Illinois and new football coach Tim Beckman will close all but a couple of spring practices to fans and news media. The school has asked reporters not to provide updates via social media when they are allowed access.
Sports information director Kent Brown said Wednesday that the school might further restrict access for all media if a reporter doesn't comply but "hope it doesn't come to that.''
Spring practices start March 7. The spring game is April 14. Only two of the 14 practices and scrimmages are open to news media and fans.
Beckman has said he would restrict access to try to maintain some degree of secrecy about the schemes his team will run.
Beckman was hired in December to replace the fired Ron Zook.
The two Democrats running for Congress in Illinois' new 13th District announced new endorsements on Wednesday.
Dr. David Gill of Bloomington is being endorsed by the political action committee of the National Organization for Women. At a news conference in Champaign, the emergency room physician said that NOW recognized his strong pro-choice stance --- and support of contraception coverage under the federal health care law. Gill accused his Democratic primary rival, Matt Goetten of Carrollton, of being silent on such issues as access to contraception, women's health screenings and women's access to legal abortions.
"We need a Democratic candidate in this race who will forcefully address Tim Johnson," said Gill. "Who will turn to him and say, 'Mr. Johnson, get out of our bedrooms and keep your hands off of our bodies?' I intend to be that candidate."
Goetten spokesman Vlad Gutman said that while the Greene County State's Attorney is focusing on the economy in his campaign, he has stated publicly that he is "a pro-choice Catholic who has always chosen life." Gutman said Goetten backs the Obama administration's compromise move to use insurance companies to cover contraception for employees of Catholic institutions. He said Goetten believes medical decisions should be made by patients and their doctors, not by members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Goetten has picked up the backing of the political action committee for VoteVets.org, a progressive veterans group that focuses on supporting veterans for public office. Goetten serves in the Illinois National Guard, and he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as a judge advocate general.
A Goetten news release quotes VoteVets.org PAC Chairman John Stoltz endorsing him as "just the kind of person we need in Washington. He served, and he knows veterans issues well. He also has the experience needed to make a real difference."
Goetten and Gill are competing to run against Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana), who himself faces challenges from Metro East residents Michael Firsching and Frank Metzger in the GOP primary in the new 13th District.
The Indiana Senate has approved a severely weakened smoking ban with exemptions for bars, casinos, tobacco stores and many other businesses.
The 29-21 vote Wednesday sets up final negotiations with House lawmakers as anti-smoking activists and health groups look to salvage the ban in the waning days of the 2012 session.
The Senate proposal would ban smoking in most private businesses. But the measure exempts bars and taverns, the state's expansive gambling industry, private clubs, cigar and tobacco stores, veterans' homes and nursing homes and a handful of others.
Supporters of a ban said the bill wasn't perfect but voted in favor of it in hopes they could hash out a stronger ban in a conference committee with House lawmakers, who have passed a more restrictive version.
Illinois U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., and his Democratic opponent are arguing over who was a more reliable vote in Congress for President Obama. The very existence of the debate was a positive development for Jackson, who's had difficulty moving the election conversation beyond the topic of ethics.
Jackson's campaign in recent days has pushed the theme "88 times" - the number of votes Jackson said his opponent, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, cast against the wishes of the president during her single term in Congress, from 2009 to 2011. The theme is central to a radio ad featuring U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Corrine Brown.
"Halvorson voted with the Republicans and against President Obama 88 times," Waters, of California, said in the ad.
"How many? She voted 88 times with the Republicans and 88 times against President Barack Obama? She's crazy!" Brown, of Florida, is heard saying emphatically.
Halvorson Response, Jackson Re-response
In a press conference she called Tuesday to denounce the vote claim, Halvorson pointed to a handful of times she voted with President Obama, when Jackson did not.
Halvorson also explained that for a lot of the 88 votes in question, the president never stated an opinion. But she acknowledged sometimes siding against the majority of Democrats.
"Does that automatically mean it's against the...president? No," Halvorson said. "That means that sometimes we have to cross the aisle and take a look at how it is to move this country forward."
"Democrats should stick together," responded Jackson campaign spokesperson Kevin Lampe. "[Halvorson] is running for the Democratic nomination. She should vote with the Democrats when she's in Congress."
Also Tuesday, Halvorson said she believed Jackson was trying to "divide [voters] racially" by using the radio ad, even as she acknowledged not hearing it herself. Halvorson said she'd been told it contained "rap music in the background" and was running on two stations geared toward African-American audiences.
The Jackson campaign distributed a radio ad to reporters it said had to be the one Halvorson was referring to, as it was the campaign's only ad making the "88 times" claim. That ad contained no rap music.
The newly drawn Second Congressional District, which stretches from Chicago's South Side down to Kankakee, is 54 percent African-American, according to Census demographics released by the Illinois General Assembly.
The president has endorsed Jackson in the race. Still, as Halvorson pointed out, the president himself hasn't said the words publicly, instead relying on aides to confirm his support for the congressman.
Meanwhile, Halvorson responded to the Chicago Tribune's endorsement of the incumbent. While noting ethical questions surrounding Jackson that've led to a continued U.S. House probe, the paper's editorial board wrote last week that the congressman "ran circles around Halvorson in our interview, showing a 16-year incumbent's command of the issues."
Conversely, the Tribune wrote that Halvorson "is alarmingly unqualified to represent the district."
"I've never had a very good relationship with the Tribune," Halvorson said Tuesday, before implying the paper had a financial stake in a Jackson victory. "If you're going to sell newspapers, who would you rather cover? Someone who's on the front page or someone who just works hard and creates jobs. And my stories end up...on page 10.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press and Illinois Public Radio)
Gov. Pat Quinn has activated the State Emergency Operations Center after a tornado left six people dead in the southern Illinois city of Harrisburg, and about a hundred others injured.
The storm has caused heavy damage in Saline and Gallatin counties and more than 12,000 Ameren Illinois customers have lost power.
Quinn toured Harrisburg on Wednesday to survey the damage. Quinn said Illinoisans have to band together "as a family.''
"Those men and women who went to bed last night and lost their lives in this tornado, we pray for their souls and we pray for their families," Quinn said. "I think it's important for us as a family in Illinois to come together and honor their lives and mourn their loss."
His disaster declaration will make recovery resources available to affected areas of Saline County. Quinn's office said earlier Wednesday that the governor would survey the storm damage.
The governor said President Barack Obama called after waking up to news of a disaster in his home state.
Quinn also said he hopes God will bless the "immortal souls'' of those who died. Quinn said Illinoisans have to band together "as a family.''
The Illinois Emergency Management Agency earlier reported that 10 were dead, but the agency said that information was incorrect.
Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson said Harrisburg authorities say they have accounted for everyone and outside search-and-rescue teams have been called off. Thompson said specially trained rescue teams from emergency-response agencies in Charleston, Marion, St. Clair County, Springfield and Urbana were on their way to Harrisburg on Wednesday but have been told to return. She said outside agencies have supplied light poles and nine ambulances, however.
Jennifer Fuller, of Illinois Public Radio, was in front of the Harrisburg Medical Center. Fuller said that when she canvased the city, she saw "entire neighborhoods destroyed." She said she saw some trees split in half next to piles of rubble that used to be homes.
"It's devastating for these people," Fuller reported.
She noted that because the severe storms - it is not yet confirmed if they spun tornadoes - moved through Harrisburg in the early morning, it's possible some people were asleep.
"It's ironic," Fuller said. "Just this week the Illinois Emergency Management Agency was telling people to be ready for storm season in March and to have those weather radios handy."
Harrisburg resident Margaret Shimkus' home was nearly destroyed by the pre-dawn storm that ripped through theregion says she had to run to take shelter in her bathtub. Shimkus described the moment the storm hit at around 5 a.m. Wednesday, recalling how she was awoken by the sound of loud crashing and shattering glass.
Shimkus first tried to get under her bed, but then ran to her bathtub as parts of the building blew apart. The 61-year-old woman said only the walls of her duplex were left standing. Besides a cut on her leg from flying glass, she wasn't seriously hurt. Four other apartments in her complex were destroyed.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg promised that his southern Illinois city will rebuild. He said the community "will make this city stronger.''
Gregg called the tornado "heartbreaking'' and said city officials are doing everything they can to protect citizens. He said the city will make sure everyone is accounted for.
State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) led the General Assembly in observing a moment of silence. Legislators from southern Illinois, including Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) and Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg), are back in their districts.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) said he will visit southern Illinois areas devastated by the powerful tornado.
"I was saddened to learn of the loss of lives and such violent damage in Harrisburg and other areas of Southern Illinois," Shimkus said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost loved ones and those who were hurt or lost their homes or businesses."
Severe weather warnings are still pending for parts of southern Illinois that have been pounded by a deadly tornado.
Meteorologist Beverly Poole said the National Weather Service office in Paducah, Ky., was still issuing warnings late Wednesday morning.
The storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes struck early Wednesday, violently sweeping across the region as people slept. Poole said the storm system hit locations in all four states, and more than 50 warnings have been issued.
The National Weather Service has given the tornado an EF4 rating. That's the second-strongest rating given to tornadoes.
Sideshow of the storm damage in Harrisburg, Ill. (Courtesy of The Associated Press)
Video of the damage in Harrisburg, Ill. (Courtesy of WSIL-TV)
After two years of discussion, the Champaign City Council is poised to start up a stormwater utility fee. Final action is expected in April following approval in a study session Tuesday night.
The 7 -2 vote followed nearly two hours of comments, most of them backing something that all homeowners and businesses would pay into.
The measure has been proposed as far back as 1996, and studied for the past two years as a means for developing plans to upgrade the city's storm sewer system, impacting neighborhoods that that flood regularly. Jim Creighton is with the West Washington Street steering committee, a neighborhood that has regularly suffered during heavy rains.
"If you've ever had a flat tire you know the sinking feeling in your stomach when it happens," he said. "Multiply that by 100 times. And that's what your first flood feels like. Now live in the neighborhood for 40 years, and have it happen 10, 20, 30 times."
The upgraded storm sewer system would cost owners of single-family homes and duplexes about $5 a month, but higher amounts would depend on the impervious area of property owners. Paul Orama with the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce suggested a fee of its own that could cut the amounts businesses pay by 50-percent.
Council member Deb Frank Feinen, a small business owner herself, says she understands the reasoning.
"But I also think that this is a fair way to provide needed infrastructure that is a citywide responsibility," she said. "And basing it on impervious area in my opinion makes it fair."
But council members Paul Faraci and Kyle Harrison voted against the fee, saying current language offering incentives and credits for non-residential properties aren't enough, and could force small businesses into leaving town.
"We can ill afford to lose if they (businesses) are so negatively impacted that we lose sales tax, we lose jobs, because they have to close, God forbid," Faraci said, a former small business owner.
Champaign Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt says if the council approves the rate ordinance in about a month in a half, then some tweaking can happen with those credits and incentives such as rain barrels and detention basins.
The University of Illinois' Campustown area is days away from the weekend bar promotion known as Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.
Champaign Police Lieutenant Brad Yohnka says public safety remains the top priority, with more focus now on private parties, as many off-campus visitors come to the area. He says the U of I has done a great job stepping up security in buildings, and bars have been less of a concern since the entry age was raised to 21 over the weekend.
Yohnka says the nuisance parties are the biggest problem, with officers focused on those who invite underage drinking.
"If you're going to host a party, keep it small, keep it legal, and only alllow invited guests in," Yohnka said. "We're trying to get them to think more like a Super Bowl event. There are a lot of Super Bowl parties, and we don't add one additional officer. But this event is become people come from out of town who have no relationship with the community. They're the ones coming into town causing the problems and all the damage."
Yohnka says anyone caught hosting a party with underage drinkers will face state charges as well as a city ordinance violation. While celebrations in other cities are tied to sports or a charity, Champaign Mayor Don Gerard notes this one is based on binge drinking, and it's up to students if they want to make it something responsible.
But Gerard says the focus should be on such behavior, and not temporarily shutting down the businesses responsible for the 'Unofficial' promotion.
"To those who have come swooping in, saying we should just close down all the bars, I am a fantastic advocate of not having big goverment control our lives," he said. "And I think that would be absolutely the most egregiously irresponsible thing we could do to our local businesses."
Yohnka says police agencies will also place new signage in Campustown this weekend, alerting motorists to slow down or avoid the area altogether. Police will also use additional foot patrols, with about 100 officers in the area from Champaign, Urbana, the U of I, Illinois State Police, and Parkland College.
A union seeking to block Indiana's new right-to-work law is asking a federal judge to issue an emergency temporary restraining order to keep the state from enforcing the law.
Marc Poulos, an attorney for the Foundation of Fair Contracting, said Tuesday that U.S. District Judge Philip Simon will hold a hearing Monday in Hammond on the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150's motion for a temporary restraining order.
The legislation signed into law last month by Gov. Mitch Daniels bans labor contracts that require workers to pay union representation fees.
The union motion filed Monday asks Simon to find that the law will cause irreparable harm and to enter a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of its prohibitions. It also seeks a preliminary injunction hearing as soon as possible.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
Action by a state legislative panel Tuesday will give two health insurance providers the chance to submit new proposals for healthcare packages for state employees.
The joint Commission on Forecasting and Accountability voted to allow the Quinn administration to accept new proposals on HMO plans for downstate employees. Plans from Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana were both rejected last year --- now they and other providers will have another chance.
Commission member and State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the new Request for proposals will fill a gap in the health plans selected by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services last year.
"What happened last year is, in the Chicagoland area, state employees had a HMO option," Frerichs said. "But for large parts of downstate, they didn't. So this will correct that discrepancy. "
The Quinn administration previously said dropping Health Alliance and Humana would save the state more than $100 million in the first year alone.
But the companies say it would have left state workers in much of downstate Illinois without access to an HMO, and would increase their health care costs or require them to change doctors under other types of plans.
As part of the arrangement, Health Alliance and Humana are dropping their lawsuits against the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Health Alliance Spokesman Jane Hayes said a chance to submit new proposals is the best outcome for which they could have hoped.
But Healthcare and Family Services director Julie Hamos said whether Health Alliance is able to offer a new HMO plans to downstate employees depends on what kind of bids the state receives.
"There's no guarantee that anyone will get the award, of course," Hamos said. "And we are proceeding as though most of the state could have fully-insured managed care services."
Many state employees have held on to their old HMO plans under a temporary extension. State officials hope to offer a new HMO plan for downstate state employees, when the new Open Enrollment Period begins May 1.