Illinois is Burning, Governor. Stop Fiddling Around.

What a week.

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And, as is often the case, the big news of the week came on Friday afternoon, when the Illinois Department of Public Health issued an emergency rule which, in effect, turned small business owners who are deemed “non-essential” into criminals if they opened their doors in violation of the Governor’s Executive Orders. So now we have a Governor who’s willing to let murderers and rapists out of jail to make room for people who just want to earn a living, all in the name of protecting everyone from COVID-19.

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IDPH already has authority under the Illinois Department of Public Health Act to bring charges against anyone who refuses to obey any Public Health regulation:

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20 ILCS 2305/8.1

(20 ILCS 2305/8.1) (from Ch. 111 1/2, par. 24):
Sec. 8.1. Whoever violates or refuses to obey any rule or regulation of the Department of Public Health shall be deemed guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. The Director of Public Health shall institute prosecutions and proceedings for violation of the rules and regulations adopted by the Department of Public Health…Each State’s Attorney shall prosecute all persons in his (!) county violating or refusing to obey the rules and regulations of the Department of Public Health… (Source: P.A. 87-895; 87-984.) (Emphasis mine)

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20 ILCS 2305/2(k):

(k) Any person who knowingly or maliciously disseminates any false information or report concerning the existence of any dangerously contagious or infectious disease in connection with the Department’s power of quarantine, isolation and closure or refuses to comply with a quarantine, isolation or closure order is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

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The rule was issued to bridge the gap between the authority granted in statute and those businesses deemed “non-essential”. As a member of the Joint Committee on Administrative rules (JCAR), I’ll have one of the first bites of the apple when the Committee meets this coming Wednesday in Springfield. Needless to say, I will strongly object to this rule.

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Not to be outdone, on Friday afternoon, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) sent an email to owners of barbershops, hair salons and other businesses regulated by the “Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985 (I kid you not) telling them that if they didn’t follow the dictates of Executive Order 2020-32, they were at risk of having their operating licenses revoked. I find it ironic that IDFPR’s mission statement is as follows:

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“The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation’s mission is to utilize responsive, innovative, transparent, and efficient (R.I.T.E.) governance to create an ideal regulatory environment that (1) allows economic growth to flourish, and (2) effectively optimizes consumer choice.”

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Instead of threatening these businesses with the loss of their licenses, maybe we should repeal the “Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985”. These rules often amount to nothing more than rent seeking and serve no further purpose than to provide barriers to entry to people who just want to make a living. If I want someone to braid my hair (and if this shutdown goes on much longer, my hair will be long enough to do that), I should be able to let someone do it without them having to jump through all these regulatory hoops.

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But Wait! There’s More!

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On Friday afternoon I received a phone call telling me that the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s (IDES) website set up to process unemployment claims for “gig” workers had been hacked, but that I couldn’t say anything because the site was still up and running, with private information being made publicly available. To bring attention to it may have done more harm than good.

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This is only the latest in an ongoing series of problems that IDES has had while processing new unemployment claims.

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When you add it all up, and throw in the fact that Illinois is going to see a reduction in state revenue of about $7 billion in the next fiscal year, it’s quite apparent that the state stands on the edge of a precipice. I didn’t want to get all “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” here, but I think the Governor had better start opening up the state sooner rather than later, or when we all get to go outside again without him telling us how to behave, there won’t be anything to go outside for.

Posted in COVID-19, Regulation, State Government | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to the People of the 63rd District

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This week’s announcement by the Governor that McHenry County will be included in the Northeast Region as part of his “Restore Illinois” program to reopen the Illinois economy has resulted in a variety of responses from throughout the 63rd District. I’ve listened to all of you, from those who think that we need to continue with the current program until the number of new cases drops to those who want to reopen now.

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I’ve sent a letter to the Governor urging him to amend his plan and exclude McHenry County from the Northeast Region, citing the number of cases of COVID-19 in the county compared to those in Cook County and Chicago, and how those areas will have a much larger impact on the decision of when to reopen. The fact that the Mayor of Chicago has announced a reopening plan that is even more restrictive makes it even less likely that McHenry County will reopen anytime soon under his plan.

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We’ve seen entire swaths of our economy go into the tank; the restaurant industry has been especially hard hit. Of the half-million people who work in that industry in Illinois, over sixty percent are out of work. The economic toll of the social shutdown can go on for just so long before it becomes unbearable. Public health, personal freedom, and economics are not the only competing values at stake. We’re now beginning to experience the social and psychological costs of prolonged isolation, which will only get worse as we cancel summer events, from neighborhood gatherings to the annual Barn Dance and all the other wonderful events that make this county such a special place to live. Will 4th of July celebrations be next? As of now, the County Fair has not been cancelled; let’s hope that it’s not.

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At the outset of the pandemic, the measures ordered by the Governor were necessary, but they are not sustainable. His “Restore Illinois” plan will not work, at least not without the kind of enforcement that none of us will accept. We don’t like being told what to do, especially by a government that failed to plan for this in the first place. Now we have a plan, devised without consultation with the Legislature, which includes “contact tracing”. That may have worked before there were thousands of cases. But that ship has sailed, it won’t work now. For those who think that wearing a mask is a public duty, are you willing to allow the government to follow you around to see where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with? Liberties surrendered during times of crisis are rarely restored in full when the crisis ends. 9/11 taught us that.

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A vaccine, if one is ever found, is months away. We need to move forward, and how we respond will determine how quickly we can get back to normal, whatever “normal” comes to mean. It would seem that our failure to learn the lessons of the Spanish influenza a century ago means that we’ll most likely respond to COVID-19 in much in the same way the country did then: in fits and starts, a system of closings, re-openings and still more closings, where individual responsibility and self-discipline mattered more than government dictates. Something tells me that individual responsibility and self-discipline will get us there sooner.

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The Next Step to Opening Up the Economy

With the announcement of Washington’s three-phase plan to begin opening up the economy after the COVID-19 lockdown, the focus now shifts to determining the extent to which states and municipalities meet certain “gating criteria” which show how the rate of infection has flattened and has begun to trend downward.

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Part and parcel of that must be a robust system of testing, not just of those who have displayed symptoms of the disease, but also a testing system to determine those who possess antibodies to the virus, meaning that they’ve had the virus in their systems but did not display those symptoms and no longer have the virus.

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A small test has recently been conducted in Santa Clara County in California, and Los Angeles. The results of the Santa Clara test can be found here. The LA test results will be published soon. Also, Major League Baseball is participating in the test, which will give researchers information about communities around the country.

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The Santa Clara test showed an estimated infection rate by early April ranging from 48,000 and 81,000 people in a county of 1.9 million people, an exposure rate that is 50-85-fold more than the number of confirmed cases. The study concluded that: “(t)he population prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Santa Clara County implies that the infection is much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases.”

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One of the researchers on this test, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya recently recorded an interview on the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge:.

Watch this video on YouTube.

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The interview is a follow-up of one done a month ago at the outset of our reaction to the virus, and is a sober discussion of the manner by which we can begin to accumulate the data we need to determine the true extent of the spread of the virus and a means of finding a path out of our current lockdown, including compliance with the roadmap outlined by the White House.

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Dr. Bhattacharya clearly lays out the upsides and the downsides of what these studies will describe, and in no way undermines the current reaction to the virus, such as social distancing. However, he also points out that the biggest danger to public health lies in areas where the virus threatens to overwhelm the local health systems, such as Chicago, New York and other major population centers. Proper testing, including these types of antibody tests now being conducted, may provide us with a pathway to opening up our economy on a more granular and regional basis as we obtain more accurate data about the actual exposure rate and what that rate tells us about the lethality of the virus.

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We must also take into consideration the public health impact from shutting down the economy, which is measurable in terms of depression, suicide, domestic violence and other negative behavioral outcomes. These cannot be discounted as part of the impact of what we’re going through.

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Tests such as the one described above should be a top priority for our public health officials, because they would both serve to inform the public about the true extent and lethality of this invisible scourge and allow state leaders to make rational decisions on where to keep the current orders in place and where to allow some lessening of the restrictions. This won’t happen overnight, but would serve as a very good start. As Rich Lowry said in a recent post on National Review:

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“If we are going to have 60,000 deaths with people not leaving their homes for more than a month, the number of deaths obviously would have been higher — much higher — if everyone had gone about business as usual. We didn’t lock down the country to try to prevent 60,000 deaths; we locked down the country to limit deaths to 60,000 (or whatever the ultimate toll is).”

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Under our system of Federalism, the states are (properly) given the authority to make decisions regarding public safety. While none of us likes being subjected to executive orders about how we should conduct our public lives, doing so on a state-by-state basis is much better than dictates from Washington.

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It’s going to be a long time, if ever, before our lives get back to normal, however you describe “normal”. But I think that people are showing that one of the best remedies for this crisis is information, which leads to them making decisions which are in their own best interests. Those interests will differ from person to person, but if the death toll from COVID-19 is far less than the most draconian predictions we’ve heard, we can all take credit for having used our best judgment, informed by the best information available, to help bend the curve downward.

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COVID-19 Update: Local Resources

As you are no doubt aware, the Governor issued an executive order requiring people to stay in their homes until April 7th except for the purpose of obtaining essential needs. A fuller explanation of what constitutes “essential need” and those businesses deemed “essential” can be found by clicking here.  Further information about COVID-19 and what’s being done to address the crisis can be found by clicking here.

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As we get deeper into this crisis, we’re going to depend more and more upon local services and agencies. It’s these resources that I’d like to focus upon.

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  • The McHenry County Health Department has set up a website (click here) which contains information on all local resources. This should be your go-to source for up-to-date information of what’s available in the County.
  • I volunteered at the Woodstock Food Pantry on Monday and learned that while the shelves are very well stocked, there’s a shortage of vegetable cooking oil, cereal (especially Honey Nut Cheerios) and bread. Much of the pantry’s bread supply comes from local grocery stores, but the recent run on staples has cleaned the stores out. If you are sitting on more bread than you need for the week, think about dropping some off at your local pantry. They need it.
  • Speaking of food pantries, here’s a list of the pantries in McHenry County, along with hours of operation and contact info. Give them a call and ask how you can help.

McHenryCoFoodPantries

  • The Family Health Partnership Clinic in Crystal Lake (779-220-9300) is treating people on an emergency basis only. Please call before you come in, and learn more by clicking here to go to the Clinic’s website.
  • If you’re at home with the kids and looking for ways to help them with school work or just to keep them occupied in a positive way, Khan Academy offers free, online lesson plans and schoolwork assistance for kids from 2-18. Click here for more information. This is a great resource.
  • As of now, Illinois has not extended the date for filing and paying state income taxes, even though the due date for filing your Federal return has been extended to July 15th. The best advice I can give you if you won’t have your Federal return done by April 15th (which you need to do in order to prepare your Illinois return) is to file an extension on April 15th and include a payment sufficient to cover the tax liability you had in 2018.
  • My office will remain closed to walk-in traffic for the foreseeable future, but we’re available during normal office hours by phone at (815) 880-5340 and by email at reick@ilhousegop.org .

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You’re probably wondering when all of this will end and we can get back to normal. I wish I knew. We’re all dealing with something we’ve never seen before, and all I ask is that we sit back, take a deep breath and use this as an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with people and things we may have lost touch with. Call a friend you haven’t talked to for a while. Check on an elderly or disabled neighbor and see if you can run an errand for them. Play a board game, take a nap or read a book. Soon we’ll be back living at the breakneck pace we’ve become used to and may look back upon this as a time in which we reconnected ourselves to our communities, our friends and our families. Stay safe out there.

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Providing Some Property Tax Relief for Low-Income Seniors

Property Tax Credit

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Property taxes are never too far from the top of the list of things that concern Illinois taxpayers, and there is no shortage of proposals to lower them. As we search for ways to lower property taxes for everyone, I’m sponsoring a bill that will provide a measure of relief for low-income seniors.

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I recently filed H.B. 4289, which provides low-income seniors with a small amount of relief from high property taxes through the income tax code.  .

 

If you take a look at the tax form above, you’ll see that there’s a credit (a dollar-for-dollar reduction of tax) equal to 5% of your home’s property tax bill that you can claim to reduce your income tax liability. For instance, if your property tax bill is $5,000, you can claim a $250 credit against that liability.

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However, the credit is “non-refundable”, which, as is stated in Publication 108 from the Illinois Department of Revenue:

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“If your property tax credit exceeds the tax you owe, you may not receive a refund for that amount, and you may not carry unused credit to other years. Your property tax credit may only reduce the tax you owe to zero.”

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The problem for most retirees, however, is that since Illinois doesn’t tax retirement income or social security, they don’t pay any state income tax. All retirement income taxed on their Federal returns is shown as a subtraction on their Illinois returns, often leaving them with zero taxable state income. Thus, the credit offers no relief to offset their ever-escalating property tax bill.

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H.B. 4289 allows the credit to become refundable for anyone age 65 or over whose Federal adjusted gross income (the starting point for calculating Illinois taxable income) is below $50,000. This would allow those seniors most affected by rising property taxes to gain some measure of relief.

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The image at the top of this post is from the tax return of a client of mine whose adjusted gross income in 2015 (it’s not changed since then) was a little under $50,000, consisting mostly of a private pension, IRA distributions and social security and who paid over $9,500 in property taxes. Had the credit been refundable, my client would’ve gotten a state tax refund of $477. Not a lot, but this refund could help pay a utility bill, buy groceries or pay for prescriptions.

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Until we have real property tax relief for everyone, which can only come when we change the way we pay for education in this state, measures such as this will at least help those most in peril of losing their homes some small respite.

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