Illinois Public Media News
The month-long saga over Gov. Scott Walker's plan to drastically curb collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin took a turn Friday that could force a dramatic rebooting of the entire legislative process.
A judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect, raising the possibility that the Legislature may have to vote again to pass the bill that attracted protests as large as 85,000 people, motivated Senate Democrats to escape to Illinois for three weeks and made Wisconsin the focus of the national fight over union rights.
But Walker's spokesman and Republican legislative leaders indicated they would press on with the court battle rather than consider passing the bill again.
"We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that today's ruling was a significant overreach," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said in a joint statement. "We highly doubt a Dane County judge has the authority to tell the Legislature how to carry out its constitutional duty."
Dane County District Judge Maryann Sumi granted the temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by the local Democratic district attorney, alleging that Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings law by hastily convening a special committee before the Senate passed the bill.
Sumi said her ruling would not prevent the Legislature from reconvening the committee with proper notice and passing the bill again.
In addition to restricting the bargaining rights, the law would require most public workers in the state to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, changes that will amount on average to an 8 percent pay cut. Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie was confident the bill would become law in the near future.
"This legislation is still working through the legal process," Werwie said.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the decision will be appealed because the Legislature and the governor, not a judge, are responsible for enacting laws and can't be blocked in a dispute over the procedures under which a law is passed. His spokesman Bill Cosh said an appeal would be filed Monday.
Even if the Legislature is forced to come back and take up the bill again, at least one Senate Democrat will be there. Sen. Tim Cullen said he would not leave the state again.
"I think that does great damage to the institution," Cullen said. "I have no regrets about doing it once, but that was in extraordinary times to try to slow the bill down."
The Senate couldn't pass the bill in its original form without at least one Democrat to meet a 20-member quorum requirement for measures that spend money. With the Democrats in Illinois and refusing to return after three weeks away, Republicans convened a special committee last Wednesday to remove the spending items. The bill then passed with no Democrats present.
That move is being challenged in another lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who argues that the bill as passed still should have required the 20-member quorum. A hearing on that was set for April 12.
Opponents of the law were hopeful the judge's ruling temporarily blocking enactment of the law would lead to concessions.
"I would hope the Republicans would take this as an opportunity to sit down with Democrats and negotiate a proposal we could all get behind," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
The head of the state's largest teachers union said the Legislature should use this as a chance to listen to opponents of the measure, not vote to pass the same bill again.
"Wisconsin's educators call upon the Legislature to take this as a clear signal that Wisconsinites will not tolerate backroom deals and political power plays when it comes to our public schools and other valued services," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Marty Beil, director of the state's largest public employee union, said in a statement, "We are gratified to see some of our so-called `leaders' finally held accountable for their illegal actions."
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed the lawsuit this week alleging the open meetings law was violated because 24 hours' notice wasn't given for a meeting of the special legislative committee convened to amend the bill.
Justice Department attorneys argued that notice on a bulletin board posted about two hours before the committee meeting was to start last Wednesday was sufficient under rules of the Senate.
The judge said DOJ couldn't show the committee was exempt from the 24-hour notice requirement. She said Ozanne could ultimately win the case and ordered Secretary of State Doug La Follette to hold off on publishing the law - the last step before it can take effect. La Follette had planned to publish the law on March 25.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha said the ruling was a move in the right direction.
"I'm very pleased," Barca said. "As you know, I felt from the moment they called this that this would be a violation of open meetings law. This is an important first step in this regard."
The bill was part of Walker's solution for plugging a $137 million state budget shortfall. A part of the measure would require state workers to increase their health insurance and pension contributions to save the state $30 million by July 1. Other parts of Walker's original proposal to address the budget shortfall were removed before the bill passed last week. The Legislature planned to take those up later.
Any day now, Champaign County officials will learn if a new chemical processing plant will set up shop in the community.
Few details are being released about the facility. John Dimit, the chief executive officer of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said officials from the company are reviewing seven sites in addition to Champaign County to host the plant.
"It's actually a type of facility that takes industrial waste - steel mill waste in particular - and recaptures the waste, concentrates it and re-sells it," Dimit explained.
Dimit said the chemical plant would employee around 200 people, and be located north of the community in an area ready for development. He said the company behind the project intends to invest $250 million to have it completed by 2013.
The Champaign County Board has ended its long-running debate on Olympian Drive.
On a 19-to-7 vote, board members settled on a plan to connect the dead-end road north of Champaign with Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, where it connects with Interstate-74. Two weeks after rejecting a 'green' option, the Board approved a 'purple' configuration of North Lincoln expected to have less of an impact on residents, cutting diagonally through property owned by Squire Farms.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing praised the board's diligence after backing the Olympian project herself for years.
"This has thoroughly discussed," she said. "There's people around the world that want democracy. I don't know if they realize how exhausting it is, but certainly it's a better system that people have ever come up with. And I think the county board really took this seriously. And they studied it, and I think they've come to a conclusion."
Thirteen Democrats and six Republicans supported the project. Five of the seven 'no' votes came from rural Republicans, as well as Champaign Democrats Pattsi Petrie and Alan Kurtz.
The plan was approved with an amendment offered by Urbana Democrat James Quisenberry, who wanted to ensure the design didn't move any further south and east, where it could impact other residents.
"The property owners that the road goes right next to are the ones that are going to be most affected," Quisenberry said. "And they didn't really want the road there in the first place, but now that it's going there, we have to make sure they're protected as much as we can."
Prussing said the city will still work with individual landowners to alleviate any concerns as the project moves forward. She said anyone losing land will be paid for it by Champaign County or the city of Urbana, but those that do not agree would require govermment use of eminent domain for property.
The Olympian Drive portion of the project is expected to be built in 2013, with the stretch of Lincoln Avenue to be finished in 2015. The entire project is estimated at nearly $20-million, paid for through Illinois Jobs Now funding, the state motor fuel tax, and federal funds.
The conservative group Americans For Prosperity says Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson needs to stay the course when it comes to balancing the federal budget.
Johnson can get the message by turning on his radio. A commercial running on Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal radio stations this month begins with the voice of the late Ronald Reagan: "You know, we could say they spend like drunken sailors. But that would be unfair to drunken sailors, because the sailors are spending their own money."
An announcer comes in to say that Reagan's words are still true today: "We cannot spend our way to prosperity. But big-government advocates are trying to convince Congressman Tim Johnson to go along with their high-tax, big-spending ways." The radio spot then goes on to urge listeners to call Congressman Johnson, and sign an online petition in favor of more federal spending cuts.
The Americans For Prosperity campaign is meant to convince Johnson, already known as a fiscal conservative, that he has the popular support to make difficult cuts in spending.
Joseph Calomino, AFP's Illinois State Director says Johnson has "voted right on many of the issues. Our theory is now, to provide those congressmen and women in the state of Illinois and throughout the country with the kind of support they need from the majority, to hear from the majority of their public to stand tall and cut spending now."
Americans For Prosperity announced their campaign Thursday at a Champaign news conference attended by representatives of other groups dedicated to lower government spending. They included Mary Lou Ferguson of the Decatur group, Citizens For Responsible Government. She says Americans largely support cuts in federal spending --- and will continue to do so when the choices get more difficult.
"That support we had last year for the election is not going away", says Ferguson. "That concern, that amount of energy and paying attention is going to grow. We just cannot sustain this. It has to be fixed."
A spokesman for Congressman Johnson says he's committed to cutting federal spending, and that the AFP campaign is "preaching to the choir". Press Secretary Phil Bloomer says Johnson has voted to reduce federal spending to 2008 levels, and voted against the latest continuing resolution to keep the federal government running --- because it didn't include sufficient spending cuts.
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity is launching similar campaigns in a few selected congressional districts across the country.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says it is "sad but necessary'' for the Republican leader of the Indiana House to end negotiations with boycotting Democrats.
Daniels said Thursday that Democratic representatives have forfeited their right to participation by continuing to stay in Illinois in order to block legislative action.
Daniels says Republican Speaker Brian Bosma has bent over "double backward'' to meet unreasonable demands from Democrats on education- and labor-related bills.
Democratic Rep. Win Moses of Fort Wayne said there have been good communications on those issues and that ending talks would be an arbitrary and harsh choice by Bosma.
The legislative session is scheduled to end by late April, but Daniels said he was prepared to call a special session if necessary.
An apartment building for people with physical disabilities is planned for downtown Champaign.
Eden Supportive Living plans to build the $15 million building at the corner of State and Park, across from Westside Park. The vacant building currently on the site served as a dormitory for Parkland College students, and before that a hotel. Champaign Deputy City Manager Craig Rost said the new nine story will house about 100 adults, aged 22 to 64.
"A supportive living environment is what they're calling it," Rost said. "It's for people that need some assistance --- and they have a physical handicap that requires some level of assistance. But it doesn't have other kinds of care facilities --- it's really a residential project."
Eden Supportive Living already operates two facilities in the Chicago area, with a third Chicago facility in the works. The Champaign project would be their first one downstate. Eden is buying the site from Robeson's Inc., a real estate firm operated by the family that ran Robeson's Department Store for many years in downtown Champaign. Rost said the location is a good one for Eden Supportive Living.
"It's an exciting project," Rost said. "We don't have very many big projects going on right now. So it's garnered a lot of attention. (Champaign is) a good sit-down town, and I think it'll be good for Eden to have that site."
Robeson's Inc. Chairman Eric Robeson says talks have gone on for some time, but his group took to the idea right away.
"From the very beginning, we loved the sound of the project," said Robeson. "We loved what the vision was and what they were going to do. We thought it was going to be a great reuse for the building. Of course, everything's still potential, and nothing's been finalized, but we're very excited that this building, that our family built back in the early 1970's. It's a great reuse for the building."
Eden officials couldn't be reached for contact Wednesday, but press reports indicate the company plans to raise the building, leaving only the foundation. Robeson says he wasn't aware of those plans.
Rost said the Champaign City Council will be asked to vote this spring on a development agreement to lease out parking for the new building --- but Eden is not asking for any financial assistance from the city. The company hopes to have the project open for residents in spring of 2012.
(Design courtesy of Eden Supportive Living)
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said he has a solution to fund the state's $31 billion construction plan. The project was supposed to begin as soon as the weather would allow, but it is currently tied up in the court system.
Cullerton said the state could raise funds by adding one dollar on to each pack of cigarettes sold in the state.
"This is money that is going to the capital projects, projects that the Republicans have all benefited from throughout the state. They see the unemployment rate drop. They want to continue those projects and this is how we fund it," Cullerton said.
Cullerton pitched his idea to a road builders meeting in Springfield. The group would directly benefit from more highway construction.
The original infrastructure plan relies heavily on controversial funding sources like video poker and an expansion of the state's lottery.
Some lawmakers say they won't support a cigarette tax hike because they think it would drive people to neighboring states to make purchases.
(Photo courtesy by Geierunited/Wikimedia Commons)
Champaign City Council members have unanimously rejected the use of pension obligation bonds as a way to avoid service cuts during tight financial times.
Council members sided with administrators, deciding that using a low-interest loan to fund police and fire pensions carried too much uncertainty. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the investment risk was just too high. Council member Deb Frank Feinen said she made up her mind after reading a memo from Schnuer, and doing a quick web search on the bonds.
"When our financial adviser sits before us and talks about governments being risk averse, he's right, and there's a reason for it," Feinen said. "We're not individuals. I'm not playing with my home finances. Instead, I have a wider obligation not to take the easy way out."
Schuner also said issuing the bonds could affect Champaign's triple-A credit rating, making it harder for the city to issue debt in the future. Council member Tom Bruno said the city should only consider such an option if it wants to place today's financial burden on future generations.
"This is the year we should be feeling the pain," Bruno said. "Because this is the year that the recession has really hit the municipalities with a loss of revenues. I wish it wasn't a painful year. But if there's going to be painful years, maybe it ought to be this year, and not when my kids are my age."
Council member Mike LaDue said the city has managed its debt conservatively in the height of a recession. And he said those kinds of decisions, and not the issuing of the pension bonds, have allowed the city to take on a project like drainage improvements along John Street, where several homes have experienced flooding.
Champaign Mayoral Candidate Don Gerard said the pension obligation bonds would have been an option had Schnuer started researching the idea about 10 months earlier, when interest rates were about 2-percent.
"This will go right down the chute, but it's a shame that a year ago this wasn't looked at," Gerard said. "Because a year ago, it could have been a great opportunity. And I think the budget is something that we've been looking at for two years. These type of options should have been looked at a year ago. I'm very disappointed that they weren't."
The plan to use the bonds lost 8-0, but Mayor Jerry Schweighart said the discussion will likely go on for one more night. He and Gerard will debate one another Wednesday evening.
The debate, organized by the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana, begins at 6:30 at the Champaign Public Library.
University of Illinois Trustees could postpone their decision next week on constructing a wind turbine on the Urbana campus.
Audit and Budget Committee chair Ed McMillan said it is likely the U of I will seek another extension of the grant covering $2-million of the project. Trustees will meet March 23 on the Springfield campus. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing addressed the committee Monday, citing citizen concerns about noise pollution and shadows. She said the U of I has failed to address those areas, and meet with the public.
"The city does support alternative energy, but these things have to be very carefully placed," Prussing said. "And this is in violation right now of the Urbana wind turbine ordinance, and we'd like to see it corrected so it would be in a good place. And we're also concerned about the total cost."
Cost for the turbine project exceed $5-million. The head of a University of Illinois Student group pushing for turbine construction says delaying the project by a few more months, after two prior extensions, won't be a large setback. Student Sustainability Committee Chair Suhail Barot predicts the turbine will remain at its current site, by the U of I's South Farms.
"I think the university's position is correct in terms of its zoning," he said. "And it terms of the overall concerns, I think issues outstanding will be resolved."
Barot said students have more doubled their financial commitment to the project through sustainability fees, and not completing the turbine soon jeopardizes losing the grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. He said the U of I should feel 'morally responsible' for putting up the turbine.
Prussing said the university has also failed to consider wear and tear to township roads from the project, and suggests the U of I consider investing in an existing wind farm.
More talks between the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Indiana House might be inching the two sides closer to resolving the now three-week-long boycott by Democratic legislators.
The lack of any firm breakthrough, however, meant most Democratic members skipped Monday's floor session, continuing to leave the House with too few members to conduct business and the Democratic leader saying the boycott would continue Tuesday.
Republican Speaker Brian Bosma and Democratic leader Patrick Bauer said Monday they spoke by phone several times over the weekend. Bauer called them "fairly good talks," while Bosma said "perhaps" progress was made.
A Republican-backed proposal to allow state vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools has been among the sticking points of education- and labor-related bills that Democrats say they found objectionable and prompted them to leave for Illinois on Feb. 22.
Bauer told reporters Monday that he believed an agreement could be close on amending the voucher bill to further limit its scope, but he didn't provide details.
"I just haven't gotten that all nailed down yet completely," Bauer said. "I think they're amenable to cut out some of the huge fiscal hit on that."
The Republican sponsor of the bill has proposed capping the number of vouchers to 7,500 during the program's first year and 15,000 during the second year.
Bauer said Democrats still had unresolved concerns about a bill on government construction project wages, which includes provisions ending requirements that nonunion companies sign onto agreements involving union rules.
Bill sponsor Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, said he would support modifying the bill so that the state's prevailing construction wage law, which now applies to government projects of $150,000 or more, would start at $500,000 rather than the proposed $1 million level. He said he also would agree to delete a proposed complete exemption for public school and state university projects.
Bosma didn't seem certain that the amendments to those bills would be enough to bring back the boycotting Democrats.
"Every time we get there, there seems to be one more thing," Bosma said. "I'm just not exactly sure what they need at this point."
Rep. Terry Goodin of Austin, one of two Democrats representing his party on the House floor Monday, said he thought Bosma would have resolved the impasse by now.
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