Week in Review for week ending August 3, 2019

BUDGET

Fitch Ratings calls Illinois’ outlook “stable.”  The unenthusiastic description from credit rating firm Fitch Ratings maintains Illinois’ credit rating as one notch above “junk bond” status.  So-called “junk debt” is viewed, by a wide variety of investors and investment vehicles, as unsuitable material for prudent savings.  Issuers of “junk debt” typically have to pay much higher interest rates, and must work with a much shorter list of bond underwriters and potential bond buyers.

Fitch Ratings’ conclusion this week that their overall outlook of the State of Illinois’ credit rating is “stable” is an improvement from their previous assessment, which was “negative.”  The New York firm attributes their improved assessment to the FY20 balanced budget enacted by the General Assembly and to new revenues coming into Illinois, including revenues slated to back and service Illinois’ new $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” infrastructure program.  Wall Street looks at judgments from firms like Fitch Ratings when their brokers decide whether to underwrite and purchase the bonds to finance “Rebuild Illinois.”    

CHILDREN

Rules toughen for foster homes.  Under a new rule from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Illinois’ licensed foster homes will be required to comply with the National Model Foster Family Home Licensing Standards overseen by the federal government.   These new standards are meant to keep foster children safe, and to discourage state authorities from routinely transferring children out of birth families and into foster homes.  It is national policy that a safe birth family, when it can exist, is always the best family.  In some cases, foster placement is necessary.  Foster families need to continue learning about the new safety features continued in this package of federal mandates.

Many foster parents will find that they are already in compliance with most or all of the new mandated standards.  The new mandates include home furnishing standards for homes where foster children will live.  These standards cover things like kitchens, bathrooms, and swimming pools.  A foster home will have to have a stove, oven, refrigerator, sink, toilet, shower, and bathtub.  Foster parents will be forbidden to smoke in their home or motor vehicle.  Swimming pools will have to have pumps, filtering systems, and life jackets.  Children will have to be vaccinated against contagious diseases.

DCFS has been requested to enforce the new federal standards.  As of June 30, 2019, DFCS was tracking 16,091 children throughout Illinois who had been removed from their homes by judicial process.  In some cases, while this process is going on, helping professionals can work with one or more birth parents to remediate a situation and enable a plan to be put together to reunite their family.  For 5,821 of these children, however, as of June 30 the process had gone far enough to classify these children as foster children and their homes as foster homes.

DOWNSTATE

Under a new proposal in Congress, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site could become a part of the National Park system.  The archeological resources and infrastructure of the Cahokia Mounds would become a National Historic Park.  The boundaries of the new national park, if it is created, will include more than 70 earthen mounds located throughout the Metro-East area east of St. Louis.

The rich soil of southwestern Illinois encouraged early Native Americans to till crops and build settlements here.  They planted and harvested corn, beans, and vine crops such as squash.  Nearby wetlands and ponds produced nets full of fish and small game.  During the height of settlement between 1100 and 1300 A.D., the Cahokia-area settlement was so successful that its inhabitants were able to build a city of at least 20,000 people – larger than any English-speaking town in Britain during this period.  A towering mound, now called “Monks’ Mound,” within this now-vanished city is believed to have been a holy place.  Surviving remains on top of the mound may be the foundations of what was once the palatial home of a priest-king of the settlement.  Other remains within the site show how the priest-king and his courtiers may have observed the sky, marked the seasons, kept track of dates, and advised their people on when to plant and harvest crops.

In the spring 2019 session, the Illinois House pushed this idea forward by resolution.  U.S. Congressman Mike Bost is the lead sponsor of a bill in Congress to move this proposal toward law.  Enactment of this bill would follow the creation of the new Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis.  Already a National Memorial, the soaring Gateway Arch and the park around it were elevated in 2018 to the status of a National Park by act of Congress.

ILLINOIS STATE FAIR

Illinois State Fair to open on Thursday, August 8 for 11-day run.  The celebration will center on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.  Booths and displays will once again portray the experiences of life in Illinois.  Tickets for many concerts, races, and other events are available.  Dates have been booked at the Grandstand by legends such as Reba McEntire.  A wide variety of vendors will sell festival food.  An admission fee will be charged, with free admission for children under age 13 and free admissions on specified days for veterans, senior citizens, and first responders.  This week marks the opening days of the Fair, which will also meet through the second full week of August before closing August 18.  Attention will then shift to the DuQuoin State Fair in Southern Illinois, which will meet from August 23 until September 2.  

NATIONAL GUARD

Illinois National Guard troops deploy to Afghanistan.  The 400 soldiers sent from Illinois were given deployment orders as part of the largest mobilization in the decade of the 2010s from Illinois to Afghanistan.  The men and women of the 178th Infantry Regiment have been trained for in-country deployment, but – under current conditions – are not expected to be assigned to field combat.  The National Guard troops have been advised that they will be conducting security duties to secure U.S. military bases and to enhance the security of the field advisers who are working with the Afghan National Army. 

Islamic guerrillas continue to maintain a stance of active rebellion against the government of Afghanistan, and the United States Armed Forces continue to rotate units in and out of the country as part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.  A deployment ceremony was held in Chicago on Sunday, July 28.

Other units of Guard released from floodwater duty.  2019 floodwater duties were fulfilled by six task forces comprising nearly 830 members of the Illinois National Guard and Air National Guard.  They were activated on May 30 as waters rose throughout western and southern Illinois, particularly along the Mississippi River.  These men and women, working in twelve Illinois counties, responded to more than sixty requests for assistance along threatened riverbanks covering 362 miles.  After an unprecedented deployment of 62 days, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) has dialed back its coordination efforts, and has advised the Guard to end its deployment

Regions throughout Illinois were affected by the floodwaters that swept through and alongside Illinois in the spring and summer of 2019.  Governor Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation this week declaring thirty-six Illinois counties to be flood disaster areas.  The declaration will make affected homeowners and businesses eligible for certain types of enumerated disaster relief, and will also help Illinois apply for federal disaster aid.  The State of Illinois is currently putting together a federal disaster relief application, which should be submitted no later than September 3.

OUTDOORS

Pheasant hunting applications moving online.  The process of application for admission to the State program, which offers access to birds for controlled pheasant hunting in certain public wildlife areas, is moving online.  Starting on Monday, August 5, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) website will contain dates and permit reservation information for all 18 Illinois sites where controlled pheasant hunting opportunities are available.  

Pheasant hunting is a traditional activity for many Illinoisans and their trained dogs.  A daily fee, payable in advance, is required.  Of the 18 site accessible to controlled public pheasant hunting in Illinois, two sites are operated by private game manager T. Miller, Inc., and 16 sites are directly operated by IDNR.  Illinois tallgrass prairies offer unique opportunities for upland bird hunting experiences.

TRANSPORTATION

Governor signs legislative package to strengthen Scott’s Law. Governor J.B. Pritzker signed two pieces of legislation this week to strengthen the awareness and enforcement of Scott’s Law, Illinois’ “Move Over” law. The law had drawn great public attention in the early months of 2019 due to several state troopers who had been struck on Illinois highways, three of them fatally.

Scott’s Law mandates drivers to move over a lane and slow down, if possible, when approaching not only emergency vehicles, but all vehicles on the side of the road with hazard lights enabled. However, the penalty structure of previous law made it logistically difficult to enforce, as well as lacking a robust motorist awareness program. The package of legislation to strengthen the law consists of Senate Bill 1862 and Senate Bill 2038.

SB 1862 includes the following:

  • Expands the protection classifications;
  • Increases the minimum fine to $250 for a first violation and to $750 for a second or subsequent violation, up to a maximum of $10,000;
  • Adds a $250 assessment fee for any violation to be deposited into a new dedicated fund to produce driver education materials, called the Scott’s Law Fund;

Increases the criminal penalty to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail if the violation results in damage to another vehicle, or a Class 4 felony, punishable by up to one to three years in jail if the violation results in the injury or death of another person;

  • Amends the Criminal Code of 2012 to include firefighter and emergency medical service personnel while acting within the scope of their official duties;
  • Adds aggravating factors to reckless homicide charges.

The second piece of legislation, SB 2038, requires the Secretary of State to include a written question related to Scott’s Law on the driver’s license exam. It also creates the Move Over Task Force to study the issue of violations of Scott’s Law, the disabled vehicle law, and the stationary authorized emergency vehicle law, with attention to the causes of the violations and ways to protect law enforcement and emergency responders. Members of the Task Force must serve without compensation and must meet no fewer than three times. Additionally, the Task Force must present its report and recommendations to the General Assembly no later than January 1, 2020.