Chris Essig

Walkthroughs, tips and tricks from a data journalist in eastern Iowa

Archive for February 2010

Committee frenzy and other legislative happenings

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The state legislature has been busy the last few weeks as lawmakers settle in for the long legislative session. Obviously, the budget will take center stage throughout the year as many try to grapple with the worst fiscal calamity the state has seen in quite some time.

But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from pressing other issues early in the session, many of which I’ve covered. This post is a quick look at some of the issues I’ve been assigned in the last two weeks.

Most items are just making there way to a Senate or House committee, which is only the first step in a very long and sometimes complicated process to become law.

– But at least two pieces of legislation are quickly making there way out of the Senate:

– But like I said, most of the measures are simply getting “yeas” in committee, meaning they still have a long way to go before becoming law:

– Other proposed laws aren’t making much progress in committee:

– Some haven’t gotten assigned to a committee…and may not:

– And still other suggestions aren’t even bills yet:

The point is it is still very early in the legislative session. I doubt all of these will eventually become law but you never know. Stay tuned…

Written by csessig

February 27, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Housekeeping matters

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1. So I’m finally switching over to Gmail after almost ten years with Hotmail. I checked my account information, and I opened up my Hotmail account on March 13, 2000, at the ripe age of 13. I really should have made this transition long ago because Gmail is just fantastic. But a few things caused me to cave in just now:

  • Google groups. I’ve been invited to two just this week, and they are so simple but effective.
  • Google Buzz. I haven’t really used this capability yet but it seems full of potential.
  • Chat. I have used chat in the past and it’s great.
  • Organization. All e-mails in Gmail and their replies are keep in the same thread, making navigation and organization incredibly easy.
  • MSN stagnation. Hotmail hasn’t changed it’s outlook significantly in 10 years. Think about that for a second.
  • iGoogle. I use Google Maps, Google Reader, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google News, which all can be conveniently organized using iGoogle. Why not just complete the package?
  • Google. It’s just better.

My new account is csessig@gmail.com.

As expected, the transition will take a lot of time and probably cause some headaches along the way. But I think the switch will be for the better.

2. The transition has caused me to change my pages on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the list goes on and on and on. And that doesn’t include all the e-mail subscriptions that I’ve gathered over the years…Of course, I’ve also had to tweak my web page slightly. But the biggest change I’ve made to the site today is adding a link to Publish2. A quick look:

For those journalists out there that haven’t yet heard of Publish2, go take a look. It’s basically a social networking web site for journalists (think Delicious), and, more importantly, a great tool to organize all of your newspaper clips from the Internet. It even has a toolbar add-on for Firefox, making it even easier to link pages to your Publish2 web page.

One of the most strenuous aspects of job hunting is finding the appropriate clips for the job. Of course, some clips will work better for some positions. Others won’t. This web site makes it incredibly easy to keep track of those clips, allowing journalists to fluidly go through them later. Seriously, go check it out.

And that’s it for the housekeeping matters. Useful posts coming soon.

Written by csessig

February 23, 2010 at 11:05 pm

14 hour days

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Between work, two classes and working out, Monday’s are pretty meh.

Written by csessig

February 22, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Taxes, taxes and more taxes

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You know the state’s finances are dire when hundreds (maybe thousands) gather to rally for tax increases:

SPRINGFIELD – A swelling, multibillion dollar deficit has left Illinois months behind in its payments to providers across the state.

For instance, the Williamson County Early Childhood Cooperative in Southern Illinois is planning to send layoff notices to its 41 employees in the next few weeks because money from the state has not come through.

Director Linda Drust was at the Capitol on Wednesday as part of a rally for an income tax increase.

“It’s dire right now,” she said. “It’s important that the state comes up with a solution to solve the problems. What we’re doing is holding our young children and parents hostage.”

Of course, whether a tax increase of any sort is political viable is a completely different question:

“I’m just being a realist here. In an election year, I don’t see a lot of people voting for this even though they know we need it,” [state Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg] said.

The scene at the Capitol on Wednesday was pretty chaotic and made navigation difficult. Fortunately, I was able to get the information for antidotal led well before the speeches started. At 11 a.m. the Capitol was so packed, security had to temporarily close it for an hour.

The rally was designed to lobby in support of House Bill 174, which would increase income and corporate taxes, but that wasn’t the full extent of tax talk on Wednesday. Another proposal for progressive tax increase was also floated in a separate news conference:

Amendments proposed by state Sens. Kwane Raoul, D-Chicago, Michael Frerichs, D-Gifford, and Ed Maloney, D-Chicago, would implement a progressive tax structure but wouldn’t increase taxes. If one was approved by the General Assembly, it would be on the November ballot for the voters to decide.

“This is not a tax increase,” Raoul said. “This is something that just allows us to have a debate without the barrier of this constitutional mandate.”

And, of course, the flurry of activity came as more bad fiscal news came the state’s way. In another news conference, the National Conference of State Legislatures emphasized Illinois was not allow in fiscal battles:

“Across the country we’ve been hearing words like ‘grim,’ ‘dire,’ ‘guarded,’ and ‘cautious,” said Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst with the NCSL.

So for about three hours on Wednesday, action at the Capitol was non-stop. And it all dealt with one issue: the state’s horrific fiscal climate.

All in day’s work…

Image posted by Flickr user alancleaver_2000. It is used under a Creative Commons license.

Written by csessig

February 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm

UPDATE – “Whoops: New law accidentally bars farmers from using ATVs”

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UPDATE (2/17) – Here is the story:

SPRINGFIELD — Farmers barred from using all-terrain vehicles to access their fields could catch a break under legislation that gained initial support from lawmakers Tuesday.

A Senate committee voted 11-0 to approve the measure, which would exempt farmers using ATVs from new regulations governing low-speed, non-highway vehicles.

And the link.

———–

UPDATE (2/16 at 6:30) – A Senate committee unanimously supported a measure that would exempt farmers from the state law.  I’ll have a link when it’s posted online.

———–

ORIGINAL POST: I wrote this a week ago but here it is anyways:

SPRINGFIELD — A new state law that attempted to clear up some of the confusion concerning low-speed, non-highway vehicles has unintentionally barred farmers from using all-terrain vehicles on local roads.

Now, the same lawmakers who pushed for the law are working to undo some of it by exempting farmers from its provisions.

Starting this year, municipalities were given the power to approve ordinances legalizing ATVs, golf carts and other low-speed vehicles on their roads. Before the law went into effect, many were unsure if they could.

The new law, however, trumped a similar measure approved three years ago that gave farmers great leeway when operating ATVs on rural roads to get from field to field. Because ATVs are now included in the same law that governs other low-speed vehicles, the new restrictions apply.

And the link.

This issue came to our attention after reading a farming publication. Obviously this was a bit of a screw up that may be fixed this legislative session. But in the mean time, farmers are in a bit of a bind:

Lyle Gallagher, a farmer from Sadorus, has owned an ATV for five years and uses it because normal-sized cars are impractical in the fields.

“It’s like my right arm,” he said.

This isn’t the first time I’ve covered low-speed vehicles. While at the Journal Gazette Times-Courier, I wrote about a small community in eastern Illinois that decided to pass an ordinance allowing golf carts on their roads. The new law was supposed to clear up some of the confusion concerning low-speed vehicles because not every community was sure if they could pass a similar ordinance. Now they can. But as I noted, ATVs are now inadvertently barred on unmarked highways, which are heavily used by farmers. Be on the look out for this to be corrected this session. I will be covering the new laws as they work their way through the legislative process.

On a lighter note, nothing exemplifies the difference between Chicago bureaus and the Downstate bureaus quite like this story. I doubt the city of Chicago cares much about ATVs, golf carts and neighborhood vehicles. Our audience, however, will eat it up. The Southern ran it on the front page, above the fold. Go figure.

Written by csessig

February 16, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Interesting ad?

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Last Friday, while surfing the Internet, I went to the Sun-Times web site to look at a few articles . As soon as I got to the web site, I noticed something different about it: instead of the usual blue background, the site was orange. I also noticed around the edge was a repeated pattern that I couldn’t make out. So I decided to right click the image and open it in a new window. Here is what it was:

An Ad. For a Jimmy Buffet concert.

Strange. I’m not sure if this was intended but if it was, it was quite ineffective because I had no idea what it was before I opened it in a new tab. My monitor at work obviously couldn’t view the image properly, and I’m sure my computer wasn’t the only one with viewing problems.

But the larger question is: does this signal a new trend being used by newspaper web sites to display ads? Are more and more newspapers web sites going to willing to change their own background–which naturally becomes a very familiar sight for repeat visitors–to make an extra buck? And if they are willing to do this, where will they stop?

I already get annoyed by those pesky roll-over ads and animated ads that pop out at the user. But this could be worse. I haven’t seen it used anywhere else, which is a good thing. But who knows what the future holds…

This isn’t the first time the Sun-Times has used “innovative” techniques to advertise on their web site. Right now, they have one of those ads that expands the entire length of the web site when you first open the site, forcing the user to close them. I can get over those ads. But they have to draw the line somewhere before their entire web site turns into a mass collage of ads.

Have you seen any interesting ads on newspaper web sites?

Written by csessig

February 15, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Posted in Technology

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Nothing to do with politics

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Ironically, the first story of mine to make it on the front page of any Lee Enterprise web site had nothing to do with politics. Instead, the story featured the unveiling of a new Abraham Lincoln penny. Imagine that. Here’s an excerpt:

SPRINGFIELD — Temperatures were in the teens Thursday morning but that didn’t stop a host of out-of-state residents from trekking to the state’s capitol to be among the first batch of people to purchase a newly-minted Abraham Lincoln penny.

Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana were among the states represented at the unveiling of the new coin, which came on the eve of Lincoln’s 201st birthday. The line to purchase the pennies formed as early as 5 a.m. and wrapped around the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum shortly before the ceremony kicked off at 9:30 a.m.

And the link.

There were plenty of angles to take on this story, but I thought it was fascinating how far people were willing to travel to purchase a few rolls of pennies. The new coins will be around for the next 49 years, after all. But coin collectors, like other enthusiasts, are very passionate about their trade and more than willing to go that extra mile (or 200, which every be the case) to support the hobby they love.

Of course, I had to screen capture the beautiful front pages from the Bloomington Pantagraph and the Decatur Herald & Review. Here are the screen caps:

Breathtaking.

Written by csessig

February 15, 2010 at 12:33 am

Legislative session in full swing

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The first month of the new decade in Illinois politics has been dominated by primary election coverage and for good reason. There were so many close races, it was hard to keep up with all of them. But now that the elections are done and most of the winners have been announced, it’s time for our local politicians to the return to the Capitol for this year’s legislative session. True, they were in session for a few days in January but very little got done because of the lingering February primary. But that is in the past. And, boy, do the lawmakers have a big agenda to tackle.

The issue that will dominate this session is the state’s budget woes, which are among the worst in the nation. Our deficit is a whopping $12 billion and every state entity under the moon is starting to fasten their belts…in a big way. Many universities are still waiting millions of dollars worth of payments from the state and are implementing furloughs and layoffs until the money comes through. And that is just one, tiny example.

Democrats are somewhat united behind an income and corporate tax increase, which would give the state much needed breathing room in its finances. But tax increases are terribly unpopular, especially during a recession that has produced 11 percent unemployment across the state. And the general election coming in November makes it even more difficult for lawmakers to approve a politically-suicidal tax increase. The Senate did pass an increase last session, but the House has refused to bring it to the floor.

Republicans, on the other hand, are try to cut, cut, cut their way out of the deficit, which would mean spending reductions that could affect nearly everyone. But every little bit helps, they argue. One such proposal I’ve been covering  would remove front license plates on registered cars and trucks. I’ve blogged about this before but today it was brought up in committee. And it failed:

SPRINGFIELD — A proposed law that would have removed the front license plates on Illinois cars and trucks failed an early test Tuesday.

A House committee voted 4-2 against the measure, which would require drivers have just one plate in the rear of their vehicle. State Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, sponsored the measure and said it would save the state $800,000.

The committee was concerned the measure would hinder the police force and compromise public safety. It could be brought up in the future, but we will see.

Obviously, every cut you make affects someone or something. For every cut there is a compelling argument for why so-and-so or such-and-such really needs the funding. And some are easier to argue than others. But if a cut like this can’t even make it out of committee, it’s going to be very tough to implement enough cuts to get the state out of this fiscal nightmare. I would assume much more drastic and controversial cuts would need to be implemented to trim a deficit that is tens of billions of dollars.

I could be wrong. But many contend a tax increase is the only way to realistically shore up the state’s deficit. But even then, cuts may be needed. And who is to say a tax increase would really bring down the state deficit? Could lawmakers just spend the money on local pork projects to help win favor in their district and leave the state’s finances in dismal shape? In short, is a tax increase really the answer?

But before we get too ahead of ourselves, we have to realize that many lawmakers won’t vote for something so controversial because their job will be on the line in nine months. In the mean time, the state continues to wobble along, barely scraping by…

As the saying goes, it make “blood on the sidewalks” for lawmakers to vote on something that is damaging enough to get the state out of the red ink.

Image posted by Flickr user klynslis. It is used under a Creative Commons license.

Written by csessig

February 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Post-election analysis stories

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While the Illinois primary season officially ended a week ago, neither party knows what their ticket is going to look like in the fall. For one, the Democrats are missing a lieutenant governor. The party is still hurting because their former candidate, Scott Lee Cohen, was engulfed in controversy due to revelations into his past, which included horrific tales of violence, sexual misconduct and steroid use. How much of it is true is unknown. But it was enough for him to bow out of the race on Super Bowl Sunday, just five days after he was nominated. The Dems are surely relieved he stepped down, but they now face a new problem: finding a replacement. Rumors are flying everywhere, but it may be a while before they officially name someone.

One would think this controversy would be the perfect battle cry for Republicans to rally behind their candidate for governor. Just one problem: they don’t have one. State Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington, is currently in the lead, but it’s so slim, his opponent, State Sen. Kirk Dillard, of Hinsdale, is refusing to give up before all of the provisional and absentee votes are counted. This leaves their ticket even more in limbo than their opponents on the left.

1. With that in mind, it was interesting to see former Gov. Jim Edgar and David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, give their post-election analysis before a number of movers and shakers Thursday afternoon at a luncheon sponsored by UIS. It was an unprecedented election with unprecedented results. And both acknowledged these points.

The one thing Edgar said that I thought was most interesting was a quick line about how he thought Brady’s 400-vote lead would hold up. Of course, Dillard was Edgar’s chief of staff for a while and Dillard diligently touted his experience under the Edgar administration every day, it seemed, of the election. The fact that he was calling such a close race caught me off guard and eventually became my story:

“I’m saying this as if the 406 votes are going to hold up. I suspect it will,” Edgar said.

Edgar said the key to the Republican race was three candidates from the Chicago area — Dillard, former GOP chairman Andy McKenna and former Attorney General Jim Ryan — split the city vote. All three candidates finished within striking distance of Brady.

“The key factor was geography. It wasn’t ideology,” Edgar said.

A number of media outlets picked up on the story as well, including Capitol Fax, Progress Illinois, Illinois Observer and Illinois Review. It will be interesting to see if Edgar’s prediction comes true in the coming weeks.

2. The governor’s race wasn’t the only one addressed at the luncheon, however. The U.S. Senate race also dominated the conversation and for good reason. This year’s race between Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Congressman Mark Kirk should be a barn burner. National Republicans are giddy at the chance of winning Obama’s old seat, while Democrats are poised not to be embarrassed in a state that has been predominately blue for quite some time.

Anways, a few quotes from Edgar and Yepsen made it into another story my colleague Mike was working on. Here is a quick look:

“The Republicans have probably one of the best chances in the United States of picking up a Democratic-held Senate seat,” Edgar said of the Illinois race. “Kind of the icing on the cake is this is a seat that Barack Obama held.”

This race will be watched closely, not only in Illinois but across the nation. Stay tuned…

3. Lastly, one other quick point about the primary election: voter turnout was dismal. Officials pinned the voting public at less than 30 percent of registered voters, which is lower than usual. Primary turnout is usually horrendous but many lawmakers blamed the February primary (the earliest in the nation) for this year’s low numbers. I talked to a number of local Lee lawmakers and did a quick story:

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, agrees the primary is too early and also is co-sponsoring its move to June. In his district, McLean County reported 22 percent of registered voters made their voices heard Tuesday night, which is a slight increase from the 2006 primary when 20 percent voted. In 2002, turnout was 30 percent.

“I think a big part of it was people not being prepared and ready to a deal with a primary election at this point in time,” he said. “It caught them off guard.”

Moving the primary date is going to be a hot issue this session, especially for the minority party who feel the early primary unfairly gives incumbents an edge. I’ll keep you posted.

Well I’m running out of wind once again, so I’m going to stop this post now. What a doozy! I hope you enjoyed every last word…

Image posted by Flickr user myoldpostcards. It is used under a Creative Commons license.

Election night coverage

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I kind of all ready gave a run down of my election night last Tuesday….But here are links to the two stories I wrote:

  1. Shimkus wins GOP primary in 19th Congressional District
  2. Hirner claims win in Democratic primary, will face Schock in November

These stories were all about speed. Because we were on such tight deadlines, we had to pump these out fast. So I made a few quick calls, put the stories up and updated them as new result numbers come in.

These races may not have gotten the attention that many of the other nes did but I glad I got some real-time election experience under my belt.

Written by csessig

February 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm