Week in Review for November 22, 2019

Outcry against misuse of “seclusion rooms” by schools across Illinois; State takes action. Many school districts use “seclusion rooms” and “isolation rooms” as places where students whom an educator believes to be disruptive can be sent for time-outs. News reports this week suggest that some schools are misusing seclusion rooms, or using them in the wrong circumstances and on the wrong students. Some students have behavioral or emotional problems that make isolation and seclusion a cruel punishment to inflict upon them. Many parents want to believe that their schools know what they are doing when they punish a schoolchild in this way, but an investigation has found that there very few cases where a school examines and diagnoses a student’s psychological state before sending the child to an isolation room. Worse, in some cases the school should know that this act is inappropriate – and they do it anyway. Following publication of this investigative report, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) issued emergency rules to ban the isolation of a student in a locked quiet room. Based on the new rules, students who are assigned to “time outs” will be monitored rather than isolated.

The seclusion-room news reports are based on an investigative report by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune. Their reporters examined a database of more than 20,000 seclusion-room incidents, most of them during the 2017-18 school year. The investigators paid additional attention to students with individualized education programs (IEPs), so-called “special needs” children, whose psychological needs ought to come first in school decision policies. The study found that, in many cases, IEP students are precisely those who are statistically more likely to be assigned to isolation rooms.

Under Illinois law, public-school teachers and educators – who are forbidden from imposing corporal punishment or physical discipline on students – are allowed to seclude students in isolated timeout spaces if the students are a safety threat to themselves or others. In some cases, overwhelmed educators see timeout spaces as an essential element in maintaining control over their classrooms. However, the law – and nationwide best-practice education guidelines – requires that the use of a timeout room be carefully documented and that the assignment of a student to an isolation room only take place under specific circumstances oriented to the welfare of the student. The study showed that, in most of the 20,000 room assignments covered, full documentation did not exist and there was no evidence that the assignment was matched to the needs of the student, particularly with respect to IEP students. The new ISBE rules will require that any student being given a “time out” must be monitored rather than isolated.

Late harvest, propane shortage add to woes in farm communities. The less-than-optimal crop year of 2019 is heading to a muddy close. Throughout Illinois the growing season is over, but continued rainstorms and snowfalls are slowing down the work of bringing in the remaining harvest. As of Sunday, November 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported an 80% corn cut rate in Illinois. Some farmers held off on bringing in their corn in hopes that as the ears stood in their fields they would lose some moisture through air-drying, but humid weather conditions have not helped crop quality. The alternative is to bring in damp corn, put it under cover, and dry it out with propane heat – an added expense to the heavy expenses faced by farmers this year. Propane is short in some parts of Illinois this fall, in part due to agricultural demand, and the federal government has declared a state of propane emergency. This declaration is a technical move that matches declarations issued in previous years. The declaration loosens the truck transport regulations that govern the movement of the fuel, and will help with the delivery of essential supplies.

Almost all of the Illinois soybeans have been harvested. The November 17 bean harvest rate was 92%, with farmers aware that humid conditions could encourage leaf mold. The next major Illinois crop will be winter wheat, most of which has emerged (85% in Illinois) as field sprouts. The wheat seeds will now go dormant for the winter and will re-emerge in spring 2020. Illinois soft red winter wheat, grown throughout central and southern Illinois with an emphasis on the southeastern quarter of the state, is used for a wide variety of baking purposes that include cakes, cookies, and confectionary breads.

Representatives Wehrli and Windhorst named to State ethics commission. Under public pressure over the multitude of federal investigations into political corruption, the Illinois General Assembly created a new Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform. The new panel, created by HJR 93, has been asked to make recommendations for changes to the State ethics laws and Procurement Code, the law that governs how the State spends taxpayers’ money to buy things.

A growing, bipartisan group of people assert that the Commission’s explicit area of responsibilities does not go far enough. The problems with actual and perceived corruption in the Illinois public sector, including among elected officials, are so great that we need to look at additional reforms, including our state Constitution. Only a few days, ago, current law allowed a former state representative – a man who resigned under pressure during a criminal process against him with accusations of bribery – to wield his political clout to help choose his successor in the Illinois House. A proposal from House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, HJRCA 36, would change this. HJRCA 36 abolishes the clout-circle method of filling Illinois legislative vacancies, and hands over this power to the people of Illinois. The voters would fill all vacancies by special election, as is done whenever there is a vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives.

State Representative Grant Wehrli has been appointed to serve on the newly created Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform. Wehrli has long been an outspoken voice in the General Assembly demanding action to reform Illinois’ outdated ethics laws, which have come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of several federal corruption investigations.

“Illinois government has been tainted by corruption for too long and continued inaction is unacceptable; the people of Illinois deserve more from their elected officials,” said Wehrli. “Yes, I’m frustrated that it took this long to put something in place to address our broken ethics laws. Yes, I’m concerned that the commission’s makeup skews representation in favor of the majority party. However, this in an opportunity to show that Illinois government is truly interested in working for the people.”

House Joint Resolution 93, which created the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly at the end of veto session last week. The sixteen member commission is required to a deliver a final report for legislative action to reform the state’s ethics laws by March 31, 2020. However, as Wehrli noted, the commission skews membership in favor of the majority party Democrats, with only six spots being guaranteed for Republicans and assigning commission chair posts to Democrats as well. This point was hotly contested by Republicans during debate on the measure last week. The March 31 report deadline also conveniently falls after the 2020 primary election, another point of concern expressed during floor debate.

“The commission can prove its intent to work in the best interests of the people by offering comprehensive reforms that finally hold elected officials accountable. That has to be the starting position,” said Wehrli. “I hope my fellow commission members will take that firm stance with me so we can finally remove the pervasiveness of corruption and recommend serious ethics reforms. More window dressing won’t restore the sense of trust the public deserves.”

State Representative Patrick Windhorst has also been appointed to serve on the recently created Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform. The appointment comes on the heels of Rep. Windhorst’s recent legislative sponsorship of numerous pieces of legislation aimed at strengthening Illinois’ lax ethics laws.

“The Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform was created during the Veto Session via passage of HJR 93, which I supported,” Windhorst said. “I take this responsibility very seriously. The State of Illinois is in the middle of an ethics crisis, multiple legislators and their associates are under federal investigation or indictment, and a cloud of corruption hangs over the Statehouse. The time to act to reform our ethics laws is now.”

For months, House Republicans have held press conferences, and issued press releases and joint op-eds to call for the passage of their ethics package. Windhorst is co-sponsoring legislation that would ban legislators from serving as lobbyists to municipal governments, institute a two-year revolving door ban on legislators serving as lobbyists, and tighter regulations on statements of economic interest and lobbyist activity disclosures.

Election ethics reform measures filed. Serious questions are being raised about the Illinois election process, security at the State Board of Elections, the ability of some politically-connected people to “dip into” State Board-regulated campaign funds, and actual and potential conflicts of interest among members of the State Board of Elections. Rep. Tim Butler filed HB 3963, a measure to prohibit a member of this key Board from serving as an officer or field director of a political committee or a political campaign. Rep. Mark Batinick filed HB 3964, a measure to prohibit a member of the State Board from contributing to a political committee or serving as an officer of a political committee. Both bills have been moved to the House Rules Committee for assignment to a House standing committee.

Illinois State Police looking for cadet applicants. The Illinois State Police are looking for qualified applicants to join their ranks in Cadet Class #132. Applicants should submit required support documentation prior to January 31, 2020. Candidates whose application documentation are deemed acceptable may be invited to take the Recruitment Test. Candidates who successfully complete the Recruitment Test will be invited to take a mandatory physical fitness (PT) evaluation in late March. The State Police Merit Board, the panel that performs State Police hiring, is overseeing recruitment of the cadet class. Several different categories of persons with credentials, including a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree and experience in law enforcement, or certain enumerated credentials as an honorably discharged member of the U.S. armed forces, will be able to submit the required documentation.

In addition, the Illinois State Police Fast Track Program offers an alternative pathway for certified local police officers who have graduated from an accredited law enforcement academy, and who have compiled at least two years of full-time police work, to become Illinois State Troopers.

Representative Murphy calls for state lawmakers to only get paid for days on the job. State Representative Mike Murphy has resumed his fight for HB 818. In his words, the bill provides that “if somebody resigns or leaves office in the middle of the month, they only get paid for the number of days they were actually in office.” Consideration of the January 2019 measure has thus far been blocked by the majority party.

Murphy has intensified his fight for his bill after Illinois taxpayers saw the paycheck handed to former Rep. Luis Arroyo on his final day in office. The Chicago lawmaker had run into serious legal trouble in late September, and did not appear in public for anything other than his criminal arraignment, but the representative did not turn in a letter of resignation until Friday, November 1. Under State law, this meant that the disgraced ex-representative could ask for, and get, a paycheck for the entire month of November. “It’s just something – a special privilege – that we shouldn’t get,” Murphy told reporters.

State agency reports on Illinois’ local jobless rates in October 2019. The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) has listed the local unemployment rates that were posted in October 2019 within 14 metro areas throughout Illinois. The numbers, which are based on data gathered by IDES and by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, cover metro areas from Chicago to Carbondale and fit the jobless numbers posted by these local areas into the overall unemployment number for all of Illinois.

The October 2019 statewide unemployment rate was 3.6%. This number, which signals “full employment,” covers the entire State; it is an average of local numbers that are lower in some areas and higher in others. Five of Illinois’ 14 jobless-tracking areas posted unemployment numbers that exceeded 4.0%, indicating continued serious employment problems in these localities. These five metro areas were Rockford (5.0%), Danville (4.9%), Decatur (4.8%), Kankakee (4.3%), and Peoria (4.2%). All five of these areas are historic centers of Downstate Illinois manufacturing and heavy industry, which are sectors that have faced chronic challenges in recent decades.

In some regions of Illinois, unemployment was slightly lower than the statewide average of 3.6%. Numbers included Chicago (3.4%), Lake County (3.5%), Bloomington (3.5%), and Champaign-Urbana (3.5%). These are regions that are located either within the greater Chicago area as a whole, or in local regions within Downstate Illinois that are oriented toward higher education, insurance, and medical services. These are growth sectors within the overall U.S. economy.

Major layoff announcement in west suburbs. The St. Charles, Ill.-based Pheasant Run conference center and resort, begun in 1963, has a good deal of infrastructure that is nearing the end of its useful life. Its operators have officially announced they are laying off about 150 employees, almost 80% of the staff, while they conduct research operations intended to determine a future pathway for the anchor complex. Other employees may be laid off later if the hotel complex pursues a complete shutdown.

The largest portion of the layoffs will take place by mid-January, and the complex states it will not take reservations after February 29, 2020. Many family and community events have been held at Pheasant Run, and the complex is a familiar name to many Chicagoans. The layoff announcement, made in compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, was shared with the city of St. Charles on Tuesday, November 12.

Job-creating EDGE tax credit program said to be dropping in productivity. The EDGE program, operated by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, offers Illinois tax credits for business firms that promise to create or retain jobs in Illinois. The EDGE program has been in place for more than 30 years and has created or saved tens of thousands of Illinois employment positions. However, a new DCEO study finds that the productivity of the program is dropping: in 2017, the year studied, it cost EDGE much more money per job than in previous years.

In 2017, the State of Illinois offered $187 million in contractual EDGE credits to various specific Illinois-located business firms, and the firms took up $133 million of these credits. These were moneys that these firms would have otherwise paid to the State in taxes. In return, these firms reported creating 38,540 jobs in Illinois, an expense of almost $3,500 per job created. It should be noted that the great majority of these employees paid 4.95% State individual income taxes, and also paid sales taxes on many of the goods they bought for themselves and their families. Economists continue to report, based on secondary effects like these, that the EDGE program continues to be a net benefit to the State and its residents. However, it may be necessary to scrutinize the program to examine ways to improve its overall job-creating productivity.

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