Illinois Public Media News
Wisconsin lawmakers voted Thursday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, ending a heated standoff over labor rights and delivering a key victory to Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending nationwide.
The state's Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker's explosive proposal 53-42 without any Democratic support and four no votes from the GOP. Protesters in the gallery erupted into screams of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as Republican lawmakers filed out of the chamber and into the speaker's office.
The state's Senate used a procedural move to bypass missing Democrats and move the measure forward Wednesday night, meaning the plan that delivers one of the strongest blows to union power in years now requires only Walker's signature to take effect.
He says he'll sign the measure, which he introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall, as quickly as possible - which could be as early as Thursday.
"We were willing to talk, we were willing to work, but in the end at some point the public wants us to move forward," Walker said before the Assembly's vote.
Walker's plan has touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions amid efforts to slash government spending. Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio's Legislature and several other states are debating measures to curb union rights in smaller doses.
In Wisconsin, the proposal has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for weeks of demonstrations and led 14 Senate Democrats to flee to Illinois to prevent that chamber from having enough members present to pass a plan containing spending provisions.
But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted Wednesday to take all spending measures out of the legislation and the full Senate approved it minutes later, setting up Thursday's vote in the Assembly.
Walker has repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
UI Holds Forum on Proposed Cuts to Institute of Aviation
The University of Illinois held a public forum Tuesday night to get feedback about a budget recommendation to break up the 65-year-old Institute of Aviation.
Two candidates for Danville mayor contend they were each offered a job by opponent Jim McMahon in exchange for giving up their campaigns.
Rickey Williams and David Quick both say they were offered the position of Vermilion county treasurer. Quick tells the Danville Commercial-News he was offered the job by McMahon himself, while Williams says it came through a supporter of the County Board Chairman, and he wasn't sure if McMahon was aware of it himself.
Williams says he has no intention of leaving the race, and has integrity.
"I'm not for sale. Even when I was on the (Danville) city council, someone attempted to bribe me about a liquor license," he said. "I made that public knowledge then. It's against everything I stand for as a person. We need somebody who's going to be forthright, and have the best interests of the people at heart. And backroom deals are not the way to represent the people's voice."
McMahon said Williams' comments make no sense, when considering that County Treasurer Sue Stine was just re-elected to office and does a good job. McMahon admitted that he suggested to Quick that he drop his campaign and team up with him, since their campaigns have similar messages regarding higher taxes, although both names would still appear on the ballot.
"Any time you have bad publicity it could damage your campaign," McMahon said. "But I hope people understand and would rise above this. This is a business decision, trying to help a businessman who basically was in 4th place, to come up and join my team so we could be together as committee traveling forward. What more can you ask for when you got fourth and first working together?"
McMahon also said it makes no sense to offer Quick a job, since he is a successful restaurant owner. Quick could not be reached for comment Tuesday,
The president of the state Senate says Illinois should consider taxing the retirement income of some senior citizens.
Chicago Democrat John Cullerton said Monday that Illinois needs to overhaul its "outdated" tax system. As part of that process, the state could tax pensions or 401(k) plans for wealthier retirees.
He told the City Club of Chicago this could bring in roughly $1.6 billion a year, which could then be used to lower other taxes.
A spokeswoman says Cullerton would pursue the idea only if it was revenue neutral and had Republican support.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn said he hadn't seen Cullerton's proposal but would be willing to consider it in the interest of tax "fairness.
Chicagoans are paying steep prices at the gas pump lately. It's prompted one Chicago congresswoman to call for action against the oil companies.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Chicago, said Monday gas prices are so high, they could create another recession.
"I think we need to put on the table everything, including dipping into the reserves, in order to avoid that," Schakowsky siad. She said the U.S. government should end its subsidies to oil companies because their profits are so high.
Meantime, new statistics from AAA show Chicagoans are paying an average of $3.72 per gallon at gas pumps. That's 37 cents higher than last month.
"We're seeing very, very high oil prices for, really, any time of the year," Beth Mosher, a spokeswoman for the organization, said. "The situation in Libya, the unrest in Libya, has prices very, very high."
Mosher suggests commuters stick to public transit - since prices aren't expected to come down for at least the next few weeks.
(Photo by Tony Arnold/IPR)
A two-week hearing begins Monday to determine the fate of Tribune Co. more than two years after an ill-advised $8.2 billion buyout drove one of the oldest U.S. media companies into bankruptcy protection.
The proceedings follow four years of tumult and intrigue at Tribune Co. The company has been through the disgrace of a bankruptcy case that has lasted far longer than planned, a CEO departure triggered by complaints about management's raunchiness and the whiff of a financial scandal fanned by a court-appointed examiner's conclusion that parts of the 2007 buyout had bordered on fraud.
The hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., will affect the ownership of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Sun of Baltimore, other daily newspapers and 23 television stations. The TV stations include Chicago-based WGN, which reaches more than 70 million homes nationwide, mostly through cable and satellite systems.
The hearing edges Tribune Co. closer toward shedding most of the roughly $13 billion that it carried into bankruptcy protection. If it can unload the debt, the company believes it can make money while it tries to adapt to a marketing shift to the Internet.
Judge Kevin Carey is being asked to choose between two competing reorganization plans. The plans differ in their appraisals of Tribune Co.'s current value and their limitations on which participants in the troublesome buyout can be sued for saddling the company with too much debt.
Either way, the outcome is likely to leave Tribune Co. controlled by its creditors. The new owners are expected to replace the patchwork management team that has been running the Chicago-based company since the previous CEO, Randy Michaels, resigned in October amid complaints about risque conduct.
Tribune Co., founded in 1847, filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2008, making it the first major U.S. newspaper publisher to do so during the Great Recession. The deep downturn magnified the challenges facing newspaper publishers as readers and advertisers moved from print to digital alternatives.
The slump prompted more than a dozen other newspaper publishers to follow Tribune Co. into bankruptcy protection. Like Tribune Co., several of them were saddled with billions of debt taken on during better times. Most of them have emerged from bankruptcy protection already.
The complex 2007 buyout engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell complicated Tribune Co.'s effort to return to normal business operations. The allegations of financial conduct made many creditors less inclined to make concessions during negotiations on a reorganization plan. The independent examiner's report last summer prompted the company to back off one proposal.
This month's hearing makes it more likely that Tribune Co. will finally emerge from bankruptcy court this year. The legal fallout could last for years, however. Both plans envision creditors pursuing lawsuits in an attempt to recover more of their losses, and there could be an appeal of Carey's decision in the case.
The stakes riding on the resolution of the convoluted saga are expected to attract a crowd. Carey is setting up a video feed in an overflow room to accommodate up to 100 more people beyond the 175 spectators that can cram into his courtroom. The judge also is clearing space in the courtroom for more than 2,000 exhibits expected to be submitted during the hearing.
"It will take some time and involve some tedium," Carey said during a housekeeping hearing last week.
The hearings also could shed more light on Tribune Co.'s operations and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the Zell buyout, which took the company private and turned employees into part-owners.
Reams of documents in the case have been kept under wraps to protect what has been described as confidential business information. Carey so far has rejected requests to unseal the documents, but he has warned that some of the information could come out during the hearing because he doesn't plan to close the courtroom.
Tribune Co. favors a plan that would turn over ownership to the company's major creditors, including some that had helped line up the ruinous financing, which already has triggered lawsuits. It would shield the lenders involved in the buyout from lawsuits after the company emerges from Chapter 11. Opponents of the plan contend it would also block attempts to sue former Tribune Co. shareholders who received $4.3 billion in the buyout's first phase.
This proposal has the backing of Tribune's Co.'s proposed new owners - a group led by banker JPMorgan Chase & Co., distressed debt specialist Angelo, Gordon & Co. and hedge fund Oaktree Capital Management. It's also supported by Tribune Co.'s committee for unsecured creditors.
A group of creditors that owns Tribune Co. debt issued before the Zell buyout has proposed an alternative plan primarily because they want fewer limits on which parties can be sued for alleged fraud. The plan also contends these note holders, led by hedge fund Aurelius Capital, are entitled to be paid bankruptcy claims totaling $1.2 billion instead of $761 million offered in the proposal backed by Tribune Co.
Zell, still Tribune Co.'s chairman, has filed objections to both plans because he and a business arm, Equity Group Investments, would remain exposed to lawsuits alleging fraud.
The competing reorganization plans also came up with dramatically different estimates on Tribune Co.'s business value. The company-backed plan pegs it at $6.7 billion, compared with $8.3 billion in the Aurelius-led proposal.
Tribune Co. has been gradually recovering from the recession, primarily because of an industry-wide revival in television advertising. The company's revenue last year totaled $3.1 billion, 2 percent below 2009, based on court documents.
But the company still gets more of its revenue from newspapers and other publishing sources. Tribune Co. has predicted its revenue this year will decline 4 percent, dip another 2 percent in 2012 and slip 3 percent in 2013.
Those forecasts assume the new owners won't break the company apart by selling some of the newspapers and TV stations.
Union groups plan to continue rallying at the Indiana Statehouse to protest several bills supported by Republicans.
The Indiana AFL-CIO says it expects thousands to attend a "We Are Indiana" rally Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the west side of the Statehouse. Tuesday, unions are planned to mourn the "death of the middle class" with a New Orleans-style funeral procession.
Members of the AFL-CIO and other unions have been gathering at the Statehouse to protest what they consider anti-union legislation backed by Republicans who control the House and Senate. House Democrats are boycotting that chamber in an effort to derail some of the proposals.
Democrats say they won't come back until Republicans negotiate, but Republican House leaders refuse, saying they won't be bullied into dropping bills.
About 80 Champaign employees, most of them in public works, are being asked to begin scheduling furlough days to reduce the impact of salary increases that went into effect last July.
City human resources director Chris Bezruki said the AFSCME union workers are being asked to take six furlough days between now and the end of August. He said the salaries of non-union city employees were frozen this fiscal year, but AFSCME received a 3-and a quarter percent raises. The union has responded to the furlough mandate by filing an unfair labor practice charge against the city of Champaign, alleging leaders negotiated in bad faith. Their complaint will go before the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
City negotiations with AFSCME Council 31 started in December. Bezruki said the two sides started to discuss the impact of furlough days.
"How many we need to take, and how we're going to do that?" Bezruki said. "How we're going to schedule it? What employee input should there be? Should they schedule a furlough day next to a holiday if they want, or things like that? They refused to make a counterproposal at all, and so we had declare an impasse just last month. And so now we're proceeding with implementing this process."
Michael Wilmore, a Staff Representative with the AFSCME union, said the city chose to ignore a number of other cost saving options, including a pay freeze, removing the cap on overtime pay to comp time, and starting a four 10-hour day schedule for public works. He contends the moves could have saved more than $200,000 additional dollars.
Bezruki said the complaint filed by AFSCME means the Labor Relations Board will request information on negotiations between the two sides, the proposals that were exchanged, and whether a hearing will take place. He said that process can be drawn out as long as six months.
Students, instructors, and graduates of the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation say administrators want to close a valuable program at a time when it's needed most.
About 80 of them Thursday discussed an industry that stands to lose about 37,000 pilots in the U.S. alone over the next 10 years. U of I Graduate Nathan Butcher is now a Delta pilot. He said there's a decline in training overall, and many pilots are nearing their mandatory retirement age. Butcher said administrators have a very narrow view of the Institute, which is turning out more than pilots.
"The Institute of Aviation is a long standing center for excellence in the field of professional pilot training, aviation research, and aviation safety advancements," he said. "Unfortunately, the university's administration defines the Institute of Aviation's role as being very technical and only worth of trade school status. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Willard Airport Tower Air Traffic Controller Kevin Gnagey said two thirds of his workforce is nearing retirement age, and that the Institute generates 85% of the traffic they direct at Willard. Gnagey contends the U of I is also throwing away the chance for future research on airport grounds.
"I would also be so bold as to assert that losing the Institute of Aviation could pose a large loss to the University of Illinois," he said. "This loss may not be immediately evident, but as the FAA is investing billions of dollars into research and development in new technology for the next generation of the national airspace system, opportunities would be lost."
Instructor and U of I graduate Joseph McElwee said while no decision has been made, he says administrators are trying to make closing the institute easier by moving remaining faculty to other academic units, and denying Fall 2011 admission to new applicants.
"They say that no decision has been made, so we don't have to bargain with your VAP's (Vistiing Academic Professionals)," McElwee said. "But at the same time, if you think about this, it's just an academic institution. And so the backbone of this is the students. And if we don't have students, there's no one to teach."
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the recommendation to close the facility came after evaluating competing interests of students, faculty, and the public, and determining that closing the Institute and discontinuing degree programs were in the best interests of the Urbana campus. She also cites declining enrollment at the Institute in the past decade, noting it had 176 applicants in 2002, admitting 119, and 65 freshman enrolled. In 2010, the Institute had 112 applicants, admitting 65 and 34 enrolled.
A hearing on the Institute's future will be held Tuesday before Urbana campus Senate. The plan must also go before the U of I's Board of Trustees and the State Board of Higher Education.
Republicans in the U.S, House of Representatives say if the federal government shuts down over a budget impasse, it won't be their fault.
15th district congressman Tim Johnson returned to Champaign-Urbana Thursday with an additional two weeks remaining until the federal government would have to shut down without a spending plan in place for the rest of the fiscal year.
But Johnson said Democrats in the Senate and White House need to make the next move.
"We've done our job," Johnson told reporters at Willard Airport. "We'll see what they come back with. But I don't want to have this mantra that we faced from 1995 where (Democrats said) 'It's the Republicans who are shutting down government.' It's not the Republicans shutting down government. We have acted. They didn't act. They controlled the whole process for upwards of half the fiscal year and did nothing."
On Thursday the Obama administration proposed another $6.5 billion in cuts, but Johnson said that pales in comparison to the $100 billion cut the GOP has promised, and he doesn't see the spirit of compromise in the President's offer.
Johnson also defended a provision in the Republicans' plan that zeroes out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Johnson - who has been a member of the House Public Broadcasting Caucus - said the budget had to be passed, even with the severe cut.
"You can't fail to act on the budget simply because there are certain items within the budget that you'd rather see reenacted," he said. "Certainly that's of concern; there are a number of areas of concern to me. But the overwhelming concern is that we're in debt, we're broke and we have to do something about it.
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