Illinois Public Media News
A huge expansion of legalized gambling in Illinois is headed to the House floor.
The proposal would create licenses for five new riverboat gambling casinos. It would include a gambling boat or land-based casino in Chicago. It also would expand horse racing and add slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie was approved 8-3 Friday by the Executive Committee. It failed in the same committee Wednesday with only five votes.
Gov. Pat Quinn said earlier Friday he opposes "top-heavy'' gambling expansion and frowned on gambling at the fairgrounds.
Lobbyists for existing riverboat casinos oppose the measure because they say the market is saturated and state revenues would drop at current boats.
A state agency's plans to proceed with new health insurance contracts means a number of calls have come in to the University of Illinois' Payroll and Benefits office.
On Wednesday, Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services opted to proceed with a contract that leaves out Health Alliance and Humana HMO's.
Executive Director of U of I Payroll and Benefits Jim Davito says his office is taking questions from state workers in areas with no HMO coverage now asked to choose between Personal Care and HealthLink Open Access Plans, and the state's own Quality Care Health Plan. DaVito says concerns have ranged from higher cost to changing doctors.
He encourages state employees and retirees to thoroughly research their plans, and not have one chosen for them if they miss the June 17th deadline.
"We would much rather see each of our employees choose the new plan that they're going to have starting July 1, rather than having a default option defined by CMS (the State Department of Central Management Services) determine what coverage you're going to have for the next year," said Davito, who says the pending changes for state workers should prompt them to thoroughly review their benefits package. He says the same for some who have been on HealthLink the past few years.
"Many people have chosen it, but a lot of people have never looked at it," said Davito. "And so it's a new concept, and I would encourage people to look at the literature, and call HealthLink, and call Personal Care OAP, and talk about the questions that you have."
Davito says the Open Access Plans are unusual in that they're composed of three tiers, with the lowest tier being similar to an HMO. The state agency is moving forward with the state insurance contract despite a vote against it Wednesday by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
The U of I plans to hold more Benefits Choice informational sessions on campus soon.
One state lawmaker is taking a gamble on a big expansion to the state's gaming industry, and so far it isn't paying out.
The latest plan to grow the number of casinos has hit a snag.
Skokie House Democrat Lou Lang says a short drive across the Illinois border shows just how much money the state is losing out on.
"If you go to gaming enterprises in other states and never get out of your car and just drive through the parking lot around the states that surround Illinois, you'd see nothing but Illinois license plates," Lang said.
Five new casinos, slot machines at race tracks and video gaming are all packed into Lang's proposal. That was enough for a House panel to give it a thumbs down. Opponents call it overreaching and a monumental expansion. Existing riverboat casinos railed against it, saying the gambling market is already saturated. Tom Swoik, who represents those casinos, says revenues have dropped by nearly a third and building more won't generate new dollars.
"That's like saying that a third of the houses available are vacant but let's help the economy by building more houses," Swoik said.
Governor Quinn has indicated his willingness to discuss a Chicago casino. Lang could scale back what he's asking for, but he won't have much time to change it before the legislature is set to adjourn next week.
Democratic leaders in Springfield say they're getting closer to reaching a deal on a state budget.
The state House has already passed a bipartisan spending plan. But it would appropriate $1 billion less than the version approved by Senate Democrats. Now, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, says he's willing to go along with the House's $32 billion proposal.
"I think we're going to have a very positive experience here. I know we're going to have a balanced budget," Cullerton said Thursday. "Each chamber has passed a balanced budget. So this is just a matter of how much more we can save and pay down of our existing debt."
Cullerton said he's beginning to negotiate with House Speaker Michael Madigan to reconcile their two budget proposals.
Meanwhile, an Illinois Senate committee is advancing a plan to pay down state debt by borrowing $6 billion. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants to borrow more than $8 billion to pay down a backlog of overdue bills. But many Republicans oppose the idea.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
The state agency in charge of health insurance for public employees says it is going forward with a plan to drop Health Alliance HMO and Humana as options for state and university employees' medical insurance.
Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana have protested the move.
The state's decision comes in spite of a vote Wednesday morning by the bipartisan Commission on Governmental Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) to end self-insured/Open Access Plans for state employees, which is what the state planned to move employees to in areas where the HMO/Blue Cross Blue Shield plan isn't available. The vote potentially sets up a constitutional clash over the fate of health insurance for about 100,000 state and university workers.
Moving many employees to this sort of plan is how Governor Pat Quinn's administration had been planning to save up to $100 million a year.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a ruling last week stating that legislators don't have the power to interfere with specific contracts. However, despite Madigan's ruling, State Senator and CGFA member Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the commission has the authority to weigh in on policy changes. He also noted that the commission's vote reflects a major policy shift in self-insurance at the state level.
"And that's something we have consent power over," Frerichs said. "We don't have the ability to consent to individual contracts, but this big policy shift we do. We rejected that, and I think that will necessitate rebidding of the whole package."
State Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) also sits on the commission. He said the vote by CGFA was done as an attempt to get all parties back to the bargaining table.
"My hope is that everybody involved in this process, rather than rush into court and having lawsuits, can all sit down together and try and perhaps try and rebid it, come up with a different plan," Murphy said.
It is unclear if the commission's vote is binding, and could send matters into a tailspin. The Department of Healthcare and Family Services is going forward as if that vote was insignificant.
"We followed the letter of the law," DHFS spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. "Everything was done fairly, it was done ethically, so why would we reopen the bidding?"
Downstate legislators have been highly critical of the decision to drop Health Alliance. They have shown no signs of letting down.
Meanwhile, many of the employees and retirees with Health Alliance as medical insurance say they don't want a new provider because they fear they will be forced to switch doctors. They are also concerned they will pay more out of pocket on doctor's visits.
As it stands now, state employees have until June 17 to decide what provider they want for medical coverage. The state is also considering opening another enrollment period this fall.
Ethics Commission Upholds Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO, Humana
There's disappointing news for state and university employees and retirees who had been holding out hope Illinois would continue to offer Health Alliance and Humana health insurance.
The Champaign School Board continued Monday night talking about how to relieve overcrowding at Central High School.
Unlike past discussions, which have centered around building a new high school, this meeting focused on other options to reduce congestion at Central.
Among the proposals discussed, the board looked at having three high schools, fixing up the district's two existing schools, or merging Central and Centennial High Schools into one building that houses up to 3,000 students.
Champaign resident Mark Briggs has a son who is a junior at Centennial High School. He said merging Central and Centennial would open up more academic and extracurricular opportunities for students, like his son.
"He should have the same opportunities that everybody at Central has," Briggs said. "Everybody at Central should have the same opportunities that the students at Centennial have. They're two great schools. Bring them together, and it's going to be a fantastic school."
But Laurie Andrews, a parent of a 2nd grader at Westview Elementary, does not buy the merger idea. She taught at a large high school in Chicago for several years, and she said she found it difficult to regularly interact with many students and fellow teachers. Andrews said she worries having a single high school in the Champaign School District would make it difficult for teachers to connect with their students.
"I am totally against one high school," Andrews said. "I think it's very easy for students to slip through the cracks. It's hard for teachers to get to know students. It's hard for students to get to know each other. "
The school board voiced opposition to that plan, citing its roughly $160 million dollar price tag, the increased likeliness of gang activity, and the possibility some students would have trouble adjusting in a larger school.
"Some students just won't fair well at all in that type of environment because they need smaller one-on-one contact," school board member Jamar Brown said. "I don't know in this community if we can accomplish that in a large school."
Central High School Principal Joe Williams said he would like to stick with the status quo of two high schools, but added that Central should be in a new building. Williams said he is not sure the school district would want to staff a larger school to ensure "students don't fall through the cracks."
He also noted that moving to a larger school would likely force Champaign out of the Big 12 conference to compete against schools in the Chicagoland area.
"So, instead of traveling to Danville, Decatur, and Bloomington, Mattoon, and those areas," Williams explained. "We would actually be traveling north of Kankakee, even north of I-80."
Williams encouraged the school board to study student performance at other schools with varying enrollment sizes.
School board member Greg Novak agrees that having two high schools in Unit 4 has served the community well. He said building a third high school may not be the best idea because it could divert attention away from fixing up Central High School, which he acknowledged has some major problems.
"It doesn't matter how good wireless internet gets, it's still not going to go through the walls at Central very well," Novak said. "We're talking about trying to run a school for the 21st century in a school that was built in the mid-1920s."
If a new school is built, voters would have to approve a tax referendum of at least $50 million to begin construction.
Ideas for the Unit 4 restructuring plan can be e-mailed to CentralComments@ChampaignSchools.org
GE Capital plans to nearly double the number of its employees in Chicago to more than 2,000, in part because of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's economic plans for the city, the company announced Monday.
Officials with the financial services arm of General Electric joined Emanuel at a news conference, saying that 500 of those new jobs - skilled commercial, technical and regulatory positions - would be added within the next year. The other 500 jobs would come in the next few years.
The company also is looking for a new office in Chicago to accommodate the growing work force.
During his mayoral campaign, Emanuel touted his relationships with business and government leaders from his time as an Illinois congressman and when he was President Barack Obama's chief of staff. Monday's news conference served as a reminder of his national stature as well as a pep rally for Chicago.
Emanuel, who is trying to attract more businesses to the nation's third largest city to help overcome its budget shortfall, downplayed the effect his relationship with GE CEO Jeff Immelt may have had on the company's decision. However, the mayor mentioned that because he had Immelt's phone number and email address, he was able to set up a meeting in March.
"Having a personal relationship obviously didn't hurt," Emauel said. "It pushed it a little, tilted it a little."
But, he added: "If this didn't make economic sense to GE and their bottom line they wouldn't have done it. ... You're not going to do this as a favor."
Chicago's projected budget deficit for next year has been estimated at between $500 million and $700 million.
One GE executive said that Emanuel's "economic platform" helped prompt the company to bring more jobs to the city, saying Chicago was the right place to expand.
"There is a wealth of financial services and banking talent available to us in the city of Chicago at a very good value," said Daniel Henson, President and CEO of GE Capital, Americas.
The Connecticut-based GE currently has 4,000 employees across Illinois, according to a news release.
Some of Indiana's taxpayer-supported universities are planning tuition increases for the coming school year that exceed caps suggested by a state panel.
Indiana's higher education commission asked Indiana's seven public universities this month to raise their tuition for in-state students by no more than 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent.
Although the universities aren't required to follow the panel's tuition recommendations, commissioner Teresa Lubbers warns that higher increases threaten to "price people out of their opportunity for a middle-class life in Indiana.''
Since Lubbers' request, Indiana University has proposed tuition and fee increase for in-state students totaling be 5.5 percent in 2011-12 and 5.4 percent the following school year.
Ball State University has proposed raising tuition and fees by 3.9 percent next year and by an additional 4.9 percent in 2012-13.
The Champaign County Board voted Thursday night to raise the salaries of its members for the first time in more than 20 years.
The board approved a pay increase from $45 a meeting to $80, and then voted a second time to bring that $80 figure down to $60. Democratic board member Michael Richards said he thinks that is too low.
"We have had people who have either not run or retired because it wasn't paying the babysitting bill on a four-hour meeting," he said. "Fifteen dollars is something, but I don't know if that's going to be enough of an increase to entice the quality pool to be better."
Opponents of the pay increase, like Republican board member Alan Nudo, worry this sends the wrong message at a time when county employees are being forced to take cuts to their salaries.
"I just don't feel it's appropriate for us to take a raise," Nudo said.
But County Board Chair Pius Weibel, a Democrat, said the county has been able to avoid pay cuts this year, and has actually granted some "small raises" and hired new staff to fill some vacancies, as the county's tax revenue stream begins to improve.
The pay hike would apply to the Champaign County Board starting in 2012.
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