Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 13, 2011

Quinn Signs Education Overhaul Legislation

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 10, 2011

State Budget Cuts May Hit Immigrant Assistance Hard

(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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 08, 2011

Energy Assistance Program Scaled Back This Summer

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.

Categories: Economics, Environment, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 08, 2011

UI Launches $100 Million Fund Drive for Student Scholarships

With a $2 billion fundraising project nearly complete, the University of Illinois is turning its attention toward raising money for students in need.

Leaders at the university are launching a campaign to raise $100 million over the next three years to assist students who would otherwise be eligible for state assistance. The state's Monetary Award Program has faced several years of hardship, and last year MAP turned down more than 100,000 requests for aid.

U of I Foundation spokesman Don Kojich said the new "Access Illinois: The Presidential Scholarship Initiative" may evolve into an ongoing appeal.

"We're really going to focus the next three years on the scholarship initiative and see how much of dent we can make in that unmet need, and then evaluate it as we move forward," Kojich said.

The university is unveiling the new fund drive Thursday morning before the Board of Trustees meeting in Chicago. Among the first donations will be a $100,000 gift from President Michael Hogan and his wife, Virginia.

Kojich said students in all three U of I campuses could be eligible for help from the fund. The money may supplement an existing scholarship program or could be based on any need- or merit-based criteria.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 07, 2011

LIFE ON ROUTE 150: State Parks Struggling Yet Popular

More and more people are taking advantage of their area state parks for camping, fishing and other recreation. In fact, nearly 2,000,000 people a year pass through two state parks along Route 150. Yet the agency charged with running them has seen significant budget cuts in the past decade. In this installment of our "Life on Route 150" series, Illinois Public Media's Tom Rogers visited the parks and took a snapshot of their health.

(Photo by Tom Rogers/WILL)

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 07, 2011

Top Obama Economic Adviser to Leave, Return to Chicago

Austan Goolsbee, a longtime adviser to President Barack Obama, will resign his post as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers this summer to return to teaching at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, the White House announced Monday.

Obama called him "one of America's great economic thinkers."

Goolsbee has been the face of the White House on economic news, and is a regular every first Friday of the month explaining the administration's take on the latest jobless numbers.

He brought a mix of levity and a teacher's sensibility to the job, using the White House blog, Facebook or YouTube to illustrate tax cuts, trade, or the auto industry resurgence on a dry-erase board with a dry wit and a gravel voice. He has been at Obama's side for years. He advised Obama during his 2004 Senate race and was senior economic policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign and has served on the three-member economic council since the start of the administration.

"Since I first ran for the U.S. Senate, Austan has been a close friend and one of my most trusted advisers," Obama said. "Over the past several years, he has helped steer our country out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and although there is still much work ahead, his insights and counsel have helped lead us toward an economy that is growing and creating millions of jobs."

Goolsbee took over last September as council chairman, replacing Christina Romer, who left to return to a teaching position at the University of California, Berkley.

He had taught at the University of Chicago for 14 years. His university biography once described him as "insanely committed to his work," noting that Goolsbee was seen in the classroom, wearing a tuxedo, on the day of his wedding.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 07, 2011

Business Owners, Former Elected Officials, Oppose Champaign Liquor Tax

Owners of Champaign liquor stores say it's unfair to target one type of business in order to save three positions at the city's police department.

During last night's informational meeting on the suggested 4-percent tax in package liquor sales, those who run stores like Colonial Pantry and Sun Singer say the tax will hurt business, and drive their customers elsewhere.

And Picadilly Beverage Shop owner Jack Troxell claims enacting the tax will force layoffs.

"We're not in a high-margin industry," Troxell said. "We're in a volume industry with low margins. And that's the way it works. If your business drops off, you don't need as many employees. And when that happens, they don't have the same hours, and you can't afford to pay them."

Kam's and Pia's owner Eric Meyer said the liquor tax unfairly singles out an entire sector of business for just one cause. Meyer, who's also the Vice President of the Illinois License Beverage Association, suggests a tax closer to one percent.

The city council tentatively backed the liquor tax last month in order to avoid losing jobs, and ending overnight hours at the police department's front desk. Former Mayors Jerry Schweighart and Dan McCullom criticized the quick manner in which the council proposed the liquor tax. McCullom labeled it 'seat of the pants' decision making without time for deliberating, and Schweighart said when the city council quickly gave the tax their initial support, members abandoned a budget process he'd been working on the council with for months

Mayor Don Gerard, who defeated Schweighart in April's election, said he will consider other revenue proposals, but his intent is saving jobs.

"As the agenda was lined up that night, it was both or neither (the liquor tax and police cuts)," Gerard said. "So we had no choice. Now we can table this until July if we want, and we'll continue to discuss it, but as far as the hullabaloo from the former mayors about the manner in which I do things, well, I just do it a little diffferently, I guess."

The tax is expected to bring in $700,000, well over the $200,000 necessary to restore the police positions. The funds could also go to restore overtime at fire station 4 on Champaign's west side. The liquor tax is the focus of a study session next Tuesday, while business owners suggest different revenue streams, including a hike in the overall sales tax.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 06, 2011

Federal Grants Aimed at Spotting and Evaluating “Brownfields” in Danville, Decatur

The cities of Danville and Decatur have more money to hunt down properties that may have hazardous chemicals sitting underneath them. The land may have once held gas stations, dry cleaners or manufacturers.

Danville will use a $400,000 federal grant announced Monday to investigate past records and eventually test a few of the sites that may pose the most problems to health or redevelopment. Decatur has received an identical grant.

Danville planning and zoning manager Chris Milliken says there may be as many as 300 properties that have some sort of underground contamination. So, he says the city will have to decide which so-called brownfields receive tests. "That includes sites around Danville High School and some other prominent locations," Milliken said. "The main factor engaging the importance of sites we want to pursue is going to be visibility, and then also the potential for redevelopment -- for instance, sites that are along North Vermilion or other developable corridors already."

Milliken expects it will take about a year to identify new sites and conduct testing on about 20 to 40 of them. Danville officials can use those test results to plan cleanups when money becomes available -- those cleanups could range from removing buildings to removing the soil underneath.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 06, 2011

Quinn Calls Lawmakers Back to Springfield

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)

Gov. Pat Quinn says he's calling lawmakers back to work in Springfield.

Quinn announced Monday he would be talking to legislative leaders about a date to come back because he says there's an outstanding issue with the state's capital construction program.

The Chicago Democrat says lawmakers adjourned last week without approving an appropriations bill so the state can spend money on its ongoing capital construction program.

Quinn says he wants the lawmakers back to the state Capitol promptly so work doesn't have to stop on projects around the state, including road, bridge and other construction projects.

Mahomet Republican Chapin Rose says this nearly $300 million re-appropriation bill is separate from a lawsuit pending before Illinois' Supreme Court over the Illinois Jobs Now! plan, saying the capital funds that legislators have yet to vote on are already in place.

He believes something will be worked out over a day or two in Springfield this summer, and Rose agrees there are some important projects in the measure. But he's not happy the way the bill was handled by Senate Democrats:

"We are talking about austerity, and trying to right the ship, and not spend more money on projects," said Rose. "So frankly, for the Senate Democrats to do this is highly cynical. But that's what they've chosen to do is highjack the construction part of the budget."

Champaign Democratic Senator Mike Frerichs says the construction issue may take longer than a day or two in Springfield.

"I think there's pretty much agreement on the need to pass the capital component of this," Frerichs said. "But there are some real differences of opinion on spending priorities between the House and the Senate that were also included in this bill."

The Senator says that includes new money attached to the bill in the Senate to help those with developmental disabilities and mental health issues, areas identified as priorities in the Senate Democratic caucus. Rose says the most important thing is that Illinois' operating budget passed last week, and that a vote on capital projects will have no impact on schools, universities, and everyday travel on roads and bridges. Quinn says if work stops on the projects it will throw 52,000 people out of work.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 04, 2011

C-U Public Health District Approves 5-Year Community Health Plan

A survey on the greatest health needs in Champaign County has been broken down into four general areas.

The state requires the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to complete a local assessment of needs plan every five years. After more than 11-hundred replies last year, priorities were identified as access to care (or paying for medical, mental and dental health), accidents (including DUI crashes and those in the home), obesity, and violence (including alcohol-related abuse and domestic violence.)

CUPHD Epidemiologist Awais Vaid says the county's current Community Health Plan was narrowed from 10 categories five years ago. He says public health is given no specific guidance on how to come up with the priorities.

"It's basically the community partners, the community leaders that get together and decide one what should be included," said Vaid. "But the last time we identified 10 of them, it became too much to address each of them, because each takes time and resources."

Vaid says community coalitions are being put together to address the four areas, each of them involving members of the public health district.

"The last time we finished the process, and thought as time goes by, some group will start addressing each one of these. It didn't happen," said Vaid. "So most of them were not addressed the way we were expecting to. But this time we do have specific groups that have a vested interest."

Yearly progress on the surveyed areas will be posted on the CUPHD's website.


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