For Illinois, COVID-19 cuts much deeper than public health
Illinoisans are adjusting to the new normal.
In press conferences each day, state leaders give updates on the count of cases, increasingly strict prevention measures, and now, death counts. This is the age of COVID-19. Millions are hunkered down at home after Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday ordered Illinoisans to “shelter in place” beginning Saturday.
But a public health crisis is not the only thing families have to worry about. Riding shotgun with coronavirus is a market freeze. And in the state most vulnerable to a sickly economy, even a mild cold demands preventative action.
Pritzker said partisan politics should be put aside in this time of crisis. He is correct. Some of his actions, such as his choice to hold primary elections March 17, were criticized by the left and the right. Others, like school closures, were largely praised as necessary.
Springfield needs to pull policy levers to mitigate harm. And they should do so as quickly as possible.
Their first priority should be to “flatten the curve” of the disease, which the shelter at home directive is meant to achieve. Second is preventing as much economic damage as possible, while greasing the skids for a rapid recovery.
On health care, state policymakers can pick the lowest-hanging fruit: useless barriers.
Now is the time to make it as easy as possible for medical professionals to work across state lines. House Bill 1459 would do that by making Illinois part of the interstate Nurse Licensure Compact. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order on interstate licensing reciprocity that he said would allow qualified out-of-state nurses to practice in his state in “one day.”
Illinois must then ensure those nurses and other professionals can legally do the work we need them to do. These are referred to as “scope of practice” laws. Illinois did enact a law expanding practice authority for certain advanced practice nurses in 2017. But policymakers should examine other health care professions to see whether scope of practice can be expanded more broadly.
Finally, the state’s “certificate of need” laws should be completely repealed. Illinois hospitals and other health care facilities should not have to plead before an infamously corrupt state board for approval to acquire new medical equipment, expand the number of beds, or change the scope or function of existing infrastructure. Indiana repealed its CON program in 1999. Wisconsin followed suit in 2011. Illinois lawmakers should revive a 2017 bill that would do the same.
On a parallel track, Illinois needs bold action today on fiscal and economic reforms – ensuring as many Illinoisans as possible can keep their jobs, pay their bills and receive core services. Time is of the essence. Illinois cannot afford to wait for the feds to ride in on a white horse. Unemployment benefit claims are already pouring in at nearly 10 times the rate of previous years: Illinoisans filed 64,000 claims from March 16-18 alone.
Small businesses are crying out for tax relief. Pritzker took action to delay sales tax collections for some affected businesses below a certain size. Workers and businesses need more. One option is a roughly $6 billion business property tax holiday covered by short-term state borrowing. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot took action to suspend or forgive a litany of fines and fees. That should be expanded statewide.
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is calling for Springfield to withdraw the $3.7 billion progressive income tax hike on the Nov. 3 ballot. This can be done by a simple majority vote in the General Assembly. This is not a political question. It is a disaster response.
Lawmakers had no understanding of the current crisis when voting for that constitutional amendment last year. And there is little reason to think it would pass today, with the associated rate hikes hitting roughly 100,000 small businesses in Illinois. These are not global corporations. They are the S-corps and partnerships, or “pass-through” businesses, which drive the state’s economy and jobs growth. They are now seeing the future of their businesses and the livelihoods of their workers flash before their eyes. Springfield should not shove a tax hike down their throats as well.
Finally, Springfield must act quickly to shore up state finances as much as possible. The downturn will blow a major hole in the budget – an additional $6.3 billion deficit according to Moody’s, if the downturn is on par with the Great Recession. Another Moody’s analysis in December showed Chicago would have less than four years of benefits to pay out from its pension funds in the event of a downturn. Similarly, a drop on par with the last recession would set the state’s pension funds on the path to insolvency, according to original actuarial analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute.
The state’s rainy day fund can cover state spending for 15 minutes, meaning Illinois has no cushion. The state must leverage as much of the budget as possible toward disaster relief. It’s an uncomfortable conversation, but pension reform to future benefits is the only way the state can save billions of dollars in a crisis while holding retirees harmless.
Beyond any government response, or lack thereof, neighbors helping neighbors will be those making the biggest difference. This is where Illinoisans’ true character shines.
Our response to this disaster – ensuring the biological and financial health of our families – will define the state’s future.
There’s no time to waste.
Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who originally wrote this piece for The Center Square. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.