New year, new General Assembly

New General Assembly to take office January 11
With the coming of the new year, the members of the House and Senate elected last fall will formally take the oath of office and begin the 100th General Assembly at noon on Wednesday, January 11 in Springfield. Democrats will continue to hold the majority in both houses, as there will be 67 Democrats and 51 Republicans in the House, and 37 Democrats and 22 Republicans in the Senate.

Of course, putting together budgets for the remainder of this fiscal year as well as next fiscal year will have to be our top priority in this session. The stopgap budget which we passed last summer expired on December 31, so the state is once again operating without a budget in most areas. One notable exception is K-12 education, which was funded for a full year. The lame duck 99th General Assembly is scheduled to meet for its final two days January 9 and 10 before the new legislature is sworn in.

We will be attempting to take on some other important issues in the new General Assembly as well: such as term limits and redistricting reform, as well as reforms to our workers compensation, property tax and school funding systems. The education funding task force which has been meeting for several months is expected to present its report to the General Assembly in February.

New laws take effect with the start of the year
Also coming in with the arrival of the new year are several new laws which were passed and signed during 2016. There are more than 100 news laws which took effect on January 1. One of them is a bill I sponsored which allows Illinois drivers to change the renewal date on their license plate sticker to their birthday so that it is easier to remember.

Some other new laws include a new grant program for school districts to use for Agricultural Education teachers. Police officers and some other professionals who are licensed by the state will now receive more training to aid in the recognizing of signs of domestic violence. Students taking drivers education courses will now receive education on what to do if they are stopped by police. Higher fines are now in effect for railroad crossing violations. Legislation to bring Illinois closer to full compliance with the federal REAL ID act also took effect January 1.

A list of some of the more significant new laws is available at the Caucus Blog at www.thecaucusblog.com.

Unemployment held steady in November
Illinois’ unemployment rate was unchanged in November, holding at 5.6%. There was some good news in the report as October’s figure was revised to show that 3400 jobs were added that month in Illinois, an improvement of 1200 from the initial figure. Overall, Illinois’ unemployment rate is down 0.4% from where it stood one year ago. Illinois remains almost 30,000 jobs below its best figure, from September 2000, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

During November, most jobs created were in education and health services, leisure and hospitality and “other services.” The state continues to trail the rest of the nation, with our rate of growth about half of that of the United States as a whole, with manufacturing continuing to be a weak spot for the state. Nationally, the November unemployment rate was 4.6%.

IDOT testing the use of drones for road projects
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is testing the use of drones for use on road projects to improve worker safety, cut down on expenses and find new ways of inspecting bridges or responding to emergencies. IDOT recently purchased a pair of drones to use for mapping, bridge inspection and monitoring the progress of its projects, with an eye toward having fewer workers in dangerous positions.

IDOT says the use of the new drones will be in compliance with guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration and will be overseen by the Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics.

Serving Those Who Served
A couple of months ago I told you about the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs’ program, Serving Those Who Served, an initiative to encourage Illinois residents to engage in a community service program to help local veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 570 volunteers engaged in 41 different projects around the state during November. These volunteers did such things as help out at local veterans homes, moving furniture into new homes for homeless veterans, and painting and otherwise fixing up some properties.

IDVA officials intend to make Serving Those Who Served an annual event every November. Thanks to our veterans and thanks to everyone who stepped forward in any way to assist those who have served our nation.

Did You Know?
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources maintains dozens of state parks throughout Illinois. Over 44 million visitors enjoy an Illinois State Park each year. The DNR system includes historic sites, beaches, scenic vistas, fish and wildlife areas and conservation areas from one end of the state to the other. In our area, the system includes both the Iroquois and Woodford Fish and Wildlife Areas. Statewide highlights include Illinois’ first state park, Fort Massac, the historic Mississippi Palisades and Starved Rock, and many recreational opportunities throughout Illinois.