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)
A powerful storm packing what may have been a tornado damaged or destroyed nearly two dozen homes and injured one motorist in central Illinois today, authorities said.
The storm hit an area near Lake Petersburg in Menard County around 12:30 p.m., according to National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Smith.
He said damage was reported to homes around the lake near Petersburg, a community of about 2,200 people which is northwest of Springfield.
Petersburg Mayor John Stiltz told WTAX-AM in Springfield that at least two homes were destroyed and several others were rendered uninhabitable. Officials said shelter would be provided for those individuals left homeless by the storm. The station also reported some damage to boat docks around the lake and a building on a golf course.
One injury was reported when a tree or tree limbs fell on a woman's car, said Menard County Sheriff Chuck Jones. The woman's injuries weren't believed to be life threatening.
"It all happened very, very quickly as these things often do," Jones told The (Springfield) State Journal-Register. "Shortly before the storm, we did have the tornado siren, which was a good thing. A lot of people were alerted."
The National Weather Service issued severe weather warnings and watches -- including some for tornadoes -- for counties throughout central and southern portions of the state and for a large swath of the nation's midsection on Friday.
Some tornado watches, particularly along the state's southeastern border, were to remain in effect through Friday evening. Some of those counties include Alexander, Edwards, Franklin Saline and Union.
Tornadoes spawned by the same storm system killed several people in Arkansas and Missouri on Friday.
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.
An Indiana University faculty member says he has learned to accept that earthquakes can take place in unexpected places.
But Geological Sciences Professor Michael Hamburger said there is a little known 10-mile area in Central Indiana called the Sharpsville fault, and believes that is where Thursday morning's magnitude 3.8 quake originated. The tremor located just north of Indianapolis was felt in four other states, including Illinois, but there were no injuries and very little damage was reported. Hamburger said pinpointing a source for the quake will take some time.
"One of the distinct problems is that earthquakes tend to happen fairly deep in the earth's crust, and the fractures that we see at the surface are quite superficial," Hamburger said. "They're mostly in sedimentary layers and we really need to do some imaging of the deeper architecture of the earth's crust in order to figure our what are the structures that are causing these earthquakes."
Hamburger said earthquakes in isolated places are not that unusual, and they are felt over a large area, citing the magnitude 5.2 Wabash Valley quake from April of 2008, when Illinois and at least 16 other states felt the impact. The majority of heavy activity comes from the Wabash Valley and New Madrid Seismic Zones.
Hamburger said he has heard only minor damage reports coming out of Indiana, including some of cracked pavement, but no structural damage. Despite the lack of earthquakes in Indiana, Hamburger said there are quake-resistant design codes for all of the state's public buildings.
Police departments in nine states - Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and Utah - have adopted an initiative to crack down on drunken driving.
The "No Refusal" program gives law enforcement officials the right to obtain a warrant from a judge to test someone's blood if the driver refuses a breathalyzer test. Macon County has used the program for the last couple of years on nights when there is expected to be an uptick in DUI cases, like on New Year's Eve.
Macon County sheriff's lieutenant Jonathan Butts said he hopes the increased enforcement will convince some people Friday night to think twice before getting behind the wheel.
"You could refuse, but if you're caught and we have reason to believe that you are under the influence and you refuse," Butts explained. "We're going to have a judge give us the paperwork to take your blood from you."
Duane Deters, an assistant state's attorney with the Macon County State's Attorney's office, said agreeing to the test will not prevent someone from being prosecuted, but he said it can help people avoid a steeper punishment.
"It's something that we'd certainly take into consideration in any offer that we would extend to them as far as to try to work the case out short of a trial," Deters said.
Deters said the policy's been in effect since 2009, and he said in that time only one search warrant has been issued for someone who did not agree to a breath test.
Other counties in Illinois using the program include Peoria, Sangamon, and Adams. The Illinois Department of Transportation declined to comment on whether the state should push to make the "No Refusal" program a statewide policy.
There will be other efforts to limit drunken driving in Macon County on New Year's Eve. The Decatur Police Department and the country's Sheriff's Office will beef up traffic enforcement, and AOK Taxi service will provide free rides from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. taking people from local bars to homes and motels. The taxi service can be reached at 217-330-7771 or 217-330-8331 for scheduled pickups.
Mikel Leshoure ran for 184 yards and three touchdowns as Illinois earned its first bowl victory since 1999, beating Baylor 38-14 Wednesday night in the Texas Bowl.
The Illini spoiled the Bears' first bowl appearance in 16 seasons. Both teams finished at 7-6.
Leshoure had a 5-yard TD run in the second quarter, a 13-yard score in the third quarter and another 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth period. The performance gave him the school single-season rushing record with 1,697 yards.
The Illini built a 24-0 lead and Leshoure's last touchdown put the game out of reach.
Baylor's Robert Griffin III threw for 306 yards and a touchdown, but his two fumbles in the first half put the Bears behind.
Leshoure was chosen the most valuable player and wore a cowboy hat as he hoisted the trophy above his head after the game while the small but vocal group of Illinois fans cheered.
The Bears cut the lead to 24-14 when Griffin found a diving Kendall Wright on a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-14 early in the fourth quarter. But Illinois continued its dominance in the rushing game after that and extended its lead to 31-14 on Leshoure's last touchdown.
Illinois finished with 291 yards rushing and 533 yards of total offense to give coach Ron Zook his first bowl win as a head coach in his fourth try.
Freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase got off to a sensational start, completing all of his 13 passes in the first half, and finished 18 of 23 for 242 yards. He scored on a 55-yard touchdown run with 41 seconds to play to make it 38-14.
Illinois opened the second half with an 87-yard drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown run by Leshoure. Leshoure also scored the 2-point conversion to extend the lead to 24-0 and set the Illinois single-season scoring record.
Baylor finally found its offensive touch on its first possession of the second half. Griffin completed five of seven passes on that drive, which ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by Jay Finley to get the Bears within 24-7 with about eight minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Illini held Finley in check for most of the night and Baylor's 1,000-yard rusher finished with 12 carries for 63 yards.
Illinois led 9-0 before a 5-yard touchdown run by Leshoure about 10 minutes before halftime stretched the lead to 16-0. That score was set up by a 52-yard reception by Ryan Lankford a play earlier.
Baylor was driving with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half when a pass by Griffin was intercepted by Terry Hawthorne. But the Bears got a second chance when Corey Liuget was penalized for roughing the passer, giving Baylor the ball back.
The Bears still came away empty though when Griffin fumbled a few plays later to give Illinois the ball back on its own 32.
Baylor's problems started early with Griffin fumbling on the first possession. Travon Bellamy recovered that fumble and returned it 46 yards. The Illini couldn't get anything going on that drive and settled for a 38-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
Illinois added a second field goal on their next drive to push the lead to 6-0 and a third field goal early in the second quarter made it 9-0.
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