CHAMPAIGN — For the first time in four years, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his corruption saga were not the most important news story in Illinois in 2012.
The imprisoned governor was displaced at the top of an annual, year-end Associated Press survey by a long festering problem that leapt to the top of the state’s agenda, if not public awareness, after barely being mentioned in prior years: The state’s $96 billion gap in funding its employees’ pensions, and lawmakers’ failure to deal with it.
The state’s financial problems make several appearances in the Top 10 Story survey of AP-Illinois members and staff, but interspersed with stories of success (President Barack Obama’s re-election, No. 4), tragedy (the deadly Harrisburg tornado, No. 7) and disgrace (the $50 million embezzlement case of former Dixon comptroller Rita Crundwell, No. 8).
Blagojevich needn’t feel left out though. His March trip to federal prison in Colorado still checked in at No. 3. The region’s drought was No. 2.
The pension crisis was not mentioned at all in last year’s survey and only as part of the state’s larger financial challenges two years ago. This year, however, it was the focus of intense negotiations toward a solution that broke down at the last minute during the spring legislative session. A later special session called by Gov. Pat Quinn went nowhere.
Meanwhile, hundreds of state workers, from park rangers to college professors, were taking early retirement, fearing the pensions might be reduced if they waited. Credit-rating agencies expressed diminishing faith in Illinois as a credit risk or a business partner.
Other symptoms of the state’s sorry financial situation scored high in the survey. They included, at No. 5, Quinn’s plans to close 14 prisons and mental health facilities. The idea drew legal challenges from unions, who argued that it would cost valuable jobs and make the state’s overcrowded prisons more dangerous. A state Supreme Court decision cleared the way for at least some of Quinn’s closure plan, which will be carried out in the coming weeks.
Close behind, at No. 6, was a deal between Quinn and legislators last spring on a complex, $2.7 billion package of reforms to shore up Medicaid, which the governor said would save it from collapse. The high price included leaner services going forward from the state’s health care program for the poor and disabled.
By contrast, a number of top stories in Illinois in 2012 were truly out of the state’s hands.
The worst drought in decades impacted thousands as it settled over Illinois and much of the center of the country. Key crops like corn, soybeans and wheat withered while lakes and rivers dried up. The Mississippi River remained desperately low in December, spurring plans by the federal government to blast away rocks that suddenly blocked the flow of commerce up and down the waterway.
The EF4 tornado that blew through the small Southern Illinois town of Harrisburg before dawn Feb. 29 caught most people in town asleep. Seven died.
“Everything around me was going to pieces. ... I just took a run for it and got into the bathroom,” survivor Margaret Shimkus said, describing her desperate run to take cover in a bath tub. Her home was all but destroyed.
The Dixon embezzlement story made headlines far beyond Illinois, and not just because it happened in Ronald Reagan’s home town. Rita Crundwell, a local girl who rose to have almost unchecked control of the town’s bank accounts, eventually pleaded guilty to stealing $53 million, and using it to buy homes, horses, a ranch and a plush lifestyle. She is scheduled to be sentenced in February.
At No. 9 in the survey was U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who suffered a major stroke in January. Over the ensuing months, he released videos showing his rehabilitation progress, and last month he climbed 37 floors of Chicago’s Willis Tower. He says he plans to return to the Senate in January.
And at No. 10 was U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned in November after several months of uncertainty that included a mysterious leave of absence and a diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder. Despite not campaigning, he won re-election, only to resign weeks later, acknowledging he is the subject of a federal investigation into his finances.
Among the stories that got edged out: The murder conviction of former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson, the Chicago school teachers strike, Chicago hosting the NATO summit, the firing of University of Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber and subsequent rebound of the team under new coach John Groce, and the sentencing of William Cellini, a Springfield powerbroker and businessman convicted of trying to shake down the producer of the movie “Million Dollar Baby” for a $1.5 million political contribution to Blagojevich.
“I’d like to think we’re never going to be prosecuting corrupt Illinois politicians again,” acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro told reporters after Cellini was sentenced to a year in prison. “But I’d be insane to make that prediction.”
As Shapiro suggested, Illinois’ top stories tend to stick around a while. In an informal follow-up to the survey, AP members predicted 2013’s top stories would be ... the pension crisis and the drought.