Week in Review: GA reconvenes, unemployment & more

The Illinois General Assembly and the re-opening of the state. The Illinois House and Senate will reconvene in Springfield on Wednesday, May 20. The House will move its meeting location from the historic House chamber in the Illinois State Capitol to the 7,700-seat Bank of Springfield Center in downtown Springfield. Meeting in the convention hall will allow all 118 House members to gather while maintaining social distancing.  
House Republicans have repeatedly called for the General Assembly to reconvene and play a co-equal part in the governance of Illinois during this challenging time. House Republican Leader Jim Durkin issued the following statement on the news of the General Assembly’s return to session: “After two months of inaction, it is about time we get back to the job we were elected to do.”

Although House Republicans welcomed the call for the General Assembly to re-convene, they redoubled their expressions of concern about, and opposition to, many of the Governor’s specific policies and proposals in the current COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the insistence of the Governor upon creating five expansive regions of Illinois, making the re-opening of each vast region contingent upon the eradication of whatever pattern of illness happens to have broken out in the sickest corner of each region, is drawing serious concerns from a wide variety of Illinois leaders.

Furthermore, under the Governor’s current plan, each re-opening phase will take 28 days to accomplish – in contrast to the 14 days encouraged by national standards and by the actions of many other U.S. states. House and Senate Republicans have taken action to demand that Illinois move towards the 14-day interval period and speed up the reopening of healthier regions and sectors of our state. Members of both parties are increasingly expressing these concerns on a bipartisan basis. However, Gov. Pritzker as of Tuesday, May 12 continued to reject these concerns.

House Republicans to Push for a More Localized Approach to Re-opening Illinois’ Economy when Session Reconvenes. House Republicans from Central Illinois held an online press conference Thursday where they discussed their caucus’ priorities for next week when the legislature reconvenes in Springfield. State Representatives Avery Bourne, Tim Butler, Mike Murphy, and C.D. Davidsmeyer participated in the press conference. Each lawmaker expressed their interest in the legislature addressing changes to the Governor’s Restore Illinois plan, the regions he created for reopening phases, and how a more localized process would better serve all Illinoisans.

“A House Democrat said this week it is unlikely the General Assembly will take up any issues that seek to decrease the Governor’s authority over the handling of the COVID-19 Crisis,” said Bourne. “That’s preposterous. Changing the reopening plan is not a partisan call. Requests for changes to the Governor’s plan are coming from all over the state, from Democrats and Republicans, from small business owners, local leaders, and people from every county. Our requests for local and legislative input is reasonable. The legislature is a coequal branch of government. Taking up a legislative reopening plan should be our priority as we return to session next week.”

“Considering the available facilities in Springfield, it shouldn’t have taken this long for a co-equal branch of government to finally be able to meet in a safe, transparent and public manner to weigh in on a path forward for addressing COVID-19,” said Rep. Butler. “I, and my colleagues, as well as community leaders and public health officials from across central Illinois have been more or less sidelined by the Governor’s approach so far. It’s obvious the regions laid out in his plan are overly broad and don’t take into account direct local input that would help develop more targeted regional plans to ensure public safety and address the ongoing economic devastation.”

Rep. Murphy noted recent comments by the Governor expressing that he is open to more local input as Illinois continues to balance the need to ensure public safety, while gradually re-opening regions of the state to prevent further economic distress and job losses.

“I hope the Governor stands by his recent comments and allows the recommendations that come out of the legislature convening to be incorporated into a more targeted regional plan that prioritizes the safety and economic recovery suggestions of local experts,” said Rep. Murphy. “Like my fellow legislators, I have been in contact with local leaders, families, and small businesses of all types from across central Illinois who have been crying out for this opportunity. I believe we can come to a consensus to facilitate the safe re-opening of restaurants and other small businesses that are still held back by the Governor’s plan.”

During the press conference, the representatives made it clear that their goal is not an immediate or unsafe re-opening of the state, but to allow for a more transparent and regional approach that has been seriously limited to date.

House Republicans aim to level playing field between “Wall Street” and “Main Street.” Amid the ongoing economic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, State Representatives Ryan Spain and Mark Batinick are filing legislation to help support small businesses.

The legislation, called the Fair Business Treatment Act, proposes small businesses be given the same opportunities that larger, big box stores currently have. The Representatives have been strong advocates for small businesses in their communities and believe there is a huge disparity in allowing large retail stores to sell items available at local small businesses—but preventing small businesses from opening.

“Small retail businesses should be allowed to open as long as they follow the same social distancing requirements that big box stores have to follow,” said Spain. “To not allow them to do so safely compromises the integrity of this Executive Order and simply creates more big box winners and shutters more mom-and-pop independent businesses. If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that Illinois’ strength is our “Main Street” products and services. If we don’t act to save them now, there will be little left to save.”

Rep. Batinick has been vocal since the start of this pandemic in preventing big box stores from monopolizing sales at the expense of small shops on Main Street, believing small businesses offer an even safer environment for consumers. “It’s simply not fair,” said Batinick. “If a product is going to be allowed to be sold in a community, why would you want everyone in the community going to the same crowded building? If people are going to buy those products, it is better to spread them out.”

According to the legislators, small businesses can provide a safer environment for consumers to shop—compared to the high traffic volumes larger stores are experiencing right now. “This regulation right now doesn’t promote safety; it is creating a situation where large corporate giants are cannibalizing smaller retailers,” Batinick continued.

Spain and Batinick’s legislation is currently being drafted, but has a growing number of co-sponsors including House Republican Reps. Tony McCombie, Keith Wheeler, Grant Wehrli and Dan Ugaste.

· Neighboring state begin re-opening. Many of the states that adjoin Illinois are taking steps to implement phased resumptions of economic activity under strict guidelines. In contrast to Illinois, Indiana has moved most of its state to Phase 2 of its recovery program. Under Indiana-Phase 2, restaurants are reopening at up to 50% capacity. Personal-care service providers, such as hair salons, barbershops, and nail salons, are reopening for services by appointment. Indiana retail businesses and shopping malls are reopening under a series of guidelines that allow up to 50% capacity occupancy.

In Wisconsin, the Governor’s stay-at-home order was struck down by the state’s high court. Subsidiary stay-at-home orders remain in effect in some Wisconsin counties and local areas, but even within these areas, eligible Wisconsin stores located in stand-alone locations and strip malls are reopening.

Similar reopening activities are taking place in the states of Iowa, Kentucky, and Missouri, and in cities within these states, such as St. Louis.

Governor, senior staff work from home for isolation period after staffer tests positive. After a member of Governor JB Pritzker's senior staff tested positive for COVID-19, the Governor's Office employees will follow Illinois Department of Public Health guidance and work from home for an appropriate isolation period. The asymptomatic staff member tested positive late last week and was in close contact with the Governor and other staff members. The Governor and all other staff reporting to the office tested negative. The Governor was tested again early on Sunday and tested negative.

Approximately 20 staff members have been regularly reporting in person to work in the James R. Thompson Center during this crisis while the remainder of Governor's Office staff work from home. Staff members have followed all IDPH safety protocols including daily temperature checks, wearing face coverings, social distancing and strict hygiene procedures. The office will undergo deep cleaning, and staff are monitoring themselves for symptoms. The Governor and staff will return to the office when IDPH deems appropriate.

BUDGETIllinois sells $800 million in State bonds. The State of Illinois’ urgent need for cash, along with dwindling tax revenues, means that the State must borrow massive sums of money. This week Illinois sold $800 million in bonds to investors. The bonds have durations of between 1 year and 25 years, and mature on dates starting in 2021 and ending in the year 2045. Reflecting recent trends, interest rates were sharply higher than those charged against the State prior to the current budget crisis, with the 25-year bonds paying 5.75% interest. The high interest rates reflect the belief by credit-rating agencies that the State’s status is now only slightly above junk-bond level.

An ugly picture for FY20, FY21. The State of Illinois is in a budget crisis, with revenues scheduled to fall short of previous estimates by approximately $2.7 billion in FY20 (the 12-month fiscal year ending June 30, 2020) and again by approximately $4.6 billion in FY21 (the fiscal year starting July 1, 2021). This will create a cumulative two-year budget shortfall of approximately $7.3 billion. It is within this setting that the Illinois General Assembly is scheduled to discuss a budget plan for FY21 at their scheduled session next week in Springfield. The FY20 budget was enacted in the 2019 spring session.

3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week; 73,000 in Illinois. Nearly 3 million laid-off workersapplied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week as the viral outbreak led more companies to slash jobs, even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen under certain restrictions.

Roughly 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the two months since the coronavirus first forced millions of businesses to close their doors and shrink their workforces, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) released new statewide data Thursday showing the department processed 72,671 new initial claims for regular unemployment benefits during the week ending May 9. The department has now processed 1,076,461 claims for regular unemployment benefits from March 1 through May 9. This amount is nearly 11.5 times the number of claims the department processed over the same period last year, when IDES processed just 87,000 claims for regular unemployment benefits.

IDES has processed 33,729 Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation claims (PEUC), which provides up to 13 weeks’ worth of 100% federally funded benefits to individuals who have exhausted their regular state unemployment benefits. PEUC is potentially available for weeks beginning on or after March 29, 2020 and continuing through the week ending December 26, 2020.

While the number of initial claims for regular benefits has plateaued in the last two weeks, IDES will experience an increase in overall claims processed when the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims data becomes available Thursday, May 21, 2020. Launched on May 11, more than 50,000 PUA claims have been filed through the new portal in the first three days of operation. IDES expects the number of claimants accessing the new unemployment system to continue to grow in the coming days and weeks.

Status of Illinois unemployment trust fund. At the same time as many Illinoisans are filing for PUA benefits, tens of thousands of other Illinoisans have filed for and are now collecting conventional unemployment insurance. With more than 36 million Americans now having filed unemployment claims, including more than 1 million Illinois residents, significant amounts of unemployment benefits are being paid out to unemployed Illinoisans. This money is, in turn, being spent to help pay essential bills and keep our state’s economy going.

Conventional Illinois UI benefits are paid for by contributions that are deducted from an employer’s payroll each payday and sent to IDES for investment and payout. Prior to payout, these moneys are invested in a trust fund. This trust fund serves as a kind of Illinois employment rainy-day fund, with money deposited in good times and taken out in bad times. Under current economic conditions, more money is going out than coming in. Under one projection scenario, by December 31, 2020 the trust fund will be in the red by approximately $14 billion. Discussions are ongoing on how to fill this huge gap.

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