Illinois Public Media News
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)
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.
(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.
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.
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.
Illinois' two U.S. senators cast their votes for the debt ceiling bill signed by President Obama moments after its Senate passage. But on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk said the agreement is only a short term fix.
"This bill prevents a crisis from breaking out this week," Kirk said. "It also begins to control automatic spending programs, many of whom (sic) have run without accountability since the 1960s. All of this is a down payment on further ways to bring common sense, accountability and control to the spending of our government."
Illinois' other senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, was acting as Senate president as the bill passed - he's been a longtime proponent of a bipartisan compromise. Indiana's two GOP senators split their votes - Richard Lugar voted in favor of the bill, Dan Coats voted against.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn will not say whether he thinks the state tollway should increase rates.
The Illinois Tollway says the plan is necessary to pay for a $12 billion project to repair and expand Chicago-area expressways. When pressed by reporters, Quinn refused to take a stand on the issue.
"We're going to let the whole process take forward," Quinn said. "The Tollway has a board; they're going to have public hearings, and I think that's a healthy thing, to have the public have a chance to speak."
The Tollway Board is scheduled to vote on a plan by Aug. 25. If it passed, toll hikes would take effect starting next year. Officials said the proposed increase would probably be between 40 to 75 cents.
A watered-down version of what began as a panhandling ordinance has been approved by the Urbana City Council.
The measure that passed on a 5-to-1 vote Monday night instead bans what's called 'aggressive solicitation,' or those who ask for money in a threatening or intimidating matter. The new ordinance removed portions that banned any requests for donations in the Philo Road Business District.
Alderwoman Diane Marlin said those who aggressively beg in that area have brought one unintended consequence.
"Basically, people who have been approached, or aggressively solicited or felt threatened, their reaction is to just stop patronizing businesses where this occured," she said. "That's a survival tactic."
The new measure still prohibits solicitation near an ATM or bank. Public opponents, including resident Ron Custer, argue that laws already on the books in Urbana should handle what the council is trying to address. Custer is one of several opponents who has come out in the last few weeks to speak out about the issue.
"I mean, when we hear anecdotes of somebody being terrorized in their car, and somebody else saying 'oh this happens routinely,'" Custer said. "Doesn't that sound like something that could have been responded to effectively by now?"
Opponents also say the original ordinance unfairly targeted poor people, and didn't distinguish from those who intimidated from those who casually ask for money.
One change to the new ordinance allows violators to perform community service as an alternative to paying a fine. That's an idea welcomed by Alderman Eric Jakobsson.
"That certainly will not dilute what we're hoping to acheive with this, whether we achieve it or not," Jakobsson said. "It definitely moves it in a direction of actually even being more than a deterrent, but being a positive outreach, to the extent that that's possible."
City council members will do an 18-month review in Jan. 2013. Alderwoman Heather Stevenson voted down the measure, saying the issue weighs heavily on civil liberties. She suggested that the public as well as police officers should learn more about existing laws.
Mayor Laurel Prussing and Alderman Dennis Roberts did not attend Monday's council meeting.
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson was one of just three Illinois Republicans to vote down the plan to raise the federal debt limit.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Johnson said the legislation "falls far short of making the fundamental structural reforms and the fundamental spending reductions necessary to get our nation working again."
GOP freshman Reps. Randy Hultgren and Joe Walsh also voted 'no.'
"Washington's spendthrift habits are the reason 87 Republicans were swept into the House in 2010," Johnson said. "That frustration has not changed. I also find it regrettable that under his new plan, Congress won't be able to revisit the debt ceiling until 2013."
Republican supporters of the plan included Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois' 11th District, and John Shimkus of Illinois' 19th District. Democrats Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago and Jan Schakowsky of Evanston opposed the plan.
A college education will be more affordable for thousands of undocumented immigrants in Illinois.
Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday signed into law a bill that will set up privately funded college scholarships for children of immigrants, legal or not. The program's backers say it will be the nation's first state-created scholarship fund benefiting undocumented immigrants.
"[It's] certainly something that will get noticed around the country and in the Congress," said Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute.
The Illinois measure could build support for a federal bill called the DREAM Act, according to McHugh. That bill, introduced in May by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) would lay a path to citizenship for many undocumented students and military members who arrived in the country before age 16. Durbin has been pushing versions of this measure since 2001.
Opponents say helping out the young people rewards their parents for violating immigration laws.
Quinn signed the scholarships bill at Benito Juárez Community Academy, a mostly Mexican high school in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. He called the occasion a "landmark" day and told an auditorium of people that education is the key to opportunity in a democracy.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended the ceremony after announcing support for the measure in May. Lobbying led by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights helped push the bill through the Illinois Senate and House that month.
Under the measure, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission will create a nonprofit organization to manage the scholarship funds. High-school guidance counselors will receive training about the program. The immigrant families will also be able to join state-run college savings programs.
Illinois and several other states already provide undocumented students in-state tuition.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
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