Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 31, 2011

Comptroller-Treasurer Merger Advances in Ill. Senate

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But Rutherford says that concern for checks and balances is outdated because now the offices' books are audited, and there's electronic accounting.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.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 31, 2011

Vermilion County Health Department Schedules Meeting to Address Ranking in Study

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 30, 2011

Caterpillar CEO: No Plans to Leave Illinois

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 30, 2011

East Central Illinois Doesn’t Follow Trend in Annual County Health Rankings

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 29, 2011

Emanuel, Preckwinkle Look for Ways to Merge

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)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 29, 2011

Indiana Dems Return After ‘Softening’ GOP Agenda

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)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Kirk Says Legislation Will Boost Illinois’ Business Climate

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.


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

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 25, 2011

Study: More than 15% of East Central Illinois “Food Insecure

People who are fighting hunger in east-central Illinois now have some more specific numbers to make their case.

The Eastern Illinois Foodbank has long known that 15.5% of people in the 14-county region are "food insecure" - in other words, they're at risk of not finding enough healthy food. But the new "Map the Meal Gap" study breaks that number down into individual counties. Vermilion, Coles and Champaign counties have slightly higher food-insecurity rates than the average.

Cheryl Precious is a foodbank spokeswoman. She says the report points out a need for education, even if chronically-needy people usually know how to get assistance. "But a family that has had stable employment and has never really struggled, or maybe was right on the edge and had a job loss in the family and was pushed over the edge into food insecurity -- they may not be adequately equipped to make use of those resources," said Precious. "So part of it is education and awareness of the resources that are out there."

But Precious says the survey also demonstrates a need for more assistance, particularly for people who are ineligible for food stamps because they make just above the poverty requirement. She says it's a call to relax those requirements as well as to bolster food pantries and other emergency programs.


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