Rep. Wheeler's Weekly Roundup: August 12

Health care – Zika virus
·         Public health trackers have now counted 46 cases of Zika infection in Illinois.  The report from the Illinois Department of Public Health states that Illinois pregnant women are now counted on the list of people exposed to the mosquito-borne illness.  The names of the Illinois patients have not been disclosed, as is standard in new disease outbreaks.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued a series of warnings and travel advisories in response to the widespread appearance of Zika in a range of tropical and subtropical ecosystems throughout the Western Hemisphere. In addition to outbreaks in Greater Miami and in Puerto Rico, the virus has been reported in all but two countries south of the U.S. border.  Affected countries include Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and all of South America except Chile and Uruguay. 

Potential Zika patients are strongly urged to take standard precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Not all mosquitoes are genetically adapted to serve as vectors of the Zika virus.  The mosquitoes that carry Zika live in tropical and subtropical environments and mostly bite during the daytime.  As the Zika virus has now been proven to have the capability of spreading by sexual intercourse, standard precautions are also strongly urged in this area.     
  
Higher education – GSU junk-bond status
·         Chicago-area public university demoted to junk-bond status.  The news affects Governors State University (GSU), a four-year institution in University Park, Illinois in Chicago’s southern suburbs.  The Standard & Poor’s credit rating firm reduced GSU’s debt rating three notches from BBB+ to BB+ with a negative outlook, a sharp demotion that lowered the credit standing of the university to junk-bond level.   S&P stated that the new credit rating reflects the ongoing severe challenges faced by Illinois’ public higher education sector, which has been hit by the overall weak financial condition of the State.

Standard & Poor’s also simultaneously downgraded the credit rating of Illinois State University (ISU), based in Bloomington-Normal.  The more than 150-year-old Central Illinois university saw its debt standing reduced from the high investment-grade rating of A+ to the less-attractive but still-investment-grade rating of single-A.  S&P pointed out their determination, after investigation, that the combination of ongoing funding streams and “stopgap” funding provided by the State has relieved ISU from immediate liquidity pressures. 

Each of Illinois’ twelve public universities, from the flagship University of Illinois system to its regional four-year institutions, is rated separately by S&P and other major credit-rating firms.  The disparate rankings reflect the relative degree that each university is dependent upon State general-funds appropriations as opposed to other, more stable sources of funding such as research grants and alumni gifts.

Housing – Cost of Illinois living
·         Study finds $100 in the hands of a consumer buys less in Illinois.  The results of the study, which was carried out by the public-sector Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), are reported by the Tax Foundation.  The study compared available consumer dollars with a “basket” of household necessities that includes housing, transportation, food and clothing.  The study found Illinois slightly underperforming the nation as a whole, with $100 Illinois dollars purchasing goods and services worth $99.30 nationwide.  In all five states that neighbor Illinois, the same sum purchased goods and services worth at least $107. 

The state-by-state survey found a significantly higher cost of living in all of the major U.S.  metropolitan areas.  While Illinois was the most expensive Midwestern state to live in, it offers better value than is enjoyed by consumers in California, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York.  In Washington, D.C., $100 in consumer dollars purchased only $84.67 in goods and services.  The cost of real estate and housing in the nation’s largest cities and metropolitan areas is strongly implicated in overall discrepancies in the cost of living.  High rental costs affect not only personal living space but also the operating expenses of retailers, health care clinics and other providers of goods and services to consumers. 

A relatively low cost of living was posted by states without major cities, particularly in the U.S. South.  The four best-performing states in the BEA/Tax Foundation study and report were Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and South Dakota.  In Mississippi, a standardized $100 in consumer dollars could be used to purchase goods and services worth $115.34 nationwide.  

Human rights – Rep. Michael McAuliffe
·         New McAuliffe law opens door to file orders of protection electronically.  Hearing from constituents that orders of protection are often needed in situations when minutes count, Rep. Michael McAuliffe was the lead sponsor of HB 6109 authorizing the Illinois Supreme Court to create a pilot program to enable petitioners to file petitions for temporary orders of protection by electronic means.  Under the pilot program, the order could be issued by a video message rather than on a piece of paper.

HB 6109 recognizes that not all courtrooms in Illinois are electronically equipped to receive and transmit electronic and audio/video petitions and orders of protection.  The new law directs the Supreme Court to implement the program across a regionally diverse subset of courthouses, including rural courthouses.  The Illinois Supreme Court is the entity that creates and supervises Illinois court rules and procedures.

HB 6109 was approved by the House without a single “no” vote in April 2016; the vote was 114-0-1. Unanimous approval from the State Senate sent the measure to Gov. Rauner’s desk, where it was signed as P.A. 99-718.        

Jobs – unemployment
·         Nationwide job creation slows down; U.S. unemployment rate at 4.9%.  In a disappointing national report, the U.S. Department of Labor announced on August 5 that approximately 255,000 new jobs had been added to the national payroll in July, down from 292,000 in June 2016.  However, the nationwide unemployment rate of 4.9% remained well below the most-recently-posted Illinois jobless rate of 6.2%, with an even greater gap between nationwide unemployment numbers and the comparable figures posted in many Illinois metropolitan areas.  Illinois cities like Bloomington-Normal, Peoria and the Quad Cities, which have or had a focus on traditional manufacturing, are significantly underperforming the economy of the U.S. as a whole.  

While the nationwide rate of job creation slowed down in July, the new-job picture was far better than in the Land of Lincoln.  The most recent report by the Illinois Department of Employment Security showed that Illinois is actually losing payroll job positions.  In June 2016, Illinois payrolls supported an estimated 2,200 fewer nonagricultural workers than had been on payrolls in May.  

Olympics – Illinois athlete wins gold in Rio de Janeiro
·         Springfield, IL native Ryan Held earned a gold medal in the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay team victory on Sunday, August 7.   As a member of the four-man relay team with U.S. Olympic legend Michael Phelps, the 19 year-old Held and fellow swimmers Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian teamed to claim the gold in 3 minutes, 9.92 seconds.

A graduate of Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, Held will be entering his junior year at North Carolina State University once the Olympic Games are over. He participated in the Olympic Trials held in Omaha, Nebraska in late June before heading to the U.S. team’s training camp in San Antonio, Texas in July.  Held plans to return home to Springfield for a visit over Labor Day weekend September 3-5.

A total of 36 athletes from Illinois are competing in this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil which conclude on Sunday, August 21.

Taxpayers’ rights – Rep. Peter Breen
·         Recent College of DuPage events spur enactment of new taxpayers’ rights law.  Now-departed members of the taxpayer-funded College Board conducted much of their work behind closed doors.  Amid public concerns that these actions created violations of the Open Meetings Act and represented a lack of accountability, control of the Board shifted to a new “Clean Slate” of board members elected in 2015 on a pledge to protect taxpayer rights.  The former president of the College of DuPage left office under pressure and law enforcement investigations into the dealings of the former college administration continue.  

In order to discourage future misconduct by taxpayer-funded bodies, House Republicans sponsored a series of legislative measures in spring 2016 to improve local taxing-body compliance with laws intended to reduce secrecy and protect the public.  HB 5683, one of these initiatives, was introduced and sponsored by Rep. Peter Breen of DuPage County.  The Breen measure strengthens the Open Meetings Act by granting some enforcement standing to taxpayers.  Taxpayer enforcement standing will be enjoyed second in line after the Attorney General, who remains the primary enforcer of the Open Meetings Act.  In the 2016 spring session, HB 5683 was approved by the Illinois House by a vote of 114-0-0.  Unanimous approval by the Senate sent the measure to Gov. Bruce Rauner, who signed the bill into law on Friday, August 5 as P.A. 99-714.                

Chicago – Mayoral term limits
·         Petition drive led by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn falls short of signature requirement, new goal set for 2018.  Facing a deadline of Monday, August 8 to submit enough valid petition signatures to place a referendum on the November 2016 General Election ballot giving voters an opportunity to impose a two-term limit on the office of Mayor of Chicago, the grassroots group leading the petition drive, Take Charge Chicago, acknowledged they are well short of the roughly 53,000 signatures they need.

In June 2016, the group’s leader, former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, launched a petition drive for ballot measures calling for a two-term limit on the Mayor of Chicago and creating an elected citywide consumer advocate position. Quinn said he's targeting the March 2018 ballot for this voter referendum during Illinois' next gubernatorial primary. If the term limit ballot measure is ultimately successful in 2018, it has the potential to make Mayor Rahm Emanuel ineligible to seek a third term in 2019.

Rod Blagojevich – Resentencing hearing
·         Former Illinois Governor’s original 14-year sentence upheld.  A federal judge on Tuesday, August 9 upheld Rod Blagojevich's 14-year prison sentence on corruption counts during the ex-Governor’s resentencing hearing necessitated after a federal appeals court tossed five of the original 18 counts on which he was found guilty.  In making his ruling, U.S. District Judge James Zagel stated “…the fault lies with the governor and no one else,” for his lengthy sentence.

Blagojevich, known as Inmate No. 40892-424 since entering federal prison in 2012, appeared in the courtroom via a video feed from the Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood in Colorado. He was eligible for resentencing after the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out convictions on five counts related to his alleged attempt to sell or trade an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama in 2008. The three-judge panel upheld Blagojevich’s convictions on charges that he tried to swap the Senate appointment for campaign cash, while finding that trading one job appointment for another does not break the law.  Federal prosecutors said the dismissal of the five counts does not reduce the seriousness of Blagojevich's offenses and argued his sentence should not be reduced.

The appeals court did not say Blagojevich was necessarily entitled to a lower sentence than the one imposed on December 7, 2011, given "overwhelming" evidence on the remaining felonies. After the appellate court's finding, Blagojevich appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to toss his remaining convictions, including one for trying to extort a children's hospital for a campaign contribution and lying to the FBI. However, the high court refused to hear the appeal.

Supporters of Blagojevich have started a petition asking President Obama to grant Executive Clemency to the former governor. The petition requires a minimum of 100,000 signatures in order to receive a response from the White House. Barring clemency, Blagojevich is expected to remain in prison until 2024.

Summer in Illinois – Illinois State Fair
·         State Fair kicked off on Thursday, August 11.  The grounds are open from 7 a.m. until midnight for the duration of the 11-day gathering, which will conclude on Sunday, August 21.   The Fair opened with the traditional Twilight Parade on the evening of the Fair’s first day.  State Fair events include judging competitions, rides and attractions and entertainment. Each day will be dedicated to an organized theme; for example, the Fair will honor police officers, firefighters, and allied personnel on Saturday, August 13, First Responders Day.  An admission fee will be charged throughout all 11 days of the Fair, with a series of discounts and free admissions.  For example, badge-carrying first responders will be admitted free on First Responders Day.  Check the State Fair admission fee webpage for more information.   

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