August 22, 2012

Gov. Quinn: Still Deciding on Gambling Legislation

Gov. Pat Quinn is days away from the deadline to decide if he'll sign a gambling expansion bill, but the Chicago Democrat says he's not sure what he'll do.  

Quinn said Wednesday in Chicago that he's going through the bill line by line and will make a decision by Tuesday. That's when he must decide.

Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would create five new casinos, a land-based site in Chicago and four more on riverboats, including one in Danville. The bill would also allow slot machines at horse racing tracks for the first time.

Quinn gets 60 days to decide to sign, veto or propose changes. 

Previously, Quinn has said that he won't likely sign the bill as it is and says his biggest concern about it is ethics.

August 21, 2012

Illinois Governor Won't Start Pensions Campaign for Weeks

Gov. Pat Quinn won't launch his so-called grassroots campaign on pension reform until the middle of next month.

Lawmakers failed to come up with plan to overhaul the system during their special session last week.

Quinn has vowed to push ahead and ``activate the public.'' He says the state's unfunded pension liability is roughly $85 billion and growing by about $12.6 million a day.

However, Quinn said Tuesday at an unrelated event in Chicago that his public campaign is under development and he will wait until after the Republican and Democratic national conventions are over. He says he doesn't want his message to get lost.

Credit rating agencies have threatened to lower Illinois' rating unless lawmakers act. Quinn says his office has been in touch with the agencies.

August 21, 2012

Bipartisan Think Tank: Pension Cuts Won’t Solve Budget Mess

Last week, Illinois lawmakers failed to overhaul the state's pension systems. According to the state's Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, reducing state employees’ retirement benefits will still leave Illinois in a fiscal mess.

Illinois is paying a billion dollars more toward its pension funds this year, compared with last year. But that’s not because retirement benefits have gotten more expensive. In fact, what’s called the “normal cost” for pensions actually decreased. That extra billion dollars is all paying down debt. It is a figure that, by law, is going to rise every year.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability’s Ralph Martire said that is what’s creating Illinois’ fiscal pressures. He said even if a law passed to cut employees’ benefits.

"It won’t relieve the fiscal pressure created by the repayment structure for the debt owed to the pension system," Martire said. "They have almost as bad of a fiscal problem as they had before they cut benefits, but now taxpayers believe the problem’s been solved.”

But Martire said that’s not a politically popular idea.

“So there’s this political canard hanging out there that most voters and taxpayers believe that overly generous benefits, or Cadillac benefits, were the driver of this problem," he said. "Now it’s not the reality. And the data don’t support that. But if that’s the generally held politically belief you can bet that politicians are going to respond to that rather than the reality."

Martire said Illinois needs to refinance its debt, so the state can pay an even amount every year.

August 20, 2012

Gov. Quinn to Start Grassroots Campaign on Pension Reform

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to start a campaign to boost support for changes to state pension systems. Quinn has been in campaign mode for months, repeatedly bringing up to the media and legislators the importance of tackling the state’s massively underfunded pension system.

But legislators didn’t pass any pension changes back in the Spring session. When Quinn called them to Springfield  last week for a special, one-day session to pass something, they didn’t.

Without a vote, many worry about downgrades to the state’s bond ratings. Now, Quinn says he’s taking his pensions campaign in a new direction.

"We’ve gotta, I think, activate the taxpayers," Quinn told reporters Friday.

Quinn said he’s starting a grassroots campaign, which will put pressure on lawmakers in a way that hasn’t been used yet.

"If they can’t do it on their own, we’re gonna help them do it with the people of Illinois," Quinn said.

He said his pensions campaign will last as long as it takes for the legislature to act.

Meantime, Republican House Leader Tom Cross said Democratic leaders don’t have the will to pass any sort of changes to pensions.

"You’ve got an issue where you’ve got two Democrat leaders who don’t want to really do it and a governor that doesn’t know how to do it," Cross said. "And so when you’ve got those two things going on, it’s pretty difficult to get to the goal line."

Cross said he worries the state’s bond ratings will be affected if nothing is passed.

August 17, 2012

GOP leaders: No Progress in Illinois Pension Talks

Top Republicans say there's been no progress on an Illinois pension overhaul in talks with the governor and Democratic legislative leaders.

The officials say the two parties remain firmly divided on how to reduce the state's fast-growing pension costs.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno oppose any plan to shift pension costs to schools. Democrats intend that must be part of any overhaul.

The two Republicans on Friday said that since a full-scale pension plan is stalled, Democrats want to vote on one that covers state employees and university staff but leaves out teachers. The GOP leaders reject that approach.

Lawmakers are in Springfield for a special session on pensions that was ordered by Gov. Pat Quinn.

August 17, 2012

State Continues Suspension of Prisoner Transfers

A southern Illinois judge has agreed to extend through the end of August a halt of inmate transfers from a supermax prison the governor looks to close.

Alexander County Judge Charles Cavaness' move came after attorneys for the state and a union representing workers at the Tamms Correctional Center in Alexander County agreed to the extension until an Aug. 31 hearing.

Gov. Pat Quinn has sought to close the state's only supermax prison at Tamms, a women's lockup at Dwight and various other corrections sites, including an adult transition center in Decatur.

Quinn says the Tamms prison is underused and too expensive.

While opposing the Tamms closure, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees asked the judge to order the state to stop inmate transfers until the union is certain it can be done safely.

August 15, 2012

Champaign Council Endorses Storefront Plan

A storefront improvement plan has cleared its first hurdle before the Champaign City Council. 

In Tuesday night’s study session, council members unanimously backed the plan to provide matching grant dollars to those in pre-1940 structures in Tax Increment Financing districts downtown and on East University Avenue.

City Planner T.J. Blakeman says the city is in danger of losing the TIF funds if the storefront program doesn’t start up soon.  He says the idea is to enhance the outward look of buildings, and bring in more retail.   

"We want to find ways to open some of these openings back up, restore the facades, and in some cases, bring them back to their original apperance, and some cases, simply to a more traditional standard."

But William Jones, who owns Rose and Taylor Barber Shop and Beauty Salon on North First Street, says the TIF funds should be extended to minority-owned businesses on 1st street, and the Midtown neighborhood.  

Council member Will Kyles supported the storefront program, but agreed that other TIF funds should be reviewed.

"What we don't want is someone to go through downtown, and say 'wow, this looks great', and for someone to go through Campustown, and say 'this is awesome,' and then they come to Midtown, and say 'whoa, what happened here," he said.  "You know, so we want to make sure all of the areas are taken care of equally." 

Don Elmore, the co-owner of Jane Addams Book Shop downtown, called the plan a ‘perfect package’ for his business, and he hopes to help preserve the architectural and aesthetic integrity downtown.  

But at least one owner is concerned about cost.  Austin’s Sportswear owner Autumn Bates says she wants to know more, but isn’t interested in essentially re-building to redo the storefront.

The owners of building could receive up to $10-thousand in matching dollars.  Half of it would cover work on the ground floor, with 25-percent going towards upper floors.

August 14, 2012

Will County Pushes Peotone Airport While Jackson's Absent

On a chilly Saturday morning back in April, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.  stood in the middle of a cornfield in eastern Peotone.  He was there to host a symbolic groundbreaking for a new airport he calls Abraham Lincoln National Airport.

“The point is it’s the people’s groundbreaking. We still need to have a ground breaking with the politicians at a later date when the deal is done. But right now, the ministers, they are the point,” Jackson said back in April at the groundbreaking.

A few hundred people made up mostly of ministers and church-goers from Chicago’s South side boarded buses to take the 30-mile trek south to Peotone.

At the time, Jackson touted the project as a way to bring thousands of construction jobs to his district. He proposed to start with a $200 million, 12,000 foot-long runway and a five-gate terminal. Jackson hoped the airport would eventually be three times the size of Chicago’s O’Hare International.

“We have found developers who are willing to put up $700 million of their own dollars," Jackson said. "They want to be on this land by June 1st of this year.”

June 1 came and went. Today, the site is still filled with rows and rows of corn fields.

However, Jackson isn’t the only elected official who sees big things for this patch of farmland.

“Transportation is always the pivotal part of a growing economy in a county that is going to be able to succeed,” said Will County Executive Larry Walsh.

Walsh has all long promoted the benefits of a south suburban airport.

“To create jobs and to have good paying jobs and to bring the quality of life that our people expect and deserve,” Walsh said.

Congressman Jackson wants the Peotone airport to fuel job creation not only for Will County, but Cook County’s south suburbs. He also wants those areas to have a say in operating the airport.

But that’s a non-starter for Will County.

Walsh wants Will County to have control of any airport that’s built.

“­­­If that doesn’t take place and if we can’t commitment to having that take place, then I don’t know whether we need the airport,” Walsh said.

Up until now, the debate over who gets control of a future airport has been hypothetical. But recently, the FAA approved the exact location of an airport runway and terminal in Peotone. Now, Walsh hopes to meet with Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation later this month to push for Will County to oversee the airport.

“He understands the issue but we just can’t get him to commit to our way of thinking in regards to our plan,” Walsh said.

Jackson’s continued absence could make it easier for Walsh to get his point across to Quinn.

“There is no question that Jackson’s illness. He is kind of the inspirational leader. He’s a charismatic guy. He’s in congress of course. He can make things happen there,” said DePaul University professor Dr. Joseph Schwieterman, who is an authority on urban transportation and economic development in Chicago.

“I think you might say Will County is gradually you might say gaining the edge," Schwieterman said. "Without Jackson, there’s a lot of energy that’s going to be sucked out of the Abraham Lincoln Airport faction.”

But some disagree.

“Because of this unfortunate illness for the Congressman [Jackson], there are some people who want to be opportunistic about this whole situation,” said Al Penn, who is chairman of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission (ALNAC).

Penn said that with or without Jackson, ALNAC’s mission remains the same.

“Congressman Jackson, yes is a singular voice; a very powerful, very dynamic voice in his own right but there are other people who can talk about the viability of an airport,” Penn said.

Penn argues since ALNAC is a state-sanctioned commission set up to operate an airport, Quinn should give them control.

Besides, he said, people from the south suburbs – like the ones bused in for Jackson’s groundbreaking – deserve to have first crack at airport construction jobs. After all, Penn said they did support Quinn’s re-election two years ago.

“When do they get rewarded for their loyalty for Governor Pat Quinn,” Penn said.

Penn believes Jackson will be coming back soon.

Will County’s Walsh scoffs at the notion that it’s trying take advantage of Jackson’s being out of the picture right now.

Walsh said Jackson’s absence isn’t playing a role in Will County’s moves.

“No, that’s doesn’t play a role either,” Walsh said.

Meanwhile, DePaul’s Schwieterman said this airport squabble is turning into a circus which doesn’t help either side’s cause.

“The whole thing is rather silly in a lot of ways," Schwieterman said. "The spoils of an airport really flow to a whole region regardless of who controls it."

Gov. Quinn said if the state can figure out pension reform, then there is no reason why they cannot find common ground on the South Suburban airport.

“We’re trying to do pension reform.  If we can do that I think we can also climb another mountain and get everybody singing out of the same hymn book when it comes to the third airport that we need in Peotone, Illinois,” Quinn said last week in Chicago. “It’s a bustling area of economic activity.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his own airport dreams. He wants billions to expand and modernize O’Hare. Once that’s done, Emanuel said there is no need for an airport in Peotone.

August 14, 2012

Sports Maker Breaks Ground on Rantoul Center

A California-based company that makes sports equipment broke ground on Tuesday on an 800,000-square-foot facility located in Rantoul’s Village Industrial Park.

Easton-Bell Sports is consolidating five of its smaller facilities in east central Illinois into one large structure, which should be completed by next year. The company sells equipment and accessories for hockey, baseball, softball, football and cycling.

According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the new Rantoul facility will be financed with a combination of internal, private and public investment. David Vaught is the acting Director for the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. He said the state put nearly $3.5 million into the company’s expansion.

“You know, they employ a lot of people here already,” Vaught said. “They have plans to add another 50 jobs. So, the growth of jobs is hugely important as we come out of the recession. So, we’ve done all we could to help them achieve that objective.”

About 300 area employees will move to the new facility. Donna L. Flood is the Chief Operations Officer and President of Giro / Easton Cycling. She said the added space will improve operations, and ultimately lead to more jobs.

“We know that we’ll have to potentially add workers as we continue to get bigger,” Flood said. “Right now, it’s probably going to be neutral because what we’re going to bring on board in more efficiency and more operations.”

The company’s presence in Rantoul began in 1983, when Bell Sports acquired a motorcycle accessories plant in the area.

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