Illinois Public Media News
A quick look at the state's overall economy shows improvement from the recession, but at a painstakingly slow pace.
The author of the monthly University of Illinois Flash Index says March marked the 11th consecutive month of improvement at 96.3, up two-tenths of a point from a month earlier. Anything below 100 still indicates a decline.
U of I economist Fred Giertz cites a January unemployment rate, both statewide and nationally - of 8.9 percent, as well as job growth in the private sector. But Giertz says Illinois is still a long way from where it wants to be, noting the difference between the current recession and those of recent years.
"It was also accompanied by a financial panic," he said. "A lot of people have noted those kind of situations, which occur very rarely, are also much more difficult to recover from. So we're not going to bounce back the way we did in 2001 or 1990."
The flash index is made up of individual and corporate tax receipts through the end of the month. Giertz says the tax hike passed by the legislature in January presented a challenge for him. He says those numbers had to be adjusted to reflect the overall economy, and not solely the higher rates. "So the fact is once you do that, the growth is a whole lot slower than you might think by just looking at the numbers themselves." said Giertz.
Because corporations file tax returns at different times, Giertz says it will take some time before the impact of the tax increase is fully realized.
Gov. Pat Quinn is getting ready to propose changes to the workers' compensation system in Illinois.
The Chicago Democrat on Friday said both the law and the Workers' Compensation Commission must be revamped. He says changes to the law would make the system more affordable for businesses while remaining fair to workers.
Quinn's comments come amid a federal investigation into possible workers' compensation abuses at state agencies and in the actions of arbitrators. The Associated Press has obtained five subpoenas looking for claims data.
Quinn says he's talking to lawmakers and wants Republicans and Democrats to work together on an overhaul.
Since shocking educators and parents last month by calling for a complete overhaul of Illinois school districts' sizes and boundaries, Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to provide detailed proposal, draft legislation or build support in the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, a State Board of Education report on school consolidation raises questions about Quinn's approach, and key lawmakers reject the idea that the Chicago Democrat even has a plan they should consider.
"The word 'plan' is really being kind," said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville. "It's a concept, I think, at this point."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Wednesday he doesn't plan legislative action on the consolidation proposal, but declined to say why.
Quinn has assigned the issue to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, whose office says the proposal is simply a starting point for discussions.
Quinn's plan includes cutting Illinois' 868 school districts to about 300, redrawing boundaries so that each district -- aside from Chicago -- contains about 30,000 people and cutting administrative jobs. Quinn estimates that would save at least $100 million. But that figure has been disputed by critics who say it's based on the state's 300 highest-paid superintendents even though many merged districts would be downstate, where salaries are typically lower and current law allows teacher salaries to rise when districts merge.
A Board of Education report compiled last fall cautions that cutting jobs could be difficult if new merged districts are too large. It also noted that a state panel in 2002 said high schools should have enrollments of at least 250 and elementary districts at least 625 students. Using that guideline would mean eliminating 359 districts, not the 568 that Quinn has suggested.
The report found no clear correlation between district size and student performance. Small districts did better than large ones by some measures and did worse by others.
Education officials and legislators said the state should encourage districts to merge rather than requiring it.
Illinois has provided $155.6 million in merger incentives since 1986, eliminating 139 districts, the Board of Education said. That means the state paid, on average, $1.1 million for each district it cut.
Quinn's critics say the relatively small number of districts accepting the state incentives means there must be strong local reasons not to merge.
"If it was smart for them to do this, people would already be doing this," said Brent Clark, executive director of Illinois Association of School Administrators.
Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman, said incentives have not spurred enough consolidation. She said Quinn's proposal is the best way to realize significant savings.
Critics contend that meeting Quinn's goal of 30,000 people would produce some huge downstate districts sprawling across six counties. And despite Quinn's claim that he wants to merge districts but not schools, many people said the real benefit would come from closing school buildings.
Richard Towers, superintendent in Christopher, said his district wants to merge with nearby the Zeigler-Royalton district, saving about $220,000 in administrative costs. But the way to help students, he said, would be building a single new high school.
"Keeping the status quo with two small high schools, I just don't know if the curriculum could be expanded to the extent that it would need to be," Towers said.
Critics note Quinn proposed a $95 million cut to school transportation, one year after slashing $140 million from the same program. Experts said schools that cut administrative costs would simply end up spending the money on buses.
Legislators and education advocates see little chance of Quinn's proposal being approved. They say Quinn sprang it on them without any preparation and has done little since then to build support or even share basic information.
"I have two lines in his budget address," Ben Schwarm, associate executive director for Illinois Association of School Boards, said of his knowledge about Quinn's plan.
Quinn said his proposal would focus resources on education instead of administration but remained careful to note that he is not advocating for schools to close.
"We don't need as many folks at the top level," Quinn told reporters earlier this month. "We need folks on the front line in the teaching, imparting knowledge."
Kathryn Phillips, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor, said Quinn's proposal is a "starting point and is one of many different ideas that we've hear. It's too early to tell which proposals are best or to assign any values to the proposals."
She said Simon, who declined to speak with The Associated Press, is discussing consolidation with legislators, school administrators, teachers and more.
Illinois has the third-most school districts in the nation, behind Texas and California, which have much larger populations. Nearly 250 superintendents are paid more than Quinn, who earns $177,400 annually. Phillips said about one-quarter of districts consist of one school that could be merged with larger districts.
Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House education committee, said local concerns about school pride and community would be difficult to overcome in a state-mandated consolidation plan.
"We have to cross a huge hurdle called local control," said Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora. "In the sand is drawn, 'This is our local control. Don't come out and bother us.' So I think we need to get a new idea.
Illinois' treasurer invests the state's money. The Comptroller pays the bills. A measure approved by the Senate today would merge the two constitutional offices.
Supporters say it makes "sense" - literally and metaphorically. According to projections, the consolidation would result in a savings of $12 million.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, supports it, as does Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
"If government can be more efficient by having less officers and less departments and so forth than government should do that," Rutherford said.
He says the current setup stems from a half century old scandal. Former state auditor Orville Hodge embezzled $1.5 million from taxpayers.
"There was some cooking of the books and some money lost," Rutherford said. "The 1970 constitution envisioned the fact of having two officers so you have the check for one person investing the money and the balance for the other person writing the checks."
But Rutherford says that concern for checks and balances is outdated because now the offices' books are audited, and there's electronic accounting.
"Back in the days of Orville Hodge you were still using typewriters, pieces of paper and pencils," Rutherford said.
Rutherford and Topinka wouldn't be out of a job anytime soon - if it happens, the positions would stay separate until 2014.
A dismal ranking of overall health in Vermilion County for the second straight year has prompted a call to action from the county's health department.
Department administrator Shirley Hicks says about 130 people in affected areas have been invited to a meeting Thursday morning at her offices. She notes a lot of the findings in the county's ranking of 98th place out of the state's 102 counties have nothing to do with her department, like unemployment and education levels.
But Hicks says Illinois' fiscal woes will just force her department to work that much harder with social service agencies, primary care providers and others to seek solutions.
"The state of the Illinois economic crisis is a player as part of all of this," said Hicks. "So I think it's going to take all disciplines to look at what part can we do, and how can we best utilize resources that we do have."
Hicks commends the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for putting the findings together. She says the ranking for the county isn't nearly as important as the process researchers used to arrive at that figure.
"Any time you're looking at those reports, you're looking at where did the data come from, how did they ask the questions, so you can better understand the root cause of the problem," said Hicks. "I don't have any dispute with the actual data, it's really trying to dissect it down the the most common denominator and say 'how can we target our initiatives and our resources and pull those together to make an impact."
Hicks commends the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for putting the findings together. Thursday's meeting at the Vermilion County Health Department is expected to include primary care providers, social service agencies, law enforcement, hospitals, and members of the Vermilion County Board.
The CEO of Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc. now says a letter he wrote to Gov. Pat Quinn complaining about the state's business climate was never intended as a threat to move the Fortune 500 manufacturer out of Illinois.
Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman said Wednesday in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington that news reports about the letter sensationalized his statements about the state's business climate.
According to a copy of the speech, Oberhelman said he'd like to invest further in Illinois. But he said Illinois lawmakers have created an unfriendly business environment.
Lee Enterprises' Springfield bureau reports Oberhlman says in the letter that the company had been courted by other states and while he'd like to stay he also had to "do what's right" for the company.
A second annual ranking of the overall health of each of Illinois' 102 counties shows a mixed bag of results for East Central Illinois.
The annual report of County Health Rankings serves as a kind of 'check up' on how people in Illinois live, according to 28 different factors. Vermilion County ranked among the worst, finishing 98th, but Piatt County finished 15th, McLean County was 13th, Ford County ranked 11th, and Champaign County finished in 34th place.
The report was put together by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute to show counties where they can improve. Julie Willems Van Dijk is an Associate Scientist with the Institute.
"We want to be able to describe those things you can change," she said. "Because you can change your economic environment. You can work to attract new businesses to locate in your community. You can work to support your schools to have higher graduation rates. You can work to make your community more accessible for people who want to walk and bike."
Each report starts with health factors among residents, like the rate of premature death and the number of those in poor physical and mental health. They include social and economic factors like the number of uninsured adults, and the high school graduation rate. It also relies on physical features, like a county's quality of air and access to healthy foods. Van Dijk says the report is also intended to inspire local leaders to help themselves.
"When those leaders get together from different areas, they can talk about what resources are already available in your community, and how they might use them even better than they are now," she said. "Because we all know budgets are tight, and we're living in tough economic times. So it's really important that we use the resources we have to the best of our ability."
The majority of higher-ranking counties are in the north and west, including Jo Daviess, Lake, and McDonough, while the many of the lowest-ranked counties are in the south, including Marion and Alexander counties. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is providing grants for up to 14 communities in the U.S. seeking to improve their overall health.
Rahm Emanuel and Toni Preckwinkle said Tuesday they could cut costs by possibly merging parts of their governments. The new Chicago mayor-elect and the new-ish Cook County board president stood before cameras to work in the buzz words of the day: collaboration, streamlining, coordination.
"To continue to operate in separate silos, or to provide duplicative services - that's no longer a responsible option," Preckwinkle said.
"Just because it was done like that for 30 or 40 years does not mean we can afford to keep doing it like that for the next three or four years," Emanuel said.
Possible topics for change include criminal justice (the city has police, but the county runs the jail and courts), elections (the city runs Chicago polling places, the county runs suburban ones) and healthcare.
"Both the county and the city have clinics, for example," Preckwinkle said. "And so the discussions have begun about how we can more effectively deliver service at least cost."
Preckwinkle and Emanuel picked six-people to look into these issues, though none has a professional background in healthcare. Emanuel defends the committee, saying the members - including Ald. Pat Dowell and Cook County Cmsr. John Firtchey - have a broad range of experiences.
(Photo by Sam Hudzik/IPR)
Indiana House Democrats are back at work after a five-week boycott to protest a Republican agenda they consider an assault on labor unions and public education, but whether their efforts will ultimately change the outcome of the legislation they opposed is unclear.
Republicans agreed to rejigger - but not completely overhaul - their plans as lawmakers resume work in the House. The Senate had already started working around the Democrats by holding separate hearings on bills stalled in the walkout. Still, Democrats insist concessions they've received on several issues, including school vouchers and labor legislation, made their boycott worthwhile.
"We're coming back after softening the radical agenda," said House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, whose Statehouse return Monday was greeted by cheering union workers. "We won a battle, but we recognize the war goes on."
The victories Democrats claim are likely more than they would have gained had they not boycotted, but they won't stop the agenda pushed by Republicans who won sweeping control of the House in last year's elections. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said bills aimed at improving education and keeping spending low are mainstream Hoosier ideas.
"The only thing 'radical' about this session has been the decision by one caucus to walk off the job for five weeks," Daniels said.
Republicans had vowed throughout the standoff that they wouldn't remove items from their agenda - and by and large they won't have to. The only bill killed by the boycott was a "right-to-work" proposal that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment.
GOP legislators agreed to some changes on several other bills. For example, they will cap for two years the number of students who could participate in a voucher program using taxpayer money to attend private schools, but it would still be among the nation's most expansive use of vouchers when the limits expire. Another bill that would exempt certain government projects from the state's prevailing construction wage law was changed so that fewer projects would be exempt.
The Democrats' most significant achievement may be that people across the state are talking about these issues. Bauer said the public needed a "timeout" to learn about the agenda being pushed by Republicans.
Thousands of people attended Statehouse rallies during the walkout, and hundreds attended local town hall meetings. Many teachers said they didn't realize Republicans supported vouchers and other measures they think will erode public education, and some union members said they wished they had voted.
Tom Case, a union worker from Fort Wayne who was at the Statehouse protesting Monday, said he was glad Democrats staged the boycott.
"Republicans are going way out of bounds with what they're doing right now," he said.
In one sense, Democrats "punched above their weight," said Robert Dion, who teaches politics at the University of Evansville.
"They got the attention of the state, and they were able to finagle some meaningful concessions that I don't think were necessarily offered all that willingly," Dion said.
On the other hand, Dion said, Democrats have a bit of a black eye because the walkout lasted so long.
House Democrats had fled to Illinois on Feb. 22 to protest 11 pieces of legislation, denying the House the two-thirds of members present needed to do business as required by the state constitution. The move had the potential to force a special session or even a government shutdown if a new budget wasn't adopted before July 1.
Indiana's boycott began a week after Wisconsin's Democratic senators left for Illinois in their three-week boycott against a law barring most public employees from collective bargaining. Wisconsin Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to pass the law without them, and the matter is now headed to court.
The Indiana standoff became one of the longest legislative walkouts in recent U.S. history. The impasse got a bit nasty at times - with name-calling, scathing political ads, rowdy rallies and fines totaling more than $3,000 for most absent Democrats. But Republicans and Democrats seemed to tone down the rhetoric last week as they discussed possible changes to bills.
Lawmakers began making up for five weeks of lost time Monday. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma gaveled in the chamber early Monday evening, and lawmakers began working on bills in earnest. Lawmakers worked their way through a large chunk of the House calendar, which was the same as the day Democrats left.
Bosma predicted lawmakers would have plenty of late nights as they work toward the scheduled end of the regular legislative session April 29.
"It's long past time to get to the people's business," Bosma said. "Hopefully we can make this work in five short weeks."
(AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Illinois' junior U.S. Senator is worried about the state's business climate after state lawmakers approved increases in both corporate and income taxes.
In a visit to Champaign Friday, Mark Kirk touted his Small Business Bill of Rights. He says the legislation would help reverse the trend of other Governors trying to lure business away from Illinois.
The Senator says one portion of the measure would exempt small employers from federal taxes for 10 years if they commit to investing in vacant commercial property.
"Because nothing was happening there (vacant properties) anyway," Kirk said. "And we want to make central towns and cities exciting to invest in. Or for new innovators, a fast lane at the patent office. Because we know that small innovates 8-times faster per capita than big business."
The portion of Kirk's bill that expedites the federal patent approval process passed the Senate earlier this month. That provision assists business owners with patent filing issues.
Other parts of the legislation seek to lower business health care costs by allowing interstate competition for insurers, and to cut energy costs by promoting the use of hybrid vehicles and more efficient practices.
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