Thursday, January 22, 2015

Visit us at our new online home

By Jamey Dunn

With the new year comes some new developments for Illinois Issues. As part of our merger with WUIS, we are rolling out some new strategies, which I described in my January Editor's Note column for the magazine:

"As part of [the magazine's] strategic planning process, we recognized that our online presence could use some work. Our website was out of date and running on a clunky platform. We are in the process of moving our online archive over to WUIS’ website, so we can take advantage of their content management system, which is frequently updated by NPR and includes design elements that will hopefully make our work easier to read on mobile devices. The merger allows us to do this at no cost to the magazine and gives us a major online upgrade that we would have otherwise been unable to afford. To find stories from the current issue, as well as recent stories, go to and click on Illinois Issues, which is the first button in the navigation bar. (You can also follow this link.) For a period of time, traffic to our previous website will be redirected to You can also find many of our stories posted on our Facebook page and you can follow Illinois Issues on Twitter @capitolbureau. If you have any thoughts on how our webpage might be made more useful to our readers, we would like to hear from you.

Soon after WUIS and Illinois Issues came together, we held a staff meeting to talk about the merger and our strategy for news coverage. The staff put forth topic areas that they thought should be our priorities. Out of that list, we have developed beats for each reporter to focus on that we have dubbed our Illinois Issues. They include: the arts and culture; education; equality; the economy; food, health and fuel; government effectiveness; and government sustainability and leadership. ... Our goal was to organize our efforts in a way that would allow each journalist to develop sources and become somewhat of an expert on his or her topic. Many topics cut across several of these beats, so we plan to work collaboratively and pool our knowledge to bring you the best information that we can. In some cases, reporters may team up to tackle special projects. 

This strategy should allow us to bring coverage that is more forward-looking than simply tracking legislation as it moves through the process. We will strive to provide a deeper understanding of the topics of the day and get in front of subjects that will be important in the near future. Focusing on these areas does not mean that we will entirely skip coverage of other topics. News will still break, and WUIS will continue to bring that daily coverage to the radio and the web. But we also hope to produce in-depth stories on how policy affects the lives of citizens and civil servants outside of the Statehouse." 

You can read the entire column here. Given that Blogger is a bit behind the times, too, we will no longer be using it for blogs. Instead, blogs on a variety of topics will be at

A few months ago I asked for your thoughts on this blog. For those who responded, thank you for the feedback. Most of the response from readers was that you use this blog for unbiased information about the day-to-day action in state government. In my new role as editor, I will not be able to continue tracking action on every topic, but I will continue to write posts focused on budget issues. My new blog is called Past Due, and you can find it here.

The other reporters on our team also have blogs on their beats, which are linked in the list of topics above. There are RSS buttons in the top right-hand corner of each blog page to subscribe. Most of the subjects that you read about here will fall on one of their beats and be covered on their blogs. Having beats means that we will be able to more narrowly focus in on a topic, and you can opt to follow coverage on the issues you truly care about. (You can read introductions to all the beats written by the reporters here.)

It is with some sadness that I say goodbye to this blog. Former Illinois Issues Statehouse Bureau Chief Bethany Jaeger truly made it what is was, and I worked hard to continue what she started. Thank you for reading this blog over the years. Our dedicated followers made the late nights, early mornings, bad coffee and scrambling to digest new bills and break them down all worthwhile. I am excited about our new strategy and the possibilities that having a larger team bring us. I hope you will continue to follow our work as we seek to explore and explain policy and government with this new approach.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Income stagnant in Illinois

The state’s median income has not increased since 2008, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The median household income for Illinois in 2013 was $56, 210—the same as it was in 2008, the year that the U.S. financial collapse began. Illinois’ median household income is slightly higher than the national of almost $52,000, which has stayed relatively flat over the same time period. Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, crunched the state numbers into this handy map for state comparisons. Meanwhile, the average income for the state's top 5 percent of earners is $363,159. That number has increased by 6.4 percent since 2008.

According to Pew's analysis, most of Illinois' neighboring states saw an increase in median income. The exceptions were Indiana, which had a .9 percent decrease, Wisconsin, which had a 1.2 percent decrease and Michigan, which had a .7 percent decrease. However, the average household income for the top five percent of earners went up in all three states. Out of Illinois' neighbors, Iowa saw the largest increase for overall income at 6.6 percent. The state also saw a 16 percent jump for the top 5 percent of earners.

The states that saw the most growth nationwide, North Dakota and Wyoming, are also experiencing a natural gas and oil boom. In North Dakota the median income increased by 20 percent to $55,759, and in Wyoming it went up by 10 percent to $58,752.

For more on earnings and the income gap in Illinois, see Illinois Issues June 2014.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

State accepting patient applications for medical marijuana

The Illinois department of Public Health began accepting applications from patients and caregivers for the medical marijuana pilot program today.

The state will take applications from patients with last names beginning with the letters A through L. The application period for those with names starting with the letters M through Z is scheduled to begin on November 1.

Here are the links to IDPH's online application process and a Frequently Asked Questions pamphlet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some questions for our readers

By Jamey Dunn 

As you may have noticed, things have been pretty quiet here at the Illinois Issues blog.

The cause for my lapse in posting is that the magazine is merging with WUIS, the public radio station also based at the University of Illinois Springfield. I have stepped into the role of interim executive editor. Between editorial duties and working on the transition, I have not found a lot of time for blogging. If you read the magazine, you might have caught my column explaining things. If not, here it is. 

Merging with WUIS expands our capacity (both on the editorial and business side of things) and creates a team of smart, informed and hard-working professionals who can focus in on public policy reporting. Statehouse journalist Brian Mackey will be a regular contributor to the magazine and will take over the State of the State column. You will see stories from WUIS Statehouse Bureau Chief Amanda Vinicky and from WUIS’ Education Desk and Harvest Desk, which focuses on food, fuel and the environment. If you listen to NPR in Illinois, you will hear companion pieces to the print stories we bring to you each month. Our staff will also have more ability to do long-range planning, take on special projects, connect with you on social media and host engagement events, such as public forums.

Illinois Issues will be able to use resources already available to WUIS to update our web presence—a move that is long overdue. That means we may find a new home online, and the format of what we do may change. Because of that, I am asking for your help. Please reach out and let us know why you read our blog. When do you read it? How do you get here? What do you like? What could you live without? What do you find the most useful? What would you like to see that we are not currently doing? If you have thoughts to share about the magazine or how you might want to get our long form content online, we would be happy to hear them, too. We want to make sure that as we rework some things, we are serving the needs of you, our readers. You can reach me at Or you can leave a comment on this post.

I apologize for the lack of posts here. I will try to keep things going with some shorter updates. You can also get your Illinois Issues fix with our July/August environmental issue, which includes a story on the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies. Our back-to-school September issue will focus on education, and we are planning some thought-provoking election pieces for the October issue. Thank you for reading and please hang in there as we work our way through some changes. If we move the blog, I will keep you in the loop. Whatever tweaks we might make, we are dedicated to maintaining our core mission of providing in-depth impartial reporting on the topics that matter to you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Despite court rulings, Obamacare subsidies to continue in Illinois

By Jamey Dunn

Dueling court rulings handed down today put the future of a key piece of Obamacare into question, but for now, nothing will change about the way the law is implemented in Illinois.

A three judge panel in Washington D.C. ruled this morning that under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, federal subsidies to bring down the cost of insurance should only be available to residents of states that operate their own online insurance exchange. Under the decisions, Illinois and 35 other states would lose the subsidies. Illinois partnered with the feds on, but the website still relies on the federal exchange to sign patients up for coverage.

Just hours after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit weighed in, The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia issued a diverging opinion on a similar case. That panel of judges said that the wording of the law was unclear, but the majority agreed that the law allows for the subsidies to be dispersed through the federal exchange.

In Illinois, 217,000 people obtained insurance through the exchange. More than three quarters of those qualified for a subsidy. Health officials in Illinois say that those approximately 168,000 will not lose their subsides as an immediate result of the rulings. “We are monitoring today’s appeals court decisions in which two courts have rendered differing rulings. The bottom line for now is that nothing has changed, and the subsidies created under the law to help people cover the cost of their health care remain in effect. Get Covered Illinois is focused on preparing for the enrollment period for year two that will start this fall,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director of Get Covered Illinois, said in a written statement.

President Barack Obama’s administration says it plans to ask the full panel of judges at the D.C. appeals court to consider the issue. That group is made up of seven judges appointed by Democrats and four appointed by Republicans. Two other judges, one appointed by a Democrat and one by a Republican, could sit in on the case. It is possible that the issue may end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court previously upheld the law, but allowed states to opt out of a massive Medicaid expansion called for by the Affordable Care Act. Illinois lawmakers approved and Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the expansion in Illinois.
State online insurance exchanges 
Source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, KFF State Health

Illinois ranks low in statehouse reporters per capita

A recent study found that Illinois has fewer than one statehouse reporter for every 500,000 residents.

The Pew Research Journalism project took a look at statehouse press corps in all 50 states. The population of a state was generally predictive of the size of the reporting pool based in its capitol building. However, when Pew's researchers diced the numbers a different way, they found that states with larger populations had fewer reporters per 500,000 residents than many smaller states. Illinois has 0.9 statehouse reporters per 500,000 residents.

From Pew:

 The state with the highest rate of full-time reporters per 500,000 residents (at 10.4) is tiny Vermont, which at about 625,000 residents, is the second smallest state in the nation by population. The smallest, Wyoming, ranks third when population is factored in, with 5.3 statehouse reporters per half million people. Several other states with modest populations round out the top tier: Alaska (5.6); Montana (4.0) and Rhode Island and Idaho (tied at 3.8). The median state rate is 1.3 reporters per 500,000 residents. 

Conversely, some of the largest states—with some of the largest statehouse press contingents—end up at or near the bottom in the rankings. California is second in overall number of full-time reporters (43) covering statehouse news for a population of more than 37 million. But that works out to only 0.6 journalists per 500,000 residents—the lowest rate in the nation. Texas, which ranks No. 1 at 53 full-time statehouse reporters, finishes in the bottom half of states by the same measure (1.1 reporters).

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Statehouse news coverage in Illinois follows national trends

By Jamey Dunn

Who Reports from U.S. Statehouses? A new report on statehouse press corps found that as the number of full-time reporters shrinks, new media outlets and political communication staffs seek to fill the gaps in coverage.

The Pew Research Journalism Project surveyed statehouse media outlets, political communications staff and experts on government in all 50 states. (Disclosure: I participated as a respondent in the survey.) The group found that nearly 1,600 reporters are based in state capitol buildings covering state governments across the country. The majority of those journalists, 851, are assigned to cover state government part time, while 741 are on the state government beat—covering legislatures, governors and state agencies— full time. State populations are generally predictive of the size of their statehouse press corps. Pew found that of the 10 most populous states only two, Georgia and North Carolina, were not among the 10 largest press corps. At the time of the survey, Illinois had 22 full-time statehouse reporters. Texas had the most at 53 and South Dakota had the fewest with two.

Less than a third of all newspapers in the country assign a reporter, either full or part-time, to the statehouse. The vast majority of television stations, 86 percent, do not assign a reporter to the state capitol. Still, the largest share, 38 percent, of reporters based in state capitol buildings work for newspapers, and newspaper reporters make up 43 percent of full-time statehouse journalists. Television comes in second at 19 percent of all reporters covering state government. Nontraditional outlets, such as digital-only sources, make up 16 percent. Wire services make up 9 percent of reporters assigned to state capitols across the country, and most of those journalists work for the Associated Press. Radio reporters make up 8 percent. University entities and “additional sectors” rounded out the totals with 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively. (Pews figures total more than 100 percent because of rounding.)

The study cites statistics from the American Journalism Review, which tallied up statehouse newspaper reporters five times between 1998 and 2009. Each time the number of reporters dropped, and the largest decrease came between 2003 and 2009, when the overall number of newspaper reporters saw a large decline. Statehouse bureaus shrank at a slightly larger margin, 35 percent, than newsrooms, 30 percent. “It does suggest, if nothing else, that statehouse jobs are certainly no more immune to the cutbacks then anything else,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. For more on the cutbacks in Illinois, see Illinois Issues October 2008.

The survey found that traditional news sources are turning to consolidation and collaboration. One-time rivals are now working together and sharing information. For example, the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times now share a bureau in Tallahassee and coordinate their coverage of Florida state government. Students are also playing a big role in statehouse coverage. One of seven people reporting from a state capitol pressroom is a college student. This finding holds true in Illinois, with statehouse bureaus taking on Public Affairs Reporting interns during the spring legislative session since the programwas founded in the 1970s. Jurkowitz said that it is impossible to tell if interns are being used to make up for recent cuts in staff because there is no historical documentation on the number of statehouse interns nationwide.

Pew found that one in six statehouse reporters work for “nontraditional” outlets, such as nonprofit organizations, niche publications and digital-only news sources. According to the study, the largest statehouse bureau in the country, which has 15 reporters, is operated by the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit primarily digital operation. Most of these outlets are relatively new, such as The Illinois News Network, which is based out of the conservative-leaning think tank the Illinois Policy Institute. But some are longstanding news sources, such as Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax. Pew found that many such organizations have an ideological bent or market paid subscription content to “insiders” seeking information on state governments because it relates to their occupation.

Political communication staffs now provide information that more closely resembles news coverage. “The legislative offices themselves are getting much more into the business of directly communicating with the public and circumventing the media,” Jurkowitz said. In Illinois, the Senate Democrats and House Republicans are both good examples of this trend. A slideshow highlighting new laws created by Senate Democratic communication staff went viral earlier this year, receiving more than 1 million views. Both caucuses frequently capture video of their members and distribute it online, post information to websites that resemble news outlets and stay active on social media. Former journalists serve as high-level staffers for both caucuses. For more on they ways Illinois officials use social media, see Illinois Issues November 2013.

Newspaper Statehouse Reporters DeclineCitizens can also access live-streaming video and audio of legislative session and most hearings on the Illinois General Assembly’s website. Jurkowitz called all this direct communication from officials a “mixed blessing” because it provides the public with more information, but it often comes with a hefty dose of political spin.

“I do think there’s been a loss in general across the country, and that’s very concerning to me,” Patrick Marley, who covers the Wisconsin Statehouse for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told Pew “We have scads of reporters in Washington covering every bit of news that Congress makes. State legislators have more effect on people’s daily lives. We need to have eyes on them, lots of eyes.” Jurkowitz said Pew’s research indicates that state governments may be doing more heavy policy lifting than they have in the past. He said a separate Pew study found that almost half of state governments enacted more laws in 2012 than Congress did in 2011 and 2012 combined.

As Congress continues to be gripped by gridlock, states have been left to tackle high profile policy issues, such as immigration and health care. For example, states are playing a large role in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and a ruling from the U.S. Supreme court allowed them to opt out of a massive Medicaid expansion—a key component of the law. In many cases, state lawmakers voted on whether to adopt the expansion. In some states, governors made that call. “Obviously, we know that not a lot of activity is going on here at the federal level,” he said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of the big national public policy debates actually play out at the state level.”

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Options for a pension reform Plan B may be limited

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Supreme court issued a ruling Thursday on state employee health care that bodes ill for supporters of the recently passed cuts to public employee retirement benefits.

The court ruled that health care benefits for retirees fall under the pension protection clause—the very sentence of the state’s Constitution that many supporters of pension reform had hoped the justices would be willing to overlook. The pension clause states: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The ruling indicates that the justices are inclined to side with public employees and retirees. In the 6-1 opinion, Justice Charles Freeman wrote: “Under settled Illinois law, where there is any question as to legislative intent and the clarity of the language of a pension statute, it must be liberally construed in favor of the rights of the pensioner.” Justice Anne Burke wrote the dissenting opinion. In it, she did not question the protection of the pension clause, but she argued that retiree health care benefits did not fall under that protection.

Some lawmakers seem to see the ruling as writing on the wall for the pension reform law, which is still working its way through the legal system. “Today, the Illinois Supreme Court made it very clear that the Pension Clause means what it says,” Senate President John Cullerton said in a prepared statement. “The court cannot rewrite the Pension Clause to include restrictions and limitations that the drafters did not express and the citizens of Illinois did not approve. The clause was aimed at protecting the right of public employees and retirees to receive their promised benefits and insulate those benefits from diminishment or impairment by the General Assembly.” Cullerton added: “If the court’s decision is predictive, the challenge of reforming our pension systems will remain. As I have said from the beginning, I am committed to identifying solutions that adhere to the plain language of the constitution.”

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that while the ruling pertains to a different case, the language used is clear. “You could find some way to parse some of it, but it’s really, really difficult. There’s no logical way to get to upholding Senate Bill 1 (the pension reform legislation) based on the clear content of this ruling and the way they’ve construed the pensions clause.”

Others disagree that the ruling is a harbinger of the pension law’s death. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who was key player in getting SB 1 passed, said that the justifications the law makes for reducing benefits were not part of the retiree health care case. She said that the court has yet to consider those points. The law lays out the dire fiscal situation that the state is in and claims that state elected officials need special powers to curtail the estimated $100 billion unfunded liability and save the state from a budget disaster. However, one line in today’s decision seems to blow a hole in that argument. “In light of the constitutional debates, we have concluded that the [pension] provision was aimed at protecting the right to receive the promised retirement benefits, not the adequacy of the funding to pay for them.” 

Supporters also claim that a reduction in the amount that employee would pay into the system represents a consideration they are being given for a change to the contract that is their membership in a pensions system. Nekritz said that the ruling is clear that benefits are protected, but she says it is unclear if that protection is absolute. “Does it really mean that we can do nothing, or are there some things that we can do based on the legal arguments that we make under Senate Bill 1?”

Those arguments aside, if the Illinois Supreme Court rejects the new pension law, what options do legislators have?

Cullerton had proposed offering employees a choice between receiving subsidized health care coverage or keeping their current pensions benefits. If they had chosen health care, they would have seen a reduction in their retirement income including a cut to the expensive compounded interest cost of living adjustments (COLAs) retirees currently receive. Cullerton said that this scheme could potentially fulfill a legal standard of giving employees consideration for a reduction in benefits. The Senate approved the plan, but it was never called for a vote in the House.

However, that plan was based on the idea that health benefits were not protected by the Constitution—a concept that runs counter to today’s ruling. “The concept of consideration is still viable. The court has not rejected it or defined what the limits are. It’s just hard to see what you can give up in exchange,” Redfield said. “It’s hard to see what other major carrot you can offer to people in terms of giving up their COLA.”

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang introduced legislation that would extend the current income tax rates, which are due to start rolling back on January 1, to pay down the unfunded liability.

But Lang’s plan also calls for larger contributions from employees and an increase in the retirement age. Both of these provisions could be seen as a reduction in benefits by the court. Much of the revenue from the temporary income tax increase has gone toward making the required annual pension payment after lawmakers voted to skip payments and short payments for several years in the past.

There have also been proposals to change the pension payment schedule to even out the cost of the annual payment. The state is currently on a system that resulted in large balloon payments, much like a subprime mortgage. Some such plans also call for funding the system at 80 percent as opposed to 95 percent or 100 percent. Redfield said that a proposal that changes the payment structures would need to be combined with changes to the state’s revenue structure, such as expanding the sales tax base to some services, budget cuts or both. “As a stand alone, then it looks like an excuse to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.

Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner has advocated for moving employees’ future benefits to a system that looks more like a 401-K. That plan would go even further than SB1, so it is unlikely that it would be upheld if SB 1 were rejected. But it is possible that the court’s ruling might strengthen his case for offering a defined contribution plan to newly-hired employees. “It may embolden Rauner to say well we’ve got to get everybody going forward into a defined contribution [plan],” Redfield said. However, such a proposal would have no impact on the unfunded liability for current employee and retiree benefits. It also means the state would likely have to start contributing to Social Security benefits for positions that do not currently offer them.

Meanwhile Gov. Pat Quinn is emphatically sticking by his opinion that SB 1 is constitutional. “We believe the pension reform law is constitutional. This landmark law was urgently needed to resolve the state’s $100 billion pension crisis. It was also urgently needed to ensure that teachers, university employees and state workers who have faithfully contributed to the pension system have retirement security,” said a written statement from his office. “We’re confident the courts will uphold this critical law that stabilizes the state’s pension funds while squarely addressing the most pressing fiscal crisis of our time by eliminating the state's unfunded pension debt.”

Redfield said that there will likely be many suggestions for a Plan B on pension reform in the coming months. “I think people will be floating lots of ideas that probably aren’t feasible and really won’t address the short-term problems—between now and November,” he said. “There’s nothing politically to be gained by standing up and saying ‘you know, we really, really screwed up, and we have no options but to raise your taxes.’”

 But he said that new revenues and cuts to state services to cover the cost of the pension systems might be the only real option available to address the problem if the court rejects SB 1. If that happens, the state will almost certainly face another credit downgrade if it fails to act to address the liability. The current budget is based on $650 million in borrowing that has to be paid back. In Fiscal Year 2016, the tax rate will be lower for the entire fiscal year instead of just half of it. FY16 could turn out to be one doozy of a budget for lawmakers and whomever is the governor to sort out. “You want to be around for a historic session for the General Assembly? I think everybody has a front row seat,” Redfield says.