Illinois Public Media News
A quick look at the state's overall economy shows improvement from the recession, but at a painstakingly slow pace.
The author of the monthly University of Illinois Flash Index says March marked the 11th consecutive month of improvement at 96.3, up two-tenths of a point from a month earlier. Anything below 100 still indicates a decline.
U of I economist Fred Giertz cites a January unemployment rate, both statewide and nationally - of 8.9 percent, as well as job growth in the private sector. But Giertz says Illinois is still a long way from where it wants to be, noting the difference between the current recession and those of recent years.
"It was also accompanied by a financial panic," he said. "A lot of people have noted those kind of situations, which occur very rarely, are also much more difficult to recover from. So we're not going to bounce back the way we did in 2001 or 1990."
The flash index is made up of individual and corporate tax receipts through the end of the month. Giertz says the tax hike passed by the legislature in January presented a challenge for him. He says those numbers had to be adjusted to reflect the overall economy, and not solely the higher rates. "So the fact is once you do that, the growth is a whole lot slower than you might think by just looking at the numbers themselves." said Giertz.
Because corporations file tax returns at different times, Giertz says it will take some time before the impact of the tax increase is fully realized.
Gov. Pat Quinn is getting ready to propose changes to the workers' compensation system in Illinois.
The Chicago Democrat on Friday said both the law and the Workers' Compensation Commission must be revamped. He says changes to the law would make the system more affordable for businesses while remaining fair to workers.
Quinn's comments come amid a federal investigation into possible workers' compensation abuses at state agencies and in the actions of arbitrators. The Associated Press has obtained five subpoenas looking for claims data.
Quinn says he's talking to lawmakers and wants Republicans and Democrats to work together on an overhaul.
Since shocking educators and parents last month by calling for a complete overhaul of Illinois school districts' sizes and boundaries, Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to provide detailed proposal, draft legislation or build support in the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, a State Board of Education report on school consolidation raises questions about Quinn's approach, and key lawmakers reject the idea that the Chicago Democrat even has a plan they should consider.
"The word 'plan' is really being kind," said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville. "It's a concept, I think, at this point."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Wednesday he doesn't plan legislative action on the consolidation proposal, but declined to say why.
Quinn has assigned the issue to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, whose office says the proposal is simply a starting point for discussions.
Quinn's plan includes cutting Illinois' 868 school districts to about 300, redrawing boundaries so that each district -- aside from Chicago -- contains about 30,000 people and cutting administrative jobs. Quinn estimates that would save at least $100 million. But that figure has been disputed by critics who say it's based on the state's 300 highest-paid superintendents even though many merged districts would be downstate, where salaries are typically lower and current law allows teacher salaries to rise when districts merge.
A Board of Education report compiled last fall cautions that cutting jobs could be difficult if new merged districts are too large. It also noted that a state panel in 2002 said high schools should have enrollments of at least 250 and elementary districts at least 625 students. Using that guideline would mean eliminating 359 districts, not the 568 that Quinn has suggested.
The report found no clear correlation between district size and student performance. Small districts did better than large ones by some measures and did worse by others.
Education officials and legislators said the state should encourage districts to merge rather than requiring it.
Illinois has provided $155.6 million in merger incentives since 1986, eliminating 139 districts, the Board of Education said. That means the state paid, on average, $1.1 million for each district it cut.
Quinn's critics say the relatively small number of districts accepting the state incentives means there must be strong local reasons not to merge.
"If it was smart for them to do this, people would already be doing this," said Brent Clark, executive director of Illinois Association of School Administrators.
Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman, said incentives have not spurred enough consolidation. She said Quinn's proposal is the best way to realize significant savings.
Critics contend that meeting Quinn's goal of 30,000 people would produce some huge downstate districts sprawling across six counties. And despite Quinn's claim that he wants to merge districts but not schools, many people said the real benefit would come from closing school buildings.
Richard Towers, superintendent in Christopher, said his district wants to merge with nearby the Zeigler-Royalton district, saving about $220,000 in administrative costs. But the way to help students, he said, would be building a single new high school.
"Keeping the status quo with two small high schools, I just don't know if the curriculum could be expanded to the extent that it would need to be," Towers said.
Critics note Quinn proposed a $95 million cut to school transportation, one year after slashing $140 million from the same program. Experts said schools that cut administrative costs would simply end up spending the money on buses.
Legislators and education advocates see little chance of Quinn's proposal being approved. They say Quinn sprang it on them without any preparation and has done little since then to build support or even share basic information.
"I have two lines in his budget address," Ben Schwarm, associate executive director for Illinois Association of School Boards, said of his knowledge about Quinn's plan.
Quinn said his proposal would focus resources on education instead of administration but remained careful to note that he is not advocating for schools to close.
"We don't need as many folks at the top level," Quinn told reporters earlier this month. "We need folks on the front line in the teaching, imparting knowledge."
Kathryn Phillips, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor, said Quinn's proposal is a "starting point and is one of many different ideas that we've hear. It's too early to tell which proposals are best or to assign any values to the proposals."
She said Simon, who declined to speak with The Associated Press, is discussing consolidation with legislators, school administrators, teachers and more.
Illinois has the third-most school districts in the nation, behind Texas and California, which have much larger populations. Nearly 250 superintendents are paid more than Quinn, who earns $177,400 annually. Phillips said about one-quarter of districts consist of one school that could be merged with larger districts.
Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House education committee, said local concerns about school pride and community would be difficult to overcome in a state-mandated consolidation plan.
"We have to cross a huge hurdle called local control," said Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora. "In the sand is drawn, 'This is our local control. Don't come out and bother us.' So I think we need to get a new idea.
Illinois says basketball coach Bruce Weber will remain coach of the Illini after reports he was a strong candidate to fill the vacant job at Oklahoma.
Weber said Thursday in a statement that he'd received calls from other unspecified schools but doesn't intend to leave.
The Transcript in Norman, Okla., linked Weber to the vacant Sooners job on Wednesday. Oklahoma fired Jeff Capel earlier this month.
Some Illinois fans have called for Weber to be fired after Illinois' 20-14 finish. The Illini opened the season in the Top 25 with talk about a potential Big Ten title but finished unranked and in fourth place.
Adding to the uncertainty in Champaign is 65-year-old athletics director Ron Guenther's situation. His contract ends this summer and he hasn't ruled out retiring.
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Illinois' treasurer invests the state's money. The Comptroller pays the bills. A measure approved by the Senate today would merge the two constitutional offices.
Supporters say it makes "sense" - literally and metaphorically. According to projections, the consolidation would result in a savings of $12 million.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, supports it, as does Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
"If government can be more efficient by having less officers and less departments and so forth than government should do that," Rutherford said.
He says the current setup stems from a half century old scandal. Former state auditor Orville Hodge embezzled $1.5 million from taxpayers.
"There was some cooking of the books and some money lost," Rutherford said. "The 1970 constitution envisioned the fact of having two officers so you have the check for one person investing the money and the balance for the other person writing the checks."
But Rutherford says that concern for checks and balances is outdated because now the offices' books are audited, and there's electronic accounting.
"Back in the days of Orville Hodge you were still using typewriters, pieces of paper and pencils," Rutherford said.
Rutherford and Topinka wouldn't be out of a job anytime soon - if it happens, the positions would stay separate until 2014.
The Illinois House has formed its own redistricting committee, a few days after its state Senate counterpart got started with public hearings. The committees are tasked with taking public input, and then drafting new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts based on the recently released Census data.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, will chair the panel. The other Democratic members include Reps. Frank Mautino of Spring Valley, Lou Lang of Skokie, Karen Yarbrough of Maywood, Marlow Colvin of Chicago and Edward Acevedo of Chicago. Mautino is the only Democrat on the committee who lives outside the Chicago area. The Republican members have not yet been announced.
Currie, who chaired a similar panel during the redistricting process ten years ago, said that 15 committee hearings are scheduled, with more likely to be added. The first three will take place on April 16th in Champaign, Cicero and McHenry.
At the meeting this week of the Senate's redistricting committee, several speakers argued there should be time allotted for public comment before the General Assembly signs off on a map proposal. They want a week delay between whenever the draft map is made public, and when lawmakers vote.
"That would be dandy if we have time to do that," Currie said. "A lot of people kind of work up to deadlines."
The deadline in this case is May 31, the last day Democrats will be able to pass new legislative and congressional maps without Republican votes. The vote threshold moves from a majority to a super-majority when June begins.
The House committee, like the Senate one, has set up a website for Illinoisans to check out the census data.
Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago chairs the Senate redistricting committee. That panel next meets on April 6 in Springfield.
The candidates for Danville mayor debated for the last time Thursday, March 31 before the Tuesday, April 5 election. The candidates in the race are incumbent Scott Eisenhauer, Vermilion County board chairman Jim McMahon, Alderman Ricky Williams, Jr., and businessman David Quick. They tackled a range of issues from their integrity on the campaign trail, to their views on public housing, to whether they would support bringing a casino to the city.
(Audio courtesy of WDAN)
A dismal ranking of overall health in Vermilion County for the second straight year has prompted a call to action from the county's health department.
Department administrator Shirley Hicks says about 130 people in affected areas have been invited to a meeting Thursday morning at her offices. She notes a lot of the findings in the county's ranking of 98th place out of the state's 102 counties have nothing to do with her department, like unemployment and education levels.
But Hicks says Illinois' fiscal woes will just force her department to work that much harder with social service agencies, primary care providers and others to seek solutions.
"The state of the Illinois economic crisis is a player as part of all of this," said Hicks. "So I think it's going to take all disciplines to look at what part can we do, and how can we best utilize resources that we do have."
Hicks commends the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for putting the findings together. She says the ranking for the county isn't nearly as important as the process researchers used to arrive at that figure.
"Any time you're looking at those reports, you're looking at where did the data come from, how did they ask the questions, so you can better understand the root cause of the problem," said Hicks. "I don't have any dispute with the actual data, it's really trying to dissect it down the the most common denominator and say 'how can we target our initiatives and our resources and pull those together to make an impact."
Hicks commends the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for putting the findings together. Thursday's meeting at the Vermilion County Health Department is expected to include primary care providers, social service agencies, law enforcement, hospitals, and members of the Vermilion County Board.
Trace amounts of radiation from Japan have shown up in Illinois, but state officials say there's no reason for concern.
Minute levels of radioactive materials have been detected in both northern and central Illinois. The state's Emergency Management Agency says radioactive iodine was found in grass clippings in Will County and in an air sample collected at a lab in Springfield.
The materials are believed to be related to the troubled nuclear reactors in Japan, but Illinois' Director Jonathon Monken says the levels are extremely low and present no danger. For example, the air sample is 200,000 times lower than what is allowed for nuclear plant effluent.
Traces of iodine have shown up in other states. In Illinois, the state has stepped up its monitoring of grass, air, milk and eggs in the wake of the Japan crisis.
Both houses of the Indiana Legislature have now approved bills that would restrict access to abortions.
The Indiana House voted 72-23 on Wednesday to require that women seeking an abortion be told that human life begins at conception and ban the procedure after 20 weeks unless the woman's life is in danger.
The bill also requires those seeking abortions to be told in writing that they faced a greater risk of infertility and breast cancer.
Republican Rep. Eric Turner of Cicero says it's the responsibility of lawmakers to protect the unborn and that he hoped the additional requirements would lead to fewer abortions.
The bill now goes to the Senate, which last month approved a bill with many of the same provisions.
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