Week in Review: Bears, cicadas, opioid crisis & more


Moody’s adds “positive” outlook to State of Illinois credit rating of A3. This moves Illinois further away from “junk bond” territory. However, Illinois debts continue to have a lower credit rating than the debts issued by most U.S. states. Illinois taxpayers continue to be required to pay higher interest rates than most other states on the debts sold to rebuild public roads, bridges, and infrastructure. This is an increasing concern in a time of rising worldwide interest rates.

Moody’s now has a “positive” outlook on Illinois general obligation (GO) debt, but the debt continues to be ranked within its lowest “A” level, A3. The credit rating firm attributed this positive outlook to the State’s conservative revenue assumptions and a stream of new cash flow from the legalization of sports betting. Moody’s had previously rated Illinois GO debt at Baa1, the highest “B” level. All debt below “Baa3” is considered junk debt by the credit rating services. Junk debt, a category applied to debts in danger of default, typically demands high premiums in the marketplace. Many pension funds and other savings pathways are legally barred or severely discouraged from making long-term investments in junk debt. Illinois barely escaped the “junk bond” category during a recent period that ended in 2021.

“Build Illinois” debt, which is a separate category of Illinois debt that contains close legal and cash-flow ties to GO debt, has also been raised by Moody’s to A3. Illinois has many categories of debts and unfunded pension obligations. The total State debt load borne by Illinois taxpayers, including unfunded pension liabilities, is well in excess of $200 billion – more than $20,000 per Illinois resident. Moody’s “positive” credit rating move was published on Tuesday, April 14.

The estimated cost of new Chicago Bears lakefront stadium is $4.6 billion. In a stadium proposal presented to Chicago by Bears ownership this week, the domed, enclosed stadium would be built on the current site of historic Soldier Field, which would be almost entirely demolished. With 365-day operating ability, the proposed indoor stadium could be used for large U.S. sporting events, such as the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four Tournament. The Bears released a series of computer-generated conceptual illustrations and animations to show what they hope the new stadium would look like.

Bears ownership say that, if given a green light to do so, they would have the capacity to organize up to $2.3 billion in private capital for investment in the proposed development. This would include not only money from Bears ownership but also funds derived from long-term advance ticket purchases by fans, contributions from the NFL, payments from future stadium concessioners, and (presumably) a hefty stadium naming fee. The current Chicago tribute to U.S. armed forces and their veterans, symbolized by the name “Soldier Field” borne by the current stadium, might well disappear along with the old field.

The April 2024 Chicago lakefront stadium proposal includes a request that public funding provide an additional $2.3 billion to the $4.6 billion development. Of this sum, $900 million would be used to complete the build-out of the $3.2 billion stadium itself, and $1.4 billion would be required for what is described as infrastructure improvements around and outside the stadium. The proposed location is highly sensitive to development, with a crowded highway (DuSable-Lake Shore Drive) only feet away. Much of the infrastructure funds would be used to build a large railway station, with associated sports-themed development, on the other side of the highway from the new stadium.

The city of Chicago and the Illinois Sports Facility Authority already owe debts of $640 million for the existing Soldier Field, a stadium structure that was renovated in 2002-2003. Illinois House Republicans did not participate in the new Bears stadium proposal’s unveiling and did not make any commitment to it. The proposal was unveiled on Wednesday, April 24.

Haas passes bill to address childcare shortage. State Representative Jackie Haas passed legislation in the House of Representatives last week aimed at increasing the number of childcare providers in Illinois.

“The passage of House Bill 4059 is the first step in addressing the critical shortage of licensed daycare providers in the state of Illinois,” said Rep. Haas. “This bill ensures the Department of Children and Family Services continues to host at least two licensing orientation programs in each district for individuals interested in becoming daycare providers.”

House Bill 4059 ensures access to daycare licensing programs statewide by requiring the Department of Children and Family Services, or any State agency that assumes daycare licensing responsibilities, to host licensing orientation programs at least twice annually in each representative district in the State to help educate potential day care center, day care home, and group day care home providers about the child day care licensing process.

Rep. Haas continued, “If we want to address the shortage of daycare providers, we need to start by creating pipelines for interested applicants from all corners of Illinois. Addressing this shortage is a bipartisan issue that affects every district in the state, and I look forward to seeing the legislation receive similarly high support when it’s taken up by the Senate.”

The bill won unanimous support in the House and will now be taken up by the Senate.

Opposition to legislation targeting 14(c) workers grows. Since 1938, the United States Department of Labor has provided opportunities through Section 14(c) certificates to provide every American with a chance to work. These certificates allow employers to hire intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals at wages below the federal minimum and set up “workshops” to provide support for these workers. Despite the incredible strides our nation has made to promote inclusivity and dignity in the workplace for Americans with disabilities, new legislation in Illinois threatens to eliminate these programs entirely. As a result, many concerned legislators are speaking out.

In the 2023 spring legislative session, HB 793, sponsored by Rep. Theresa Mah, was first heard on the House Floor. The bill, titled the “Dignity in Pay Act”, contained several provisions; most prominently, text that would end the issuing of Section 14(c) certificates to employers. Rep. Mah and several other legislators have suggested that, instead of supporting the 14(c) programs cherished by so many disabled workers, these programs should be eliminated and employers should be required to pay workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities according to normal minimum wage standards.

The issue with forcing programs that hire individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to pay them a minimum wage is that it is not economically feasible. “A lot of the workers work at 12% of what a normal worker works. In a 10-hour time, they’ll pay that worker $140 where one college student could do that same work in 1 hour,” said Representative Charlie Meier. Rep. Meier, who has long been an advocate for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has highlighted that requiring minimum wage pay would ultimately harm workers with these disabilities. “There are 3,591 clients, we believe, in the state of Illinois. Where this has been done in other states, a lot of times, 70 to 80% of these residents never work again.”

Rep. Meier’s claims are substantially supported by research done at the federal level. When analyzing SB 2488, legislation proposed at the federal level intended to eliminate 14(c) certificates, the Congressional Budget Office stated that “larger mandated wage increases would cause larger increases in joblessness. The increase in joblessness might also be relatively large because the disabled workers affected by this section are less productive.”

Opponents of 14(c) programs often insist that expensive day programs are better alternatives for adults with these disabilities and cite that the programs have job trainers to help disabled individuals find work. However, despite promoting these programs, Illinois has cut the number of job trainers in recent years by nearly 14% according to Rep. Meier. Moreover, the Illinoisans who would be funneled into these day programs would much rather stay where they are. “They don’t want a day program five days a week,” said Rep. Meier. “They want to work. They want to be proud of their jobs”

House Bill 793, if passed, would also negatively impact disabled workers who do find themselves working minimum wage jobs. Many workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If these workers are paid a standard wage, they could lose a percentage of their supplemental income. If they quit or lose their job, they would have to start over with the Social Security Administration to have their benefits reinstated, a process that typically takes 6 to 9 months according to Rep. Meier.

While earning a wage for one’s work is important, many advocates of 14(c) workshops cite that the benefits they provide are often less tangible. These workshops allow intellectually and developmentally disabled people to gain useful skills, learn how to be independent, and most importantly, feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and accomplishment. “They need to see how happy our clients are; how proud they are,” said Rep. Meier. “They’re trying to take this away from them.

Illinois metro area unemployment rates in March 2024. The overall unadjusted Illinois unemployment rate for the recently concluded month was 5.0%, which was up 0.7%, on a year-over-year basis, from the 4.3% unadjusted number posted in March 2023.

The total number of payroll jobs counted in this table of job statistics is almost flat. The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) counted 6,056,100 Illinois nonfarm payroll jobs in March 2023, and counted 6,071,300 jobs in the same category in March 2024 (+0.25%). The primary driver of the increased unemployment number posted for March 2024 by this counting metric was the entry (or post-COVID reentry) of tens of thousands of Illinois residents into the job market. IDES operates a webpage, IllinoisJobLink.com, to help Illinois job seekers match their skill sets with Illinois opportunities and job postings.

In some metro areas within Illinois, the March 2024 unemployment rate was significantly higher than the statewide average of 5.0%. These numbers were 6.2% in Decatur, 6.1% in Elgin, and 6.7% in Rockford. In the key Chicago-Naperville market, which includes DuPage County but not Kane County or Lake County, this rate was 4.7% in March 2024.

Grant sponsors legislation targeting open access to opioids. Earlier this Spring, State Representative Amy Grant introduced HB 1879 in response to an incident involving a stolen prescription for a Schedule II controlled substance at a Chicagoland pharmacy.

The proposed bill aims to close a loophole reported on by CBS Chicago where a Chicago area woman’s opioid prescription was stolen. The incident involved Doris Jones, whose oxycodone prescription was wrongfully dispensed to an unidentified individual that somehow knew her personal details.

“I’m committed to finding real and meaningful solutions to the opioid crisis that has taken our country by storm” said Rep. Grant. “I’m excited about this bill because not only does it rein in destruction from the unfettered opioid crisis, but it also protects the personal privacy rights of patients.”

The pharmacy, a CVS in Riverdale, acknowledged the error, but the lack of security footage and other variables have left the case unresolved. The theft highlights the potential risks of Illinois’ current process for distributing Schedule II controlled substances, which includes a lack of protocol when distributing powerful medications such as opioids, as well as personal privacy concerns. It is against this backdrop that Rep. Grant decided to act.

Grant’s proposed legislation would change state law to require individuals to show an ID when picking up prescriptions for medications that are on the Schedule II controlled substance list, which include heavy painkillers that come with a high potential for abuse.

Rep. Grant has found substantial support for HB1879 amongst fellow representatives, with over 50 bipartisan lawmakers signing on as cosponsors. However, the bill faced a setback when it was not called for a debate or a vote during the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee hearing. Despite this challenge, Rep. Grant has remained committed to advancing the change with hopes to safeguard personal privacy and prevent prescription drug abuse.

The proposed bill aligns the process for picking up these prescriptions in Illinois pharmacies with less potent medications and non-medical products requiring identification for purchase. This includes medications such as Sudafed, certain extra strength allergy medications, or even the household plumbing product Drano.

House Bill 1879 is part of a broader effort from Illinois House Republicans to address Illinois’ opioid crisis, which has been a significant public health issue in recent years. Through the implementation of stricter pickup procedures, HB1879 will protect all Illinoisans from privacy vulnerabilities in pharmacies along with drug abuse & misuse.

Ugaste bill aims to keep protesters off major roadways. On April 15, protesters cut–off vehicle access to O’Hare Airport causing major traffic delays, forcing people to exit their vehicles and walk along the expressway, luggage in tow, trying to make their flights on time. Other travelers missed their flights altogether.

The safety issues that resulted from the protesters’ decision to shut down a ramp to O’Hare caused Rep. Dan Ugaste to consider the public safety implications of their actions. Not only did the protesters prevent people from getting to the airport and create a major traffic nightmare, but, their actions could have also delayed first responders and other medical services, like the transport of vital organs, with terrible consequences.

"In light of the recent protests cutting off traffic near O'Hare Airport, it's time to bring greater charges to people who commit these acts," said Ugaste. "What happens when an ambulance can't get through, or a fire truck is delayed? Lives are at stake, and first responders cannot be held up in this manner. Blocking busy roadways is very dangerous and stronger punishments should be enforced."

Last week, Ugaste filed legislation that continues to protect free speech but also ensures safe access to airports and other busy public rights-a-way throughout the state by increasing the penalties for those who block highways.

House Bill 5819 amends the Illinois Public Demonstrations Law by creating stiffer penalties for individuals who block exceptionally busy public rights-of-way for more than five minutes or when their actions prevent the free passage of emergency responders, including police officers, firefighters and ambulances. An exceptionally busy public right-of-way is defined in the legislation as a road that carries 24,000 or more vehicles per day.

Nonpartisan Tax Foundation pinpoints heavy tax burden in Illinois. The database operated by the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation aggregates together the state and local income, sales, and property taxes paid in all 50 states. These numbers have been compiled into a 50-state chart, “State-Local Tax Burdens by State, Calendar Year 2022” that sets forth a total number (Illinois – 12.9%) that represents the percentage paid by Illinois incomes in taxes. Because of the significant quantity of data crunched to demonstrate this chart, calendar year 2022 incomes and taxation are represented for a chart published in April 2024.

Illinois has by far the heaviest tax burden of any of the Midwestern states. At 12.9%, it is well above all its neighboring states. The only state that approaches Illinois’ tax burden within the Midwest is Minnesota, with a 12.1% tax burden. Illinois’ tax burden is also well above all the burdens borne by all the Southern states, the states of the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Rocky Mountains. Illinois’ status as the 44th-worst state in terms of tax burdens is exceeded by only six other states. All of them are on the West and East Coasts, with New York (15.9%) as state #50.

Once-in-a-lifetime cicada emergence comes closer. A North American sap-eating insect, the cicada, has sorted itself out into broods that hibernate for more than a decade. When they emerge after their long sleep, hundreds of billions of cicadas will drink more tree sap, chirp loudly, mate, lay eggs, and their life cycles will come to an end. Researchers have charted the 13-year and 17-year cycles of broods across the eastern United States, including Illinois. Northern Illinois will be a particular focus of the cicada emergence.

In a mathematically unusual event, in 2024, a 13-year cycle and a 17-year cycle will come together. The emergence of these two broods will generate a paradise of insect life and noise throughout many of Illinois’ forests and woodlands. The last time these two groups of cicadas came out together was in May 1803, as Meriwether Lewis was gathering instruments and gear for his approaching expedition to the West. As 1803 came to an end, the government of the United States bought the Missouri Territory from Spain and France; Lewis and partner William Clark were settling down to their encampment near Wood River, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from the new land they would begin to explore; and batches of cicada eggs and insect young were settling down near Illinois’ woody rivers for another set of cycles that would go on for another 221 years. Their 2024 re-emergence is scheduled to begin in the closing days of April, with a climax in the Chicago area around May 15.