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Full text for Articles for Yesterday, Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 15 Articles


Pritzker agrees to pay raises for unionized home and child care workers
Chicago Sun Times
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Tina Sfondeles
Pay Raises , Pritzker, J.B. , Unions, labor (55)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday announced he has reached an agreement with SEIU Healthcare Illinois to begin paying a 48-cent-an-hour raise — and back pay — to more than 40,000 home care and child care providers whose raises were withheld under former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.


About 28,000 caregivers in the Home Services Program in the state’s Department of Human Services and about 14,000 child care providers in the Child Care Assistance Program will receive a 4.26 percent wage increase beginning April 1.


The pay raise was approved by the Legislature in 2017 as part of a bipartisan state budget compromise, and it was supposed to go into effect that August.


But Rauner’s argument for refusing to pay the 48 cent-raise to the employees — most of whom make $13 an hour — was that any such raise should be decided during a contract negotiation with the workers’ union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, one of the unions with an ownership stake in the Sun-Times. That argument was rejected by Cook County Judge David Atkins, who ordered Rauner to pay up. Rauner, instead, chose to appeal.


“Today, we are putting the State of Illinois back on the side of working families, and rebuilding the vital services and the workforces that deliver them to people with disabilities, working parents, and kids in every corner of our state,” Pritzker and the union said in a joint statement. “We look forward to continuing to stabilize these programs together, and we share a commitment to fixing other harmful Rauner policies through the bargaining process. We are committed to ensuring that our child care and home care workers have the stability and training they need to provide child care for working families and to support people with disabilities across the state.”


While the new rate will be factored into paychecks on April 1, employees will receive back pay by late fall. The governor’s office said the Home Service Program workers’ back pay had been held in an escrow account holding $29 million.


Pritzker, who was heavily backed by unions during the campaign, will also soon begin negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the largest public sector union in the state. In January, the Democratic governor announced he’d unfreeze the pay levels of about 20,000 AFSCME state workers by reinstating increases they had been denied.


Rauner’s administration stopped paying step pay raises when the state’s contract with the union expired in 2015. The raises are annual increases on the anniversary of a date of hire. Some state jobs have eight steps; others have 10.


The AFSCME state bargaining committee is preparing to return to negotiations for the first time since Rauner walked away from negotiations on Jan. 8, 2016, according to union spokesman Anders Lindall. He did not provide a date for the beginning of negotiations.


Pritzker was endorsed by both unions.

A tiny Illinois town has become the latest battleground in the effort to build an immigration detention center near Chicago
Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Elvia Malagon
Immigration (99a)

Mary Flott thinks of her hometown of Dwight as a quiet, quaint village. But she worries that if a proposed development is built, people will identify it more with a large immigration detention center that would sit on the side of the highway.

Flott, 71, had already been opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies when she learned in recent weeks that the national debate about immigration was coming to her backyard, less than two hours southwest of Chicago. Last week, Dwight’s board of trustees voted in favor of an agreement that brings Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America, known as ICA, one step closer to building an immigration detention center there.

The effort in Dwight is the latest attempt to build a private detention center near Chicago. Pushback from activists and the community has stopped other proposals over the past decade.

For the plan to go forward, the company must now secure a contract with the federal government by September 2020, said Jared Anderson, the Dwight village board president.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the proposal. However, ICE is looking to contract with a detention center and recently posted a request for one within an 80-mile radius of Chicago’s immigration court, according to a website with information about federal contracts. The federal agency is seeking a facility that can house 1,000 people in various levels of security and that could facilitate travel to and from cities like Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

Immigration advocates say a private detention center could nearly double the population of detained immigrants facing deportation in the Chicago area.

For Flott, the past couple of weeks have felt like a crash course in the country’s immigration laws. The first time she heard about the ICA proposal was in February.

“I don’t think anybody in Dwight is going to come up with a really good, humane cost-effective means of dealing with immigration,” Flott said by phone. “I think by having a detention center here, it promotes the idea that we are OK with the policy the way it is and I’m definitely not.”

Past efforts

As the United States ramped up efforts to enforce immigration under then-President Barack Obama, it sought to consolidate existing operations, said Fred Tsao, the senior policy counsel with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

In the Chicago area, the federal government had been housing detainees, in part, through contracts with the Kankakee County Detention Center, the McHenry County Jail and the Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin.

“So ICE has been wanting to bring a lot of their detention operations together but also with the possibility of increasing that capacity,” Tsao said.

The first attempt to build a private prison facility in the region foundered in Crete in 2012 when village leaders rejected a plan by the Corrections Corporation of America. Village officials at the time cited money as the reason the proposal was struck down.

Then a different private corrections company, the GEO Group, purchased property in Hobart, Ind., but never gained approval from local officials, Tsao said. In the years that followed, attempts were made in Elkhart County, Ind., Gary, Newton County, Ind., and Hopkins Park, Ill., to build similar private detention centers. A wave of opposition from immigration activists followed each attempt.

“All the others were basically killed either at a vote of the village officials or never got a vote because the proposal was withdrawn,” Tsao said.

Unlike past efforts, in Dwight the Immigration Centers of America has gotten approval from the local government to move forward, Tsao said.

The effort in Dwight dates back to at least 2017 when the company filed a request for information from the federal government about the possibility of building a detention center in the Chicago area, according to documents obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center through a Freedom of Information Act request. At the time, ICA did not specify a location.

The company operates an immigration detention center in Farmville, Va., but has tried to expand to the Midwest. Earlier this year, it sought to purchase a former state prison in Ionia, Mich., east of Grand Rapids.

The effort to buy the land from the state was blocked by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February because ICA couldn’t guarantee the detainees wouldn’t include parents who had been separated from their children or other relatives, the Detroit Free Press reported. ICA continues to search for a location in Michigan, according to the company’s spokesperson.

When the idea was first raised to build a large private facility, the National Immigrant Justice Center considered whether having a centralized detention center might actually improve their efforts to provide legal representation for the detainees.

“At the time, we were taken by the idea of having a centralized location for representation, but I think we’ve come to the sound conclusion now that any policy like this is intended to increase detention and we’re completely against it,” said Mark Fleming, the associate director of litigation.

Differing opinions

Anderson, the president of Dwight’s village board, said he first heard about Immigration Centers of America when someone from the company called the village. He said ICA seems different than other private companies operating immigration detention centers. He visited the Virginia location several weeks ago and was impressed.

“Just to me, they were very well-managed,” Anderson said.

Last week, the village entered into an agreement with the company to annex and rezone 88 acres of land where the detention center could be built, Anderson said. With the approval of the village board, the company can now seek a federal contract to move forward with the project, Anderson said. The land sits south of Route 17 and east of Interstate 55, according to village documents.

Anderson said Dwight, with a population of about 4,200, lost jobs and businesses when the state closed a women’s prison that had been located in the village. The proposed detention center has the potential to help the region’s economy, Anderson said, noting that the company estimates it could bring more than 300 jobs to the area.

He said pushback against the project has largely come from outside of Dwight. He estimates that he received about 100 emails about the project, but only five to seven of them were from Dwight residents.

John Truscott, a spokesperson for ICA, said details about the facility — such as how many people it would house or whether the population would be limited to one gender — would be determined by the federal contract the company has not yet obtained. He estimates the facility could bring from 350 to 450 full-time jobs with salaries starting at $68,000.

Though there have been protests in recent weeks against the proposal, Truscott, too, said those opposed to the project were not from Dwight.

“We are more than happy to listen to what they have to say,” Truscott said. “In the end, this is a decision for the citizens of Dwight.”

Sonny Garcia, of Bloomington, Ill., who organized actions against the proposal, said area activists only learned about the plan in February from a local newspaper story. He said some Dwight residents told organizers they felt intimidated to voice their opinion in public.

Tsao expects further protests as the project moves through the pipeline.

“The village has kicked a hornet’s nest and I think if anything, it’s drawn even further attention to immigration detention and I think we’ll see even more concerns raised and even more activism regarding immigration detention in the months and years to come,” Tsao said.

Livingston County Board member Bill Wilkey, who lives in Dwight and previously served on the village board, said the only people who seem to be in favor of building a detention center there are members of the village board. He personally doesn’t think the facility would give the area a “good name.”

He is skeptical of the finances involved in the project, pointing out that the land where the facility would be built doesn’t have the infrastructure, such as sewer and water, to support it.

“To me, this whole thing is a scam,” Wilkey said.

Despite his concerns, Wilkey said the county board doesn’t plan to take any action because the board doesn’t want to get involved in the issue.

Next, the company will have to secure a contract with the federal agency by September 2020 to move forward with construction of the detention center, Anderson said.

Flott, who lived in Dwight when it housed the women’s prison, thinks this detention center will be different.

“I’ve been stewing over this since the meeting Monday night, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Flott said. “I guess I’m going to pray and hope that the company doesn’t actually apply to have (it).”


Twitter @ElviaMalagon

Gov. J.B. Pritzker agrees to pay raises, back pay ex-Gov. Bruce Rauner blocked for home aides, child care workers
Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Dan Petrella
Pay Raises , Pritzker, J.B.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration has agreed to pay wage increases for home care and child care workers, as well as about $44 million in back pay that his Republican predecessor withheld.


Under an agreement with the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois announced Monday, the Pritzker administration will give 28,000 personal assistants in the state’s home services program raises of 48 cents per hour. Workers in the state Department of Human Services program, which provides in-home care for people with disabilities, currently earn $13 per hour.


The agreement with SEIU marks the second time Pritzker has opened the state’s checkbook for union workers whose raises had been hung up for years under former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration. Shortly after taking office, Pritzker agreed to pay raises for more than 20,000 state workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

Rauner, who spent his one term battling legislative Democrats over his pro-business, union-weakening agenda, did not reach an agreement with the SEIU workers after their contract expired during his first year in office. Lawmakers wrote the 48-cent raise into the state budget that was enacted over Rauner’s veto in July 2017.


But the Rauner administration refused to grant the raises, prompting a class-action lawsuit from the workers. A Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled in the workers’ favor last year, and a state appeals court upheld the ruling last month.


“Today, we are putting the State of Illinois back on the side of working families, and rebuilding the vital services and the workforces that deliver them to people with disabilities, working parents, and kids in every corner of our state,” the administration and the union said in a joint statement. “We look forward to continuing to stabilize these programs together, and we share a commitment to fixing other harmful Rauner policies through the bargaining process.”


Workers will begin being paid at the new rate on April 1 and will receive back pay by late fall at the latest, with the back pay coming from money held in an escrow account, according to the joint statement. The cost of back pay for home care workers amounts to about $29 million and about $15 million for child care workers.


As part of the new agreement, the Pritzker administration will implement a 4.26 percent increase in the daily rate paid to 14,000 providers through the state’s child care assistance program for low-income families. The daily rates vary by provider and region. The increase was included in this year’s state budget, but Rauner also withheld the additional pay.


Child care workers sued the state last fall to force payment, but SEIU has agreed to drop the lawsuit as part of its deal with Pritzker.


Like the home care workers, child care providers also are working under a contract that expired in 2015. Negotiations with the new administration over both contracts are expected to begin this spring.


On his first full day in office in January, Pritzker, who won the governor’s office with strong backing from organized labor, agreed to grant regular pay increases to state workers represented by AFSCME. The back raises, which the workers haven’t received since 2015, are expected to cost the state as much as $381 million, according to the governor’s office.

Illinois Tollway has a new interim director after Rauner appointee exits
Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Mary Wisniewski
Tollways (91b)

Changes at the top continue at the Illinois Tollway with the departure of Executive Director Elizabeth “Liz” Gorman.


Gorman, a former Republican Cook County commissioner who has led the Tollway for about a year, is “no longer employed” by the authority as of last Friday, Board Chair Will Evans said in a memo to staff. Chief Operating Officer Kevin Artl will act as interim director.


The exit of Gorman, who was picked by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, was not a surprise — new governors typically appoint new leadership to the agency that oversees the state’s toll roads.


Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, appointed a new board of directors at the end of last month. The sweep of the board followed concerns about favoritism in contracts and hiring.


Evans, former president of People Gas and North Shore Gas, replaced Robert Schillerstrom, a prominent suburban Republican and former chair of the DuPage County Board.


The new 11-member board has three labor union executives, including Jim Sweeney, president and business manager of the politically influential International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150. The union was an opponent of Rauner’s efforts to weaken organized labor. Sweeney previously served on the Tollway board under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.


Also on the new board is Karen McConnaughay, of St. Charles, a former Republican state senator and a minority spokesperson for the Senate Transportation Committee. McConnaughay chose not to seek re-election last year.


Last year, Tollway officials defended contracts awarded to firms with political connections or ties to Tollway employees before the Senate Transportation Committee. The Tollway later adopted new ethics procedures.


Former Tollway board member and Democratic state senator Bill Morris said the new board seemed “loaded with special interests.” He said he was disappointed that the new board did not include a member from Lake County. The county, the site of the controversial proposed Interstate 53 extension, has lacked a representative for five years, Morris said.


The Tollway is doing an environmental study of an I-53 extension into Lake County, which Morris and other critics call a waste of money.


“The problem the Tollway has had and I hope will not have again is that the members of the Tollway board have to recognize they represent the users of the Tollway and the general public and not the guy or gal who brought them to the dance,” said Morris.


Gorman was paid $215,000 a year, which was $29,000 more than former Executive Director Greg Bedalov, who moved on to head the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority.


Artl did not get a raise in salary in becoming interim head, said Tollway spokesman Dan Rozek. His salary was $169,600 at the end of 2018, according to the Illinois Comptroller’s salary database.


Tollway directors make $31,000 a year.

Inspector general report finds Randy Dunn mishandled multiple hirings
Daily Egyptian SIUC
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   By Brian Munoz, Editor in Chief
Education--Higher (37)
Former SIU President Randy J. Dunn improperly hired late Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s daughter and son-in-law as well as SIU’s vice president for academic affairs, according to an Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General report, the findings of which were obtained by the Daily Egyptian.

Dunn entered a separation agreement with the Board of Trustees last July after it was discovered he coordinated with SIU Edwardsville administrators and legislators in an attempt to dissolve the university system.

The agreement stated Dunn would be entitled to a visiting professor position at SIUE for at least 18 months unless an external agency made a finding of his wrongdoing.

The agreement also stated Dunn’s employment would cease immediately and automatically upon the issuance of any findings showing he violated SIU System or Illinois policy.

The Office of the Executive Inspector General recommended Dunn not be rehired within the SIU system due to the violation of his contract.

Doug Mcllhaga, SIU Edwardsville spokesman, announced Dunn would not teach at the Edwardsville campus this semester early January, but would not comment on the reason why.

The investigation found Dunn improperly negotiated with and hired Melissa and Jeffrey Germain.

Melissa Germain made $52,000 annually during her time at the university, where she promoted the theater department as a staff member in university communications.

Jeffrey Germain was hired as an extra help civil service employee assisting Jim Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research, for $45 an hour.

Both Germains no longer works at the university, according to the 2018-2019 university salary database

The university was found to have violated hiring procedures by not maintaining an acceptable candidate list for extra help appointments, according to the report.

Furthermore, Dunn was found to have violated hiring procedures when hiring former interim Chancellor Brad Colwell as the system’s latest vice president for academic affairs – a position that had been vacant for four years. He is paid roughly $232,000 per year and was appointed to his position in 2017. 

The inspector general’s office recommended the SIU system engage in human resources training alongside upper administration employees responsible for hiring.

The office also recommended all pertinent employees complete training on extra help appointments and on administrative or professional position hiring procedures — including how to conduct position searches and the appropriate use of search waivers.

The office further recommended the system consider implementing a review system for administrative or professional hires, in order to avoid issues regarding improper use of search waivers.

The report, a portion of which was obtained by the Daily Egyptian, said Dunn bypassed search processes by signing his own search waiver request forms. The investigators suggested the board implement rules curbing the president’s ability to do so.

Dunn said he decided to pass the inquiries on to the state, in order to ensure an independent review, according to a Feb. 2018 press release.

Randy Dunn could not be reached for comment; his previous phone number has been disconnected.

Brad Colwell, SIU Vice President of Academic Affairs, could not be reached for comment as of Monday afternoon.

Rae Goldsmith, SIUC spokeswoman, said she had not seen the report and could not comment on the matter.

The Office of the Executive Inspector General declined to comment on the investigation, citing official policy in which they cannot disclose the existence of a case.

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Governor should sign bill increasing minimum age to buy tobacco
Daily Herald
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Editorial  |   Editorial Board
Tobacco, Smoking Ban, E-Cigarettes

Last August, then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner derailed a drive against youth smoking by vetoing legislation that would increase to 21 the age at which people can buy tobacco products.


In January, a reconstituted General Assembly took up the legislation again, and last Thursday, the state Senate put the issue into the hands of a new governor with passage by a vote of 39-16. The House approved the measure earlier in the week 82-31.


Rauner objected to the previous bill because he thought it placed too much responsibility on retailers. Other opponents of the so-called Tobacco 21 legislation contend that if the state thinks people are mature enough at age 18 to vote, marry and serve in the military, it ought to also let them decide for themselves whether to smoke.


We're not swayed by Rauner's concerns. Businesses do, after all, already have to enforce the restriction against 18-year-olds buying tobacco, and the state law actually eases some business pressures by making consistent statewide a standard that now varies from place to place in a patchwork of village and city boundaries. That consistency, by the way, also makes it harder for young people to skirt their local laws by simply driving -- or in some cases walking across the street -- to a nearby town without the higher age restriction.

As for concerns about maturity, there's no denying we begin giving young people increased autonomy as early as 16 when they can start driving. But there's also no denying the well-established addictive qualities of tobacco, nor the strong research showing that smokers overwhelmingly get started in their teens and are far less likely to take up the dangerous habit after they reach 21. If the mature decision in terms of assuring one's long-term health is to reject smoking, we ought not make it more difficult by leaving young people more open to getting addicted first.


Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not indicated his position on the bill beyond his staff's statement that he "looks forward to reviewing" it. But his spokeswoman did tell The Associated Press earlier this year that he "believes in order to help build a healthy society, we have to work to prevent young people from smoking."


He has the opportunity to advance that cause now. We applaud lawmakers who presented it to him -- including Deerfield Democrat Julie Morrison, who was chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill -- and encourage him now to do his part.

Would 47 million March Madness bettors play legally if they could?
Daily Herald
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Burt Constable
Gambling, Gaming

The NCAA men's basketball tourney starting this week will inspire 47 million Americans to wager $8.5 billion, Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, proclaims during a Monday conference call with the media.


More money will change hands during a few weeks of the tournament than the total value of goods produced and services provided in the nation of Haiti during an entire year. Nearly twice as many people bet on the tournament known as March Madness as they do on the Super Bowl.


"Americans like to bet on sports, and Americans do bet on sports," Miller says, adding that a survey shows only 4.1 million of those gamblers place bets legally with casino sportsbooks in Nevada or the seven states (Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) that legalized sports betting since last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that makes it possible.


Anyone in Illinois or those other states without legal sports booking who plunks down 5 bucks and fills out a bracket predicting the outcomes for all 68 teams in an office pool or with friends is breaking the law, although arrests are practically nonexistent.


"Most people don't even know the activity they are participating in is illegal," Miller says. The American Gaming Association, the gambling trade group representing casinos, pushes the idea of making gambling on sports, including contests with amateur college athletes, legal in all states. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has touted the idea as a way to help raise funds in Illinois, and bills to make that happen are brewing.


"Unlike any other sporting event in the country, March Madness attracts millions who fill out brackets, make casual bets with friends or wager at a legal sportsbook, which Americans can now do more than ever before," Miller says.


I first became emotionally invested in the March Madness tournament as a kid in 1969. Having played out a simulation of the final game on my driveway hoop a hundred times, I was confident my Purdue Boilermakers and superstar shooter Rick Mount were going to vanquish a UCLA team led by center Lew Alcinder. UCLA won 92-72, Alcinder went on to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mount went on to open a hunting and fishing store in his hometown of Lebanon, Indiana, and I learned that those of us who follow our hearts instead of our heads aren't going to do well picking winners in NCAA tournaments.


That didn't stop me from picking an all-Hoosier Final Four whenever possible, selecting from teams such as Indiana, Purdue, Butler, Notre Dame, Indiana State and Valparaiso. That gave me a few champions (thanks, IU) in the 1980s, and some stunning upsets (thanks, Butler and Valpo), but never a complete bracket that finished in the money. When The New York Times first gave readers a chance to fill out a bracket online, my picks after Day One had me among the top 25 people in the nation. By Day Two, I had fallen out of the top 1,500.


I haven't even bothered to fill out a bracket in recent years, which makes me a winner (or at least a non-loser).


People want to bet on March Madness, and they do it illegally if they don't have a legal option, Miller says.


Even if Illinois legalizes sports betting through the proper channels, people might still participate in illegal office pools because it's more fun losing money to a co-worker than to a

giant gambling institution. Miller adds that the casino industry spends $300 million on "responsible gaming" programs to recognize and help people for whom gambling is a problem.


My problem with gambling today is that I did enter a free online bracket pool and my simulation has Purdue, the only team from Indiana, winning the championship game 92-72 over Michigan State.

Illinois lawmaker wants to avoid overregulation of recreational marijuana
Illinois Watchdog.Org
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   By Greg Bishop
Marijuana, Medical, Recreational Ammons, Carol--State House, 103
More ideas for regulating recreational marijuana could surface this week, but one lawmaker wants to make sure the legislature doesn't over-regulate the industry or consumers.

Regulation ideas for Illinois have included allowing local control over cannabis sales, allowing adults to grow five plants at home, and even limiting how much one consumer can possess to one ounce.

Chris Stone with medical cannabis dispensary HCI Alternatives in Springfield and Collinsville said if such limits are implemented there are already systems in place to help with compliance.

“We’re going to have a tracking system that’s going to make sure that whatever the limit is that you can’t go to 18 dispensaries and get the same amount of product, unlike most of the other states that are out there,” Stone said. “So, they’ve created a back end software and computer system that is going to be able to allow for that.”

Stone couldn’t address the privacy concerns of possibly tracking consumer’s recreational habits, but said right now HIPPA laws protect medical patients’ information.

State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, said whatever ultimately passes should be similar to how tobacco and alcohol are treated.

“And we align those provisions to those current industries that were prohibited at one point but are now legal,” Ammons said. “So I think we are going to do ourselves a disservice by trying to police the cannabis bill in a way that will still create unintended consequences.”

Ammons put forward House Bill 902, which has less stringent government regulation compared with other suggestions that have been floated. Her bill would allow adults to grow up to 24 cannabis plants and to possess up to 224 grams, or nearly 8 ounces, outside of the home.

Ammons said her bill would apply a 10 percent tax on sales and require that at least 51 percent of the licenses for retail stores to be in “communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.” That bill could be heard in committee Tuesday. A Senate bill about cannabis, but without any provisions filed, is slated for a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Illinois lawmakers could name official state soda, microbe
Illinois Watchdog.Org
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   By Greg Bishop
Legislature (56) Koehler, David--State Senate, 46 , Meier, Charlie--State House, 108
Illinois could get an official state drink and an official state microbe.

The northern cardinal is the official state bird. The monarch butterfly is the official state insect. The violet is the official state flower. And the white oak is the state tree. There's even a state fossil (Tully monster) and state soil (Drummer silty clay loam) and a state tartan. One state Senator wants to go even smaller.

State Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, got an idea from a local columnist in a “kind of … almost tongue-in-cheek kind of way” to designate an official state microorganism.

“Maybe we should look at making penicillium the official state microbe,” Koehler said. “Now, there’s a big story behind this because Peoria was the place back in the late 40s where penicillin was actually developed.”

He said while penicillin (not penicillium) was discovered in England, the specific microbe he’s talking about, Penicillium chrysogenum NRRL 1951, went further in a “fascinating” story.

“Cantaloupe that had grown some mold, a woman brought this in and it was used as the development of the next level of penicillin because what they had developed in England was not stable enough to actually be commercially developed and used as a medicine.”

Koehler’s measure, Senate Bill 1857, could get a hearing Wednesday afternoon in the Senate State Government Committee.

House Bill 3073 isn’t likely to settle the soda vs. pop debate, but one state representative wants to see if Illinois can make Ski the state's official drink.

Popcorn is the official snack of the state of Illinois. The state vegetable is sweet corn. Legislators in the Land of Lincoln have even made pumpkin the state’s officials pie. State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, is looking to make the citrus, cane sugar drink Ski the official state soda.

“It’s a small family business located in Breese, Illinois,” Meier said of Excel Bottling Co. “It’s been in business over 60 years. The family had information on a bank robber, turned him in and they used the reward money and started this soda company.”

Meier said big beverage companies oppose his idea.

“They’re saying that the state of Illinois can’t endorse a specific product and that’s why they don’t want Ski endorsed,” Meier said. “But it’s made in the state of Illinois. It started in the state of Illinois and once you have a Ski, you’re going to want to have one every day.”

Illinois tourism promotions do regularly feature Illinois products, companies and other brands, but in the list of designations, there’s no official brand of combines, or bulldozers or airplanes.

Meier’s measure is in the House State Government Administration committee and could get a hearing Wednesday afternoon.

“Big soda companies aren't so happy about this. We’re going to have to see what we can do about it,” Meier said.

“We like that people enjoy our product,” Excel's third generation General Manager William Meier said Friday. He is not related to the state representative.

“Charlie is a great guy and trying to give us credit,” Meier said. “The idea is good to give credit, but I am neutral” on the bill.

“We’re a commercial entity and don’t get into the politics,” Meier said. “Glad Charlie loves our product.”


Illinois state symbols:

Illinois State Amphibian: Eastern Tiger Salamander

Illinois State Animal: White-tailed Deer

Illinois State Bird: Northern Cardinal

Illinois State American Folk Dance: Square Dance

Illinois State Fish: Bluegill

Illinois State Flower: Violet

Illinois State Fossil: Tully Monster

Illinois State Fruit: GoldRush Apple

Illinois State Insect: Monarch Butterfly

Illinois State Mineral: Fluorite

Illinois State Pie: Pumpkin

Illinois State Prairie Grass: Big Bluestem

Illinois State Reptile: Painted Turtle

Illinois State Snack Food: Popcorn

Illinois State Soil: Drummer Silty Clay Loam

Illinois State Song: "Illinois"

Illinois State Tree: White Oak

Illinois State Vegetable: Sweet Corn

Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources


Nearly every other college-bound Illinois graduate heads out of state
Illinois Watchdog.Org
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   By Cole Lauterbach
Education--Higher (37)
Nearly one out of two public school graduates bound for a four-year university chose to leave Illinois rather than studying at an in-state institution, according to a new report.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education released its annual student out-migration report Tuesday. In 2017, 48.4 percent of students who graduated from a public school in Illinois that enrolled in a four-year college chose one outside of the state. That's up nearly two percentage points from the fall of 2016.

The breakdown of the numbers shows an increase of more than 2,000 students attending two-year schools, meaning that there was a proportional loss of students to four-year universities even though the 53,000 student enrollment at four-year institutions was similar what it was in 2016.

Of all the graduating students, one in five chose to attend universities in other states.

Eric Lichtenberger, deputy director for information management and research with IBHE, said the two years of the state's budget impasse, which resulted in limited school and grant funding because lawmakers couldn’t come to terms with freshman Gov. Bruce Rauner on a budget deal showed increases in students going out of state.

“Since the budget impasse, we’ve been experiencing annual increases of at least 3.5 percent, which is somewhat surprising,” he said.

While the impasse surely hurt in-state enrollment, former IBHE board member John Bambenek said student out-migration has been a problem for years.

“The answer requires a lot more in-depth research than a superficiality of blaming a one-time event for a trend that’s been present for a decade,” he said.

In 2002, about 29 percent of four-year college-bound Illinois high school graduates enrolled outside the state.

Students most commonly chose universities in Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin, more than any other states, for college.

The continued increase in students picking out-of-state schools not only poses issues for Illinois’ higher education institutions, which need the tuition money, but also for state officials concerned that the college graduates will leave the state for good.

“If you’re from Illinois and you went to an Illinois college, odds are you’re going to become an Illinois taxpayer,” Lichtenberger said.

The budget impasse proved beneficial for universities like Mizzou and the University of Alabama, which actively courted Illinois students, offering financial incentives as well as a track record absent of budget shortfalls.

“There have been several out-of-state institutions that have strategically gone after our best and brightest high school graduates and things only got worse,” Lichtenberger said.

Pritzker says businesses should pay more, warns of deep cuts if progressive plan fails
Illinois Watchdog.Org
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   By Greg Bishop
Economy (34) , Governor (44) , Taxes, Graduated/Progressive , Taxes, income (86) Wilhour, Blaine--State House, 107
Illinois’ governor said small businesses in Illinois should be paying higher taxes and that taxpayers can expect deep cuts to government services if they don't approve his $3.4 billion progressive tax plan.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker visited Belleville City Hall on Monday to promote his plan. He was backed by mayors from the Metro East area who support changing the state constitution’s flat income tax to a structure where those who earn more pay higher tax rates. The governor's tax proposal includes modest rate reductions from the state's existing 4.95 flat rate for 97 percent of taxpayers. Those making more than $250,000 a year would pay 7.75 percent or more in state taxes.

“Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa all use a fair tax approach, and it’s time for Illinois to get on board,” Fairmont Mayor Michael Suarez said. “We can’t afford to continue on with our unfair flat tax while other states do this right.”

Businesses would also have to pay more, the governor said.

“I believe that it’s fair to ask the 3 percent at the top to pay a little bit more so that we can get this state moving again, so that we can actually get past the fiscal challenges,” Pritzker said Monday.

Illinois has more than $15 billion in unpaid bills, just under half of which is bonded debt. There’s also the $134 billion in unfunded public pension liability and tens of billions of dollars in estimated other post-employment benefits for state employees.

State Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, said increasing the flat rate of 4.95 percent to a progressive tax of 7.75 or higher isn’t a “little bit more.” Wilhour said for anyone making more than $250,000 a year, including small business owners, such an increase will mean fewer jobs.

“It's not going to be good. It’s a jobs-killing tax, there’s no doubt about that,” Wilhour said. “We need to be working on lowering taxes and cutting our spending.”

Pritzker’s proposal would have the lowest income earners, those making up to $10,000 a year, paying a 4.75 percent income tax rate to the state. The governor’s office said that represents 27.2 percent of Illinois taxpayers. Those making up to $100,000 would pay 4.90 percent. That group includes 58.9 percent of taxpayers. The existing 4.95 percent rate would stay the same for those earning up to $250,000, which is 11.1 percent of the state’s taxpayers.

From there, the rate jumps nearly 3 percentage points to 7.75 percent for people making up to $500,000. That’s 1.9 percent of taxpayers. Those earning more than $500,000 would pay 7.85 percent. People with income of $1 million or more would pay the state 7.95 percent on all income.

Businesses filing as corporations would see a flat tax under Pritzker’s plan, but the rates would increase from 7 percent to 7.95 percent.

Lawmakers less than two years ago increased income taxes by $5 billion over former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto, and they spent every bit of it and then some.

Pritzker wants to change the state's constitution to implement progressive rates, taxing higher earners at higher rates, to capture $3.4 billion more. If voters don't approve the progressive tax proposal at the ballot box, the governor said deep cuts would be needed after paying all the state’s bills.

“You’re left without about $19 billion and that’s where you’d have to cuts,” Pritzker said. “It’s in public safety, it’s in education, it’s in economic development, it’s in universities.”

Pritzker said he is regularly looking at state programs to find efficiencies and will continue to do so, but said he continues to push for a progressive income tax to bring stability to the state's budget.

Wilhour said Illinois needs to grow revenue by growing the state's economy, and that should be done with tax cuts and reforms that would help businesses grow.

“We’ve got all of these promises of the shrinking tax base, so taxpayers are going to be on the hook for this no matter what,” Wilhour said.

Wilhour and many others say Pritzker’s projections that the progressive structure would bring in $3.4 billion in new revenue aren't guaranteed and could force lawmakers to later push tax rates higher not just for the rich, but also for the middle class. With the tax rates not set in stone in a progressive plan, and with how policymakers have historically handled the state’s finances, he said it will be difficult for voters and taxpayers to trust state lawmakers.

State police step up enforcement of 'move over' law
Illinois Watchdog.Org
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Watchdog News
State Police (84)
The Illinois State Police is warning drivers to follow the state’s “move over” law or face a penalty of up to $10,000.

The law requires motorists to move over from stopped emergency vehicles, which includes police, fire and EMS, construction, tow truck drivers and the general motoring public when they have an emergency and have emergency flashers activated on the side of the road, said Sgt. Christopher Watson of the Illinois State Police.

Watson said that the law was designed to not only keep first responders safe, but also to protect the public.

“We are increasing our enforcement efforts in order to bring attention to the law and also make first responders and the general motoring public safer,” he said.

Under the law, drivers must move over when they see an emergency vehicle on the side of the road or if they can’t move over, they need to reduce their speed and proceed with due caution.

Watson said the law can protect emergency responders and will be enforced by the Illinois State Police. So far this year, there has been an unusually high number of troopers' vehicles that have been struck by motorists.

“Speed kills,” Watson said. “It hurts. When someone violates that law and strikes the first resonder, especially if they are outside their vehicle, there’s an immense possibility of injury at that point, and those injuries are often very severe.”

Watson hopes the crackdown on drivers that disobey the “move over” law will help to spread awareness about the safety of first responders and the general motoring public.

“We want to make sure that people are giving first responders the space that they need to get their job done safely and effectively for the motoring public and also so they can go home to their families at the end of the day,” he said.

Senate Republicans make new media foray with 'Capitol Report' podcast
Ottawa Daily Times
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Scott T. Holland
Legislature (56)

Podcasts are powerful because they allow almost anyone with a computer and some free time to put their ideas into the world for consideration.


As that level playing field attracts listeners who want to curate their own audio input, people and groups with several other means for reaching the masses are increasingly attempting to go the route of commoners.


It’s not a bad strategy, and so this installment of my every so often look at podcasts with local appeal takes us to Springfield, where the Illinois Senate Republicans have been dabbling in this evolving medium.


To listen to “Capitol Report,” search for “Illinois Senate Republican Caucus” in iTunes or the Apple Podcasts app, get the RSS feed at ListenNotes.com or listen to the episodes directly at senategop.state.il.us/Media/podcasts. Ray Watt, caucus press secretary, hosts the show — although he doesn’t always identify himself.


The iTunes listing features 45 episodes going back to Oct. 5, all but two of which are shorter than 10 minutes. The longest is a Jan. 29 Star 105.5 Northwest Spectrum interview with Sen. Craig Wilcox, of McHenry. Episodes tend to be clustered around news developments — 14 different Senators weighed in Feb. 21 on Gov. JB Pritzker’s first budget address — but some focus on specific legislation, such as a look at Senate Bill 160, the school-based firearm safety course, while others look at broader caucus issues.


Having covered lawmakers working in Iowa, Illinois and Washington, D.C., for almost two decades, there are plenty of times I’d have happily clicked play on an on-demand file to deliver a quote I needed for a decline story. Just as taxpayers clamor for open-ended town hall sessions, journalists would always rather pose their own questions directly to elected officials, but this podcast is intended for a wider audience.


Telling your own side of the story has its limits, whether through direct mail, website postings, email blasts or podcasts, especially among savvy voters, but there’s definitely something to be said for pursuing multiple avenues to reach out to constituents. (In the interest of fairness, it should be noted the Illinois Senate Democrats put a brief audio show called “The Majority Report” on their website. It’s not technically a podcast, but it’s easily accessible.)


The only episode dedicated to Sen. Sue Rezin, of Morris, is a 2:43 Jan. 9 interview about inauguration day.


“This is a humbling day, to sit in the Senate chambers in Springfield with all of the history that comes with being in the chambers and surrounded by my family, surrounded by our friends, and taking the oath of office,” said Rezin. “I mean, it’s something that I take very seriously. And certainly I am — I appreciate the opportunity to be down here in Springfield. …


“It’s a tremendous responsibility. We have large problems at the state level and we know that, and we know that in this next session we’ll be looking for resolution to these problems in a bipartisan, bicameral manner. That’s our hopes. But it’s always a challenge.”


The guarded optimism is to be expected from a minority party leader, albeit one who safely won re-election. For a more recent clip, I tuned in to another person I’ve interviewed directly, Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, speaking about the governor’s budget.


“Our state is severely wounded financially as a result of years of poor decision making,” he said. “Taxing, spending and borrowing, living outside of our means, racking up unpaid bills, making promises we cannot keep, and you would hope at this point we would learn from some of those lessons of the past. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear from Gov. Pritzker that he’s learned those lessons.”


Noting he is “gravely concerned” about Pritzker’s proposal, Barickman echoed Rezin’s hope to work with moderate Democrats for a budget that would “embrace reforms that would allow our Illinois economy to grow, put our people to work and instill confidence in them that our state has a brighter tomorrow.”

Both of these brief segments are typical of the show so far. They primarily deliver pre-approved talking points often echoed in weekly newsletters or in-district appearances. It’s nice to meet voters where they are, but the Republicans are leaving a lot on the table in the early going.


Podcasts have no limits. It’d be fun to let Watt go long form with these Senators, allowing listeners to know them as people and not just predictable political positions. The result would obviously be no less partisan, but removing the polish can do wonders for a politician’s accessibility.

21 bridges in Sangamon County considered ‘structurally deficient’
State Journal Register
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Cassie Buchman
Transportation (91)
An average of 23,000 vehicles per day use each of the two bridges that carry Interstate 72 over Sixth Street in southern Springfield. The pair is among 21 bridges in Sangamon

County considered “structurally deficient,” according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.


A bridge is considered structurally deficient if one of its main components is in poor condition and repairs are needed. Components include the deck, the part of the bridge people drive on; the superstructure, which supports the deck; or the substructure, the foundation of the bridge.


Even if a bridge is classified as structurally deficient, it does not mean it is unsafe, said Jessie Decker, an IDOT spokeswoman.


“IDOT has a thorough inspection program and verifies all bridges have the necessary strength to safely carry traffic,” she said in an email. “Although uncommon, a bridge will be closed if necessary to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”


Typical issues that come up during inspections of bridges can include the corrosion of steel and cracking and deterioration of concrete, according to Decker.


Omer Osman, acting secretary for IDOT, told the House Appropriations-Capital Committee at a recent hearing that $13 billion to $15 billion is needed for maintenance on the state’s roads and bridges. Of this money, $5 billion to $6 billion would go to bridges.


“Our infrastructure continues to deteriorate faster than we can keep up with it,” he said at the hearing.


About 8.6 percent of the bridges in Illinois are classified as structurally deficient. The counties with the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in The State Journal-Register’s coverage area are Cass County (18.18 percent) and Christian County (17.98), according to IDOT. Less than 5 percent of Sangamon County’s 458 bridges have the classification.


Structurally deficient bridges by county


County, deficient bridges, percentage


Sangamon, 21 of 458, 4.56%


Christian, 57 of 317, 17.98%


Menard, 9 of 92, 9.78%


Montgomery, 26 of 268, 9.7%


Macoupin, 32 of 242, 13.22%


Cass, 14 of 77, 18.18%


Logan, 26 of 294, 8.84%


Morgan, 16 of 235, 6.8%


Source: IDOT


The number of structurally deficient bridges in Illinois spurred U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both Illinois Democrats, to write a letter urging the Federal Highway Administration to release $475 million in new federal funding for risk-based bridge repair and replacement.


Illinois identified 2,642 bridges that need repairs. According to the senators’ press release, the state estimates the fixes will cost almost $10 billion.


“Each day that FHWA waits to release this new funding is another day that the state of Illinois must wait to address some of its pressing bridge repair issues,” the senators wrote in their letter. “Increased investment at both the state and federal level is badly needed to confront this challenge, which is why we pushed to include nearly half a billion dollars for risk-based bridge repair in this year’s appropriations bill.”


Both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly have been holding hearings on what to include in a proposed capital bill that would provide billions of dollars for construction and repair projects throughout the state. Illinois has not had a capital bill in 10 years.


State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said money for bridges are a vital part of the discussions.


“The bridge stock that we have in Illinois is aging rapidly,” Butler said. “A lot of bridges are reaching their useful lifespan. ... I do think we’re going to put a big emphasis on replacing bridges and repairing bridges to make sure they’re safe.”


That said, the wide-ranging list of improvement projects needed in Illinois means a capital bill won’t get anywhere close to funding everything, Butler said.

“We have to continue to prioritize and do the best we can to come up with a funding model that’s sustainable,” he said.


Of the nearly 27,000 bridges in Illinois, IDOT inspects about 7,800 of them. The rest are owned, maintained and inspected by local governments and agencies.


Decker said the amount of traffic on the bridge, the age of the structures, and varying amounts of money local agencies have to make repairs all contribute to bridge conditions. The type of inspection and how often they happen depend on the type of bridge and its condition, she said.


Illinois has the fifth-highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the country, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.


The pair of I-72 bridges over Sixth Street carry more traffic than any other structurally deficient bridge in Sangamon County, at 23,000 vehicles each per day. Others, including one that carries Illinois 54 over Wolf Creek northeast of Springfield and another that carries Illinois 123 over a ditch north of Cantrall, carry about 3,000 vehicles each every day.


Several others in Sangamon carry narrow rural roads over creeks and see less than 200 vehicles per day, according to IDOT estimates.


While the term “structurally deficient” sounds bad, Brian Davis, an engineer with the Sangamon County Highway Department, said it is a definition created by the Federal Highway Administration to help define whether the bridge is eligible for funding.


He added a bridge being structurally deficient doesn’t mean anyone’s life is in danger when crossing it.


“Certainly, if any engineer felt that way we would take the measure of reducing the weight limit or closing the bridge altogether,” he said.


Davis said a majority of the 71 bridges in his jurisdiction are inspected at intervals set by IDOT.


“It’s based on the condition of the bridge,” he said. A majority of these are inspected once every 24 months, though some of them are inspected more frequently than that based on its needs.


Davis said the county will alert IDOT if they see major issues during an inspection.


“IDOT will then go out and take a look with their inspectors and tell us if they agree with our assessment or don’t agree with our assessment and then they may determine that it’s something that needs to be monitored more frequently,” Davis said. “That’s when they’ll set a shorter inspection interval.”


Contact Cassie Buchman: 782-3095, cbuchman@sj-r.com, twitter.com/cjbuchman.

Pritzker should not stop at just one constitutional amendment
State Journal Register
Tuesday, March 19, 2019  |   Article  |   Associated Press
Taxes, Graduated/Progressive

The mystery is over, and now the messiness of lawmaking will begin — a slow walk toward change that will take years before it is done.


The mystery in question was this: Just what would Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s tax plan look like?


Ever since Pritzker decided to run for governor, based on the promise of a new progressive tax system for Illinois, he had uttered nary a detail about his plan. He brought the guessing to an end March 7 by announcing details.


The big headline grabber: People earning $1 million or more will pay 7.95 percent of their total income, some 97 percent of taxpayers should see lower taxes, and the governor says his plan will raise an extra $3.4 billion in taxes.


Now comes the messy part: The long, laborious process of amending the Illinois Constitution to make it all happen.


To pass a progressive tax plan — one with heavier rates levied on wealthy people than on those less well-off — Pritzker will need to change the Illinois Constitution, which currently requires a flat tax.


To do that, he’ll need two-third votes in the House and Senate. Then he’ll need voters to approve the constitutional change. Only after that can Pritzker go back to the legislature for actual implementation of his tax plan.


To whatever extent the Pritzker plan spells relief for the state’s fiscal mess, the help won’t arrive until November of 2020 at the earliest. Meanwhile, budget deficits seem likely to grow.


The state already faces a $3.2 billion budget deficit, $8.5 billion of unpaid bills and $134 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Pritzker’s critics say those numbers will get worse because conventional tax hikes under the flat-tax system won’t be enough to compensate for Pritzker’s spending plans.


There are lots of numbers to crunch, and even with supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, Pritzker may still need to adjust his plan in order to get it passed.


All of which adds up to this: So long as the governor is considering a change to the Illinois Constitution, he should not stop with just one. Pritzker should add a constitutional amendment to change the state’s pension clause — the one that has stood in the way of pension reform for decades now.


A two-fer on the constitution makes sense not just because it would be good politics — delivering the progressive tax to liberals alongside the prospect of pension reform for more conservative-minded voters. It also would be good policy, attacking the state’s fiscal problems from both the revenue and the cost side of the ledger.


Besides, if the process takes roughly 18 months, the state cannot afford to enact constitutional fixes one at a time.


The Illinois Constitution’s best-known codicil is the one that declares pensions are a contract that can never be “diminished or impaired.” Those seemingly common sense words have stood in the way of several fair-minded reform plans, including one passed by the Democratic-led legislature in 2013 that the state Supreme Court struck down two years later.


Pritzker in his budget address said the state is obligated “to pay the pensions that are owed.” How that is defined can be a matter of debate, yet the courts have so broadly interpreted the obligation that no meaningful reform can get through. A new pension clause would give policymakers options they do not currently have.


One of the state’s leading Democrats, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, called for a pension amendment late last year. With Chicago facing a legally mandated $864 million annual increase in pension payments beginning in 2020, he knows how much a lack of reform can hurt.

Pritzker may not need a package deal of constitutional reforms. He probably can get the votes to pass his tax amendment without a pension fix, too. But the progressive tax alone won’t solve the state’s fiscal problems.


Passing both amendments together would be a good sign that voters in all income brackets can look forward to some measure of relief from their new governor. Gov. Pritzker should begin that process now.


David Greising is president of the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based civic watchdog organization.