Chesney’s Weekly Roundup- week ending December 14, 2019

BUDGET

Fitch Ratings issues watch report on Illinois’ fiscal stability.  The credit rating agency identified Illinois as one of three states that should be closely scrutinized by debt investors in calendar year 2020.  Fitch identified potential “changes in credit quality” in Springfield as an element in its continuing belief that Illinois’ finances must be kept under close watch.  Fitch’s report, released on Tuesday, December 10, placed Illinois in the same category as Alaska and Kentucky.  All three are states with serious budgetary problems, including unfunded pension liabilities.   

ENERGY

Progressive advocacy group predicts death of Illinois Basin coal industry.  The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), an advocacy group that calls for “a diverse, sustainable and profitable energy economy,” released a report this week that projects the termination of Illinois coal mining and burning for energy production.  Stating that the “industry will be gone in 20 years,” IEEFA pointed to the ongoing trend among publicly-traded Wall Street power companies to shut down coal-burning power plants.  Five major Illinois plant closures have been announced by the industry so far in 2019.        

The Illinois Basin is a thick seam of coal spanning the Ohio River underneath sections of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky.  Illinois mines that tap the Illinois Basin follow a geological trend line from Marissa, in far southern St. Clair County near St. Louis, southeast underneath the Big Muddy River to Galatia in mineral-rich Saline County.   

FAMILIES

State’s public spaces move toward compliance with lactation room law.  To maximize the health and well-being of Illinois mothers and their young children, Illinois laws are being changed to require that an increasing number of public places have lactation rooms.  A lactation room is a private safe space where a mother can breastfeed her baby or express milk for future use. 

Different lactation-room laws are being enacted for different types of public spaces.  In 2018, the General Assembly enacted SB 3503, which imposed a lactation room mandate upon the county courthouses of Illinois.  This earlier law became effective on June 1, 2019, and a recent survey shows that more than three-fourths of the courthouses surveyed, all location in the higher-population counties of Illinois, have taken active steps to comply with the law.  As of December 2019, fifty-eight of the 77 courthouses surveyed have set up lactation spaces accessible to the general public.  

Lactation rooms are one facet of the increased public attention being paid to the needs of very small children and their families.  A new law, which will become effective on January 1, 2020, will require that each public building with public restrooms must have a safe and sanitary diaper changing station accessible to women.  Many building owners have already set up changing areas and changing tables.  The diaper-changing-station law was enacted in May 2019 by HB 3711 and was signed into law in August 2019.   

FIREARMS

Fund sweeps, interfund borrowing harm ability of State to operate laws paid for by Illinois gun owners.  Residents who want to own guns in Illinois are required to pay a fee and obtain a Firearms Owners’ Identification (FOID) card.  Want the right to concealed carry, as provided for by law?  Get training, pay another fee, submit a separate set of required documentation, and get a concealed carry license, separate from the FOID card. 

Many Illinois gun owners have faced repeated delays and wait times in translating their fees and required documentation (which they have submitted in a timely manner) into the legal documents necessary to own or carry a firearm.  The programs that generate these cards are funded by the State Police Firearm Services Fund, which is what State insiders call a “special fund” or “dedicated fund” because moneys in these funds are supposed to be “dedicated” to specific purposes set forth by law.

House Republican Rep. Keith Wheeler has learned, however, that some of the money paid in fees by Illinois gun owners to this Fund had been siphoned off in some other direction.  Upon Wheeler’s request, the nonpartisan Legislative Research Unit crunched the numbers and found that more than $13.2 million in Firearm Services Fund moneys had been transferred to other programs, including $6.0 million in FY15 and $7.2 million in FY18.

The years in which this money disappeared, FY15 and FY18, coincide with the severest years of the so-called “Illinois budget impasse” of the 2010s, including the impasse’s immediate aftermath.  During these years the Illinois General Assembly did not enact a budget into law, and many tax-operated pieces of the State’s government were living from hand to mouth.  It is not surprising that moneys disappeared or flew around during this period, but the news created another challenge for law-abiding Illinois residents who had paid the fees, complied with legal requirements, and were then forced to wait for the FOID cards and required documents that they were require to have by law.   

OUTDOOR SPORTS

Numbers reported for two-segment Firearm Deer Season.  Licensed hunters were invited to use their shotguns in the Firearm Deer Season on November 22 through 24, and again on December 5 through 8.  These seasons are separate from the muzzleloader-only window on December 13-15, the archery season through January 19, 2020, and two late-season hunting periods, in designated counties only, for antlerless-only deer and for deer in CWD-affected regions.  The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has more information on these supplemental deer seasons at their website.

In the traditional prime “deer hunting” season of 2019, the Firearm Deer Season, a preliminary total of 75,349 deer were taken and tagged.  This was a drop of 5,608 animals from the nearly 81,000 deer taken in 2018, a decline of 7.0%.  All of the 2019 decline was reported from the first half of deer season.  The #1 county reporting was southern Illinois’ Randolph County, with 2,253 deer taken and tagged.  Deer were taken in 100 of the 102 counties of Illinois, with the exception of largely urban Cook County and DuPage County.

Local harvest numbers were as follows:

Stephenson– 597 in 2019, 602 in 2018

Jo Daviess– 1464 in 2019, 1690 in 2018

Winnebago– 264 in 2019, 370 in 2018

Ogle– 612 in 2019, 737 in 2018

Carroll– 640 in 2019, 684 in 2018

Whiteside– 559 in 2019, 635 in 2018

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Mandated sexual harassment training.  The Illinois General Assembly has enacted legislation making sexual harassment training a requirement in workplaces statewide.  The Workplace Transparency Act becomes effective on January 1, 2020.  Sexual harassment has long been against the law in Illinois, but many state residents have not yet received multimedia training on the definitions and boundaries of professional and prohibited conduct.  The Transparency Act will mandate this training.

For employee groups, a typical sexual harassment training course requires a designated facilitator.  The facilitator will show employees a short series of video presentations in which actors demonstrate marginal or impermissible conduct, and will then lead discussion on the boundaries of permissible conduct and the definitions contained in State law.  The parallel process for smaller and so-called “mom-and-pop” workplaces will be an online course.  Some online harassment courses offer webcasts and opportunities for online interaction with a distant facilitator.  

For employers and employees, the new requirement constitutes a mandate. The Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) is providing some free resources for compliance with the Act, and some employers believe that developing a relationship with a professional harassment-training facilitator will help to limit their potential liability.  

For persons affected by sexual harassment, help is available.  IDHR operates a sexual harassment hotline, the Illinois Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Helpline (1-877-236-7703) during business hours Monday through Friday.  Trained personnel are available to listen to persons affected by sexual harassment and to offer counsel.  In many cases, affected persons can be offered assistance in filing a sexual-harassment compliant with the Department, which is responsible for enforcement of workplace discrimination law throughout Illinois.  In some cases of extreme sexual harassment and sexual assault, IDHR’s personnel are asked to talk to the original reporter and get permission, if possible, to report the conduct to law enforcement. 

TAXES

Cigarette smuggling is reducing Illinois’ tax revenue.  People who want to buy cigarettes in Illinois have to pay a tax of $2.98 per pack of 20 cigarettes.  This is an increase of $1.00 per pack from the tax charged during the first half of 2019.  Furthermore, this tax is in addition to the taxes charged by the federal government, by cities and other municipalities, and by people who purchase cigarettes in the home-rule county of Cook.  All of these governmental units can charge taxes on tobacco purchases within their jurisdictions.

This burden means that an increasing number of Illinois residents who choose to continue to smoke tobacco are going to other states and buying cigarettes by the carton.  Indiana has held its cigarette tax at below $1/pack for many years.  As of December 2019, people who buy cigarettes in Indiana pay a tax of 99.5¢/pack, which encourages cigarette smuggling into Illinois.  The Indiana legislature again refused to raise the cigarette tax in 2019.   

Tax analysts point to statistical evidence of massive Illinois cigarette contraband activities.  Based on the demographic and health profile of the people of Illinois, public health leaders know how many cigarettes are smoked within State lines.  However, in a report published on Monday, December 9, it was estimated that only 82.8% of the cigarettes smoked in Illinois were bought in-state with Department of Revenue (IDOR) tax stamps.  These tax stamps track the location and sale of packs of cigarettes legally sold and smoked in Illinois.  The other 17.2% of the cigarettes smoked within Illinois were presumably bought somewhere else and carried or smuggled into Illinois. 

This pattern of cigarettes purchased elsewhere, and smoked in Illinois, leads to a loss of tax revenue for the State government.  In its “November 2019 Fiscal Report,” the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), the General Assembly’s nonpartisan budget-monitoring office, counted a net downturn of $14 million in State cigarette tax revenues within the 30-day month relative to one year earlier, prior to the 2019 tobacco tax increase. 

Cigarette smuggling is a criminal offense in Illinois (35 ILCS 130/24).  Persons who are stopped for other offenses when driving into Illinois from another state with lower cigarette taxes, such as Indiana, Kentucky, or Missouri, are subject to having their motor vehicle searched.  In addition, a report to law enforcement that someone is selling smuggled cigarettes in Illinois constitutes cause for a search warrant of the location where the sales are reported to be taking place (35 ILCS 130/20).  The penalty for bringing cigarettes into Illinois from some other state is $15 per pack for up to 100 packs (ten cartons) (35 ILCS 130/18c) and $25 per pack for more than 100 packs (35 ILCS 130/18b).

TRANSPORTATION

Increased fines for school bus violations take effect January 1.  The penalty hike was enacted by the Illinois General Assembly in the 2019 spring session.  Fines apply to cases where a driver is caught passing a stopped school bus; under the law in place through calendar year 2019, persons found to have committed this offense are required to pay a $150 penalty.  The new law increases this penalty from $150 to $300 and provides that repeat offenders must pay at least $1,000.

In addition, the new law provides that persons convicted or adjudicated for this offense must lose their unrestricted drivers’ license for at least three months.  Persons with license suspensions are often granted restricted driving permits that allow them to drive to their place of employment and to carry on other close-to-home chores of everyday life.  In many cases, people in this category must attend adult drivers’ education classes, and present proof of class attendance to the court as part of a package of documents of court supervision.  If these documents are submitted in a timely fashion and in proper order, the court may reactivate the drivers’ license.    

The offense of passing a stopped school bus vehicle applies to almost all cases where a school bus is stopped anywhere to take on or let off pupils.  The bus driver, when stopped for this purpose, is required to unfold a flag signal and flash the bus’s red lights.  There is one narrow exception to the must-stop rule: it applies when a school bus is pulled over on a highway that has at least four lanes of moving traffic.  If the highway is at least four lanes wide, the two lanes proceeding opposite the direction of the school bus may proceed with caution.

Changes to law will enhance penalties for failing to move over for stopped emergency vehicles.  An emergency response vehicle that is parked on, or by the side of, a road with its lights flashing is a steer-clear zone in and of itself.  Drivers that are approaching the flashing-light emergency response vehicle are required to either (a) move over if safe and possible, of (b) to slow to a safe speed when approaching and passing the stopped vehicle.  In Illinois, this move-over law is called “Scott’s Law” in honor of fallen Chicago firefighter Lt. Scott Gillen.

Continued violations endanger the lives of law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical response drivers and personnel, and many other first responders.  The Illinois General Assembly enacted a package of legislation supported by Rep. Andrew Chesney in May 2019 to enhance Scott’s Law and toughen penalties for violations.  Under the new law, which will become effective on January 1, 2020, the fine for a first violation of Scott’s Law will be at least $250.  A court may impose a fine of $750 and up for further violations