Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Hiring in Illinois Outpaces National Average

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

The latest government data suggest some states are recovering much faster than others from the recession, including a few that were hit the hardest.

U.S. companies have added jobs for 12 straight months, but the gains have been uneven.

The U.S. Labor Department says the unemployment rate dropped in 27 states in February, including Illinois. It rose in seven states and stayed the same in 16. Last week, the Illinois Department of Employment Security announced the state's jobless rate had fallen to 8.9 percent for Februrary. That's the first time since February 2009 that the unemployment rate has been below nine percent - and the 13th consecutive monthly decline in unemployment rolls.

Job growth in Illinois stands at 1.5 percent, which slightly outpaces the national average of 1.0 percent. The industries posting the biggest job increases in Illinois include Professional and Business Services, Education and Health Services, and Trade, Transporation and Utilities.

Forty-four states have added jobs during the last year, including some that were badly battered during the downturn. Since January 2010, Illinois has added 85,000 jobs, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. California added nearly 200,000 net jobs, and Michigan created a net 71,000 jobs during the last year.

Still, six states reported a net loss in jobs in that time, including a few that weren't considered trouble spots: New Jersey, New Mexico, and Kansas.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

U.S. Postal Service Announces Sweeping Cuts

The U.S. Postal Service announced Thursday that it will reduce its workforce with layoffs and offers of buyouts and will close seven district offices from New England to New Mexico to help address record losses.

The reorganization, designed to eliminate 7,500 administrative, executive and postmaster jobs this year, came as a commission that is evaluating the Postal Service's plan to eliminate Saturday delivery concluded that one in four letters would be delayed by not just one but by two days.

The independent Postal Regulatory Commission also said that postal officials underestimated the losses the agency would suffer from handling less mail- and overestimated the cost savings.

Five-day service and a smaller workforce are among the Postal Service's strategies to become solvent after losses of $8.5 billion in fiscal 2010, the result of declining mail volumes. Projected losses for 2011 are $6.4 billion.

Once buyout decisions aimed at administrative staff are final in April, the agency plans to eliminate the jobs of thousands of postmasters and supervisors, many through layoffs, officials said.

"Nobody did anything wrong, but we're a victim of the economy and past legislation," said Anthony Vegliante, the Postal Service's chief human resources officer and executive vice president. The cuts are expected to save $750 million a year.

District offices that handle managerial work will close in Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, N.M.; Billings, Mont.; Macon, Ga.; Providence, R.I.; Troy, Mich., and Carol Stream, Ill., the Postal Service said.

The closures will pave the way for the agency to close up to 2,000 local post offices throughout the next two years, a plan announced in January.

Vegliante said he expects about 3,000 administrators to take the buyouts, which will offer $20,000 to employees over age 50 with at least 20 years of service, or any age with at least 25 years of service. Layoffs will then be used to help reach the 7,500 goal, he said, though he would not commit to a number.

The Postal Service has eliminated 105,000 full-time positions in the last two years, among them clerks, plant workers and mail handlers. Those cuts were made mostly through attrition and early retirements.

The Postal Service announced plans for five-day service in 2009, although Congress, which must approve the change, has showed little interest in pursuing it.

Among the findings of the 211-page opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission:

- Five-day service would delay by two days delivery of 25 percent of first-class and priority mail.

- The Postal Service did not adequately evaluate the effect of five-day service on rural areas.

- While the Postal Service estimated net savings from the reduced service at $3.1 billion, the commission's estimate is closer to $1.7 billion.

- Lost revenue from mail volume declines from the service cuts would be $600 million a year, not the $200 million the Postal Services estimates.

Margaret Cigno, the regulatory commission's chief analyst, said many letters normally delivered on Saturday would not arrive until Tuesday because Saturday mail would no longer be transported and processed over the weekend. "Saturday would not just end delivery, but mail would not go out," she said.

Postal officials said they would continue supporting the plan.

"I'm comfortable that people did their due diligence," Vegliante said, calling five-day service "an inevitable question."

"Whether it's tomorrow or 10 years from now, sooner or later it's got to be dealt with."

(Photo courtesy of Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 24, 2011

Illinois to Online, Out-of-State Shoppers: Pay Up

Illinois tax collectors have a message for residents who skirt sales taxes online and out of state: Start paying up.

The cash-strapped state will step up enforcement this year of the decades-old "use tax," which applies to many items bought online or in another state. Officials have added reminders on this year's paper and online tax forms about the tax.

The state has made a recent push to collect sales taxes from retailers like Amazon.com Inc. and Overstock.com Inc., approving a law this month that led both companies to drop affiliates in the state.

But Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, says auditors will target "big ticket" purchases, like boats sold in Florida, over smaller purchases online.

"If you go online and buy a book on Amazon, it's your conscience that you have to live with," Hofer said.

The tax applies to any purchases made with a sales tax rate lower than Illinois' 6.25 percent, to protect in-state retailers that charge the tax.

For shoppers who didn't keep their receipts, the state has published a list of suggested "use tax" amounts based on income: $15 for people who made $20,000 last year, $27 for people making $50,000, and $52 for people making $100,000.

That's not including taxes on major purchases like boats or cars.

Residents can also pay back taxes on purchases as far back as 2004, thanks to state law passed last year.

The revenue department estimates that Internet shopping could have generated $153 million last year if online retailers were taxed at the state rate. Illinois lawmakers have tried to collect from Amazon and others, which say they shouldn't pay taxes in the state because they don't have offices there.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill this month that charges sales taxes on online purchases made through Illinois affiliates of online companies. That led to Amazon announcing it would end its relationships with state affiliates.

Hofer acknowledged the difficulty revenue auditors face with online shopping.

"How would I or one of our enforcers know if you went home every night and spent five hours shopping on Amazon?" she said.

The state won't have statistics on how many residents will pay until the end of tax season, Hofer said. But interviews with accountants suggest most people either haven't made untaxed purchases or aren't reporting them.

"I've had one client out of 300 volunteer to pay it," said Julie Herwitt, a Chicago accountant. She said she believes most of her clients don't know the tax exists.

At the Bird Armour LLC accounting firm in Springfield, fewer than 5 percent of the 350 returns finished so far have made "use tax" payments, managing member Michael K. Armour said.

"I must admit that I am surprised at the number of people that have come forward," he said.

Last year, the state collected an estimated $4 million to $6 million from the tax. The department hopes that will double this year, Hofer said.

"We expect that people will pay what they owe, recognizing this is part of their responsibility as a citizen," she said.

(Photo courtesy of Rob Lee/Flickr)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 22, 2011

Sen. Kirk Says NPR Could See 10 to 20 Percent Cut

The junior U.S. senator from Illinois says federal funding for National Public Radio might not take a complete cut. But Republican Sen. Mark Kirk says the Senate is looking to make broad cuts in all areas of funding.

"If you want to step back and look at the Congress from a 100,000 feet, expect a 10 to 20 percent reduction across the board, including NPR," he said.

The U.S. House voted last week to completely end federal funding to NPR. The measure prohibits local public stations from using federal money to pay NPR dues and buy programming.

But support for the plan in the Senate seems slim. The White House opposes the bill, saying funding cuts could force some stations to go dark.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 18, 2011

Champaign County May Get Chemical Processing Plant

Any day now, Champaign County officials will learn if a new chemical processing plant will set up shop in the community.

Few details are being released about the facility. John Dimit, the chief executive officer of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said officials from the company are reviewing seven sites in addition to Champaign County to host the plant.

"It's actually a type of facility that takes industrial waste - steel mill waste in particular - and recaptures the waste, concentrates it and re-sells it," Dimit explained.

Dimit said the chemical plant would employee around 200 people, and be located north of the community in an area ready for development. He said the company behind the project intends to invest $250 million to have it completed by 2013.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 16, 2011

Illinois lawmakers Consider Cigarette Tax Hike

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said he has a solution to fund the state's $31 billion construction plan. The project was supposed to begin as soon as the weather would allow, but it is currently tied up in the court system.

Cullerton said the state could raise funds by adding one dollar on to each pack of cigarettes sold in the state.

"This is money that is going to the capital projects, projects that the Republicans have all benefited from throughout the state. They see the unemployment rate drop. They want to continue those projects and this is how we fund it," Cullerton said.

Cullerton pitched his idea to a road builders meeting in Springfield. The group would directly benefit from more highway construction.

The original infrastructure plan relies heavily on controversial funding sources like video poker and an expansion of the state's lottery.

Some lawmakers say they won't support a cigarette tax hike because they think it would drive people to neighboring states to make purchases.

(Photo courtesy by Geierunited/Wikimedia Commons)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 15, 2011

Mitsubishi’s Normal Plant Awaits Word from Tokyo on Potential Product Delays

Officials at the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant in central Illinois say they have enough parts to keep making cars for another two weeks but they're awaiting word on whether Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami could lead to production disruptions.

Mitsubishi Motors North America spokesman Dan Irvin told The (Bloomington) Pantagraph that the production hubs of the firm's parent company, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Motors, weren't affected by the disaster.

But Irvin says the North American subsidiary is still waiting for updates from companies that supply some parts for use at the plant in Normal.

The plant produces about 34,000 vehicles a year and employs more than 1,000 people.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 14, 2011

Chicago, Airlines Strike Deal to Continue Expanding O’Hare

After a long and bitter debate, a partial deal has been reached to continue expansion of O'Hare International Airport.

It took the federal government to mediate negotiations between the City of Chicago and United and American Airlines, the biggest carriers at O'Hare. For now, the newly announced $1.17 billion dollar agreement funds parts of the O'Hare Modernization Program, including rerouting roads and installing a runway on the airport's South Side.

The airlines had long said that O'Hare isn't busy enough to warrant an expansion, but United CEO Jeff Smisek says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood helped changed his mind.

"Do we need this runway today? Of course not. But we do believe that with time, we will and we're willing to help fund our portion," Smisek said.

When asked what the city gave up to move negotiations forward, Mayor Richard Daley would only say, "I'm not gonna mention it."

Negotiations over the rest of the expansion are expected to resume in two years.

Categories: Business, Transportation

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 11, 2011

Carle and Hoopeston Look at Integrating Service

Carle Foundation Hospital and Hoopeston Regional Hospital are mulling over a plan to improve medical services by expanding their affiliation.

Under the proposal, Hoopeston - in addition to all of its primary-care facilities in Hoopeston, Cissna Park, and Rossville - would become an independent operating unit of Carle. Hospital officials say this effort would pave the way for better patient care between the two medical centers, especially with medical records, labs and imaging.

"We don't think people should be disadvantaged because they live in a small town 50 miles away about the health care that's delivered," Carle CEO James Leonard said. "This type of relationship allows that dream to become a reality."

Hoopeston CEO Harry Brockus said by teaming up with the larger Carle hospital, he believes the partnership will make it easier for his medical center to get loans to buy new equipment, bring on more staff, and start up medical departments.

"One of the things that this integration will bring about for us is to be able to work with Carle to access those markets because they're so much larger than us," Brockus said. "Hoopeston Hospital struggled for several years prior to this and only became financially solvent within the past two years."

Carle providers have teamed with Hoopeston Regional Center since November 2009 in areas including cardiology, psychiatry, and surgery. Carle previously loaned Hoopeston Regional Hospital $4 million to expand its emergency room and surgical area...that project is expected to start in April.

In order for this latest partnership to be finalized, board members from both hospitals and the Illinois Health Facilities and Service Review Board have to approve the agreement. If all approvals are met, then by October 2012, Hoopeston's hospital and clinics would be part of Urbana's Carle system.

Categories: Business, Health

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 07, 2011

Judge To Weigh Rival Plans In Trib Bankruptcy Case

A two-week hearing begins Monday to determine the fate of Tribune Co. more than two years after an ill-advised $8.2 billion buyout drove one of the oldest U.S. media companies into bankruptcy protection.

The proceedings follow four years of tumult and intrigue at Tribune Co. The company has been through the disgrace of a bankruptcy case that has lasted far longer than planned, a CEO departure triggered by complaints about management's raunchiness and the whiff of a financial scandal fanned by a court-appointed examiner's conclusion that parts of the 2007 buyout had bordered on fraud.

The hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., will affect the ownership of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Sun of Baltimore, other daily newspapers and 23 television stations. The TV stations include Chicago-based WGN, which reaches more than 70 million homes nationwide, mostly through cable and satellite systems.

The hearing edges Tribune Co. closer toward shedding most of the roughly $13 billion that it carried into bankruptcy protection. If it can unload the debt, the company believes it can make money while it tries to adapt to a marketing shift to the Internet.

Judge Kevin Carey is being asked to choose between two competing reorganization plans. The plans differ in their appraisals of Tribune Co.'s current value and their limitations on which participants in the troublesome buyout can be sued for saddling the company with too much debt.

Either way, the outcome is likely to leave Tribune Co. controlled by its creditors. The new owners are expected to replace the patchwork management team that has been running the Chicago-based company since the previous CEO, Randy Michaels, resigned in October amid complaints about risque conduct.

Tribune Co., founded in 1847, filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2008, making it the first major U.S. newspaper publisher to do so during the Great Recession. The deep downturn magnified the challenges facing newspaper publishers as readers and advertisers moved from print to digital alternatives.

The slump prompted more than a dozen other newspaper publishers to follow Tribune Co. into bankruptcy protection. Like Tribune Co., several of them were saddled with billions of debt taken on during better times. Most of them have emerged from bankruptcy protection already.

The complex 2007 buyout engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell complicated Tribune Co.'s effort to return to normal business operations. The allegations of financial conduct made many creditors less inclined to make concessions during negotiations on a reorganization plan. The independent examiner's report last summer prompted the company to back off one proposal.

This month's hearing makes it more likely that Tribune Co. will finally emerge from bankruptcy court this year. The legal fallout could last for years, however. Both plans envision creditors pursuing lawsuits in an attempt to recover more of their losses, and there could be an appeal of Carey's decision in the case.

The stakes riding on the resolution of the convoluted saga are expected to attract a crowd. Carey is setting up a video feed in an overflow room to accommodate up to 100 more people beyond the 175 spectators that can cram into his courtroom. The judge also is clearing space in the courtroom for more than 2,000 exhibits expected to be submitted during the hearing.

"It will take some time and involve some tedium," Carey said during a housekeeping hearing last week.

The hearings also could shed more light on Tribune Co.'s operations and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the Zell buyout, which took the company private and turned employees into part-owners.

Reams of documents in the case have been kept under wraps to protect what has been described as confidential business information. Carey so far has rejected requests to unseal the documents, but he has warned that some of the information could come out during the hearing because he doesn't plan to close the courtroom.

Tribune Co. favors a plan that would turn over ownership to the company's major creditors, including some that had helped line up the ruinous financing, which already has triggered lawsuits. It would shield the lenders involved in the buyout from lawsuits after the company emerges from Chapter 11. Opponents of the plan contend it would also block attempts to sue former Tribune Co. shareholders who received $4.3 billion in the buyout's first phase.

This proposal has the backing of Tribune's Co.'s proposed new owners - a group led by banker JPMorgan Chase & Co., distressed debt specialist Angelo, Gordon & Co. and hedge fund Oaktree Capital Management. It's also supported by Tribune Co.'s committee for unsecured creditors.

A group of creditors that owns Tribune Co. debt issued before the Zell buyout has proposed an alternative plan primarily because they want fewer limits on which parties can be sued for alleged fraud. The plan also contends these note holders, led by hedge fund Aurelius Capital, are entitled to be paid bankruptcy claims totaling $1.2 billion instead of $761 million offered in the proposal backed by Tribune Co.

Zell, still Tribune Co.'s chairman, has filed objections to both plans because he and a business arm, Equity Group Investments, would remain exposed to lawsuits alleging fraud.

The competing reorganization plans also came up with dramatically different estimates on Tribune Co.'s business value. The company-backed plan pegs it at $6.7 billion, compared with $8.3 billion in the Aurelius-led proposal.

Tribune Co. has been gradually recovering from the recession, primarily because of an industry-wide revival in television advertising. The company's revenue last year totaled $3.1 billion, 2 percent below 2009, based on court documents.

But the company still gets more of its revenue from newspapers and other publishing sources. Tribune Co. has predicted its revenue this year will decline 4 percent, dip another 2 percent in 2012 and slip 3 percent in 2013.

Those forecasts assume the new owners won't break the company apart by selling some of the newspapers and TV stations.

Categories: Business, Economics

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