CAPITOL RECAP: Illinois gets a credit upgrade

By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois received its first credit rating upgrade in 23 years on Tuesday, July 29, when Moody’s Investors Services raised the state’s rating one notch, citing “material improvement in the state’s finances.”

Although the upgrade still leaves Illinois bonds rated just two notches above so-called “junk” status, Gov. JB Pritzker said it marked a turning point for the state, and he credited the General Assembly and members of his own administration for bringing greater fiscal discipline to the state’s budget.

In a statement, Moody’s said its decision was based in part on the recently passed budget, which increases pension contributions, repays last year’s emergency borrowing from the Federal Reserve and keeps the state’s bill backlog in check, with only “constrained use” of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Moody’s also noted, however, that Illinois still faces significant long-term financial pressures, including its unfunded pension liabilities which the agency said “are routinely shortchanged under the state’s funding statute.”

“These liabilities could exert growing pressure as the impact of federal support dissipates, barring significant revenue increases or other fiscal changes,” Moody’s said.

“That is certainly something that we need to continue to work on,” Pritzker said. “As you know, from the beginning when I took office, we put forward a variety of methods for us to begin to deal with that. One of those has been a pension buyout program that has been successful. And so we're going to continue to work on that to make sure that we expand that and offer buyouts to everybody who is in the retirement system that may want one.”

Pritzker said the rating upgrade would save Illinois taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars” in interest costs paid on its debt, some of which he said taxpayers are already seeing in the form of rates paid on some of the state’s most recent notes.

In addition to upgrading the state’s general obligation bonds, Moody’s also upgraded the state’s Build Illinois bonds – a program begun in 1985 to fund state and local infrastructure, economic development, education and environmental projects – as well as bonds issued by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

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COURT OPERATIONS: State courts in Illinois are preparing to return to normal operations after nearly 16 months of operating under special rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday, June 30, issued two new rules that call for easing social distancing requirements and reimposing requirements for speedy trials in criminal and juvenile offender proceedings.

On March 17, 2020, a little more than a week after Gov. JB Pritzker issued the first COVID-19 disaster declaration, the Supreme Court issued a sweeping order allowing courts to suspend ordinary deadlines in both criminal and civil proceedings and conduct remote hearings, and restricting access to courthouses throughout the state.

A few days later, on March 20, the Supreme Court issued another order that said any delays in criminal proceedings that resulted from the earlier order would not count toward the requirement for a speedy trial outlined in state law, which generally says defendants are entitled to a trial within 120 days from the date they are taken into custody or, if they are released on bail, within 160 days from the date the defendant demands a trial.

On April 20, the court issued yet another order extending the same allowance for delays to juvenile proceedings.

The latest order issued Wednesday calls for returning to normal speedy trial requirements, effective Oct. 1, which gives chief circuit judges 90 days to prepare for the delay to be lifted for both criminal and juvenile proceedings. It also provides that for defendants who were charged before March 20, all days they spent in custody or out on bail will count toward the speedy trial computation.

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ILLINOIS ECONOMY GROWS: The Illinois economy showed strong signs of recovery during the first quarter of 2021 as businesses continued to reopen from the pandemic and direct government payments flowed to businesses and individual consumers.

Data released last week from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showed the state’s economy grew at an annual rate of 6.4 percent during the quarter as its gross domestic product – the market value of all goods and services produced by labor and property – approached its pre-pandemic level.

That growth rate was on par with the rest of the nation and slightly ahead of the pace set by most of Illinois’ surrounding states. But the state’s total GDP, at just under $770 billion annually, remained below where it was two years earlier, before the pandemic.

BEA noted that government assistance payments, including direct economic impact payments, expanded unemployment benefits and Paycheck Protection Program loans all flowed to households and businesses during the quarter through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, passed in December, and the American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March.

But the agency also noted that the full impact of the pandemic could not be quantified in the state GDP numbers because the impacts were generally embedded within the data and could not be separately identified.

The most improved sectors of the Illinois economy were also among the hardest-hit by the pandemic – arts, entertainment and recreation, which grew at a 38.6 percent annual rate, followed by accommodation and food services, which grew at an 18.4 percent pace.

Durable goods manufacturing also showed strong improvement with a 13 percent growth rate, as did the information sector, which includes the media, which grew at a 14 percent rate.

The state’s unemployment rate is still relatively high at 7.1 percent, and the overall labor participation rate was only 62 percent.

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VOTING RIGHTS SETTLEMENT: Illinois voting rights groups have reached a settlement agreement with Secretary of State Jesse White over alleged violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and Illinois’ recently passed automatic voter registration law.

The agreement, approved in federal court on Tuesday, resolves the lawsuit brought last February by Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, CHANGE Illinois, Chicago Votes Education Fund, Common Cause Illinois, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The lawsuit argued that the secretary of state’s office, which offers voter registration services, violates state and federal law and “frustrates Illinois citizens’ ability to register to vote.”

Illinois’ automatic voter registration law was passed in 2017, and it requires that the secretary of state’s office automatically register eligible voters who are applying for, renewing or updating a REAL ID driver’s license, unless they opt out.

There is a slightly different procedure for registering voters who are applying for, renewing or updating a non-REAL ID driver’s license.

The secretary of state’s office allegedly failed to provide applicants with required information about voter eligibility, ask applicants about their voter registrations status, and offer information in other languages, as required by state and federal law.

According to the settlement, the secretary of state does not admit to any of the allegations in the lawsuit.

The agreement requires the secretary of state to provide language assistance in areas with high numbers of non-English speakers, such as Cook County, where Drivers Services Facilities must display instructions for registering to vote in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi and Urdu.

It also requires the secretary of state’s office to inform individuals of their registration status at the start of certain transactions, and to provide individuals with federally mandated disclosures, which include information about voter eligibility requirements.

The settlement agreement also requires the secretary of state’s office to screen out any individuals who are non-citizens or under age 18 before their information is sent to the Illinois State Board of Elections, among other provisions of the settlement.  

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COLLEGE ATHLETE COMPENSATION: Lawmakers, collegiate athletes and athletic directors from some of the state’s most prominent universities on Tuesday hailed the governor’s signing of a bill allowing college athletes to be paid for the use of their name and likeness as innovative and equity-centric.

University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman called Gov. JB Pritzker’s signing of Senate Bill 2338 into law “the most dramatic, meaningful change to come to the collegiate model since the adoption of athletic scholarships.”

The bill had wide bipartisan support in the Illinois General Assembly, and Pritzker signed it at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s State Farm Center, accompanied by lawmakers including former college athletes House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, and Rep. Kambium Buckner, D-Chicago.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, allows Illinois college athletes to be paid for the use of their name, image or likeness, such as appearing at autograph signings at local businesses or appearing in advertising. It would also allow the athletes to hire an agent, but would not consider them employees of the schools they attend and would not allow them to be compensated for athletic performance.

The new law will allow universities to prohibit a student from obtaining any sponsorships from wearing logos from certain brands during a competition. For example, if the university has a contract with Nike, it can prevent in-game Adidas sponsorships of individual athletes.

It prohibits endorsements for gambling, sports betting, controlled substances, marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, e-cigarettes, performance-enhancing supplements, adult entertainment, “or any other product or service that is reasonably considered to be inconsistent with the values or mission of a postsecondary educational institution.”

Universities and colleges would be prohibited from adjusting scholarship offers for students who receive compensation for their name and likeness. And organizations such as the NCAA, which oversees major college athletics, would be prohibited from punishing athletes or schools that accept or allow compensation.

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DELTA VARIANT: Gov. JB Pritzker stressed the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations Monday, June 28, as positivity rates and hospitalizations continued to decline but variants of the virus have proven to be more transmissible and dangerous to those who are not vaccinated.

IDPH had identified 9,697 COVID-19 variants in the state as of Monday. That includes 84 instances of the Delta variant, which prompted a high-ranking official at the World Health Organization to warn this week that vaccinated individuals should still be wearing face coverings to protect against community transmission.

Pritzker said his administration expects the Delta variant, which has proven more transmissible and dangerous to unvaccinated individuals, “to dominate our cases statewide by the fall.”

According to IDPH, approximately 53.1 percent of Illinoisans over age 12 were fully vaccinated as of Monday, while that number was 55.7 percent for those 18 and older and 73.7 percent for those 65 and older. For those receiving at least one dose, the numbers were 68.8 percent, 71.3 percent and 89.8 percent, respectively.

Several Illinois counties have vaccination rates under 25 percent. Those include Fayette County at roughly 23 percent in southern Illinois, Henderson County at roughly 21 percent in west-central Illinois, Hamilton County at roughly 24 percent in southern Illinois and five of Illinois’ southernmost counties, Hardin (24.5 percent), Pope (23 percent), Pulaski (22 percent) and Alexander (14 percent).

As of Monday, the seven-day rolling average for vaccinations administered daily was 43,219, roughly equal to the pace it was on the day the state announced a $10 million vaccine lottery that will include anyone who has received a shot in the state. The 96,042 doses reported administered Saturday, however, were the most in one day since May 20.

While the state’s case positivity rate saw a small uptick of 0.1 percentage points to 0.7 percent Monday, that number remained near a pandemic low. Hospitalizations also remained near pandemic lows, with 433 patients in hospital beds as of Sunday night, including 108 in intensive care unit beds and 46 on ventilators.

While the confirmed death toll has risen to 23,219 since the pandemic began, the state saw fewer than 10 COVID-19-releated deaths for seven of the past eight days as of Monday.

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YOUTH CAMP OUTBREAK: A central Illinois youth camp outbreak has led to more than 85 associated COVID-19 cases.

Gov. JB Pritzker said at least one “unvaccinated adult” from the central Illinois camp was hospitalized after the outbreak. According to an Illinois Department of Public Health news release, “although all campers and staff were eligible for vaccination, IDPH is aware of only a handful of campers and staff receiving the vaccine.” 

While the majority of the linked cases were teens and the perceived risk to youth is often small, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a news release that long-term symptoms can be serious and youth spread can be transferred to those with compromised immune systems.

Some attendees of the camp also later attended a nearby conference, leading to 11 more cases of the virus. The outbreaks occurred in Schuyler and Adams counties, according to a news release.

The state health department is working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention to handle the outbreak and “is in the process of identifying the presence of any specific variants in this outbreak.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.