Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 17, 2009

Champaign’s Lean Budget Proposal Gets Council Scrutiny

The Champaign City Council will tell its staff tonight whether it likes the six-million dollar patch proposed for the city budget.

The proposal includes the elimination of staff positions that are either currently vacant, or expected to become vacant in the near future. Spending on capital improvement projects would drop, with some of the money earmarked for that use transferred over to the city's General Fund. And Champaign would raise some of its current fees and create new ones.

Assistant City Manager Dorothy David says the proposal is meant to address a decline in tax revenue, due to the recession. She says it would help the next Champaign city budget --- and budgets to come.

"This six million dollars is really a multi-year strategy designed to position us to not only balance the budget next year but to work through the next couple of years of economic downturn and recovery," said David.

The city has held a series of public forums on its budget proposal. The third and final forum is set for 2 this afternoon in the Champaign City Council chamber. Tonight's study session on the proposal will be held after the regular City Council meeting at 7.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 17, 2009

Cities Contemplate Big Fee Increases to Ambulance Companies

Champaign and Urbana are both considering massive increases in the license fees they charge to the area's two ambulance companies.

If the increases are approved, Carle-Arrow Ambulance and Pro Ambulance would each pay a total of $35,000 a year to operate in Champaign and Urbana. Currently, they pay less than $300 apiece.

Officials from the two cities say they need the increase to cover the cost of Fire Department emergency medical personnel who go out with each ambulance call. Champaign Assistant City Manager Dorothy David says they expect the patients' insurance companies to ultimately foot the bill.

"The city will charge the fee directly to the ambulance companies," said David, "but the ambulance companies then will build that into their billing structure when they go out on a call and actually bill their cost back to an insurance company."

But officials with the ambulance companies say many emergency patients don't have insurance or are otherwise unable to pay the present ambulance fee. They say the proposal needs more discussion, and more discussion seems likely. While both city councils are considering the idea this week as part of overall revisions to their fee schedule, neither body will make a final decision until they pass their budgets later in the spring. Urbana city officials say they'll only raise ambulance license fees if Champaign does the same.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 16, 2009

Reform Advocates Call for IL Campaign Limits, but Leaders are Skeptical

Good government groups want to cap individual campaign contributions to Illinois politicians.

Legislative leaders are skeptical that will clean up the state's ethical mess. Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform told a joint legislative committee on ethics reform that individual contributions should be limited to $2,400 per election _ same as in federal campaigns.

The committee's co-chairmen, Sen. John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, say limiting the amount candidates can get or parties can give would hurt in races against independently wealthy foes.

Canary is part of a group that has come together to push the issue. CHANGE Illinois set up a toll-free phone number that allows callers to be connected to their legislators to lobby for caps.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 16, 2009

New Madrid Fault “Shutdown” Theory Challenged

An expert on seismic activity at the University of Illinois says he doesn't buy into a recent theory that the New Madrid Seismic Zone could be 'shutting down.'

Professors from Purdue and Northwestern universities have used GPS technology to measure surface movement in the region, which is now at less than point-two millimeters a year. The researchers say the slower the ground moves, the longer it takes for the next earthquake. The last massive ones -- three of them -- occurred in the New Madrid in 1811 and 1812.

But the Director of the UI's Mid-America Earthquake Center says those readings don't mean much since we don't understand how the mechanism is happening. Amr Elnashai also says these measurements shouldn't apply to a fault line unlike any other worldwide. He questions the definition of "closing down," saying there's no evidence of other earthquake faults that have closed down.

Elnashai says the latest theory also ignores the work of the New Madrid researchers with the University of Memphis and US Geological Survey. He says scores of scientists have determined that soil in the seismic zone has liquefied as a result of quakes that occurred well before the 1800s, and could lead to more quake activity.

Elnashai says there could be a million other explanations behind slow fault motion... and that two scientists shouldn't put the extensive research of many others and safety of eight states into jeopardy.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 16, 2009

Is the Stock Market an Accurate Gauge of the Economy?  A UI Prof Says Yes

A finance professor at the University of Illinois says a recent modest recovery in the stock market is a true sign of a better economy ahead, even if it's a weak sign.

David Ikenberry says skepticism over whether the stock markets are an accurate barometer of the overall economy is misplaced. He says stock investors are concerned about looking forward and factoring in growth expectations, even if current news on other economic fronts -- such as unemployment or consumer spending -- is still bleak.

"To the extent that we see recovery, that we see some of those green shoots of a turnaround, you can see the stock market going up today, whereas unemployment actually gets worse," Ikenberry says. "And that's one of the puzzling features of markets."

Ikenberry believes the optimism mentioned by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in an interview yesterday (Sun) was warranted. But he warns against interpreting day-to-day market swings, even though he says volatility in the markets has declined since last fall.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 16, 2009

IL Lawmaker Wants State Utility Regulators to Hear Public Testimony

The state's utility regulators have a years' worth of documents at their fingertips when they vote on the prices utility companies can charge their customers. But some lawmakers say members of the Illinois Commerce Commission need an earful of information, too.

Democratic Representative Bob Flider of Decatur compares it to a court case. Lawyers provide the jury with a lot of paperwork, but the jury also gets to hear testimony. He says its a level of understanding that members of the Illinois Commerce Commission often don't get. For example, last year the ICC denied a request from the Attorney General to make an oral argument against Ameren raising its rates.

"So they think they have these documents, they have the recommendations, 'oh we don't need to hear any of that," Flider said. "Well, maybe they do need to hear that."

Flider is sponsor of a measure now before the Illinois House that would require the Commission grant all requests from entities wanting to testify at hearings that could result in rate or regulation changes. The Attorney General's office says the legislation will give consumers a greater voice. An ICC spokesperson says it's reviewing the proposal. She says commissioners have written arguments, they'll hear testimony if they have questions.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 16, 2009

IN Scores Low on Budget Preps

A new report scores Indiana's state budget process as the second worst in the nation largely because the governor doesn't have a line-item veto and there's no requirement for a balanced budget.

Indiana scored just 45 points out of a possible 100 in the 2009 Index of State Budget Process Quality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Funds Information for States. Only New Hampshire scored lower, at 23.

Indiana received no points in two the reports main area, on balanced-budget requirements, gubernatorial power to reduce spending. Indiana received high points for having a Rainy Day Fund and for having healthy reserves proportional to spending.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2009

Champaign Officials Consider Strategy for Covering $6 Million Budget Gap

A plan to fix a six million dollar shortfall in next year's Champaign City budget comes before the City Council next Tuesday.

City Manager Steve Carter is proposing a combination of spending cuts, budget transfers and fee increase to fill the budget gap. Mayor Jerry Schweighart says the fix is necessary, because current tax revenue isn't keeping up with Expenses.

"The sales tax, which goes into our General Fund, is way down," says Schweighart. "So that's hurt quite a bit. The other thing is unfunded mandates that the state keeps putting on us, in lieu of pensions and stuff. Most of our property tax goes for pensions".

A memo to city council members from City Manager Carter reports that the city sales tax is down 3.56% from a year ago. In addition, income tax revenue (the city's third largest revenue source) has fallen 8.79% from a year ago.

To fix the problem, City Manager Carter wants to cut 2 to 3 million dollars from the General Fund budget. He says that might mean police and other staff might take longer responding to low-priority calls. The General Fund would get an infusion of money from other city funds --- capital improvements would feel most of that impact. And the city would raise fees on liquor licenses, cable TV and other items that focus on specific users, not the general tax payer. Mayor Schweighart says that Champaign's liquor license and cable fees are substantially lower than Urbana's, and that the proposed increases are reasonable.

The city of Champaign will hold three public forums on the budget strategy. The first is scheduled for Saturday, March 14th, at 10 AM at the Douglass Branch Library. The 2nd is Monday, March 16th, at 7 PM at the Champaign Public Library. And the third is set for Tuesday, March 17th, at 2 PM at city council chamber. The Champaign City Council will discuss the budget proposal during a special study session Tuesday the 17th, following the 7 PM regular meeting.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2009

Quinn: Income Tax Proposal Will Put “Higher Tax Burden” on Many IL Residents

Governor Pat Quinn says some Illinois residents will have a "higher tax burden'' when he announces his state budget plan next week to fix a deficit now estimated to be up to $11.5 billion.

But Quinn contends his income tax proposal would amount to a tax cut for millions of Illinoisans by increasing the personal exemption to let them shield more income from being taxed.

Quinn wouldn't give specific details Friday on the income rate or personal exemption levels he plans to propose. But he did give a hint about who would be affected by any tax increase. The governor says a family of four making less than about $57,000 a year won't see its taxes go up. The less money people make, he says, the more of a tax cut they'll see. Aides say Quinn will also propose about $850 million in new budget cuts.

Meanwhile, aides say the Illinois budget deficit is even worse than previously thought. Instead of $9 billion, they now estimate the gap at $11.5 billion. That's the combined total for this budget year and next, assuming revenues keep falling and expenses keep climbing.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2009

Save Jobs, Shop Local, Spend Now” Aimed at Putting More Cash Through Local Stores

Champaign County's business community wants to inject some optimism into an otherwise uncertain local economy.

Their method includes window decals, TV and radio ads, and bright green t-shirts saying "Save jobs, shop local, spend now." Dozens of county Chamber of Commerce members wore the shirts in kicking off the campaign this morning - Rantoul Chamber of Commerce director Chris Kaler says with a few businesses closing lately, local residents who can afford to, should buy items according to their current ability.

"If we don't stick together, if we don't shop local, if we don't spend responsibly, we're doing a tremendous disservice, Kaler said. "So what I'm asking people to do is get out of your bunker."

County Chamber president Laura Weis acknowledges that their campaign can do little more than boost morale, but the effort ought to make people think after hearing months of gloomy economic news.

"We don't want this to sound frivolous," Weis said. "We're not trying to tell people to go out and just blow your money. What we want people to do is to think about things they've made conscious choices about, things that were part of their life everyday that they've consciously decided to cut back on, and start to reincorporate that back in to your everyday activity."

Weis says businesses have lost revenue -- not just from skittish customers, but from internet sales going to other regions.

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