Illinois Public Media News
About 11-thousand University of Illinois employees will have to take four unpaid days off work between now and the middle of May.
U of I administrators say furlough days have become unavoidable as the university faces a 440 million dollar shortfall in state funding. Administrators say the state has given the U of I only seven percent of the support it expected from this year's budget.
Interim president Stanley Ikenberry says no layoffs have been ordered, but departments are being asked to consider them because of a grim immediate future.
"Next year is not any more comforting," Ikenberry said. "So I think until we see the state leadership -- the governor, the leaders and members of the General Assembly, and frankly the citizens of the state -- rallying around a long term solution, I think we're going to be dealing with a mounting financial crisis."
Ikenberry believes the state will need to cut state spending and increase taxes to dig itself out of its budget deficit.
Chief financial officer Walter Knorr says the U of I has borrowed millions of dollars from its own funds - he says money from tuition, federal support and private giving have also kept the university going. "And indeed it's these other areas of the university that are giving us the liquidity that we require to be able to cope with the shortfall in funding from the state," Knorr said.
The four-day furloughs announced today do not affect civil service employees, but Knorr says their bargaining groups will be asked to put similar actions into their contracts. About 100 top administrators will take ten furlough days over the next five months.
Gov. Pat Quinn has named Chicago Alderman Manny Flores as the new chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Quinn announced the appointment Monday at a news conference in Chicago, calling Flores hard working and diligent. The governor says Flores will have a "strong voice'' for consumers and focus on green initiatives. The ICC determines utility rates in Illinois.
Flores says he's humbled and honored by the appointment, and he calls it a "new challenge.'' Flores replaces Charles Box, whose term was to expire in January 2009. Box is the former mayor of Rockford.
The consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board calls Flores' appointment "good news'' and say he's "proven to be a strong, independent, and fair voice for consumers.
December was another month of slow economic improvement for Illinois --- according to the University of Illinois Flash Index.
The Flash Index increased by a fifth of a point, to 91.2 in December, from November's 90.0. U of I Economist Fred Giertz says the Index has been gradually going up since hitting a low of 90 in September.
"There has been now three months of small increases", says Giertz. "So it's good news in a very limited sense --- good news in the sense that things aren't getting worse, but it doesn't necessarily mean there's a lot of improvement."
Giertz says he thinks slow economic growth will continue in Illinois, provided there are no unforeseen reversals, but says it will take a couple of years for the Flash Index to reach 100, which would indicate the start of actual economic growth.
"I think the evidence suggests that we are on the path to recovery", says Giertz. "But the recovery's going to be pretty slow. But there's not guarantee about that. There could be some unforeseen circumstance or some reversal. We've certainly seen that in the last couple of years."
Giertz says the best-case scenario would be a healthier financial sector combining with renewed public confidence in the economy to create a snowball effect. But he thinks gradual sluggish improvements are more likely.
The Flash Index is based on corporate, personal income and sales tax receipts in Illinois. Despite the recent improvement, all three categories are down from a year ago.
Candidates are taking to the Web to connect with Illinois voters more than ever. A University of Illinois researcher is studying how much good it will do them in the upcoming primary election.
There are exceptions - mainly third party candidates without primary competition. But by and large, most candidates running for statewide office have a Web presence, Republicans a bit more so than Democrats. According to Michael Cheney, a fellow at the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs, all 27 GOP candidates running statewide have a Web site compared with 84% of the Democrats.
Social media is common for campaigns too. Cheney says half of all statewide candidates have Twitter accounts, and 63 percent are on Facebook. But Cheney says the payback for online efforts is so far low. "A good part of that may be just to the number of candidates in each of the various contests, creating such clutter that it's really hard," Cheney said. "If you wanted to go out and check the Facebook pages for every candidate, you'd probably tire after you got about halfway through the list."
Cheney predicts an uptick in voters' online activity after the February 2 primary, when they can focus on the nominees.
New York's attorney general says he'll join the legal effort to keep Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes because the species could devastate the fishing industry and the environment.
Andrew Cuomo said he'll file a brief in U.S. Supreme Court today supporting Michigan's request to sever a century-old Chicago canal connecting Lake Michigan and the Mississippi water basin. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio also are supporting the request. Illinois' attorney general's office is reviewing the suit. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has said that closing the canal would not prevent the carp from migrating. Asian carp can grow to be 100 pounds and can consume massive quantities of plankton, the base of the Great Lakes food chain.
2009 was the safest year on Illinois roadways since 1921, when there were much fewer cars and trucks on the roads - and many of today's roads didn't even exist.
The state department of transportation says fewer than one thousand people died in vehicle crashes last year, more than a hundred fewer than in 2008. Transportation officials believe a big factor in the drop in traffic deaths is increased seat belt use - usage reached 93 percent in 2009, the highest ever. In the meantime, police have held special patrols to reduce some of the other major causes of traffic fatalities, including drunk driving, improper lane usage, speeding and following too closely.
Governor Pat Quinn says a secret policy change that allowed some well-behaved criminals to leave prison after fewer than three weeks behind bars was a mistake. But he says given the state's budget woes, Illinois' prison system has been forced to economize.
The governor called the accelerated early release of inmates ... some of whom were violent offenders ... "bad judgment." And Quinn says he never gave Corrections Director Michael Randle the authority to do it.
Yet Quinn also seemed to downplay the gravity of the situation. He says each of the 1700 inmates released early on meritorious good time would have been out of prison by the end of January anyway.
"We should not in any way, I think, miss the point that there are literally thousands of people coming into our prison system for a very short period of time", said Quinn.
Quinn says that because the state corrections budget was slashed, Randle was put in the challenging position of finding savings. The governor says Randle will keep his job as director, but he has terminated the program. His opponent in the Democratic primary race for governor, Comptroller Dan Hynes, calls Quinn's acknowledgment "inadequate" and "lame.
For the first time this season, property owners in downtown Champaign and in Campustown have to clean off their sidewalks under city rules.
It's the third winter of the city's mandatory shoveling policy for business owners in the two commercial areas. It was highly controversial when it was put into effect three years ago, but public works director Dennis Schmidt says it's gained acceptance.
"Compliance has gotten better each year", says Schmidt. "And I think definitely, accessibility to those areas, both for able-bodied shoppers and folks with physical disabilities has definitely improved. And I think those were the two goals that we had all along."
Property owners have 48 hours to clear a path on their public sidewalks - the clock started running at 10:00 Monday morning. Any walks not cleared can be cleared by city crews at the owner's expense. Champaign puts the snow removal order in effect every time there's a snowfall of two inches or greater.
Monday, December 28th, was the first day that voters could take out an absentee ballot for the February 2nd primary election. And for the first time, absentee voters in Illinois don't have to give a reason for wanting to vote early --- thanks to a new state law that took effect last August.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden says the new law exempting voters from having to state a reason for voting absentee makes absentee voting more like early voting ---except that it begins two weeks earlier, and can be done by mail. Shelden says the change will mean even more ballots cast before Election Day. Danville Election Commission Director Barbara Dreher agrees. She thinks the level of both early and absentee voting will "rise up exponentially, and take the pressure off of the polling places on Election Day".
Such ballots already make up a sizable percentage of ballots cast in elections. In the November 2008 election, about 12 percent of Champaign County ballots and nearly 10 percent of Danville ballots were cast early or absentee.
Shelden predicts that as more ballots are cast before Election Day, Election Day itself will lose its importance as a civic event engaging all voters at the same time.
"I don't want to say that's negative, but it's going to be almost a bygone memory in a matter of four or five years", says Shelden. "I think we'll see so many people voting early that Election Day will, in itself, have a different meaning to people."
Shelden thinks more pre-Election Day voting will also change campaign strategies, because campaigning in the last few days before Election Day will lose its impact.
You can apply for an absentee ballot in Illinois through your local election authority or county clerk's office --- in person, by mail or phone, and in some locations, such as Champaign County, online. Absentee ballots can be cast in Illinois until the day before Election Day.
Federal officials tried Tuesday to allay fears that moving terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois could make the state a terrorist target.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, told a legislative panel at a public hearing in Sterling that Thomson would be the most secure of all federal prisons in the country.
Other testimony on the plan to bring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to the Thomson Correctional Center appeared evenly split between supporters and critics.
Several conservative opponents of the plan were among the last to testify at a high school auditorium near the Thomson Correctional Center as the hearing ran late into the night Tuesday.
Denise Cattoni of the Illinois TEA Party organization told the panel that Americans aren't being told enough about the implications of any such transfer.
Cattoni said they merely woke up one morning and were told "Gitmo was moving to Illinois.''
But a series of leaders from communities in and near Thomson told the panel their constituents are clamoring for the kind of economic boost a fully open Thomson prison would provide.
Governor Pat Quinn plans to sell Thomson to the federal government to house detainees and for a maximum-security federal prison, and the public hearing probably will not change that. The 12-member Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability could vote on a recommendation to sell Thomson, but Quinn does not have to follow the recommendation.
The hearing adjourned at 9 p.m., and the commission said it would not vote on the proposal before Jan. 14.
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