Illinois Public Media News
Longtime University of Illinois administrator Robert Easter began work on Monday as the university's newest president. He comes into an office that has been marked by controversy in recent years.
Within the last three years, two U of I presidents have resigned. Easter said he is focused on creating a sense of stability at the university, and making education affordable despite lagging state support for higher education. He told Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers that he has spent a lot of time over the last few months talking with faculty and students about their concerns.
EASTER: What I'm hearing is we want to be part of any decision, and as a longtime faculty member, I resonate with that. The faculty in some sense are the university. They embody the values of the institution. They embody the knowledge base. They are what make the university. They because of what they do in their individual disciplines within their departments have more insight than any of us in leadership have to what's the best strategy for moving forward. Our role is to capture their insights, to understand them, and then to work within the constraints that we have financial and otherwise to move the institution forward.
POWERS: How have you been able to address their concerns and their comments? Have you been able to in this short amount of time?
EASTER: One of the early conversations we had was around pension reform, and I think in formulating the positions that we have taken and been asked to do so, we've tried to consider their viewpoints on what might work and I think we've been very effective in doing that.
POWERS: On the issue of pension reform, this past month more faculty and staff did retire from Illinois' community colleges and state universities than in recent memory, and for the three campuses at the University of Illinois, retirements for the last fiscal year topped a thousand...large number of people leaving their jobs comes a few months after Governor Quinn introduced a plan that would leave state employees, university workers, and teachers with smaller pensions. With fewer trained and skilled staff on all three campuses, what will this mean for the university next semester?
EASTER: I think it means that we have opportunities, perhaps larger than in the normal year to re-energize our campus, to choose to make directional changes as appropriate, and that's the responsibility of the local level to figure out what that is. It also gives us the opportunity to ask the question where we had two staff doing this previously, could we with technology do that same job with less input, and thus control cost and tuition increases and so forth.
POWERS: Do you see a lot of people taking on multiple roles in the next year because of all of this?
EASTER: Yeah, I do. I think we have a long tradition in units when there are retirements that others step in to make sure that the programmatic needs are met, that the quality remains constant, but at the same time, we may well find ourselves needing to bring some people back if they're willing to fill in on a part time basis. As you well know, the legislature did put some boundaries around that, and as we have those conversations going forward a year from now, we'll be very conscious of those boundaries.
POWERS: What is your plan right now in terms of tuition?
EASTER: The board of trustees put in place a policy...I think two years ago now thinking back when it took place...that constrains the increases in tuition to (the rate of inflation), and my goal would be to stay within those boundaries. As cost increase, inevitably tuition reflects that. If we go through a period of minimal cost increase, one would hope we would have minimal tuition increases.
POWERS: The University has had a rough period over the last few years. It's been marked by the admissions scandal, the enrollment management policy that was highly criticized, resignations of two presidents...what do you say to prospective students who look at the U of I and ask themselves, 'Why should I go here? This place doesn't necessarily seem to have its act together.'
EASTER: The University of Illinois is a very robust organization, and the true values of the university lie within the faculty. They lie within the staff, the very competent staff. They lie within the department leadership, and college leadership, and campus leadership. I think those intuitions, those individuals are incredibly strong. The ship, if you will, is rock solid, and I have absolutely no problem telling anyone that this is still a great institution.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Two county clerks from downstate Illinois are asking to intervene in a lawsuit over the state's gay marriage ban.
The Thomas More Society late Friday filed a request on behalf of Effingham County Clerk Kerry Hirtzel and Tazewell County Clerk Christie Webb, seeking to intervene in the lawsuit filed in Cook County by 25 same-sex couples who were turned away when they tried to get marriage licenses from Cook County Clerk David Orr.
The move to intervene is being spearheaded by the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a conservative non-profit law group. All of this comes just a couple of weeks after Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced she would not defend the state's same-sex marriage ban against the lawsuits, because she, too, thinks it violates the Illinois Constitution. In early June, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also filed court papers indicating she would not defend the state law.
There's good news for four Champaign-Urbana area startup companies.
The (Champaign) News-Gazette reports the companies have been approved to receive investments from the Invest Illinois Venture Fund that was set up last year.
Under the program, companies can receive up to 25 percent of their own lead investments from the state.
The companies that have been approved but haven't yet received any money from the state are Caterva, ANDalyze, Diagnostic Photonics and Nuvixa.
The goal of the fund is that it will replenish itself. The newspaper reports that once a company is viewed as self-sustaining, the state could stop investing and the proceeds from its investment will be used to help other companies.
The new state budget eliminates funding for the Illinois Cares Rx program, which helped pay prescription drug costs for low-income Illinoisans. Some of those beneficiaries can find help from other programs. Now, two Champaign-Urbana lawmakers hope to pass a bill to help seniors with no other options.
Before it was cut as part of Medicaid reform, Illinois Cares Rx helped more than 180,000 people with disabilities. The proposed Seniors Pharmaceutical Assistance Relief program would help an estimated 80,000 seniors only. But sponsors Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) in the state Senate and Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) in the House say the measure would save money in the long run.
'Prescription drugs are part of modern health care," Frerichs said. "If a doctor says this is part of your treatment to regain your health, to retain your health, and someone goes home and says I can't afford them, and doesn't take them, it's going to cause other problems, and those will come back to us in the Medicaid system."
But Jakobsson admits finding the money in recently signed budget will be a challenge.
"I think we're just going to have to look at the rest of the budget, and as some things were vetoed out of the budget, maybe there might be some money to cover this," Jakobsson said.
Jakobsson and Frerichs hope to see their measure voted on during the fall veto session. Meanwhile, they are talking to lawmakers and legislative leaders to build support for their proposals.
Frerichs and Jakobsoon introduced the proposal in both chambers (as Senate Bill 3923 and House Bill 6178) during the last week of the spring legislative session. Decatur Republican Adam Brown is co-sponsoring the House measure.
Two county clerks from downstate Illinois are throwing their support to an effort to defend the state's gay marriage ban in court.
In May, twenty-five gay and lesbian couples represented by the ACLU and Lambda Legal launched separate cases that were later consolidated, which argued that Illinois' same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.
The Effingham and Tazewell county clerks decided to intervene after Cook County's State's Attorney and the Illinois Attorney General refused to defend the marriage ban.
Tazewell County Clerk Christie Webb said she has no position on gay marriage, but just wants to ensure there's a uniform law for all counties.
Effingham County Clerk Kerry Hirtzel said the marriage debate should stay out of court.
"This I realize is a volatile subject, I suppose, but it should be changed by our legislature or a vote of our people of the state," Hirtzel said.
But Camilla Taylor, who is the lead lawyer in Lambda Legal's lawsuit, said this is exactly the type of issue that belongs in a courtroom.
"When a law deprives you of your dignity, your equality, and your humanity, you always go to the court to vindicate your state constitutional guarantees," Taylor said.
Taylor said she doesn't object to the county clerks intervening in this case since she says they have a right to voice their concerns.
The Thomas More Society, which is a public-interest law firm that opposes gay marriage, is representing the county clerks.
Gov. Mitch Daniels is touting state cash reserves he says will send an additional $100 to each Indiana taxpayer through automatic tax credits next year.
Daniels said Tuesday he expects the state to close its books for the fiscal year with $2 billion in cash reserves. Roughly $300 million would go to 2013's tax credits and another $300 million would go toward the state's unfunded teacher pension liability.
Final numbers won't be available for at least another week as state budget leaders continue wrapping up the fiscal year that ended Saturday.
The cash reserves have come from a mix of three major factors _ improved tax collections, spending cuts to state agencies and an error in which the Daniels administration discovered $320 million in untouched tax collections.
Congressman John Shimkus believes the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act resulted from a lack of debate in Congress.
The 19th District Republican from Collinsville said he was right on the individual mandate, and that the Commerce Clause can't be used to force a person to buy a good or service. But Shimkus said it was surprising that the high court used taxing authority to confirm the law was constitutional.
Speaking to Champaign County's Active Senior Republicans Monday, Shimkus said the bill wouldn't have passed in the first place if it were part of the legislative debate in Washington.
"And then I segue into the frustration that there was some deception by the legislative branch and the president," he said. "(President Obama) knew it was a tax, and was trying to portray it as not a tax to get to the final conclusion where they're at today, with a piece of legislation that is now the law of the land."
Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) has laid out a vision for his final months in public office, a time he believes that may call for allowing some tax cuts to expire.
In what was described as his first town hall meeting back home in years, Johnson told the more than 100 attendees at Urbana Middle School that he was simply there to listen.
A question regarding tax credits for wind energy prompted the Republican to suggest more than cuts for dealing with a national deficit exceeding $16-trillion.
"Everybody is in room is going to have to share in the sacrifice that's necessary to deal with the debt - including taxpayers who make a lot of money," Johnson said. "Am I philosophically enthralled with the idea of a confiscatory tax system? No, I'm not, because I don't think that's what America is all about. But the reality is, we've got to raise more revenue."
Johnson said the shared sacrifice needs to not only come from personal sacrifice, but each side of the political aisle... to examine other tax credits and loopholes.
"If you give us a huge tax bill - legislation that extends all the tax cuts, I can't say no to a middle class taxpayer just because they also extend the tax cuts to the highest-income Americans,' Johnson said. "But we have to look at that. It's not palatable, it's not philosophically something I support, but it's something we very well may have to do to get a grip on this national debt."
Johnson also took questions on his opposition to military conflicts overseas, immigration, and political discord in Washington.
The retiring Congressman says he has yet to hear from his replacement on the ballot for Illinois' re-drawn 13th Congressional District about a possible endorsement. Johnson said he and Rodney Davis have only spoken for a few minutes.
When his term is up in January and comes home, Johnson said he still plans to do limited work for a local law firm, and teach upper level political science classes at either the University of Illinois, or Illinois State University.
The Congressman said either school would be fine, but believes ISU may better suit his schedule.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
The wait continues for 20,000 state workers hoping to be paid salary hikes they were supposed to get a year ago.
Rather than deciding if they should get the raises, a Cook County judge passed the decision to an arbitrator. It's a situation members of Illinois' largest public employees union, AFSCME, had never before found themselves in.
Although their contract with the state guaranteed union members' would see their wages go up by more than 5 percent last year, 20,000 workers instead saw their paychecks remain steady. AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said state employees deserve to be fairly compensated.
"We've never encountered a unilateral pay freeze imposed by an employer like this before," Lindall said. "People are upset, they're angry, they want out of their way repeatedly to defer promised increases, to take furlough days ... and the thanks they've gotten is for the Governor to walk away from his side of the agreement and refuse to make them whole in the end."
Gov. Pat Quinn said he had to cancel the raises because the budget didn't include enough money to pay them.
The two sides have been battling it out in court.
Rather than settle the matter, a Cook County circuit court judge has sent it back to an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator will have to decide if, in fact, Illinois didn't have money to pay the employees.
The Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act's health insurance requirement for most Americans, as well as other elements of the health care overhaul. The High Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that the health insurance requirement for most Americans in the Affordable Care Act was not, in fact, a mandate, but a tax.
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