Illinois Public Media News
Indiana's attorney general says in a legal opinion that it is unconstitutional for the state's school districts to end free school bus service by turning transportation over to outside agencies.
The opinion issued Thursday by Attorney General Greg Zoeller supports arguments that opponents have made against a bus fee that started this fall in the Franklin Township district of suburban Indianapolis.
District officials say budget troubles forced it to get out of the transportation business by turning its buses over to an agency that is charging at least $40 a month per child for bus service.
Zoeller issued a similar non-binding opinion last year that district's couldn't directly charge bus fees.
The district argues that it isn't involved in the contract between parents and the bus service.
A bipartisan panel of Illinois legislators has rejected more of Gov. Pat Quinn's plans to close prisons and health centers in an advisory vote.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability voted overwhelmingly Thursday against closing the Jacksonville Developmental Center, the Tinley Park Mental Health Center and the Logan Correction Center in Lincoln.
Executive Director Dan Long said commissioners weren't convinced the Jacksonville facility could close as quickly as Quinn proposes.
Long adds that members say Tinley Park provides needed services in suburban Chicago to 1,900 people a year and they scoffed at the idea of moving Logan prisoners to gymnasiums and infirmaries in other, overcrowded prisons.
The commission previously rejected four closures. Quinn is revising the plans but needs more money to keep the centers open this year.
Gambling legislation designed to pick up new support so it could survive a veto failed outright in the Illinois House on Wednesday amid opposition from Gov. Pat Quinn and blistering criticism from the state's top gambling regulator.
Looking stunned, the measure's sponsor said he was at a loss to explain the outcome.
"We'll get to the bottom of it and figure out if we can find the necessary votes to pass it by tomorrow," said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
The surprise results added to the uncertainty and unfinished business heading into what was supposed to be the final day of the fall legislative session. Also still left on the table for Thursday were tax breaks for businesses, efforts to keep Quinn from closing prisons and mental institutions, changes to government pensions and restoring salaries for regional school superintendents.
The long "to do" list prompted House leaders to announce an extra day of work, on Nov. 21, primarily to deal with the business incentives.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said opposition from Quinn and the head of the Illinois Gaming Board probably hurt the gambling bill.
"That could dissuade people from voting yes," Madigan said.
The Democratic governor has spent weeks criticizing the gambling legislation, largely because it would allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks. On Wednesday, Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe stepped up his criticism of the bill, saying it would weaken regulatory oversight of gambling in Illinois.
Jaffe said the bill is being pushed through so quickly that many lawmakers, perhaps even its sponsors, don't understand what it would do.
"If they do understand what they're voting on, they should be ashamed of themselves," Jaffe said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "They're undermining regulation, and they're undermining it terribly."
Six months ago, a major gambling expansion passed the House but not with enough votes to survive a potential veto by Quinn. The new version was meant to pick up additional support. It scaled back the size of the increase - for instance, by dropping slot machines at Chicago airports and the state fairgrounds - and addressed complaints about lax regulation.
The measure still allowed five new casinos and permitted racetracks to operate slot machines.
The final vote was 58-53, two votes short of passing and 13 short of a veto-proof majority.
The vote was a victory for Quinn and a defeat for new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is eager to land a Chicago casino and the jobs and taxes it would generate.
"The mayor of the city of Chicago is a big boy. He's an adult," Lang said. "He knows that in the legislative process you win some, you lose some."
"But I know he's not happy about losing, as I am not," Lang added.
A major overhaul of the state's pension system has for the first time achieved enough support to make it to the floor of the Illinois House. It would mean state employees and teachers will have to pay more to keep their current retirement plans.
The state for years didn't invest its share into government workers' pensions. That pattern may now be leading to workers' receiving smaller pensions in the future. The measure would lessen teachers' and state and university employees' future retirement benefits, or have them pay more to keep their current plans. A third option would allow workers to switch to a 401(k) style plan.
The proposal was developed by the Civic Committee of the influential business group the Commercial Club of Chicago. The Committee's Ty Fahner said Illinois needs to hurry to stabilize the pension systems.
"Simply put, without reform those funds would run out of money which would be a tragedy for everyone in Illinois," Fahner said.
But unions say it is unfair to give workers a smaller benefit, even though they always put their far share into the pension funds. They also say because there is no guarantee the state contribute its share, the government could easily slip into its old ways. There is also a question of whether cutting future benefits violates the constitutional guarantee protecting employees' pensions
"That's like saying if you have a contract to buy a car for $20,000, and you go to pick it up, say 'well it's $30,000,"' said Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31. "That's not the same contract. That's a different contract. When you're asking people to pay more money, and let's not kid ourselves, you're not asking voluntarily."
While the measure cleared a House committee despite unions' objections, it is unknown if the full House will take it up at least this week during veto session.
Meanwhile, a tax break measure intended to entice Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to stay in Illinois stalled, despite deadline pressure from the exchange's chairman.
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange is 90 percent electronic and its customers span 150 countries. Chairman Terrence Duffy said that would make it easy for his firm to pick up and move.
"The 150,000 jobs associated with us, if we walk out of the state of Illinois we're talking about $300 million of revenue leaving the state of Illinois in income taxes," Duffy said.
Duffy said he has gotten plenty of lucrative offers from other states. Those are offers he hasn't taken because he said the Chicago Mercantile Exchange wants to stay in Illinois. But Duffy said the state's tax code disadvantages the financial exchange, and unless Illinois changes it, the company may leave.
Hoffman Estates based Sears has also threatened to leave unless it gets a tax break. But there are only two days left of this week's veto session, a package wasn't even ready for a committee vote. In order to gain support the measure has grown into what's known as a "Christmas Tree" bill because there's something for everyone under it ... a tax break for the working poor, a higher estate tax exemption, and a research and development tax credit.
Critics say that will end up costing the state millions, and they question why Illinois should help big businesses when its cutting social services, closing facilities and laying off employees.
Other big-ticket items are also in flux. Regional superintendents who've gone unpaid since July when Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed their funding from the budget are trying to bolster support for a plan that would use a local tax to pay their salaries, but only for a year, while the state studies the regional office of education system. That proposal's also before the House.
University and union bargaining teams will head back to the table Wednesday morning, after failing to reach an agreement again on Thursday.
In a joint statement from the Faculty Association and the SIUC Administration, leaders say a 12-hour round of negotiations yesterday failed to produce a tentative agreement.
Striking workers and their supporters have been on the picket lines since last Thursday, and students have held protests this week on campus.
Administrators say they're doing what they can to fill classes with qualified substitutes, but many students say those subs aren't getting the job done.
(Editor's note: CU-CitizenAccess.org is taking an in-depth look at nursing homes in Central Illinois. Earlier this week, we sat down with Chuck Schuette, the new administrator for the Champaign County Nursing Home to discuss his plans to tackle the challenges facing the county's nursing home (see interview below). For more on this project and interactive tools you can use to evaluate nursing homes in your area, tune in to Illinois Public Media or visit CU-CitizenAccess.org on Monday, Dec. 5. Want to be part of the project or have a story to share about a nursing home experience in East Central Illinois? Contact reporters Dan Petrella or Pam G. Dempsey)
For Effingham native Chuck Schuette, running a nursing home has always been the plan.
So when he saw the chance to oversee a nursing home, he took it.
Schuette, the new Champaign County Nursing Home administrator, started his new job Oct. 31. He replaced Andrew Buffenbarger, who served as the County Nursing Home administrator since 2004.
Schuette, 59, worked as the chief nursing officer for 24 years at St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital in Effingham.
"Coming from an acute-care background, I did get some experience, because at the hospital we developed a skilled-care unit and in regards to that, I went and got my long-term care nursing home license (in 1995)," he said. "I kept it all these years with the idea that one day I would go into long-term care."
Schuette has his work cut out for him.
Like other nursing homes in the area, the Champaign County Nursing Home has faced several challenges in recent years: late payments from the state, numerous complaint investigations by the Illinois Department of Public Health and difficulty in managing staff retention.
The nursing home is also rated overall two out of five stars on a federal Medicare compare site (see http://www.medicare.gov/NHCompare). The overall federal rating is a combination of the health inspection rating, the staffing rating, and the quality measures rating.
A little more than three years ago, the Champaign County Board contracted with Management Performance Associates, a St. Louis-based firm, to provide day-to-day management oversight for the operation of the nursing home, said Deb Busey, Champaign County administrator.
Since the contract began in 2008, the nursing home's finances improved, as had its patient count, county officials said. The County Board renewed its contract with the management firm in June.
Buffenbarger is moving to a new position within Management Performance Associates.
Schuette (pronounced shoot-y) said that while this is his first job heading a nursing home, "I am excited, enthused and happy to be here."
"The big difference in acute care is you only see the patients three or four days max," he said," and here people are here for the rest of their lives, for many cases. That is really an advantage. You really get to know the people and know the families and it's kind of a community."
In the transition from acute care to long-term care, Schuette said the largest "culture shock" comes from the delay in state reimbursement payments.
"It should be fine, but it's scary," Schuette said. "I think about it constantly, 'Are you going to have enough money?' "
But with other nursing homes facing similar pressure, "somehow they get through it, and I'm going to learn how they get through it over the next few months."
His to-do list is long. One of his priorities includes bolstering the nursing staff.
"Nurses just aren't being valued for what they really are and what they can offer people, and I want to try and make sure that is sensed here and the nurses feel that here and hopefully nurses will say, 'This is where we want to work,' " Schuette said.
The staffing level at the nursing home is "higher than what is required for regulatory compliance," he said, and he hopes to keep it that way.
"We're maintaining that and keeping it at a higher level of staffing," Schuette said. "Will we then be forced to go down to minimum regulatory standards? I'm getting the sense we won't have to go in that direction. ... We'll probably never drop down to minimum staffing levels."
Resident safety is another priority.
"We want to make sure we endeavor to be regulatory compliant," he said. "This is a heavily regulated industry and for good reason, it needs to be that way. We're talking about the safety of our residents. I want to really work on that, to make sure that each and every time we are surveyed, that we are actually reducing the number of tags and that we are really spending a lot of time making sure we are in compliance and our residents are safe."
Schuette has spent the past 10 days settling into the job and says he'll develop more goals and strategies over the next three months.
"I think we have the things here to do it and do it well," he said. "It's going to take leadership ... my real job is trying to be a leader and motivate people to a higher performance. That's what I hope to do."
(Produced by Sean Powers/WILL)
A ribbon cutting ceremony was held Tuesday in Champaign to mark the opening of a new dental clinic for low-income, uninsured, and Medicaid eligible patients.
Located at the Francis Nelson Health Center, the 1,000 square-foot clinic seeks to treat about 2,500 people within the next year. Nancy Greenwalt is the director of Smile Healthy, a community-based initiative to provide dental care to the undeserved. She said in addition to having a dentist, three full-time dental assistants, and two part-time hygienists on staff, the clinic also has volunteer translators who speak both Spanish and English.
"Dental care is a procedure, and the patients need to understand what's going on - payment, contact information," said Greenwalt, who noted that up to 40 percent of the patients at the Francis Nelson Health Center speak Spanish. "It's just not possible without the translation services."
Smile Healthy operates another program that provides dental care for children. According to the United Way of Champaign County, that program has over 200 additional children waiting for care. All are 200 percent of the poverty level or below, and most are on Medicaid.
United Way President Lyn Jones said the clinic is needed more than ever.
"There are people who are missing work because of dental problems, causing extreme pain," Jones said. "This really will improve the overall health of citizens in Champaign County."
According to the United Way, at the time when the Francis Nelson dental clinic opened on Oct. 17, about a thousand people were on a waiting list for cavity fillings, teeth extraction, and other dental care.
More than half a million dollars in donations were used to start up the clinic, and the United Way of Champaign County hopes to raise approximately $50,000 to sustain dental services.
The cost of using the clinic's services will be determined on a sliding scale based on a person's income. Medicare does not cover dental costs.
The clinic is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 819 Bloomington Road in Champaign.
Other Champaign County groups offering dental service to low-income people include the Champaign County Christian Health Center, Champaign County Healthcare Consumers, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, and the Parkland College Dental Hygiene Program.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
An Illinois House committee has approved a new, smaller gambling plan that backers hope can survive a threatened veto by Gov. Pat Quinn.
It passed 8-2. Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said the measure could be changed even more before a vote by the full House. Lawmakers approved a major gambling expansion during the spring legislative session. But they never bothered sending the bill to Quinn out of fear that he would veto it.
The Democratic governor has a number of concerns, particularly the idea of allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks. After the governor panned it, Lang pushed for the smaller proposal. The new proposal would still allow slots at racetracks but not at Chicago airports. It also lowers the amount of growth allowed for existing casinos.
"I'm sure even the governor would say we have made a good faith effort to match up some of the governor would agree good faith effort to match up some of our ideas with some of his ideas," Lang said.
However, despite the changes Lang said he still expects the governor will oppose it.
The lure of additional gambling in Illinois has some communities on opposite sides of the issue.
When riverboat gambling was legalized more than 20 years ago, it was sold as a way to boost tourism and the sagging economies in certain towns. Now communities like Rockford, Danville, even Chicago want in on the action. The idea of a quaint trip gambling down the river is long gone. It is all about money and jobs.
"We fit in that original description of an economically depressed community," Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said. "I'm not happy to say that but what i am happy to do is to stand here and fight for an opportunity to bring jobs to our community."
The city is one of five that would be allowed to add gambling under a package being considered at the capitol. An earlier effort met resistance from Gov. Quinn and mayors whose towns already have casinos. Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain said his town has used proceeds from gaming on projects.
"We built a police station, we built a recreation center, and those days will be rapidly disappearing for us," Kaptain said.
Kaptain also raised concerns about slot machines at horse tracks, which he says would take money from existing casinos.
Illinois lawmakers head to Springfield on Tuesday for the last week of the fall session.
Several big items have been pushed to the back burner, including a bill that would overhaul Illinois' pension systems. It's proving to be one of the most radioactive issues in the legislature this year. And that's why lawmakers might put it off -- again.
Putting it off, however, won't make the state's financial picture better. Gov. Pat Quinn in September announced he needed to close seven prisons and homes for the disabled because there is no money to keep them operating. If his decision stands, it will mean a major reshuffling of the mentally ill, some of whom were sent to institutions because they're dangerous. It could mean relocating adults and children who have severe physical disabilities.
There are many examples of the budget crunch. The state is so far behind paying its bills, it had to stop a program that helped fund burials of poor people whose families couldn't afford to bury them.
"We're broke, as everyone knows," said Ty Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general and president of the Civic Committee, which focuses on economic growth.
His group has been pushing legislation that would make state workers, teachers and others pay more toward their retirements. Because the state is so far behind paying its share to their retirement accounts, there is little money left over. The debt grows each year, taking a bigger share of the state budget.
State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) is chairman of the House pensions committee.
"I don't think there's any member of the General Assembly who doesn't realize this is a problem we have to do something about," he said.
But lawmakers seem to be gearing up for their final week of session without addressing the single biggest budget pressure facing taxpayers.
"This all comes from basic cowardice, and I mean that word sincerely," said Fahner who believes lawmakers are more focused on their re-eletion campaigns than on the state's budget crisis. Goups that oppose the bill are powerful. Unionized teachers and state workers are hounding lawmakers with phone calls and e-mail. And union leaders are determined to run candidates against incumbents who support the idea of making their members pay more.
The unions say the reason the state is in this mess is the state's fault, not theirs.
Even legislators will admit they used the pension system as a credit card. When there wasn't enough money for schools or health care for the poor, they made a smaller payment into the retirement accounts of workers, thinking eventually they would catch up.
But it didn't stop there.
They also made pension benefits more expensive over the years. They made retirement ages younger for certain groups. They made retirement income go up each year, higher than the cost of living, through a compounded 3 percent adjustment. And they added more workers.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego is sponsoring a bill to overhaul the pension system, and he is ready for a vote on it this week.
"We could sit here and point fingers, but I think this is the issue of the day, and if we don't address pensions, it will consume us like we've never seen before," he said.
Lawmakers meet for three days. So far, it looks like they'll be asked to vote on a tax cut package for businesses and maybe a casino bill.
But the state' s biggest money crisis - pensions - just might get kicked to the spring.
Close to 4,000 students have received scholarships from the state to attend private schools under Indiana's broad new school voucher law.
State Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett said Thursday the months-old program is already succeeding at providing new opportunities for low and moderate income families.
Indianapolis Public Schools lost the most students under the new program, sending close to 650 students to private schools. The South Bend and Fort Wayne school corporations lost the second and third highest number of students to private schools under the program.
Opponents including the state's teachers unions say the program amounts to a wealth transfer from public to private schools. The Indiana State Teacher's Association is backing a legal challenge to the voucher law.
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