Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Durbin talks about protections for illegial immigrants

Saving protections for undocumented immigrants who came into the U.S. as children is the top priority for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) this week.
Durbin has promised to speak on the Senate floor every day this week to the keep the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy in place. A bill has passed in the House to end the program, which could mean deportation for those currently under its protection. Durbin is pledging to fight the bill in the Senate.
“It is shameless, shameless to play politics with the lives of these young people,” Durbin said. “They grew up in this country, attending school in this country, putting their hand over their hearts in their classrooms every day, pledging allegiance to the only flag they’ve ever known.”
The action ending DACA is tied to a funding bill for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Durbin is hoping the Republican leaders in the Senate instead introduce legislation funding the department without trying to touch immigration programs.

Exelon wants help from state's lawmakers

Exelon is asking state lawmakers for help in keeping three nuclear power plants open.
Exelon says its plants in Byron, Clinton and the Quad Cities are losing money. “The losses are caused more by faulty market mechanisms than anything else. These are correctable problems, and we’re hoping that the state will take the initiative and come up with some solutions for us,” says Exelon spokesman Craig Nesbit, who says other forms of carbon-free electricity get credit that nuclear does not get, and that should be adjusted.
Exelon does not have a specific proposal on the table.
But David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service doesn’t like how this is going. “Going before the legislature, saying give us a half a billion or we’re gonna pull 2,300 jobs out of the state sounds a lot like blackmail to us and it’s as bad way of doing business,” he said.
Kraft says these plants have produced billions in profits for Exelon and its predecessors over the decades, and a downturn now in wholesale electricity prices is no reason for lawmakers to prop up these facilities. Exelon has not allowed lawmakers or the public to examine the books of these plants.
Kraft says Exelon created this market, and should sink or swim in it.
The three plants employ 2,300 with an annual payroll of $193 million, pay $51 million in taxes to localities and the state and provide enough electricity for 4.2 million homes.

Right to work zones a priority for Rauner

Gov. Bruce Rauner says one of his priorities for his first year in office will be creating so-called “right to work zones.”
He spoke to students Tuesday at Richland Community College in Decatur. He says the speech previews some policies he’ll propose in his State of the State speech on Feb. 4.
Rauner supports creating “employee empowerment zones” where local communities could decide whether workers may be required to join a union as a condition of employment. He says the zones would help improve both competition and job growth.
In collective bargaining now, employees vote whether to have a union. If a majority vote for it, then the workers negotiate a contract with the employer. The union will typically ask that the contract require workers covered under the contract to join the union. If the employer agrees, then this provision is in force. In “right to work” jurisdictions, it is illegal for collective bargaining agreements to contain this provision.
Rauner says he's not advocating statewide “right to work” legislation like other Republican governors.

Measles back in Illinois

Illinois has its first confirmed case of the measles this year.
The individual in suburban Cook County became sick in mid-January and has tested positive for measles, and may have exposed others in the Palatine area, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Dr. Steven D. O’Marro of the Springfield Clinic says measles spreads due to lack of vaccination.
“Approximately 28 percent of children who enter kindergarten aren’t vaccinated according to standard recommendations, and that occurs for various reasons – sometimes religious and philosophical objections, and sometimes real reasons not to vaccinate them, such as children who have acute leukemia where their immune systems are low and the measles vaccine might actually cause illness,” he said.
The vaccination or previous exposure are not 100 percent effective at preventing measles, but they are close.
There are now 100 measles cases across the country linked to an outbreak at Disneyland in California. It is not known if this Illinois case is linked. Illinois has had only 10 measles cases in the last five years.
There is no cure-all treatment for measles. The body has to fight it off itself. O’Marro says it appears vitamin A helps.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This week's BUG award winners

GCMS Elementary principal Justin Kean announces this week's BUG (Being Unbelievably Good) award winners:

5th Grade
Kaylee Rogers
Jack Schultz
Payton Allen
Eric Luparell

4th Grade
Peyton Doman
Erin Stroh
Kendyl Wright
Kallen Robertson

3rd Grade
Jarod Morris
Nick Smith
Leon Thorton
Reece Miller

2nd Grade
Shaun Hyatt
Jordyan Freehill
Ava Rexroat
Daniel Jacobson

1st Grade
Deondrea Harper
Chloe Tjarks
Hunter Milligen
Paytyn Burdette

Kasen DeFries
Brilee Little
Charlie Kerchenfaut
Ricky Tjarks

Illinois a very expensive state to smoke in

Illinois is an expensive state for smokers – the 14th most-expensive state over the course of a lifetime of smoking, according to a study by Wallet Hub.

Spokesman Jill Gonzalez says they calculated the cost of tobacco at a pack a day for 51 years. “And then we counted the amount of return a person would have earned by instead investing that money in the stock market over the same period. We used a historical average market return rate for the S&P 500, minus the inflation rate during the same time period to reflect the return in present-value terms,” she said.

Similarly, the tobacco cost is calculated at 2015 prices.

Also figured in are health care and health insurance costs, and lost income due to illness and job opportunities denied due to being a smoker.

Over a lifetime in Illinois, that rings up to $1,549,069. The cheapest state for smoking is South Carolina at $1,097,690. The most expensive is Alaska, at $2,032,916.

Jobe appointed to run the state's office of tourism

The person who will try to turn Illinois’ tourist attractions into “economic development” is Cory Jobe.

The Springfield man, who has been deputy chief of staff in the comptroller’s office, is the new appointee to head the Illinois Office of Tourism. Jobe will report to the director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, a position which has not been filled yet in the new administration.

Jobe has been a longtime associate of the late Judy Baar Topinka and says he became interested in the tourism business while working in the treasurer’s office on a program called “Experience Illinois.”

“Tourism is economic development, I’ve always said that,” says Jobe. “I’ve always said historic preservation is economic development. We’ve got to be thinking in those terms. This is a big business in the state of Illinois. The return on investment is huge.”

In addition to Chicago and the state parks, Jobe cited the Abraham Lincoln attractions, Route 66, the Galena area, and the sports facilities of Rockford and the Metro East as important assets.

A question over Rauner's hire of his wife's new chief of staff

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s explanation for one new hire in his administration making a six-figure salary doesn’t add up.

The salary in question is the $100,000 that will be paid to Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, the new chief of staff for First Lady Diana Rauner. The governor didn’t directly address that salary when asked whether it was too high for the position.

“We are going to try to offer salaries that are competitive (to) get the talent in,” Rauner said. “This is all about driving a transformation of the government, and many people are coming in at salaries well below what they made in the private sector.”

But Jimenez isn’t coming from the private sector. She spent the last year as the director of intergovernmental affairs in the comptroller’s office. She’s also not settling for a lower salary in her new job, as she was making $91,000 per year, according to data made available on the comptroller office’s website. 

Rauner has criticized state workers for supposedly having higher average salaries than the state’s average pay in the private sector. He cited research from the Pew Center for the States which claims the average government worker in Illinois makes $11,000 more per year compared to the average private-sector employee.

Community college grant not one Rauner intends to cut

A $20 million state grant to a community college isn’t the sort of spending Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to freeze or cut.

The same man who signed an order freezing what he called non-essential spending at state agencies Friday celebrated the opening of the technical education center at Harper College in Palatine, which was built mostly with state funds. Rauner says it was a worthy investment.

“We can make the American dream a reality by expanding institutions like this,” Rauner said. “That’s why it’s so great that the state has supported this facility, and I, as governor, will be an ally and advocate for more of these facilities around the state.”

The center will train students for jobs in welding, manufacturing, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Rauner says it falls in line with one of his education goals to expand vocational training in the state.

State's unemployment rate drops a little more

The unemployment rate in Illinois continues to decline.

It dropped from 6.4 percent in November to 6.2 percent in December, according to data now out, it was announced Friday, representing a situation that’s improving but is not yet ideal for workers, says Evelina Loescher, manager of economic information and analysis for the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

“We’ve made some good improvement, but we’re still above the national average, which was 5.6 percent in December in the U.S.,” she said.

For the year, unemployment fell by 2.7 percentage points – a drop from 8.9 percent at the end of 2013. Illinois gained 17,100 jobs last month and finished 2014 with 51,600 jobs gained over the year, for a total now of 5.88 million jobs in the state.

Homeless education program funding up in the air

Perhaps this will be the year that the Illinois General Assembly approves money for a homeless education program.

“The superintendent’s recommending $3 million,” chief financial officer Robert Wolfe told the Illinois State Board of Education. “This is a request that the board’s put in for the last two or three fiscal years, and it hasn’t been funded.”

One board member said all you have to do is learn a little about the problem to want to get involved. “They put faces on those boys and girls,” said Melinda LaBarre, remembering a presentation by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “They had them there, and they talked to us and told us about the challenges that they have. And if there was one person without tears in their eyes when they met those children, I don’t know who it would be.”

The board’s financial committee chairman, Jim Baumann, said there are perhaps 60,000 school-age children among Illinois’ homeless.

Rauner's State of the State address might upset state workers

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s preview of his State of the State address won’t win him any allies from government workers.

The latter half of Rauner’s goal of making Illinois “competitive and compassionate” relies on maximizing state revenue. What may get in the way is the high average salary for state employees, which Rauner – citing the Pew Center on the States – says is more than 20 percent above what the average private sector-worker makes. “That’s one of the biggest gaps of any state in America,” Rauner said.

Rauner is also criticizing the cost of benefits for state employees, including health care and pensions, but he also insists he’s not demonizing people who work in the public sector.

“I want government workers to have a good life and have a good job,” Rauner said, “but it’s got to be fair.”

Management may be the problem, according to Rauner, as he says the talents of government workers “aren’t being optimized.”

DNA database could grow according to former coroner turned lawmaker

The DNA database could grow, and, with it, the number of criminal cases which can be cleared off the books, under a bill sponsored by a former county coroner who is a state legislator.

“In a case of a homicide death, the coroner would be responsible to provide … specimens from the body at the time of autopsy,” says State Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), “and those samples would be dried and used for the purpose of submitting to the DNA index system for a laboratory's testing.”

Brady says this would be helpful if, for example, the deceased person were suspected in other cases.

Not knowing the name of an applicant keeps politics out of pot growing licenses

The sponsor of the medical marijuana law is defending the anonymity of the applicants for licenses to grow pot.

In the evaluation process, the Department of Agriculture staffers reviewing the applications didn’t get to see who the applicant was. In fact, neither does the governor, until the decision is made on who will get the licenses.

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) says the idea is to assure that licenses aren’t approved or denied because of the applicant’s political connections, or lack thereof.

“The best application in each State Police district is supposed to win the license, regardless of who it is, regardless of who they know, and they (the Department of Agriculture) don’t know who it is, and they don’t know who they know. They just score the application,” he said.

Lang says when the licenses are issued, surely some of the recipients will be friends of politicians, or will have made campaign contributions, or will have hired lawyers or lobbyists with some kind of connections – but so will have the applicants who were denied.

The governor objects to the process, saying it lacks transparency and should be played out in public. The names of the applicants, both successful and unsuccessful, will be revealed after the decision is made.

The medical marijuana law went into effect last year, but the process of issuing cultivation licenses has stalled. The previous governor didn’t issue the licenses, and Gov. Bruce Rauner says the applications and the process of reviewing the applications should be re-examined.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lincoln's food eaten in his lifetime subject of a book

An author who examines the intersection of food and history is throwing Abraham Lincoln into the mix.

Rae Eighmey, who lives in Clear Lake, Iowa, says she started experimenting in the kitchen decades ago with old family recipes. “I saw that I was able to realize some understanding of the way my family lived by cooking some of the foods that they ate,” she says.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen came out in 2014.

She says, “I could see how looking at the food that he ate during the eras of his life, during his Indiana pioneer childhood, his youth in Illinois, and his successful career as a lawyer, and going on to the White House, how each of those eras had different foods to go with them. It led me to sit down and, if you will, chew over his life.”

Eighmey says the book includes 55 recipes, most of which are simple enough to try at home. All are what the Lincoln family would have had, except the last one: a cake created to commemorate Lincoln’s life after he was assassinated.

Durbin returns from Cuba

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) hopes his trip to Cuba is the beginning of big changes for the communist country.

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate today (Tuesday), Durbin called his visit as part of a congressional delegation “very productive,” as he and other Democrats met with representatives of the Cuban government as well as its political opponents. One of those dissidents told Durbin the move towards normalizing relations has already had an impact on Cuba.

“He said to us, ‘What President Obama’s announcement has done is to pull the blanket off the caged bird in Cuba. Those of us who live in Cuba are still in the cage of communism, but we can see out now about opportunities and a future,’” Durbin said.

Durbin said a similar strategy worked in other communist nations around the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

President Obama is expected to encourage Congress to act on fully lifting the trade embargo with Cuba during his State of the Union address tonight.

Frerichs issues executive order

Echoing one of his campaign promises, Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs has issued an executive order against political activity on state time.
Frerichs says he will not accept campaign contributions from treasurer's office employees, nor will he tolerate anybody doing political work.
Frerichs' predecessor, Dan Rutherford, faced a lawsuit alleging he tried to shake down employees for campaign help or sexual favors. Rutherford, who denied the allegations, was in a four-man primary race for governor at the time, finished last, and ended his term quietly.
“Their job, when they are being paid by the state, is to do the state’s business,” said Frerichs, who defines that as “doing something every day to make sure we are improving and strengthening our middle class.”
Middle class?
“I think when America has a strong middle class, the entire country succeeds and does better.”

You can start filing your income tax today

Income tax season starts Tuesday!

Today is the day the IRS will start accepting returns. Rick Mehall, a certified public accountant and partner in the firm Guthoff, Mehall, Allen & Co. in Bloomington, says if you’re expecting a refund, it’s wise to file as soon as possible, though many taxpayers don’t yet have in hand all the documentation they need to file.

“Most people probably won’t be getting everything they need until late January or early February, just because 1099s from the banks and savings and loans and credit unions are not due out until Jan. 31,” he said.

He also warns against tax-related scams: The IRS won’t call you on the phone, tell you you owe tax and accept a credit card over the phone. The IRS contacts taxpayers via old-fashioned paper mail.

This year will also be interesting for those who bought health insurance on the exchange: They estimated their income and got a tax credit to help pay for their insurance. Now they’ll have to reconcile that estimate with their actual income, and if their actual income was higher than the estimate, they’ll have to pay back some of the tax credit they got.

Rauner might be keen to expand gambling

It sounds like Gov. Bruce Rauner might be warming up to the idea of expanded gambling in Illinois.

Rauner says he doesn’t like to gamble, but he also recognizes the state is losing money to casinos in neighboring states. While Rauner isn’t definitively stating he would sign expanded gaming legislation, he’s not dismissing the idea either.

“We’ve been disorganized in our approach to gambling and gaming,” Rauner said. “We’ve sort of done it ad hoc and on a case-by-case basis. I’d like to take a strategic assessment of the gaming industry in partnership with the General Assembly.”

Rauner’s position is crucial because expanded gambling has had enough support to pass twice through the General Assembly in recent years, only for the bills to be vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

One of the stronger proponents of adding more casinos in Illinois, State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), says Rauner will need extra gambling revenue to fulfill some of his campaign promises.

“He certainly will want to look to opportunities to create revenue and jobs that don’t require taxation, and gaming would be one of those areas,” Lang said.

Fiscal future for Illinois - not good

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is a great movie line. It’s not so good if you are talking about the state budget.

A new report forecasting economic doom – a $14 billion annual deficit by fiscal year 2026 is called Apocalypse Now?

Solutions won’t be easy, since so much of what the state must pay is for is due to past decisions.

“The political salability, or acceptability, of it is very hard to project,” says professor Richard F. Dye, co-director of the Fiscal Futures Project at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “Like a person in deep credit card debt, the state has been spending more than it can afford, and is covering the gap by issuing IOUs.”

From the report:
  • Bringing back the 2011 tax increase would close only about one-half of the gap projected for the next several years.
  • The problem cannot be solved with spending cuts alone. Because Illinois can’t cut debt service or pension payments, it would take at least a 20 percent cut of all remaining spending to eliminate the deficit. This includes education, corrections, Medicaid, public safety, transportation, and more.
  • Economic growth is also not a cure-all: an increase in the growth rate of personal income by an extra one-half percent every year for 10 years (an optimistic scenario) would have only a modest effect on the deficit.