The 2008 recession has taken its toll up and down U.S. Route 150 - and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says almost every Illinois county along the 150 corridor has seen an uptick in 2010 in use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. But anti-hunger advocates say many people who have lost their jobs are NOT taking advantage of SNAP. Illinois Public Media's Dave Dickey reports as a part of the series "Life on Route 150.
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The inventory of available houses and condos on the market in Champaign County is ample and growing. So says the head of the county's Association of Realtors - potentially good news for buyers, but he says sales are relatively slow.
May figures from the state realtors' organization shows 204 sales during the month, down 20% from May of 2010, with year-to-date sales down more than 15%.
Champaign County Association of Realtors president Max Mitchell says tax credits for first-time home buyers have come to an end, and since then buyers have been hesitant. "In 2011, with the interest rates being so favorable, it has gotten people out, but people are a little bit nervous simply because they've heard on the news that you have to have a higher credit score to qualify for a loan," Mitchell said.
Mitchell says the potential for higher required down-payments also has buyers and real estate observers worried. On the other hand, state figures suggest that home prices in Champaign County are holding their own compared to the rest of the state - the median sale price in May held nearly steady with the median price a year ago.
But Mitchell cautions that foreclosures are becoming more of a problem for the market. He says up to now, foreclosed homes have been a target for investors. "Now there are more foreclosed properties, and unfortunately, investors see that if you're going to own a foreclosed property, you aren't going to be able to resell it for a much higher amount in today's market.
The way Illinois taxes businesses has developed a bad reputation. A growing number of companies cite it as a hindrance. Now, though, the leaders of the state Senate and House are making an overhaul of the tax structure a priority.
Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman sent a letter to Governor Pat Quinn in March outlining how Illinois lawmakers' actions were making it harder for him to withstand the heavy courtship of other states wanting the Peoria-based equipment-maker to relocate.
The letter set off a frenzy because Caterpillar's moving would be a major loss to Illinois. Oberhelman later refined his point and says the company has no plans to leave.
Nonetheless ... the focus was drawn to Illinois' business climate. Since then, there has been a drumbeat of headlines about this year's tax hike, and about subsequent tax breaks given to corporations like Motorola and Navistar to entice them to stay, which is why the House Speaker and Senate President formed a joint committee to consider overhauling the business tax structure.
Democratic Representative John Bradley of Marion will be a co-chair. "The idea being here that we're going to try to make Illinois keep up with the times and be handling the corporate tax structure that is efficient, fair, balanced and competitive manner," Bradley said.
Hearings will be held this summer, but times and locations haven't yet been set.
The decision by the mayor of Urbana to veto city funding for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau will only hurt the city in the long run, according to the group's president Jayne DeLuce.
Mayor Laurel Prussing said the agency has not been effective, and that the nearly $72,000 in the budget for the CVB could be used to help fill two police vacancies instead.
But DeLuce said cutting funding will limit the CVB's ability to promote events like the Illinois Marathon and state high school athletic tournaments, and facilities like hotels and convention spaces. She said she will attend an Urbana City Council committee meeting on July 11th to defend her agency's work.
"We're not looking back in five years and saying, 'Wow, how come we don't have that event here anymore? How come nothing new has happened anymore? Why are our tax revenues staying plateaued or not increasing?' And when you decrease local funding, that's what happens," DeLuce said.
But right now, Prussing said she does not believe the CVB's claim that it has generated 7.2% of hotel room nights in Urbana, for an economic impact of over $3.1 million, according to a formula used by the state Office of Tourism.
"I think most of the tourists that come to Urbana and Champaign come here because of the University of Illinois," Prussing said. "I don't think that the tourism bureau has much of an impact. They can't measure their impact. No business in Urbana has told me they have an impact on that business."
A statement from DeLuce said one Urbana businessman --- Adam Friederich of the Comfort Suites Hotel --- credits the Convention and Visitors Bureau for nearly 10% of their budget revenues so far this year.
But Prussing said the city needs the money budgeted for the CVB to help close a nearly $1 million budget gap --- one that may get wider, once a new police contract is settled through binding arbitration.
Prussing said the idea for cutting CVB funding to help address the budget shortfall came from Alderman Charlie Smyth.
Smyth said he brought up the proposal last month, to contrast it with proposed cuts to social service funding --- something he said is an easy target because the people served by such funding do not have the political voice of local business interests. But Smyth said he has not reached a final decision yet.
Planned Parenthood of Indiana says it will stop seeing Medicaid patients if a federal judge doesn't rule Monday on its attempt to block the state's new abortion funding law.
The group said it will stop seeing those patients unless they can pay or use other resources if the judge doesn't rule by the close of business Monday on its request for a preliminary injunction blocking the law.
The law signed May 10 by Gov. Mitch Daniels bars Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid payments for general health services such as cancer screens.
Planned Parenthood has been relying on private donations to fund care for Medicaid clients. It has previously said it would run out of donations after Monday to cover the costs of caring for existing Medicaid patients.
Small-time growers and cooks who sell food at farmers market may soon be able to expand their offerings. Advocates for locally made food and health department officials are attempting to find some middle ground.
Nearly all the food at farmers market is regulated, some more than others. Basically, if it's in a jar or prepared in any way it must be done in a certified kitchen. But making the upgrade to one of those kitchens can be costly for someone trying to sell baked goods or preserves.
A measure that passed the state legislature recently would allow people to sell certain kinds of food made in a home kitchen. They would be able to do so without making costly upgrades or receiving the stamp of approval from a health department. Dairy products prone to food borne illness wouldn't be allowed. Only baked goods, dried herbs, teas and canned preserves could be sold.
Wes King is a policy coordinator with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. He said some health code regulations keep culinary entrepreneurs from branching out. He points to the growth in the number of farmers markets throughout the state.
"We thought that you know, creating a more risk and scale appropriate regulations that would allow some of these start up businesses to take place in their homes or farms that are already selling at the farmers market to add a little bit and diversify their product line," King said.
But health department officials were initially concerned. They wanted to make sure consumers knew the food they were buying came from a facility that hasn't been thoroughly inspected. All food made in a home kitchen will need to be labeled as such if Governor Pat Quinn signs the exemptions into law.
"Because this is an evolving industry there were some challenges on the part of the regulatory environment in terms of where can we be flexible but yet still assure a reasonable consumer protection," Peoria health administrator Greg Chance said.
Chance said he support the measure because it only allows the sale of food not usually prone to food borne illness.
Some new livestock farms are cropping up in Illinois, but they're not the typical cattle or hog farms. Instead, more deer, bison, and llamas are growing up on private property. And one relative of the llama is growing up at over 50 farms statewide. As part of the series, "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert visits three farms in Central Illinois to find out what makes the alpaca both appealing and profitable.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
Illinois legislators are meeting with Governor Pat Quinn Thursday in hopes of winning his support for a gambling expansion bill.
Quinn has spoken out against the legislation -- approved last month-- which would add slot machines and five new casinos, including one in Danville.
Rather than give Quinn the chance to veto or change the package, either of which would likely kill it, legislators used a technical maneuver to keep it from going to the governor's desk.
Senate sponsor Terry Link (D-30th) said the hold gives him time to assuage the governor's concerns.
"Yeah, we will increase in size but you know we're not up there being another Las Vegas by any means," he said.
Link said he is open to talking with Quinn if the governor has any suggestions on how to downsize the measure. But said the casino set to go in his district near Waukegan would have to remain.
House sponsor Lou Lang (D-16th) will also be in on talks with Quinn.
"To the extent that I can accommodate the governor, I'm willing to listen to him. Willing to hear what he wants to do. But I'm not willing to state upfront that I'm prepared to shrink the bill down," Lang said.
However, Lang said he won't accept substantial changes.
(With additional reporting by Pam Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess)
The term "food desert' has gained traction in recent years as a name for areas with a shortage of full-service food stores. But it's not clear how big a role they play in the lives of people who struggle to get the food they need. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows visited the Piatt County town of Mansfield. The people there have enough to eat, but they have to travel to get it.
There are people out there who want think they have that million dollar recipe that food shoppers will flock to buy. But beyond that first batch, what's missing is the right kitchen. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers looks at the effort to build a community kitchen in Champaign-Urbana, and he visits one-kitchen in Danville that's taken off.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
View a Slideshow from The Cook's Workshop in Danville