Week in Review for December 7, 2019

COGFA reports on November State tax revenues. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), the General Assembly’s nonpartisan budget-forecasting arm, constantly monitors Illinois State tax cash flows. Public reports are published monthly.

The revenue report for November 2019 reflects continued increases in Illinois incomes and the payments of income taxes to the State. Income tax payments in November 2019 were $201 million higher than they had been in November 2018, with $114 million of the increase being paid in individual income tax and $87 million in corporate income tax. Overall State general funds-related tax receipts increased by $153 million in November 2019 relative to the year-earlier month, and total revenues including transfers-in were up by $124 million in November 2019.

The $201 million increase in income tax receipts was partly diminished by declines in other facets of State revenue. These declines chipped away at the overall black ink posted by income taxes. For example, under current conditions there is a sharp decline in the public purchase of cigarettes in Illinois, as remaining smokers move to nicotine cartridges or buy their cigarettes in other states; State cigarette tax income dropped by $14 million in November 2019, from $36 million to $22 million.

IDOA accepting applications for cover crop premium discount program. Illinois farmers, and users of our streams and rivers, are constantly challenged by the tendency of fine particles of fertile Illinois soil to get caught up in waterways as they flow downstream. The problem of “agricultural runoff” diminishes the value of Illinois farmland, and degrades the quality of our rivers for fishing and boating.

One way to cut down on Illinois field soil erosion is by encouraging the planting of winter cover crops, which can grow roots that stabilize the soil in the field. Some cover crops also bring some nitrogen-fixing abilities to their fields as part of their ability to nourish the soil in other ways.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) announced a fall cover crop discount program for acreage in Illinois planted to cover crops in the fall of 2019 that will be planted to an insurable crop in 2020. The program will allow eligible applicants to receive a $5 per acre premium discount on the following year's crop insurance invoice for every acre of cover crop enrolled and verified in the program.

The discount program was designed to promote additional acres of cover crops that are not covered by other state or federal incentives. IDOA will use a combination of tools to verify acres applied for through this pilot program are planted in cover crops. The program is only applicable for those with coverage through the United States Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency (USDA-RMA) crop insurance program. Confirmed applications will be forwarded to the USDA-RMA for processing and applying premium discounts to 2020 crop insurance invoices.

Applications are available at https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/agr/Pages/default.aspx. Funding of eligible acreage will be on a first come, first serve basis capped at 50,000 acres. It is recommended that those applying for the program reference their Federal FSA-578 form. The closing date to apply for the premium discount is January 15, 2020. Further information can be obtained by contacting the IDOA at (217) 782-6297.

Amazon plans solar energy project for Lee County. The online retail giant stated that it would site a major array of electricity-generating solar panels in Lee County. The northern Illinois county, which is located along Interstates 39 and 88 south of Rockford, is sited within high-voltage-transmission distance of Amazon’s numerous distributions facilities in the Chicago metro area. These facilities sort and ready customer-ordered goods for distribution fulfillment, and Amazon in working on an electric-powered delivery infrastructure. The firm has made major investments in the Rivian motor vehicle assembly plant in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, which is being refitted to assemble battery-operated delivery vans. Amazon has pre-ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles.

Amazon has not yet disclosed the precise size of the Lee County solar-panel array. The Illinois news was part of a three-site announcement from the global firm, which also tagged sites in northern Virginia and in Spain. The three sites together are expected to contain 329 MW of nameplate generating capacity, but obvious engineering constraints connected with solar power mean that they will not be in use all the time. The company believes that the Lee County solar array will generate almost 400,000 MWh of electricity every year.

The Illinois General Assembly has taken steps to encourage the generation of renewable energy in Illinois. A quasi-public bureau, the Illinois Power Agency (IPA), supervises the expansion of wind power and solar power throughout Illinois.

Amazon has pledged to move towards 80% renewable energy by 2024, 100% renewable energy by 2030, and an overall status of net zero emissions of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere by 2040. The Amazon announcement, made on Tuesday, December 3, comes in the context of continued shutdowns in Illinois’ traditional coal-based electric power generation infrastructure.

Lobbyist disclosure law signed; much more work needs to be done on ethics reform. In the wake of recent news reports and criminal probes, many people are asking questions about the current state of Illinois’ lobbyist law. Current law allows well-connected insiders to solicit campaign contributions with a barely-concealed promise that news of the contribution will be told to someone who can do the giver a big favor.

In response to these news reports, a bill enacted by the General Assembly during the November 2019 veto session was signed into law this week. SB 1639 makes small, positive changes to Illinois lobbyist disclosure law. If a lobbyist has been hired by another advocate to conduct advocacy on behalf of a previously-secret third party, that fact must now be disclosed. If a person has been hired to lobby a unit of local government, such as the city of Chicago or one of its suburbs, that fact must now be disclosed on the State of Illinois’ lobbyist database; previously, local lobbying disclosure was not required. The lobbyist disclosure database will be more frequently amended and updated.

SB 1639 was approved by the Illinois House by a bipartisan majority (110-5-0). The measure was signed into law on Thursday, December 5. However, much more work needs to be done on ethics reform and governmental practice.

Reps. Cabello and Stephens appointed to First Responders Suicide Task Force. The General Assembly took action in the 2019 session to create the First Responders Suicide Task Force, which will examine a troubling pattern of increasing stress and suicides among Illinois police officers, firefighters, and other first responders. The Task Force was by HB 2766, co-sponsored by former Rep. Michael McAuliffe.

Representative John Cabello and Representative Brad Stephens have been appointed to the First Responders Suicide Task Force. The appointments were made on Monday, December 2.

“We need to make sure that the well-being of our first responders is taken care of, both on and off duty,” Representative Cabello said. “First responders need more than just equipment and the technological resources to protect our community and stay safe on the job. They need to know that somebody has their back. That somebody should be their own colleagues, the leadership within each agency or department, public officials at the state and local level, and our community as a whole. Together we can make sure that every first responder knows they are supported and has access to the peer resources they need.”

The Task Force will work with the Illinois State Police to develop methods to help reduce the risk and rates of suicide among Illinois police officers and other uniformed service personnel, and will report to the General Assembly no later than December 31, 2020.

State law encourages new license for a harness horse racetrack in the south suburbs. One feature of SB 690, the gambling expansion law enacted by the General Assembly in June 2019, is help for Illinois’ challenged harness horse farms. Breeders have worked for centuries with a specific subset of horses, called “standardbreds,” that specialize in the racing pull of light carts and drivers around a track. In Greece and Rome, this was this highest-ranked sport of ancient times, celebrated in movies such as “Ben-Hur,” but all of Illinois’ dedicated harness racetracks have closed. Illinois harness horsemen have to ship their horses to out-of-state tracks or compete in the harness races hosted at Hawthorne, the thoroughbred track west of Chicago.

Some advocates are calling for one of Illinois’ former harness tracks, Balmoral, to reopen. The former standardbred track is located in Steger, in eastern Will County. It is accessible to the Chicago area by four-lane highway, just outside the zone earmarked by SB 690 for a new harness racetrack license. A developer would like to buy Balmoral and “tweak” the text of SB 690 to bring Balmoral into the zone of land legally suitable as the site of the new racetrack license. Balmoral’s old harness license expired at the end of 2015 when the former owner declared bankruptcy. Promoters believe that Balmoral could be brought back to life again if live horse racing were to be supplemented with sports betting and a casino gaming floor.

Fifth Illinois death from vaping reported. Illinois public health officials have connected a fifth lung-injury death to the practice of “vaping” chemical cartridges. The technology has become a popular way for people to consume nicotine, cannabis, and many other chemicals.

At least one subset of vaping cartridges creates a serious risk to human health nationwide. Public health experts blame the current outbreak of serious lung injuries to the practices of some illegal cartridge manufacturers. These black market businesses load up cartridges with THC (or what is said to be THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, plus other chemicals, to create a mixture that generates dangerous pulmonary reactions. At least one report fingers the THC vaping additive ‘vitamin E acetate.’ Some people suffer serious injuries as a result of vaping these cartridges. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has now counted 187 cases of lung injuries that are associated with the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products.

The Illinois House has begun to conduct public hearings on the health concerns of vaping in Illinois. Hearing testimony indicates that many Illinoisans are not aware of what they are putting in their lungs. Current federal law falls far short of requiring that vaping cartridges be properly labeled as to their ingredients. In addition, some of these cartridges and their contents are illegal in many U.S. states and their makers do not want to label them.

Grain Systems Inc. announces closure of Flora, Illinois production facility. The Grain Systems Incorporated (GSI) facility in Flora is slated to close at the end of January.

GSI, headquartered in Assumption, Illinois, is the world’s largest manufacturer of steel farm bins, commercial storage grain bins and grain silos, providing farmers and processing facilities a single source for all of their grain equipment needs, providing quality equipment and services to over 70 countries worldwide.

State Representative Darren Bailey made the following statement after learning of the planned closing of the GSI Flora facility on January 31, 2020:

“I am sad to hear of the decision to close the Flora facility of GSI and the 89 employees affected by this closing. This is what happens when the tax-hikers in our state keep raising taxes and increasing fees on families and businesses. The business decision to consolidate operations and reduce costs is understandable, but I’m hopeful that all of these people will be able to keep their jobs in the consolidation at the Newton and Assumption, Illinois plants.”

COGFA tags Illinois unfunded pension liabilities at more than $137 billion. This figure, generated by combining the pension plans’ current assets with a series of assumptions on future rates of financial return, reflects the overall deficit status of the funds. Included in the analysis are five separate fund families supervised and guaranteed by the State of Illinois, of which the largest is the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) pension system for teachers and other educational personnel. The TRS unfunded liability of $78.1 billion is more than 56% of the total liabilities of all five State pension systems.

The $137.2 billion total liability figure reflects what COGFA and actuaries think the pension plans can make as profits on their assets, and how long they think currently-vested pension beneficiaries will live. Changes in these assumptions will change the level of unfunded liabilities posted by the system. The developed-world economy has had very low interest rates of return on fixed-income securities since the economic downturn of 2008, and this unfunded-liability estimate reflects a belief that these low interest rates will continue.

The Illinois public-sector pension unfunded liability figure is one of the largest in the United States. Other states such as Wisconsin have much lower pension deficits, or no deficit. Many Illinoisans see this pension liability as a drag on future Illinois job creation and property values. Illinois has begun to deal with the pension unfunded-liability situation by moving newly-hired teachers and other personnel into a less-generous tier of benefit packages.

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