With Illinois' pension debt climbing, the President of Eastern Illinois University suggests his school could handle those costs for retiring employees, if phased in gradually.
Governor Pat Quinn has floated the idea that pensions normally covered by the state could be shifted to universities and school districts.
The proposal was made as William Perry appeared before a Senate Committee in Springfield Wednesday. In EIU's case, that amounts to about $20-million. Perry says it would take at least five years, likely ten, for the university to phase in the state's contribution for pensions.
And he says that period would vary for other universities and their budgets, but each of them would have to hold open debates with state officials.
"The trust between the state goverment, the universities, and the university employees - that triangle of trust has to be strong," Perry said. "I think right now people are feeling like with change coming along, the trust they've put in the system for so long is at risk, so we have to be really careful on the trust side."
Perry says if the employer contribution to pensions was to change, the next logical step is finding a stable base of funding.
"If you kept your general revenue funding equal or even increased it a bit, if you're having to take money from other places in the university or from the general revenue appropriation to use to take care of employer contribution, it's still going to be a cut on your budget and a strain on your budget," Perry said. "We know that we can't just pass this off on the students in tuition."
For the long term - Perry says a sustainable model for pension could be achieved through a hybrid - a defined benefit and contribution - a model suggested by two University of Illinois faculty members.
Perry says an overhaul of the State Universities Retirement System, making it more like the private sector holds merit.
The model was recently proposed by Robert Rich and Jeffrey Brown with the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
The Illinois Department of Revenue says it's prepared to move swiftly on decisions about which not-for-profit hospitals deserve tax breaks.
Those hospitals waiting for a decision include Carle and Provena Hospitals in Urbana, and Decatur Memorial Hospital.
The state had held off making any decisions since fall while it, hospitals, and consumer health advocates negotiated how much charity do not for profit hospitals have to provide in order to get out of paying property taxes.
But they failed to reach an agreement by Governor Pat Quinn's March First deadline.
So the department is going to resume issuing rulings. Revenue spokeswoman Sue Hofer says a backlog of up to 18 cases has built up in the interim. She says that will decrease, as decisions are made by the end of this month.
"We look forward to doing our job and making decisions, so that both the entities that we're determining about, and the local governments will have closure on how much money they can expect to gain in taxes, or how much money they may have to pay in taxes," Hofer said.
Hofer says the constitution and court precedence establish what hospitals have to do to qualify. But the state hospital association's Danny Chun says the standards aren't clear, even though big money's at stake.
"In some cases it could be millions of dollars a year, it just depends on the property that's being looked at," said Chun.
He says money spent paying a local tax bill is money that's not going to health care.
After taking a dip in January, the Flash Index of the Illinois economy continued to show improvement in February. The monthly index from the University of Illinois showed a reading of 99.2 in February --- its best showing since November of 2008. The index is a weighted average of growth in Illinois income and sales taxes.
U of I economist Fred Giertz says the Flash Index will have to rise back to 100 to show economic growth. He's expecting continued to improvement, but says the economy in Illinois is hampered by a state unemployment rate that's been higher than the national rate for some time.
'It's a recovery and things are going in the right direction", says Giertz. "And it's unlikely we're going to have a double-dip (recession). But we're not really back to what more people consider a normal healthy kind of situation, of 5 or 6 percent unemployment."
New unemployment figures for Illinois show the jobless rate falling .3% during January, to 9.4%. The national unemployment rate is 8.3%. The Illinois Department of Employment Security says the state saw a net increase of 3800 jobs. The strongest gains were in Professional and Business Services, and the Leisure and Hospitality industry.
Illinois lawmakers are considering whether to end a benefit that lets university employees send their kids to state colleges for half-price. The Illinois House Executive Committee sent a measure (HB5531) to the House floor on Wednesday, on a 9-2 vote.
State Representative Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) is the bill's sponsor. He says the waivers contribute to the high cost of higher education.
"Tuition rates in our universities keep going up because we are paying for children ... to educate children of other state employees", says Arroyo.
Arroyo says the tuition waivers cost $387 million dollars in 2011.
But a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education says the cost was actually much smaller: about $8 million.
Dave Steelman lobbies for Western Illinois University. He says at that school, the majority of employees using tuition waivers are relatively low-paid workers, like clerks.
They have to work in the university system for seven years before they're eligible.
And Steelman says when employee tuition waivers are compared to similar programs, they don't cost very much.
"At Western last year, our employee dependent waivers totaled about $240,000", says Steelman. "Veterans' waivers for the same year totaled $2.2 million."
State Representative Mike Tryon (R-Crystal Lake) serves on the House Executive Committee, and supported the bill on Wednesday.
"It's almost like saying if I work at the building department, I get my building permit for half price", says Tryon. "I don't know of any other part of government where employees get to pay less for something than the taxpayers or the general public."
Those who want to end the perk say they would consider a compromise, like a salary cap that limits the benefit to lower-wage employees.
Illinois and new football coach Tim Beckman will close all but a couple of spring practices to fans and news media. The school has asked reporters not to provide updates via social media when they are allowed access.
Sports information director Kent Brown said Wednesday that the school might further restrict access for all media if a reporter doesn't comply but "hope it doesn't come to that.''
Spring practices start March 7. The spring game is April 14. Only two of the 14 practices and scrimmages are open to news media and fans.
Beckman has said he would restrict access to try to maintain some degree of secrecy about the schemes his team will run.
Beckman was hired in December to replace the fired Ron Zook.
The two Democrats running for Congress in Illinois' new 13th District announced new endorsements on Wednesday.
Dr. David Gill of Bloomington is being endorsed by the political action committee of the National Organization for Women. At a news conference in Champaign, the emergency room physician said that NOW recognized his strong pro-choice stance --- and support of contraception coverage under the federal health care law. Gill accused his Democratic primary rival, Matt Goetten of Carrollton, of being silent on such issues as access to contraception, women's health screenings and women's access to legal abortions.
"We need a Democratic candidate in this race who will forcefully address Tim Johnson," said Gill. "Who will turn to him and say, 'Mr. Johnson, get out of our bedrooms and keep your hands off of our bodies?' I intend to be that candidate."
Goetten spokesman Vlad Gutman said that while the Greene County State's Attorney is focusing on the economy in his campaign, he has stated publicly that he is "a pro-choice Catholic who has always chosen life." Gutman said Goetten backs the Obama administration's compromise move to use insurance companies to cover contraception for employees of Catholic institutions. He said Goetten believes medical decisions should be made by patients and their doctors, not by members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Goetten has picked up the backing of the political action committee for VoteVets.org, a progressive veterans group that focuses on supporting veterans for public office. Goetten serves in the Illinois National Guard, and he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as a judge advocate general.
A Goetten news release quotes VoteVets.org PAC Chairman John Stoltz endorsing him as "just the kind of person we need in Washington. He served, and he knows veterans issues well. He also has the experience needed to make a real difference."
Goetten and Gill are competing to run against Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana), who himself faces challenges from Metro East residents Michael Firsching and Frank Metzger in the GOP primary in the new 13th District.
The Indiana Senate has approved a severely weakened smoking ban with exemptions for bars, casinos, tobacco stores and many other businesses.
The 29-21 vote Wednesday sets up final negotiations with House lawmakers as anti-smoking activists and health groups look to salvage the ban in the waning days of the 2012 session.
The Senate proposal would ban smoking in most private businesses. But the measure exempts bars and taverns, the state's expansive gambling industry, private clubs, cigar and tobacco stores, veterans' homes and nursing homes and a handful of others.
Supporters of a ban said the bill wasn't perfect but voted in favor of it in hopes they could hash out a stronger ban in a conference committee with House lawmakers, who have passed a more restrictive version.
Illinois U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., and his Democratic opponent are arguing over who was a more reliable vote in Congress for President Obama. The very existence of the debate was a positive development for Jackson, who's had difficulty moving the election conversation beyond the topic of ethics.
Jackson's campaign in recent days has pushed the theme "88 times" - the number of votes Jackson said his opponent, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, cast against the wishes of the president during her single term in Congress, from 2009 to 2011. The theme is central to a radio ad featuring U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Corrine Brown.
"Halvorson voted with the Republicans and against President Obama 88 times," Waters, of California, said in the ad.
"How many? She voted 88 times with the Republicans and 88 times against President Barack Obama? She's crazy!" Brown, of Florida, is heard saying emphatically.
Halvorson Response, Jackson Re-response
In a press conference she called Tuesday to denounce the vote claim, Halvorson pointed to a handful of times she voted with President Obama, when Jackson did not.
Halvorson also explained that for a lot of the 88 votes in question, the president never stated an opinion. But she acknowledged sometimes siding against the majority of Democrats.
"Does that automatically mean it's against the...president? No," Halvorson said. "That means that sometimes we have to cross the aisle and take a look at how it is to move this country forward."
"Democrats should stick together," responded Jackson campaign spokesperson Kevin Lampe. "[Halvorson] is running for the Democratic nomination. She should vote with the Democrats when she's in Congress."
Also Tuesday, Halvorson said she believed Jackson was trying to "divide [voters] racially" by using the radio ad, even as she acknowledged not hearing it herself. Halvorson said she'd been told it contained "rap music in the background" and was running on two stations geared toward African-American audiences.
The Jackson campaign distributed a radio ad to reporters it said had to be the one Halvorson was referring to, as it was the campaign's only ad making the "88 times" claim. That ad contained no rap music.
The newly drawn Second Congressional District, which stretches from Chicago's South Side down to Kankakee, is 54 percent African-American, according to Census demographics released by the Illinois General Assembly.
The president has endorsed Jackson in the race. Still, as Halvorson pointed out, the president himself hasn't said the words publicly, instead relying on aides to confirm his support for the congressman.
Meanwhile, Halvorson responded to the Chicago Tribune's endorsement of the incumbent. While noting ethical questions surrounding Jackson that've led to a continued U.S. House probe, the paper's editorial board wrote last week that the congressman "ran circles around Halvorson in our interview, showing a 16-year incumbent's command of the issues."
Conversely, the Tribune wrote that Halvorson "is alarmingly unqualified to represent the district."
"I've never had a very good relationship with the Tribune," Halvorson said Tuesday, before implying the paper had a financial stake in a Jackson victory. "If you're going to sell newspapers, who would you rather cover? Someone who's on the front page or someone who just works hard and creates jobs. And my stories end up...on page 10.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press and Illinois Public Radio)
Gov. Pat Quinn has activated the State Emergency Operations Center after a tornado left six people dead in the southern Illinois city of Harrisburg, and about a hundred others injured.
The storm has caused heavy damage in Saline and Gallatin counties and more than 12,000 Ameren Illinois customers have lost power.
Quinn toured Harrisburg on Wednesday to survey the damage. Quinn said Illinoisans have to band together "as a family.''
"Those men and women who went to bed last night and lost their lives in this tornado, we pray for their souls and we pray for their families," Quinn said. "I think it's important for us as a family in Illinois to come together and honor their lives and mourn their loss."
His disaster declaration will make recovery resources available to affected areas of Saline County. Quinn's office said earlier Wednesday that the governor would survey the storm damage.
The governor said President Barack Obama called after waking up to news of a disaster in his home state.
Quinn also said he hopes God will bless the "immortal souls'' of those who died. Quinn said Illinoisans have to band together "as a family.''
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency earlier reported that 10 were dead, but the agency said that information was incorrect.
Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson said Harrisburg authorities say they have accounted for everyone and outside search-and-rescue teams have been called off. Thompson said specially trained rescue teams from emergency-response agencies in Charleston, Marion, St. Clair County, Springfield and Urbana were on their way to Harrisburg on Wednesday but have been told to return. She said outside agencies have supplied light poles and nine ambulances, however.
Jennifer Fuller, of Illinois Public Radio, was in front of the Harrisburg Medical Center. Fuller said that when she canvased the city, she saw "entire neighborhoods destroyed." She said she saw some trees split in half next to piles of rubble that used to be homes.
"It's devastating for these people," Fuller reported.
She noted that because the severe storms - it is not yet confirmed if they spun tornadoes - moved through Harrisburg in the early morning, it's possible some people were asleep.
"It's ironic," Fuller said. "Just this week the Illinois Emergency Management Agency was telling people to be ready for storm season in March and to have those weather radios handy."
Harrisburg resident Margaret Shimkus' home was nearly destroyed by the pre-dawn storm that ripped through theregion says she had to run to take shelter in her bathtub. Shimkus described the moment the storm hit at around 5 a.m. Wednesday, recalling how she was awoken by the sound of loud crashing and shattering glass.
Shimkus first tried to get under her bed, but then ran to her bathtub as parts of the building blew apart. The 61-year-old woman said only the walls of her duplex were left standing. Besides a cut on her leg from flying glass, she wasn't seriously hurt. Four other apartments in her complex were destroyed.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg promised that his southern Illinois city will rebuild. He said the community "will make this city stronger.''
Gregg called the tornado "heartbreaking'' and said city officials are doing everything they can to protect citizens. He said the city will make sure everyone is accounted for.
State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) led the General Assembly in observing a moment of silence. Legislators from southern Illinois, including Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) and Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg), are back in their districts.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) said he will visit southern Illinois areas devastated by the powerful tornado.
"I was saddened to learn of the loss of lives and such violent damage in Harrisburg and other areas of Southern Illinois," Shimkus said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost loved ones and those who were hurt or lost their homes or businesses."
Severe weather warnings are still pending for parts of southern Illinois that have been pounded by a deadly tornado.
Meteorologist Beverly Poole said the National Weather Service office in Paducah, Ky., was still issuing warnings late Wednesday morning.
The storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes struck early Wednesday, violently sweeping across the region as people slept. Poole said the storm system hit locations in all four states, and more than 50 warnings have been issued.
The National Weather Service has given the tornado an EF4 rating. That's the second-strongest rating given to tornadoes.
Sideshow of the storm damage in Harrisburg, Ill. (Courtesy of The Associated Press)
Video of the damage in Harrisburg, Ill. (Courtesy of WSIL-TV)