Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 09, 2011

ComEd: Smart Grid Could Save Customers $2.8 Billion

Commonwealth Edison says smart grid technology could save customers more than $2.8 billion over the next 20 years.

ComEd released an analysis Monday from Black & Veatch that puts the cost of installing smart grid as less than or equal to the savings.

Mike McMahan, vice president of Smart Grid and Technology for ComEd, said a rate hike of $3 per customer would cover the cost of the technology, and it would be made up soon after the smart grid was installed.

"We estimate at least $2 of that would be returned to the customer on their bills at the end of the deployment period and there would be an additional $1 in savings associated with fewer outages," he said. "So benefit to the consumer that doesn't pass through the utility."

McMahan said the savings identified in the analysis would come from three major changes. First, the smart grid technology would eliminate manual meter reading, and thus meter reading jobs, because the smart meters would send information directly to ComEd. This would also mean, according to ComEd, more accurate bills and fewer service visits. Secondly, McMahan said smart meters would detect electricity theft and therefore cut down on energy losses. Lastly, McMahan said the new technology would bring enhanced disconnection and reconnection of services, minimizing collection costs during storms, power outages or even when a renter is ending their ComEd service.

Yet all of this rests on the signature of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Earlier this year, legislators in Springfield passed the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act that would authorize rate hikes for both ComEd and Ameren customers to foot the smart grid bill. Quinn has said he would not sign the measure, as he wants power companies, rather than consumers, to pay for smart grid.

The bill doesn't sit well with members of the Citizens Utility Board. Executive Director David Kolata said he supports installing smart grid, but he does not think this bill is the way to do it.

"I think this analysis is further evidence that smart grid would be good investment for consumers -- we do think it's something that will save consumers money in medium and long term," Kolata said. "It's the other parts, though, that are problematic. You have to make sure you get those right. It's serving as Trojan horse for significant regulatory changes that apply to all ComEd's costs -- if it was just smart grid, it would have passed already."

The bill is currently on Gov. Quinn's desk.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 09, 2011

Workers Comp Change Prevents Injured Criminals from Collecting

Illinois state employees injured while committing crimes no longer will be able to get workers' compensation under a new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The law stems from a 2007 wreck involving former Illinois State Police Trooper Matt Mitchell. Mitchell was driving more than 100 mph and using his cell phone on Interstate 64 in southwestern Illinois when his cruiser crossed the median and slammed into a car. The two Collinsville sisters in that car were killed.

Mitchell later pleaded guilty to reckless homicide and was sentenced to 30 months of probation. His claim for workers' compensation for his injuries was denied.

Quinn says Illinois' workers' compensation system is meant to protect workers injured on the job, not those who commit crimes.

The new law takes immediate effect.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 08, 2011

Comcast Rolls Out Internet Plan for Low Income Households

Comcast has unveiled a program, known as "Internet Essentials," to expand Internet access for about $10 a month to low-income families.

The cable and Internet provider wants to make the program available next month in 39 states, including Illinois, where the company's Internet service is offered. Comcast spokesman Jack Segal said eligible families must have at least one child receiving free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program. He estimates that lunch program is open to more than 4,500 students in Champaign and Urbana.

"Internet access is the great equalizer," Segal said. "It's great for people economically to have access --- kids especially to have access to the internet to do their homework, to learn, to dream, and to really, really participate in the world."

To qualify for the program, customers must not have any overdue bills with the company or unreturned equipment. They also cannot join Comcast's Internet service 90 days prior to joining the program.

The low-income families who qualify can purchase vouchers for a new computer valued at around $150. They can also sign up for free digital literacy training.

This is not the only internet plan coming to Champaign-Urbana. Organizers of the UC2B Big Broadband project are hoping to get high-speed Internet in the area by Feb. 2013. The University of Illinois has taken the lead in getting the more than $22 million federal grant and a $3.5 million state grant to support the project, but it is leaving much of the work to the cities.

The high-speed Internet plan would costs about twice as much for customers compared to the Comcast program and run up to 10 times faster, according Mike Smeltzer, the principal investigator of UC2B's grant.

"Our connection will be massively fast," Smeltzer said. "I think (Comcast's plan) is kind of like training wheels for our project. If somebody doesn't have Internet today, and they look at this and they say, 'Hey, this would be good for our kids that are in school, and we can afford the 10 bucks a month, let's get it.' It will only wet their appetite for something better."

Smeltzer also praised Comcast's reduced-price service, saying it will help connect people in areas where the UC2B project won't be available.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Categories: Economics, Technology

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Quinn to Name Immigrant Scholarships Commission

Gov. Pat Quinn says that by the middle of September he hopes to name a nine-member commission that will establish private scholarships for immigrant children in Illinois both illegally and legally.

Quinn says he wants to make sure people who want to serve on the commission created by the Illinois Dream Act he signed this week have time to submit their names for consideration.

The Chicago Democrat will name the commission that has to raise private money to fund the scholarships because no taxpayer dollars will be used.

Immigrant children can qualify if they attend an Illinois high school for at least three years and have at least one parent who immigrated to the United States.

Quinn has already pledged $1,000 to the fund.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Regional School Superintendent “Pessimistic” of Quinn’s Funding Plan

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office is working on legislation to restore funds to pay the salaries of the state's regional school superintendents.

Quinn cut their funding earlier this year. But the Superintendent for Champaign and Ford Counties says she is pessimistic that anything will be settled prior to start of the legislature's fall veto session. That means Jane Quinlan and other superintendents won't get paid until November or December. Quinlan said it is a hard time of the year to be dealing without income.

"All bus drivers have to have refresher courses," Quinlan explained. "We've had a number of people in the office trying to get their authorization to substitute teach in schools, we provide the training for new administrators that they need to take before they can evaluate staff. There are a number of things that like that going on this month that are critical to getting school started."

Quinlan said there does not appear to be plan in place for superintendent's offices that are forced to close.

"If it's a case where you have savings or you have a spouse who's employed, you're able to perhaps work longer without a paycheck," she said. "Though I think most people understand that they expect to be paid when they're working."

A spokesman for the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, Ryan Keith, said the governor could be looking into using money from the State Board of Education as a short-term fix, but he said there is no specific proposal yet.

The governor's office expects to have more information about this legislation next week, but Keith questions whether the measure needs approval by lawmakers this fall anyway.

Quinlan said it is more likely that legislators override the governor's original veto of the superintendent funding when the fall veto session begins in October.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Illinois Notifies Seniors Eligible for Free Rides

Postcards are in the mail to Illinois low-income senior citizens eligible to ride free on public transit.

The Department on Aging announced Wednesday the postcards went to seniors enrolled in the Circuit Breaker program.

Those seniors remain eligible for free rides on public buses and trains.

Free rides are ending for other seniors, although they'll still get reduced fares. Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation in February to limit the "Seniors Ride Free" program to low-income seniors.

Seniors in the Circuit Breaker program may need to contact their local public transit agency for a free ride card.

To qualify for Circuit Breaker assistance, an applicant's total income for 2010 must be less than $27,610 for a household size of one.

(Photo courtesy of erekslater/Flickr)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Obama Praises Deal to Halt Aviation Shutdown

President Barack Obama is praising a bipartisan deal that will end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration and get thousands of workers back on the job.

Obama says the nation "can't afford to let politics in Washington hamper our recovery.''

He says he's pleased to see leaders in Congress working together to settle the issue.

The FAA flap has become another embarrassment for the federal government.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal to extend the FAA's operating authority through mid-September. Under the plan, the Senate will approve a House bill that includes a contentious provision cutting $16.5 million in subsidies for rural communities. Democrats say the administration will use authority under the deal to waive those cuts.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 04, 2011

Illinois-Based Kraft Foods to Split into 2 Companies

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Illinois-based Kraft Foods announced Thursday that it plans to split into two separate companies by the end of next year.

One company would focus on international growth by selling snack products, like Oreo cookies, Trident gum, and Cadbury chocolates. The snacks business is estimated to have revenue of about $32 billion.

The other part of the company would stick to the North American grocery business, which would include Kraft cheese and Maxwell House coffee. Kraft estimates revenue of approximately $16 billion for that part of the company.

"Our strategic actions have put us in a position to create two great companies, each with the leadership, resources and strong market positions to realize their full potential," Chairman and CEO Irene Rosenfeld said in statement.

The move by Kraft comes at a time when other companies, including Wal-Mart and Target, are trying to respond to one-stop shopping needs by adding more grocery store choices. University of Illinois finance professor Heitor Almeida said Kraft's decision is a smart one because it'll allow the company to spend more time focusing on opportunities for growth.

"It should be ok for the company as a whole, including the employees and everything," Almeida said. "I guess one concern is whether the North American grocery business might become a target for an acquisition for another company because it's clearly the less glamorous one."

While investors reacted well to the news, analysts were skepticism about the strategy and as to whether the deal, when fully formed, will provide shareholder value. Some analysts question the split of what they see as overlapping businesses.

"We are surprised,'' said Morningstar analyst Matt Arnold. "It's definitely a change in philosophy; they used to say we will win with scale. It's tough to say if there is pressure from investors."

Aside from the spinoff plans, Kraft announced that its second-quarter earnings climbed 4 percent to $976 million, or 55 cents per share, from $937 million, or 53 cents per share, a year ago. The food maker's stock gained 92 cents, or 2.7 percent, to $35.22 in premarket trading.

Kraft runs a major food processing plant in Champaign. The company says there are no immediate plans to change its operations in the state.

Categories: Business, Economics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 03, 2011

Local Airports Cope As FAA Partial Shutdown Continues

Bids will be opened this Friday from contractors competing for a construction project at Willard Airport near Champaign, but any actual work will have to wait until Congress agrees on temporary financing for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA has been partially shut down since July 23. Congress took its August recess without resolving a dispute over the FAA, and won't be back in Washington until after Labor Day.

Willard Airport Director Steve Wanzek said he will work with the Illinois Department of Transportation's Division of Aeronautics to complete the necessary paperwork at the state and local level - in the hope that Congress will act quickly enough to allow the FAA to approve the project in September.

"We'll do all the paperwork, get all the grant application, all of that stuff through the state," Wanzek said. "You know, that takes a couple of weeks anyway. So we may lose a week or two --- assuming that if they (Congress) met on Labor Day, after Labor Day and take this on --- you know, something approved --- we would be able to be issued a grant fairly quickly."

Meanwhile, the Decatur Airport has already received federal funding for an upcoming ramp rehabilitation project, according to airport director Joe Atwood. He said FAA's partial shutdown will not prevent that project from going forward. But he said he will be watching activity in Washington when Congress returns in September

Atwood will also be keeping an eye on what Congress decides to do about the Essential Air Service program, which helps underwrite air passenger service at the Decatur Airport. Efforts in the Senate to restore FAA funding broke down Tuesday over a GOP proposal to cut money for that program.

The Essential Air Service program provides money to help airports in small cities attract and keep air service. The Decatur Airport is funded by the program, as are airports in Quincy and Marion.

Atwood said it is strange that the program is being debated now, because its funding isn't part of the federal budget.

"The money comes from the Aviation Trust Fund, and it doesn't affect the General Treasury," Atwood said. "It's not a general Treasury budget item. So even if they eliminate the program, they don't effectively eliminate the resulted expense from the treasury. They can cut the program out, they still haven't saved anything."

Atwood stresses that the debate in Congress over Essential Air Service funding is about the program as a whole, and doesn't focus on the Decatur Airport in particular.

The partial shutdown at the FAA does not affect air traffic controllers.

Both Atwood at the Decatur Airport and Wanzek at Willard Airport say their day-to-day operations will continue as usual.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 03, 2011

Ill. Appellate Court Upholds Health Insurance Contract Ruling

An Illinois Appellate Court has upheld a Sangamon County judge's ruling, preventing the state from moving ahead with new health insurance contracts for state employees and retirees.

In June, a Sangamon County Circuit Judge prevented Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services from dropping Urbana-based Health Alliance, leaving the health insurance policies of thousands of state workers into doubt.

Gov. Pat Quinn's administration argued the so-called 'open access' plans will save the state about $100 million a year. Health Alliance then filed suit. The 90-day extensions of current contracts granted by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability are set to expire in September.

In its ruling, the 4th District Appellate Court said the state ignored a decision by that group. Champaign Senator Mike Frerichs is part of the bipartisan legislative commission. While the court's decision does not immediately impact state workers, he said it gives more fuel to additional extensions, and hopefully a long-term solution.

"I think what employees want is to be able to continue access to their health care providers, and I'm hopeful this ruling will help us get to that point," Frerichs said.

In a statement, Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum called the court's ruling encouraging, with hopes that it leads to the provider remaining an option for state workers and retirees.

"This is good news for all of those who fought so hard to keep Health Alliance," Ingrum said. "We hope it leads to Health Alliance remaining an option for state workers and retirees."

The Department of Healthcare and Family Services said the state is reviewing its legal options following the court ruling.

"We remain confident in the process of awarding and contracting with the winning vendors as well as their ability to offer quality healthcare at a price that will save the state money during these tough fiscal times," said Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

At a COGFA hearing scheduled for Aug. 16 in Chicago, the panel will vote on extending the current insurance contracts through June 30, 2012. Three days later, the state will argue before the Sangamon County Judge that blocked the new contracts whether COGFA has the authority to extend the current ones.


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