Rep. Wheeler's Weekly Roundup: April 21

Economy – Unemployment Rate
·         Illinois unemployment rate drops below 5.0 percent.  The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) reported this week that the jobless rate dropped 50 basis points in March, from 5.4% to 4.9%.  The new number marked the first time in 10 years that Illinois’ statewide unemployment rate dropped below the benchmark level of 5.0%.  

The falling unemployment rate was not a sign of new jobs being created in Illinois.  Although the decline in unemployment was significant, Illinois once again saw a net loss in total nonfarm payroll positions tracked by the IDES.  Illinois nonfarm payrolls dropped by 8,900 jobs from February 2017 to March 2017.  There were significant slowdowns in construction (down 7,100 jobs), professional and business services (down 3,600 jobs), and government (down 1,900 jobs).  The decline in unemployment was entirely accounted for by a net decrease of more than 70,000 workers in the Illinois labor force.

Illinois’s unemployment rate, at 4.9% for March 2017, remains higher than the jobless rate for the nation as a whole, which was 4.5% for the same month.  Many U.S. states have even lower unemployment rates.  For example, high-tech Massachusetts notched an unemployment rate of 3.6% in March.      

Budget – COGFA Revenue Report
·         State revenue tracking shows weak upturn in March 2017.  Through more than half of Fiscal Year 2017 (ending June 30, 2017), many key elements of State general funds revenues have actually fallen short of the amounts raised from these sources in FY16. Growing nationwide prosperity led, however, to a weak year-over-year upswing in income tax revenue in March 2017.  Taxpayers paid $1,689 million in income tax payments to the State in March 2016, which rose to $1,805 million in March 2017.  The numbers were gathered and published as part of the March 2016 revenue report issued by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), the nonpartisan budget arm of the Illinois General Assembly.   

Budget – Stopgap Budget
  • State capital’s newspaper editorializes against “stopgap” budget.  With thousands of state employees, the state capital city of Springfield is among the Illinois locations hard-hit by the lack of a state budget and concerns about what may come next.  However, Springfield’s only daily paper has swung out against the “stopgap” budget plan pushed by Speaker Madigan’s House Democrats.

The State Journal-Register wrote on Saturday, April 8 that the appropriations bill was legislative “political theater.”  Pointing out that the bill pretends to spend funds that the State does not have, the SJ-R’s editorial board accused the Democrats of creating false hopes and “offering crumbs to a person who hasn’t eaten for a week.”  The paper made it clear that the only real solution to Illinois’ growing budget dilemma would come through real negotiations involving all of the key stakeholders.  The newspaper concluded that the partisan “stopgap” was “not the answer to Illinois’ impasse.”       

Criminal Law – Hate Crimes
·         Governor announces police training initiative.  With hate crimes and hate-crime reports increasing in Illinois, Governor Rauner recently announced an initiative to work in tandem with the Anti-Defamation League to improve the training of Illinois police officers.  Illinois police training and retraining courses, operated by the Police Training Board, will include hands-on work intended to help law enforcement officers in the rapid identification and investigation of criminal acts motivated by animus toward a victim or victim group’s race, religion or national origin.  The hate crime initiative was announced on Monday, April 10. 

Jobs – WARN report
·         March job loss report concentrates on retail sector.  Under Illinois law, when employers are forced to carry out large job layoffs, they must warn the affected employees at least 60 days in advance and notify the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).  The monthly DCEO summary of job-action notices is called the WARN Act report.

Layoff notices filed pursuant to the WARN Act in March 2017 totaled more than 2,500 Illinois employees.  Challenges in the retail sector account for many of these layoff warnings, which were concentrated in the Chicago area.  Strack & Van Til (Ultra Foods), Meijer, and Savers Inc. all announced store closings.  Each of these three store chains will let go more than 200 workers apiece. 

The distribution, warehousing, and logistics sectors also showed up on the March WARN Act report, with more than 400 job positions affected by three I-55 corridor closures of facilities located in Bolingbrook and Romeoville.  The departing food-service contractor at Midway Airport posted 336 nominal job cuts; hundreds of new jobs are expected to be created at Midway, however, by incoming food-service contractor Midway Partnership.     

Layoffs announced in April, such as the Caterpillar plant-closure announcement of its plant near Aurora, are not included in the March report.  Smaller layoffs and individual job separation actions are also not included.

Suburbs – Longmeadow
·         Toll bridge project stung by endangered bee.  The proposed Longmeadow Parkway, a divided highway and toll bridge, is scheduled to be built over the Fox River in Chicago’s west suburbs.  However, a federal district judge issued a preliminary order this week to halt work on the project.  The order was issued in response to a filing by project opponents that cited potential harm by toll bridge construction and operation to the rusty patched bumblebee.  The buzzing insect, unlike the familiar honeybee or its cousin the African bee, is a species native to North America.  It may live in the Brunner Forest Preserve, which the parkway is scheduled to intersect.  The federal government last month declared the rusty patched bumblebee to be an endangered species.  The judicial order asked proponents of the project to show cause why this preliminary order should not move forward.  Work on the project (scheduled to cost at least $150 million) is halted until at least April 25.  

Transportation – Airlines
·         Breen sponsors bill to prevent involuntary eviction of ticketed passengers from planesHouse Bill 4034, by Rep. Peter Breen, will create the Airline Passenger Protection Act.  If this bill becomes law, it will protect the rights of passengers on airplanes taking off from Illinois airports such as O’Hare International.  The measure bans any employee or contractor of the Illinois public sector (including airport police and security guards) from involuntarily removing a passenger from an aircraft by force when the passenger is seated in a seat confirmed by a valid ticket.  Various narrowly-crafted exceptions are included to cover circumstances where a passenger’s behavior violates the standard of conduct in public places; for example, a passenger can be evicted from a plane if he or she has committed a breach of the peace.  

Transportation – Railroads
·         Analysts say Illinois poised for increase in railroad container traffic.  Major increases in railroad shipments of containers – those long steel boxes loaded, often two-high, onto railroad flatcars, have become a familiar sight in Illinois.  Many of the international containers we see in Illinois have been shipped from ports on the U.S. West Coast.  Analysts say, however, that more of the westbound traffic coming to the Midwest from the East Coast will be shipped in containers as well.  Like West Coast traffic, these containers from the East Coast will include plenty of exports from Asia.  Ongoing work to widen the Panama Canal will make the venerable waterway and the East Coast ports it serves more accessible to international container shipping.  

Railroad conglomerate CSX, one of the dominant carriers in the eastern half of the U.S., is preparing to handle increased container shipments from the East Coast to Illinois.  They are deep into a planning process to construct a 1,000,000-containers-a-year intermodal terminal in eastern Will County south of Chicago.  The intermodal terminal would possess the technology necessary for the rapid shift of containers from tracks to truck flatbeds.  Large existing Chicago-area railroad yards, such as the three-railroad yard complex in Bedford Park south of Midway Airport, demonstrate mastery of this skill.  Construction could begin as soon as the first quarter of 2018.         

Spring in Illinois – Route 66
·         Bipartisan push to celebrate U.S. Route 66.  A coalition of federal and state lawmakers, including Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield, is leading an interstate push to create enhanced nationwide recognition of U.S. Route 66 as “America’s Mother Road.”  The 2,400-mile highway stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles.  One of America’s first transcontinental paved highways, it was symbolic of America’s economic expansion and social growth during the years immediately before and after World War II.  The road, which is now a “National Scenic Byway,” was first designated in 1926. Its centennial birthday is only 9 years away.  Butler’s bill creates the Illinois Route 66 Centennial Commission Act.  It was unanimously approved by the House and awaits action in the Senate.

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