In year ahead, Illinois to confront daunting issues with newly divided statehouse

Government And Institutions Associated Press

Keeping schools and social services funded. Making higher education more affordable. Addressing crowded prisons. Possibly redoing pension reform.

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As it enters 2015, Illinois faces a list of daunting issues that always seems to grow longer. The Jan. 12 inauguration of a new governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, will bring a new approach and momentary festivity to Springfield, but whether he then can find common ground with Democrats who control the General Assembly is yet another issue to be worked out. New leadership at the University of Illinois also holds out promise but faces serious tests.

Below, Associated Press reporters provide a guide to what the year ahead holds in store:

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DIVIDED GOVERNMENT

For the first time in more than a decade, Illinois will try divided government after voters opted for a Republican governor while returning Democrats to the Legislature with at least nominally veto-proof supermajorities in each chamber.

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A test of wills may be in store, as first-time officeholder Bruce Rauner faces off with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, who have served a combined seven decades in the statehouse. The biggest issue confronts them immediately — how to deal with a $35.7 budget that didn't provide enough money to cover state expenses. If new revenue isn't found to replace an expiring temporary income tax hike, the state will face a roughly $2 billion gap over the next six months and a $5 billion budget hole in the fiscal year starting in July.

All eyes will be on Rauner when he delivers a budget blueprint by mid-February — which lawmakers can adopt or ignore. A push to raise the state's minimum wage is another key issue to watch early on.

— Kerry Lester

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ECONOMY

The state enters 2015 with momentum on the jobs front. Unemployment dropped sharply in 2014, to 6.4 percent in November, even as the number of people looking for work increased.

But temporary positions often made up a substantial percentage of new jobs, particularly among manufacturers. Housing construction remains weak and shows little sign of immediate improvement. With a Republican governor, businesses hope to see changes in the tax and regulatory structure to promote job growth, and the construction industry is hoping for a new capital bill to pay for infrastructure improvements.

The farm economy also bears watching. After a series of mostly high-price years, the prices of corn and soybeans fell in 2014.

— David Mercer

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PENSIONS

The Illinois Supreme Court will decide whether a new law aimed at eliminating the state's multibillion-dollar public pension shortfall is constitutional — a ruling with serious consequences for state workers, lawmakers and taxpayers.

In November, a Sangamon County judge ruled that a 2013 law reducing retiree benefits doesn't pass constitutional muster. The attorney general's office appealed, citing the state's extraordinary fiscal crisis. The high court has agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis, with legal briefs filed beginning in January.

Meanwhile, the shortfall has now reached $111 billion. If the overhaul is tossed out, lawmakers can't count on roughly $1.2 billion in savings in next year's budget — increasing pressure to raise taxes or slash spending.

— Sara Burnett

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MARIJUANA

Illinois' first legal crop of medical marijuana will be planted, harvested, sold and taxed in 2015, but it may be summer before the commercial growing system finally clambers to life.

The state will soon award licenses to 21 cultivation centers. Operators will build or retrofit existing facilities to meet the law's requirements. All marijuana must be grown in enclosed, locked facilities with elaborate tracking and security systems. Patients are barred from growing their own, so must wait for the new industry to gear up.

It could take six months or more before there's enough marijuana to start sales, according to program coordinator Bob Morgan.

— Carla K. Johnson

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PRISONS

The incoming Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, inherits a prison system that critics have ridiculed by comparing it to California's, which was so crowded a judge ordered prisoners moved to county jails.

More than 48,000 inmates inhabit state lockups in space technically designed for 32,000. Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn's aides acknowledge crowding, but deny it is excessive. Rauner soon will name his own prisons director.

Challenges keep mounting. A watchdog group recently criticized Quinn's decision to close the all-female Dwight Correctional Center, saying it exacerbated crowding. And the state is in the midst of rectifying its treatment of mentally ill inmates, spending money to add treatment units and hundreds of clinical-staff employees to answer a federal lawsuit.

— John O'Connor

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HIGHER EDUCATION

The University of Illinois begins a new era in July with its 20th president, Timothy L. Killeen — but no one knows just what that holds in store.

Students aspiring to the state's public university system face tuition less and less affordable for the non-rich. State support is more sparse than ever. Some faculty and students are upset by recent hiring decisions.

The financial issues — which hit every public college in Illinois — also may get caught up in the budget battles in Springfield. As part of its preparations, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner's team has asked each university to explore the possibility of deep cuts in state funding.

— David Mercer

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INFRASTRUCTURE

A lively debate will continue about which projects to prioritize in the face of dwindling federal assistance for fixing roads and bridges.

Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn's administration sought private investors to bankroll a project for the first time. But the project, the Illiana Expressway, has run into intense opposition, making its future uncertain under Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

Rauner talks of making Illinois' roads and rails "first class" and modernizing locks and dams to keep commerce moving. What's unclear is where the money would come from, especially since he promises to cut taxes.

O'Hare is to open another runway in 2015, and the state hopes rail upgrades will speed Amtrak service to 110 mph on nearly 75 percent of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor.

— Jason Keyser