Week in Review: Special session, budget, jobs & more

Illinois General Assembly meets in special session. The May 2020 special session, which partially replaced the abbreviated spring 2020 session, was held in Springfield under conditions of coronavirus social distancing. Instead of meeting in its traditional State Capitol chambers, the Illinois House of Representatives convened at the Bank of Springfield Center, a convention center on in downtown Springfield. The convention hall, a spacious location, allocated square footage for all House members. Support personnel set up separated desks and voting pads for their use. In addition, all of the House members were required to wear facemasks and were strongly advised to undergo COVID-19 testing before the start of the session. In addition, House members were be advised to self-quarantine for up 7 days after the end of the session. The Illinois House met in Springfield starting on Wednesday, May 20, through Saturday, May 23.

Democrats pass unbalanced budget with more spending and debt. Late Saturday night, the Democrat majority passed an unbalanced and partisan state budget through the General Assembly. This FY21 budget spends over $2 billion more than last year’s budget, relies on $5 billion in borrowing, and cedes more authority to the Governor. Illinois taxpayers absolutely cannot afford a $6.1 billion deficit, $5 billion in new debt and fantasies that the federal government will bail out our state government.

We asked to convene in Springfield so that we could do the job we were elected to do, to make the hard decisions that need to be made to move our state forward and help the struggling Illinois families we represent. Democrat lawmakers chose to abdicate those responsibilities.

The Illinois House Republicans will continue to fight for the hardworking families of Illinois to ensure their voices are heard and to get our state on the path toward economic recovery.

We were eager to return to Springfield to work for our constituents and pass a bipartisan, responsible budget, but Democrats came to Springfield to hand more power over to Governor JB Pritzker.

House Republican lawmakers were completely cut out of the final budget product this year. Speaker Madigan and his Democrat majority decided to go it alone and ram through a partisan, unbalanced budget. These are the same Democrats that have raised our taxes and driven out businesses and working families for years.

The Democrats’ FY21 budget spends roughly $42.9 billion even though the State only expects to bring in a little under $36.8 billion, $5 billion of which comes from additional borrowing (to be paid back over the next decade). The FY21 budget spends over $2 billion more than the FY20 budget that passed last year, even though state tax revenues have fallen off a cliff.

Illinois taxpayers absolutely cannot afford a $6.1 billion deficit, $5 billion in new debt and fantasies that the federal government will bail out state government.

This Democrat budget will likely result a multi-billion dollar tax hike (on top of the proposed graduated income tax) on hardworking Illinois families, many of whom are suffering due to the economic shutdown and Coronavirus restrictions.

Even worse, Speaker Madigan and the House Democrats voted to give themselves a pay raise. It is unconscionable that in the middle of this public health and economic crisis, when thousands upon thousands of Illinois families are hurting and state finances have been decimated, Democrat lawmakers chose to raise their own pay.

That is not what the people of Illinois want - Illinoisans are demanding transparency from their government, real, meaningful reforms, and, most importantly, a balanced budget. They are demanding that we work together as co-equal branches of government to manage the ongoing COVID-19 crisis response and recovery effort.

Unfortunately, Democrats weren’t interested in working together in a bipartisan fashion to move our state forward. They wanted to go it alone and push their own partisan agenda.

House Republicans will continue to fight for taxpayers, demand a balanced budget, and hold the Democrat majority and Governor Pritzker accountable.

Democrat legislators give themselves a pay raise. According to Illinois law, state legislators are scheduled to receive a pay raise each year unless they vote to reject the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA).

Illinois House Republicans filed legislation to block the automatic pay raise this year, but Democrats refused to call HB 5777 for a vote. They also refused to include language to ban the COLA in the budget package they passed last weekend, citing an “agreement” they had made with the comptroller. However, the comptroller does not have the legal authority to stop continuing appropriations.

So, while more than a million of our fellow Illinoisans have filed for unemployment, Democrats in the House and the Senate voted to give themselves a raise.

Summary of FY21 budget bills. Senate Bill 264 enacts an FY20 supplemental and full FY21 State budget. The FY21 budget contains total expenditures of $42.9 billion, with a projected general funds deficit of $6.1 billion. SB 264passed the House by a vote of 68-44-0, with all Republicans present voting “No.”

SB 2099 authorizes up to $5 billion in borrowing from the Federal Reserve’s newly created Municipal Liquidity Facility that was authorized under the CARES Act. Republicans expressed dismay and skepticism, however, that the money could be legitimately used to “balance the budget.” For one thing, many U.S. states and cities will all be lining up for the same pot of money. For another, the projected Liquidity Facility is not a grant, but is a loan that must be paid back within no more than 10 years. The State of Illinois already labors under the burden of well more than $100 billion in debt and unfunded pension liabilities. The House majority approved SB 2099 by a vote of 71-45-0, with all House Republicans present voting “No.”

HB 357 is the FY21 budget implementation (BIMP) bill that includes various substantive changes necessary to implement the FY21 budget contained in SB 264. However, HB 357 did not include any language to prohibit the FY21 COLA for lawmakers. HB 357 passed the House by a vote of 62-47-1, again with all Republicans present voting “No.”

Republicans block Governor’s attempt to criminalize non-compliance with executive orders. An emergency rule briefly imposed by Gov. Pritzker’s Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) would have targeted restaurants, taverns, gyms, hair salons, barbers, and certain other small businesses. It would have declared that if any of these specific types of businesses open in defiance of any of the Governor’s stay-at-home orders, the store (and presumably its owner and personnel) would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor under the Criminal Code (fine of up to $2,500, term of up to 1 year in county jail).

The IDPH rule horrified many Illinois small business owners, who saw it as a gratuitous slap at sectors of the Illinois economy that are already facing an existential threat to their collective survival. In addition, the rule did not contain graduated penalties as are provided for in parallel legislation passed by the General Assembly. In addition, serious questions were raised about the imposition of a criminal penalty through administrative rulemaking without legislative scrutiny or judicial oversight.

Assistant Republican Leader Keith Wheeler, Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), led the effort to suspend this egregious emergency rule. “This is a vast government overreach in a time when business owners are doing everything they can to stay afloat. Filing these emergency rules to extend criminal penalties to businesses and individuals all over Illinois is an abuse of emergency rulemaking,” said Wheeler.

At the JCAR meeting on Wednesday, May 20, House and Senate Republican members of the Committee pointed out the problems with this rule to their colleagues. Democrats on JCAR consulted with Gov. Pritzker and decided to withdraw the rule, ending the possibility that businesses could be charged with criminal penalties under its provisions.

Illinois first state to meet federal guidelines for safe reopening. Underneath what has been often-confusing and polarized worldwide COVID-19 news coverage has been the development of a three-phase, five-pronged set of guidelines for reopening of economic and productive activity. Developed under the leadership of the White House, the “Opening Up America Again” guidelines set forth five metrics to measure as a gauge of progress.

The five metrics developed as a nationwide medical consensus by the White House team, led by public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, are: (i) the number of positive tests per 100,000 people; (ii) the percentage of tests that are positive for COVID-19; (iii) the number of tests per 100,000 per day; (iv) the availability of hospital ICU beds; and (v) the number of hospital visits for ‘flu-like illness,’ including illnesses not formally diagnosed as coronavirus.

An analysis shows that Illinois is the first of the 50 states to meet federal COVID-19 guidelines for reopening and expansion of economic activity. The healthcare providers and suppliers who have maintained Illinois’ hospital infrastructure, and generated a growing supply of test kits and laboratory analysis space, deserve recognition for helping the people of Illinois get to this point.

Illinois moves to Phase 3 reopening under Governor’s Restore Illinois plan. Governor JB Pritzker recently released industry-specific guidelines that allow for the safe re-opening of businesses as the state progresses into the next phase of the Restore Illinois plan. All four regions of the state are expected to advance to Phase 3 of the plan at the end of May, allowing thousands of residents to return to work, and the reopening of businesses in the following industries: retail, offices, manufacturing, barbershops and salons, summer programs, various outdoor recreation activities and bars and restaurants for outdoor dining.

A full list of resources made available to small businesses and communities can be found on DCEO's website.

Drop in Illinois COVID-19 hospitalizations. The new numbers were reported this week by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), the State agency that maintains Illinois statewide vital statistics during the current pandemic. They are part of the overall progress of Illinois, recognized by national analysts, towards phased social and economic reopening.

Unfortunately, many Illinoisans continue to suffer from acute coronavirus, with its threats to the human respiratory system and other major organs. COVID-19 deaths continued this week in Illinois. Epidemiologists say that many of the deaths this week reflect infections that took place as much as two or three weeks ago. Many people around the world are infectious spreaders of COVID-19 and do not know it. Physicians continued to appeal to Illinoisans this week to wear facemasks in confined spaces, and to practice social distancing. The IDPH State of Illinois public health experts continue to post guidelines for social distancing and preventing the spread of coronavirus in Illinois communities.

Illinois General Assembly approves measure for casino hotel complex in Chicago. The city of Chicago has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although many Illinoisans oppose the expansion of gambling to cover all parts of the state, the expansion of legal gaming into Chicago – a city that has never had a riverboat casino or licensed video gaming – will provide a new stream of revenue for both the city and the State of Illinois. Similar city-based casino-hotel complexes operate successfully in nearby Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit.

The Chicago casino hotel bill was passed by the House on Saturday, May 23 as SB 516. The measure also contained relief for existing gaming interests throughout Illinois, including Danville, that were putting together proposals after enactment of a comprehensive gaming bill in June 2019. These proposals contained activity stages that were in progress when the COVID-19 outbreak hit Illinois in March 2020, and SB 516 stops various legal clocks for short periods of time to enable all of the stakeholders to catch up with the conducts they are legally required to carry out. The House vote on SB 516 was 77-32-0.

Illinois unemployment rate rises to 16.4% amid COVID-19 pandemic. The wave of layoffs that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shutdown orders has worsened the employment picture in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) has collected hundreds of thousands of applications in recent weeks for unemployment insurance benefits. As a result of these filings and other data, IDES reports that unemployment rose sharply in the most recent 30-day period. From 4.2% in March 2020, the Illinois unemployment rate rose to 16.4% in April 2020, including the loss of 762,200 jobs.

The 16.4% unemployment rate is the highest monthly number posted in Illinois since 1976. Higher unemployment numbers, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, were counted with much cruder methodologies and are not statistically comparable to the post-1976 numbers.

It is possible that, in addition to further layoffs, unemployment numbers for June 2020 and following months will show improvements as temporary layoffs are reversed and employees are called back to work. Various federal programs, headed by the employer-assistance Paycheck Protection Program, aim at helping maintain existing workforces and encouraging employee callbacks.

House Republicans Call on Auditor General to Audit Illinois Department of Employment Security. State Representatives Terri Bryant, Charlie Meier, Brad Stephens and Mike Marron held a zoom press conference on Thursday to highlight failures at the Illinois Department of Employment Security and call for an independent audit of the agency.

State Rep. Terri Bryant led a joint effort of House Republicans demanding answers after a May 15 phone call from a constituent revealed a possible data breach on the unemployment application website.

“My constituent was able to view highly sensitive personal information of more than 32,000 Illinoisans that applied for assistance under the pandemic unemployment assistance program (PUA),” Bryant said. “The data breach comes at a time we also learned of a massive no-bid contract that was given to Deloitte to build the website and the failure of the Pritzker administration to get its act together to help struggling people successfully navigate the system and get the benefits they are owed. The failure has been spectacular, and is completely unacceptable. That is why I am calling for IDES to be audited.”

Rep. Mike Marron says many people have been left behind due to failures at IDES. Marron has launched several videos on social media calling on the governor to fix failures at IDES and improve customer service for those trying to apply for unemployment assistance.

“Regrettably, after five weeks dodging our questions the Governor is not willing to engage the General Assembly or even to this point acknowledge that there is a problem at the Illinois Department of Employment Services,” said Rep. Marron. “This is why we are asking for a full audit of IDES, because if the Governor won’t take responsibility and fix this problem, then we will.”

Rep. Charlie Meier agreed with Marron, saying his office has been inundated with people that are either unable to file for unemployment or scared their identity has been compromised.

“Before Governor Pritzker forced over a million Illinoisans out of work, he should have made sure the agency he oversees, IDES was ready to handle every unemployment claim promptly and securely,” said Rep. Meier. “I still have constituents contact me because they are waiting to receive their unemployment check. I see no sense of urgency from this Governor to have these claims processed faster.”

Rep. Brad Stephens says an independent audit of IDES will reveal important details on how decisions were made and what entities received taxpayer dollars to carry out contract services.

“These employees complied with the stay at home order, and they kept up their end of the bargain by staying at home. What is unfathomable is that it has been over 10 weeks since the Governor started to implement the stay at home order, and the Governor has not kept up his end of the bargain,” said Stephens. “UI claimants are still getting responses that are delayed by weeks, their calls are being dropped, and the website is still not able to handle the claims. It appears the $22 million spent by the Governor to update and improve IDES systems was a monumental waste of taxpayer money.”

On Friday, May 29, the House Republican members filed House Resolution 860 asking the Illinois Auditor General to perform a full forensic audit of the Illinois Department of Employment Security and the unemployment benefits application system.

General Assembly reaches agreement on COVID-related workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance issues. One area of Illinois law that needed to be changed was the health coverage and compensation structure for persons who catch this deadly virus while doing front-line, essential work for their neighbors. In negotiations that included voices of both business and labor, members of the General Assembly crafted the bipartisan HB 2455. The measure was approved by both houses.

The negotiators of HB 2455, which included House Republicans, were aware of the new challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 100 first responders have died from coronavirus while protecting their communities. Under HB 2455, police officers, firefighters, and their families are protected from the financial side of this illness. They will be able to appeal to what workers’ comp attorneys call a “rebuttable presumption” – a strong assumption, which will require hard data to overturn – that any case of COVID-19 they catch was contracted on the job.

The agreed bipartisan bill also contains help for out, including expanded unemployment benefits for out-of-work Illinoisans. Up front, during the duration of the pandemic, newly jobless people are no longer required to “wait a week,” before collecting benefits. At the back end, persons made unemployed due to COVID-19 will have the right to collect up to 13 weeks of additional jobless benefits as they search for new employment. Due to the unprecedented increase in unemployment benefits, the unemployment insurance (UI) trust fund is being depleted. To protect employers from massive increases in UI rates, HB 2455 provides for the non-charging of employers with respect to employment experience factors resulting from layoffs forced by the COVID-19 from March 15, 2020 through December 31, 2020. As with the workers’ compensation questions also dealt with in this bill, both business and labor negotiated these benefit changes under the bipartisan supervision of members of the General Assembly.

The final House vote on HB 2455 was 113-2-0. The measure was sent to the Governor’s desk for final action.

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