Illinois Public Media News
State construction projects will go on without further trepidation. Senators approved funding for them Wednesday, and at the same time knocked down their own pay a bit as they returned to the Capitol for the first time since the end of the regular session.
The threat had been looming that roadwork and all other ongoing infrastructure projects would need to shut down, including the project to rebuild Lincoln Hall on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus. The legislature adjourned in May without voting to pay for them.
Senate Democrats had tried holding back the $18 billion as a way to pressure the House to approve more money for education and human services, but they ultimately backed down from those demands. Governor Pat Quinn says that ensures thousands of construction workers will keep their jobs.
But Democratic Senate President John Cullerton says concerns remain with the budget, which is on Quinn's desk. "We will take up the shortcomings of the House budget that we did pass, when we come back perhaps in the fall, most likely in January," Cullerton said.
It's relatively insignificant, but about $500,000 will be saved via another measure headed to Quinn. It freezes elected officials' pay and requires they take 12 furlough days. Legislators' base salary will be about $65,000, though some earn more for extra duties.
The next fiscal budget for the city of Champaign will include two percent raises for non-union employees.
Those staff members didn't get raises in the current fiscal year. The city council quickly signed off on the budget plan Tuesday night.
Raises for Champaign's union workers, such as those with AFSCME, are unclear since they are in contract negotiations. And the city's firefighters union is waiting on a decision from an arbitrator. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said it is difficult to gauge what impact the non-bargaining staff raises will have, but he said each citywide salary increase of one percent is worth about $400,000 in personnel costs.
Schnuer said some unanticipated increases, like the cost of snow removal, were factored into the budget.
"As the year progressed, and the negotiations progressed, we realized that we were going to have increases," he said. "So the adopted budget does reflect the increases that were agreed to by the council and unions."
The city council's earlier action to restore three positions at the police department is included in the budget, but two of those positions are currently vacant. Next month, the council is expected to discuss the future of those jobs, along with potential new sources of revenue.
Cutting those positions would mean shutting down the police front desk during overnight hours.
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.
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