Week in Review for October 19, 2018

Illinois unemployment rate matches record low. The 4.1% unemployment figure reported by the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) matches the lowest number ever posted for this figure, a widely-cited index of economic health and activity in Illinois. Preliminary data, which is subject to revision as more numbers come in, indicates that nonfarm payroll total employment increased in the Land of Lincoln by 2,800 jobs in September as opposed to August 2018. The same figure, when counted on a year-to-year basis (September 2017 to September 2018) showed a net gain of more than 50,000 nonfarm payroll jobs.

September 2018 job creation was especially strong in education, construction, and manufacturing. The Illinois manufacturing economy created an estimated 2,300 net new jobs in September 2018 alone, and created 14,600 new factory jobs over the past 12 months. It should be noted, however, that the Illinois manufacturing sector is not as dominant as it was in February 1999, the last time our State’s unemployment rate was 4.1%. Illinois’ overall job universe has adjusted over the past two decades. In line with overall worldwide trends towards automation, many Illinois jobs have moved from factories to offices and service-related employment opportunities.

Illinois’ September 2018 unemployment is slightly higher (0.4%) than the 3.7% national unemployment rate for the same month. The nationwide trend is towards the 4.0% level that economists refer to as “full employment.”

State sells $250 million in Build Illinois bonds. Proceeds from the largely tax-free debt offering will be used to finance capital infrastructure investments. No new taxes will be required to pay off the bonds, which will mature in equal stages from 2019 until 2043. The Build Illinois Bond Act sets aside a slice of revenues from existing sales taxes to service the bonds. Prior to using money from its sales taxes for day-to-day operating purposes, the State has pledged to its bondholders that it will use a portion of this sales tax money for long-term capital investment.

Many investors see Illinois sales tax revenues as a relatively secure revenue source, and despite the State’s overall fiscal challenges the bonds were rated several significant notches above the “junk bond” level. S&P Global Ratings rated the new issue at AA-, and Fitch Ratings rated the issue at A-. The bonds were sold to Wall Street investors on Tuesday, October 16. Money from the debt issuance will be used for long-term investments such as roads, bridges, and educational infrastructure.

Big jump in Illinois ACT scores. The aggregated Class of 2018 scores by Illinois high school students on the ACT exam, one of America’s Big Two college-prep examinations, showed a dramatic increase in Illinois high schoolers’ performances. The Illinois members of the high school class of 2018 who took the ACT exam prior to graduation scored an average composite score of 23.9 points out of a possible score of 36.0 – a number that soared 2.5 points from the Class of 2017 average of 21.4. The Illinois Class of 2018 also average marked a considerable advance over the national average of 20.8.

The increase, although inspiring, was statistically affected by changes in Illinois high school testing policies that accompanied the altered performance of the Class of 2018. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has instituted statewide policies that encourage school districts to have their high school students take the ACT’s principal competitor, the Standardized Aptitude Test (SAT) exam, and to use aggregated SAT data as a benchmark of overall district-by-district student performance. Illinois high school students are now expected to take the SAT as a universal standardized test, and the SAT test is paid for by the State. In conformity with these expectations and budget policies, the SAT is now administered to almost all Illinois high school juniors except those whose individualized education programs (IEPs) do not include standardized tests.

The ACT has, meanwhile, reverted within Illinois to its traditional place as a test taken by students preparing for college. Instead of the ACT being taken by almost every student, with respect to the Class of 2018 it was taken by students seeking to demonstrate their higher-education credentials. Many Illinois high school students fall into this category. Tens of thousands of Illinois Class of 2018 students took the ACT prior to graduation, with the exam taken by 43% of the students heading for graduation in that year; but educational statisticians cautioned that this subgroup was likely to contain a disproportionate number of self-selected students with a previous record of high educational performance.

Illinois House subcommittees hold joint hearing on gaming issues. One of the issues discussed by witnesses and panelists was the possibility of legalized sports betting in Illinois. This is a new industry for which the door was opened earlier in 2018 by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Prior to the May 2018 decision in “Murphy v. NCAA,” most states were forbidden by federal law from allowing persons and businesses to open and operate bookmaking activities when the activities being bet on were sports contests and activities.

Until this year, people who wanted to place legal bets on single teams and games had to go to Nevada, which was exempted from the federal prohibition. The “Murphy” decision, however, struck down this ban and implicitly allowed the other 49 states to set up regulated sports-betting parlors and phone apps. Several states, such as New Jersey, responded to the Supreme Court decision by taking immediate action to legalize sports betting within their state lines. Federal law continues to prohibit sports bets that cross state lines, and an Illinois resident cannot legally place a sports bet in New Jersey. New Jersey sports betting operators are required, by law, to ask a prospective bettor to share his or her phone’s geo-location, and if the phone sends a “beep” that shows it is out of state the operator is not legally allowed to take the bet. Sports betting, if it is to be done legally within Illinois, will require the General Assembly to enact an Illinois sports betting law.

The Illinois House held a joint-panel hearing this week to examine questions relating to Illinois gaming in general, including what an Illinois sports betting law could look like. One outline discussed by witnesses before the hearing was the creation of a limited number of licenses for sports-betting host sites. For reasons of security and regulatory consistency, these licenses could be awarded to owners of existing large-scale gaming locations and destinations, such as casino riverboats and horse racetracks. The sports betting license-holders could then contract with Internet firms to create licensed sports-betting phone apps for legal wagering on sports contests from a customer’s smartphone.

Many concerns were raised at the Illinois House hearing, which was held on Wednesday, October 17. Witnesses representing Illinois major-league sports and associations of major-league athletes expressed concerns about the integrity of some of America’s most-widely-admired sports, and the personal safety and privacy of the athletes who play them. Advocates voiced concerns about gambling addiction and underage gaming. The debate is expected to continue.

$1.5 million in Recreational Trails grants. Money will go to recreational trail development projects in 11 Illinois communities. A typical recreational trail is an improved pathway in a park, or along a dedicated right-of-way such as a retired railroad line. The recipients of the state grants have already pledged, in their grant applications, to each provide at least 20 percent local funding to help cover the total cost of the project. In many cases, recreational trails are graded and graveled, blacktopped, or paved. Smooth trail surfaces help make trails accessible for persons with disabilities. A smooth trail surface can also be used for family recreational purposes, such as a place for children to ride bicycles. Recreational trails are assets to many communities throughout Illinois. The grant announcement was made on Monday, October 15 by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Much of Illinois’ day-to-day state work moves online. The switch from paper-based to electronic-based records and public interfaces was one of the stories behind Illinois’ balanced budget in FY19, the 12-month fiscal year that began on July 1, 2018. Moving away from the transmission, receipt, and storage of paper-based records has improved Illinois’ operating cost picture and made the Prairie State a model for public-sector productivity nationwide.

Gov. Bruce Rauner reported on the online push this week to the Smart States Summit, a panel of the National Governors Association. Based on metrics tabulated by the new Illinois Department of Information and Technology (IDIT), 90% of Illinois’ professional licensing activities – the licenses issued by the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (DFPR) to licensed professionals – have moved online. A total of 81% of the public offices within Illinois state agencies have shifted their online presence to the overall Illinois.gov platform, the State of Illinois homepage with a myriad of click-through accesses to Illinois’ public information and services. With this homepage as an anchor, 45% of total Illinois state services can now be accessed online.

Harvest more than half completed. This week’s U.S. Department of Agriculture Illinois crop report shows that as of mid-October, more than half of Illinois’ corn and soybeans have been cut and harvested. For the week ending on Sunday, October 14, the harvest numbers were 71% for corn and 60% for beans. This was substantially in advance of the harvest counts posted at this date in 2017; field conditions were not as favorable for early harvest in that year, and by this date one year ago only 46% of the corn had been cut.

Some sections of Illinois are suitable for winter wheat cultivation. As of Sunday, October 14, 36% of the expected Illinois winter wheat had been planted. Winter wheat is planted in late fall for immediate germination and emergence. The food crop then goes into winter hibernation and prepares for a second growth spurt, which includes second emergence and heading, the following spring. More than half of Illinois’ winter wheat is grown south of U.S. Highway 50, an informal boundary line that marks the northern edge of southern Illinois.

A look back at the Illinois Centennial in 1918. Under wartime conditions, Illinois pulled together from scratch a Centennial celebration in 1918. Although the United States was deep into fighting World War I, the Prairie State did not pass up the opportunity to reflect on its history and heritage.

The Illinois Centennial could not match the expensive, centralized celebratory activities mounted by other states in previous years, or by the U.S. federal government in 1876 (the federal government had thrown a world’s fair, celebrated in Philadelphia, to mark the nation’s 100th birthday). Instead, many local communities throughout Illinois launched spontaneous, grass-roots celebrations. For Illinois towns and cities in 1918, future tourism was a focus. Local leaders throughout the state looked forward to the new world being created by the mass-produced automobile, and many localities pushed forward in 1918 to raise historic plaques and monuments.

In many cases, such as the life of Lincoln and the Civil War, 1918 marked the last time that people who actually remembered events of local and nationwide importance could pinpoint the exact locations where key speeches were delivered and where public gatherings took place. Many of today’s Abraham Lincoln historical markers are based on research and reminiscences written down at the time of our Illinois Centennial.

Get the Week in Review emailed directly to your inbox! Sign up today to get a first-hand look at the continuing legislative and fiscal challenges facing policymakers in Springfield.