The U.S. Postal Service is considering shutting down several of its offices in an effort to fill a $10 billion budget deficit. The days may be numbered for one small-town post office in Champaign County.
Illinois Public Media News
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is scheduled to depart for China on Friday to lead an delegation of Illinois business and educational leaders. The governor told reporters this week he hopes his eight day mission will help improve trade relations with the country - and boost Illinois' economy.
Quinn said an increase in exports will create more jobs in Illinois.
"I don't think any state in the union that really wants to get more jobs should miss the opportunity to interact with other countries that either want to invest in our state or want to buy our goods and services," Quinn said."That's part of the job of a governor nowadays, especially in the 21st century."
The delegation is scheduled to stop in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where Illinois first opened a trade office in 1983.
Quinn said he plans to sign an agreement with China that would increase soybean exports. China, according to Quinn, is the third largest exporter for Illinois, behind Canada and Mexico.
According to the governor's office, Illinois exports to China have grown recently, totaling more than $3 billion last year. Key exports include machinery, electronics, chemicals and agricultural products.
During his time as mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley made several visits to China to promote business and tourism in the city. Quinn said he hopes his visit will further encourage Chinese tourism to Illinois, which grew to 97,000 visitors in 2010.
The governor also plans to visit Japan for a conference at the end of his trip to China. He is scheduled to return to Illinois on September 24. This is Quinn's second trip abroad this year -- he visited Israel in July.
The plan to merge the Illinois treasurer and comptroller's office is stuck in the state House of Representatives.
Combining the two offices that handle state finances could save Illinois an estimated $12 million, but the legislature hasn't signed off on the constitutional change.
State treasurer Dan Rutherford and comptroller Judy Baar Topinka both favor combining their offices into one. Topinka, a Republican, blames Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan for keeping it "bottled up" in that chamber.
Madigan's spokesman denies that claim, saying the Speaker does believe the two offices have dramatically different duties, and the public's funds are best safeguarded when they're kept separate.
Illinois used to have one fiscal office known as the state's auditor, but in the '50s Orville Hodge used the office to rob the state. Madigan was part of the constitutional drafters who in 1970 separated the office's duties to prevent future scandals. Topinka said she understands that history.
"But the oversight angle of splitting those offices is long gone," Topinka said. "We have other ways of doing it. So now it's time to bring them back and avoid at least 20 percent duplication. That's easy pickings. For gosh sake's what does it take to figure it out? There is honestly no downside. No downside."
The Speaker's spokesman said Madigan believes the consolidation proposal as is doesn't have enough safeguards.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is airing another concern about gambling expansion that would add a new Danville casino and four others in the state.
Quinn has repeatedly harped about insufficient regulation in the bill and on Tuesday he said he was worried it could shortchange education funding.
But Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie said Illinois would still get millions of new dollars if the expansion is approved, even with changes in the sliding scale for taxing casino revenues.
Quinn has talked down the expansion but the governor doesn't have the legislation yet to sign or veto. Lawmakers have held on to it since May to try to deal with Quinn's concerns.
Lang says Quinn has discussed items but not provided a specific list of changes to the bill.
At least two Champaign city council members believe the local convention and visitors bureau is a valuable asset.
But the level of the city's financial commitment to the Champaign County CVB will be weighed Tuesday night, two months after the city of Urbana chose to pull its $72 thousand in funding and use it instead for public safety. The Champaign County Board later provided a $15 thousand donation of its own.
City council member Tom Bruno calls the area a tourist attraction, but not a natural one that doesn't need the backing of promotions offered by the CVB. Fellow council member Marci Dodds also backs the agency, and sits on its board. But she questions if Champaign's CVB funding should benefit a community no longer supporting the agency.
"Do you want us to go out and say to the other people: 'you need to fully fund," Dodds said. "If you don't, you don't get the benefits of the CVB in quite the same way you did before. And I think that that's certainly something I'm comfortable with."
Dodds said it's a mistake long-term not to promote tourism in Champaign, since it will impact the region economically. She's also surveyed other council members, and says they also support funding the CVB at some level.
Bruno said supporting other communities, like Urbana, is unavoidable.
"It very well may be that it's difficult to attract people to the city of Champaign without having some of them choose to stay the night in Urbana," he said. "So because it's difficult to target that, it still may be in the city of Champaign's best interest to just generically attract people to this region."
Like the hiring of a new police officer, Bruno admits it's hard to track the benefits of what the Convention and Visitors Bureau funding does for the city.
The Champaign city council meets Tuesday night in a study session, beginning at 7. Bruno said he expects the council to take final action on CVB funding by October.
A search firm has nearly completed collecting its criteria for what the Champaign community wants in a new school superintendent.
A forum Monday night brought out new input from parents and others who say Unit 4 needs someone with close tabs on the community, and puts the student first, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
Jennifer Shelby will serve on a committee that will conduct the second round of interviews. She said she is concerned about low-income students that can fall through the cracks.
"The kids that go home hungry, and the level of poverty in the school district, which I think the community likes to keep under wraps," Shelby said. "I'd like to see that brought to the forefront."
The forum at Centennial High School brought out about 50 people, and lasted just over an hour. Parent Charles Schultz said he was surprised more didn't attend, but was happy to hear calls for fiscal discipline under a new superintendent, the hiring of more minority teachers, and better communication lines overall.
"They need to work with the board," Schultz said. "Because the (Unit 4) board is responsible to the community, and if there's no chain of command between the community and the board and the superintendent, then the community is not going to be very happy, and the board may not be very happy."
Others at the forum suggested improved school safety, working on a tight budget, and improving the district's school of choice system to add to what's already been compiled from nearly 900 on-line surveys. Laura Bleill says the lack of communication between the district and parents in that school of choice process is frustrating. The co-founder of the Chambana Moms.com web site also believes that Unit 4's next leader needs to open lines of communication that extend beyond the classroom.
"Interfacing with the community is key," Bleill said. "I think this district does a lot of things behind closed doors that should be opened up to the public, and that the public should have more input into how the schools are run and how the future is for our children."
Champaign City Council member Will Kyles said the new superintendent needs to bring about a change in culture within the classroom, noting that some teachers are afraid to talk to their students.
The search firm School Exec Connect will use the forum and surveys to form a profile for a new superintendent. Edward Olds with the search firm says the turnout was typical for such a forum. The comments from the event will be combined with input at smaller meetings Tuesday that include the local NAACP chapter, Champaign County's Chamber of Commerce, and a local teachers' union. The top replies on Unit 4 surveys included finding someone who had worked in a similar size district, and encouraged positive student behavior.
The firm will choose 12-to-15 candidates from more than one-thousand applicants, then narrow it to 5-to-7 finalists that the Unit 4 school board will interview in November. The new superintendent will be hired late this year, and start next July.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has vetoed legislation to increase electric rates for consumers across the state.
The measure was part of a $3 billion, 10-year plan to give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren money for infrastructure improvements and a modern Smart Grid. The bill does not guarantee higher electricity prices, but any future hikes could take effect immediately - rather than first going through a lengthy review.
Quinn's action came as no surprise as he already pledged to veto it, saying the legislation didn't have enough consumer protections and would unfairly raise electric rates.
"It may be a dream come true for Commonwealth Edison, but it's a nightmare for consumers in Illinois," Quinn said. "I think we want to make it clear to the public that they should not be gauged with paying unfair rates for something that they don't really feel is delivering better service."
Quinn urged lawmakers Monday to let his veto stand and said everyone should go back to the bargaining table. He said the starting point should be a plan put forth by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates utility rate increases.
ComEd said opponents were off base about the legislation known as Senate Bill 1652 or SB1652.
"Despite the rhetoric of the legislation opponents, SB1652 does not guarantee profits, will not result in automatic rates increases and does not strip the authority of the ICC," ComEd said in a statement. "Illinois customers want more than the status quo. We look forward to working with members of the General Assembly to help make grid modernization and economic growth a reality in Illinois."
Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris said he is disappointed with the governor's decision to veto the legislation.
Morris said among the changes tied to modernizing the state's electrical distribution system would be fewer power outages, an additional 700 thousand smart meters, and improved energy efficiency.
"Because of the regulatory process that we would have to follow without this legislation, it would take at least 30 years to archive what we could do in 10 years with this legislation," he said.
Morris said Ameren is optimistic that there will be enough support in the General Assembly to override the governor's veto.
About one in 10 restaurants in Champaign County failed a health inspection from April 2007 through April 2011, according to a review of inspection records by CU-CitizenAccess.org. But customers have no easy way of knowing just how sanitary the places at which they eat really are. Dan Petrella reports.
(With additional reporting by University of Illinois journalism alumna Jennifer Wheeler, CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey and UI journalism alumnus Steve Contorno)
Despite delays and debunked predictions-and a never-ending wait for Gov. Pat Quinn's decision on a gambling expansion bill-supporters of expanded gambling in Illinois say they expect to find common ground by Oct. 25, the first day of the fall veto session.
The bill, stalled for months due to policy differences, political infighting and Quinn's reluctance to increase gambling venues, remains a top priority.
But the waiting game may be ending soon. Unless Quinn outlines his concerns "in short order," legislative leaders will present him with their own version of a clean-up gaming bill, known as a trailer bill, that will tighten control over the proposed Chicago-owned casino, according to State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), House sponsor of the bill. Other revisions may be coming as well, Lang said.
The options will be limited: Any change risks losing a vote on a bill that was a delicate balance of interests among Chicago, struggling cities such as Danville and Rockford that want new casinos, the horse racing industry and places like Joliet and Aurora where existing casinos fought the increased competition.
An amendatory veto, which would allow Quinn to change the bill and send it back to lawmakers for a re-vote, would be an unwise choice, Lang said.
"Substantial changes would put the speaker in a position of weighing compliance with the (Illinois) constitution on the amendatory veto," said Lang, who is House Speaker Michael Madigan's floor leader. "That's not a good way to go. If the governor thinks we're going to have substantial changes by way of amendatory veto, I think he's mistaken."
Whether lawmakers' power play will work remains to be seen. Quinn is occupied by daily state budget pressures. He announced Thursday a series of employee layoffs and facility closings that also will be a top item of negotiation during the fall veto session.
For now, the gambling bill that narrowly passed the legislature in May is not on Quinn's desk. In an unusual legislative gambit, Senate President John Cullerton is holding the bill in his chamber, even though it passed, for fear the governor will veto it. And by delaying, he is buying time for an ongoing negotiation. Once the bill reaches Quinn, he must act within 60 days or it becomes law.
Lang, along withSenate sponsor Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, and Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, have been waiting for more specifics from the governor on which parts of the bill make him uncomfortable, but so far the governor has not been forthcoming. Lang and other proponents of the gambling expansion bill spent months crafting legislation with the right ingredients to win approval from a diverse General Assembly. The bill passed the House with only five votes to spare. It passed the Senate with the minimum 30 votes. If Quinn vetoes the bill, lawmakers would need to override his action with supermajorities in both chambers. Supporters would need six more votes in the House and six more in the Senate-likely an impossible threshold on such a controversial piece of legislation..
The more realistic option is to craft a trailer bill that addresses Quinn's concerns while keeping the original bill's vote intact. Starting over, bill sponsors said, is not an option. Many lawmakers who voted against the bill opposed it on moral grounds or voted "no" to protect existing casinos in their districts, which would be hurt by the competition. Ten casinos already exist in Illinois in Elgin, Aurora, East Peoria, East St. Louis, Metropolis, Rock Island, Alton and two in Joliet. The newest casino opened in July in Des Plaines.
Other lawmakers who voted against the bill feared more gambling would not play well in their districts. Those minds would be difficult to change, especially in an election year when they are running in new territories. The boundaries of all House and Senate districts will change for the 2012 election cycle because of redistricting.
When lawmakers return to Springfield this fall for a two-week veto session, some of them may not know whether they are facing competition next year.
"During the periods of time we'll be in Springfield for veto session, the time to circulate nominating petitions (to get on the ballot) will still be going on. So some legislators will be a little nervous about that," Lang said.
Even a follow-up gambling bill addressing Quinn's concerns could be tricky. Just a few cold feet would topple the coalition Lang and Link created last spring to pass the original bill.
For example, Link was able to bring reluctant Republicans on board, including state Sen. Larry Bomke of Springfield, by adding a year-round horse-racing component at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Lang pulled House colleague Luis Arroyo, Democrat of Chicago, into the "yes" column by promising a stream of casino revenue to a fund that would help homeowners facing foreclosure.
They convinced downstate representatives who would not benefit directly from expanded gambling to support it anyway by committing new money to county fairs, a source of pride for farming communities. They included a Danville casino to the bill, which added one senator and two state representatives as supporters.
As a result, the bill is a delicate pyramid of political trades. Any significant changes from Quinn would be a major setback.
"The timeframe is veto session or game over, right?" said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, who says the bill is the last hope to save his industry. "I think we've showed the governor how our industry is on life support and we need him to sign the bill as is."
In addition to policy differences-Quinn said from the beginning the bill was too big-political infighting has slowed it down.
Quinn and Cullerton share a mutual lack of trust. One flare-up in May prompted Cullerton to call the governor "irrelevant" during state budget negotiations. Cullerton has refused to send Quinn the gambling bill until they reach a compromise, fearing Quinn might remind the legislature of his relevance by vetoing it outright. The bill is trapped in limbo between Cullerton's desk and Quinn's indecision.
The legislation would create the nation's first city-owned casino in Chicago, along with four others around the state. The measure also would allow the state's five horseracing tracks and Chicago's two airports to add slot machines, and it would allow existing casinos to expand.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wants the bill, cranked up the pressure on Quinn several times already and is planning more. The Chicago City Council on Thursday approved a resolution supporting a new casino. In mid-summer, Emanuel publicly unveiledthe projects a new casino would fund and organized a news conference of minority aldermen who called on Quinn to sign the bill. Emanuel also is expected to drum up more publicity by working with downstate groups who want Quinn to sign the bill.
Last week, Emanuel hosted a tour for General Assembly members, bringing them on Chicago Transit Authority buses to the National Teachers Academy to meet with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, followed by a visit to the 911 Emergency Communications Center. They ended the visit at a Millennium Park reception. The Chicago casino wasn't an explicit topic of conversation, but the tour gave Emanuel a chance to outline the city's needs.
Like all of Emanuel's moves, the timing was strategic. Lawmakers next month will be addressing the casino bill, however it plays out. Emanuel desperately wants it. The projected revenue boost for the city alone is an estimated $650 million annually, a huge cash cow for a city facing its own budget pressures.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
President Barack Obama urged a joint session of Congress Thursday night to pass a job creation scheme valued at around $450 billion. The plan is getting support from several possible contenders in the newly drawn 13th Congressional District race, which includes Champaign, Decatur, Bloomington, Springfield, and the Metro East area near St. Louis.
President Obama describes the jobs legislations as a balanced plan that would reduce the deficit by making additional spending cuts and modest adjustments to health care programs, like Medicare. That worries David Gill, an emergency room doctor in Bloomington who is the only Democrat to officially enter the race in the 13th Congressional District.
"I certainly would not weaken Medicare and I wouldn't make it more difficult to become a Medicare recipient," Gill said.
Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana), who plans to run for re-election, said he likes the President's plan on the surface, but he said he isn't ready to come out at support it just yet. Johnson said he want to know more about how the legislation would impact the economy.
"What meat is structured on the bones over the course of the next few weeks is critical to the success or the lack of success of this program, and how that will play out in the economic future success of America," he said.
The President said he will ask a newly-formed congressional "super committee" to come up with a plan to pay for the proposals that are outlined in the jobs legislations.
The measure would offer different types of tax credits to businesses that hire new workers. Collinsville Democrat Jay Hoffman is considering a run in the 13th Congressional District. The former Illinois House Representative said those tax credits should focus more on companies that create additional jobs, rather than simply bringing on new employees
"Incentives should be geared toward providing incentives for businesses that actually add people to their payroll," Hoffman said. "Give employers an incentive to put them to work."
Truck driver Sam Spradlin, a Springfield Republican, is also considering a run for the 13th Congressional seat. He said he wouldn't support the measure. One of his objections to the jobs bill is that it looks at cutting the Social Security payroll tax for tens of millions of workers and employers.
"Cutting the payroll tax period is a big mistake," Spradlin said. "It's a continual source of revenue for the government. That's one thing they should not be cutting right now."
The President also talked about pumping money into infrastructure projects. That excited Greene County State's Attorney Matthew Goetten, a Democrat, who recently expressed interest in the Congressional seat.
"I would add projects utilizing our District's strong agri-business heritage." Goetten said. "From the Mississippi and Illinois rivers near my home to the cutting-edge agricultural research of my alma mater, and every farm in between, we have a resource rich area with a hardworking labor force ready for further economic growth with the right investment."
Meanwhile, the president's plan is getting bipartisan support from the Illinois congressional delegation, but several lawmakers are concerned over the details of the plan and how it will be funded.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R- Winfield) said he likes the president's plans to encourage small business growth and hire more veterans. But he said he does not like Obama's plan to pay for the measure.
"You know, spend this now, and then we'll figure out over the next ten years, you know, where we could make cuts to pay for it," Hultgren said. "I think people are tired of that. They've seen through that game of 'Trust us - we're gonna pay it now, and then we'll find it somewhere else, you know, 10 years down the line.'"
Representative Danny Davis (D-Chicago) said he doesn't see much room for debate in the proposal. He said the speech was designed to bring politicians together, not draw partisan lines in the sand.
"When you consider that it focuses around rebuilding our infrastructure - roads and bridges and highways, things you can't really do without - it's pretty often difficult to argue about that."
Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Manteno) said he agrees with Obama's plan to reduce taxes, but he, too, is skeptical about how the president wants to pay for it.
"The president made a mistake in saying, you know, for forty minutes, 'This is paid for, let me tell you how,'" he said. "Then when he finally reveals it, it's just by adding $400 billion on to the target of the super committee - so in essence, spending the money up front, with the promise of cuts later."
Representative Dan Lipinski (D- Chicago) said he thinks the president should have focused on jobs earlier. He said he is most interested in seeing how much money the president wants to devote to transportation infrastructure.
"I think that the president took his eye off the ball on jobs, but now we look forward and hopefully we can come together and get something done," Lipinski said.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said the president's call for free trade agreements with Panama, Columbia and South Korea would help some major Illinois businesses, such as Boeing and Caterpillar. But he said he's been told the bill is at least a week away from being ready.
"If I had counseled the president, I would've said that, 'If you're going to do a big, high-profile speech before a joint session of Congress, the bill should be on the podium.'"
Meanwhile, Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in his chamber, said the plan should stimulate economic growth without adding to the country's deficit. But Durbin said he doesn't like how Republicans acted cool to the president's $450 billion proposal.
"If (Republicans) don't believe that we need to be serious, focused and make a substantial investment in America, then this economy is not going to get back on its feet.