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Pension fix, gay marriage top 2013 Illinois news

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 10:00 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (AP) — The Illinois General Assembly's much delayed agreement on fixing a $100 billion pension funding shortfall was the overwhelming, nearly unanimous choice among Associated Press members and staffers for the top story of in the state in 2013.

It was another busy year in Illinois, with the December pension vote highlighting a string of important measures passed by lawmakers, including gay marriage, the right to carry concealed weapons and regulations for the controversial oil-drilling practice known as "fracking." But politics wasn't alone in drawing headlines: Also voted among the top stories were deadly tornados in November, the sentencing of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to prison, the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup victory and the passing of Roger Ebert, one of the country's most loved film critics.

The Top 10 ranking is based on an annual survey of AP members and staffers, conducted in mid-December. Votes were cast by editors and reporters from across Illinois.

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The annual Top 10 list:

1. PENSION REFORM: State lawmakers pass landmark $160 billion legislation to reform what is considered the nation's worst case of underfunded public employee pension systems. Advocates say the measure, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, will improve the state's financial outlook by cutting benefits for workers and retirees and guaranteeing future pension funding. But labor unions are promising a legal fight.

2. GAY MARRIAGE: Same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in June after lawmakers made Illinois the 16th state in the country and the largest in the heartland to allow gay weddings. Soon after Quinn signed the bill before a festive crowd in Chicago, a judge ordered Cook County to allow the state's first gay marriage in expedited fashion for a couple because one of the pair is terminally ill.

3. CONCEALED CARRY: Illinois became the last state in the nation to allow the concealed carry of firearms after lengthy negotiations in the General Assembly. Under a deadline from a federal judge, lawmakers fashioned and approved a compromise bill, then rejected Quinn's demands for further restrictions. The state is currently drawing up rules and regulations for the law to go into effect on June 1.

4. DEADLY TORNADOS: Two dozen tornados strike the state Nov. 17, killing seven people. The winds were blowing over 190 miles per hour, and neighborhoods were flattened in towns such as Washington, Gifford and Brookport. In Washington, residents said the death toll could have been higher, except that many townsfolk were in church and received alerts on their smartphones. Rebuilding efforts are now underway.

5. CHICAGO VIOLENCE: The city continues to battle gang violence. While Mayor Rahm Emanuel tries to draw attention to dropping crime statistics, the headlines continue focusing on high-profile tragedies, such as the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who had attended President Barack Obama's inauguration festivities, and the wounding of 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy, in an indiscriminate gang revenge incident.

6. JESSE JACKSON JR.: The former congressman and son of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson pleaded guilty and began serving a 2 ˝ year prison term for misuse of $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items, including wall-mounted elk heads and rock-star paraphernalia. His wife, former Chicago alderman Sandi Jackson, was sentenced to one year in prison, to be served when the former congressman is freed.

7. ROGER EBERT: Famed movie critic Roger Ebert, who had the most famous thumb in Hollywood, died at 70, just two days after undergoing radiation treatment for a recurrence of cancer. Born in Urbana, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic rendered decisions that influenced a nation of moviegoers and could sometimes make or break a film with intelligent, accessible reviews that didn't talk down to ordinary movie fans.

8. STANLEY CUP: The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years. The win over the Boston Bruins was sealed with two last-period goals just 17 seconds apart, letting loose delirious celebrations by thousands of fans in Chicago and a pre-dawn tour of the city by players holding the cup aloft in their favorite taverns and steakhouses.

9. SCHOOL CLOSINGS: Chicago officials closed nearly 50 public schools at once in a move to deal with a $1 billion budget deficit. City officials said the closings were necessary because of falling school enrollment and efforts to shore up the city's struggling education system. But critics say the closings disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods and endangered children who may have to cross new gang boundaries.

10. "FRACKING": Lawmakers approved a unique consensus bill to regulate the controversial practice of oil and gas drilling known as "fracking." Proponents say it contains the toughest proposed regulations in the U.S., opening the door for what supporters hope will be thousands of badly needed jobs in southern Illinois. But new issues arose when the state began a public comment process.

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