Chris Essig

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

Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

My arm!

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Written by csessig

May 17, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Video of tax rally approaching 400 views…

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– It didn’t receive an astronomical amount of views, but my video of last week’s tax rally got some attention from our viewers. I think it’s safe to say that video is becoming an increasingly popular medium for newspapers big and small because they do get a lot of attention. It’s no surprise that most editors who are hiring nowadays basically require aspiring journalists to have some sort of video knowledge. And YouTube is popular as it is, so why not jump on board.

– But just because newspapers are becoming more and more familiar with video, doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of video is increasing as well. Case in point: the National Press Photographers Association this year refused to give out a first, second or third place award in the News Video category because no entry met their standards. The judge’s comments are a startling wake up call for an industry clearly struggling to keep up with the times:

One of the judges stated that this was the Best of Photojournalism contest and unfortunately the work entered in this category did not hold up to the standards that we as an industry should be trying to achieve. It was clear from viewing this category that we all need to work harder in educating and training our staffs in both shooting and editing video for the web.

The judges did hand out an honorable mention to Colin Mulvany, a journalist at The Spokesman-Review who produced a video on a candlelight vigil. Mulvany has an excellent blog post, “Video at newspapers need to improve,” in response to the judge’s comments. Go ahead and read it all.

My favorite line comes at the end:

When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

Exactly. I feel some journalists shoot video for the sake of shooting video, not realizing there are basic guidelines for newspaper videography. Mix shots, get good interviews, make sure shots aren’t shaky and audio is clear, and most importantly, make sure it tells a captivating story.

– Practice is also very important. And, quite frankly, most newspapers don’t have the money to hire a full-time videographer. This, I think, is my biggest fault because I just don’t get the opportunity to shoot video all that much. But journalists should try and get as many chances as they can. It doesn’t hurt to ask your editor if it’s alright to shoot video. Who knows, maybe they’ll say yes.

– Certainly, my videography skills aren’t all that great either. And I’m sure a lot of journalists are in the same situation. One site I always come back to for videography advice is this simple training video from BBC on the five shot rule. It’s worth a bookmark. It’s a great rundown on how to mix shots and sequence them together.

– That’s all for my rant. Hopefully some of this lights a fire under aspiring videographers. I know I want to shoot more video now…

“Raise our taxes!” “Raise our taxes!”

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Have you ever seen 15,000 people chat that? Yeah, neither have I…until today…

SPRINGFIELD — Thousands of teachers, social service providers and government workers surrounded the Illinois Statehouse Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to fix the out-of-whack state budget.


I shot a video of the event. Here’s a look:

So is all this rallying really going to push lawmakers to raise our taxes? The short answer is: Probably not.

“To say that is going to rally enough support for a tax increase, I don’t think so,” said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.


But that didn’t certainly stop them from coming. After the rally, many of the people participating in the rally visited one-on-one with their local lawmakers. We’ll see if that convinced any leery lawmakers to vote for a controversial tax increase in an election year. But if I were a betting man…well, you can see where I’m going with this.

Written by csessig

April 21, 2010 at 6:57 pm

State makes an emergency purchase of…bullets?

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The wind up:

SPRINGFIELD-The volume of Illinois’ unpaid bills will likely increase by $1 billion in the next three months, according to a new report.

By the end of June, the backlog of unpaid bills could exceed $5.5 billion “absent any other developments,” noted Comptroller Dan Hynes, in a quarterly report on the state’s finances. Now, the state’s 200,000 unpaid bills total $4.5 billion.



Meanwhile, the comptroller’s report is not putting much faith in the ability of lawmakers to correct the problem before they adjourn in May.

“There appear to be limited options left for the remainder of this fiscal year to substantially mitigate these conditions,” noted the report. “And the outlook for fiscal year 2011 is even more ominous.”


That’s bad. Real bad. The state’s budget crisis is being felt across the state, high and wide. And I’m not sure how many different ways we can report on it…

…Unless unbelievable things like this continue to happen…

And the pitch:

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Corrections was forced to make an emergency purchase of ammunition last month because of the state’s inability to pay its bills.

The purchase happened after one of the state’s ammunition vendors, Shore Galleries Inc., refused to ship bullets unless the company was paid up front. The state owes the Lincolnwood firm $6,000.

The department was able to quickly find a new vendor in Indiana and ordered 761,000 rounds for nearly $200,000.


I have seen examples of vendors getting upset at the state because they are waiting months to be paid. But an ammunition vendor refusing to sell bullets to the state? That’s scare stuff.

Fortunately, the shortage would have only affected cadet training courses, meaning public safety was not in harms way. But imagine if the situation gets worse…which it seems is more and more likely as the session wears on…

Meanwhile, the unions were upset. AFSCME, in particular, has been calling for a tax increase for quite some time now. They say an increase would help vendors, like this ammunition dealer, get paid on time:

“This is just another example of the state’s broken budget coming home to roost,” said [Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union].

Stay tuned for bizarre happenings in the Capitol.

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

Written by csessig

April 14, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Sheriffs and mental health advocates: Quinn cuts will hit hard

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Many across the state are lining up to oppose Gov Pat Quinn’s proposed cuts, complaining they will be devastating, not only for schools across Illinois who could face more a $1 billion in reductions, but to all facets of life. Of course, this is to be expected. But sheriffs, in particular, paint a pretty bleak picture:

SPRINGFIELD — Laying off state troopers may lead to slower response times to accidents and could hamper a recently launched methamphetamine prevention campaign in southern Illinois, a number of county sheriffs said Thursday.

“The cuts to the Illinois State Police are going to be a tremendous blow to us,” Union County Sheriff David Livesay said Thursday. “We don’t have the personnel to put out there.”


But because state police are often called out to accidents, the response time from law enforcement could be delayed.“Any time you lose resources, it’s a bad thing,” [Saline County Sheriff Keith Brown] said. “We are stressed in southern Illinois, especially with manpower.”

For instance, three bicyclists were hit by a van in Gallatin County on Wednesday. One bicyclist was killed and all were airlifted to a hospital. The state police is needed for situations like these because the agency specializes in accident reconstruction, said Brown.

Ugh. Here’s the link.

Obviously, no one wants to risk public security. And Quinn’s budget is far from finalized. But something eventually has to be done: either a tax increase or massive cuts. Which will it be, lawmakers?

Mental health advocates are also concerned their needs will be lost in the shuffle:

[Director David] Cole [of the the Moultrie County Counseling Center] agreed the budget is likely to be tweaked several times before it is enacted, but he fears so much attention will be placed on education that mental health services will be all but forgotten.

“We may not get the awareness we need to get a decent budget,” Cole said.


When the governor proposing slashing education funding so severely, it’s going to get a lot of coverage. But Cole has a good point: with so much uproar centered around the education budget blows, other areas could become easier to cut politically.

Either way, the situation is dire. And only getting worse.

Quinn calls for deep cuts; nobody likes them

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Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed cuts

– Today was one of the most important days of the young legislative session, as the governor unveiled his proposed budget to the public. Not surprisingly, the proposal was very bleak. Quinn called for deep, painful cuts, including more than $1 billion in education funding, and basically dared the legislature to pass a 1 percent income tax (which is much lower than the first tax hike he called for). If not, the governor will be forced to go through with his education cuts, which could mean 17,000 teachers statewide are laid off. Talk about a depressing scenario.

Here’s the boss with more:

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn offered Illinois lawmakers a choice Wednesday: Raise the state income tax or cut spending for schools.

In a 21-minute speech to a joint session of the General Assembly, the governor outlined a gloomy $55 billion budget proposal that relies heavily on borrowing more money and again would delay billions of dollars in payments to people who do business with state government.

With all eyes on the upcoming election, Quinn said lawmakers could face voters in November after either cutting $1.2 billion to local school districts or bumping up the income tax rate by 33 percent.

“I have made some difficult, painful choices in this budget,” the Chicago Democrat said. “You must make some tough choices as well.”

For the full article, click here.

– Quinn is basically playing a game of chicken with the legislature. But could it pay off?

State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, said the cuts put forth by Quinn were used to scare lawmakers into supporting a tax increase.

“I think that is a strategic move on his part to probably box in the General Assembly,” he said.

But, the state’s dire money troubles might force action this year, said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.

“The mess that we’re in might force compromise that’s desperately needed,” Brady said.


It’s also possible that neither of the scenarios will come to life. Only time will tell.

– Other cuts (noted above in the graph) were touched on in his speech, but they were basically lost in the shuffle on Wednesday because of how severe his education cuts were. But I spoke with some local officials on Monday, who were paying particular attention to Quinn’s proposed $300 million cut to local governments. And they weren’t happy:

Pana, for example, may need to look into some kind of tax or fee increase to plug such a shortfall, Mayor Steven Sipes said Monday.

Because Pana’s property taxes are capped, city officials would have to consider water rate hikes or a utility tax increases if more revenue is needed, he said. Layoffs are an absolute last resort because the town of 6,000 only has 45 employees.

“It’s going to be devastating,” Sipes said.


Not good news for any one involved.

– Like his State of the State address last month, Quinn addressed a joint House in the Capitol. Fortunately, his speech today wasn’t nearly as rambling as the SoS address, and lasted only a fraction of the length. He, not unexpectedly, called for a income tax hike. But he noted it would be earmarked solely for education, which was the only new, groundbreaking comment made during the 21-minute speech.

After the speech, I scrambled to get reactions from as many local lawmakers as possible. I think I talked with seven lawmakers. Mike and I spoke with nearly 20 lawmakers in all.

Like our SoS coverage, we basically wrote five separate stories for each of our publications. Here’s a quick wrap:

– The other controversial component of Quinn’s proposal that didn’t get much fan fare was his plan to continue “strategic” borrowing to help the state stay afloat. Bill Brady attacked Quinn on this as well during a presser later in the day. I was all over it:

The Republican state senator from Bloomington was critical of Quinn’s proposal, saying it doesn’t solve the state’s fiscal crisis and instead relies on record amounts of borrowing.

Quinn wants to borrow $4.7 billion to help pay state bills and to roll over an additional $6 billion in unpaid bills to balance the budget.

“Today was an embarrassing day. He (Quinn) asked for an extra 30 days and yet the best he could come up with was a budget that is $4 billion out of balance,” Brady said, referring to Quinn’s request to delay his budget address by a month.

Brady noted that Quinn doesn’t have a plan to repay the borrowing he proposed, and is simply “kicking the can down the road, trying to make it past the election.”

“Quite frankly I wonder if he plans on being here in January because we have a pretty big problem,” he said.

I also shot a quick video of Brady bashing Quinn. I believe it’s the first video the Lee Enterprises’ Springfield bureau has put out, which I’m proud of. Take a look:

– In short, Quinn called for deep cuts today and nobody liked them. This could be a sign of things to come, so be prepared for a very contentious legislative session. And don’t be surprised if nothing get’s done…

Written by csessig

March 10, 2010 at 9:47 pm

More bad fiscal news as Quinn posts budget online

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– Two weeks before taking center stage and delivering his highly-anticipated budget address to the general public, Gov. Pat Quinn last week posted a rough sketch of his FY10 budget online for public scrutiny. It is being dubbed the “first-ever interactive budget web site,” but more on that in a second. Most importantly, though, are the figures themselves, which are both bleak and depressing. Among other things, Quinn is called for $2 billion in cuts, including almost $1 billion in education funding. Most of the cuts come because the federal stimulus plan helped bail out the state last year and that pot of money may not return in 2010. This led to the bureau’s weekend story, which took a look at federal funding and whether or not it’s going to come through again this year.

I didn’t have a very large role in the story and only talked to a handful of local lawmakers. I asked them whether or not they would be in favor of another stimulus plan, or whatever Obama decides to call it. They were split along part lines:

State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, supports the idea.

“We need all the help we can get,” Forby said. “And I think the rest of the states in the United States need the same thing.”

But Republicans balked, saying the move would only add to the national debt.

“At some point there needs to be a reckoning where you say ‘OK, this is a problem and we’re going to deal with it here in the state and not beg for money from Washington,’” State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, said.

Regardless of whether or not we get more stimulus funding, the state budget is going to be in dismal shape. Quinn is using his doomsday proposal to once again push for an income tax increase, which will be very unpopular inside the Statehouse. As it stands, Democrats are insisting a tax increase would have to be bipartisan, while Republicans contend the Dems are just looking for political cover. As the going gets even tougher, and the impasse continues, human service providers, teachers and the millions of needy Illinois residents will be holding their breaths and hoping the thick slashes Quinn is proposing don’t materialize.

Meanwhile, one columnist is comparing our response to the budget crisis to the captains on the Titanic, staring straight at an upcoming iceberg but doing little to avoid it:

After all, Quinn, Madigan and Cullerton are smart men. Madigan, it is said, is always thinking five moves ahead.

Certainly, if the danger were as serious as it appears, he would do something. He would not want to be known forever as the man at the helm when the ship crashed.

I close my eyes. Rub them hard. Open them again.

Yep, it sure looks like an iceberg to me.

But there is no panic in Madigan’s eyes and the hint of a smile on his lips. Is he a madman or a genius?


– Perhaps the only light side of the budget proposal was the public comment section on the web site, which the administration tout as the first of its kind. Basically, citizens can log on and offer suggestions on how Quinn should slash next year’s budget. This once again shows the governor’s populous side, and he may even use some of the more constructive suggestions in next week’s budget address.

But as newspapers have learned over the years, if you allow residents to post anonymously online without much oversight or consequences, the results may vary. And some of the responses were down-right…well just take a look at a few of my favorites:

• Billy Bob of Decatur said the state should “enhance the three strikes you’re out to three strikes and you’re dead. We need mobile execution vehicles like China has.”

• James E. Heafner of Godfrey wants the Illinois State Fair closed and the fairgrounds converted into a pet cemetery.

• Boris Sadkhin of Skokie suggested reducing “garbage pick up frequency.” He said that “if garbage is picked up less frequently, people will be encouraged to make less trash or face living with it.”

Full story.

To be fair, a number of level-headed commenters also made suggestions, which can be found here and here.

But the budget itself is no joke. Just ask anyone who depends on state money to operate his or her business. I guess we’ll see in a few weeks just how Draconian the situation really is…

God help us all.

Written by csessig

March 2, 2010 at 12:06 am