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Illinois at 12 a.m.

Ashley Heher i sercer is staffing the desk, followed by Herb McCann. They can be reached at 312-781-0500. For access to AP Exchange and other technical issues, contact AP Customer Support at apcustomersupport@ap.org or 877-836-9477.

TOP STORIES:

ILLINOIS PRIMARY-LEGISLATURE

SPRINGFIELD — Four months ago, state Rep. Christian Mitchell made a tough vote in favor of Illinois' landmark state pension overhaul. Now he's facing the repercussions. The Chicago Democrat is one of several state lawmakers confronting stiff challenges in the March 18 primary election because of risky, high-profile votes for cutting state worker retirement benefits or legalizing gay marriage. The votes triggered unions or other interest groups to actively work against their re-election bids. State employee unions and the Chicago Teachers Union have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign of Mitchell's challenger, Jhatayn "Jay" Travis. The teachers' union is fearful that lawmakers will next turn to cutting municipal employee pensions. By Kerry Lester. SENT: 900 words, photos ILSP201-206.

With:

— ILLINOIS PRIMARY-LEGISLATURE-GLANCE: A bullet-point look at some of the more contested primary races across the state.

STATE GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS:

ILLINOIS GOVERNOR-DEBATE

CHICAGO — A major union's endorsement became a central focus of a debate between the Republican candidates for Illinois governor, prompting questions about the contenders' GOP credentials, accusations of "selling out" taxpayers and pointed exchanges over the role of organized labor in the state's politics. State Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford met in their second-to-last debate before the March 18 primary. The event came the same day that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the state's largest public-employee union, endorsed Dillard, and as campaign finance filings showed labor sinking even more money into a multimillion-dollar anti-Rauner advertising campaign. By Sara Burnett and Sophia Tareen. SENT: 735 words, photos ILCA101-102, ILCA104-105.

With:

—EARLY VOTING-DILLARD: Early voting has started for Illinois' March 18 primary but one Republican gubernatorial candidate says it's not always a good idea to cast an early ballot.

ILLINOIS GOVERNOR-SEVERE WEATHER

WASHINGTON — After the denial of federal disaster assistance, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced the state will be making $45 million available to help local governments recover from November's deadly tornadoes. Quinn was scheduled to visit two communities especially hit hard: Washington in central Illinois and Brookport in southern Illinois. He blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency's decision on outdated rules, an issue he raised last month in Washington D.C. About two dozen tornadoes hit Illinois Nov. 17 damaging and destroying thousands of homes and buildings. Seven people died in the aftermath and injuries played a role in the January death of an eighth person. SENT: 310 words.

XGR-GUN RALLY

SPRINGFIELD — Gun owners and activists rallied Wednesday in Springfield, just days after the first concealed carry permits arrived in mailboxes across Illinois, wasting no time in turning to next steps in a battle they insist isn't over. About 5,000 gun-rights supporters from across the state, dressed in yellow sweatshirts and waving gun rights signs, marched from the Prairie Capitol Convention Center to the Capitol building. It was the first lobby day for gun activists since lawmakers passed legislation last summer making Illinois the last state in the nation to allow for the concealed carry of firearms. Republican gubernatorial candidates, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, spoke at the convention center. Fellow candidate and businessman Bruce Rauner canceled because of weather conditions. Bu Chacour Koop. SENT: 470 words.

AROUND THE STATE

GAY MARRIAGE-ILLINOIS

CHICAGO — County clerks around Illinois say they won't start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples immediately as Attorney General Lisa Madigan said this week they have the right to do. Many worry that doing so before the new law takes effect in June could put their offices at risk of lawsuits and perhaps hurt the couples themselves. In interviews with about a dozen clerks, only one — Macon County Clerk Stephen Bean — said he would begin as soon as he has proper software installed for the forms that need to be filled out. Bean said the first marriage license might be issued as early as Friday. As for the others, they said they would not follow the lead of Cook and Champaign counties, which have already started issuing licenses, or McLean County, which will start March 24. By Don Babwin. SENT: 620 words.

SHOPLIFTING SPREE-CHARGES

CHICAGO — A father, mother and daughter from a posh Chicago suburb stole $7 million in merchandise during a decadelong shoplifting spree — traveling to stores nationwide and targeting dolls, toys, cosmetics and other valuables — according to a federal complaint. The three were arrested earlier this week at their $1.3 million Northbrook home after returning from a three-day trip through Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, where authorities say they shoplifted from stores. Working in tandem, the family traveled from their Chicago-area residence to hit businesses in multiple states, including Maryland, Tennessee and Florida, according to the 20-page complaint. By Michael Tarm. SENT: 430 words.

GREAT LAKES-WATER LEVELS

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Water levels in the Great Lakes are expected to continue a steady recovery this year, courtesy of widespread ice cover that is slowing evaporation and snowfall that has approached record amounts in some cities, federal experts said. The siege of polar air that has gripped the region this winter has caused the most extensive freeze-over of the lakes since the record-setting year of 1979, when nearly 95 percent of their surface area solidified. On Tuesday, the ice cover reached its highest point since then — 91 percent, said George Leshkevich, a physical scientist with the federal Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor. By John Flesher. SENT: 610 words, photos CER101-102.

With:

—GREAT LAKES-DREDGING: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will spend $25 million on navigation projects in the Great Lakes, including dredging of harbors choked with silt because of low water levels.

EXCHANGE-COOKIES FOR TROOPS

KINSMAN — Since August 2013, Melissa Dunning of Kinsman has been on a mission to supply cookies to troops stationed with her brother, Bruce Boling, and her brother-in-law, Jason Dunning. Jason, from South Wilmington, is in the Army National Guard and is on deployment in Saudi Arabia. Boling, originally from Mazon, is in the Air Force and is on deployment in Afghanistan. For years, each time they were deployed, Dunning would bake cookies and her father, Les Boling, would make the care boxes and pay for the shipment. Her father died a year and a half ago, and this is their first deployment since his passing. By Heidi Litchfield. The (Joliet) Herald-News. SENT: 580 words, photos ILJOL501-503.

IN BRIEF:

—LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR-DEBATE: The four Republican candidates for Illinois lieutenant governor are facing off for the first and only time ahead of the March 18 primary.

—SEX CHANGE-INSURANCE: University of Illinois trustees are expected to vote Thursday on adding coverage for sex-change operations to the health insurance plan used by many students at the flagship campus.

—VIDEO GAMING: Lawmakers are moving forward with creating an exclusion list for people the Illinois Gaming Board deems shouldn't be taking part in video gambling.

—CHICAGO-PARKING METER CONTRACT: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says a renegotiated parking meter contract appears to be paying off.

—WILLIAMSON COUNTY-GUN RANGE: A southern Illinois judge has ordered a gun range to halt target shooting with rifles for now in the wake of a woman being injured by a suspected stray bullet.

—ANIMAL CRUELTY-ARREST: The Kane County sheriff's office says it arrested a suburban Chicago woman after finding 10 dead animals and others that were malnourished on a pair of farms.

—COLLEGE COSTS: The Illinois House has approved a plan to study alternative ways for people to pay for college.

—CHICAGO-NURSING SCHOOL: Chicago's city college system plans to consolidate its nursing programs at Malcolm X College on the city's West Side.

—CASEYVILLE-POLICE CHIEF: A judge has ruled that a southwestern Illinois village's police chief the mayor has fired twice in the past month must stay on the job at least until a court hearing on the matter Friday.

—DICE GAME-SLAYING: A Chicago man has been sentenced to 75 years in prison for shooting another man in the back of the head as they were leaving a dice game in 2011.

—NAPERVILLE-EAR PIERCING: Naperville residents still won't be able to get tattoos at businesses in town but a change in a local ordinance will loosen restrictions on what they can have pierced.

—SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY-NEW PRESIDENT: Youngstown State University has voided the contract of its current president, allowing the man to become president of Southern Illinois University.

—FRAUD SENTENCE: An eastern Illinois woman will go to prison after admitting she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from an Urbana company.

—DURBIN-UKRAINE: U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is condemning Russia for sending military troops into the Crimean region of Ukraine.

—PET STORES-CHICAGO: Operators of so-called puppy mills can no longer do business in Chicago.

—SICKENED STUDENTS: Medical bills for more than 60 students sickened by an odor from a northern Illinois landfill will cost Waste Management more than $70,000.

—SICK PAY-CHICAGO: Several Chicago aldermen are proposing an ordinance that would require employers in the city to provide paid sick days for their workers.

—ASH WEDNESDAY-UNIVERSITY: A campus minister at Northern Illinois University and another from a nearby church are hitting the streets to bring Ash Wednesday to those can't or don't make it to a service.

—DALEY CENTER-ARMED MAN: The Cook County Sheriff's Office says a 32-year-old Chicago man is in jail after allegedly walking into the Daley Center carrying a loaded handgun and wearing body armor and a uniform.

SPORTS:

BKN--BULLS-PISTONS

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — D.J. Augustin scored 26 points off the bench and Joakim Noah had a triple-double as the Chicago Bulls beat the Detroit Pistons 105-94. Noah finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for his sixth career triple-double, including two in the last three games and three in the last month. Taj Gibson added 22 points off the bench, while Jimmy Butler had 18 points and 12 rebounds in Chicago's fifth win in six games. Greg Monroe led Detroit with 27 points, but the Pistons got only 12 points from their reserves on 5-of-20 shooting. SENT: 730 words, photos MICO101-106.

BBO--PADRES-WHITE SOX

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer off White Sox ace Chris Sale in the first inning and the San Diego Padres defeated Chicago 8-0. Sale gave up six runs on six hits and a walk in 2 2-3 innings. Xavier Nady drove in the first Padres' run with a two-out single in the first. San Diego added single runs in the second and third. Andrew Cashner pitched three shutout innings for the Padres. He gave up two hits and no walks, and struck out three. Cody Decker, a non-roster catcher, homered for San Diego in the eighth off White Sox lefty David Purcey. SENT: 630 words.

BBO--ROCKIES-CUBS

MESA, Ariz. — Jeff Samardzija struggled with his command at times in a three-inning outing Wednesday in a Colorado Rockies split-squad's 7-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs' possible opening-day starter gave up two straight singles then, after a sacrifice bunt, hit a batter and walked the next in a rocky two-run third inning. In three innings, he gave up three runs and four hits. "My arm is really coming along. It feels strong," Samardzija said. "I felt better in the third than in the beginning. The pitches were good. A few pitches were up, which got me in trouble. ... But I felt really good." SENT: 590 words.

BKC--OVC-E ILLINOIS-SE MISSOURI

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tyler Stone scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and sixth-seeded Southeast Missouri State beat seventh-seeded Eastern Illinois 79-61 in the first round of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Stone hit 11 of 17 field goals as the Redhawks shot 50 percent from the field and 8 of 14 from 3-point range. Antonius Cleveland added 15 points for Southeast Missouri State while Nino Johnson had 12, Darrian Gray scored 10 and Lucas Nutt finished with 10 assists.

BKC--OVC-SIU-EDWARDSVILLE-TENNESSEE TECH

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jeremiah Samarrippas scored 16 points and had 11 assists as fifth-seeded Tennessee Tech held off eighth-seeded SIU-Edwardsville for a 74-67 win in the first round of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Tennessee Tech built a 19-5 lead nearly midway through the first half and led 38-22 at halftime, but SIU-Edwardsville cut its deficit to 64-60 on a layup by Tim Johnson with 1:55 to play.

FBN--BEARS-HESTER

LAKE FOREST — Record-setting returner Devin Hester says he will not be back with the Chicago Bears next season. Hester told the NFL Network that Chicago "wants to go a different route with me," and that they are "parting ways" with him. That means he will hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent and that an eight-year run with the Bears that produced no shortage of highlights is coming to an end. He matched Hall of Famer Deion Sanders' NFL record with his 19th return for a touchdown last season, tying his friend and mentor with an 81-yard punt return at Washington in October. By Andrew Seligman. SENT: 550 words.

With:

FBN--SOLDIER FIELD-EXPANSION: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is exploring whether to add thousands of seats to Soldier Field. The preliminary proposal would add 5,000 seats. The stadium that's home to the Chicago Bears has a capacity of 61,500 people for football games and 63,500 for other events. SENT: 430 words, photo ILARL103.

FBN--BEARS-RATLIFF: The Chicago Bears have agreed to a two-year contract with veteran defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff.

ALSO:

—HKN--BLACKHAWKS-BOWMAN: The Chicago Blackhawks made no major moves before the trade deadline, and that was just fine with general manager Stan Bowman.

___

If you have stories of regional or statewide interest, please email them to chifax@ap.org. If you have photos of regional or statewide interest, please send them to the AP state photo center in New York, 888-273-6867. For access to AP Exchange and other technical issues, contact AP Customer Support at apcustomersupport@ap.org or 877-836-9477.

MARKETPLACE: Calling your attention to the Marketplace in AP Exchange, where you can find member-contributed content from Illinois and other states. The Marketplace is accessible on the left navigational pane of the AP Exchange home page, near the bottom. For both national and state, you can click "All" or search for content by topics such as education, politics and business.

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