Rep. Wheeler's Weekly Roundup: September 23

Budget – Unpaid Bills
·         Backlog of unpaid bill hits $8.6 billion.  The unpaid-bill count, tracked on a day-to-day basis by the office of Comptroller Leslie Munger, hit more than $8.6 billion this week.  The red-ink number is closely watched by holders of Illinois debt paper and by international credit rating agencies and firms that rank worldwide debtors by chances of insolvency.  For example Moody’s, the world’s largest credit-rating firm, currently ranks Illinois general obligation debt backed by general funds at Baa2, two ranks above “junk bond” level.  Moody’s adds that they have a “negative outlook” on Illinois’ current Baa2 rating.  Analysts at Moody’s report that Illinois’ “structural budget gap” currently equals at least 15% of Illinois general fund and pension expenditures.    

The backlog, counted as of Thursday, September 22, represents more than $8.6 billion in bills payable from Illinois general funds.  These bills have either been presented to the Illinois Comptroller for payment, or are known to be waiting in the coffers of various State agencies for presentation and payment.  Many of these bills are request for reimbursement to providers of supplies and services to the State and its clients, particularly medical and nursing care provided to Medicaid patients. 

The unpaid-bill ledger count reported weekly by Munger’s office is likely to continue to fluctuate in future weeks.  However, the overall red-ink trend is expected to continue to go upward, based on tax payments to the State continuing to fall short of monies obligated by continuing appropriations, court orders, and consent decrees.  Illinois’ unpaid-bill debt is only a small fraction of the total debts owed by the Illinois public sector.  One estimate indicates that the State of Illinois alone has compiled obligations, including future pension obligations, of more than $45,500 per taxpayer.

Agriculture – Harvest Begins
·         Fall harvest begins amid forecasts of bumper crops.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which monitors corn and soybean yields and production in Illinois and other states, has issued an optimistic forecast as Illinois farmers begin to cut and bring in their 2016 corn crop.  The federal prediction is that Illinois growers will bring in 2.3 billion bushels of corn from 11.5 million acres planted, a yield of approximately 200 bushels per acre.  This 200 bushels/acre figure would tie the record posted by Illinois farm operators in 2014.  The 2.3 billion bushel figure for total production would be Illinois’ second-largest corn crop ever, just behind 2014.

After the corn comes in, farmers with bean fields will work to cut and harvest their soybeans.  The current USDA predictions for Illinois look at the state’s farmland producing a harvest of 600 million bushels of the protein-rich legume, reflecting a projected yield of 61 bushels per acre.  Both figures, if achieved, would be Illinois records.  Yields were held back one year ago, in 2015, due to wet field conditions and other suboptimal weather patterns.  While some parts of Illinois experienced heavy rain in the summer of 2016, the precipitation tended to come down in a sequence that allowed fields with drainage tiles to shed excess moisture.  Dry weather will become even more important as the harvest continues.  The Illinois corn harvest was 9% complete as of Sunday, September 18.      

Education – High School Baseball
·         IHSA proposes pitch-count limit.  The proposal by the Illinois High School Association, if approved by the IHSA’s board at their October 12 meeting, will impose a series of guidelines on high school baseball game officials.  One key ceiling within the overall guidelines will limit high school pitchers to 115 competition pitches in a game.  As with professional games, “competition pitches” will not include warmup or pickoff throws.  The coaching staffs will be responsible for keeping the counts, which the game’s supervising official will reconcile after each even-numbered inning.       

Additional ceilings in the IHSA proposal will create mandatory rotations for high school starting pitchers.  If a pitcher throws between 76 and 115 pitches during a game, he must rest for four days before again taking the mound; and if his second stint comes within days 5, 6, or 7 after game 1, the second game’s ceiling is lowered from 115 competition pitches to 90.  The series of guidelines is aimed at reducing elbow, shoulder, and ligament damage to high school pitchers. 

Energy – Coal
·         Clouded outlook for coal gives several Downstate Illinois towns and cities an uncertain future.  The Illinois Basin coal field, a thick seam of high-energy underground rock, has provided jobs to thousands of Downstaters for more than a century.  Whole counties in Southern Illinois have historically been oriented toward coal pits and mines.  The mines of Galatia, Illinois, and their people were featured this week by the Chicago Tribune.

Changes in global energy policy, including policies tied to the Paris Accord of December 2015, are leading to questions being asked about the long-term prospects of these mines and their employees.  Critics say that when coal is burned, too much carbon dioxide is released into the earth’s atmosphere.  Defenders point out that Americans have burned substantial amounts of coal for more than 100 years, and that coal miners get paid enough to raise a single-income family – an increasingly rare sight in today’s Illinois.   While the remaining miners are paid as much as $80,000/year, declines in demand for Prairie State coal combined with automation have reduced the headcount of active, employed coal miners to about 2,800 in Illinois.  This is down from more than 4,000 miners 12 months ago.   

Gambling – Video Gaming
·         COGFA tracks continued growth in Illinois video gaming.  The Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), the nonpartisan budget-analysis arm of the General Assembly, annually tracks and reports on revenues from Illinois-based wagering activities.  Due to changes in law and technology, our gaming industries are shifting in identity.  Illinois gaming taxes are deposited into either general funds or into other, earmarked State budget funds, depending on which type of gambling the tax was imposed on. 

COGFA’s 2016 “Wagering in Illinois” report, released on Monday, September 19, details a continued shift in Illinois gaming activity in FY16 away from other forms of gambling toward video gaming.  Video gaming was approved in the Video Gaming Act, enacted in 2009, and the first video gaming machines were approved in 2012.  Video gaming is now four years old in Illinois.  From every dollar taken in by Illinois in taxes imposed on gambling during the recently-concluded fiscal year, 20.5 cents was paid by the video gaming industry.  This was an increase from 16.5% in FY15 and 9.1% in FY14.  There are now more than 24,000 licensed video games in operation in more than 5,600 locations throughout Illinois.

Human Trafficking Task Force
·         House Republicans appointed to Human Trafficking Task Force.  The 14-member Task Force has been asked to develop ideas for new State laws and policies to crack down on human trafficking.  The Task Force was created by HB 2822 (Jesiel/McConnaughay), which was enacted into law earlier this year as P.A. 99-864.  Three House Republican legislators, Sheri Jesiel, Patti Bellock and Barbara Wheeler, served as lead sponsors of the bill and have been appointed to serve on the Task Force.

The new Task Force has been asked to hold hearings and report to the General Assembly on or before June 30, 2017 on ways and means to address the growing problem of human trafficking across Illinois.  In addition to lawmakers, the Task Force will include a high-ranking member of the Illinois State Police to be chosen by the Director and a representative of the Chicago Regional Human Trafficking Task Force to be chosen by Gov. Bruce Rauner.  

“Human trafficking” is a euphemism used to describe the forced movement or confinement of human beings.  Most, but not all, of the victims of human trafficking are girls or women, and most, but not all, are trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation.  The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which operates a nationwide hotline (1-888-373-7888) to report cases of human trafficking, reports that since 2007 they have received 130,485 reports of human trafficking throughout the United States.  Many of these reports are multiple references to single individuals.  The Center believes these reports represent 27,775 separate cases of human trafficking involving up to 29,880 victims.  In some cases, more than one person is being victimized.

The Center further discloses that 3,646 cases of alleged human trafficking have been reported to it so far this year throughout the U.S., including 94 cases from Illinois.

Medical Cannabis – Chronic Pain
·         Circuit court judge issues order favoring patients with chronic pain conditions.  The decision, if allowed to stand, would add “chronic pain” to the list of 34 conditions that qualify a patient to seek a cannabis dispensary card.  Under the Illinois medical cannabis pilot program, a patient must be diagnosed with an eligible health condition and receive a go-ahead from that patient’s longtime health care provider before the patient can apply to the Department of Public Health for a medical cannabis registry identification card.  

Patients with cannabis cards have the right to enter an Illinois dispensary and purchase medical cannabis.  Health conditions that make a patient eligible to apply for a medical cannabis card include cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), rheumatoid arthritis, severe fibromyalgia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  A small number of growers’ permits and dispensary permits have been distributed to the private sector to operate highly secure facilities throughout Illinois.  The Cook County circuit decision, handed down on Wednesday, September 21, is subject to appeal by the Attorney General and is not yet law. 

Rauner – Bicentennial Commission
·         Governor Rauner jump-starts preparations for Illinois’ 200th birthday celebration in 2018.  By Executive Order 2016-11, Rauner created the Governor’s Office of the Illinois Bicentennial and named new members of the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.  The new Commission, which is intended to represent the private sector, will work together with the Office of the Illinois Bicentennial in the run-up to Illinois’s 200th birthday, which will be December 3, 2018.

When Illinois was admitted to the Union, its population had just crossed the 30,000 level that was the standard minimum required for Congress to consider a territory’s application for statehood.  In 1818, almost all of these 30,000 people were huddled along the southern and southwestern edges of Illinois Territory, along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  Illinois was one of the territories north of the Ohio River that entered the Union as a free state. 

The Office of the Illinois Bicentennial, working in cooperation with the Illinois Bicentennial Commission, will raise funds and organize local community celebrations of the landmark date.       

State Government – Information Technology
·         State of Illinois gets improved grade on information technology implementation.  The grade was awarded by the nonpartisan Center for Digital Government, which surveys the 50 states and rates their status on digital technology issues.  As a result of its responses to the 2016 Digital States Survey, Illinois was upgraded from C+ in 2014 to B+ in 2016.  The Center for Digital Government’s journal affiliate, “Government Technology,” credited the new Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology (IDIT) for sparking much of the upgrade.  Before the creation of IDIT in early 2016, each State department had its own information technology division.  In many cases, departments ran and stored their data on non-compatible or even unique software; in a few cases, the software programs used to perform specific State government tasks were decades old.

In his executive order creating the new Department, Governor Rauner directed 38 separate State departments to begin transferring responsibility over their data processing functions to IDIT, which was directed to use its new functionality to develop compatible software, sharply increase the ability of computers in different State departments to talk to each other, and move the State’s data processing from a traditional, centralized model based on 20th-century mainframes to the cloud-based dispersed data processing technology of the 2010s.  “Government Technology” reports that Illinois’ reliance on cloud-based data processing is moving from close to 0% in 2015 to 3% in 2016.  Further progress is expected to yield 28% cloud-DP by 12/31/17, and 70% by 12/31/18.         

Suburbs – Illinois State Museum
·         Lockport museum facility to reopen on Saturday, September 24 The museum, which operates gallery space in a historic building, was closed for 12 months due to Illinois state budget issues.  The Lockport Museum’s reopening follows the July 2016 reopening of the main Illinois State Museum in Springfield.  The Museum has also reopened its Dickson Mounds visitor center and exhibit space near Lewistown, Illinois.

The Illinois State Museum/Lockport Gallery is located inside the Norton Building, a Lockport limestone multi-use building constructed about 1850 in Will County adjacent to the then-strategic Illinois and Michigan Canal.  The Norton Building was used for the storage and processing of Illinois-grown grain, serving as an earlier version of today’s familiar structures for warehousing and light manufacturing.  As Museum space, the first floor of the Norton Building houses rotating exhibits featuring the art and visual culture of Illinois.  

Fall in Illinois – Bobcat Hunt
·         500 bobcat hunting/trapping permits to be awarded.  The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is taking applications for one of the scarce permits.  The application procedure is online-only, and the deadline for submitting an application will be Friday, September 30.  Not all applicants will get a permit.  IDNR has told National Public Radio that as of Wednesday, September 14, more than 4,000 hunters and trappers had applied for the 500 permits.  Permit availability will be sharply limited because of the status of the bobcat as a “top carnivore” that needs a lot of square miles to feed itself.  The Illinois bobcat population is not very high and, until 2016, bobcat hunting was banned within the state.  The ban was overturned by HB 352, enacted by the General Assembly in spring 2015.  Those who succeed in getting a permit will be granted permission to try to take the animal during the November furbearing seasons.  The starting dates for the November furbearer trapping and shooting seasons, which begin on Saturday, November 5 for northern trapping, can be found here.   

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