Mary Hansen

Mary is a reporter at NPR Illinois and graduated from the Public Affairs Reporting program at UIS and received her BA in International Studies from American University. Previously Mary worked as a planning consultant and reported for the State Journal-Register where she covered city government.

Mary is a lifelong NPR listener since tuning into her home station WESA in Pittsburgh.

Drive down a major road or highway in Illinois and you’ll likely feel the bump of potholes. A report from TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, put a number on what it costs drivers to travel these roads — $18.3 billion. That includes additional car repairs, time lost in traffic, and crashes caused by poor road conditions.

Lawmakers are using the new report to push for a multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan, paid for in part by a gas tax hike and higher vehicle and registration fees.

In one town in the Metro East, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, police are forcing landlords to evict tenants who have called for help during an overdose because they have heroin or other controlled substances in their rental property.

Illinois continues to lose residents, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau released in April. Overall, around 45,000 fewer people lived in the state in 2018 than 2017, a loss of about 0.4%.

About half of that decline is in the Chicago metropolitan region, particularly in Cook County, which saw a 0.5% decrease. The recent numbers show growth in the Chicago region has slowed, but long-term trends find that downstate is shrinking at a much faster and sustained pace.

“If we take that longer view, we’re actually seeing population growth centered up around Chicago,” said Cynthia Buckley, a professor of sociology and social demographer at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

David Sam, president of Elgin Community College, said Wednesday the school has received nearly $1 million in donated equipment to help train workers for manufacturing jobs. But there’s a problem  he doesn’t have the space on campus to put it.

“Most of us don’t even have the space to put the equipment so that we can train the much-needed individuals to serve the manufacturing community,” Sam said during a news conference at the statehouse. 

Former Republican congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made a pitch Monday for Illinois to raise its gas tax.

The Peoria native told a panel of lawmakers he would champion the tax hike even though his fellow Republicans may be opposed.

“I remember the days like many of you do when Illinois was a great state, when we had great infrastructure, when we were able to attract business to our state,” said LaHood, who headed the U.S. Department of Transportation under former President Barack Obama. “That’s what we want to get back to.”

Even though it’s the legislative spring break, there are several issues still to be negotiated, including a potential construction program funded with a gasoline tax, legalization of recreational marijuna, dealing with the state’s growing pension debt, and what to do about a declining population.

Around 150,000 children have an allergy to sesame, a study from Northwestern University shows. A proposal at the Illinois Statehouse could help parents and children avoid foods with the ingredient.

State Rep. Jonathan Carroll’s eight-year-old daughter is among the kids with the food allergy. During a cooking demonstration at school, she started swelling up because of tahini – a sesame-based product. Luckily, she took an antihistamine before the reaction was too bad.

While gas prices fluctuate, one charge at the pump has stayed the same since 1990. Illinoisans have paid the same gas tax – the charge per gallon the state collects. But that could soon change.

Lawmakers are considering whether to ask Illinoisans to pay more for gasoline — with the money dedicated to fixing crumbling infrastructure.

A new proposal at the Statehouse would double the motor fuel tax — from the current 19 cents up to 38 cents a gallon. It would also up driver’s license and vehicle registrations fees, with the goal of raising $2 billion a year to pay for road, bridge, highway and rail improvements.

Many communities in Illinois have rules that say renters can lose their housing if someone in the home is connected to a crime. City leaders who back the policies say the rules make neighborhoods safer. But fair housing advocates question the tactics.

Stores in Illinois keep a portion of what you pay in sales tax. Think of it like a collection fee, though in state government shorthand it’s called a retail discount.

The amount is based on a percentage of what they collect. So the more they sell, the more they keep.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker wants to cap that amount to $1,000 per month for each retailer. It’s one of several proposals aimed at addressing a $3.2 billion deficit in next year’s budget.

Brian Otten likens his process for dealing with road problems to a triage system.

As the highway engineer in Perry County in southern Illinois, Otten says he gets calls about potholes or cracked drainage pipes. 

“And we’ll go out there and take a look and say, this pipe is about fall in and somebody could have an accident here and really get hurt. That takes precedence over the inconvenience of a pothole,” he said.

Problems on interstate highways and bridges get a lot of attention. But you may be seeing more potholes and cracks on the roads you take to work or even live on, particularly in rural areas.

Slow internet service can slow a business down, adding up to lost time and money. And often the problem is worse in rural areas.

That’s one reason John Sullivan, acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said improving internet access is a top priority for him.

“If there isn’t adequate access to high-speed internet, it really drags and holds back the possibility for jobs and opportunities in those areas,” he said.

Driving around Illinois, chances are you’ve experience the jarring crack of a tire hitting the bottom of a pothole. This week, acting transportation secretary Matt Magalis put a cost on that feeling: between $13 billion and $15 billion.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered his first budget address at a time of acute fiscal distress for the state of Illinois. It also comes after Democrats have taken total control of the executive and legislative branches of state government, including supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate.

For this week's Illinois Issues report, NPR Illinois reporters analyzed the governor's speech:

Weasle Forsythe is an information assurance apprentice with SuprTEK - a government contracting firm in O’Fallon, Illinois, outside of St. Louis. In the quiet office of cubicles with two screens and near-silent coders, her cubicle is decked out.

“I have all my toys here and my huge fidget cube, and my Spider Gwen and my X-Force Deadpool,” she said.

Amid the color and chaos of superhero posters and figurines - Forsythe pulled out a big black binder. “I mean, this isn’t really sexy, but I think it’s awesome. It’s the NIST compliance,” she said.

Small internet service providers in Illinois are optimistic after the farm bill – which President Trump recently signed – included more money for expanding high-speed internet access in sparsely populated areas.

The law earmarks $350 million annually for loans and grants for broadband projects. That’s on top of $600 million set aside earlier this year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Re-Connect program.

State lawmakers have changed rules about stalking. The new law was part of a response to the mass shooting at a Florida high school earlier this year.

Previously, only a person who is being harassed or stalked can file for an order of protection. Under the order, a judge can prohibit the harasser from getting within a certain distance of the victim.

In the hopes of preventing violence, a law that takes effect Jan. 1 will allow churches, schools or workplaces to ask for similar protections.

Illinois continues to see big box stores close. That means lost jobs, less tax revenue and often empty store space.

Still, Joe Fackel – with the Canvass Group – says he’s optimistic about the future of retail. The city of Springfield recently hired his firm to look at vacant shopping space in the capital city.

NPR Illinois talked with Fackel about the retail trends he’s seeing.

Below is a lightly edited transcript.

NPR Illinois: What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a few high school students are measuring and cutting siding.

They’re building a house in the trades class at the Capital Area Career Center in Springfield and learning construction skills, like putting on a roof or installing a window.

Shelby Landers is one of the students hammering siding on to the front of the house. The 17-year-old senior says he was happy to leave the classroom and get more hands-on experience.

Illinois prison inmates will continue to pay $5 for medical and dental visits, after the legislature tried and failed to get rid of the fee last week.

Prison reform advocates want to eliminate the co-pay, saying it deters inmates from seeking necessary treatment. An Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman emphasized that no one is denied care for not being able to pay.  

The effort to get rid of the co-pay comes at a time when medical care in the correctional system is under scrutiny due to a class-action lawsuit in federal court.

If you shop online this holiday season, you’ll likely see more retailers charging you sales tax.

Hundreds more retailers have registered to collect the 6.25-percent tax from Illinois customers since new rules took effect last month.

This week’s election was expected to bring a second “Year of the Woman” to American politics.

After Tuesday, here’s what that looks like in Illinois: The state’s congressional delegation added one woman, and there will be at least one, maybe up to three, more women serving in Springfield come January.

Just over a million people voted before Election Day in Illinois – and millions more are expected to cast their ballots today.

Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich says there have been a few calls regarding problems at polling places. Mostly the issues have been malfunctioning counting machines.

“That’s a pretty routine thing that does tend to happen on Election Day,” he said. “There is a procedure in place for handling those ballots until they can be put into a functioning tabulator.”

Erin Cetindag and Delaney Flattery stopped by the Sangamon County building to vote early on a recent Saturday. The two college students were home in Springfield on break from schools out-of-state.

"That was the most fun test I’ve ever taken," laughed Cetindag, a senior at American University.

"We turned it in and got stickers," Flattery, a senior at Butler University added.

When asked about the gender diversity of the candidates they just voted for, both noticed something.

You might have seen social media posts saying Tuesday was the voter registration deadline in Illinois.

But don’t worry: Illinois residents can sign up to vote through Election Day.

Drone enthusiasts, be aware – the rules for the small, unmanned aircrafts could be changing in Illinois.

A new law bars cities from regulating the use of drones.

The law excludes the city of Chicago, but a spokesman with the Illinois Department of Transportation says it will create consistent rules around the rest of the state.

Jackie Reiser is a co-owner of Measure Illinois – a Springfield-based company that provides drones to oversee power lines and construction sites. She says more unified regulation is a good thing.

Election authorities around Illinois expect to be ready when early voting begins this Thursday.

Still, reform groups say rule changes are needed after problems arose during the primary. A ballot challenge in the crowded attorney general race delayed the start of early voting in some counties early this year.

Gary Smith has worked at the grain elevator at Okaw Farmer’s Co-op in Lovington, Illinois, for forty years. On his desk sit two computer screens, where he tracks corn and soybean prices online at the Chicago Board of Trade.

As he explains, trade moves fast: “Just bam bam bam, and within a few seconds it could change a nickel or a dime against your favor.”

Farm towns in Illinois could get access to high-speed internet with the help of new federal funding.

Nine companies are getting nearly $100 million from the Federal Communications Commission to bring internet access to small towns in the state.

The commission this week announced the subsidies, which are funded from a service fee on most internet and phone bills.

Wisper ISP, based in Mascoutah, Illinois, was awarded the largest grant, $35 million, to connect nearly 9,000 homes and businesses in southern Illinois.

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