Week in Review: COVID-19, Budget, Jobs & more

Continued progress towards “Phase 4” reopening. Phase 4 of the State’s “Restore Illinois” plan will allow the limited reopening of restaurants and bars. Schools and universities will be allowed to reopen with social distancing. Health and fitness clubs, swimming pools, and other public facilities will be allowed to reopen under strict guidelines. The movement to Phase 4 is made necessary by the fact that many Illinoisans have jobs that depend on these activities, and that a growing number of Illinois residents now understand the danger of this virus and how to protect themselves and others from transmitting or catching it.

Movement of Illinois from Phase 3 to Phase 4 is guided by data gathered and released by the Illinois Department Public Health (IDPH). In order to move to Phase 4, everybody who asks for a COVID-19 test must be able to get one; only a small percentage (less than 20%) of the tests can be positive for coronavirus; and the COVID-19 positivity percentage has to be stable or declining. In addition, other Phase 4 metrics cover hospital admissions, hospital beds, and ventilators. IDPH says that all of these metric measurements are necessary to avoid the threat of a lethal surge in cases and hospitalizations. According to IDPH, as of Monday, June 8 all four of Illinois’ COVID-19 regions were showing numbers that would justify a move from Phase 3 to Phase 4.

COVID-19 caseload update. During the second week of June, IDPH continued its reports of coronavirus tests, positive diagnoses, and deaths. With drive-up clinics offering access to test swabs, the tests are being taken by Illinois residents at a rate of at least 16,000 tests per day, and the number of Illinois COVID-19 tests has passed 1.0 million. More than 130,000 of these tests have come back positive, but as of the first week of June 2020, the positivity rate had dropped below 5%, to 4% - a key factor in the State’s fight for public health recovery.

A positive case count below 5% still meant that hundreds of new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed every day this week in Illinois. As of Thursday, June 11, 6,185 Illinois deaths had been reported by health care providers to IDPH. Illinois’ case count and death rate continued to be slightly higher than the national average, with health care providers continuing to track an epicenter of the contagious virus in and around the city of Chicago.

Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairs cancelled due to COVID-19. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Pritzker will issue an Executive Order cancelling the Illinois and Du Quoin State Fairs this year. The announcement of the cancellations has prompted the Department of Agriculture to offer a safe, creative way to ensure youth exhibitors still get a chance to showcase their hard work. The annual State Fairs, which attracted over 600,000 visitors combined in 2019, will return in August 2021.

Due to the cancellations of the fairs, the Department of Agriculture will host a Junior Livestock Expo in Springfield in September, for Illinois exhibitors ages 8-21 to show their animals. The 4-H General Project Show will take place virtually, with premiums and ribbons to be distributed by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Details regarding entry and operations are forthcoming.

The State Fair was previously cancelled from 1942-1945 due to World War II, as the fairgrounds were used as a U.S. Army Airforce supply depot. The Fair was also cancelled in 1862 due to the Civil War and was replaced in 1893 by the World's Columbia Expo in Chicago.

2020 will mark the first time the Du Quoin State Fair has been cancelled since the State took over the grounds in 1986. No grandstand announcements had been made yet for the Du Quoin State Fair, but fair staff have been working diligently to put on another great fair in Southern Illinois.

Gov. Pritzker signs unbalanced FY21 budget into law. The FY21 budget and “Budget Implementation Act” spending bills were signed into law on Wednesday, June 10. This clears the way for the documents to be used to operate the State’s business in Fiscal Year 2021, starting July 1. The bills were SB 264 (budget) and HB 357 (budget implementation law).

The Constitution of Illinois requires that the General Assembly, each year, enact a balanced budget (Article VIII, subsection 2(b)). Although State revenues have fallen off the table during the COVID-19 pandemic and these lost revenues are expected to continue into FY21, the majority party made no significant cuts in the FY21 budget to help offset the loss in revenues. SB 264, for the most part, held spending flat at FY20 levels, which included significant increases compared to FY19.

To cover the losses from declining revenue, Democrats made clear that they would rely on borrowing, including $1.2 billion in previously authorized emergency borrowing powers and up to $5 billion in borrowing from the U.S. Federal Reserve through the Municipal Liquidity Facility, a new financing avenue created by Congress in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This massive borrowing scheme was authorized in SB 2099 as part of the overall budget package, in lieu of cuts to FY20 levels and despite budget exercises that GOMB asked state agencies to participate in last fall that would achieve budget savings of up to 6 percent at various agencies.

House Republicans unanimously voted “No” against the Democrats’ borrow-and-spend budget.

House GOP call on IDES to reopen local offices. State Representative Joe Sosnowski sent a letter to the Director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security on Tuesday calling on the agency to reopen local offices throughout Illinois to more effectively serve residents in need of unemployment benefits amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter was co-signed by 25 members of the House Republican Caucus, including Reps. Tony McCombie and Grant Wehrli.

“Legislators’ offices, regardless of which side of the aisle, continue to be inundated with inquiries from constituents trying to access benefits extended to them, but they are unable to reach a live person,” said McCombie. “Many businesses, including a myriad of Executive Branch agencies like Drivers’ Services Facilities, reopened already on or after we moved into Phase 3 of the Governor’s Restore Illinois Plan. Government employees have always been considered essential, so why are the frontline offices needed so desperately to serve families out of work still closed?”

“The number one issue in my office continues to be problems with the IL Department of Employment Security, and people’s inability to secure unemployment benefits that are due to them,” said Wehrli. “Businesses were supposed to reopen on May 29 when the state moved to Phase 3 of the Governor’s reopen plan. Why are local IDES offices still closed?”

Illinois convention business hard-hit by pandemic. In normal times, one of the state’s largest industries is the convention and hospitality industry. Illinois’ location close to the population center of the United States and its economy has made Chicago a key convention center for more than 100 years. The McCormick Place complex, operated by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), is one of the three largest convention complexes in the United States. Together with competing centers in Orlando and Las Vegas, the 2.67-million-square foot McCormick Place complex offers show producers the opportunity to host and produce so-called “megashows” that draw in specialists and professionals from around the world.

However, in 2020 many of these megashows are not taking place. Surveys of potential convention-goers show continued strong reluctance to travel by plane, to stay in large public hotel buildings, and to mingle in commercial megashow conventions. The U.S. entities that oversee and produce these conventions are taking steps to suspend their activities for 2020. McCormick Place megashows are especially affected. This week, the producers of the International Manufacturing Technology Show, an event that would have brought in an estimated 129,000 global visitors, announced that their September 2020 McCormick Place event was cancelled. Cancellations of this type have already reduced 2020 spending in the Chicago area by an estimated $1.4 billion below expected rates of economic activity. A wide variety of specialty career leaders and personnel, ranging from owners of Chicago restaurants to rigger-operators of the complex machines used to rapidly put up and take down convention-floor pavilions, are heavily affected by these cancellations.

COVID-19 workers’ compensation bill signed into law. House Bill 2455 covers cases of coronavirus diagnoses in Illinois front-line essential workers, including first responders. With regards to when someone who has to work with the public comes down with COVID-19, the new law provides that there is what workers’ compensation lawyers call a “rebuttable presumption” that the employee was exposed to the disease at work. This legal language offers significant relief to COVID-19 patients and their medical care providers. Additional workers’ compensation language within HB 2455 enacted additional status benefits for the families of first responders, including police officers and firefighters, who pass away from coronavirus after serving on public duty.

Additional pieces of HB 2455, a COVID-19 employment omnibus bill, help Illinois residents who were unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The bill abolishes the “waiting week” that would otherwise have been imposed by IDES upon valid claimants for unemployment insurance, during which (in normal times) their status is cross-checked before payments can begin. Other changes to State law, also enacted in HB 2455, clear the legal pathway for eligible unemployed persons to receive at least 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits if they were laid off due to coronavirus.

The final version of HB 2455 was approved by the Illinois House by a vote of 113-2-0. The measure was signed into law on Friday, May 5 as Public Act 101-633.

Republican support helped enact property tax relief. The relief language was contained in SB 685, passed by the General Assembly during the May special session. Responding to the cash-flow crunches being faced by many Illinois households, the legislature took action on a bipartisan basis to temporarily stop counties from offering up delinquent properties for tax sale. Under this new law, the annual tax sale that would ordinarily be held in calendar year 2020, to bring in money on delinquent parcels of real property, shall be held no earlier than the first month after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. This tax-sale suspension applies to all 101 counties of Illinois other than Cook County, which has taken such action on its own. Delinquent properties will continue to accumulate back taxes, interest, and penalties.

An additional key provision of SB 685 reduces paperwork burdens on senior citizens and persons with disabilities by providing for the automatic rollover of a property taxpayer’s status to enjoy certain exemptions and senior-freeze rights with respect to their homesteads. If a property qualified for any of these exemptions in the 2019 taxable year, it will continue to qualify in the 2020 taxable year without time-consuming re-application paperwork. SB 685, in its final form, was approved unanimously by the House. The bill was signed into law on Friday, June 5.

SB 685 fell short of property tax relief at the level that many House Republicans supported. For example, HB 5772, sponsored by Rep. Joe Sosnowski, GOP spokesperson for the House Revenue and Finance Committee, would have created a 90-day property tax payment holiday throughout Illinois. In response to the sharp personal income declines of the current pandemic, HB 5772 would have said that each Illinois property tax bill would have been due 90 days later than the date payments would otherwise have been required to have been made. Together with other House Republican COVID-19 relief proposals, HB 5772 was bottled up by the majority party and was not released for a vote.

Ban on smoking in cars in the presence of a child. In a law enacted in 2019 with a delayed effective date, the act of smoking in a car or light truck in which a child is also riding has become a violation of State law. The prohibition applies to cigarettes, cigars, and all other substances that can be smoked. Any passenger under the age of 18 triggers the definition of the offense.

The General Assembly took action in the 2019 spring session after seeing evidence of correlations between exposure to secondhand smoke and the development of respiratory challenges in young people.

Smoking in a car with a child is now a petty offense, drawing a fine of $100 (plus court costs) for a first offense. The police are not allowed to stop a vehicle upon suspicion of committing this offense; if it is charged, it will be charged on top of whatever other offense(s) for which the vehicle was stopped. The offense does not apply to vaping, the act of consuming nicotine from an electronic delivery device such as an e-cigarette.

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