Chris Essig

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

Archive for February 2010

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

What a night

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Wow. Tonight’s primaries were unprecedented, unpredictable and pretty much everything in between. As it stands, Bill Brady is leading in the GOP governor primary, while Pat Quinn leads for the Democrats. A total of 99 percent of the precincts are in. But Republican Kirk Dillard and Democrat Dan Hynes are not far behind and both vow to fight, fight, fight. This could be settled in court and take months. The race for Democratic comptroller is also coming down to the wire. State Rep. David Miller is in the lead at the moment, but Raja Krishnamoorthi also vows to keep the battle going. The races for lieutenant governor are also–you guessed it–strikingly close. While it’s possible these races could be decided in the next few hours (it’s all ready 1:15 a.m. as it is), I highly doubt it.

Interestingly enough, the Republican party has a unity breakfast tomorrow. That should be interesting…

Anyways, I spent the night covering two other races: the 18th Congressional District and the 19th Congressional District. Things really picked up around 8:30 p.m. because our first deadline was an hour later. We got our stories up and then had to quickly update them for our 10:30 p.m. deadline. After that, we had to update the stories as the final results came in. Fortunately, my races were decided fairly early, at least compared to the governor races.

Between phone calls and frenzied typing, I helped tweet on behalf of Lee Enterprises (@Illinois_Stage). Between Mike and I, we put up a ton of tweets, got in some political conversations with locals and picked up 15 new followers! And many of our newspapers did a great job promoting the feed on their web page. The Pantagraph, for instance, put a nice, colorful teaser on the front page, under the main articles:

The Southern embeded the feed on their front page, just off to the right of the lead articles:

The Herald & Review also embeded our feed on their election page, but that has since been taken down.

We followed the race closely by basically clicking refresh on the result pages for hours on end. My eyes were in pain and honestly, it’s a miracle I’m staring at the computer right now. We finally left at 12:30 p.m., a few hours after our deadlines. Much uncertainty, however, still remains in some of the night’s most important races.

Well I’m running out of steam, so I’m going to end while I’m ahead. It was a fun night but also stressful. But I made it out alive and will live to see another day!

Be on the look out for more updates to come in the next few days…

Today is the Illinois primary!

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Today is Super Tuesday in Illinois, meaning 20 some-odd percent of eligible Illinois voters will be deciding which candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, comptroller, U.S. Senate and other races will be representing each side of the isle in November’s general election. Across the board, this is going to be one of the most contested series of races in recent history, in part because the list of open races and vying candidates is so long. But at the same time, turnout has been very low across the state since the polling places opened at 6 a.m. It should be interesting to see if things pick up around 5 p.m. when most Illinoisans are getting off work.

My day hasn’t really started yet because the polls don’t close until 7 p.m. I’m not scheduled to work until 5 p.m. As we get closer to 7 p.m., be sure to follow Lee Enterprises on Twitter @Illinois_Stage. Both Mike and I will be tweeting throughout the night as the results come in. For tomorrow’s papers, I will be reporting on 18th Congressional District and 19th Congressional District, which means things will probably get real busy around 9 p.m. when races are being called. I will have a full update in the next day or two.

A few other Public Affairs Reporting interns are going up to Chicago to cover the races, including Tim Magaw and Chase Castle from the Daily Herald and Steve Contorno from the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m sure they are going to have some stories to tell when they get back tomorrow but for now it’s all (or mostly, at least) business.

While this isn’t my first time covering an election (I covered city elections while working at the Daily Eastern News at EIU), it will be my first Congressional election. Hopefully everything goes according to plan, and I’m not working too late…The House is scheduled to be in session tomorrow so there will be no rest for the weary.

And, finally: go out and vote! With so many contested elections, you could make a difference.

Money continues to flow in as primary nears

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With less than 48 hours to go before Tuesday’s primary, candidates from across the political spectrum are putting big bucks into their campaigns in hopes for a last minute surge to victory. Jason Plummer, GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, is both pumping his own money into his campaign and relying on a lot of help from his family-owned business. Their combined investment is worth more than $1 million. Andy McKenna, Republican candidate for governor, received another loan last week from his significant other, raising their personal financial commitment to more than $2.5 million. Take a look:

– Image taken from the State Board of Election’s web site.

Even Justin Oberman, Democratic candidate for Treasurer, is getting in on the act by pitching in more than $250, 000 in the last week and a half. Here is the 411:

Democratic candidate Justin Oberman has loaned his campaign $258,000 in the past week and a half as he tries to beat Robin Kelly, a top aide in the treasurer’s office.

Oberman, president of a Chicago investment firm, has been using the money for a new television ad and a number of radio spots, which are airing across the state.

Oberman said he loaned his campaign more than $200,000 to make sure his message reaches a statewide audience, noting that campaigning is an “expensive undertaking.”

His opponent, Kelly, is relying more heavily on small donations. Her campaign noted that she has received donations from more than 1,100 contributors, which beats out Oberman. This shows they have power in numbers. It also ensures greater independence, they contend, if she is elected.

We’ll see in a few days which strategy works. For now, take a look at Oberman’s big media buy-in:

Kelly doesn’t have a television commercial but does have this radio ad. Fortunately, her staff put it on YouTube with corresponding pictures. Take a look:

Tuesday should be interesting on all fronts. A number of races are coming down to the wire, and the time between now and then is going to be very hectic. Don’t be surprised if you get an automated phone call from one of the candidates listed above or any other lawmaker for that matter. It may be best to let the phone ring…

Regardless, be sure get out the vote on Tuesday! In most of Illinois’ big elections, your vote will truly matter.

Written by csessig

February 1, 2010 at 12:01 am