Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

UI President Satisfied with State Funding Proposal

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan says the state's appropriation to the school in the budget awaiting the governor's signature is 'about as close to total victory' as you can get given the climate in Springfield.

The suggested appropriation is just over $689 million, a reduction of just over one percent over what was originally planned for the U of I. Hogan says administrators once feared a hit as high 10 percent. But he said this doesn't mean the U of I is out of the woods yet, since it's owed nearly half of the current year's appropriations, or just over $310 million.

He said the next step would be looking into raises for faculty and staff.

"I'm very, very happy with the results (of the funding package)," Hogan said. "It puts us in a better position to move forward with our plans to do the first comprehensive compensation adjustment in three years. That was the main thing."

Given the figures from Springfield, Hogan said he's looking at salary adjustments of over two-percent. He said he expects to resume the battle over pension reform soon.

"The bill that was on the table - up to 20-percent of our workforce could have retired - walked right out the door," Hogan said. "And that would have been a big run up on pension costs for the state to begin with, and left us with a real headache in terms of staffing our classes, and fulfilling our research agenda, and probably would have had altogether a long-term negative effect on the state."

He testified recently in Springfield against legislation that would lower pension benefits. That bill was tabled until the fall. Hogan says he might consider his own proposal regarding pensions, but adds that's hard to say without a lot of discussions in advance.

Hogan spoke Tuesday before the U of I Trustees' Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 31, 2011

Ill. Senate Approves Cuts to Governor Quinn’s Budget Plan

It happened without much fanfare, but the deed is done. Governor Pat Quinn is being presented with a budget that cuts $2.3 billion from the one he proposed in February.

The measure reduces school funding, it whacks state support for child care, and decreases Medicaid funding for the poor. It also gives three percent less to education for the coming year that begins in July.

The measure had earlier passed the House with bipartisan support, but it barely made it through the Senate with heavy criticism from that chamber's GOP contingent for not cutting enough.

Senate Democrats, worried about the effects of some of the cuts, voted in a separate measure, to restore about $430 million to programs, like meals on wheels for seniors and free lunch for low-income schoolchildren.

"The fact is, there are services in there for people who are the most vulnerable in our state," Senator Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge) said. "They're aged, disabled. They need services. Transitional housing for homeless people."

House Democrat Marlow Colvin of Chicago said a long day of negotiations is ahead on Tuesday to see if the House will agree with that proposal

"It's going to be quite a lesson in budget making in Springfield, Illinois," Colvin said. "Something we haven't seen in a long time."

Another unknown is how Governor Quinn will react to the budget cuts, which he has spoken out against. He can veto the budget, or specific parts of it, but he does not have power to add money.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 30, 2011

Illinois lawmakers Pass Private Fund for Illegal Immigrants

The children of immigrants, both legal and illegal, would be able to obtain private college scholarships and enroll in Illinois state savings programs under legislation approved Monday.

A 61-53 vote in the Illinois House sent the measure to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk because it already passed the state Senate. Quinn said in a statement that he looked forward to signing it.

Supporters praised the legislation as a much-needed way to offer financial help to undocumented immigrants who graduate from Illinois high schools and want to continue their studies in college but can't afford it.

The Illinois Dream Act would create a panel to raise private money for college scholarships and let the children of immigrants join programs that help them invest money and save for college.

"These students deserve an opportunity. They work hard. We send them through grade school, we send them through high school, then we slam a door in their face and say `Oh well, all the hard work is for nothing. You can't go to college,"' said state Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago.

To qualify for the college savings pool, students must have a Social Security number or taxpayer identification number. Scholarship recipients must have at least one immigrant parent and the student must have attended school in Illinois for at least three years.

Carla Navoa, a 22-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is in the country illegally, lobbied for the bill because it will help others like her pay for college. She said she currently isn't enrolled in college because of the financial stress on her family with a younger sister in college, too.

"Having access to this Dream Fund would really help us," Navoa said.

Opponents have criticized the legislation as improper because it provides benefits that could help people who violate immigration laws. They also have complained it's confusing because of proposed federal legislation by the same name that would give some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

The Illinois Dream Act has no impact on a person's immigration status and it doesn't offer a path to citizenship.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 30, 2011

Ill. House Votes to Add Five Casinos

The Illinois House is bucking recent history by approving a major expansion of legalized gambling.

The House voted 65-50 Monday to approve five new casinos, including one in Danville. The others would go to Chicago, Rockford, Lake County and somewhere in the south suburbs.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

State Representative Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said the legislation would bring the state one and a half billion dollars in startup fees and $500 million or more a year in ongoing revenue.

Governor Pat Quinn has said he dislikes such a huge expansion.

But Lang said the additional casinos would bring in money to pay overdue bills.

"The most important part of this has nothing to do with gaming at all, the most important part of this is putting people to work and helping pay the bills of the state of Illinois," Lang said. "That is an important goal."

The proposal also allows horse race tracks to add slot machines, and it'd permit both slots and racing at the state fairgrounds in Springfield.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 30, 2011

Ill. May Extend Access to Higher Education for Undocumented Immigrants

Lawmakers in Springfield have passed legislation to expand access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. It now heads to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he would sign the measure into law. As Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports, this isn't the first time the state has considered how far it should go to accommodate people who have come to this country illegally.

(AP Photo/Jason Redmond)

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

On 2nd Try, Gambling Bill Gets House Committee OK

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Plan to Cut HMO’s From State Contract Means More Calls by U of I Employees

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Gambling Expansion Blocked by House Panel

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Illinois Dems Closing in on Budget Deal

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.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Il. Commission Votes to Suspend Open Access Plans for State Employees

(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.


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