Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
Starting in January, Illinois will allow couples who obtained civil-union licenses this year to file joint state income tax returns, a symbolic change that likely won't save couples money but that one gay-rights group called an important step.
Monday's announcement comes after Illinois became the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to give same-sex couples significant legal protections. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the state's civil union law in January.
That bill included the right to decide medical care for an ailing partner and the right to inherit property, but it didn't include the ability for same-sex couples to file a joint tax return.
While federal law does not allow same-sex couples to submit taxes together, Quinn pushed for the state to make the change after signing the civil union bill, Illinois Department of Revenue spokeswoman Susan Hofer said Monday.
"This was basically the governor saying, 'Find a way to make this work,'" she said.
New tax paperwork and other details haven't been finalized. Officials plan to have same-sex couples who will file individual federal returns also fill out a joint federal return for the state's use only, Hofer said.
The state income tax forms are based on a couple's adjusted gross income on the federal return.
Illinois has a flat income tax of 5 percent, so the benefits couples receive from filing together for federal taxes won't apply at the state level, Hofer said. Still, she added that couples wil still have some additional benefits, like property tax exemptions or education assistance tax credits.
"It's a fairness issue," she said. "And that's the way the governor presented it."
The policy would have no bearing on filing federal taxes jointly because of federal restrictions on gay marriage.
"But this is still a major step because it allows civil union couples to be treated in the same way as married couples are treated, and that's exactly what the lawmakers intended," said Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov.
Cherkasov said he hopes Illinois' recent efforts to extend rights to same-sex couples carry over to the federal level. He also said the change would benefit same-sex couples in the future if lawmakers change the state tax code.
"We wanted to make sure that we don't give up on that fight now only to create a real disadvantage for civil-union couples later down the road," he said.
According to the group, Illinois will become the 10th state, along with Washington, D.C., to allow joint state tax returns.
State lawmakers are back in Springfield on Tuesday to try to pass legislation that will keep a pair of major corporations happy enough to stay in Illinois while also doing something for smaller businesses and everyday taxpayers.
A scaled-back tax package is before the General Assembly after it became clear earlier this month during the regularly scheduled veto session that there wasn't enough support for a larger and more expensive version. However, there is still no telling if the new plan will succeed.
What's now the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group cites its namesake city as its birthplace when in 1848 the world's first futures exchange was created.
Sears came to the city not long after in 1887. The company is now in suburban Hoffman Estates.
Despite their long histories in Illinois, both fixtures are threatening to leave. They are being lured by other states with bids of tax breaks and incentives.
Illinois legislators fearful of losing all of those jobs are back at the capitol crafting a counter offer.
Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion), who chairs the House Revenue Committee, has pushed a plan that creates, extends and increases a smattering of other taxes to the benefit of other businesses, and to individuals.
Bradley's proposal has an annual price tag of $250 million, which is $850 million less compared to an earlier proposal. It would include $85 million in relief for Chicago-based financial exchanges that are threatening to leave the state. It also includes $15 million in tax credits for Hoffman-Estates based Sears, which says it may also move.
"We're trying to create fairness, we're trying to create balance, we're trying to spend the money we have as wisely as possible and we're trying to do it in a sustainable manner," Bradley said. "I wish we had more, I wish we could do more. But the reality is that we need to pay bills, we need to keep these companies in Illinois, we need to provide as much relief as we can small businesses and working men and women."
At about $600 million less than the earlier package, Bradley said the plan he is sponsoring is what Illinois can afford.
Businesses groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures Association say they are pleased with the proposal. They like that it no longer retroactively reverses a tax break that lets companies delay paying taxes on big machinery purchases. They also like that it extends a research and development tax credit, that it partially reverses a suspension of the net operating loss deduction, and it provides relief on the estate tax.
The GOP's negotiator, Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), said the plan is designed to benefit small and medium businesses.
"The objective is to key in, for business proposes, to show that it's not just the big guess, but small and medium businesses that we want to help as well," Harris said.
There's even a live theater production tax credit, after Broadway in Chicago has continually testified it will help bring acts to the city.
That wide range is why House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) gets miffed.
"I think there are serious questions about the top heavy nature about this proposition," Currie said. "I think there are serious questions about the issue of whether we ought to just jump when some other state says 'we're going to steal your businesses away from you.'"
Currie suggests the General Assembly consider narrow measures targeted solely at the Mercantile Exchange and Sears. The package has blossomed because legislators will be attracted to the various components. Especially when they are hearing protests like that of Toby Chow, with the Make Wall Street Pay Illinois coalition.
"Let me tell you what fairness really means," Chow said. "It means saying no to further budget cuts, which will pile misery upon misery for the 99 percent, and it means saying no to tax breaks which will pile idle wealth upon idle wealth for those in the 1 percent. It means standing up to their extortion and blackmail and threats to leave Chicago."
In the spirit of appeasing some of those concerns, the package breaks not just for businesses but also to individual taxpayers. It increases the earned income tax credit, to the benefit of the working poor. But the credit's significantly smaller in this new, scaled back version of the package.
Gov. Pat Quinn's budget director David Vaught said the administration wants more.
"That makes a huge difference to that single mother, and it also makes a huge difference to our economy," Vaught said. "So, it makes a huge difference out there for those folks who are not happy with government."
That's not to mention critics who argue the package does nothing for the middle class. The standard tax exemption gets a one-time raise, but going forward it will not be tied to inflation as originally proposed.
House sponsor John Bradley said there is pressure to add here, subtract there, but he said he will continue negotiating in an attempt to get enough votes. But at some point, he said, it will be time to move forward.
If getting a package through the General Assembly is being done to please the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, time is nearly up. Its chairman was upset earlier this month because the legislature couldn't get it done during its regularly scheduled veto session. That's why lawmakers hurried back.
To the consternation of some legislators, nobody from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange present at the committee was wiling to testify how long it'll wait.
Gov. Pat Quinn says he's reached a deal to keep seven state facilities he'd planned to close open through the fiscal year.
Quinn's office announced the deal Monday. State budget director David Vaught tells The Associated Press that the estimated $200 million cost of keeping the seven centers open through the current fiscal year, which ends in June, will be covered by moving funds from other parts of the budget.
Vaught says Quinn's veto of $376 million from the $33.2 billion budget passed by the legislature this year made the deal possible.
Earlier this year, Quinn said the state needed to close seven centers, including a prison and centers for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. The closures would have resulted in nearly 2,000 layoffs.
Mourners remembering Chicago's former first lady of 22 years have called her an inspirational and passionate woman, but she's also being called the greatest gift Pittsburgh ever gave to Chicago.
The funeral Mass for Maggie Daley was Monday at one of Chicago's oldest churches. The Rev. John Wall of Old St. Patrick's Catholic Church says he often bragged to strangers about Maggie Daley, who grew up in Pittsburgh.
He called her a gift from the East Coast city and thanked members of her family.
The wife of former Mayor Richard Daley died on Thanksgiving after a long battle with cancer. She was 68.
Hundreds attended the service, including stars of the political and movie worlds. Among them were first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and filmmaker George Lucas.
The federal judge who will sentence impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges had harsh words for one of the former governor's latest legal moves.
Blagojevich's attorneys filed a motion last week asking for permission to play tapes at the governor's sentencing hearing Dec. 6.
They say the tapes are necessary to show Blagojevich's lack of ill intent, an indication that Blagojevich is not likely to apologize for his crimes.
In denying the motion Zagel notes it was filed on Thanksgiving day. Zagel said the court was closed and this was not an emergency motion because there was no new evidence, the defense has been in possession of the tapes for many months.
Zagel noted that the defendant didn't even give the court the courtesy notice through email and writes that the practice is, "difficult to defend under any circumstances and made more so because of the nature of the motion."
Zagel said Blagojevich's attorneys didn't say what part of the calls they want to play. He said they're basically asking for his quote, "blind approval."
Blagojevich is set to be sentenced in 8 days.
A partner in the FutureGen clean-coal project in Illinois is withdrawing from the effort within weeks.
The FutureGen Alliance that has included St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. says the utility won't continue its cooperative agreement for the project past the end of this year. The coalition says it is negotiating a plan to buy for the project a portion of a power plant Ameren intends to soon close near the west-central Illinois village of Meredosia.
The alliance also is asking to be allowed to take over an agreement between Ameren and the Energy Department for development of the $1.65 billion project.
Ameren says it will still maintain the plant so it can be retrofitted as planned for the effort, which also includes storing carbon dioxide.
Two Republican lawmakers who plan to run against each other in the March primary both say they are wary of the tax break measure that will be presented to them on Tuesday. The measure would give tax breaks for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Sears --- both of which have threatened to leave the state.
State Sen. Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) said he wants to see tax changes that would help farmers and small businesses, and State Rep. Jason Barickman (R-Champaign) said he doesn't favor any bill that provides tax breaks for some, but not for all.
Barickman and Cultra have both filed their petitions to get on the March primary ballot in the new 53rd Illinois Senate District.
Cultra, who is the incumbent in the race, currently represents the old 53rd Senate District, and he said his experience as a lawmaker gives him an advantage over Barickman.
"It's up to him to convince people that they need a change," Cultra said. "The district that I represent, I represent very well. It fits me personally as far as the views that I have are the views of the district."
Barickman is running in his first election, after being appointed to take over Cultra's old House seat. Barickman said he does not want to make the race a personal battle between him and Cultra. But Barickman does say that Illinois needs effective, conservative leadership.
"For Republicans, what we have to do is put the best leaders that we can in Springfield who can voice a conservative message, but can also reach across party aisles and bring some of those Democrats with us on issues that are important, like concealed carry and limited spending," Barickman said.
With the veto session starting this week, both lawmakers say they are uneasy about supporting a new package of possible tax breaks for Illinois businesses. The measure passed the House Revenue Committee on Monday afternoon by a 6-0 vote.
The measure's main goal is to provide tax relief to Chicago area companies that have threatened to leave Illinois due to last January's tax hike. They include financial exchange holding company CME Group and Sears Holdings, which owns Sears and Kmart.
Barickman said the tax increases passed last January affected everybody, and that any tax rollbacks must help all businesses and taxpayers, not just specific big corporations.
"Those types of people need to have a voice in Springfield. And I'm certainly going to fight for tax relief that helps them, and not necessarily the one that just helps a specific, cherry-picked group," Barickman said.
Meanwhile, Cultra said he is looking for specifics in the package ---- specifics that helps farmers and small businesses, like a lower inheritance tax and a restoration of the research and development tax credit for corporations.
"These were all things that were in place, that were done away with, that we created more reasons for people not to invest in Illinois. And it just makes common sense to have these things in place," Cultra said.
The latest version of the tax break package released on Monday would restore the tax credit, and make changes in the estate tax. It would also include tax breaks for families and the poor.
The new 53rd Senate District includes all of Ford and Iroquois Counties, and also parts of McLean and Vermilion. Barickman and Cultra used the first day of the filing period to file their petitions for the March 20th Republican primary.
Candidates have until next Monday to file petitions in state and local races.
Ron Zook's first time addressing the media as the University of Illinois' former football coach was not about what went wrong this season or the future of his career. Instead, he recognized some of the people who backed him over his seven-year stint at the U of I.
In a Sunday afternoon press conference in the U of I football squad room, Zook didn't take questions. Rather, he simply said thank you to many, including former athletic director Ron Guenther for giving him a chance, current AD Mike Thomas, and U of I President Michael Hogan. Zook says sometimes, their jobs include making difficult decisions, and he respects that.
But the now-former coach says there's a lot to look forward to in the football program's future.
"I see our facilities - team - the foundation in place - two terrific bowl trips, and hopefully a third this year," said Zook. "If it falls right, our fifth year seniors will get their third bowl trip. And our players can become the first at our school with two bowl victories. I think our program is very close, I really do. We just didn't quite finish a few games here and there, and I'm proud of how close we are."
If the Illini are selected for a bowl game, it would mark their first back to back bowl appearances since 1991 and 92. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will serve as interim coach.
Zook got a bit emotional, pausing when thanking his players, some of them who were in the press conference, calling the team a family. Zook says he wants to make sure the players are ok, and "for that reason, it's not the time to entertain questions, after I've had some time to digest and reflect, I think will be a better time for that, I hope you all understand. Thank you."
With that, Zook left the podium following a 2 and a half minute statement.
U of I Athletic Director Mike Thomas says the search for a new football coach begins immediately. But he wouldn't name specific candidates, or give a timeline for that search. And Thomas says he wouldn't rule out someone without head coaching experience, noting that academics and recruiting are also important.
He says another key factor for coaching at Illinois is success within the Big Ten conference, where the winning percentage was about 30-percent under Zook.
"So I think when you look at us first of all in a conference, are we competitive in a very good football conference?," said Thomas. "But when you're competing at the highest level, as you see with the other teams that are doing that right, that's when your name is in the national picture, they're talking about you for BCS Bowl games, and you're traditionally thought of a Top 25 team."
Thomas says he made the decision to dismiss Zook after Saturday's 27-to-7 defeat at Minnesota. He says it's easy to use the economy as an excuse for lighter attendance at Illini games, but he notes other schools are finding ways to fill the stadium. Thomas says that comes down to the quality of play on the field.
"This program - you need to feel like there's hope around it, and that people are getting excited, and that people are selling tickets," he said. "And when an Ohio State or a Wisconsin shows up, that the stadium is being sold. As a matter of fact, demand exceeds the capacity, and that's not really where we're at right now, but the hope is that someday we get there."
Zook is 34-51 at Illinois. He took the 2007 team to the Rose Bowl and lost to USC. Last season's squad beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
Ron Zook talks to the media on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 hours after being fired as the University of Illinois' football coach
Ron Zook's run as Illinois football coach is over.
U of I Athletic Director Mike Thomas issued a press release Sunday, announcing that Zook would not be retained as head football coach, ending a sen-year run that saw the Illini qualify for three bowls, including the 2008 Rose Bowl.
The announcement came a day after the Illini ended the season at 6-6, losing six straight to end the season, including Saturday's finale at Minnesota 27-7.
"I assessed the entire program and felt that it was time for a change in leadership," Thomas said. "It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner. I wasn't here seven years ago when Ron Zook took over as coach, but it's clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited."
Thomas says new leadership is needed to take the football program to the level to compete for championships on a consistent basis.
Zook was named head coach at Illinois in December, 2004, and compiled a record of 34-51, including 18-38 in Big Ten play during his Illini stint. The six-game losing streak came after starting the 2011 campaign with six consecutive victories and earning at Top 20 ranking. In 2007, Illinois surprised many with a 9-4 record, including a 6-2 mark in Big Ten play to finish in second place.
The Fighting Illini posted a memorable 28-21 vicory over top-ranked Ohio State at Columbus that season to propel them into a Rose Bowl invitation. Following the 2007 season, Zook was named the Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year and Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Zook is one of only four coaches to win games at Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, and produced three first-round NFL draft picks in the last four seasons. Illinois' 38-14 victory over Baylor at the 2010 Texas Bowl was Illinois' first bowl victory since 1999.
But, the three seasons of bowl eligibility were also interspersed with two wins in 2005 and 2006, five wins in 2008 and three in 2009. Zook finishes his Illinois tenure with a winning record over just Indiana among conference opponents. Thomas indicated a national search would begin immediately and that he hoped to name a new coach as soon as possible.
"Obviously, we have some hiring policies and regulations to follow, and some candidates may be involved with their own teams and bowl preparations, but I expect to move forward quickly," Thomas said.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, was head coach at Wyoming from 2000-02, will serve as interim coach through the expected bowl game appearance.
UPDATE: Hours after he was fired as football coach at Illinois Ron Zook is thanking the university and his players for what he called "seven special years.
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has a request for the judge who is scheduled to sentence him next month. He's hoping it could lead to a lighter prison sentence. Blagojevich wants to play in court previously sealed portions of federal wiretap recordings. His attorneys filed the request on Thanksgiving Day.
Blagojevich's lawyers say he should be allowed to use parts of tapes as a way to argue that he deserves a lighter sentence. They say the tapes will describe Blagojevich's state of mind and "lack of ill intent."
The portions that the ex-governor wants played were blocked from being heard at his trial last June when he was convicted on 17 of 20 charges.
Those charges included attempted extortion for trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich's sentencing hearing is set to begin Dec. 6 before U.S. District Judge James Zagel.
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