Illinois Public Media News
Illinois Democrats edged closer to a vote on raising income taxes during a lame-duck session of the state Legislature, as the governor met with legislative leaders Tuesday and lawmakers considered measures that would put new restrictions on state spending.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said Democratic leaders want the House to approve a version of the tax increase that passed in the Senate nearly two years ago. That plan would boost the personal income tax rate to 5 percent, from the current 3 percent.
Meanwhile, a new report from a University of Illinois think tank concludes that the state's budget crisis is even deeper than most people realize. The deficit is usually placed at $12 billion with a possibility that it will reach $15 billion, but the Institute of Government and Public Affairs says the shortfall is really $17 billion and climbing.
"It is hard to overstate the depth of the fiscal hole the state is in," the report said. "If nothing is done soon, the state of Illinois faces a very bleak future."
Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, want some Republican support for a tax increase. That would help insulate Democrats from the potential public outcry over higher taxes. So far, however, Republican leaders have opposed any tax talk.
Democrats are pushing several measures that might help attract GOP support and blunt public criticism.
Madigan, for instance, is sponsoring two constitutional amendments. One would limit government spending growth to the same level of growth that Illinois taxpayers see in their own paychecks. The other would make it harder for state and local government to approve costly benefit increases in pension plans.
Both amendments have been approved in committee and now await action on the House floor.
Democrats also are trying to reach deals on Medicaid costs, school management and worker's compensation.
Together, the measures could be used to argue that Democrats are serious about handling tax money more responsibly if an increase is approved.
"I think what we have to do is pay our bills," Cullerton told reporters after meeting with Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn. "I think we have to make sure our bond rating is improved and people see that, going forward, we can pay our bills. If people look at it from that perspective, I think it's something that they would accept."
A new Legislature will be sworn in Jan. 12. It may be easier to pass a tax increase before then, while Democrats still have a large majority and some outgoing members can act without worrying about a future voter backlash.
Democratic leaders, however, won't say whether they're prepared to try to pass a tax during the lame-duck session if they can't pick up any Republican support.
A spokeswoman said House Republican Leader Tom Cross met with the governor Tuesday morning and Quinn discussed raising income taxes by just half a percentage point and using that revenue to pay off $14 billion in new debt. Spokeswoman Sara Wojcicki said Quinn offered few details and that Cross reiterated his calls for government spending reforms before considering higher taxes.
There was little evidence Tuesday to suggest that Democrats and Republicans were coming to any accord.
The governor and Democratic leaders did not include top Republicans in their meeting. Republicans opposed Madigan's constitutional amendments to control spending, arguing either that they don't go far enough or they go too far. And a Senate committee voted along party lines to borrow roughly $4 billion and use the money to make the state's annual contribution to government pensions.
A longtime columnist for The News-Gazette has left the paper after nearly 60 years.
Malcolm Nygren, a former minister with Champaign's First Presbyterian Church, joined the Gazette in 1953 along with about a half dozen other ministers recruited by the paper. Each of the ministers quit after writing a single column, but Nygren stuck around.
Nygren's columns often described different aspects of his life through the lens of the Christian faith. He said his editorials were never overtly religious, but reflected his feelings about major events ranging from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the birth of his daughters. He added that many of his columns could be read and interpreted on multiple levels.
"For some people it came at a time in their life when it was something they really needed, and it was useful for them," Nygren said. "It means different things to different people."
The Gazette's opinions editor Jim Dey was the first person each week to read over the column. He praised Nygren for always meeting a deadline, and writing in clear language that rarely required an edit.
"Writers come and go, and newspapers hopefully are here for the duration, and so people will get used to it," Dey said. "Nothing good lasts forever, and (Malcolm) Nygren's column is an example of that."
Dey said the News Gazette has no immediate plans to replace the column.
In his final editorial, Nygren wrote, "For the writer, it is a lot better to quit before you have to quit." But Nygren said he is not give up writing just yet. Readers can still follow his columns on his blog, "Byline: Malcolm Nygren."
"I will write when I want to, not on a deadline," Nygren said. "I'll get the good part of the job, and not have to have the pressure of it."
(Photo courtesy of Malcolm Nygren)
The economy may still be slowly improving in Illinois, but the author of a monthly gauge of the state's economic performance says it's far from healthy.
For the seventh consecutive month, the University of Illinois Flash Index went up. In December, the index measured 94.9, up .7 from November, but 100 is the break-even point between growth and contraction, and economist Fred Giertz said the slow growth has not been very noticeable.
Giertz said unemployment remains a problem, even though the state's jobless rate is slightly under the national average -- a rare occurrence.
"It may just be an aberration, or it may be that our industries, especially agriculture, are doing fairly well," Giertz said. "Some of the exporting industries are doing alright, and we were not really devastated by the crisis with real estate or things of that sort."
Giertz is also not too concerned that Illinois or the nation will see a return of inflation in the near term. Rising commodity prices, bailout legislation and the Federal Reserve's decision to enact "quantitative easing" have prompted some to warn of an effect on overall consumer prices. But Giertz does not detect any unwillingness in financial markets to lend money at the current very-low interest rates.
"The fact that people ware willing to lend money for the long term at relatively low interest rates suggests that people don't think there's going to be a lot inflation on the horizon," Giertz said. "The Federal Reserve is very wary of the possibility (of inflation). They've made mistakes in the past and I think their intention is to start reining things in once the economy gets going again."
Giertz said there is some good news in the weak Flash Index numbers. He said revenue from sales taxes was up in December, marking a better holiday shopping season than many retailers had expected. The Index uses revenue reports from state income, sales and business taxes to calculate its measurement.
A garbage hauling and recycling firm has expanded its recycling drop off site on the north edge of Champaign, following the closing last week of the city's recycling drop off facility.
Illini Recycling owner Cindy Eaglen said she has expanded her intake capacity to serve the out-of-town users who had come to depend on the city of Champaign's drop off site.
"We've had a drop off site out here for many years, and just felt that there was a need to expand it, because so many people were going to be left with nothing to do with their material," Eaglen explained.
Another company, Green Purpose, is planning to open a new recycling drop off facility that would operate on a subscription basis. But Eaglen said they do not have to charge their users, because they already have the equipment in place to process the recyclables.
"Everything that we have is already in place," Eaglen said. "So basically, what we're doing is just adding additional material to it, which does not increase our cost, as if we were having to go out and buy all the equipment."
Eaglen said the success of her expanded drop off site will depend on whether the public can sort their recyclables according to their guidelines. She said they can accept most common paper, aluminum and plastic recyclables, but she said they cannot accept garbage, Styrofoam, plastic grocery bags, or toys and other plastic items that don't carry a recycling symbol.
Illini Recycling performs garbage and/or recycling pickup in Champaign, Danville, and several surrounding communities.
Eaglen said the company's public recycling drop off site is open weekdays from 8 to 5, at the Illini Recycling facility at 420 Paul Street, in the Wilbur Heights neighborhood just off North Market Street, near the Market Place Mall. There has no charge to drop off recyclables at the site.
The man now assigned with overseeing Illinois' colleges and universities says the change in jobs was a perfect fit for many reasons.
Before starting last week as Executive Director of the state Board of Higher Education, George Reid had just completed a kind of post-secondary blueprint for Maryland as part of that state's Higher Education Commission. And Reid says this new job will borrow from his background as both an administrator and an educator.
Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert talked with Reid about the challenges that await him:
(Photo Courtesy of Illinois Board of Higher Education)
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has signed legislation affecting the pension system for law enforcement officers and firefighters.
Quinn signed the law Thursday. His office says it will stabilize pension systems and protect retirement benefits for the officers and firefighters. However Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he's disappointed Quinn signed the law, saying it will burden Chicago taxpayers.
The new law will affect those hired on or after Jan. 1. Quinn's office also says it will help municipalities fund pensions.
Daley's office says the new law will increase the city's annual police and fire pension contribution from an projected $309 million in 2015 to about $856 million. The new law normalizes retirement ages, sets a maximum pension and begins monthly cost-of-living adjustments at age 60 for retirees and survivors.
Champaign's Virginia Theatre re-opens this week after six months of privately funded work to the lobby and concession stand.
The downtown facility has yet to use $500,000 in state grant dollars for plaster work and theater lighting. But Champaign Park District spokeswoman Laura Auteberry said that work is expected to take longer, likely about eight months. With movie showings and concerts now scheduled into May, Auteberry said the park district will likely postpone closing the Virginia again until 2012. The schedule includes Roger Ebert's 13th Annual Film Festival.
Auteberry said lots of changes have already taken place since July, including paint and plaster work, a new concession stand, lighting, and carpeting extending into the upper lobby. The decision to move the state grant-funded work to will officially be made at the next park district board meeting Jan. 12. Auteberry said that is also when the board hopes to approve the design for a new marquee on the theater, after reviewing options from a sign company.
"They're going to be looking at redesigned designs, that Wagner (Electric Sign Company) has prepared, and hopefully deciding on a final design," Auteberry said. "Once we get a final design done, I don't think it will take them long to put it up."
The Virginia has been without a marquee the last several weeks. The park district board voted last summer to replace the sign with one resembling the 1921 original, despite complaints from local preservationists. The old vaudeville house re-opens Friday night for the annual Chorale concert. The park district also hopes to schedule an open house in February to show off recent upgrades.
The city of Champaign's recycling drop off site on Kenyon Road is scheduled to shut down for good on Thursday, Dec. 30, at 2:30 PM. That's bad news for residents from outside the city who have been using the facility for years.
Champaign is closing the recycling drop off site because a new program for apartment buildings means recycling pickup is now available to all residents. Landlord pay a per-unit user fee for the recycling collection program that's been dubbed "Feed the Thing". Another program requiring garbage haulers to include curbside recycling pickup for single-family homes and smaller apartment buildings has been in place in Champaign for years.
Landlords and/or residents pay for recycling pickup in Champaign, but the city's recycling drop off facility has always been offered to the public free of charge. Champaign operations manager Tom Schuh said the site was costing the city $12,500 a month in recent years.
"It's never been free," Schuh said. "Unfortunately, recycling materials, the value of those materials just doesn't cover the cost of operating either a drop-off site or any other recycling program."
Whatever the cost, the city recycling drop off facility was popular with many out-of-town residents. And with its closing, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission recycling coordinator, Susan Monte, said those users will be at a disadvantage.
"It will be a very missed drop-off site," Monte said. "Lots of people that lived in rural areas did use that site, and they are now searching for an alternative."
One alternative could be a new drop-off facility that a Champaign-based startup company hopes to open, not far from the city drop off site. If the city approves a zoning change, CEO Steven Rosenberg of Green Purpose LLC said users would pay a $5 monthly fee to drop off recyclables, and he said the facility would also promote the company's strategy of re-purposing
"You'll be able to drop off things that maybe aren't recyclable at all," Rosenberg said. "Lightly used materials that are able to be reused, and even though specific people don't have a use for them anymore, other people might."
According to Monte, most Champaign County residents have access to recycling services. Curbside pickup is available in Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul, Savoy, Mahomet, St. Joseph and Tolono. In addition, Tolono, Homer, Philo and Ogden will continue to operate their own drop off facilities for their local residents. But Monte said 14 rural communities in Champaign County have no recycling service at all. She said some counties, including Macon County, rely on tipping fees from their landfill to fund county-wide recycling programs. Champaign County no longer has an active landfill.
Within the span of the next couple of weeks, Illinois' 105th House District will have had three lawmakers.
State Rep. Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) will continue serving until Jan. 9 when he resigns to become the state senator of the 53rd district. He is replacing State Treasurer-elect Dan Rutherford. Cultra's permanent replacement in the House is Champaign County GOP Chair Jason Barickman. Barickman will be sworn in on Jan. 10, the day after Cultra gives up the seat.
As a way to show his appreciation to his longtime aide Russell Geisler, Cultra pushed to have Geisler appointed to his House seat for one day before Barickman takes offices.
A group of Republican Party leaders in the district from Champaign, Ford, Livingston, Iroquois, Vermilion, and McLean counties voted unanimously to approve the temporary appointment earlier this month, but not without some hesitation from its members. Gordy Hulten, the outgoing vice-chairman of the Champaign County Republican Party and soon-to-be county clerk, said he is concerned about Geisler's ability to cast votes when the General Assembly's in session.
"They make vote on worker's compensation, or teacher tenure reform, or a $15 billion borrowing plan, and we may have an honorary state representative for a day casting votes or being instructed on how to vote for us, which is even worse," Hulten said. "I live in this district, so I'm not excited about that."
Geisler contended that he has plenty of experience working with Rep. Cultra in Springfield and added that he is well informed about pending legislative measures that may come up for a vote.
"I've been there, down there, and listened to the debates on the floor," Geisler said. "You know, that's why you got the House staff, and if I didn't understand something, I can call them over and say, 'Hey, explain this to me before I do cast a vote.'"
During Geisler's short time in the General Assembly, he will not receive salary or pension benefits, and he has already signed a letter pledging to resign after one day in office.
The Springfield City Council chose Alderman Frank Edwards on Tuesday evening as the city's interim mayor.
Immediately after the vote, Edwards was sworn in by Springfield City Clerk Cecilia Tumulty.
Edwards, who is the city's former fire chief, was chosen on a 6-4 vote to serve until April as a replacement for Mayor Tim Davlin, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Dec. 14.
Under the law, the council had 60 days to select an interim mayor. The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reports that a number of aldermen said they need someone in place sooner because of the serious budget issues the city is facing.
Edwards, who was running for re-election as alderman, was one of those calling for a quick replacement for Davlin.
"Our budget process ends Feb. 28. We really need to have someone in place (now) so we can start working on the budget and find out exactly where we are. We have people's livelihood in the balance," Edwards said Monday.
Others who had expressed an interest in the interim job or who had been mentioned by City Council members included Alderman Mark Mahoney, Alderman Debbie Cimarossa, and Jim Donelan, who served as Davlin's executive assistant. The council is officially non-partisan.
Last week, Alderman Frank Kunz, the mayor pro tem, withdrew from the running to be interim mayor and endorsed Mahoney, who is not running for re-election as alderman.
Mahoney and Cimarossa voted against naming Edwards, as did Alderman Gail Simpson and Alderman Sam Cahnman.
Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone said Davlin, a two-term Democrat, died of a close-range gunshot wound to his chest. The 53-year-old mayor was found dead after he failed to show up for a court appearance to address questions about his handling of the estate of one of his cousins, who died in 2003.
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