Thursday, December 18, 2014

Unemployment rate falls a little more

The unemployment rate is down again in Illinois.
It fell 2/10th of a point, from 6.6 percent in October to 6.4 percent in November, the Illinois Department of Employment Security announced today (Thursday). It hasn’t been lower in 6½ years, and it’s a big drop from the 9 percent rate one year ago.
“Reports in previous years had some job growth, but not the corresponding decline in the unemployment rate,” says Greg Rivara of the Illinois Department of Employment Security. “This year, we have had the job growth and the corresponding decline in the unemployment rate, and there have been significant monthly declines throughout this year.”
Illinois added 2,300 jobs over the last month and 32,400 over the year.
Manufacturing saw a bump of 3,600 jobs, and construction added 2,100 jobs, but retail trade dropped 8,700 positions. Rivara says that number might be revised, or it could be a true reflection of jobs lost due to e-commerce.
The national unemployment rate is 5.8 percent.

Quinn sets January 8th to start comptroller replacement process

At least part of the upcoming four-year term of comptroller of Illinois could be filled by someone of the people’s choosing. The governor Thursday set Jan. 8 – four days before he leaves office – for a special session of the General Assembly to get that process into motion.
As the attorney general suggested, Gov. Pat Quinn is backing a special election in 2016 for the remainder of the term, presumably to be begun by a gubernatorial appointment.
When Judy Baar Topinka died last week, she was both comptroller and comptroller-elect.
The attorney general’s position is that Quinn must make an appointment for the current term, which ends Jan. 12, and that Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner may make an appointment for the new term. Madigan’s personal opinion is that a special election in 2016 would allow voters to choose a comptroller for the final two years of the term. Rauner this week said there’s no reason for that; that the appointment for the full four years is his to make.
“Reasonable heads should be able to figure out how we handle this issue. The idea that we resolve this in some way is necessary,” State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said. “Whether we resolve it by having some agreement going forward, we resolve it by having a special election, or we resolve it by doing both of those things.”
In a joint statement, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) say:
“The Illinois Constitution requires the governor-elect to appoint a new comptroller to a four-year term.  A partisan and constitutionally-dubious 11th-hour law would face a certain legal challenge and force the people of Illinois to endure a protracted legal battle that no one wants. The only constitutionally responsible choice is to allow the governor-elect to appoint a comptroller to a four-year term."

Only forty percent of Illinois workers have a four-year college degree

In a world in which two-thirds of the jobs require a four-year degree, barely 40 percent of Illinois workers have one. That’s not enough.
“We can’t get there by simply focusing on the ‘traditional’ college student,” says Jim Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “If you drop to the third quartile, which is still middle class, barely one out of three had a four-year college degree, and if you go to the low-income quartile, barely one out of 10 has a four-year college degree. We have been failing a large group of students.”
Applegate, promoting “The Four Year Myth,” a project of Complete College America, says much of the blame lies with colleges in not properly advising and guiding students. He says the course catalog on many campuses is as big as a King James Bible, and many students have to fend for themselves to figure out which classes to take, how many to take, etc.
Applegate says other problems include not taking what’s considered a full load (15 credit hours per semester), taking the wrong courses, staying “undeclared” or “undecided” after their freshman year, and dropping out with little to show for their efforts.

Durbin says the US should have Cuban relations

For the first time since 1961, the United States is moving towards official diplomatic relations with Cuba — and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin says it’s overdue.
Durbin welcomes the change announced by President Obama to restore full relations and open an embassy in Cuba. To those opposed to the shift, Durbin says look at what 50-plus years of isolation have done to overthrow the Castro regime.
“It didn’t work,” Durbin said. “The Castro brothers are still in control. Communism still is dominant on that island of Cuba. It is time for a new policy.”
Durbin believes giving the Cuban people greater access to the rest of the world will lead to a push for reforms, such as democratic elections. It’s the same recipe Durbin says worked in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
Durbin was present when Alan Gross, the American prisoner Cuba released in exchange for three Cuban spies, got off a plane near Washington and was reunited with his family after five years in captivity.

Change Illinois group wants a better political map

The redistricting reform people say non-political drawing of political maps has worked in other states.
They’re pointing to a study that shows using an independent commission to draw maps for Congress and the state legislature has benefitted communities of interest, and neither harmed nor helped either major political party. The authors were Nicholas Stephanopoulos at the University of Chicago Law School and Ruth Greenwood at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee.
Ryan Blitstein, director of Change Illinois, is not surprised by the findings.
“We’ve seen decades of redistricting reform in states like Arizona and California and in countries throughout the world, and in all the cases, when you make redistricting independent, non-partisan and transparent, what you get, of course, is fairer districts and better representation for all communities,” he said.
You do not necessarily get more competitive races; some districts will be heavily Democratic or heavily Republican no matter how they’re drawn.
Change Illinois tried to get a reform measure on the ballot in Illinois this year, but didn’t collect enough signatures. The organization is in education mode now, but may undertake another signature drive in 2016.
Under Illinois’ current system, the General Assembly draws the map. If there is divided partisan control involving the House, Senate and the governor, they will have to compromise, or the matter gets pushed to an eight-member commission which must compromise, otherwise a random draw adds a ninth member, and that member’s party will unilaterally control the process.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Farm report - yearly summary

It was a good year on the farm, but that doesn’t mean farmers are making a lot of money.

“It was a great year. We had good crops throughout the state,” says Illinois Farm Bureau President Rich Guebert.

Corn will come in at 200 bushels an acre, up from 178 last year, and beans will come in at 56, up from 50, according to USDA projections. But commodity prices are down. Are farmers making money?

“Not as much as I did last year,” says farmer Lyle Sargent of Rushville. “Even with the yield up higher, the yield’s not gonna make up for the difference in the lower commodity prices,” he said.

December corn on the Chicago Board of Trade is selling for under $4 a bushel. It was $6.50 in September 2012. Soybeans are at $10.25; they were over $15 in June of this year.

Some Illinois farmers also had trouble with soybean sudden death syndrome this year. That’s a fungus that is prevalent when conditions are cool and damp.

In terms of overall production, though, Illinois will be the nation’s No. 1 soybean state, with 551 million bushels, and with be the No. 2 state for corn, behind Iowa, with 2.3 billion bushels.

Rauner wants help on fixing pensions

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner is hoping the Illinois Supreme Court can give lawmakers some help on how to fix the state’s pension problems.

Rauner has never supported the 2013 pension fix, which was ruled unconstitutional in circuit court and will be argued in front of the Supreme Court in March. Rauner believes it will be struck down, and hopes the decision gives lawmakers some idea of what can pass constitutional muster.

“I hope they don’t just say ‘this is out and it’s done, and it’s unconstitutional,’” Rauner said. “I hope they give us some guidance. They may or may not choose to do that.”

Rauner has advocated for keeping the current pension agreement in place, but moving public-sector workers to a 401(k)-style plan for future work.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

State jobs have been lost to China but there is hope for the future

Despite a new report painting Illinois as a job-loser – particularly in terms of the number of jobs it has lost to China in recent years – a state business leader chooses to look ahead.

“The manufacturing sector, beginning in the year 2000, had roughly 900,000 jobs. Today we're at roughly 600,000,” says Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association. “Since the year 2010, Illinois has seen a small rebound in manufacturing jobs; we've gained about 17,000.”

The Economic Policy Institute says Illinois ranks fourth in the nation in number of jobs lost to China – 132,500 – this century. Denzler says one reason is that Illinois and the states above it – California, Texas, and New York – are among the most populous states in the nation.

Calling the election of Bruce Rauner as governor a “sea change,” Denzler says the state can possibly better attack “innate costs that are built into manufacturing goods (such as) workers' comp and tax policy.”

Very few schools have broadband in place

For most of us, the Internet is a necessity. For many of us, that means broadband. Except in school.

A new report claims only 10 percent of the state’s kindergarted-through-12th-grade schools have access to high-speed Internet through the federal E-Rate program from 2009 to 2013.

“They’re probably right,” says Phil Halstead, executive director of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. “The overall challenge is to get broad connectivity to those Illinois schools that do not have it.”

It won't come cheap. Halstead says $179 million stands between broadband and the state’s least connected 93,000 Illinois students.

School funding bill dies

It’s back to the drawing board on changing Illinois’ education funding formula.

That outcome pleases Republican lawmakers in districts in the Chicago suburbs, such as State Rep. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove), as the proposed changes to the formula would have resulted in school districts in those areas receiving less state aid thanks to collecting more in property taxes.

Sandack says Downstate Republican legislators may have voted for the bill if it had ever put to a vote in the Illinois House.

“They kept a low profile, though,” Sandack said. “They weren’t running around saying ‘this is a good way to do things.’ If a vote would’ve come, they would’ve made a vote in favor of (S.B.) 16, but they didn’t like the way this was coming down. It wasn’t their bill. It wasn’t their preference.”

Sandack believes there is a compromise to be found that wouldn’t benefit Downstate schools at the expense of those in Chicago or the suburbs. The first step, according to Sandack, is to find a way to fully fund state aid to schools.

After that, he thinks legislators should form a committee on education funding, and look into consolidating school districts.

Friday, December 12, 2014

This week's BUG award winners

GCMS Elementary principal Justin Kean announces this week's BUG (Being Unbeleiveably Good) awards:

5th Grade
London Hixson
Jake Zumwalt
Jack Schultz
Elaina Stroh

4th Grade
Kaitlyn Milligan
Elsie Sizemore
Madison McCreary
Austin Corry

3rd Grade
C.C. Francis
Logan Jasper
Reece Miller
Bryce Hardesty

2nd Grade
Mallory Rosendahl
Ava Rexroat
Avery Schlickman

1st Grade
Cale Royal
Cheyenne Barber
Kayleigh Powell
Keagen Goff

Brilee Little
Wyatt Overby
Kate McCall
Michael Harders

Down go the gas prices!

The gasoline pump has been an instrument of pain for so long, you may have forgotten what it’s like to pay less than $3 a gallon.

Those times are back for the foreseeable future, says Bill Fleischli, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and Illinois Association of Convenience Stores.

“Oil production in this country is booming, and it would boom more if we’d build the Keystone pipeline,” he says. “The oil cartel has to cut production. The Asian demand has dropped off. The U.S. dollar is strong. And Libya and Iraq have calmed down from a political standpoint, and they’re on line.”

Fleischli says the gas prices in Illinois could stay in the $2.50-$3.00 range into the spring. The most recent AAA Fuel Gauge survey shows a state average of $2.64 and a national average of $2.60.

For Illinois metro areas, Decatur is the cheapest at $2.38 and Chicago the most expensive at $3.04.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What to do about a new state comptroller

Will the selection of a new Illinois comptroller pose a constitutional crisis? Judy Baar Topinka won a second term last month and was to be sworn in Jan. 12. But she died Tuesday morning.
The Illinois Constitution says the governor must appoint someone until a successor is elected and qualified. Whether that means Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner can appoint someone for the same four year term he will serve, or that incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn can appoint someone until after the 2018 election, or something else, is not clear to everyone.
“The General Assembly could pass, and the governor could sign, legislation to hold a special election to fill the office either in the municipal election in the spring,” said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, “or the general election in 2016.”
Former Gov. Jim Edgar is not sure of the answer, but does know the question. “Is that person a temporary position untilJanuary 12, or is it until the next election four years later?” he asks.
To recap, incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn is a Democrat. Gov.-elect Rauner is a Republican, as was Topinka.

Will the MAP program survive cuts?

Cuts in next year’s state budget appear inevitable, but some state lawmakers are hoping the MAP grant scholarships are spared.
The Monetary Assistance Program provides tuition assistance for low-income students, but its funding has been decreased in recent years. Education groups are predicting the budget for Fiscal Year 2016 could cut the program by 25 percent, but State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) says education must be a priority even in lean times.
“We’re going to have a lot of difficult choices ahead of us this spring,” Biss said, “but as we’re making those difficult choices, I hope that we can, every day, keep in mind this question of: are we looking forward? Do we believe in ourselves? Are we investing in our future, or have we, unfortunately on the other hand, chosen to give up?”
The group Voices for Illinois Children says the cuts would mean another 45,000 students in Illinois eligible for MAP grants wouldn’t receive that assistance.
During this year’s campaign for governor, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner promised to increase MAP funding, and criticized Gov. Pat Quinn for making cuts to the program between 2010 and 2013. 

IDNR happy with deer harvest

The number of deer killed in the 2014 firearm season met the expectations of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The seven-day total – on the weekends on either side of Thanksgiving – is 76,547, up 2,229 from 2013.
It's a far cry from the annual flirtation with six figures a few years ago. “The firearm deer harvest had been in that range,” says DNR spokesman Tim Schweizer. “The firearm deer harvest has been less than that in recent years. In 2007 the department began an effort to reduce the deer herd in the state (by) issuing more permits – particularly doe permits – (and by) adding seasons.”
More hunting opportunities remain. Archery season continues through Jan. 18, and muzzleloader season is this weekend:Friday through Sunday.

Govenors react to the news

Governors past and present believe Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka will be remembered fondly by the people of Illinois.
Energetic, compassionate, witty, these are all words that are being used to describe Topinka after she died due to complications from a stroke. Gov. Pat Quinn adds another adjective to the mix.
“She was a force of nature,” Quinn said. “A good-natured person if there ever was one, with a tremendous sense of humor, who cared about people. Everyday people.”
Former Gov. Jim Edgar says Topinka was happiest when she was in public office. Though she may have been hurt when she lost the 2006 governor’s race to Rod Blagojevich, Edgar says she didn’t take it personally, even after Blagojevich’s corruption became apparent years later.
“I never heard her gloating after Blagojevich went off to prison,” Edgar said. “I think privately she just said ‘Well, I tried to tell people.’”
Edgar says Topinka was one of the best politicians he’s seen, and believes Republicans and Democrats in the state should follow her example of working with the opposing party.

Reactions to Topinka's death

“People really liked Judy,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said Wednesday morning in eulogizing Judy Baar Topinka.
Topinka defeated Simon in the election for comptroller last month. Topinka died Wednesday morning.
“She was herself. She was genuine,” continues Simon, “whether it was talking about pet adoption or the clothes that she bought at yard sales. She was herself and not a slick, packaged product of media consultants.”
“This day and age in politics, everybody's afraid to tell it like it is,” lamented Springfield Ald. Cory Jobe, deputy chief of staff in the comptroller's office. Jobe, saying Topinka was the exception, counts her as a political mentor. They met during his unsuccessful statehouse race in the mid 1990's.
A political consultant and former newsman points out Topinka's penchant for thrift.
“My wife was walking the dog several months ago,” Thom Serafin said, “and there was Judy Baar Topinka, coming out of an estate sale.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Judy Barr Topinka dies suddenly

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has died due to complications from a stroke.
The 70-year-old Topinka died early this morning at a hospital in Berwyn after suffering a stroke Tuesday. She had served in Springfield in some capacity dating back to her election to the Illinois House in 1980, followed by a stint in the Senate, and then 12 years as the state’s treasurer.
She lost a 2006 bid to become governor, running against the later imprisoned Rod Blagojevich, but returned to statewide office when she was elected Comptroller in 2010. She was re-elected to a second term last month.
Topinka was well-known for being outspoken, and was willing to go against her own party, being an early Republican supporter of same sex marriage.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Gibson City Council notes

The Gibson City Council met in regular session on Monday, December 8th, 2014.

City superintendent Randy Stauffer reported that the City has finished leaf collections for the past fall season.

The Finance committee recommends after their December 2nd meeting that reimbursements totaling $30,000 for repairs on two buildings located at 101 and 107 south Sangamon Avenue. Total expenditures for the 107 building was $66,000 with the city covering $21,600. The 101 building total expense was $18,500 with the city providing $8,400. $10,000 comes from money left over from the building demolition and $20,00come from the property management fund.

Alderman Jan Hall questioned the amounts that are to be given to the property owners based on the value of the buildings rather than the total amounts that were spent on improvements made. Alderman Hall was the only dissenting vote.

The Council approved an ordinance that describes and designates an area as an enterprise zone. One Earth Energy is currently located in an enterprise zone that expires in December, 2015. A new application to renew the zone needs to be in Springfield no later than December 31st.

Alderman Dean Kidd was displeased with One Earth Energy's current tax breaks they currently receive and was the only no vote.

The city attorney reminded the Council that the contract with One Earth Energy will need to be renewed and that the Council has the right to reevaluate the terms of the contract.

Would you like to 'Change Someone's Christmas'?

Have you seen the bright blue canisters at local area businesses? Has it made you wonder, "Just exactly how do you 'Change Someone's Christmas?'"

Many years ago Jim Killian and Lori Epps, of WGCY Radio, placed canisters at local businesses between the dates of the Lighted Christmas Parade and Christmas. The money was used to help needy families in the community by purchasing and delivering gifts to families.

It has evolved over the years and is now under the umbrella of the Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce. As a not-for-profit organization, donations made to the Gibson Area Chamber are tax-deductible.

The collected funds are distributed in the form of Gibson Bucks, which can be used at many businesses in Gibson City.

This holiday project has been made possible through the efforts of dedicated GCMS committee members Jenny DeSchepper, Linda Schmitt, and Jenny White. Chamber members and officers Angie Woodward and Amelie Beck have also been key contributors to this ongoing project.

Gibson Area Hospital matches the collection each year, and other organizations like the Lions Club, Rotary, Chamber and Thrivent have all passed the canisters and made generous donations as well.

None of this would be possible without the ongoing cooperation of over 80 local businesses which have allowed the canisters at their registers.

The past four years have included the efforts of GCMS High School students who help in order to complete service hours to earn a Silver Cord at graduation. In 2011, Emily Spangler and Katie Spangler collected canisters. Mark Pool and Carson Arends collected the 2012 canisters. The 2013 distributor and collector was Sami Endsley. This year, Rose Williams distributed and will collect canisters.

Each year, the need increases while the ability for people to donate decreases, yet no one has been turned away. When distributing funds, helpers often receive hugs and tears because families can now buy medicine, or a coat for their child, or have food for the holidays or are able to provide something for their children on Christmas morning--things many of us take for granted.

If you, or someone you know, is residing in the GCMS School District and could use assistance this Christmas, please contact a counselor or social worker for an application at any of the GCMS schools.

Donations may be made to "Change Someone's Christmas" and sent to Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 294, Gibson City, IL 60936. Change Someone's Christmas is currently under the direction of GCMS High School's InterAct Club, sponsored by Susan Riley.

Local man earns silver medal in bowling at Illinois Special Olympics

The State Bowling Tournament for Illinois Special Olympics was on Saturday, December 6th at Landmark Lanes in Peoria. 

Jake Nelson of Roberts, a member of the Paxton-Buckley-Loda Special Athletes, earned a Silver medal in his division.

Jake earned Gold medals at both the Area and Sectional Tournaments earlier this fall to qualify for the state competition.