Illinois Public Media News
Indiana closed its budget books Thursday with $1.2 billion in extra cash, built on a series of deep cuts to education and healthcare services and improved tax collections.
State Auditor Tim Berry called the state workers who bore most of those budget cuts via greater workloads, "heroes."
"The surplus was built on the backs of state employees," said Berry, after he thanked them for tightening their belts.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has already said he plans to keep that money in savings rather than restore cuts made in recent years.
The Daniels administration set a target of cutting $597 million from the budget last July, just before state tax collections improved. Although tax collections improved dramatically over the last year, the administration cut deeper as the year went on, ultimately cutting roughly $460 million more than what they planned for last July.
"More money in Hoosiers' incomes and a terrific job of cost control by state employees working together combined to produce an even stronger result than we expected at budget time," Daniels said in a statement Thursday. He planned a Friday morning press conference to discuss the budget.
But talk of the massive state surplus glossed over how the administration achieved it, largely through cuts to education and children's healthcare, House Minority Leader Pat Bauer said Thursday.
"This is a gimmicky report; which has not been unusual for this administration," said Bauer, D-South Bend.
The state school system bore much of the brunt over the last year, returning $325 million from the $6.9 billion that it was allotted in the previous budget. The cuts were more pronounced for state agencies with smaller budgets such as the Department of Child Services, which had its budget slashed by $104 million.
The other half of the state's budget equation, tax collections, improved significantly over the last year, and the state collected $204 million more than it had projected. Most of that money, $195 million, came from income taxes.
The budget surplus should help the state replenish its emergency spending fund, the Rainy Day Fund, which is monitored closely by bond-rating agencies as they set interest rates for the state on its outstanding debt.
The $1.2 billion also fell just short of the amount needed to trigger automatic tax refunds for Hoosiers. The automatic tax refunds kick in when the state has a surplus equal to 10 percent or more of general spending. The $1.2 billion figure amounted to 9.1 percent of spending.
Parkland College in Champaign now has the funding it needs to move forward with a large expansion.
About $31 billion in construction funds were released earlier this week by the state, and $24.6 million of that money will support construction of the Student Services Center and Applied Technology Building at Parkland.
Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Simon, who was at Parkland Thursday morning as part of a statewide tour of community colleges, said the construction program will improve access to education in an already crowded school.
"They're filled to the gills here," Simon said. "Their offices, their classrooms, are totally loaded with students. We heard about students going out to their cars to study in between classes. So, to have more space to do their good work here is going to be a big improvement for everyone."
Parkland College President Tom Ramage estimates that once construction of the two buildings wraps up, the college will be able to accept up to 5,000 additional students over the next 20 years.
"We've experienced huge enrollment growth over the last four or five years," Ramage said. "When we're out of classroom space and out of office space, it limits the sort of offerings we can put out for our students."
Parkland has already raised an additional $67 million for its so-called "Master Plan," which includes the two buildings, the addition of a Fine and Applied Arts Center, and remodeling on campus.
State officials say these projects are expected to employ hundreds of construction workers.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
University of Illinois Interim Chancellor Robert Easter confirms the university's Board of Trustees will vote next week during a meeting in Chicago to close its Institute of Aviation.
A panel of administrators and faculty made the recommendation in February as part of a series of cost-cutting measures known as "Stewarding Excellence." But members of the Institute's Alumni Advisory Board say the trustees are ignoring a vote by the U of I's Faculty Senate to keep the facility open. Even though the proposal to close the Institute failed by three votes, Easter calls that tally 'essentially a tie".
"We have other bodies, the Stewarding Excellence process, the Faculty Committee on courses and curriculum, they have supported the decision," he said. "We had to arrive at some decision, so we decided to move it forward."
Easter notes that the Institute's degree program was only established in the late 90's, while the U of I has been teaching people to fly since the 1940's. Easter said the U of I still wants to find a way to offer pilot training, and it is working with a local community college to provide those courses. He would not say whether that school is Parkland College. Easter also said the closure date for Aviation would be 'several years' away.
"We have a very real obligation and commitment to continue to operate the educational program until the students have had a reasonable opportunity to complete their degrees." he said.
Karen Koenig with the Institute's alumni panel said there has been an effort to merge the Institute with another unnamed college. But Easter said any progress at a meeting between the two parties scheduled for Wednesday will likely be too late to change the outcome of the Board of Trustees vote next week.
Koenig said the powers that be are ignoring the actions of others, and not giving Aviation enough time to respond, since the Institute's alumni panel only learned of administrators' plans on Tuesday.
"The original proposal made by (Easter) to close the institute is the one being sent to the trustees, and that totally circumnavigates the votes that were made by the University Senate, the Student Senate, the Faculty-Student Senate, and the Educational Policy Committee," Koenig said. "Those are not being considered."
Dana Dann-Messier is President of Koening's advisory group. He says the university's efforts to shut down aviation started in 2005, when instructor and director positions started becoming vacant and weren't refilled. Dann-Messier says those actions are hurting the business.
"It's apocolyptic," he said. "Those are the words the industry is using for the pilot shortage on the horizon. And for the administration to be engaging in these kinds of games when the future of air transportation is at stake, and we can be a leader in that future, it's mind boggling. That's all I can say."
Staff and alumni from the Institute of Aviation plan to rally Thursday morning before the Board of Trustees meeting.
Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich have asked a judge for permission to speak with the jurors who recently convicted the impeached Illinois governor on multiple corruption charges.
A filing with U.S. District Court on Thursday seeks access to jurors as the defense prepares post-trial motions. It doesn't specify the motions, but it's widely expected Blagojevich will appeal his convictions.
Defense attorneys often interview jurors about how they reached a verdict in a search for fodder that could bolster their appeal.
Jurors found the 54-year-old Blagojevich guilty on 17 of 20 counts, including attempted extortion for trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Several jurors told reporters after the retrial they liked Blagojevich and hoped to acquit him. But they said they believed the evidence was overwhelming.
A new study shows race could play a role in traffic stops across Illinois.
An Illinois Department of Transportation and University of Illinois at Chicago study of traffic stops in 2010 found that minorities are more likely to be cited or to be asked for a consent search than white drivers. The research is part of a state rule that requires police to record the details of traffic stops and report them to the DOT. For the last few years, the research has revealed similar results.
Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the ACLU wants state police to get rid of consent searches entirely. A consent search is when an officer asks the driver if he or she can search the vehicle. Unlike other searches done by police, a vehicle search can be done without a warrant. All the officer needs is consent from the driver.
"Given the danger of conscious or unconscious bias being in play, we think that consent searches always will yield a disparate impact against minority motorists. It simply is too subjective a technique to apply," Schwartz said.
In June of this year, the ACLU of Illinois filed a complaint to the United States Department of Justice. According to Schwartz, the ACLU wants there to be a federal investigation into Illinois State Police practices, and for the US DOJ to issue a ban on the use of consent searches.
Schwartz said the new study confirms the need for such action.
"We think that it's a technique that can't be cured or reformed," he said.
Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police Department, said they are in the process of reviewing the raw data and expect an internal review to be completed within the coming weeks. She said that no decision had been made to cease consent searches.
The University of Illinois has formally appealed a federal judge's ruling that student and family records be disclosed.
The brief filed Wednesday stems from a lawsuit filed last year by the Chicago Tribune. The U of I denied Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the paper seeking the names and addresses of parents of Urbana campus applicants who were enrolled over more qualified ones.
The University contends those records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. U of I attorney Sam Skinner said information like test scores are protected due to privacy issues, similar to what is seen in health care.
Skinner said it is clear the measure should apply to both admitted students, and those who apply and are rejected.
"What they're really looking for in this particular case is students who were admitted, and what the information is on their students, including information about the families, where they live, and also there's a request pending that deals with actual ACT scores and other information," Skinner said. "We think that's clearly covered by FERPA."
The U of I complied with prior FOIA requests from the Tribune, submitting nearly 6,000 documents, including e-mails, but the Tribune filed suit over redacted names in those e-mails. The investigation of the so-called Category I list resulted in the resignation of former U of I President Joseph White, and the resignations of six of nine U of I Trustees. The university said failure to comply with FERPA could mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for financial aid and academic grants.
The Champaign News-Gazette is not a party to this lawsuit, but also filed many FOIA requests. Publisher John Foreman said scholarship recipients should be public information, or the system should be abolished altogether.
"It's our belief, and I think it's been demonstrated a number of times over the years, that many of these scholarships are political rewards to family members, friends, and campaign workers," he said. "Who knows who else?"
Oral arguments are expected in the fall, but Skinner said he does not expect a resolution until late this year at the earliest. He said the court will have a chance to respond, then the U of I will have a chance to file some additional briefing. In granting the University's stay the order pending appeal, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall welcomed an appeal so protections afforded by federal law could be clarified.
Decatur city officials say low water levels and high heat is what killed several thousand fish, including the invasive Asian carp, below the dam between Lake Decatur and the Sangamon River.
The discovery of the fish did not come as much of a surprise to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Spokesman Chris McCloud said the fish tend to move in migratory areas.
"Illinois has the most rivers, lakes and streams of any state in the entire country, and many of those tributaries are connected," McCloud said. "So, is it a surprise that they're there? No. It's just that we have not seen them in that many numbers in quite a while."
Asian carp have long been in the Sangamon River, but have never been seen so close to the lake. Lake Maintenance Supervisor Joe Nihiser said he noticed the Asian carp a couple of weeks ago, but he said there is no evidence to suggest that the carp have made it into Lake Decatur.
"We will just continue to monitor the tail pool to see what kind of activity we have with these Asian carp," Nihiser said. "Naturally they swim upstream to where there's water that is moving or has ripples in it."
The fish have spread throughout the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio river basins.
The Asian carp are known to compete with other fish for food by eating large quantities of plankton. Decatur city officials worry that the fish may damage sport fish populations.
Anyone who catches a silver carp or bighead carp alive should call Decatur Lake Management at 217-424-2837.
The summer season is in full swing, and that means many teenagers are trying earn some extra cash. But the job market remains tough, especially for teens. As Illinois Public Radio's Mike Moen reports, Illinois is no exception.
(AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)
Federal prosecutors say seven members of an outlaw biker gang from Illinois are now facing racketeering charges, after being caught up in a multi-state sting operation Tuesday.
In all, federal officials say they rounded up 18 members of the "Wheels of Soul" motorcycle gang. A grand jury indictment alleges that 15 of them employed various criminal activities, including murder, arson, and kidnapping, while jockeying for power against rival gangs.
The government says the Wheels of Soul gang was strictly hierarchical. The seven defendants from northern Illinois have nicknames like Big T, Q-Ball, and Thundercat, according to the indictment. Federal prosecutors say members were always required to carry a sort of survival kit with them, including a weapon, a flashlight, a needle and thread.
Some were allegedly dubbed "one-percenters," and received a diamond patch to put on their motorcycle vests that identified them as select members who routinely committed crimes for the gang.
Several of the defendants have hearings scheduled before a federal judge in Chicago later this week.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The Vermilion County Board overwhelmingly approved a measure Tuesday night by a vote of 22-1 to issue a land permit to an energy company that wants to construct a large wind farm in Vermilion and Champaign Counties.
The lone dissenting vote came from board member Terry Stal.
Chicago-based Invenergy is looking to build 104 wind turbines in Vermilion County starting northeast of Kickapoo State Park. The company is willing to pay the county up to $90,000 a year in property taxes and an additional $150,000 in building permit fees.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon supports the plan, touting its economic advantages for the community.
"Land owners get anywhere between $4,000 and $8,000 a year for leasing a piece of their land for the wind turbine," McMahon said. "So, you get the economic boost of people getting money because of the wind."
Darrell Cambron of rural Rankin has opposed the project from the start. Cambron said that the Vermilon County wind ordinance, which allows the wind turbines within 1,000 feet of a home is simply too close. He is urging county officials to give the plan a second look.
"It seems like they keep getting bigger all the time," Cambron said. "I've talked to other people who have had them around their homes, and they have problems with them."
Each wind turbine would be 492 feet tall, and have the capacity of producing 1.6 megawatts. Cambron said he is concerned that the large wind turbines would create too much noise and shadow flicker. However, McMahon said those concerns could only be addressed if Vermilion County had a zoning ordinance, but he said county simply does not have one on the books.
"I have no jurisdiction to look at those issues when it's a building permit," McMahon explained. "If you were going to build a building, and you needed a permit for that building, you have to produce that that building is a sound building, and it's not going to fall over or somebody get hurt."
The wind farm would stretch to Champaign County, where there would be 30 additional turbines north of Royal and just south of Gifford.
Champaign County Board member Alan Kurtz, a Democrat, said the county's wind farm ordinance, which took three years to develop, will allow the county to reap the benefits, including hundreds of jobs.
"I was able to put together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, and we passed a wind farm ordinance by a supermajority of 25 out of the 27 votes on the county board," Kurtz explained. "It's obvious that there was a consensus for wind farms here in Champaign County and the revenues that it will bring to us."
The Champaign County Planning and Zoning Department received its application this week to build the wind farm. A set of public hearings on the project is scheduled Aug. 25, and Sept. 1, 8 and 29 at the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals.
"I don't know if the county board is going to want to do a study session," county zoning director John Hall said. "They are all pretty familiar with the wind farm requirements since it was such a relatively recent amendment, so I never presumed that they would want a study session...there are no plans for a study session at this time."
The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.
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