Illinois Public Media News
An Illinois lawmaker is pushing to raise the state's minimum wage to more than $10 an hour -- higher than anywhere else in the United States.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford of Maywood has introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage by 50 cents plus the rate of inflation every year until it reaches the point where it's equivalent to what $1.60 an hour was in 1968. Today, that would mean an hourly wage of $10.03.
Lightford said she wants to make sure the working poor aren't ignored or forgotten.
But opponents say the proposal could cause businesses to move to other states -- especially if it comes after a recent corporate income tax increase.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is reporting that reserves of corn have hit their lowest level in over 15 years.
The high demand for corn could put upward pressure on food prices in 2011.
Demand for corn in the ethanol industry is up 50 million bushels after record-high production in December and January, according to the USDA.
That has left the United States with the lowest surplus of corn since 1996.
Scott Gerlt, a crop analyst with the University of Missouri, said high corn prices could increase the cost on everything from ethanol to food and feed.
"The corn market is definitely a changing market," Gerlt said. "With ethanol policy we have a lot more demand and so we are going to have a lot more pressure on prices. Because even though we have a lot of supply there's just so much demand a lot of that supply is getting used up and we're just not left with much at the end of the day."
Corn prices have already doubled in the last six months, rising from $3.50 a bushel to more than $7 a bushel.
(Photo courtesy of Artotem/Flickr)
State Farm Insurance Cos. will stop providing supplemental medical coverage for its Medicare-eligible retirees next year in a cost-cutting move.
The Bloomington-based company says it will instead help them find supplemental Medicare coverage and provide them with $200 a month to help. It wasn't immediately clear how many of the company's 28,700 retirees the move will affect.
State Farm also will make changes in the availability of retirement health care for current and future employees. People hired after this year, for instance, will have to pay for all of their own retirement medical insurance.
State Farm spokesman Phil Supple told The Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington that growing medical claims have driven up the company's health care costs.
Many companies have announced similar changes in recent years.
An effort to build a wind turbine on the University of Illinois campus will appear on the Board of Trustees' agenda during its March 23 meeting in Springfield.
The plan calls for a single wind turbine on the university's South Farms site. It was estimated to cost $4.5 million, but last week the university increased that value by $700,000. University spokesman Tom Hardy said a challenge confronting the U of I is finding a way to close that budget gap.
"Still a lot of work to do on this project, not the least of which is how to close a nearly $700,000 funding gap," Hardy said. "In the meantime, the turbine project will be presented for consideration by the full board."
Suhail Barot, the Committee Chair with the Student Sustainability Committee, said he met Tuesday afternoon with U of I President Michael Hogan. Barot said Hogan told him the energy project would move forward.
"He did ask us to look into finding whatever we can do to help cover the budget shortfalls," Barot said. "We will help with it, but we don't know to what degree."
Students at the University of Illinois have been talking about setting up a wind turbine on campus for the last several years. It was originally introduced in 2003 by Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS), who initiated a student fee to support clean energy. By 2008, then-Chancellor Richard Herman canceled the project because of budget concerns.
A $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation supporting the project needs to be used before it expires at the end of May 2011.
At its meeting next month, the Board of Trustees is expected to vote on a contract with an energy company hired to build the turbine.
Champaign County residents have raised concerns about the project's cost, shadows produced by the turbine throughout the day, and the amount of noise pollution that would be generated.
Senators from both parties are frustrated by a lack of budget information from Gov. Pat Quinn's office.
They pressed for details about Quinn's budget plans during a committee hearing Tuesday. The Democratic governor is scheduled to release his budget proposal next week.
The senators wanted some idea of how much spending would be cut from human services or how Quinn concludes he has cut $3 billion in past years. They were also disappointed that Quinn budget director David Vaught didn't testify at the hearing.
Vaught chief of staff Malcolm Weems said his boss was busy. He also told senators that the governor hasn't finalized his budget proposal.
Despite a major tax increase, Illinois officials probably will have to cut in many areas to stay within new spending caps.
The income tax increase that took effect at the start of 2011 will give state legislators some buffer.
With a new General Assembly getting to work on Tuesday, the budget will be front and center. Democrats still hold a sizable majority, but Republicans gained enough seats that there must be at least some GOP support in both chambers for borrowing and other measures to pass.
The new makeup of the legislature could put a wrinkle in Democrats' efforts to erase the state's backlog of bills. Illinois' budget was so thin, the state has held off paying social service organizations, schools, and businesses with state contracts.
Democrats want to leverage the incoming revenue from the tax hike to borrow more than $8 billion to immediately make those vendors whole, but first they will have to convince Republicans ... who say they are withholding support until there are spending cuts and other changes.
Besides borrowing, a revamp of the workers' compensation system and reductions in current state employees' pension plans could be major topics this year at the capitol.
Employers posted fewer job openings in December, the second straight month of declines. That's a sign hiring is still weak even as the economy is gaining strength.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers advertised nearly 3.1 million jobs that month, a drop of almost 140,000 from November. That's the lowest total since September.
Openings have risen by more than 700,000 since they bottomed out in July 2009, one month after the recession ended. That's an increase of 31 percent.
But they are still far below the 4.4 million available jobs that were advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.
The figures follow a mixed jobs report released last week, which showed the unemployment rate fell sharply to 9 percent in January from 9.4 percent the previous month. But it also found that employers added a net total of only 36,000 jobs, far below what's needed to consistently reduce unemployment.
There are far more unemployed people than there are job openings. Nearly 14.5 million people were out of work in December. As a result, on average there were 4.7 people competing for each available job. That's below the ratio of 6.3, reached in November 2009, the highest since the department began tracking job openings in 2000.
But in a healthy economy, the ratio would fall to roughly 2, economists say.
The department's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, counts number of jobs advertised on the last business day of the month. The figures are for December, but economists say the report provides an indication of future hiring patterns because it can take several months to fill many jobs.
Job openings dropped sharply in professional and business services, a category that includes temporary help agencies. They also fell in construction, manufacturing, and in education and health services.
Job openings rose in trade, transportation and utilities, and in retail.
A bill meant to get more tax revenue from online retailers is on Governor Pat Quinn's desk. As Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows reports, it's a measure the governor probably would not be considering if people paid more attention to paying the state use tax.
(Photo courtesy of Maximum PC)
The manager at Willard Airport says commercial flights there won't be affected by the possible closure of the U of I's Institute of Aviation.
Steve Wanzek likely the biggest impact would be the downgrading of the airport's control tower, since 90-percent of the takeoffs and landings are pilots in training through the U of I. On Thursday, university administrators recommended that the Institute close once current students complete their degrees, or by the spring of 2014.
Wanzek said the Federal Aviation Administration could lose a few jobs at Willard, as well as training opportunities.
"A hundred-thousand activities in a non-O'Hare (International Airport) environment is a lot of activity, and they get a lot of exposure for trainees here," Wanzek said. "And that opportunity for the FAA will diminish as the institute slows down and if it goes away."
But Wanzek said the potential closing of Aviation won't affect Willard's efforts to construct a new tower, which he said should be finished by the end of next year. Meanwhile, the President at Flightstar hopes to make up for a loss of about $100-thousand in revenue that the Institute brings his facility each year - if it does close by 2014. Bill Giannetti said the loss is significant, but his business will survive. Flightstar does maintenance and charter flight service at the airport.
Giannetti said it is a shame that the Institute of Aviation and its deteriorating buildings have gone neglected by the U of I for years.
"My fear is the Institute will shut down, the FAA will build a new control tower, so we'll have a number of buildings that are going to be empty, going into a state of neglect, kind of like what we've seen with some of the buildings in Rantoul," Giannetti said. "These are old buildings. They really, at some point, needs to be demolished."
Gianetti said he had hoped the U of I would construct a new facility for Aviation, making it competitive with other schools that have better facilities.
Illinois' economy is not growing yet, but it's one point closer to doing so, according to the University of Illinois's Flash Index.
The monthly reading of the state economy was at 95.9 in January, up from 94.9 in December. Any number below 100 reflects economic contraction. But U of I Economist Fred Giertz said the Index has shown gradual improvement over the past eight months.
"This is one of the bigger jumps," Giertz said. "Any one month, you have to be careful about it - it could be an anomaly. But it's going in the direction that's expected, of a substantial increase, which is what's happening at the national level."
Giertz referred to national economic figures, which showed a sharp drop in the unemployment rate in January, even though job growth was weak. Illinois's 9.3% unemployment rate for December was slightly better than the national rate of 9.4% --- although Giertz said both were high, considering the improving economy. Now that the national rate has fallen to 9%, Giertz said he wants to see how the new state numbers stand in comparison, when they're released in about a week.
The Flash Index is based on Illinois tax revenues. Giertz said January's improvement was due to growth in state income and sales tax receipts, rather than corporate taxes.
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