Illinois Public Media News
A group of Illinois lawmakers are scheduled to travel to Cuba on Tuesday, in hopes of striking deals between Cuban officials and Illinois businesses.
Representative Dan Burke of Chicago will be going on what he calls a learning mission for him and other legislators. The Democrat said Cuban imports and exports with Illinois have dropped dramatically in the past, but he thinks now is a good time to turn things around.
"Being an agricultural state, we have everything that they would potentially need, I think the controls over the commerce and industry in Cuba has been lessened in the last few months so there are business opportunities for our state based companies that might be pretty dramatic," Burke said.
Burke said the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is a reason for a decrease in exports and imports.
Taxpayers won't be footing the bill for the trip, as lawmakers will be paying their own way from either personal funds or their political accounts. Burke said the group will publish a report of the trip when they return home.
This isn't the first time Illinois politicians have visited Cuba. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the first sitting U.S. governor to visit Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.
Health Alliance Agrees on Contract Extension
Health Alliance has approved nine-month contract extensions for state workers and employees.
The director of the Illinois Department of Corrections disputes charges from two state senators that many state prisons fall short of proper staffing levels.
State Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say that numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the ratio of inmates to security staff is reaching dangerous levels at some prisons. But state Corrections Director Tony Godinez said the numbers lack the context of the different conditions at each facility --- based on security level, building design, inmate population and the quality of training given the security staff.
"We will have enough staff, no matter what, because we have established what our minimal staffing patterns should be. We will not go below that," Godinez said. "In addition to that, my comfort level is more so with the fact that our staff is the best and they're the best trained."
Senators Cultra and Jones had also expressed concerns about whether enough new guards were being trained to replace those who would soon be eligible for retirement.
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, roughly 800 recently trained guards have been hired in the past year, and new cadet training sessions will be scheduled later in fiscal year 2012.
A long overdue new plane from Chicago-based Boeing is one step closer to taking flight. The airplane maker got word Friday from the Federal Aviation Administration that the new Dreamliner 787 is safe and in compliance with federal regulations.
Joe Schwieterman is a professor of transportation at DePaul University.
He said the Dreamliner is the most notable new plane to come out in decades.
"This is a real milestone for Boeing," Schwieterman said. "It had lots of delays, but this shows the project has reached where it needs to go and they've got a lot of airplanes on order. I think we'll see a bit of a surge in order activity now that it's truly airworthy."
Boeing's new 787 has been delayed for a variety of reasons for the past three years. The company has more than 800 orders for the light-weight, fuel efficient airplane. A Japanese airline says it wants to start regular service with the plane on Nov.1.
Illinois drivers may soon see tollway fares nearly double, as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board could vote on the increase at a meeting Thursday.
The proposal would bump tolls for I-PASS users from 40 cents up to 75 cents - a nearly 86 percent increase. Drivers paying with cash would still have to shell out double the I-PASS amound, or $1.50.
The Illinois Tollway says all those extra quarters would add up to $12 billion to fund a massive, 15-year construction program. The plan calls for widening a long stretch of I-90, from near O'Hare Airport to Rockford. It would also finally allow for an interchange at the Tri-State Tollway and I-57 - two roads that cross each other, but don't connect.
For commuters, tollway officials say that would ultimately mean less time stuck in traffic. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who gets to appoint tollway board members, has said he supports the increase. Supporters of the plan say it would also create much-needed construction jobs. But critics have reportedly said the toll hike is larger than what's needed to fund the road projects.
The tollway board meeting Thursday comes after several public hearings around the state. If the capital plan is approved, the hike would go into effect on the first of the year.
Illinoisans are known for crossing into Indiana for cheap cigarettes, cheap gas and now cheaper costs of doing business it seems. On Tuesday, Indiana officials rolled out the red carpet in introducing the latest Illinois firm to leave the state.
Modern Drop Forge, a manufacturing firm in south suburban Blue Island, Illinois, will move its operations 30 miles to the east to a now vacant facility to Merrillville, Indiana.
Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the company's intentions at a Tuesday morning press conference.
"We operate on the theory that let's make it as affordable as possible to come and hire Hoosiers," Daniels said. "Creating a climate that attracts successful, growing companies like Modern Forge to Indiana is our top priority. Since day one, we have worked hard to make Indiana the top jobs state in the country and Modern Forge will benefit from our strong infrastructure, skilled workforce and business friendly environment."
Modern Drop Forge is a family-owned business with operations in four states, employing some 700 people. It manufactures parts for aerospace, truck and recreational vehicles.
Greg Heim owns the company that's been in business, getting its start in Blue Island in 1914.
He says officials with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) and the Town of Merrillville, worked with his company to make an attractive offer to lure the company.
IEDC offered Modern Drop Forge $2 million in performance-based tax credits and up to $200,000 in training grants based on the company's job creation plans.
The city of Merrillville, meanwhile, provided additional property tax abatements.
But in the end, Heim said the cost of doing business in Illinois proved too much, especially with the state increasing its corporate income tax by 67 percent in January. The actual rate increased from 4.7 percent to 7 percent until 2015.
"I haven't talked to anybody (manufacturers in Illinois) that's said, 'Boy, Illinois is wonderful and why would I want to leave," Heim said.
Heim says he does feel badly about leaving Blue Island, a city that's done so much for his company.
"We have to do what's best. When you're in a family business, you have to think back over time about the people who have made it possible for you to be at where you are at today, and hope to God that they agree with our decisions. It's tough," Heim said.
Heim says when the company makes its move to Merrillville, its Blue Island plant will shut down. But Merrillville, largely a bedroom community with little industry, won't get all the jobs that are now in Blue Island. Heim said of the 260 jobs, about 240 will be moved to Merrillville's southeast side, just east of the well-known Westfield Shoppingtown "Southlake" Mall on U.S. 30 and east of Interstate 65.
Current Modern Drop Forge employees will be offered a chance at those jobs in Merrillville, but some will be filled by Merrillville area residents, Heim said.
Merrillville Town Council member Shawn Pettit says the move by Modern Drop Forge will help the town to shore up its finances. It's been running in the red ever since Indiana moved to a property tax cap for homeowners and businesses.
"It's going to be a shot in the arm for the local economy. The job creation is outstanding. The expansion that they're talking about is going to mean more tax dollars into the town," Pettit said.
The announcement by Modern Drop Forge comes on the heels of railroad operator CN decision to move some 250 jobs from the south suburbs to Gary, Indiana, while investing millions to upgrade a rail yard there.
While the news is good for Indiana, it's angering many in Illinois.
On Tuesday, Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady took aim at Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
"Governor Quinn and the Democrats in Springfield continue to fail us. The only way we can bring jobs back to Illinois is by making Illinois an attractive place to do business," Brady said. "Being the state with the fifth-highest corporate income tax, over 7,000 units of local government to deal with, an overly burdensome regulatory environment and a haven for trial lawyers with a heavy dose of corruption does not attract jobs to Illinois."
But Quinn administration is firing back.
"The Administration reached out to Modern Drop Forge with a competitive business package," Quinn said in a written statement. "We remain focused on solutions that will revitalize our economy in the short- and long-term, including getting our fiscal house in order after years of mismanagement, making Illinois more globally competitive and investing in infrastructure and education to create and grow more jobs."
Quinn said the state of Illinois led the Midwest in job growth last year, and is first in the Midwest for exports and foreign company investment, including more than 1,500 foreign companies with locations in llinois.
"But the reality is that Midwestern states will need to work together more, not less, to market the region to global visitors and business. An approach that focuses solely on picking off a neighboring state's businesses is short-sighted; it's a losing strategy for our region."
But Daniels insists he isn't trying to start a border war with Illinois and doesn't take issue with it for raising its corporate income tax.
"It's not for me to give advice to anybody else. Every state has to make its own decisions and I respect that," Daniels said. "I never say anything negative about anywhere else. I believe the competition is healthy for us all. But I'm just going to tell them ... Indiana is now, along with a couple of Sun Belt states, is everybody's pick as the best place to do business, the best place to hire people and have a good chance to get your money back. We make no apologies for ... building that climate and we're all for going on and marketing."
And true to his comment, Daniels planned on visiting other Chicago area firms on Tuesday to make his best pitch as to why they should make a run for the border.
Officials at Indianapolis International Airport are reconsidering a decision to take down a three-story sculptural painting and replace it with a video screen that will show advertising.
Plans had been to remove the glass-and-canvas piece called "Chrysalis'' from the prominent spot over the main escalators where it has been since the airport's new passenger terminal opened in 2008.
Airport spokesman Carlo Bertolini tells The Indianapolis Star (http://bit.ly/raEJoF ) that plans to install a video wall remain, but that officials are looking into whether it can be placed elsewhere.
A spokesman for Mayor Greg Ballard says the mayor's office has expressed its support that airport visitors be greeted with high-profile public art.
The airport paid $150,000 for the piece made from canvases, aluminum and glass panels that weighs more than a ton.
Sales of existing homes in Illinois were up 18.4 percent in July compared to a year ago, while the statewide median price went down 3.8 percent.
Figures released Thursday by the Illinois Association of Realtors show the state's home sales continuing to recover, but not the selling prices.
That's also the case in Champaign County, where July home sales were up sharply from a year ago, while the median selling price had fallen 11 percent.
Champaign County Association of Realtors President Max Mitchell said that's been the case for some time, as the country recovers from the collapse of the housing bubble.
"When our market was very active, sellers would put their house on the market, and sell in a reasonable time as long as they were priced properly," Mitchell said. "What we've seen in the past two years, is that sellers have been selling their homes for significantly less."
The Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois analyzes housing sales data for the Illinois Association of Realtors. REAL director, Dr. Georffrey Hewings, said the fall in home prices has been largely due to the the number of foreclosed properties on the market. But he said he thinks that trend is slowing down.
"Over the next three months, we anticipate that prices will continue to move down, but at much, much slower rates than this time last year," Hewings said. "So, I think there's some general sense we have, that the market, if it isn't at the bottom, it's pretty close to it."
Hewings said home sales are recovering, after taking a fall last summer, when a federal tax credit for home buyers expired. Hewings said he believes the total number of Illinois home sales should continue to grow during the next three months.
The total number of homes sold in July in Champaign County was 195, up 43.4 percent from a year ago, and 105 homes sold in Macon County, for a 50 percent improvement. The 35 homes sold last month in Vermilion County represent a nearly 14.6 percent decline, although year-to-date home sales are up 16 percent from 2010.
State officials say unemployment in Illinois inched up to 9.5 percent in July, the third consecutive month it has increased.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security says there were 24,900 fewer jobs reported last month.
Unemployment for Illinois was 9.1 percent in June. But the rate one year ago in July was 10.1 percent.
The numbers were released Thursday and are based on data from the state agency and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The director of the employment security department is Jay Rowell. He says the July increase, which follows 15 months of declines, reflects uncertainty in consumer confidence and the volatility in the national economy.
He says long term data is a better indicator.
Activists who lost their fight to preserve Oak Forest Hospital now say they're going to focus on holding Cook County to its commitments.
A state board Tuesday approved the county's plan to close the hospital and replace it with a regional outpatient center. Patients, unions and community activists managed to stave off the closure twice before. But at Tuesday's meeting of the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, the county won the day.
Organizers say now the task is to make Cook County honor its pledge not to abandon south suburbanites.
"Let us take those concerns and be very vigilant," said William McNary of Citizen Action Illinois, calling the vote expected but disappointing. "Don't give up today. Because those health care needs are still going to continue beyond what they do here."
McNary sits on an advisory board set up by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He vowed to make sure the outpatient center offers the best possible care and to press neighboring hospitals to follow through on their promise to absorb Oak Forest patients.
Many of the opponents sat through the four-hour meeting holding protest signs, and some even cried "genocide" as the vote was unfolding.
President Preckwinkle said she understands the anxiety, but condemns the rhetoric.
"To suggest the people on the independent governing board or the health care professionals are motivated by genocidal impulses is demeaning and extremely unfortunate," Preckwinkle said after the vote.
The county made several concessions to opponents, including agreeing to run an immediate care facility on the site around the clock. Ultimately, new appointments to a state regulatory board gave Cook County the votes it lacked in two previous efforts to pass the plan.
County officials say they plan to discontinue hospital operations by the end of August and immediately begin phasing in the clinic services.
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