Friday, April 18, 2014

This week's BUG Award winners

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

5th Grade
Robbie Burdette
Harley Westcott
Koreen Koltveit
Scout Rouley

4th Grade
Markus Miguel
Naomi Buff
Parker Chase
Payton Allen

3rd Grade
Emily Vaughn
Kallen Robertson
Skyler Morano
Kellie Koss

2nd Grade
Brooklyn Scribner
Allison Spiller
Kalynn Little
Alexis Ensign

1st Grade
Austin Kasper
Matthew Allen
Kaelyn Jiles
Kyra Kietzman

Alex Barnard
Gabe Ward
Joshua Garard
Michael Morgan

Rules are proposed for medical marijuana in Illinois

The proposed rules for medical marijuana are now available for public comment.

The rules have been tweaked since they were first published in February, including a cut in the fee for a medical marijuana ID card from $150 to $100, the removal of a ban on FOID card holders being authorized for medical pot, and the removal of District 15 as a State Police district that can have a growing operation.

“There are actually four sets of rules that concern the Illinois medical cannabis program. The Department of Public Health, the Department of Revenue, Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and then the Department of Agriculture – all four departments have filed rules, and it now goes through a 45-day public comment period,” says Melaney Arnold, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In about three months, the rules will be examined by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which is a body of eight members of the General Assembly, to make sure the rules comport with what lawmakers intended. If the committee approves, the process of licensing growers, dispensers and patients will begin mid-summer.

Details on the rules and the public comment period are here:

Some U of I faculty will have to retire early or lose benefits

It's the story of the reluctant retirees.

As a twist on the pension restructuring law which is now tied up in courts, a glitch in the bill effectively, university pension counselors say, forces faculty members to retire May 15 or forfeit significant benefits.
At a special meeting today (Friday), University of Illinois trustees and administrators got an earful.

“The course I prepared last fall for next fall won't be taught by me,” said Tim Keiderling, a chemistry professor at the university's Chicago campus. “The course that I teach every year to graduate students, that I've developed over 20 years, and is absolutely unique in our department, won't be offered next year.”

“It's a question about what's prudent in the rest of my life,” said longtime College of Education professor Steve Tozer. “This is why you get the language from some of my colleagues who say, 'I'm being forced to retire.' There's some level at which we're not being forced to retire. The prudent decision is to retire and not take a significant hit” on one's pension.

The trustees heard stories of star professors in their 40s and 50s taking out-of-state job offers to continue their careers.

“I just want to apologize to the entire faculty for allowing this to get this far,” board of trustees chairman Chris Kennedy said, “for putting our entire university at risk, and putting the future of our state at risk, I apologize for that.”

Head to Macomb for creativity

Macomb is a creative place.

The director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Chris Merrett, says the hometown of Western Illinois University – where his institute is based – rates highly on the “creative class index.”

“It can have an artisanal aspect to it, value-added agriculture, local foods,” says Merrett in explaining what about Macomb may stand out. But the factors Merrett cited have been around for generations; they are by no means new, though the way of looking at them may be. “We know there are many parts of the rural Midwest that are linking these ideas of local agriculture, tourism, the arts, (and) in Downstate Illinois, the wine trail,” he said.

Merrett says it could give hope for the parents who have spent tens of thousands of dollars so their child can get a degree in, say, art history. “I'd like to think the fine arts, the humanities are themselves a marketable skill. You get a group of creative people together in a downtown area, there's a critical mass of vitality that can be an engine for growth,” he said.

"Plan B" may be option for pension restructuring

A state lawmaker is looking at Plan B, in case the pension restructuring enacted last year is struck down in court.

The state must find a way to keep pension benefits from growing, because it’ll never be able to come up with the money to fulfill its promises, says State Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine).  So if the court says the new law is unconstitutional?

“I think you’re gonna have to look at a constitutional amendment, because you’re not coming up with $100 billion,” he said.

At issue would be the clause in the Constitution saying that a state pension cannot be diminished or impaired.  An amendment might specify that that applies to the accrual rate, but not to cost-of-living adjustments or other escalators.

How would that go?  “Well, it’d be fascinating to see.  I’m sure the unions would put a little bit of money in on trying to defeat such an initiative,” he said.

A lawsuit challenging the pension law will be heard this year in Springfield, and it is expected to quickly rise to the Illinois Supreme Court.  The law cuts the automatic 3 percent raise that pension beneficiaries receive, and it raises the retirement age for enrolled workers age 45 and younger.

March unemployment rate lower in Illinois

The unemployment rate in Illinois is down to 8.4 percent in March, lowest in more than five years.

“Especially the long term, since the recovery began in January 2010, we've seen a steady increase in the number of private-sector jobs,” says Jay Rowell, director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security.  “We're up nearly 260,000 private-sector jobs that have been created since January 2010.  That's moving in the right direction and contributing to a lower unemployment rate.”

The February rate was 8.7 percent.  Illinois still is among the states with the highest unemployment – in February only Rhode Island was higher with 9 percent.

Gambling expansion bill sponsor not sure if it will work

The sponsor of the last gambling expansion bill isn’t convinced the newest effort will work.

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) has been a longtime backer of building more casinos in Illinois, though his efforts never made it past the governor’s desk.  The new push is led by State Rep. Bob Rita (D-Blue Island), but Lang thinks the plan may be too focused on one part of the state.

“I have some concerns that it’s a little too Chicago-heavy, and I think downstaters might not be predisposed to vote for that kind of bill,” Lang said.  “But I trust Rep. Rita, he’s an excellent legislator, and his goal is to provide gaming.”

Lang says he won’t have an active role with the bill because of the perceived conflict of interest that led him to drop off as a sponsor of a similar bill last year. 

The bill offers two options for expanded gambling: one that would create five new casinos around the state, and another that would authorize only a state-owned casino in Chicago.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kirk will stump for Oberweis

U.S. Sen. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.) is throwing his support behind Republican Senate candidate Jim Oberweis.
Kirk said a month ago that he would not campaign for Oberweis, in order to protect his working relationship with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Now, “I will be campaigning for Jim Oberweis,” he says.
Kirk expects Durbin not to be bothered. “He and I have a very good relationship. He expects that in a general election that I would be backing the Republican candidate,” he said.
Durbin says the turnaround by Kirk is news to him. “He said he wasn’t going to campaign against me. I called him and thanked him, and that’s where we left the conversation in Washington.”
Durbin is seeking a fourth term in the Senate. Oberweis ran for the Senate in 2002 and 2004, but lost the Republican primary both times. He is the Republican nominee this time.

Tax dodging subject of a statewide report

A new report tries to quantify how much revenue the state misses out on each year because of tax dodging.
According to the report released Tuesday by Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), companies and individuals who hid income in offshore tax havens cost the state $108.3 million per year.
Illinois PIRG advocate Dev Gowda says most of the country’s largest companies take advantage of these loopholes. “Right here in Illinois, Caterpillar disclosed maintaining 46 tax haven subsidiaries and has about $15 billion overseas in tax havens,” Gowda said. In most cases, this is legal, and Caterpillar is not accused of breaking any laws.
One solution, Gowda says, is the close what’s called the “water’s edge” tax loophole. Designed to allow companies to exclude foreign profits so they aren’t double taxed, it’s instead used to hide profits actually earned in the United States.
State legislatures in Montana and Oregon have closed the loophole by requiring companies that have subsidiaries in known tax havens to include those profits in their state tax returns.

This week's crop report

Corn planting is under way in Illinois.
The USDA reports in its weekly crop progress report that 1 percent of the anticipated corn crop is in the ground, the same as at this time last year.  Crop statistician Mark Schleusener says for five of the last eight years, corn planted by the second week of April has been 0 or 1 percent, and the 34 percent planted in 2012 is an outlier that skews the average.
“I think where we’re at is much more close to the median percent planted than it is the five-year average,” Schleusener said. The five-year average is 10 percent.
The temperature around the state last week averaged 54.5, which was five degrees above normal, and that warmed the soil enough to allow some planting.  Whether corn planting gets going across the state in earnest will depend on how cold and rainy it is this week.
Topsoil moisture across the state is 73 percent adequate, 17 percent surplus.

FutureGen to utilize local labor

The story of FutureGen, the carbon-capture program advertised as “clean coal,” will include local labor.
FutureGen will use a long-dormant power plant in Meredosia, a Morgan County town along the Mississippi River, to capture carbon dioxide and pipe it 30 miles away, not quite all the way to Jacksonville, where there will be a FutureGen visitors’ and training center.
The project’s leaders and representatives of 17 unions signed an agreement in Jacksonville Monday.
“All that progress – engineering and permitting – is a big stack of paper unless we’ve got you,” FutureGen Alliance chief executive Ken Humphreys told labor leaders.  “And it doesn't just get done by anybody; it gets done by a highly skilled workforce that knows how to work safely.”
Paul Moore of the Central Illinois Building Trades emphasized a no-strike, no-lockout provision, streamlined conflict resolution, and fixed costs.
The project, forecast to put $12 billion into the state’s economy over the next 24 years, begins construction in September.

Gas retailers ask lawmakers to not raise taxes

Gasoline retailers are urging state lawmakers not to raise the tax on gas.
A coalition of business and labor groups wants the increase in order to pump more money into road repairs and reconstruction. The proposal, a four-cent increase per gallon, also would end the 20 percent tax break on ethanol, adding a few cents more.
Gas stations say the tax is high enough already. “AAA often ranks Illinois gas prices among the highest in the country.  These prices are a direct result of our state having one of the highest existing motor fuel taxes in the nation,” says That’s Bill Fleishli, vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association and the Illinois Association of Convenience Stores.
Amy Chronister Ridley vice president of retail operations for the Qik n EZ convenience store chain, says you’ll pay: “We as retailers live on penny profits and cannot afford to absorb this tax.  You will pay the tax,” she said.
The gas station owners say Illinois could still repair and rebuild roads if all money in the road fund went to roads, and if the cost of construction in Illinois wasn’t so high.
Gasoline taxes, by state, Illinois and neighboring states
Illinois –39.1
Indiana – 40.8
Iowa – 22
Kentucky – 30.1
Missouri – 17.3
Wisconsin – 32.9

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Quinn v. Rauner - pension reform discussed

The two candidates for governor presented drastically different positions on pension reform in their first joint appearance.

Speaking to the Illinois Education Association in Chicago on Friday, Republican nominee Bruce Rauner claimed his plan wouldn’t slash benefits.

“I’m the one political candidate…in this governor’s race who does not want to change the deal for existing retirees or existing, accrued benefits in the pensions,” Rauner said.

Rauner instead wants to create a new pension system for future work that would be similar to a 401(k). Quinn is against that idea.

“It’s more in my opponent’s best interest. A risky 401(k) plan for our teachers of Illinois? No way,” Quinn said.

Kirk wants State Department to include other countries passport policies on website

U.S. Sen. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.) is proposing giving a warning to travelers who are going to countries that don’t regularly check for lost or stolen passports.

Kirk’s plan would require the U.S. State Department to include information on its website about how often countries check travel documents against a database of lost and stolen passports set up by INTERPOL.

Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, says 92 percent of the internationals flights at O’Hare Airport go to countries that don’t often use that database.

“The United States is a model of this, but it’s a global problem,” Pape said, “and because we do it well, we can stand up and say others should do it well.”

Kirk was motivated by the fact two passengers with stolen passports were onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but he says he’s not implying terrorism was involved in the plane’s disappearance.

“We actually don’t know that,” Kirk said. “That with two Iranians onboard without documentation—that shouldn’t have happened.”

Since that plane went missing, security officers at U.S. airports have begun screening passports for both incoming and departing passengers.

Bill would accommodate working women who stay on the job while pregnant

If you see State Rep. Emily McAsey (D-Lockport) around the Capitol, she’s likely to be toting baby Claire, born last fall.

If you see State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria) around the Capitol, you’ll quickly and accurately determine she will add to her family in a month or two.

They’re examples of women who support a bill requiring Illinois employers to accommodate working women who stay on the job while pregnant. During debate, both praised the availability of comfortable chairs and water bottles in the House chamber. Not everyone can say that.

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago), pointed to one woman’s case which has gotten publicity. “As a result of her not being able to afford to quit her job, or reasonable accommodations being made for her, she lost her child,” Flowers said.

Acknowledging that nobody is against babies or expectant mothers, State Rep. Ron Sandack (R-Downers Grove) found the bill easy to dislike. “An earlier speaker said that this would not raise costs,” he said. “It of course will raise costs. An earlier speaker said it wouldn't increase litigation. That's folly.”

H.B. 8 passed the House, 65-36-1.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Quinn, Rauner disagree over school funding amounts

The two candidates for governor disagree over whether state funding for schools is up or down.

Republican Bruce Rauner sees it this way: “We have de-funded our schools in the last five years under our current administration. The funding for our schools has been cut roughly $800 million,” he said.

The actual figure from the state Board of Education is $861 million, but that includes $1 billion in federal stimulus funding in 2009 and $791 million in 2010, numbers which have been zero ever since, through no fault of the state’s. The state’s education contribution has actually grown during that time by $62 million.

Gov. Pat Quinn sees the numbers differently: “In the last five years that I’ve been governor, we’ve been able to invest more than $2½ billion in more money for public education. That includes money for our teachers’ pensions,” he said.

The contribution by the state to teachers’ pension rose from $1.9 billion in 2009 to $4.9 billion this year, including the Teachers Retirement System, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund and the State Universities Retirement System.

The two candidates appeared Friday afternoon at the Illinois Education Association Representative Assembly and annual meeting in Chicago. It was their first joint appearance of the campaign.

Kirk happy Sebelius has resigned

U.S. Sen. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.) seems pleased that there’s going to be a new secretary of Human and Health Services.

Kirk didn’t have anything nice to say about Kathleen Sebelius, who is resigning after five years in that position in the wake of the problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

“Secretary Sebelius was a unique blend of incompetence and arrogance as demonstrated by her work,” Kirk said.

Her resignation comes after the end of the open enrollment period on the health insurance marketplaces set up by the act. Despite the initial problems, Sebelius said more than 7 million people purchased insurance, exceeding the administration’s original goal.

Kirk says he doesn’t know the president’s nominee to fill the cabinet position, Sylvia Burwell, who is currently the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Concussion safety a priority in Illinois schools

Illinois schools may be putting students who have suffered concussions back into the classroom too quickly.

A survey conducted by Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago found that 57 percent of elementary and high schools in the state have protocols for concussions for sports, but only 30 percent have academic policies on how to accommodate those same injured students.

“The message is getting there that children need physical rest, to rest from sports, when they have a concussion and that they need to be cleared from physician before they return.  But people aren’t as aware of the need for cognitive rest,” said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, the hospital’s director of sports medicine.

LaBella says concussed students who aren’t given that mental break may take longer to recover.  While she admits every injury requires a different approach, students may need time off from school, or if they’re healthy enough to attend class, they may require extra time to complete their assignments.

State Senate approves two proposed constitutional amendments

The Illinois Senate has approved a pair of proposed amendments to the state’s Constitution.

The amendments, which address voter’s rights and crime victim’s rights, will now appear on the ballot Nov. 4 for voters to consider.

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) sponsored the crime victims’ rights amendment and says it would ensure they have a say during court proceedings.  “We can’t always stop violence or erase the pain we know that it causes to victims but we can make sure – at least today – that their dignity and respect is honored during the criminal justice process,” said Steans.

The voter rights amendment would add to the Illinois constitution that no one can be denied the right to vote based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation – something State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) saw firsthand in Florida two years ago.

“My own mother who, in 2012, at 83 years old, had to wait five hours in line in the sun,” said Raoul.

Taxi industry wants to slow up "ride sharing" cars

The taxi industry wants to put the brakes on the “ride sharing” cars, or, at least, slow them down.

The Illinois House has passed a bill, advertised as the product of heavy negotiations with everybody involved, regulating the ride-sharing companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.

In the cities where the cars operate, customers summon them with an app.

Sponsoring State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) says the taxi alternatives should be subject to at least some regulation: “We want to ensure licensure, we want to ensure insurance coverage, and we want to ensure safety of our constituents.”

But the cars provide a valuable service in areas such as the South Side of Chicago, where, State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) says, cabs won't come when you call.  “People need to get places quickly,”she said, “and they couldn't count on cabs or taxi service.  So this new industry emerged.  You call in and give your credit card number, you give your name, and then they pick you up.”  She feared regulation would harm the new companies.

HB 4075 has passed the House, 80-26.