Election contests hover over Illinois' top issues for 2016
CHICAGO -- The elections hover over many issues facing Illinois in 2016, including the Republicans' hold on a U.S. Senate seat, the size of Democrats' majority in a gridlocked statehouse and whether the top prosecutor in Chicago survives angry fallout from a white police officer's shooting of a black teenager 16 times. Below, Associated Press reporters provide a guide to what the year holds:
The biggest campaign story is whether Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk can hold on to his seat for a second term. Democratic turnout is strong in Illinois in presidential election years, and he is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents as Democrats look to retake control of the U.S. Senate.
First, three Democrats will compete in the March 15 primary to challenge him: U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, state Sen. Napoleon Harris and former prosecutor and Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp. Kirk faces two lesser-known GOP challengers in James Marter and Elizabeth Pahlke.
The March primary also features a hot race for Cook County State's Attorney. Two challengers - Kim Foxx and Donna More - look to oust Anita Alvarez, who faces criticism for taking a year to bring murder charges against white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke after he shot black teen Laquan McDonald.
In Springfield, Republicans - with financial backing from wealthy Gov. Bruce Rauner - will look to chip away at Democrats' big majorities in the House and Senate.
Illinois starts the new year without a state budget for a fiscal year that began six months ago. At a time when lawmakers should be thinking about next year's spending plan, it's likely little else will rise on the agenda.
Rauner, needing to fulfill campaign promises from a year ago, is demanding pro-business, anti-union changes to state law. Democrats, determined to maintain their hold over the state Legislature, object to Rauner's agenda and want more revenue to help fix a multibillion dollar deficit.
Rauner and legislators recently agreed to try again to address the state's $111 billion dollar pension shortfall, after the Illinois Supreme Court rejected their previous attempt.
Legislators also could return to a debate over "clean" energy - including the role of both coal and nuclear energy - and the jobs that can be produced.
- John O'Connor and Ivan Moreno
The University of Illinois is searching for stability after a year of turmoil from the chancellor's office to the athletic department to the school's bottom line.
The university is aiming to find a new chancellor for its flagship Urbana-Champaign campus before fall. Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson took over after the resignation of Phyllis Wise ahead of a private email scandal.
The school also faced faculty anger and a lawsuit that's since been settled over the retraction of a job offer to a professor over his anti-Israel Twitter messages, and accusations that football and women's basketball coaches mistreated players.
The fired athletic director will have to replaced, while a new head football coach will be tested with a new two-year contract. Still proceeding is a lawsuit by seven former women's basketball players alleging a racially hostile environment.
The lack of a state budget also stung: State funds make up about 11 percent of the $5.6 billion operating budget for the campuses in Urbana, Chicago and Springfield.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the police department are nowhere near getting past the scandal the exploded with the release of the video showing McDonald being shot to death as he veered away from officers.
Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder, but his trial could extend to months or even years. Emanuel, who defended delaying the video's release, is under tremendous pressure to restore trust in the police among residents long suspicious of officers on the streets. First among his tasks is hiring a new chief.
The city also awaits the results of two federal probes - one by the U.S. Attorney's Office into the shooting and how police and City Hall handled it afterward, the other by the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division into the police department's wider patterns and practices.
Among job-creation issues is an expected March decision by a federal spy agency whether to relocate more than 3,000 high-tech positions from St. Louis to Illinois. St. Clair County has agreed to donate nearly 400 acres near Scott Air Force Base for the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency regional headquarters.
It follows a year that saw Peoria-based manufacturer Caterpillar announce job cuts that could exceed 10,000 people through 2018 and Mitsubishi Motors stopping production at its only U.S. factory, in Normal.
In Springfield, Rauner's proposal to eliminate special jobs-related tax breaks for big companies and limit corporate tax credits has led to calls for a more ambitious overhaul of the program.
-Alan Scher Zagier
A new chapter in Illinois' history of political scandal will be written when former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is sentenced Feb. 29. The Republican has pleaded guilty in his hush-money case to breaking banking law in seeking to cover up past misconduct. Prosecutors want him to serve at least a few months behind bars, while his attorneys are likely to point to a stroke they say he recently suffered in arguing he be spared prison.
An old case will return to court when imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is resentenced after an appeals court dismissed several corruption counts. But the court said the Democrat's original 14-year sentence may be appropriate even when factoring in the dropped counts.
One relatively new federal investigation also continues. It's a probe into former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, who resigned after a spending scandal triggered by the discovery he redecorated his office in the style of the TV show "Downtown Abbey."
As the state's medical marijuana pilot program struggles, proponents are focused on expanding it by convincing more doctors and their health system employers of marijuana's safety and benefits, and adding to the list of eligible illnesses. Only 3,600 patients are approved for medical use so far.
They'd like the program extended beyond its 2017 expiration date, but Rauner's stance has been chilly.
Some supporters are pushing for Illinois to join four other states in allowing recreational use for adults. They are pushing legislation, even while acknowledging it's unlikely to pass.
Smoother sailing is expected for a bill dropping criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
-Carla K. Johnson
Trying to keep pace with fast-changing travel habits, the state's largest commuter rail service aims to catch up this year with airlines, Amtrak and inter-city bus services that offer onboard Wi-Fi.
Metra will roll out a six-month pilot project to test free onboard wireless service. It is installing hotspots on one rail car on each of its routes between Chicago and the outer suburbs.
But already the agency is tempering expectations, saying there may be "dead zones" and if everyone is streaming video the service will be weak.