Illinois Public Media News
A utility watchdog group believes it can gather enough opposition to turn Ameren's request for a rate hike into a rate cut.
The Citizens Utility Board is urging the public to submit comments against the utility's call for a 90-million dollar increase in delivery charges. Next week, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducts its only hearing on the request. It's scheduled for Tuesday in Springfield.
In Champaign Thursday, CUB Executive Director David Kolata noted that Ameren earned 650-million dollars in profits last year, and that they're up over 60-percent in Illinois alone.
"I think they have a hard time justifying a rate increase when our experts the Illinois Attorney General's office hired looked at this, they found that they couldn't justify it." he said. "Ameren has very clear that they're going to come in every year for five, six, seven, years in a row and try to raise rates. That's their business strategy."
Regulators reduced Ameren's original rate hike request from $111-million to $90-million.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris contends the rate hike request is needed for safe, reliable power delivery, and for higher operating costs. And he says delivery costs have skyrocketed, and that's solely what this rate hike is for.
"It's designed to allow us to recover our cost of providing safe and reliable service.." said Morris, "...and to earn a reasonable rate of return, which is necessary for any for-profit company, which Ameren is."
Morris says Illinois' corporate income tax increase has cost Ameren an additional $41-million dollars. Both CUB and the ICC are taking comments on the proposed rate hike.
CUB also used the Champaign news conference to oppose a measure that passed the legislature last spring that would allow for 'smart grid' investments for utilities. But Kolata says it would also make it easier for utilities to pass off rate increases. Speaking in Chicago Thursday, Governor Pat Quinn vowed to veto that measure, and for legislators make improvements to the bill this fall.
Two downstate state Senators are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to improve staffing levels at state prisons.
Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John O. Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say staff-to-inmate levels are at disturbing levels. For instance, they say the first shift inmate-to-guard ratio at the medium security Decatur state prison is around 12 to 1.
Jones said that might be acceptable, but not the 18-to-1 First Shift ratios at the Big Muddy River state prison. The figures come from the state Department of Corrections through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Senator Cultra said matters will only get worse, as nearly a thousand guards become eligible for retirement next year --- with no plans announced for new cadet training. The Onarga Republican said that is why they are trying to put pressure on Governor Quinn.
"Maybe it will move the administration to take some action," Cultra said. "We would like to work with the administration to help alleviate this. And we think by making it aware publically, that maybe it might push (him) into some action."
Cultra said he is worried about a high number of prison guards nearing retirement age --- when there might not be enough new guards to take their place.
"There's no cadet classes scheduled," he said. "This fiscal year, they have a potential of having 1,000 guards retire. There's nobody to replace these people. So the numbers that you're looking at now are terrible --- it's going to be much worse when these retirements come about."
Cultra and Jones say the state could afford more prison guards if they make cuts in less essential state programs, and sell off non-essential state properties. They also suggest the state institute reforms in the Department of Corrections, like time-keeping hardware.
But the Department of Corrections said the numbers cited by the two senators are inaccurate. According to the department, around 800 newly trained guards have been hired over the past fiscal year --- and that plans are in the works to hold more guard training sessions in the current fiscal year.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
A Sangamon County judge says he will announce his decision on Friday in the salary dispute between Gov. Pat Quinn and regional school superintendents who aren't getting paid.
The state's 44 regional superintendents kept working this summer, even after Gov. Quinn vetoed their salaries out of the state budget. Quinn has said the state can't afford to continue paying them, but the superintendents are suing to force the state to pay up.
"We don't dispute that the constitution gives the governor the authority to engage in item vetoes, but we're saying its without consequence in this case," said Charles Schmadeke, the superintendents' attorney.
Schmadeke argues Quinn's budget veto isn't the end all be all it normally would be, because there is a state law explicitly creating superintendent's positions and their salaries.
"The General Assembly has the ability to create offices and it also has the ability to eliminate offices," Schmadeke said. "Our point of view is that is a legislative function, not one of the executive. And especially when the General Assembly has been so specifically clear about what people should do and how they should be paid."
The state contends the salaries cannot be paid without an appropriation in the budget.
Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt said he is "aghast" at the state's position the veto isn't creating hardship. But he nonetheless is wary of how far the judiciary can interfere with the executive branch.
Regional superintendents perform a variety of duties, from inspecting school buildings to running GED programs.
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.
Tourism dollars were up in East Central Illinois in 2010. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity cites figures from the U-S Travel Association showing that tourism dollars rose last year in Champaign, Vermilion, Douglas, Piatt, Ford and Iroquois Counties.
In Vermilion County, tourists contributed $70.5 million dollars to the local economy in 2010, up 6.2% from 2009.
Jeanne Cooke of the Danville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau says Vermilion County tourism dollars had dipped in 2009 to $66.34 million --- she blames the recession for cutting into business travel that year. But she says last year's showing brought the county back up to 2007 levels.
"We're really happy about that", says Cooke, "because we had anticipated that it might take us as much as three years to return to our 2007 figure."
Now, despite recent shocks to the national and global economy, Cooke hopes that a variety of things to do in Vermilion County will keep the tourists coming.
"For example, we just finished the Walldogs (outdoor mural) event", says Cooke. "The end of September, we have Civil War Days that brings people from all over annually. We have the NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championships. We have outstanding state and county parks --- 15,000 acres."
The DCEO says the economic impact of tourism in east-central Illinois ranged from $5.8 million in Piatt County to $266.1 million in Champaign County. Iroquois County, with $29 million in tourism dollars, saw the sharpest increase by percentage last year --- 8.4%. The figures are based on purchases of such things as restaurant meals, hotel rooms and gasoline by out-of-towners.
Summary of US Travel Association data released by DCEO: Economic Impact of Tourism in 2010
Champaign County: $266.1 million, up 5.9% Douglas County: $30.6 million, up 3.1% Ford County: $5.4 million, up 3.7% Iroquois County: $29.0 million, up 8.4% Piatt County: $5.9 million, up 5.3% Vermilion County: $70.5 million, up 6.2%
Illinois' 44 regional school superintendents have gone to court to get paid by Gov. Pat Quinn.
The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools filed a lawsuit in Sangamon County Friday seeking paychecks the Democratic governor cut off in July.
Bob Daiber is president of the superintendents' association. He says Quinn's action is "totally unfair.'' He says the chiefs didn't want to file a lawsuit but have "exhausted all options'' in trying to resolve the issue with Quinn.
The elected school chiefs inspect local public schools, do employee background checks, certify teachers, operate area alternative schools and more. But Quinn calls them unnecessary bureaucrats and halted more than $10 million to operate their offices for the budget year that began July 1.
The superintendents have worked without pay since.
The manager of the Champaign County Nursing Home says it's exploring the idea of offering more private-pay rooms for single patients to boost revenue.
Mike Scavatto told the Champaign County Board Thursday night that a drop in Medicare revenue has dealt what he calls a 'significant blow.' And he says nursing homes everywhere are seeing a delay in state Medicaid reimbursements. Republican and Nursing Home Board of Directors member Alan Nudo says he suggested the single room idea as a revenue stream.
"I think the board kind of said 'let's just go forward with it,' he said. "We don't have to have a flat-screen TV in there or cable hook-up at this stage. Let's just try to put in single rooms. And that still gives us plenty of room for Medicare and Medicaid beds."
Nudo suggests setting up just over 20 private rooms could bring in an extra $100-to 200-thousand. Scavatto says more amenities could be added when the nursing home can afford them.
As another long-term upgrade, the county nursing home wants to add renal dialysis equipment. Scavatto says not many homes offer it, and that could serve as a census builder, allowing residents to receive care in the home instead of forcing them to ride a bus to a medical center.
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.
A Republican congressman who sits on a caucus of Midwest high-speed rail advocates says now is not the time to find federal money for such a project.
U.S. Representative Aaron Schock of Peoria said if high-speed rail lines become a reality in Illinois, there is a place for such a line connecting Chicago with Champaign-Urbana. But Schock said the political reality is that federal funding won't be easy to get.
"We're running a $1.6 trillion deficit," he said. "We have a highway bill that's been expired for two years. We aren't building roads and bridges and infrastructure because the motor fuel tax is down. So I think we need to take care of the infrastructure, the roads, the bridges, the airports that we have now."
Schock has supported funding for infrastructure on high-speed rail in the past. But he said neither side of the aisle in Congress has funded the idea - the only money has come from President Obama's last stimulus bill.
Schock made his comments at a political fundraiser in Champaign on Wednesday, one day before Champaign County board members scheduled to vote on a statement of support for high-speed rail.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
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