When a worker is injured on the job, Illinois has a system in place to determine if, and how, a company should compensate its employee. But businesses say the workers compensation system is out of date and abused. They're campaigning for a major overhaul of the process. They may succeed. At a meeting of local chambers of commerce and independent business owners on Tuesday, April 12 in Springfield, Governor Pat Quinn and leaders in the Illinois General Assembly said changing the status quo is a top tier goal. But as Illinois Public Radio's Amanda Vinicky reports, it's a politically dicey task, considering the push backfrom unions, trial lawyers, and doctors.
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The head of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees says higher education in the state must do a better job forging relationships with business and political leaders.
Board Chairman Chris Kennedy says in the two years he's been a trustee, the university has begun reaching out more to those in business and government. Kennedy is in charge of Chicago's Merchandise Mart. He says the U of I has to show the impact investments in higher education can make on the economy. He adds colleges and universities in Illinois have failed to successfully convey the message. Kennedy says too few business leaders even know the names of Presidents and trustees at the state's colleges and universities.
"Even if we could name them, we probably haven't received a call or opened an invitation from them to join in building a relationship with someone like Duck Durbin or Mark Kirk," Kennedy said. "These university leaders are not pushing the business leaders to become engaged with federal officials or to try to improve funding for the research institutions in our state."
Kennedy says that lack of coordinated effort has had a devastating effect on the ability to garner a larger share of federal research dollars. He made his remarks at the University' Springfield campus.
A weather forecaster says he may have to live off the money he's been setting aside for a Caribbean vacation. A worker in Washington hopes to polish his resume so he can retire from public service and work in the private sector. An accountant wonders if she can put off her mortgage for a month.
Federal workers like them across the U.S. will be out of work and without a paycheck if the looming government shutdown isn't averted. Some say they will make the best of it, using the spare time to get a few things done. Others are far more fearful of how they'll provide for their families.
The partial shutdown, which could start at midnight Friday, leaves workers with many questions - some serious, others more mundane: How long, if at all, will they be away from their jobs? Who will be deemed "essential" and be told to come to work? Should I cancel the kids' daycare? Will I still be able to afford that pre-planned vacation?
About 800,000 federal government workers would be affected by a shutdown.
The ripple effects stretched far beyond the Washington metro area, where so many federal employees work and live, to places like Chicago, where more than 100 people facing no paychecks protested outside a federal building with signs, "Don't Punish the Public" and "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."
National parks would close, and the IRS would not process paper tax returns. But the nation's federal prisons would remain open and air traffic controllers would report to work, as would federal inspectors who enforce safety rules.
In Little Rock, Ark., National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Koch said he worries about how a shutdown could affect his family, including his two children. He said he'd still report to work for business as usual - but he wouldn't get a paycheck until the shutdown ended. He's putting more into savings to prepare, he said.
"I was actually saving up for a Caribbean cruise, but that money may actually be used to live on. It's certainly more important to make sure we can get the bills paid and provide for our family," he said.
Others saw opportunity.
John Haines, 64, has worked for the federal government more than 35 years. His duties as deputy director of the office of community renewal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development keep him busy all day long - leaving him little time to prepare for his transition to a new job in the private sector. He said he's been meaning to update his resume for some time.
"I guarantee you if I'm not coming to work Monday morning that I'll have more energy to do the kind of work that I should have done already" to prepare for the future, he said.
Haines wasn't even sure if he could count on a three-day weekend. He was headed to a seminar this weekend in North Carolina and hoped to visit a son there who serves in the National Guard, but he didn't want to miss work Monday if his office was open.
"So I'm not doing any planning beyond the immediate future," he said.
In Salt Lake City, home to about 12,300 federal employees, Leslie Steffs was applying for new hospital positions. The 55-year-old single mother, an administrative assistant assigned to the downtown Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, said she was concerned about making mortgage payments.
"Some people say we'll just have to tough it out, but I have a family to support. This is no joke," Steffs said.
That was echoed by Justin Castro, a park service worker at the Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial.
"Not having a check means not paying rent and not paying bills that need to be paid," he said.
A sheriff on the eastern end of Rocky Mountain National Park is encouraging people to still visit. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said he'll provide emergency services and law enforcement to visitors on the eastern side of the park within his county in the event of a shutdown.
He said merchants in nearby Estes Park whose business would be hurt by a lack of visitors shouldn't be pawns in Congress' budgetary battle.
However, Patrick O'Driscoll, a spokesman at the National Park Service's regional office in suburban Denver, said Smith's department has no jurisdiction and the park will be closed if there's a shutdown.
Limitations would not just affect the states. Aaron Tarver, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, said U.S. citizens will still have consular services if needed but passports would be limited to emergencies. In the Philippines, the U.S. Embassy in Manila would only provide limited and emergency services if a shutdown happened, spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson said.
In Chicago, one of the demonstrators was Julie Sidlo, an Environmental Protection Agency accountant who endured the last government shutdown in the 1990s. This time, she doesn't know how her job would be affected but is preparing for the worst, she said.
"I've sent an email to my mortgage company asking if I can delay payment for the next month, and gotten no response. I don't know if I can file for unemployment," Sidlo said, adding that she's set money aside for several weeks. "I've decided not to make any purchases I don't need to. I don't go to restaurants."
The government continued lurching toward a shutdown even as Congress continued negotiations to avert it and leaders expressed hope they could get a deal done. House Republicans advanced a stopgap measure Thursday that would keep the government running for another week, cut $12 billion in domestic spending and fund the Pentagon for six months. But President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill even before it passed, and Senate Democrats showed no willingness to allow a vote on it.
Haines, who joined HUD in 1979 and before that worked for the Department of Transportation, said attrition at his workplace had pushed him to more rigorous hours. Though retirement-eligible, he's now considering private sector jobs in economic development and said the threat of a shutdown laid bare what he said was a depressing change in the way the public values government workers.
"The advantage of being a federal employee is, supposedly, job stability. You sacrifice your total pay for whatever the job satisfaction and a high degree of job security," Haines said. "That's the tradeoff, supposedly - and, supposedly, good benefits."
On Thursday, though, he wasn't so sure of that.
The event of a government shutdown late Friday night means most of 15th District Congressman Tim Johnson's staff will be temporarily out of a job.
Fourteen workers in all would be laid off, and spokesman Phil Bloomer says he and three other staffers, including Chief of Staff Mark Shelden would remain on the job, but unpaid. Bloomer adds that there are a lot of other concerns regarding his office's daily dealings with the public.
"Our staff performs real vital services in terms of visas and passports, and helping people with their social security programs," Bloomer said. "We got dozens and dozens of other cases with the VA and social security, and otherwise."
Bloomer says he is still cautiously optimistic that an agreement will be reached by Congress tonight. He blames Congressional Democrats and those in the White House for 'dithering around' for months and allowing things to get to this crisis point.
With a government shutdown looming at midnight Friday night, all U.S. House Republicans from Illinois voted Thursday to fund the government for at least a week. The state's Democrats all voted against the bill.
Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Dold from the North Shore voted for the stopgap spending bill, which he says proves his party wants to avoid a shutdown.
"What we're doing right now is doing all we can to make sure we keep this budget - or the continuing resolution going so we can keep the government up and functioning for the American public," Dold said in an interview following the vote.
The bill would also fund the military through the end of the fiscal year.
The president has promised he would veto that measure, his staff pointing out it contains some $12 billion dollars in non-negotiated cuts.
Evanston Democrat Jan Schakowsky said Thursday that the onus is on Republicans to agree to a final deal.
"We have agreed to a number of pretty painful things. I'm not thrilled about what we've agreed to," Schakowsky said. "But they keep moving the goal posts, and it's clear that they are pushing for a shutdown."
Federal employees deemed "essential" can work through a shutdown. Members of Congress get to decide which of their staff fit that description. Schakowsky said she believes all her staff are essential, while Dold said he would "pare down" his team.
The head of Caterpillar says the company intends to stay in Illinois while working with the governor to improve the state's business climate.
CEO Doug Oberhelman met with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn today to discuss a letter he recently sent Quinn. It warned that other states were trying to lure his company away because Illinois increased its income tax rate on corporations and individuals.
The Peoria-based company has more than 23,000 employees in Illinois.
Quinn says he understands Illinois must do more to improve its economy and image. He is seeking to overhaul the workers' compensation system and encourage the greater export of Illinois goods.
Oberhelman has agreed to serve on a council that will try to strengthen the export business.
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.