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Franklin County Courthouse
Franklin County again to appeal to voters to fund a new courthouse

BENTON — The need is obvious ... at least, Randall Crocker and other Franklin County officials think so.

Crocker said that it would be hard to deny the poor shape of the county’s historic but antiquated courthouse. The basement reveals bulging walls, crumbling plaster, antique electrical wiring and an old boiler system.

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

Electrical panels in the Franklin County Courthouse.

Crocker said the heating and cooling systems alone cost an average of $1,000 a month to keep up and running — a hefty price tag for a county with limited resources.

Adding to this is a retrofitted computer and network system that many in the courthouse say proves a real challenge.

Crocker also said safety is a constant concern as well — criminals use the same entrance and elevator as the general public, which opens up many potential problems, he said.

“There’s just no way to separate the people involved in trials properly,” Crocker said. “It’s an easy target."

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

Computer and telephone network infrastructure in the Franklin County Courthouse.

None of this is new news, though. Crocker and the board has tried twice to get the public to throw its support behind funding a new courthouse. Most recently, this was with a 1 percent increase that would have had a ten-year shelf life, with the funds raised only going to the building project.

This was only the second attempt. The first, a 0.25 percent tax increase, was proposed in 2015 to help pay for renovations to the courthouse, but it failed.

Crocker said Franklin County officials are ready to give it another go — they hope this spring to garner more support for a temporary tax increase that would pay for a brand new courthouse — unlike previous efforts, the County Board is not looking at renovating the current courthouse.

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

A hallway snakes through the aging Franklin County Courthouse.

He said a recent tour with local architects confirmed what he has long suspected — there is no way to renovate the current location. Economically, it would be a huge investment and presents a mountain of challenges, the least of which, Crocker said, would be bringing the new facility up to various state and federal codes that the courthouse currently doesn’t meet.

“It doesn’t meet any kind of standards at all,” Crocker said.

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

The aging boiler heating system at the Franklin County Courthouse.

The first step in this plan was taken Monday when, during a special meeting, the board voted unanimously to hire an architectural firm to do preliminary design work for the construction of a new courthouse — Crocker said this should result in an artist's rendering of the new facility after a needs assessment is done for the county. He was quick to point out, though, that this would be far from a blueprint for a new building.

Crocker hopes these drawings will help sell the new courthouse and be the sugar some need to swallow a tax increase. He said this cost is estimated to be about $15,000, and he hopes to have drawings in hand in early February to start outreach about the proposed plan.

In the last push, members of the County Board traveled to every town in the county to do a Q&A with residents about the need not for renovations to the  existing courthouse, but for a new one altogether. Crocker said education will be key this time, too.

Isaac Smith / ISAAC SMITH The Southern 

Exposed lath on the basement steps at the Franklin County Courthouse.

Last time, though, these meetings were met with mixed reactions. Business owners railed against the tax increase, saying it would further put them behind other counties when it comes to a competitive edge.

At the time, Crocker said he knew raising taxes was not a popular idea, but said the burden of this tax would be shared by visitors pulling off the interstate — it would not have fallen solely on the shoulders of Franklin County residents.

When the measure was voted down in the 2017 municipal election, Crocker was disappointed, but knew it wouldn’t be his last fight for a new courthouse.

“It’s just very embarrassing and it’s just a crime that we have to do business in there,” Crocker said of the current 150-year-old structure.

Isaac Smith, The Southern 

Franklin County Courthouse, Feb. 10, 2018.

New Legislature underway with big Dem majorities

A new Illinois legislative session got underway Wednesday with Democrats firmly in control but both parties pledging to turn the page on years of budget stalemates, government dysfunction and name-calling.

Democrat Michael Madigan, already the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history, was easily elected to his 19th term. Other leaders — Senate President John Cullerton and GOP leaders Rep. Jim Durkin and Sen. Bill Brady — also were re-elected.

It was Madigan who was the target of most of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's attacks during a years-long state budget impasse that saw Illinois go deeper into debt and prompted huge cuts to higher education, social services and other areas.

Madigan and other leaders noted Illinois still faces big challenges, from an imbalanced state budget to crumbling infrastructure.

"To solve these problems we need people to work with people," Madigan said during a House inauguration ceremony in Springfield.

Democrats picked up seats in both chambers in the November election, when Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker also unseated Rauner.

The 101st General Assembly has the largest percentage of Democratic lawmakers of any Illinois Legislature in more than five decades. Democrats now have a 74-44 majority in the House and a 40-19 edge in the Senate.

Rauner presided over the swearing-in of the new Senate in one of his last official acts before he leaves office and Pritzker is inaugurated on Monday. He congratulated lawmakers and wished them well.

Cullerton, who was elected to his sixth term as president, thanked Rauner while acknowledging the two "had our differences."

"You took on a challenge when others merely complain from the sidelines," he said.

Before the new Senate was sworn in, the previous Senate voted 33-21 to give approval to a measure to raise salaries by 15 percent for agency directors and assistant directors. Pritzker requested the increase, saying it was necessary to bring in top talent.

Durkin noted the bipartisan support for that measure, and another to replace the Illinois Tollway board because of questionable spending and contracting, as a sign Republicans are ready to work with their Democratic colleagues.

Woman from Carbondale to lead Gov.-elect Pritzker's budget office

CARBONDALE — The woman in charge of preparing Illinois’ next budget is a product of Carbondale.


Alexis Sturm, who grew up in Carbondale, will lead the Office of Management and Budget under incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Alexis Sturm, a graduate of Carbondale Community High School, and a veteran of Illinois state government, will lead the Office of Management and Budget under incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“We’re all really excited,” said her father, John Foster, a political scientist who taught at Southern Illinois University Carbondale for over 30 years. “In terms of Illinois, I doubt there’s anyone that knows the budget better.”

Pritzker announced Sturm’s role just before Christmas. In the coming months, she and her team will analyze all the state’s incoming funds, the payments it makes, and the bills it owes. The goal, Sturm said, is to have a budget proposal together by Feb. 20, which Pritzker plans to finalize by late spring.

Sturm has worked on Illinois’ fiscal challenges under both Republican and Democrat leaders during a 20-year career, primarily in the budget office and the Office of the Illinois Comptroller.

Regardless of the political affiliation of her boss, her goals are the same: Make viable budget recommendations that respect a governor’s priorities, and build consensus “as much as possible,” Sturm said.

Sturm got her start as a bond analyst, helping the state sell bonds to raise funds for infrastructure improvements and other big projects.

She was named chief of staff of the budget office under Gov. Bruce Rauner, serving during the two-year budget impasse, as Rauner and the Democrat-controlled state legislature battled over Illinois’ financial future.

Sturm wasn’t engaged in that political battle, but it wore on her all the same.

“Staff people get caught with the messes that political people create,” Foster said. “She would tell me that she would wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about those small towns that depend on the state.”

As politicians negotiated, towns like Chester suffered, Foster remembers. The town earns the great majority of its revenue by providing water, sewer and gas utilities to Menard Correctional Center.

By January 2018, the state owed Chester over $1.2 million, plus hundreds of thousands more to Pinckneyville and Du Quoin, which also service correctional facilities.

Sturm’s empathy for struggling small towns throughout the state is partly a product of growing up in Southern Illinois, Foster said.

“She remembers it fondly,” Foster said. “And she believes in government, believes it can do good things. I know that’s a little out of fashion, but she honestly believes it, and so do I.”

There are few governmental roles more important, complex or demanding than the one Sturm is preparing to assume, said John Jackson, another SIUC political science professor, who has known Sturm since childhood.

“You have to be on top of an enormously complex process to build a budget, understanding all of the executive agencies, as well as the legislative and judicial branches” that must be adequately funded, Jackson explained. “It’s a huge responsibility and tremendously demanding. But Alexis is extremely smart, capable and genuine."

Sturm will be tracking the state's spending on education, health and social services, public assistance, debt management and public safety, all while helping an incoming governor with new ideas shape his campaign platform into a budget in excess of $30 billion.

“The famous line is: a budget is a statement of priorities with prices attached,” Foster said. “Governors can make speeches all day long, during campaigns, but you don’t put price tags on it until you make a budget.”

Pritzker has made some of his priorities clear. He favors increasing the minimum wage, lowering the cost of health care, and expanding aid for college students.

But he has also committed to a balanced budget — one that won’t push Illinois further into debt.

Pritzker is looking at new revenue streams, from legalizing marijuana, to expanding gambling and sports betting.

He also supports a graduated income tax, which would ask higher-income households to pay a higher rate, though such a plan would require an amendment to the state constitution.

The day after he won the election, Pritzker announced the creation of a bipartisan team of budget advisers, including union leaders, CEOs and state representatives, to help him make his vision a reality.

For her part, Sturm is optimistic about the future of Illinois, although the state’s financial condition has consistently been ranked among the worst in the U.S.

“There are a lot of challenges out there, but I think that the governor-elect and his team have some good ideas they’d like to bring forward,” Sturm said. “It’s going to take all of us to work together, to come up with real solutions.”

Trump stalks out of shutdown session with Dems

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump walked out of his negotiating meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday — "I said bye-bye," he tweeted — as efforts to end the 19-day partial government shutdown fell into deeper disarray over his demand for billions of dollars to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a negotiating session that was over almost as soon as it began, Democrats went to the White House asking Trump to reopen the government. Trump renewed his call for money for his signature campaign promise and was rebuffed. Republicans and Democrats had differing accounts of the brief exchange, but the result was clear: The partial shutdown continued with no end in sight.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers will miss paychecks on Friday; a little more than half of them are still working without pay. Other key federal services are suspended, including some food inspections. And as some lawmakers expressed discomfort with the growing toll of the standoff, it was clear Wednesday that the wall was at the center.

Trump revived his threat to attempt to override Congress by declaring a national emergency to unleash Defense Department funding for the wall. He's due to visit the border today to highlight what he declared in an Oval Office speech Tuesday night as a "crisis." Democrats say Trump is manufacturing the emergency to justify a political ploy.

That debate set the tone for Wednesday's sit-down at the White House.

Republicans said Trump posed a direct question to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: If he opened the government, would she fund the wall? She said no. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump slammed his hand on the table, said "then we have nothing to discuss" and walked out.

Republicans said Trump, who passed out candy at the start of the meeting, did not raise his voice and there was no table pounding. Pelosi said Trump "stomped" out of the room and was "petulant." Republicans said he was merely firm.

"The president made clear today that he is going to stand firm to achieve his priorities to build a wall — a steel barrier — at the southern border," Vice President Mike Pence told reporters afterward.

Trump had just returned from Capitol Hill, where he urged jittery congressional Republicans to hold firm with him. He suggested a deal for his border wall might be getting closer, but he also said the shutdown would last "whatever it takes."

He discussed the possibility of a sweeping immigration compromise with Democrats to protect some immigrants from deportation but provided no clear strategy or timeline for resolving the standoff, according to senators in the private session. He left the Republican lunch boasting of "a very, very unified party," but GOP senators are publicly uneasy as the standoff ripples across the lives of Americans and interrupts the economy.

Trump insisted at the White House: "I didn't want this fight." But it was his sudden rejection of a bipartisan spending bill late last month that blindsided leaders in Congress now seeking a resolution to the shutdown.

The effects are growing. The Food and Drug Administration says it isn't doing routine food inspections because of the partial federal shutdown, but checks of the riskiest foods are expected to resume next week.

The agency said it's working to bring back about 150 employees to inspect more potentially hazardous foods such as cheese, infant formula and produce. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency can't make the case that "a routine inspection of a Nabisco cracker facility" is necessary during the shutdown, however. He said inspections would have ramped up this week for the first time since the holidays, so the lapse in inspections of high-risk foods will not be significant if they resume soon.

Republicans are mindful of the growing toll on ordinary Americans, including disruptions in payments to farmers and trouble for homebuyers who are seeking government-backed mortgage loans.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among several senators who questioned Trump at the Capitol.

"I addressed the things that are very local to us — it's not just those who don't receive a federal paycheck perhaps on Friday, but there are other consequences," she said, mentioning the inability to certify weight scales for selling fish. The president's response? "He urged unity."

The Democratic-controlled House on Wednesday approved a bill 240-188 to fund the Treasury Department, the IRS and other agencies for the next year as part of a Democratic strategy to reopen the government on a piecemeal basis. Eight Republicans joined 232 Democrats to support the bill.

The bill is unlikely to move forward in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed it as political theater.

Democrats said before the White House meeting that they would ask Trump to accept an earlier bipartisan bill to reopen the government with money for border security but not the wall. Pelosi warned that the effects of hundreds of thousands of lost paychecks would begin to ripple across the economy.

Ahead of his visit to Capitol Hill, Trump renewed his notice that he might declare a national emergency and try to authorize the wall on his own if Congress won't approve the money he's asking.