Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Quinn and Brady duke it out in first debate

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn and his Republican opponent for governor, state Sen. Bill Brady, talked policy and traded shots in a debate this morning held by Chicago's Union League Club.

Quinn started things off by outlining the difficulties he faced when he entered office last year after his predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed from office. He said he was confronted with three major crises — the national recession, Illinois’ budget deficit and an “integrity crisis” — when he took office during “probably the toughest time in Illinois history.”

Quinn put a positive spin on the state’s current bleak situation by listing accomplishments from his year in office, including pension reform, campaign finance reform, budget cuts and getting a recall amendment on the November general election ballot.

“I took on those crises. And rolled up my sleeves and took the oath of office. And [I] have worked hard ever since,” Quinn said at the Chicago debate.

Brady focused on his ability to bring a business perspective to a state budget that is drowning in red ink. “As a businessman, I know what those challenges are like. … Our state when you look at it like a bus is in a difficult spot. … When you look at the liabilities section of the balance sheet, the numbers are horrifying.”

Brady reiterated his plan to eliminate the gasoline tax and the estate tax, as well as reduce fees. He repeated his plans to balance the budget without a tax increase and to cut agency budgets by 10 percent. “We cannot work our way out of this crisis with higher taxes, more borrowing and more spending,” he said.

Quinn said the best way to create more jobs is through working directly with businesses and tailoring tax cuts to get the most bang for the buck. “The way you grow jobs is you have a governor that can work with CEOs and small businesses, and actually talk to them about targeted tax cuts — not the estate tax on multimillionaires. That’s not going to grow our economy. What really is going to grow our economy is targeted tax cuts that really help businesses grow jobs.”

Quinn touted his role in bringing Ford Motor Co. manufacturing jobs to the state and persuading Navistar, a producer of large truck parts, to remain in Illinois.

Brady took several shots at Quinn over the department of corrections’ secret “Meritorious Good Time Push” early release program, which let prisoners — some of them violent offenders — out after serving only weeks of their sentences. Brady said Quinn’s mismanagement of the budget and the agency put Illinois residents at risk. He said public safety would be his top budget priority, followed by paying off pension and bond obligations.

Quinn said Brady can’t have it both ways by cutting the corrections budget 10 percent while still promising to safely house prisoners. “Under his plan., we’ll cut the Department of Corrections. We’ll close prisons. We’ll endanger the people of Illinois.”

Quinn emphasized education as his top spending priority. “I have the courage to tell the truth to the people of Illinois. We need more revenue for our education. … I don’t want to lose a generation of children. I don’t want to take away scholarships.” He highlighted his ability to bring in federal dollars, while Brady said Illinois must stop looking to U.S. Congress for bailouts.

“Last time I checked, the people of Illinois paid a lot of money to the federal government in taxes, and we are entitled to some of that money back,” Quinn said.

Perhaps Brady’s sharpest barb was his renouncement of Quinn’s “secret” deal with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which allows the union to avoid layoffs until 2012 in exchange for at least $50 million in cost-cutting measures. He called on the governor to rescind the offer, which came on the heels off the union’s endorsement of Quinn for governor. “It’s wrong, and you know it,” Brady said.

Quinn said Brady lacks a record of accomplishments, even after spending more than 15 years in the legislature. “This is how you roll up your sleeves and get the job done in Illinois. You don’t just talk about it. You have a record. I have a record of accomplishment. … Brady has no record. He talks about great things, but he doesn’t deliver,” Quinn said. He played off of Brady’s home building business to criticize the Republican's lack of a specific budget plan: “Who in the world would ever buy a home from some one without seeing the blueprint?”

Brady did choose to focus primarily on what is wrong in Illinois instead of any past successes he may have had as a legislator. On the topic of overdue payments to service providers, he said: “The people out there are on life support because your government has left them with an IOU. And they’re having to let people [go.] Those are real jobs.”

Both candidates, usually not known for their strong public speaking styles, seemed to have stepped up their games for the debate.

State police are ticketing texting drivers

By Jamey Dunn

Following up on yesterday’s blog post about a study on texting-while-driving bans, here is some info on enforcement in Illinois:

Enforcing the texting-while-driving ban can be difficult. However, Illinois state troopers are writing tickets for the offense.

Scott Compton, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Police, said the low rate of tickets issued for texting while driving in the early months of the ban was due in part to police giving the public time to become aware of and adjust to the new law.

As of September 19, Illinois State Police officers have issued 344 tickets and 353 warnings for violations of the ban. 3,401 tickets and 2,056 warnings have also been issued for talking on a cell phone in a school or construction zone — a restriction that passed at the same time as the texting ban.

These numbers illustrate the difficulty police officers can have determining if a driver is texting. Chatting on the phone is easy to spot, but texting can resemble other legal activities, such as using a global positioning system for directions.

“It’s pretty difficult to see that in an interstate setting. … However, if the officer is going in the same direction of the car, you can tell if they’re texting. … And believe it or not, a marked state police car does get passed on the interstate,” Compton said.

According to Compton, it is less difficult to nab texting drivers in town at slower speeds. People sending text messages while stopped at stoplights and stop signs make easy targets, as well.

Compton said police officers have to be sure the driver is texting to make a traffic stop for that reason. The decision to write a warning instead of a ticket for any kind of illegal cell phone usage is up to the officer. He said “aggravating circumstances,” such as a driver passing through a school zone filled with children while talking on the phone, often increase the chances of getting ticket.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Study: Texting bans ineffective

By Jamey Dunn

A study released today found that bans on texting while driving did nothing to reduce traffic accidents, and some states with the ban actually saw an increase in wrecks.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit research group backed by more than 80 insurance companies nationwide, analyzed collision claims from California, which has had a texting ban since 2009, and Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington, which have all had texting bans since 2008. Illinois, which has had a ban on texting while driving since January 1, was not a subject of the study.

The institute compared insurance claims data with stats from before and after the bans, as well as with those of neighboring states that did not have bans. Researchers also considered other factors that can affect collision rates, such as seasonal changes in traffic. The instance of collisions did not go down in any of the states; in fact, it went up a small amount in three of the four states studied. The largest increase was 9 percent in Minnesota. According to the study: “If the goal of texting and cell phone bans is the reduction of crash risk, then the bans have so far been ineffective.”

Anne Fleming, a spokesperson for the Highway Loss Data Institute, said the study is not intended to downplay the dangers of distracted driving but instead to take a stark look at what methods help to prevent it.

She said she hopes officials will “at least accept the results of the study. This doesn’t mean that cell phone bans are useless.” However, she said legislators should not think they have solved the problem by enacting a ban.

Fleming added that difficulties enforcing the law might result in drivers simply ignoring it. A different survey conducted by the institute found texting-while-driving bans did little to stop people from the practice.

But Chicago Democratic Rep. John D’Amico, a sponsor of the Illinois law, said police in the state are making strides when it comes to enforcement. He said if some officers are out on the roads looking only for people texting, they have a much better chance of writing tickets. “It’s not hard to spot. It almost looks like they are drunk drivers.” He said if people start to hear the law is being enforced, they may curb their texting.

The study theorizes that drivers may feel enough threat of being pulled over to try to hide their texting but not enough to stop. That may also contribute to the small increase in accidents after the ban took effect in the four states studied.

From the report: “This unexpected consequence of banning texting suggests that texting drivers have responded to the law perhaps by attempting to avoid fines by hiding their phones from view. If this causes them to take their eyes off the road more than before the ban, then the bans may make texting more dangerous rather than eliminating it.”

Fleming said while enforcement is difficult, education efforts will not solve the problem on their own. “We know from a long history in the field of highway safety that education alone does not work.”

She said solutions could include new technologies such as sensors that help drivers avoid collisions or devices that could block drivers from using cell phones except in emergencies.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval, another sponsor of the Illinois law, agreed that new technologies might hold solutions for the country’s dangerous addiction to texting and talking on cell phones while driving.

“I think legislation that bans cell phone usage while driving are appropriate reactions to this new social dilemma. … If you look at the big picture, I think we have enacted a number of serious measures that are significant. When it comes to changing peoples’ social behaviors, that’s very difficult to regulate, and it’s very difficult to enforce with limited resources,” he said.

Sandoval said people will probably find a way around any law against using their cell phones while driving, so instead, he would like to see the automotive industry make safer options, such as hands-free calling, standard on vehicles.

However, D'Amico said a ban on using cell phones while driving would be a better solution. Illinois currently bans drivers from talking on phones in school and construction zones. He compared a possible ban to laws against driving while intoxicated, which have become more strictly enforced, causing the drunken driving to elicit more of a social stigma than it did in past decades. He said people will eventually see using a cell phone the way people see driving drunk now, and will say: “‘Boy I can’t believe we used to be allowed to do that.’”

Fleming said another study from the institute found hands-free options to be just as dangerous as standard cell phones. However, the same study also found cell phone bans to be ineffective in cutting accidents. Fleming acknowledges that such results are disappointing to those interested in improving driver safety. But, she said, if police can find better ways to catch violators in the act of texting or talking on the phone, bans could help make roads safer.

“We want to keep looking at these laws, and we do want to see whether there are ways to enforce it. … We know from previous policies if we can enforce them, they would help.”

Check back tomorrow for more on enforcement of the texting-while-driving ban in Illinois.

Monday, September 27, 2010

State could face $250 million interest payment

By Kurt Erickson

Illinois’ nightmarish budget situation could get even scarier in the not-too-distant future.

Amid the huge backlog of bills and unpaid pension obligations, Illinois also has borrowed more than $2.2 billion from the federal government to pay out unemployment benefits to laid-off workers.

And now, the bill for that borrowing — an estimated $250 million in interest — is about to come due, according to information compiled as part of a joint project of Illinois Issues magazine and Lee Enterprises’ Springfield bureau.

Read the full article.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Insurance changes could mean higher costs

By Jamey Dunn

Some substantial provisions from the new federal health care reform law go into effect tomorrow, though the bulk of the legislation does not kick in until 2014. One insurance expert believes the changes will result in increased costs.

When asked if consumers will see spikes in their premiums because of the new health insurance provisions, Kevin Martin, executive director of the Illinois Insurance Association, said, “[Prices] have been consistently inching up all along.” He said the cost of insurance may be continually increasing, but it is outpaced by medical costs.

Martin said he sees the merit in arguments that the reforms could bring down costs, such as preventative measures cutting the expense of covering chronic disease. But he said only time well tell if they prove accurate.

He said the bottom line is, if insurance companies are asked to offer more, insurance will be more expensive. “When you increase benefits, it’s got to increase costs.”

Policies written after Thursday will reflect the new law. Martin advises residents with insurance to sit down once a year with their agent and go over their plans. “You always need to kind of look at what you’re paying for and what you’re getting.”

Martin says the industry has been preparing for the new law since it passed in March. “It’s nice that they are staggering the effective dates of the law. But I think every one is kind of holding their breath. … The real effect is going to come in 2014.”

He is skeptical about the new law helping insurance companies improve service to customers while still keeping costs down. “[Insurance companies] have always been kind of the poster child for all these abuses that have supposedly occurred. … Will these reforms actually result in better benefits and less cost? I kind of doubt that.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin has characterized the new regulations as “changes in the law that will affect millions of Americans and bring piece of mind.”

He said that for Illinoisans, one of the most important effects of the new law is that it limits the reasons an insurer can use to rescind a policy. Insurance companies can retroactively cancel policies for up to two years after their creation if they find mistakes or inaccuracies on applications. Durbin said Illinois has the most rescissions in the country, with 5,632 residents losing their coverage between 2004 and 2008. He accused companies of poring over applications for mistakes after a client becomes ill and needs insurance coverage.

He called that practice “scandalous” and added, “Tomorrow it will be not only scandalous but illegal.”

After Thursday, insurers will not be able to rescind policies unless customers commit intentional fraud or misrepresentation on their applications.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some health care reforms kick in this week

By Jamey Dunn

Starting Thursday, some provisions of the federal heath care reform package will roll out across the nation.

“September 23 is a milestone day for the countless Illinois families who have long suffered from coverage and claim denials, unjustified rescissions and inadequate health insurance coverage,” Michael T. McRaith, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance, said in a written statement.

The changes include:

  • A ban on denying children younger than 19 access to insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Insurers would also be barred from denying coverage for treatment associated with children’s pre-existing conditions.
  • A ban on rescinding policies for anything other than intentional fraud or misrepresentation. Insurers can “rescind,” or cancel policies up to two years after purchase because of inaccuracies on applications. According the Illinois Department of Insurance, the practice is abused in this state, which has the most rescissions in the country. The department sites an example of a teenager whose coverage was pulled after failing to disclose the “congenital defect” of needing braces to straighten her teeth. Now, companies cannot take coverage away due to unintentional mistakes on an application.
  • Elimination of caps on lifetime benefits. Patients with chronic or costly conditions often ended up paying out of pocket or missing out on medical care after they reached the lifetime cap that insurance companies put on the cost of treatment. The law also calls for annual caps to be phased out by 2014.
  • Free preventative care. Insurers will have to pay for a set list of preventative measures, such as immunizations and screening, without charging patients a co-pay.
  • Claim denial reviews. Insurers must provide an appeals process for denied claims and allow for an external independent review for denied claims. Those requirements went into effect under a state law July 1, but “self-insured” plans often offered by unions and large employers were exempted . “Self-insured” plans are included in the federal law.
  • Women’s health access. Insurance plans with obstetrical or gynecological coverage must allow women to visit any OB-GYN within the plan’s network of doctors without requiring approval or referrals.

Over the weekend, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin highlighted some of the new changes to the law, including a provision that allows children to stay on their parents’ health insurance up to age 26. An Illinois law that went into effect in June 2009 allows unmarried dependents to remain on their parents plan until they turn 26. The new federal law will allow married residents under 26 to remain on their parents’ insurance as well. Under the state law, Illinois veterans qualify up to age 30.

A representative of the Illinois Insurance Association was unavailable for comment until tomorrow afternoon. Check back tomorrow for more on how the changes are expected to affect the insurance industry.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kilbride named chief justice

By Jamey Dunn

Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride will take over as chief justice next month.

The court unanimously chose Kilbride to replace Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who is retiring October 25.

“I am exceedingly honored and humbled by my colleagues’ selection of me as chief justice,” Kilbride said in a news release. “I regret deeply that my friend Chief Justice Fitzgerald will not be able to complete his term as chief, but I have learned much from his example of dignity, grace and leadership. I will miss his continued guidance and friendship.”

Kilbride, who was elected in 2000, is taking some fire in his bid to be retained on the court in the November election — in part because of his vote to strike down caps on the amount of money a victim of medical malpractice can be awarded. Kilbride needs the support of 60 percent of those who vote in the Third Judicial District this November to gain another 10-year term on the court. If he is retained, he will remain chief justice until 2013. (For more on Kilbride’s retention bid, see the upcoming October issue of Illinois Issues.)

He is the only member of the court who had not previously served as a judge. Before coming to the bench, he practiced as a legal services attorney for the poor. As a Supreme Court justice, he has worked to encourage lawyers to provide free legal work for those who cannot afford it.

“I really like Justice Tom Kilbride," Gov. Pat Quinn said at a Chicago news conference. “He’s a man of justice. He understands the importance of fairness. … He actually worked for Cesar Chavez, the great labor leader the great leader of many many people. He’s a man with a servant’s heart, Thomas Kilbride. And I know he’s going to do a great job as chief justice.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Quinn chooses familiar firm to run lottery

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn chose a private firm made up of companies that already work with the Illinois Lottery to manage its efforts for the next 10 years.

Northstar Group represents gaming vendors, Rhode-Island-based GTECH Corp. and New-York-based Scientific Games Inc., along with marketing partner Chicago-Based Energy BBDO. The firm beat out the Camelot Group, which runs the United Kingdom’s lottery.

The Illinois Department Of Revenue and a yet-to-be-named advisory panel recommended Northstar to Quinn because its bid set higher profit goals and lower operation costs than Camelot’s. Quinn accepted the recommendation. The firm will undergo additional a four- to six-week vetting process before the state signs a contract. UPDATE: The department has released the names of the nine state workers that made up the advisory panel, and most of the bidding information is now posted on the Illinois Lottery website.

Jodie Winnett, acting lottery superintendent, said the state was looking for a firm that can expand the lottery’s customer base in a responsible way, but the top priority is increasing revenue for education and capital construction projects. She said Northstar’s plan was tailored specifically to Illinois, and the groups experience means it can unroll its plan quickly, resulting in a faster profit increase. “The state will benefit from their familiarity.”

According to the Department of Revenue, Northstar pledged to bring in an additional $1.1 billion in profits over the next five years, which is more than $500 million higher than Camelot’s pledge.

If Northstar does not make those goals, it has to pay the state half of the difference between the target and what it makes. The Department of Revenue also projected what the lottery would have made without the help of private firm to run day-to-day operations. If profits fall below those estimates, Northstar would have to repay the entire shortfall. Quinn described the lottery’s current profits as “stable but rather stagnant.”

“From what the lottery officials told us today, if they ran the lottery over the next five years, it would generate $3.3 billion. With a private manager, this first-in-the-nation approach is slated to generate $4.8 billion. The lottery's own statements acknowledge that the private sector can do this better,” Senate President John Cullerton said in a written statement.

Winnett said it is hard to stay on the cutting edge of promotions when dealing with the red tape of government. “To be a nimble responsive marketing organization [as part of a large bureaucracy] is difficult.”

The Division of the Lottery will continue to operate in the Department of Revenue, and current employees will “work alongside” the management firm. Winnett emphasized that the state will still own the lottery and have a say in all decisions. She added that her division and Northstar would hold “monthly meetings as a formal matter, but I am sure it will be every day.”

She said some of the plans moving forward include expanding from 7,500 retailers to 13,000 — including “big box” stores and pharmacies — such as Walmart and CVS. Marketing efforts would also include highlighting projects funded with lottery profits.

Quinn said Northstar is promising profits greater than what the state original projected an independent firm could bring in, which he says "more than make up for any short-term shortfall from video gaming." The controversial capital project revenue source has hit several road bumps, including the state having to scrap a contract for a computer monitoring system that it had previously awarded to Scientific Games after admitting it miscalculated the cost of the bid.

Winnett said Northstar will start a transition period early next year, and its business plan for managing the lottery will kick off at the start of fiscal year 2012 next July.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Illinois Supreme Court chief justice to retire

After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald has announced plans to retire next month.

Fitzgerald was elected to the court 10 years ago and would have been up in November for a retention vote for another 10-year term. Instead, he will step down October 25.

The court chose Appellate Justice Mary Jane Theis to replace Fitzgerald. She will serve a two-year term.

Quinn to choose lottery manager tomorrow

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to make a decision tomorrow that will be the first of its kind in the nation and could drastically change the way the Illinois Lottery is run for the next decade.

Quinn is set to choose a private firm to manage the lottery for 10 years. The state will pay the firm a management fee to cover costs and incentive payments that will be tied to profit increases. According to the Justice Department, no state can pay a private firm more than 5 percent of its net lottery income.

The legislature approved the move last year as part of the capital bill revenue package — which also includes legalized video poker — with hopes that a management company could increase lottery profits. The firm Quinn picks will also run a pilot program to sell lottery tickets online.

Jodie Winnett, acting lottery superintendent, said that after the firm takes over, there will still be a Lottery Division in the Department of Revenue. The state will have final say over the firm’s decisions and will continue to license retailers, pay prize claims and conduct drawings.

The process leading up to tomorrow’s choice has been roundly criticized for lacking transparency. The companies’ bids are not open to the public. Intralot S.A, a firm based in Greece, was eliminated from the running without public explanation and is threatening to protest the final agreement. Members of a panel advising Quinn remain anonymous.

However, Jeffery Cramer, who helped to investigate bidders and the selection process for the state, said some information had to be kept from the public, so Illinois could get the best deal. “It would have been improper, in my opinion, to reveal a lot of the documents early in the process,” he said at a Chicago hearing. Cramer, managing director of the Chicago office of Kroll's Business Intelligence, said that releasing the names of the panel members would have been a “recipe for disaster” from an ethics standpoint because it would have left them open to possible pressure and attempts to influence their choice.

He said the competition was fair because all bidders had access to the same information. “This process is not going the way of the Illinois … well-documented history of corruption,” he said.

The two bidders Quinn will chose between stand pretty sharply in contrast. Northstar Lottery Group represents two vendors — Rhode-Island-based GTECH Corp. and New-York-based Scientific Games Inc. — that already provide services for the Illinois Lottery. That company is vying against Camelot Group, which operates the Untied Kingdom’s lottery.

At a public hearing in Chicago, where each firm gave the broad strokes of its case, Northstar representatives emphasized the group’s experience working with the state’s lottery and its ability to make a smooth and speedy transition. “We are ready to push the button as soon as the governor makes his decision,” said Connie Laverty O'Conner, chief operating officer of Northstar.
Jaymin Patel, president and chief operating officer of GTECH Corp., played up the group’s experience as vendors, saying that it will make communication more efficient and claiming Northstar can reduce vendor costs by 24 percent in the first year.

However, Camelot Group representatives touted the fact that they have no connection to potential vendors and added that they want to conduct a transparent procurement process to hand out contracts.

Dianne Thompson, executive director of Camelot Group, said her organization wants to replicate the model it has implemented in the U.K. of encouraging high-income young adults to play the lottery frequently but likely not buy many tickets at once. Seventy-two percent of the adult population plays the lottery in the U.K., compared with 49 percent in Illinois.

She said targeting that group makes the lottery less regressive and that it would last longer as a revenue source. “We’ve got millions and millions of people spending small amounts of money each week. And long may that continue,” she said. She added that Camelot Group would not launch any game that targets underage, low-income or gambling- addicted residents.

Quinn’s deadline to make a choice is tomorrow. Check back for an update.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Delving deeper into budget cuts: Part 3

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been the target of controversial budget cuts in the past, when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich closed state parks in what he said was an effort to save money. However, many legislators said parks in their districts had been targeted because of their political sparring with the disgraced former governor.

One of Gov. Pat Quinn's first major actions after he took over for Blagojevich was reopening the closed parks. He made the announcement in Springfield and was cheered by hundreds of DNR employees. But now, it is Quinn's turn to cut the budget. And according to DNR spokesman Chris McCloud, the agency is trying to pull off $8.5 million in cuts without any layoffs or park closures. (Italics are pulled from Quinn's proposal.)

($6.1 million) Operations.
Reduce vacant positions.
Shift funds from General Revenue to Other State Funds.
Defer non-critical maintenance at parks.
Implement administrative efficiencies.

The agency will not fill some open positions, and McCloud said employees may be shifted to other positions or trained to handle more duties. He gave the example of encouraging people to apply for licenses and permits, such as fishing and hunting licenses, online. Then, the department could shift some people who work in licensing to other positions.

DNR plans to tap into dedicated state funds and federal funds to avoid using as much money as it can from the state general revenue fund. Examples include: taking money from the Coal Development Fund under an agreement with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to help pay for mining safety efforts; and using federal dollars from the Great Lakes Initiative to combat the spread of the invasive species Asian carp.

McCloud said deferring non-critical maintenance would mean putting off work such as painting, weather-proofing and upgrading to more efficient equipment. He added that administrative efficiencies would include “major” cuts to printing, travel, overtime pay, energy, leased office space, memberships to professional organizations and subscriptions to magazines and newspapers.

($2.4 million) Lump Sums.
This includes the elimination of the Environment and Nature Training Institute for Conservation Education (E.N.T.I.C.E.) program and the Wildlife Prairie Park subsidy. Funding for the Dam Safety Program, aimed at communicating drowning risks at run-of-the-river dams will be reduced.

Here is a dollar amount breakdown of the lump sum cuts and what they mean to each program:

The ENTICE program is facing the loss of its entire $273,000 budget. The program provides hands-on natural resources and conservation training for teachers. McCloud said DNR is looking for ways to continue the program through other funding sources. “The loss of the ENTICE program diminishes our ability to reach children and families through outdoor education,” he said in a written statement. McCloud added that Environmental Education Association of Illinois (EEAI), Illinois Audubon Society and Illinois Farm Bureau provide similar programs for educators. Elizabeth Hagen-Moeller, president of EEAI, said, “I think there are still alternatives. … a lot of park districts and informal educators will still offer training. … The piece that is missing is the connection to IDNR.”

Hagen-Moeller agreed other options are available for educators looking for conservation training. However, she said cutting ENTICE would mean removing an important avenue for networking teachers with experts in the natural resources community, including DNR employees. “It is disappointing because we definitely need both the formal educators and non-formal educators,” she said. A message I left with the ENTICE program seeking more information on the proposed cuts was not returned.

Wildlife Prairie Park near Peoria would lose its entire $790,000 state subsidy. McCloud said of the park in a written statement, “In the case of Wildlife Prairie State Park, we hope that the foundation which runs it can keep the park open for the many visitors who enjoy it every year.”

Jeff Rosecrans, the executive director of the park, said half the staff has been eliminated through a voluntary buyout option. He said park officials hope to fill the rest of the budget gap by cutting costs, stepping up fundraising efforts and trying to bring in more money. The park brings in revenue through admission costs, lodging and hosting events. He added, “We’ve got good support of community leaders stepping up to the plate.”

The Safety at Dams program would take a $100,000 hit. The program places buoys and signs at state-owned dams and waterways to reduce the risk of drownings. McCloud said the program has built up the number of such safely measures since its inception in 2008. He said funding for this fiscal year is at a “sustainable level for supporting this program.”

(For information on cuts to the Department of Children and Family services and the Department of Agriculture, see the first and second installments of "Delving deeper into the budget cuts" in earlier blog items.)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

'Carp czar' greeted with some skepticism

By Jamey Dunn

The selection of a federal so-called carp czar to help solve the debate over the best way to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp was met with concern from stakeholders on both sides of the issue.

President Barack Obama chose John Goss, former head of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Wildlife Federation, to coordinate the federal response to the potential spread of the invasive species into the Great Lakes.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are seeking an injunction in federal court to have the Chicago’s navigational locks closed immediately to keep the carp from reaching the lakes. Hearings for the case are expected to wrap up tomorrow. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox argues that the carp, which eat plankton that serves as a food source for other species, could decimate the fishing industry and cause serious environmental and economic damage. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice denied his request to close the locks.

Cox has said several times that he is worried Obama will not remain impartial in the issue because it involves his home state. "We hope [Goss] shows independence from what is essentially a Chicago-based White House, one which protects Illinois' interests over those of the Great Lakes. Will he even be allowed to advocate for closure of the locks? Time will tell, but the experts say we don't have much time left," John Sellek, a Cox spokesperson, said in a written statement.

Mark Biel, chairman of UnLock Our Jobs — an industry group that opposes the closure of the locks — said Goss is the best possible choice for the job; both because of his experience and his distance from the issue. “They couldn’t choose somebody from Illinois. They couldn’t choose somebody from Michigan,” he said.

However he said he is worried that officials do not understand how seriously lock closure would damage the shipping industry and other businesses that rely on the Chicago canals to transport goods and commodities. He added that closing the locks would also lead to flooding and waste water management issues.

"While I respect the administration's efforts on this issue, I believe the only way to achieve a long-term, comprehensive solution to this problem is by allowing all relevant stakeholders to come to the table and voice their concerns. I can only hope that is exactly what Mr. Goss intends to do moving forward,” Biel said in a written statement.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin said a “carp czar” would help organize national efforts to address a problem that affects several states. Durbin is pushing legislation that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study on carp containment. “The Asian carp threatens the native fish and natural wildlife of the lake and in turn, the economy of the entire Great Lakes region. If allowed to enter Lake Michigan, the Asian carp have the potential to not only to devastate a national ecological treasure but to debilitate a multibillion-dollar fishing industry and significantly impair the tourism industry as well,” Durbin said in a written statement.

Correction: The new Carp Czar is named John Goss.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Daley says he will not run again

After serving for more than 20 years, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has decided not to run for reelection.

Daley, who was elected in 1989, told reporters at a Chicago news conference that the decision was a personal one and something he has been considering for months.

The mayor’s wife, Maggie Daley, has been battling cancer since 2002.

Daley has taken criticism recently over a failed bid to have the city to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and the controversial leasing of the city’s parking meters to a private company.

Contenders will likely line up to take Daley’s position. President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, made news in April when he said he wanted to “one day” run for mayor after Daley was no longer in the job.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Quinn names acting DoC director

By Jamey Dunn

Gov Pat Quinn named former budget adviser Gladyse Taylor to replace exiting Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle.

Taylor will move up from acting assistant director to acting director after Randle’s scheduled departure on September 17. She previously served in the governor’s Office of Management and Budget and at the DoC. She came back to the department in May during a staff shake up in the wake of the scandal over the “Meritorious Good Time Push” program. Under the now-canceled program, prisoners were awarded “good time” credit at the beginning of their sentences, so some were released after serving as little as 11 days.

Quinn told reporters yesterday that he did not push Randle to leave. He has defended Randle against calls for his firing since the program made headlines. Quinn claims Randle went against his orders by releasing some violent offenders early. Randle said he implemented “MGT Push” to make required budget cuts.

Randle is returning to Ohio to run a new correctional facility, scheduled to open in January, for the nonprofit Oriana House Inc. Before coming to Illinois to head DoC, he served as assistant director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Randle resigns as corrections director

By Jamey Dunn

After repeatedly defending Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle, Gov. Pat Quinn is now seeking his replacement and facing political fallout as another top staffer makes an exit so close to the general election.

The Chicago Tribune reported early this morning that Randle resigned. Randle took responsibility for the controversial “Meritorious Good Time Push” program, which applied “good time” credit to prisoners’ sentences as soon as they began serving them. Under the program some prisoners served as few as 11 days. The department previously had a longstanding policy that required prisoners to serve at least 61 days before they could receive discretionary early release credit.

“I have accepted the resignation of Illinois Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle, effective September 17. I appreciate Director Randle’s dedicated service to the state of Illinois during these challenging times and will name his replacement shortly," Quinn said in a written statement.

Quinn has said Randle went against his orders by releasing some violent offenders early but defended him while many called for Randle to be fired. “The man made a mistake. He is a nationally recognized expert, and he’s done a number of good things with respect to running our prisons. This is not any easy job,” Quinn said.

Randle said he implemented the program to make required budget cuts. “MGT Push” resulted in 1,745 inmates being released before the usual 61 days. On average, they served 36 fewer days than they would have under 61-day policy. The DoC estimated that “MGT Push” could save $3.4 million annually.

Randle is leaving in the wake of several other high profile departures from the Quinn administration, such as former Chief of Staff Jerry Stermer and former Communications Director Bob Reed.

“There has been quite an exodus,” says Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy institute. “I think [Randle’s resignation] opens [Quinn] up to continuing attacks regarding his management of government.”

He says that plays into the narrative that Quinn is having trouble keeping things under control in his administration. “There’s a feeling that Quinn is not on top of things. He’s been accused of being a micro manager and managerially inconsistent.”

Lawrence, who was also a spokesman for former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, says he think Randle may have been motivated to leave because he could have potentially been on the chopping block. “He probably saw the writing on the wall. If [Sen. Bill] Brady wins [the governor’s race] I think it’s a good bet Randle would have been gone. And Quinn might have let him go after the campaign.”

He thinks there is a good chance that Randle’s replacement will be promoted from with in the Department of Corrections. “[Quinn] did move some of his people into the department, and maybe he will go with them between now and November … and see what happens in the election.”

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ryan asks judge to reconsider charges

By Jamey Dunn

Former Gov. George Ryan is seeking to have some of the charges from his 2006 conviction on corruption thrown out based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling scaled back a category of fraud, which requires public officials to provide “honest services.” Prosecutors now have to prove that an official received a bribe, kickback or some financial benefit when failing to provide honest service to the public. Prior to the court’s decision, prosecutors often used the statute to go after officials and executives who engaged in corrupt acts, such as lying to shareholders or not disclosing a conflict of interest, even if it did not result in a tangible benefit for the accused.

The ruling would not apply to all of the former governor’s crimes, but Ryan’s lawyers claim it would apply to mail fraud and racketeering convictions. They have asked the judge who presided over his trial to consider tossing these charges. His lawyers say the time he has served would satisfy his sentence for the remaining charges of lying to the FBI and tax violations. They asked that he be released on bail while U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer considers their request.

The Illinois Supreme Court upheld Ryan’s conviction in 2008. He is serving his 6 1/2-year sentence in a federal prison at Terre Haute, Ind., where he has been since November 2007. He is due for release in 2013. His requests for a pardon from former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama proved unsuccessful.

Federal prosecutors tweaked some of the charges against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich shortly before his corruption trial to avoid the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on honest services having a possible impact on the case.