Rep. Wheeler's Weekly Roundup: March 17

Taxes – Property Tax Burden
·         With one of the highest tax burdens in the nation, property tax relief must be priority.  Speaking at a press conference Tuesday at the Capitol, State Rep. Mark Batinick and his House Republican colleagues drew attention to the number one issue for many Illinois homeowners: the need for property tax relief.  

A recent poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that 47 percent of registered voters in Illinois say they want to move out, with 27 percent of them citing property taxes as their top reason. The Tax Foundation, the nation’s leading independent tax policy nonprofit, reported just this week that Illinois has one of the highest property tax burdens in the country (3rd), which contributes to the 5th highest overall tax burden in the nation.

“Families and seniors are being forced from their homes, not because they cannot afford their mortgage, but because they cannot afford their property taxes increasing each and every year,” Rep. Batinick said. “If we’re going to be asked to support a budget package, whatever that may end up looking like, we’re here to say there must be real, significant property tax relief for our constituents.”

The impact of property taxes is not limited to homeowners. Businesses are moving across state lines or closing entirely partially due to the high cost of property taxes in Illinois. The recent Tax Foundation analysis shows that Illinois’ property tax burden ranks as one of the least favorable for businesses, coming in at 46th in the nation.  

Budget – Unpaid Bills
·         Bill backlog hits all-time high of $12.8 billion.  The Office of the Comptroller reported this week that Illinois’ backlog of unpaid bills has reached $12.8 billion, representing $1,000 for each of the 12.8 million men, women and children who call Illinois home.

Money owed by the State and awaiting payment includes monies to Illinois health service providers, institutions of higher education, providers of social services, and many other program service providers.  The last full Illinois General Assembly budget expired on June 30, 2015, and the last partial Illinois budget ceased to operate on December 31, 2016.  The Illinois General Assembly is currently debating budget action for FY18, starting July 1, 2017.  Challenges facing Illinois budgeteers include a pattern of flat Illinois tax revenues, reflecting few new jobs created, and rising Illinois spending commitments, particularly commitments relating to medical services provided under Medicaid and other programs.

Criminal Law – Illegal Drugs
·         Law enforcement survey shows threats from heroin, prescription drugs, and methamphetamine.  A statewide survey on drug threats was commenced in April 2016 by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (CJIA).  CJIA asked a sample of police chiefs and county sheriffs to identify the drugs in their jurisdictions that they saw most frequently trafficked.  Eighty-three chief law enforcement officers responded to the questionnaire.  In results published this week, the police chiefs identified heroin and prescription drugs (many of them opiate painkillers) as the most-frequently-trafficked substances within their jurisdictions.  The illegal sale of these drugs is a criminal offense under the Controlled Substances Act.      

In addition to the threats from heroin and prescription drugs, chief law enforcement officers in central and southern Illinois identified methamphetamine as the chief drug threat to their communities.  Methamphetamine arrests are concentrated in these sections of Downstate Illinois, with 86% of total Illinois meth arrests in these regions.  Some police chiefs also identified threats from cocaine and marijuana.  Sixty-eight municipal police chiefs and 15 county sheriffs, representing 35% of the Illinois population and 51% of total jurisdictional drug arrests, responded to the CJIA survey.

Agriculture – Trade with Cuba
·         As a major exporter of farm products, Illinois sees benefits from growing trade with Cuba.  Most trade with the Caribbean island has been cut off by sanctions since the 1960s.  Agreements have been reached for the progressive elimination of these trade barriers.  This could provide new markets for crops and food products grown and produced in Illinois.

The Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Corn Growers, and Illinois Soybean Growers are active members of the consortium of Illinois organizations who are fighting for greater ties to Cuba.  The Soybean Growers estimate that 20% of America’s exports to Cuba of corn and soy come from Illinois soil.  The Illinois Corn Growers have begun to meet with the Cuban embassy to discuss trade opportunities. 

Education Task Force
·         Illinois House Education Task Force holds first meeting.  The 26-member bipartisan Task Force has been asked to develop proposals that can be offered to the General Assembly as legislative language to implement the recommendations of the Illinois School Funding Reform Commission.  Earlier this year, the Reform Commission proposed that Illinois take steps to reduce the dependence of Illinois school districts on property tax revenues.  Many Illinois lawmakers, citizens, and taxpayers believe that the current pattern of means used to fund Illinois schools is outdated in relation to other states.

The panel held its first meeting on Tuesday, March 14.  Representative Bob Pritchard, the House Republican spokesman on the Task Force, called for key revisions to the Illinois school funding formula.  The House Education Task Force is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday, March 21.

Elections – Fair Maps, Redistricting Reform
·         House Republicans call for vote on fair maps.  Members of the House Republican Caucus called on House Democrats to respect the wishes of Illinoisans by allowing redistricting reform, HJRCA17, to be called for a vote immediately. 

“This is one of the strongest statements we can make about reforming Illinois,” said State Rep. Tim Butler. “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue, so it’s time for the Democrats to decide if they stand for the status quo or for a stronger, better Illinois for generations to come.”

HJRCA 17 would allow voters to decide, by statewide referendum, to amend the Illinois Constitution to create the Independent Redistricting Commission for the purpose of drawing legislative districts. A poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute last fall found that 72% of voters, including a majority of both Republicans and Democrats, supported the creation of an independent commission to draw legislative district maps.

Members noted that redistricting reform is directly tied to the state budget and the failure of having unbalanced budgets for more than 10 years.

“When people are no longer able to hold their representatives accountable due to the political leanings of their district, the people have lost,” said State Rep. Tom Demmer. “That’s especially true when it comes to the fiscal issues of this state. Instead of being held accountable for taking vote after vote after vote to spend money that the State doesn’t have, far too many elected officials get a pass as soon as they go home for no other reason than the letter behind their name on the ballot.”

“Democrats in Illinois like to tout that they and they alone stand for the little guy, but how can they say that with a straight face when it’s clearly not the case,” said State Rep. Keith Wheeler. “It’s time for Illinois Democrats to stop hiding and letting ‘surrogates’ fight this crucial constitutional amendment. The question that House Democrats now need to answer is who do you stand with? Do you stand with a million reform-minded Illinoisans or Mike Madigan?”

Higher Education – Enrollments
·         Spring 2017 undergraduate enrollment drop at most state universities.  Eleven of twelve Illinois public universities showed declines in 2017 spring term undergraduate enrollment in comparison with spring 2016.  The statewide decline in student numbers was 2.8%, with every campus showing decreases in enrollment except the largest, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where undergraduate enrollment rose by 2.4%.  The enrollment numbers were reported by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and some other state universities, are often characterized as “research universities” that are not as dependent on state general funds appropriations as are some other institutions of higher education.  The U of I announced this week the launch of a new financial-aid program targeted at Illinois residents to help make college more affordable and keep talented high school seniors in the state.

Human Services – Developmental Disabilities
·         House directs Auditor General to audit oversight of group homes for developmentally disabled.  The Illinois House of Representatives approved legislation this week directing the Auditor General to conduct a performance audit of the Community Integrated Living Arrangements (CILAs) program administered by the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS). The resolution (HR 34) sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Meier was introduced in light of the abuse and neglect which took place throughout the state in group homes for the developmentally disabled dating back to 2011.

The tragic reports of abuse and neglect came to light thanks to the Murray Parents Association’s work with the Chicago Tribune, sparking an investigation by the newspaper, then followed by the Tribune publishing its story earlier this year titled “SUFFERING IN SECRET: Illinois hides abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities,” in which the newspaper “identified 1,311 cases of documented harm since July 2011 and determined at least 42 deaths linked to abuse or neglect in group homes or their day programs over the last seven years.”

“The audit unfortunately can’t undo the abuse and neglect which occurred; however this audit will help us learn more about what went wrong and how Illinois can improve the quality of care for our most vulnerable,” said Rep. Meier. “DHS has already made improvements, though I am optimistic this audit will further improve how the State properly cares for the developmentally disabled.”

The Illinois Department of Human Services has seven State-operated developmental centers (SODCs) serving approximately 1,800 residents. Individuals also receive services in community-based settings through Community Integrated Living Arrangements (CILAs), which house one to eight residents each, otherwise called “group homes”.

A separate bill, HB 740 from Rep. Patti Bellock, is meant to create a secure “paper trail” for each individual resident of Illinois CILA group home care for persons with developmental disabilities. The paper trail should include a current photograph, personal contact information, family contact information, and a log of off-site overnight visits.   The measure was approved by a unanimous House vote on Wednesday, March 15, and sent to the Senate for further discussion and debate.

Jobs – Revised December Numbers
·         Revised figure shows 18,700 more jobs in December 2016 than previously thought.  The revised number, from the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), indicates that Illinois’ private-sector economy may be in better shape than has been publicly reported.  Preliminary figures previously reported by IDES showed a net loss of 16,700 jobs in December, but a revision to these numbers erased this job loss and indicates that Illinois actually gained 2,000 jobs in the same month.

The problems noted by analysts upon release of the initial December 2016 figures remain in place.  In particular, the “Christmas sales season” in job-creating retail activity was affected once again this year by the migration of significant transaction volumes to the Internet. 

Although the revised numbers show Illinois’ job market continuing to grow slowly, the Land of Lincoln continues to underperform most other U.S. states in terms of economic growth and activity.  Illinois continues to have fewer jobs than it did at its peak unemployment level, reached in September 2000 prior to 9/11 and the collapse of the so-called “dot com” boom.  Illinois added 1,700 jobs in January 2017, maintaining its unemployment rate of 5.7%. 

Spring in Illinois – Illinois State Trooper Day
·         Day to commemorate the Illinois State Police.  HB 769 declares each April 1st to be Illinois State Trooper Day.  Sponsored by Rep. John Cabello, the bill creates a commemorative date to remember the members of the Illinois State Police. The commemorative language draws particular honor and attention to those state troopers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.  A commemorative date designation does not mandate the creation of a State holiday, but authorizes group and private acts and ceremonies of remembrance.  HB 769 was approved by a unanimous House vote on Wednesday, March 15.

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