Illinois Public Media News
A monthly gauge of the Illinois economy has backtracked after four months of improvement.
The University of Illinois Flash Index uses state tax revenue figures each month to measure economic performance. For April, the index was set at 91, down .08 from the month before. The index was still far from the 100 level that separates economic growth from contraction. It's also fallen back to its lowest level since last November, though it's still above the September figure that marked the low point of the current recession.
The index's author, U of I economist Fred Giertz, says Illinois's unemployment rate still hasn't followed signs of a national economic recovery. But he also thinks the April index may have been affected by an abnormal drop in the state's corporate tax intake in March, saying that might be a result of timing rather than a true drop.
The city of Champaign isn't planning any major construction projects or improvements in the next budget year - but it doesn't plan any layoffs either.
However, the city still expects revenue to fall about $3.5 million short of needs, so it's cut about two and a half million dollars from the proposal for fiscal year 2011. That's not as deep as the six million dollars cut last year, but Champaign finance director Richard Schnuer says none of those cuts are being restored either.
"It's been a difficult year for us as well as for people in the community who are suffering the impacts," Schnuer said. "We've sure tried to continue to provide the services that contribute to the high quality of life in the city. And we hope that we did make those choices -- if not, we're happy to hear from people."
The proposed cuts in the $67 million general fund budget mainly involve jobs that won't be filled once current employees retire or leave.
The Champaign city council gets its first formal look at the budget Tuesday night - it'll also be available at the city building and the Champaign Public library.
Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing legislation that he says would offer tax relief to millions of Illinois property owners.
Quinn plans to present the Homeowner's Property Tax Relief Initiative of 2010 to the General Assembly this week.
The legislation would create a Taxpayer Action Board modeled after the statewide utility watchdog that Quinn helped start in the 1980s.
Quinn says the taxpayer board would be independent and nonpartisan. It would help property owners appeal their tax bills and assessments.
The legislation also looks to make it easier for property owners to get information about the assessment process, including comparable sales statistics.
The proposal would also extend a provision that reduces homeowners' taxable value by $20,000.
More delays could be in store for a clean coal technology plant in eastern Illinois. The FutureGen Industrial Alliance is still negotiating finances with the state, dragging out a decision by the US Department of Energy on whether to build the plant in Mattoon.
Illinois Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin says the agency is extending its study of the experimental plant.
"I said that the Secretary of Energy had to decide this project on it's merits and I wanted him to do that," Durbin said over the weekend in Springfield. "I think we've made a good strong case, but we don't take anything more granted."
Durbin, the Majority Whip, says he's optimistic the plant will be built.
The Energy Department had planned to announce by now whether to go forward, but the agency has decided to keep studying the alliance's plans another 60 days.
If built, FutureGen would be the worlds' first zero emissions coal-fired power plant. Carbon dioxide created from burning coal would be stored underground. The project would create thousands of construction jobs.
Optimism remains that construction on the long-delayed FutureGen power plant will get the federal government's okay soon.
In the meantime, local officials can do little more than watch and wait for a decision from the Energy Department. It's in talks with corporate members of the FutureGen Alliance who want to get the $1.8 billion dollar coal-to-energy plant built and operating near Mattoon.
Angela Griffin heads the economic development group Coles Together. "As far as we know they're still in negotiations," Griffin said. "There's still a lot of details to be worked out with the agreement going forward, and they're not at liberty at this point to talk about those."
But Griffin says she and others in the Mattoon area are being kept up to date on the talks, even if she doesn't know the details. Griffin wouldn't estimate when the government and the Alliance can reach a conclusion.
She does say that once that agreement takes place, the construction phase will have a big impact on Mattoon. She says plant developers expect to keep cement plants within a 100-mile radius of FutureGen busy as they drill the initial wells for the plant's carbon-sequestration unit.
The Illinois Commerce Commission has rejected most of a request from Ameren to raise electricity and natural gas rates.
Ameren had sought an additional $162 million from customers. On Thursday, the ICC approved $5 million of that increase. The utility company released a statement, saying the decision may hinder Ameren's ability to provide the service customers expect. Spokesman Leigh Morris says the company will spend a few days reviewing the decision to decide its next steps... including whether to appeal. The Citizen Utility Board's Jim Chilsen praised the decision. "Ameren was asking for way too much," said Chilsen. "And the rate hike that it got will give the company all the funds it needs to provide safe, reliable service and to return a fair profit to stockholders."
ICC spokeswoman Beth Bosch says the cuts of more than 95-percent came from various line items on the delivery side of Ameren's power. "Ranging from incentive compensation to benefits, working cash, what kinds of projects they consider useful the rates could be collected on, operations and maintenance," said Bosch. She says the ICC also brought down the rate hike from what an administrative law judge had requested. The decision is also based on reviews from several parties, including local governments, the Attorney General, and AARP. Bosch says all of Ameren's gas rates should go down as a result of the decision, with electric rate hikes of 10-percent or less for Ameren IP, CILCO, and CIPS customers.
Up to 15,000 people are participating in one of the biggest rallies in the history of the Illinois state Capitol.
The secretary of state's office says about 12,000 people marched the streets of Springfield on Wednesday. Even more were on the Statehouse grounds, bringing the total to about 15,000.
The event was billed as a "Save Our State'' rally. It drew state employees, teachers and advocates from social service organizations.
Fired-up speakers urged the crowd to turn to the Statehouse. They shouted slogans such as "Show some guts!''
Don Dixon is a teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign and a board member of the Illinois Education Association. He brought 20 students to the state capitol for the rally. Dixon says there will be more layoffs in his district unless the state puts more money into education.
We just laid off 153 people in the second round. The first round we laid off about 50. And it's only going to get worse," Dixon said. "The state has pretty much screwed up entirely as far as funding anything. So bills are being paid late. Eventually we're just going to have to close down if we don't get an increase in revenue and get some sillier things cut out."
Gov. Pat Quinn wants a 33 percent increase in the income tax, but House Democrats have been reluctant to back a hike.
An Illinois Senate panel has rejected proposed legislation that would allow Illinois school districts to hold classes only four days a week.
Only two of the 11 members of the Senate Education Committee voted Tuesday in support of the plan to allow local districts to give students a full school year of three-day weekends.
Although the measure received widespread backing in the House, committee members expressed concern that a third day off school would cause problems for working parents.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic State Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign, said the measure would simply allow districts to move to four-day school weeks, not mandate them to do so.
A number of rural districts had lobbied for the option in hopes of saving money.
Illinois home foreclosure activity during the first quarter of 2010 fell 4.6 percent from the previous quarter, but was still higher than the first quarter of 2009.
A report released Thursday by Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac shows Illinois with 45,780 foreclosure filings in the first quarter of 2010. Filings include default notices, auction-sale notices and bank repossessions.
The filings represent one in every 115 housing units in the state. That rate is nearly 17.5 percent higher than in the first quarter of last year and 9th-highest nationally.
Nevada again had the nation's highest foreclosure rate _ one in every 33 housing units.
Other states with foreclosure rates higher than Illinois were: Arizona, Florida, California, Utah, Michigan, Georgia, Idaho and Colorado.
University of Illinois Trustees could begin interviewing its 10 finalists for university president by the end of this week. The presidential search committee is not naming the finalists, but committee chair and trustee Pam Strobel says 8 of the 10 come from the public universities, and some have ties to the U of I. Five of them are current university presidents.
On Monday, she says the committee updated the rest of the Trustees on those finalists. Strobel says the board is on track to name a new president by sometime next month. And she says the finalists aren't concerned about the economic climate affecting the U of I, along with many other campuses. "And it seems to be almost an epidemic that is going on, affecting especially public universities in so very many states," says Strobel. "And so we are not alone even though we are in a very serious financial crisis... and the caliber of people who we are looking at seem to be very able to rise to the challenge." Strobel says the trustees aren't releasing when or where candidate interviews will be conducted. U of I board members met in closed session Monday in Chicago... and may interview some of those finalists when meeting again Friday. Stanley Ikenberry, the U of I's president from 1979 to 1995, has served as interim president since Joseph White stepped down last year amid an admissions scandal.
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