of the package appropriated money so that it could be legally used to match spending/spending commitments made in FY16, which ended on Thursday. Other bills in the package contained “substantive” legislation, effective starting on Friday, intended to implement the FY17 portion of the package and match State law to appropriated spending.

The stopgap budget package was signed by Governor Bruce Rauner before the end of the day and prior to the start of FY17. The measures include funding to ensure that Illinois schools, including the troubled Chicago public school system, will reopen on time. Money is included to resume or maintain operations at Illinois state universities and other essential public facilities. Funds are earmarked to enable the fulfillment of this summer’s construction schedule for the repair and maintenance of State roads, bridges, and mass transit facilities. Some money is provided for community social services. The House vote on SB 2047 was 105-4-1. After unanimous approval in the Senate, the appropriation bill became law as P.A. 99-524.

Budget – past-due bills
Comptroller’s count shows Illinois now owes more than $7.8 billion in past-due bills. The running count, which is frequently updated, is included in the public website operated by Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger. As Illinois’ cash-flow superintendent, Munger is informed daily of the due-bill situation facing the State. The total of $7.81 billion, counted as of Wednesday, June 29, counts vouchers tabulated by the Comptroller’s office and payable from Illinois general funds that are classified as “backlogged” – vouchers on file for significant periods of time without State payment. The Comptroller’s office currently counts 66,971 backlogged State vouchers. These numbers are constantly changing as funds move in and out of various State coffers.

The $7.8 billion figure does not represent the totality of debts owed by Illinois and its taxpayers. Additional debts owed by Illinois included monies obligated by ongoing State programs but not yet billed to the State. In addition, pension actuaries warn that Illinois’ unfunded pension debts now total more than $110 billion. Illinois Republicans, led by House Republican leader Jim Durkin and Governor Bruce Rauner, point to these mushrooming debts and obligations. They continue to insist that the State enact structural reforms to its laws governing job creation and public-sector labor relations.

Chicago – property tax authorization
Chicago Board of Education could approve massive property tax hike for owners of Chicago real property. The Chicago school board move, expected to raise $250 million annually, was authorized as part of SB 318. This measure, which was amended with the tax-hike language and passed by the Illinois House on Thursday, June 30, was part of the end-of-fiscal-year package to enact spending measures for FY17 and enable Illinois schools to open on time. The Chicago Public Schools budget gap necessitated action to enable the city to raise an additional $250 million/year from local resources.

If the School Board adopts this property tax increase, statewide taxpayers outside Chicago will not be responsible for this $250 million. Rejecting a “bailout” of the troubled Chicago system, House Republicans took the lead in rejecting the push by Chicago lawmakers to impose this burden upon the suburbs and Downstate. Part of the budget gap comes from a massive increase in the level of unfunded pension liabilities borne by Chicago Public Schools, and the Illinois House enacted the amendment in such a way as to require that the money raised by the tax hike must be deposited directly into the pension fund and cannot be diverted or used for any other purpose. Chicago Public Schools currently owes a $669 million pension payment to the teachers’ pension fund. The House vote to enact SB 318 was 82-29-0. Senate approval by a vote of 40-14-0 allowed Gov. Rauner to sign the measure into law as P.A. 99-521.

Chicago – tobacco – age 21 and up
Local ordinance, which bans tobacco purchases by persons aged 18 through 20, went into effect this week. The purchasing move, which affects persons who under previous law had been allowed to buy cigarettes but not alcohol, was enacted by Chicago City Council ordinance in March 2016. It became effective in Chicago on Friday, July 1, but will not be enforced elsewhere in Illinois. An attempt this spring, SB 3011, to enact a statewide age-21 cigarette law was blocked in the Illinois House of Representatives.

The Chicago move followed continued pressure from public-health experts to discourage young adults from starting to smoke or otherwise consume tobacco. The percentage of American adults who smoke has gone down from 42% in 1964 (the date of the Surgeon General report raising questions about cigarette smoking) to 15% in 2016. Partly due to smoking habits and patterns of health behavior that began before 1964, about 480,000 Americans die annually in causes of death that are correlated with past smoking. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues to discourage Americans from smoking tobacco or consuming tobacco products.

DuPage Community College
Governor signs enhancement to Open Meetings Act spurred by college turmoil. The new State law will require that any and all available minutes and verbatim recordings of meetings closed to the public must be made available to a newly elected official who has been selected to fill a seat in a public body. The new law grants a “level playing field” to access to confidential board-of-directors information to newly chosen members of the body’s board of directors. This is significant when a newly chosen member or members have been chosen as part of a reform effort aimed at questionable or improper actions affiliated with the previous board.

HB 4630, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeanne Ives, was approved unanimously by both houses of the General Assembly this spring. It was inspired by recent management events at DuPage Community College and the election, by local voters, of a “Clean Slate” who took a majority position on the college’s board of trustees. Governor Rauner on Thursday, June 30, signed HB 4630 into law as P.A. 99-515.

Energy – deregulated electricity
Electricity deregulation places multistate consortium in key role affecting Illinois consumers. Under Illinois law, the providers of “raw electricity” into the grids of power lines that ultimately serve Illinois consumers are required to work through multistate system operators. These system operators are the gatekeepers of electricity between the generating plants and the distribution wires that move the power to Illinois consumers. They are required to perform constant work, starting with power planning and ending with the minute-to-minute operation of high-tension electrical switches, to ensure that Illinois electrical distributors can keep the promises they have made to supply power to Illinoisans.

For most of Downstate Illinois, the system operator with responsibility over the electrical grid is the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). MISO, which asserts that they are making a series of decisions best suited to the long-term energy health of their entire service area (which is much larger than Illinois), has made several decisions over the past year and a half that have affected Illinois consumers and workers. In summer 2015, prices set by MISO for “peak power” that customers need during high-demand periods, such as hot summer days, spiked upward – leading to higher bills charged by Ameren and other electric distributors that serve central and southern Illinois. In spring 2016 a major generator of Southern Illinois wholesale electricity, Dynegy, announced plans to reduce its coal-fired generating capacity by three power stations over the 2016-17 timeframe. As with the 2015 price spike, the shutdown decision and job loss was blamed on moves made or passed through by MISO.

MISO’s defenders say that the prices it allows suppliers to charge for power available for feed-in to the MISO-controlled electrical grid represent market forces. The system operator runs a series of auctions to set prices. In these auctions, electricity is priced by both quantity and time of availability, with summer-hot-hour power priced higher than electricity offered for sale during sleeping hours in wintertime. Dynegy believes that MISO operates its auctions with underlying rules that disfavor coal-fired electricity generated in Illinois, and has asked the Illinois General Assembly to consider switching a large section of the state and its customers away from MISO and into the jurisdiction of a different system operator, the regional transmission organization PJM. PJM already serves as the grid operator for much of northern Illinois, and Dynegy asserts that MISO did not property compensate its generating plants in the region for the true cost of operating and generating electricity. Dynegy further points out that moving southern Illinois into the PJM grid would integrate all of Illinois into a single electrical grid exchange, potentially benefitting both consumers and electrical distributors. The General Assembly has not yet acted on Dynegy’s request.

Health care – medical cannabis
Judge orders PTSD sufferers be eligible; move parallels bill recently passed by General Assembly. The right to apply for an Illinois medical cannabis dispensary card is limited to persons who have been diagnosed with a limited list of health conditions. Eligible conditions include cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and HIV infection. Efforts have been made by PTSD sufferers and their caregivers to get PTSD added to the list of conditions conveying eligibility, and an advisory board has in the past recommended that PTSD be added to the list, but a key gatekeeper for the list has so far blocked this move. The Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has not accepted the advisory board’s recommendation that PTSD be designated as condition establishing eligibility for a medical cannabis dispensary card. IDPH is concerned about the relatively low level of data generated by the pilot program so far, and believes that considerations of objectivity and prudence should discourage changing key data variables (such as the list of eligible health conditions) in the midst of the program rollout.

Recent moves make clear, however, that this may soon change. In late May, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation, SB 10, to add PTSD to the list of eligible conditions. The bill was sent to Governor Rauner, who signed it on June 30. Furthermore, this week a Cook County circuit court issued a ruling to lift the IDPH decision to block PTSD from the eligibility list. If the decision is allowed to stand by higher courts, it could lead to the addition of this condition to the list within 30 days. The court order was issued on Tuesday, June 28.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition often diagnosed in persons who have survived a violent physical or psychological trauma. It is an omnibus diagnosis that encompasses a wide range of symptoms and challenges. There is a positive correlation between service in active combat and a later diagnosis of PTSD, but the diagnosis is by no means limited to veterans. This week’s circuit court order was issued by Judge Neil Cohen, who was hearing a case brought by an Iraq war veteran.

Other conditions could also be added to the medical cannabis eligibility list. Patients and groups currently seeking expansion of the program include persons diagnosed with chronic post-operative pain, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, polycystic kidney disease, osteoarthritis, intractable pain, and autism. The IDPH has recently changed over its application forms for persons seeking admittance to the medical cannabis registry. Effective August 1, applicants will be required to use the new forms, which are available here.

Illinois State Museum
Springfield museum to reopen on Saturday, July 2. A series of events has been set in place to mark the reopening. The Museum’s active operations were suspended in October 2015 due to the overall budget crisis. The facility, which presents displays on Illinois’ human history, natural history and culture to hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, reopened after an agreement was reached to start charging a $5 admission fee to most adults. Efforts to reopen the museum were led by Springfield Reps. Tim Butler and Sara Wojcicki Jimenez.

In addition to reopening the main State Museum, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will also reopen the central Illinois Dickson Mounds Museum on July 2. Dickson Mounds, built adjacent to the site of an Illinois River settlement of the Native Americans of the Mississippian Culture, is a celebration of the life and ecology of the greatest river wholly contained within Illinois. The museum is located near Lewistown, southwest of Peoria. It will hold a special celebration on Saturday, July 9, to mark its reopening. Efforts to reopen Dickson Mounds were led by Representative Mike Unes.

Public safety – fireworks
State agencies remind public that display fireworks are legally banned in Illinois. Violators of the Illinois Explosives Act, which covers incendiaries ranging from firecrackers to display fireworks, can be charged as Class 3 felons and sentenced to a prison term of up to 5 years with a $10,000 fine. This Act also controls the use of non-firework explosive materials, such as nitroglycerin and dynamite. Exceptions in the law allow the use by individuals and families of black powder for sporting, hunting, and heritage purposes.

The warning, published on Monday, June 27 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Office of the State Fire Marshal, urged Illinois residents to enjoy fireworks shows presented by licensed and certified professionals. At least 467 licensed fireworks shows will be presented in Illinois in 2016. Many of these shows will mark the Fourth of July holiday weekend. The safe handling of fireworks is a field of work called ‘pyrotechnics,’ and the people who set off the fireworks are pyrotechnicians. Careful training is required to string the fuses that are used to simultaneously set off the strings of fireworks that mark a display grand finale.

Transportation – vehicle stickers
House, Senate vote to waive vehicle sticker delinquent registration renewal supplemental late fees if no warning mailed. The waiver is only effective if the Secretary of State has not previously mailed a motor vehicle license sticker-renewal notification to the affected motor vehicle owner. These notification letters, which had been familiar elements in the mailboxes of Illinois drivers, were suspended in 2015 due to Illinois’ budget situation. Many Illinois residents have complained about no longer getting the letters and then facing penalties for late sticker-renewal actions. In addition, police are authorized to stop motor vehicles with expired stickers.

The supplemental late-fee waiver bill was approved by the House on Thursday, June 30. The House vote on HB 4334, as amended, was 111-0-0. As the Senate had previously approved the final language of the bill, the House vote marked the final legislative step necessary to send the measure to the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner for final action.

Summer in Illinois – traffic warning
Fourth of July traffic jams expected. The Illinois Tollways expects road travel to increase approximately 5% from 2015. During the five-day extended Fourth of July holiday period, the toll highway authority expects 8 million vehicles to travel the pay-toll sections of northern Illinois’ highway system. That would be up from 7.6 million in a comparable period in 2015. The Toll Highway Authority released its traffic estimate on Tuesday, June 28.

Tollway road traffic and congestion are expected to reach a crescendo on Friday, July 1, when 2 million cars and trucks will be on the toll roads. Other motor vehicles will use northern Illinois freeways and local roads. The Toll Highway Authority reminds motorists to carefully watch and obey electronic message signs and construction signage. Traffic offenses fines are enhanced in construction zones.

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