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Environment
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Flooding expected as heavy rains drench Southern Illinois

CARBONDALE — Multiple weather fronts stalled out over Southern Illinois this week, soaking the downstate region with between 2.5 and 4.5 inches of rain from Monday night to Thursday morning.

A break in the clouds is expected Friday, but on Saturday the rain will pick back up and continue through the middle of next week, according to Robin Smith, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Paducah.

“So actually between now and the middle of next week, (Friday) is going to be the only day that we are not anticipating any kind of rain,” Smith said.

An upper-level pattern has been shoving the Canadian cold southward, and storms traveling along that track redevelop into nor’easters as they cycle back up the East Coast. Eastern cities have logged colder average temperatures in March than they did in February, according to NWS data.

Meanwhile, those East Coast storms have been blocking frontal systems from moving out of Southern Illinois.

“They can’t move further east quickly, so they just sort of meander through the Midwest before the next frontal system comes in and pushes the older one out of the way,” Smith said.

Smith said that that situation isn’t particularly unusual for the springtime. What’s more curious is the active jet stream coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

“What is unusual is that for a prolonged period of time — and I’m talking like two, two-and-a-half weeks — we’ve had this good flow coming from the Gulf of Mexico, which is bringing all this moisture up into the area. We see that in the springtime, but not for that long of a period,” Smith said.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Students walk in the rain on the pedestrian bridge near the tower residence halls on the SIU campus Thursday afternoon.

Statewide average precipitation for March totaled 3.4 inches as of Thursday — about 25 percent more than normal, according to Jim Angel, state climatologist with the Illinois State Water Survey and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It’s been wetter farther downstate, Angel said. Carbondale saw 5.75 inches in average precipitation in March as of Thursday.

“What’s interesting, if we’d had this conversation about six weeks ago, I’d probably tell you that my biggest concern for Illinois was the drought situation … that was basically set up from last summer and fall when we were starting to get short on precipitation. And really up until mid-February, we were really in a fairly dry pattern across the state, and then all of a sudden that pattern switched,” Angel said.

The rainfall has wiped out drought concerns and replaced them with fears about flooding.

NWS currently has a flood warning in place for the Big Muddy River, which is expected to crest at 27 feet at Murphysboro early next week. In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the Mississippi River is expected to crest at 33 feet on Sunday.

“That is one of the things about Illinois, is that we can turn pretty quickly from drought conditions to flooding conditions,” Angel said.

Angel said the wet spring could create problems for agriculture.

“It’s hard to get into the fields, and even if you do, sometimes you get flooded out and you have to replant, and even if you do get successful in the replanting then you’re off to a late start, and sometimes those weather conditions carry on into summer and you can have problems with disease and so forth,” he said.

For now, Southern Illinois residents will have to endure a rainy Easter weekend.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

An SIU student navigates between large puddles on the sidewalk near the Applied Sciences and Arts Building as the rain comes down on Thursday afternoon in Carbondale.

“We’re looking for a 50 percent chance of rain Saturday and Saturday night and a 40 percent chance of rain Sunday, so if anybody’s having any Easter egg hunts, they might plan on an indoor event,” Smith said.


Washington
AP
Trump's VA pick draws concern over thin management record

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's selection of his White House doctor to run the massive Department of Veterans Affairs triggered concern Thursday among lawmakers and veterans groups about whether he has the experience to manage an agency paralyzed over Trump's push to expand private care.

Ronny Jackson, a Navy rear admiral entrusted with the health of the past three presidents, is a lifelong physician whose positions on privatizing operations in the second largest federal department and addressing ballooning health care costs are unknown. First named to the top White House post by President Barack Obama, he would be new to running a big bureaucracy if given leadership over a department of 360,000 employees serving 9 million veterans.

In a statement, Trump praised Jackson as "highly trained and qualified." But representatives of veterans aren't sold on the choice, or on Trump's decision a day earlier to fire VA Secretary David Shulkin.

"There is little that we know about Dr. Ronny Jackson's vision and qualifications," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Our concern is whether President Trump was more interested in picking a secretary who would be politically loyal rather than someone who can work across the aisle to fix long standing problems of bureaucratic delay."

Similar doubts were expressed by Veterans of Foreign Wars, which praised Jackson's military background in a statement but pointed to a nominee biography devoid of "any experience working with the VA or with veterans, or managing any organization of size, much less one as multifaceted as the Department of Veterans Affairs." AMVETS echoed such sentiments.

"We look forward to a rigorous confirmation hearing," Rieckhoff said.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, top Democrat on the panel that will consider the nomination, said he had yet to determine if Jackson "is up to the job."

Meanwhile, Shulkin is blaming his sudden ouster on "political forces" that he says are bent on privatizing the agency and putting "companies with profits" over the care of veterans.

Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover serving in Trump's Cabinet, blasted a "toxic" and "subversive" environment in Washington that made it impossible for him to lead. Shulkin faced a mounting internal rebellion at VA and a bruising ethics scandal.

"As I prepare to leave government," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed Thursday, "I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country."

Shulkin said he was undone by advocates of privatization within the administration.

"They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed," he said. 

It's not clear from Jackson's military service record how much, if any, management experience he has. His military assignments did not appear to include supervision over a large department or unit. His Navy biography says he deployed to Iraq with a Marine unit and served as the emergency physician in charge of resuscitative medicine for a trauma platoon.

Jackson joined the White House medical team in 2006 and is perhaps best known for his appearance before the press corps in January, announcing the results of Trump's first physical in a performance that showed he was quick-witted and unfailingly complimentary of Trump.

Marveling at the 71-year-old president's good health, Jackson opined, "It's just the way God made him."

If confirmed by the Senate, Jackson would face immediate crises, like a multi-billion dollar revamp of electronic medical records now in limbo that members of Congress fear will prove too costly and wasteful, and a budget shortfall in the coming weeks in its private-sector Veterans Choice program.

Trump is seeking an aggressive expansion of the Choice program to make it easier for veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system at government expense, but proposals are stalled in Congress following a failed effort last week.

"We're going to have real choice," Trump said in Ohio. "That's why I made some changes, because I wasn't happy with it."

Jackson's nomination comes as Trump's new Cabinet nominees begin to pile up in the Senate. That is certain to stir weeks of confirmation battles this spring when senators, especially those running for re-election, may prefer to shift focus away from the changes at the White House.

None of the nominees, including the president's new picks for secretary of state and CIA director, is expected to sail to easy confirmation. The GOP-led Senate is narrowly divided 51-49 and Democrats — and some Republicans — are preparing to ask tough questions. Even though Congress has an otherwise slim legislative agenda before campaign season, prolonged confirmation fights could jam up the Senate and influence the election.

Pending Jackson's confirmation, Robert Wilkie, a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness, is serving as the acting head of the VA.

Lawmakers said they needed to learn more about Jackson's record.

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that will review the nomination, declined to indicate his support. He stressed that he looked forward to "meeting Admiral Jackson and learning more about him." Isakson, a moderate, has expressed skepticism in the past toward toward nominees who expressed strong views in favor of privatization.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and a former chairman of the panel, cautioned that Jackson would not be approved if he supported privatizing the VA. "Our job is to strengthen the VA in order to provide high-quality care to our veterans, not dismember it," he said.


Govt-and-politics
State
Different pay-equity measures competing in Illinois Senate and House

SPRINGFIELD — A plan to close the wage gap between men and women swept through the Illinois Legislature last year, but it met the veto of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Now, the measure is back — but with some competition.

Rep. Anna Moeller has introduced legislation mirroring last year's bill that would forbid employers from asking for salary histories.

Top aide campaigned during Legionnaires' crisis

SPRINGFIELD — While the Department of Public Health faced the baffling return of Legionnaires' disease at a state-run veterans home in 2016, a top administrator left to work on Republican campaigns for the Illinois House, records reviewed by The Associated Press show.

"If you are using prior wage information to base future wages on, you're carrying that discrepancy throughout a woman's lifespan," said Moeller, an Elgin Democrat. "A woman has to work 10 years longer than a man to make the same wages over her career. This is one way to get at that pervasive wage gap."

Another Democrat, Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant of Shorewood, introduced a competing plan that would remove fines for violators if they can show they're making progress toward closing the gap. Her plan has support from the business community, but Moeller said it's a step back from even existing law.

Supporters for both measures agreed that women and men still aren't equally paid, even though workplace discrimination based on gender has been illegal under federal law for a half-century.

The Illinois Equal Pay Act took effect in 2003. But a 2017 report from the National Partnership for Women and Families shows that women in Illinois are paid 79 percent of what men make. The gap only worsens for women of color: black women earn 63 percent, while Hispanic and Latina women earn 48 percent.

Barring demands for salary histories is based on the idea that a woman might not get the salary she deserves based on education or experience if it is tied to a past job in which she was unfairly underpaid. Massachusetts, Oregon, Delaware, California, Puerto Rico and a handful of cities have all approved a ban on the question.

The Illinois Equal Pay Act requires men and women to be paid the same for similar work. Violators must pay the disputed difference in back-pay plus interest and could face a fine of up to $2,500. Moeller said her proposal strengthens that law by boosting fines to be up to $10,000. Employers can ask for salary histories if it is a matter of public record or if the applicant is a current employee applying for another position within the company.

Bertino-Tarrant voted for Moeller's wage equity plan in the Senate last year. This year, she's introduced a plan that she thinks can secure the Republican governor's signature.

"My goal is to solve the problem," said Bertino-Tarrant. "We want to make sure people are being paid based on their ability. I think I provide a more bipartisan solution."

Her measure protects employers from lawsuits — or accompanying back-pay or fines — if they complete a self-evaluation plan of their pay practices and demonstrate they have made "progress" toward closing the pay gap. The state Department of Labor would determine progress.

The self-evaluation provision is included in the Massachusetts law, to which Rauner pointed in his veto message. It also represents the compromise sought last year on Moeller's legislation by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, according to president and CEO Rob Karr. The Moeller fines would be "excessive," he said, noting that only a small fraction of companies has been found in violation of the equal-pay law.

Moeller said that idea moves the state backward, undermining current law.

"If companies are not paying their female employees the same for equal work, they should be liable for that," she said.

The bills are HB4163 and SB3100.


Crime-and-courts
alert top story
Saline County man arrested, accused of stealing 7 guns from a home and burglarizing a church
Provided by Saline County Sheriff's Office 

Hobbs

HARRISBURG — A Saline County man has been arrested and charged with a series of thefts in which seven firearms were stolen, among other things.

Saline County deputies on Tuesday arrested Anthony E. Hobbs, 36, of Muddy, for charges relating to one residential burglary in Eldorado and one at a Harrisburg church.

According to a news release from the Saline County Sheriff’s Office, Hobbs has been charged with burglary, theft over $500, residential burglary and aggravated possession of stolen firearms.

According to the release, the first burglary occurred March 19 at 875 College Road in Eldorado. Five shotguns, one rifle and one handgun were stolen from the home, according to the release. Saline County Chief Deputy Ken Clore said none of the firearms that were reported stolen have been recovered.

The second burglary occurred on March 26 at the Little Chapel Church at 3859 Highway 34 North in Harrisburg. It is alleged that Hobbs took $1,400 in cash, as well as an iPad, MacBook, a drawing device and a camera, the release states.

Clore said it is believed that Hobbs knew the occupants of the home he allegedly burglarized, and was either a volunteer or an employee at the church. He said while it is believed that Hobbs worked alone on the residential burglary, investigators believe he may have used a lookout in Harrisburg. Clore said that man is currently wanted on other charges.

“When we find him, we will arrest him and we will want to talk to him about the church burglary,” he said.

As for the motive, Clore said investigators believe methamphetamine was involved.

“We believe that the motive for the thefts and the burglaries was because of drugs — either paying a debt and/or swapping it for drugs,” Clore said.

Clore said investigators also believe that Hobbs was taking stolen goods to a yet-to-be-identified Kentucky man.

Representatives from the Kentucky State Police were not available for comment.

According to the release, tips from the public helped solve the crimes.

The tips were made to the Sheriff’s Office after the description of the male suspect was released, based on the surveillance video at Little Chapel Church.

Saline County Sheriff's Office 

Surveillance image from the Little Chapel Church burglary released on the Saline County Sheriff's Office Facebook page. Anthony E. Hobbs was arrested Tuesday for the crime.

Hobbs is currently being held on $4,000 bond at the Saline County Detention Center. According to Judici, Hobbs is scheduled for a 1 p.m. April 19 preliminary hearing before Judge Walden Morris.