As most states in the Midwest entered a new fiscal year in July, the unknowns about FY 2021, and beyond, far outweighed the knowns. Will more federal assistance be made available to help close budget shortfalls? How big will those shortfalls be? Will the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic be felt the entire fiscal year?
But she told legislators of one unmistakable fiscal reality: “States will be grappling with the impact of COVID-19 for years to come.”
The options to fix out-of-balance budgets fall into three broad categories: cut spending, raise more revenue or tap into savings. But some of the specific strategies traditionally used by legislators may not be available this time around. “What’s different about this fiscal crisis is the public health emergency, which can limit or change some of the options,” Kerns said. “In addition to increased spending being required to respond to the pandemic, some cuts may be impossible, or least unwise.”
Already one of the seven Midwestern states that limited schools’ non-emergency use of physical restraints and seclusion on students, Wisconsin has a new law that further restricts these techniques, while also strengthening the rules on training, data collection and parental notification.
“This is a pretty tough issue, and every time we take it on it takes a long time and many redrafts of the legislation,” says Wisconsin Sen. Luther Olsen, primary sponsor of SB 527, as well as the state’s original law from 2012 on physical restraint and seclusion. “You have people coming from very different sides — advocates for students and children with disabilities, and advocates for schools. You want to get to a place where you’re protecting everybody.”
An ESOP is a type of tax-qualified retirement plan, one that states such as Iowa have identified as a tool for helping retain businesses when owners decide to sell some or all of their interests in a company.
Here is how an ESOP generally works: A privately held company contributes its stock, or money to buy its stock, to a retirement plan for employees. Each worker participating in the plan has his or her own account, and an ESOP trust is created to hold these shares of company stock. ESOPs can be a mechanism for allowing partial or full ownership of a privately held company to be transferred to employees (when the owner retires, for example). In contrast, the sale of a business to an outside entity increases the risk of lost jobs.
According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, other potential benefits of ESOPs include improving retirement security, reducing a company’s tax burden, bolstering worker morale, and giving employees a voice in management. Since the passage of legislation in 2012 (HF 2465), Iowa has provided a tax incentive to encourage the sale of in-state businesses to employees: Owners get a 50 percent deduction from income taxes on any net gains from the sale; the transaction must result in the employees (via the ESOP) owning at least 30 percent of the company. Iowa also reimburses 50 percent of the costs for businesses that conduct studies on the feasibility of setting up an ESOP.
In May, trends in U.S. unemployment appeared to take a positive turn, one unexpected by many economists. And as the Midwest’s legislators learned on a webinar that same month, changes in this closely watched economic indicator have huge impacts on states’ bottom lines.
“When the national unemployment rate goes up by one percentage point, there are budget shortfalls across all states of about $45 billion,” Michael Horrigan, president of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said during the webinar hosted by the Midwestern Legislative Conference Economic Development Committee.
“The other estimate that we’ve come up with is that if a state unemployment rate goes up by one percentage point, states lose about 7 percent in tax revenue.”
Though the May numbers were promising — the result of factors such as the end of stay-at-home orders, business reopenings and an influx of federal dollars that, in part, encouraged businesses to retain workers — unemployment rates remain historically high.
In the weeks leading up to Nov. 3, Illinois will be preparing for a general election expected to be like none other in the state’s history. That date will be a state holiday, in part to help secure alternative polling sites as some locations become unavailable due to pandemic-related health concerns. On Election Day, individuals as young as age 16 will be poll workers, and election officials will have the authority to administer curbside voting.
And perhaps most noteworthy of all, the state is likely to have a huge jump in the number of people who vote by mail. Every person who has voted over the past two years will receive a mailing to make them aware of this option, and then will receive an absentee-ballot application.
All of those changes are the result of SB 1863, legislation passed earlier this year to help authorities in Illinois conduct an election in the midst of a public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic. “The law is for one year only, and that gave people more comfort in knowing that it was a one-time change,” says Illinois Sen. Julie Morrison, who helped lead legislative efforts on SB 1863.
Across the Midwest, big changes already have occurred in 2020, the result of primaries being held when people were being told to socially distance, avoid crowds and stay home whenever possible.