Illinois Public Media News
Members of a health care advocacy group are urging Congress to avoid touching Social Security as a bipartisan panel looks to reduce the national deficit.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers has sent a letter to Senator Dick Durbin, speculating that his 'Gang of Six' is still looking at cuts to Social Security. The group's Medicare Task Force says a myth is being spread on Capitol Hill that the program adds to the deficit. Thomas Rohrer is a member of the group's Medicare Task Force. He said he is concerned about any efforts to privatize Social Security.
"The stock market crashed a couple years ago, and people lost a lot of money," Rorher said. "And if social security people lose their benefits - where would they go? What would happen? At least the government provides a safety net."
The consumers' group also opposes any talk of raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. Rohrer said he has friends who simply can't stay in their current jobs until that age, and worries about age discrimination for anyone trying to find new work.
The Health Care Consumers' Executive Director Claudia Lenhoff criticized AARP, noting that the agency is willing to consider raising the retirement age. She said it is 'selling out its constituents' as a result.
"They talk out of both sides of their mouth, saying that they want to protect social security and that making cuts to social security benefits and raising the retirement age is a cut - is important for saving social security," Lenhoff said. "They say that everybody recognizes that social security retirement age must be raised. Really? Everybody?"
Lenhoff noted that the federal government has borrowed $2.6 trillion from the Social Security Reserve Fund.
Even though small towns may not have big crime problems compared to larger areas, they still need law enforcement. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers visited one town that's keeping its local police presence intact despite the state's economic challenges, and another town that recently dismantled its police force to save money.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
State employees in Illinois have settled into their health insurance choices - at least for the next three months.
But a University of Illinois professor says the controversy over the state's attempt to change providers will only resurface as September 17th nears.
Law professor Richard Kaplan said the resolution that let people keep their existing Health Alliance arrangements is only a temporary fix while the courts, the Quinn administration and the state legislature play what he calls a three-level game of chess.
Kaplan said the thousands of state workers and retirees will need to pay special attention to the wrangling in Springfield before the emergency contracts expire.
"There are several parallel tracks that (Judge Brian Otwell's) opinion might get overturned, the governor might sign the two-year keep everything as it is legislation, the contracts may be completely re-negotiated," Kaplan said. "This is very unsettling because this is not some trivial fringe benefit. This is a huge part of people's compensation and it's probably one of the most intimate aspects of their employment."
Kaplan said if Governor Pat Quinn decides to veto legislation to keep the current health insurance contracts for two more years, that could set up a game of chicken where lawmakers could override the veto and nullify the new contracts.
Kaplan said many other large employers will be reconsidering their health insurance options in the months ahead in response to last year's federal health care overhaul.
Faced with waning revenue coupled with concerns over state funding, Decatur's United Way has set some new priorities.
The United Way earlier this month decided to eliminate two of its programs - First Call for Help and AFL-CIO Community Services. While both programs are important, the agency's executive director, Denise Smith, said those services were not meeting the greatest community need. The agency also concluded that its AFL-CIO Community Services program saw too narrow a focus through union workers and their families.
Smith said 90-percent of comments from the public supported those changes.
"As state funding and federal funding continues to dwindle, you know, United Way's importance is very strong in the community," Smith said. "So we hope to continue making it a better place for all of us to live, work, and play."
Before this month, Smith said the United Way had no full-time staff devoted solely to its campaign. Over the next five years, the agency will seek the help of a resource development professional, a grant writer, and an endowment director.
The last two positions will not rely on additional resources since the grant writer will be self supporting, and the endowment professional will be funded from the United Way's current endowment.
Illinois legislators are meeting with Governor Pat Quinn Thursday in hopes of winning his support for a gambling expansion bill.
Quinn has spoken out against the legislation -- approved last month-- which would add slot machines and five new casinos, including one in Danville.
Rather than give Quinn the chance to veto or change the package, either of which would likely kill it, legislators used a technical maneuver to keep it from going to the governor's desk.
Senate sponsor Terry Link (D-30th) said the hold gives him time to assuage the governor's concerns.
"Yeah, we will increase in size but you know we're not up there being another Las Vegas by any means," he said.
Link said he is open to talking with Quinn if the governor has any suggestions on how to downsize the measure. But said the casino set to go in his district near Waukegan would have to remain.
House sponsor Lou Lang (D-16th) will also be in on talks with Quinn.
"To the extent that I can accommodate the governor, I'm willing to listen to him. Willing to hear what he wants to do. But I'm not willing to state upfront that I'm prepared to shrink the bill down," Lang said.
However, Lang said he won't accept substantial changes.
Prior to Tuesday's vote by the the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, University of Illinois employees were asking a number of questions with the Friday open enrollment deadline quickly approaching.
As things stand now, state workers and retirees still have until Friday to choose a health insurance plan. At one of the last outreach sessions on the Urbana campus, employees were being advised to choose the one they want, although they could still be defaulted into the Quality Care Health Plan option at the deadline.
One employee, Becky Heller, said her biggest concern is being allowed to change her mind if a better choice becomes available.
"They're not letting us know whether that's a guarantee or not," Heller said. "They're saying they think that they'll open enrollment again, and they think that they'll let us switch if things change, but they're not guaranteeing that. So we very well may be stuck with whatever we choose for an entire year."
Heller said she may have to consider an HMO plan in a nearby county and find a new doctor, but would still be paying lower premiums than what is in the Quality Care plan.
Employee Kathryn Smith said her concern is the state's backlog of bills, and the time it takes hospitals to be reimbursed.
"I don't know if any business in this country today that has its doors open if it's creditors don't pay them within a year," Smith said. "I'm a little concerned that our hospitals aren't going to survive this if we are left on this Quality Care Health Plan."
Brenda Butts is assistant director of University Payroll and Benefits at the U of I's Urbana campus. She said even if an employee chooses an option they ultimately cannot enroll in, Butts said she believes the state will benefit by simply seeing how many have opted for a particular plan, or 'voted' for it.
The Champaign City Council has reversed course on plans for a four-percent tax on package liquor.
The plan to raise revenue was unanimously rejected after hearing from a number of business owners.
A few weeks after approving it in a six-to-three vote, the city council shot down the plan during Tuesday night's study session nine-to-nothing. The proposal was seen as a way to restore funding for three positions at the police department, and overnight hours at the front desk.
But liquor store owners say it is unfair to single out one industry to save those jobs. Sun Singer Wines owner Mark Yarbrough said it is not a question of whether he would lose business to neighboring Savoy, but how much of it. He said the tax would take a lot of work to implement.
"There's a lot of unseen and mitigating circumstances that say this is a hasty rush to judgment to pass this tax without thoroughly studying it," Yarbrough said. "And I believe it would take many study sessions in order for you to have a comprehensive understanding what is actually going on here."
Council member Karen Foster suggested the tax last month, but she said she did not anticipate the opposition. Mayor Don Gerard said he was simply looking for something to fulfill a campaign pledge to fund the police jobs, but the vote Tuesday was simply about the tax.
"As I've said all along, I don't like taxes. I don't want to do a tax. My point is retaining the services to the public," Gerard said. "And I was very heartened with the fact that most of the responses agreed and concurred that they, too would like to see the police station overnight. They just don't want to be taxed on their liquor."
Gerard said city may have to transfer existing funds, but will continue to look at new revenue sources. Council members expect to discuss those revenue sources by next month, after voting on a budget plan next Tuesday.
Education reform that makes it harder for teachers to go on strike, easier for educators to be fired and could lengthen the school day for students in Chicago is now law.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the landmark legislation Monday at an elementary school in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. He says it was done collaboratively, unlike in other states where lawmakers and union members have fought.
Unions, reform groups and legislators have largely supported the reform. But the Chicago Teachers Union has objected to the measure's final language on strikes.
The bill includes tougher standards for teacher strikes over contract disputes. It would require several additional steps, including earlier intervention by mediators and publicizing each side's last, best offer in contract negotiations, before a strike.
The law takes effect immediately.
(Reported by Dan Petrella and Jay Lee of CU-CitizenAccess)
Champaign County's immigration-service agencies may have to bear some of the burden for the state's burgeoning debt - and they aren't happy about it.
With the state's deficit projected to hit $15 billion by the end of the year, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed large-scale budget cuts for the next two fiscal years, and last week the state Legislature approved a 2012 budget that makes even deeper cuts. This includes drastic cuts to funding for grants to agencies that assist immigrants and refugees.
"These cuts are more than just substantial - they're devastating," said Deborah Hlavna, the director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, 302 S. Birch St., Urbana.
And on top of the cuts to services for immigrants and refugees, the 2012 budget, which awaits the governor's signature, would cut overall funding for the Department of Human Services by nearly $670 million, about 17 percent of its total budget.
"The ripple effect will be enormous," Hlavna said before the Legislature passed its budget. "We're all waiting nervously to see what's going to happen, but it's not looking too good right now."
The final impact of the budget cuts remains unclear. Senate Democrats attempted to restore some of the money for human services by adding it to a bill to fund capital improvement projects. But the House did not vote on the measure before the spring legislative session adjourned. Quinn has suggested he may call lawmakers back to vote on the package during the summer.
The governor originally recommended cutting funds for immigrants and refugees when he presented his budget plan to lawmakers in February.
His proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1, would have seen a $1.7 billion increase overall from this year despite widespread cuts at several areas, including human services, education, public safety and health care coverage. But the budget legislators approved calls for spending $2 billion less than the he proposed.
"These proposed cuts are a horrendous mistake," Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said, referring to Quinn's proposed cuts to immigration services. "We're not happy, to say the least."
Hoyt said that the coalition predicts that at least 15 agencies that serve immigrants will have to close if the proposed cut in funding takes effect. The Asian and Latino communities in Illinois will be hurt the most, he said.
In Champaign County, the Latino population has more than doubled in the last decade, while the Asian population has grown by 55 percent, according to 2010 census data.
This reflects a growing trend in the entire state. The Asian community in Illinois grew by 38 percent in the last 10 years, and the Latino population increased by 33 percent.
The refugee center's Hlavna said that agencies in central Illinois will feel the impact the most because of limited fundraising capabilities in the midst of a growing immigrant community.
"We're lucky in that we only rely partially on state funding," she said. "That won't be true for a lot of others in the area."
Immigration advocacy groups and agencies like Hoyt's have voiced their displeasure over the cuts, pointing to how immigration services make up slightly more than 1 percent of the state's budget.
"We should be giving more funding to help immigrants and refugees, not less," Hoyt said. "This is an issue that isn't going away, and is going - and this cut in funding would be a mistake."
Esther Wong, executive director of the Illinois-based Chinese American Service League, said she has seen immigration agencies face funding problems ever since she began working with Chinese-American communities in Illinois in 1978 - but nothing like what Quinn proposed.
"We have not faced any drastic cuts like this ever before," Wong said. "I didn't believe it at first."
The Latino Partnership of Champaign County will also receive less state funding with the proposed cuts, but David Adcock, the group's treasurer, said he had mixed reactions to Quinn's proposal.
"I can't say I was surprised because I knew everything was going to be on the table. Something needs to be done with the state's financial situation," Adcock said. "Did I think the cuts would be so drastic? No. But it is what it is."
The cuts in funding for immigration and refugee services would lessen financial support for grant-receiving agencies such as the refugee center, but the wider cuts to the Illinois Department of Human Services would compound the pain.
"The weakening of the (Department of Human Services) will hurt the most for all the smaller groups in Illinois," Hlavna said. "We work alongside them all the time and when we can't meet our clients' needs, we will direct them and go with them to the DHS."
The refugee center has adapted to the state's history of slow payments, but the cuts to the Department of Humans Services throws the agency a new curveball, she said.
"We've been waiting on our check for a long time," Hlavna said with a laugh. "We've been smart enough not to depend on their money. But we need their help and their services."
Sarah Baumer, an administrator at the Department of Human Services' Champaign County office, declined to comment on the looming budget cuts, but conceded that they will curb the resources the office can provide.
"Adjustments will be made," Baumer said.
Anh Ha Ho, co-director of the refugee center with Hlavna, said that the major needs of immigrants in Champaign County pertain to issues such as food, money, health care and housing - all of which fall into the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services.
Local immigration-service organizations such as the refugee center don't provide many direct services, Ho said, rather relying on government agencies like Department of Human Services. A great deal of Ho's time is spent helping clients with paperwork and applications for the services through the department.
"We take advantage of the services in place because that's really all immigrants need," Ho said. "We're here to make sure that they get the help they need."
And in a county in which nearly one out of every 10 residents is an immigrant, the budget cuts to human services will especially affect a Champaign County population that has limited access to non-English-speaking resources.
"We have the immigration population of a big metropolitan city without the big city resources," Hlavna said. "We have to rely on each other and we really have to rely on the DHS."
Adcock, of the Latino Partnership, said that a drop in available assistance by the human-services agency may alter the approach of immigration-services organizations
"It'll be harder for people to get the help they need, so we may have to look into different options available," Adcock said. "We may have to look more towards private resources, whether that's local churches or donors or whatever it is."
Funding was a major concern for Champaign County immigration-service agencies even before the proposed cuts, Adcock said, but they will not have to focus their efforts on tightening budget and fundraising.
"Everyone's been on the bubble and funding will always be a concern," Adcock said with a smile. "But we're still here.
An energy program that helps offset the cost of air conditioning bills for low-income Illinois residents is being scaled back this summer.
Because of possible federal funding cuts, the state is telling agencies that administer the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program not to expect any federal aid.
LIHEAP provides utility bill aid to households with incomes of up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
"Though the reduction in federal funding for LIHEAP is unfortunate, the state's decision is necessary to help heat homes across Illinois next winter, which is the program's top priority," said Mike Claffey, a spokesperson for Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Claffey said Illinois could face a 60 percent reduction in federal funding for the program for fiscal year 2012, from $246 million to $113 million.
Cameron Moore, the CEO of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, said the lack of funding means hundreds to thousands of area residents may struggle to cool their homes this summer.
"You know, it's one of those things that's going to affect a lot of people, and I certainly think some of them negatively," Moore said. "At this point, we're hoping other agencies will work together to hopefully at a minimum provide fans for folks, maybe cooling centers. There are sort of some common responses to this kind of need that you see in other communities."
If the humidity becomes dangerous, Governor Pat Quinn could declare a state of emergency, prompting federal and state agencies to provide cooling centers.
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