The Flash Index of the Illinois economy reached 96.1 in February --- the first time it's broken 96 in two years. The increase from January's reading of 95.9 is small --- just one fifth of a point. And its accuracy is a little shakier than usual, due to the state income tax increase.
The Flash Index is based on an analysis of Illinois state income and sales tax revenue. With revenue from the new state tax hike beginning to come in, Fred Giertz said he can't be certain how much of the higher revenues in February were from the tax hike, and how much was from higher economic activity. Still, the University of Illinois economist said he is pretty sure the Illinois economy showed some improvement.
"Less sure than in a typical month, but relatively sure, because the changes seem to correspond with what I predicted in terms of the change in the tax revenue," Giertz said. "So it seems to be reasonable. But again, there's a bigger chance for imprecision or error this month, compared to other months."
The Flash Index February reading of 96.1 does not yet show actual growth in the Illinois economy. To do that, the Index has to break 100.
Developers of the FutureGen project have chosen Morgan County in western Illinois as an underground storage site for carbon dioxide generated by a nearby power plant they plan to refit with experimental low-emissions coal technology.
The FutureGen Alliance told The Associated Press on Monday that it picked Morgan County over sites in Christian, Douglas and Fayette counties. Project planners say the sequestration site will mean more than 1,000 short-term jobs and a few dozen permanent ones.
Carbon dioxide is linked to climate change. CO2 generated at the plant in Meredosia, which is in Morgan County, would be moved to the site through a pipeline that would be built. The current project was announced last year after the Energy Department scrapped plans to build a new experimental plant in Mattoon.
Talks this week between the University of Illinois and one of its employee unions gained no ground - and now the union is filing an unfair labor complaint.
But the head of the Service Employees International Union local said the two sides have agreed to have a federal mediator sit in on talks next month. Ricky Baldwin said that will head off any labor action for at least a month.
Baldwin claims U of I negotiators haven't been bargaining in good faith by asking for new concessions that moved negotiations further apart. He also accuses the University of replacing some union jobs with lower-paid workers, many of them students.
"It's not an us versus them in terms of the contingent workers," Baldwin said. "We love for these people to be hired full-time, get decent pay and benefits and union rights. But they're not treated very well," Baldwin claimed, saying employees were afraid to complain after one supervisor demonstrated bad behavior.
The SEIU represents nearly 800 food service and building service employees on the Urbana campus. A U of I spokesperson has not been available for comment as of Friday afternoon.
Baldwin said negotiations will resume March 8th, a week before a federal mediator will join the talks.
Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early Friday morning before sleep-deprived Democrats realized what was happening.
The vote ended three straight days of punishing debate in the Assembly. But the political standoff over the bill - and the monumental protests at the state Capitol against it - appear far from over.
The Assembly's vote sent the bill on to the Senate, but minority Democrats in that house have fled to Illinois to prevent a vote. No one knows when they will return from hiding. Republicans who control the chamber sent state troopers out looking for them at their homes on Thursday, but they turned up nothing.
"I applaud the Democrats in the Assembly for earnestly debating this bill and urge their counterparts in the state Senate to return to work and do the same," Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said in a statement issued moments after the vote.
The plan from Republican Gov. Scott Walker contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.
The flashpoint is language that would require public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and strip them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.
Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.
Tens of thousands of people have jammed the Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.
With the Senate immobilized, Assembly Republicans decided to act and convened the chamber Tuesday morning.
Democrats launched a filibuster, throwing out dozens of amendments and delivering rambling speeches. Each time Republicans tried to speed up the proceedings, Democrats rose from their seats and wailed that the GOP was stifling them.
Debate had gone on for 60 hours and 15 Democrats were still waiting to speak when the vote started around 1 a.m. Friday. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, opened the roll and closed it within seconds.
Democrats looked around, bewildered. Only 13 of the 38 Democratic members managed to vote in time.
Republicans immediately marched out of the chamber in single file. The Democrats rushed at them, pumping their fists and shouting "Shame!" and "Cowards!"
The Republicans walked past them without responding.
Democrats left the chamber stunned. The protesters greeted them with a thundering chant of "Thank you!" Some Democrats teared up. Others hugged.
"What a terrible, terrible day for Wisconsin," said Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee. "I am incensed. I am shocked."
GOP leaders in the Assembly refused to speak with reporters, but earlier Friday morning Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, warned Democrats that they had been given 59 hours to be heard and Republicans were ready to vote.
The governor has said that if the bill does not pass by Friday, the state will miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt and will be forced to start issuing layoff notices next week. However, the deadline may not as strict as he says.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed back as late as Tuesday to achieve the savings Walker wants. Based on a similar refinancing in 2004, about two weeks are needed after the bill becomes law to complete the deal. That means if the bill is adopted by the middle of next week, the state can still meet a March 16 deadline, the Fiscal Bureau said.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he and his colleagues wouldn't return until Walker compromised.
Frustrated by the delay, Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Jeff Fitzgerald's brother, ordered state troopers to find the missing Democrats, but they came up empty. Wisconsin law doesn't allow police to arrest the lawmakers, but Fitzgerald said he hoped the show of authority would have pressured them to return.
Erpenbach, who was in the Chicago area, said all 14 senators remained outside of Wisconsin.
"It's not so much the Democrats holding things up," Erpenbach said. "It's really a matter of Gov. Walker holding things up.
Indiana House minority leader Pat Bauer said he wants to meet with Wisconsin state Senate Democrats who have also fled to Illinois to block action on Republican-backed legislation.
Bauer said the roughly 30 Indiana Democrats he led to an Urbana hotel to avoid votes on anti-union and school-related legislation could commiserate with their counterparts from Wisconsin.
The South Bend Democrat said such a meeting would be like a pair of crime victims meeting to talk about their attacker. One of the other Democrats staying in Urbana is Charlie Brown of Gary. He said he is intrigued by the idea, saying there are a lot of people that weren't aware of the odds faced by the party in each state.
"It's amazing the number of people that were not into the real minute points," Brown said. "They were trying to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees. They wanted to set up some kind of merit system for teachers and so forth. People say 'really?' Yes, that's what we're fighting for."
With the Indiana House now adjourned until Monday, Brown said it is likely the caucus will return home for the weekend to pick up clothes, and return to Urbana before the chamber convenes on Monday. But Brown said the caucus is staying in Urbana at least through Thursday night.
He said it is still possible Governor Mitch Daniels could use the state police to bring Democrats back to the capitol if they simply stayed home. Brown says he and colleagues who have been staying at a hotel in the area since Tuesday have also gotten their first look at some of the labor protests at the capitol in Indianapolis.
"That was a booster for us," said Brown. "We're isolated up here, and only get bits and pieces of what's going on. But that was really a plus for us, to see that our constituents are really concerned in these pieces of legisation."
Wisconsin Senator Tim Cullen says he and his fellow Democrats are focused Thursday on the situation in their state and didn't know of any plans to meet up.
Indiana's Democratic caucus will meet Friday morning at 10 a.m.
Illinois officials who promise to keep an eye on every tax dollar are trying to do it with 263 different systems for tracking money, including many that are old and incompatible, according to a report Thursday.
Auditor General William Holland said auditors found state agencies 24 different systems just for handling payroll.
Half of state government's financial reporting systems are more than 10 years old. Many are more than 20 years old, which Holland called "archaic.''
More than half the systems cannot share information. Dollars and cents have to be entered manually when transferring data, which increases the risk of mistakes.
State legislators were stunned by the audit's findings.
"I think it's disastrous. What private company with revenues of $33 billion wouldn't have a unified accounting system?'' said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora, an accountant. "It's obvious that state government fiscal matters are in chaos.''
Rep. Jack Franks, head of the House State Government Administration Committee, called it "critically important'' for Illinois to track money carefully. He said the accounting systems are probably contributing to massive budget problems.
"It sounds almost Soviet-style, where nothing works,'' said Franks, D-Marengo.
State spending is under more scrutiny than ever as Illinois tries to climb out of the worst budget hole in its history. Officials passed a tax increase last month, but still face a deficit that could approach $10 billion.
A list in the audit shows agencies using everything from huge computer systems to personal finance programs such as Quicken to paper ledgers. One agency had a process labeled "egg inspection receipts.''
"We've got multiple systems that do not deliver in an efficient way, and they need to be replaced. There's no question about it,'' Holland said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The report did not estimate how much the financial systems cost the state because of errors or confusion. But auditors did note that 17 percent of agencies provided figures on what it costs to enter duplicate data in different systems. The cost just for that portion of state government was $11.3 million.
It takes Illinois more than a year to compile a final spending report after each budget ends, auditors said.
Bond-rating agencies, who help determine how much the state pays to borrow money, object to financial reports coming out late, the report said. One agency, Moody's, has twice cited late reports as part of the reason it lowered Illinois' rating.
Late financial reporting also can endanger the state's federal funding or trigger increased federal scrutiny of Illinois programs, the audit said.
Auditors recommended that state agencies under the governor's control work with the Illinois comptroller to improve financial reporting.
Bradley Hahn, spokesman for new Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, said they "wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations, and we look forward to working with the governor's office to implement them.
An Indiana deputy attorney general "is no longer employed" by the state after Mother Jones magazine reported he tweeted that police should to use live ammunition against Wisconsin labor protesters, the attorney general's office said Wednesday.
The magazine reported Wednesday that Jeffrey Cox responded "Use live ammunition" to a Saturday night posting on its Twitter account that said riot police could sweep protesters out of the Wisconsin capitol, where thousands have been protesting a bill that would strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.
Cox also referred to the protesters as "thugs physically threatening legally-elected state legislators & governor" and said "You're damn right I advocate deadly force," according to the magazine. He later told an Indianapolis television station the comments were intended to be satirical.
The Indiana attorney general's office said it conducted "a thorough and expeditious review" after the report.
"We respect individuals' First Amendment right to express their personal views on private online forums, but as public servants we are held by the public to a higher standard, and we should strive for civility," the office said in a statement.
Spokesman Bryan Corbin said the office confirmed Cox wrote the tweets but declined to offer further details about its review or Cox no longer having his job, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.
Cox told Indianapolis television station WRTV on Wednesday that his comments were satirical but acknowledged they were "not a good idea."
"I think in this day and age that tweet was not a good idea and in terms of that language, I'm not going to use it anymore," Cox said. But he also said public employees shouldn't have to surrender their free-speech rights.
"I think we're getting down a slippery slope here in terms of silencing people who disagree," he told the television station.
The Associated Press called several Indianapolis phone listings for a Jeffrey Cox, but could not immediately reach him Wednesday.
A Western Indiana Democrat says the caucus meet-up of House members in Urbana should be looked upon as a time out to reach some common ground.
Dale Grubb of Covington said there are other bills besides a contentious right-to-work legislation that spurred him and over 30 of his colleagues to leave the capitol Tuesday.
"The only opportunity a minority has for input is the quorum issue," he said. "And I'm staying at home, I'm trying to work with people and see how quickly we can find common ground on some of those issues - get down to the issues that are the real sticklers. You have to be talking in order to come to some conclusion."
Grub says there are a number of bills concerning public education that also prompted the move, including one that will allow tax dollars to fund private school tuition for some families.
"The one charge that we have as a General Assembly to pass a budget... and adequately fund public education," Grubb said. "We've only got so many dollars. I don't see how we can take money away from public schools and not hurt our kids."
And a House Democrat from Ft. Wayne says Republicans have a radical agenda that will mean lower salaries across Indiana. Win Moses is also staying at the hotel in Urbana. He says progress has made, since Governor Mitch Daniels has agreed the right-to-work legislation shouldn't be taken up at this time. But Moses says the measure is scattered in several bills, and Democrats need to know for sure it's off the table. He says his party expected to forward more than 100 amendments to the capitol by Wednesday night, but Moses is not willing to predict how long Democrats will stay in Urbana.
""We have the agenda - the house bill list, and we're working on that," said Moses. "So we're prepared when we do go back. I don't know how long we'll be here, it depends on how negotiations go. If anybody predicts a day, the other side will probably use that to their advantage and try to push it a day longer."
Moses says Friday is the deadline for bills to pass out of the chamber they originated. But he says that won't have much of an impact, since half the legislative session is left.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says Republicans will not be "bullied or blackmailed'' out of pursuing their agenda despite a boycott from House Democrats over contentious labor and education proposals. He told reporters Wednesday that Democrats will not keep him from pursuing his agenda even if it means calling special legislative sessions "from now to New Year's.''
Meanwhile, Indiana's Senate president says the House should have never taken up a contentious anti-labor bill that spurred the boycott by Democrats there, and he said the Senate won't push the issue this year. Senate President Pro Tem David Long said it was a "mistake'' for his fellow Republicans in the House to take up the issue. But he said it is water under the bridge now and he wants House Democrats to return to work.
Long said the Republican-ruled Senate won't push the"right-to-work'' bill that would prohibit union membership from being a condition of employment. Long said the Senate will instead propose a study committee to look into the matter over the summer. Most House Democrats are in Urbana, and their absence is preventing a quorum needed for House business.
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel won't have much time to celebrate his victory as Chicago's new mayor.
Emanuel, who overwhelmed the race with truckloads of money and friends in high places from Washington to Hollywood, will take control of a city in deep financial trouble with problems ranging from an understaffed police department to underperforming schools.
On Tuesday, Emanuel won 55 percent of the vote, easily outdistancing former Chicago schools president Gery Chico, who had 24 percent, and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who each had 9 percent. He succeeds Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is retiring after 22 years in office as the longest-serving mayor in Chicago's history.
But the city he inherits, though perhaps more beautiful than ever after years of extensive urban improvements, is in financial straits that it hasn't seen since before Daley's father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, came to power in the 1950s.
"Not since the Great Depression have the finances of the city been this precarious," said Dominic Pacyga, a historian and author of "Chicago: A Biography." The city's next budget deficit could again exceed $500 million, mostly the result of reduced tax revenue from the recession, and could reach $1 billion if the city properly funds its pension system.
Emanuel, who takes office May 16, also faces a fractious political landscape.
He'll have to find new leadership for the struggling public school system, as two top interim executives plan to leave. He'll also need a new police chief, having said he would not renew Police Superintendent Jody Weis' contract.
The department is suffering from low morale and staffing estimated at 1,000 officers below previous levels.
Members of the City Council, including a number elected Tuesday, have made clear they will demand more authority after years of domination by Daley.
In 25 years of public life, Emanuel has earned a reputation as a skilled politician and as a political operative, serving in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and as a congressman from Chicago. But the mayor's office will test his mettle as an executive.
Throughout the campaign, Emanuel has acknowledged he'll have to make budget cuts, and has promised to spread the pain as fairly as possible, starting with his own office.
But, like the other candidates, he has been vague about how he'll accomplish the reductions. And nothing he has suggested comes close to the projected deficit.
Emanuel said he can save $110 million by streamlining "outdated and duplicative work processes to focus on front-line service delivery," according to his campaign. His campaign did not use the word "layoffs," but it did allude to "reducing layers of management bureaucracy and consolidating redundant tasks."
"What comes next is a bunch of ugly," said Ralph Martire, executive director of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. "It's going to be a brutal budget year and there are not quick and easy fixes."
The politics of the cuts could be perilous. Most of the deficit is in the $3.1 billion general fund, which pays for the police and fire departments, which have been cut significantly since 2000, Martire said.
As for the underfunded pensions, Emanuel said he wants to "preserve" the pensions but may seek to negotiate changes. He insists the city can solve the problems without a confrontation like the one in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating outside the Capitol to protest anti-union budget cut legislation. "We have to find, I think, common ground and a sense of hope," he said during a campaign stop this week.
Still, some Chicago officials say the pensions will be hard to finesse. "This mayor is going to have to find a way to balance that too, in a way that doesn't alienate our city workers, who are incredibly hardworking folks," said Alderman Sandi Jackson.
Already, various unions are bracing for a fight. More than a half dozen unions endorsed Chico, including the police and fire unions.
Emanuel has also talked about expanding the city sales tax to include more services, while lowering its overall rate, but he'll need approval from the state General Assembly.
Many voters hope Emanuel's clout in national politics will help him find outside avenues for help. President Obama expressed support for Emanuel when he left the White House, and heavy hitters in the political and entertainment communities contributed to his campaign.
"He's (got) political savvy. He's politically tied in. That's important to me because he can get things done," said Ralph Vallot, 57, dean of students at a Chicago high school.
Loren Miller, 65, who is retired and served as an election judge at a Michigan Avenue polling place, said it's a turning point for the city. "The future's going to be interesting. This is going to be a tough period of time for the city," Miller said.
As protesters flock Wisconsin's capitol in response to legislation to strip most public employees of bargaining rights, a group held its own rally on the University of Illinois campus.
About 125 people made up of university students and staff, and nearby residents stood in front of the Alma Mater statue chanting: "The workers united will never be defeated. The workers united will never be defeated. The workers united will never be defeated."
The Graduate Employees' Organization, a labor union representing 2,500 U of I teaching and graduate assistants, helped organize the event. Union member Stephanie Seawell said workers in Wisconsin and all across the country should be able to negotiate for better contracts, a right she criticizes Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for trying to take away.
"That fundamental right is being challenged in Wisconsin, and if it can be challenged in Wisconsin, it can be challenged here," Seawell said. "Workers should join together and say this is enough."
At the close of the rally, participants marched to the YMCA on campus to hold a 24-hour-a-day vigil, which Seawell said will last until Governor Walker backs down from his proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most of Wisconsin's public employees.