Illinois Public Media News
Illinois' economy is not growing yet, but it's one point closer to doing so, according to the University of Illinois's Flash Index.
The monthly reading of the state economy was at 95.9 in January, up from 94.9 in December. Any number below 100 reflects economic contraction. But U of I Economist Fred Giertz said the Index has shown gradual improvement over the past eight months.
"This is one of the bigger jumps," Giertz said. "Any one month, you have to be careful about it - it could be an anomaly. But it's going in the direction that's expected, of a substantial increase, which is what's happening at the national level."
Giertz referred to national economic figures, which showed a sharp drop in the unemployment rate in January, even though job growth was weak. Illinois's 9.3% unemployment rate for December was slightly better than the national rate of 9.4% --- although Giertz said both were high, considering the improving economy. Now that the national rate has fallen to 9%, Giertz said he wants to see how the new state numbers stand in comparison, when they're released in about a week.
The Flash Index is based on Illinois tax revenues. Giertz said January's improvement was due to growth in state income and sales tax receipts, rather than corporate taxes.
The University of Illinois' Interim Chancellor and Provost have proposed that the Institute of Aviation be closed, following suit with recommendations made by a faculty committee.
In a letter distributed around campus this afternoon, Vice President and Interim Chancellor Robert Easter said, "As an institution, we must examine carefully our core missions and determine how to support and enhance those missions so that we may best serve our students, the state and society. We have arrived at the difficult conclusion that closing the Institute best serves those interests."
The letter was also signed by Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Interim Provost Richard Wheeler.
Administrators will ask that the Faculty Senate's Educational Policy Committee hold a public hearing on the proposal. After last September's 'Stewarding Excellence' review, the U of I's Illinois Business Consulting Group was asked to evaluate the marketability of a stand-alone and self-supporting flight certification program. The IBC concluded that there wasn't sufficient demand to support the expansion of such a program. Last year, Easter estimated the university could save up to $750,000 a year by closing the program.
The Interim Director of the Institute of Aviation, Tom Emanuel, said the news did not come as a surprise.
"There have been some restrictions to our enrollment, and the fact that all the faculty were taken from the program (and moved to other departments) by central administration a year or so ago," he said. "That left us in a pretty precarious situation, I mean, how can you have a program without a faculty base?"
The courses are now being taught by academic professionals and faculty from other departments. Aviation currently has about 160 students. Emanuel said he will suggest merging Aviation with another department when the Faculty Senate's committee meeting is held, which requires 30 days' notice. March 8th has been set as a tenative hearing date.. U of I administrators have guaranteed that current students would be allowed to complete the program, so the Institute of Aviation wouldn't be eliminated until the spring of 2014 at the earliest.
The president of the University of Illinois says if it were up to him, faculty and staff would get raises in the years to come.
Many U of I employees have had to deal with flat salaries for the past two years, and most also had to take unpaid furlough days last year. But U of I president Michael Hogan says an administrative review and restructuring program has already lead to five million dollars in savings, and it will pay off in the longer term.
"I feel confident, with the reforms we're putting in place and with other measures we've taken, that we'll begin to see enough of a kitty of money that we can begin certainly avoiding furlough days and begin reinvesting in our faculty, not just in raises but hopefully in new appointments and new hires," Hogan said in an interview and call-in show Wednesday night on Illinois Public Media.
Hogan frequently voiced his displeasure with the backlog in state funding. He says budgeting would be much more accurate without more than $400 million the state of Illinois owes the University, including $60 million in scholarship money through the Monetary Award Program, or MAP, the state- sponsored scholarship program for students in need.
Civil unions for gay and lesbian couples are now the law of the land in Illinois.
About a thousand people crowded into the Chicago Cultural Center on Monday afternoon to watch Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn sign the historic law. The state's General Assembly approved the legislation 61-52 in the House and 32-24 in the Senate.
"We believe in civil rights and we believe in civil unions," Quinn said before signing the bill.
"Illinois is taking an historic step forward in embracing fairness and extending basic dignity to all couples in our state," John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the ACLU of Illinois, said in a written statement issued hours before the bill-signing.
The law, which takes effect June 1, gives gay and lesbian couples official recognition from the state and many of the rights that accompany traditional marriage, including the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner and the right to inherit a partner's property.
Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright, as do some countries, including Canada, South Africa and the Netherlands.
Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and one woman, and civil unions still are not recognized by the federal government.
Opponents argue the law could increase the cost of doing business in Illinois, while Quinn has said it will make the state more hospitable to businesses and convention planners.
The legislation, sent to Quinn in December, passed 61-52 in the Illinois House and 32-24 in the Senate.
Some hope civil unions are a step toward full marriage for gay and lesbian couples, although sponsors of the civil union bill have said they don't plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.
Curt McKay served from 1998-2008 as the first full-time director of the University of Illinois' Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center. McKay said the legislation is a huge victory, but he added that there is still more that can be done to provide equal opportunities for LGBT groups.
"A number of the opponents of civil unions in Illinois use as their reason for being opposed that the next thing we'll ask for is same sex marriage," McKay said. "I think providing for LGBT people full inclusion under the laws of the state of Illinois in terms of being equal in every way a straight person is accepted is the final goal."
Some conservative groups said the new law is a stepping stone toward legalized same-sex marriage.
"Marriage was not created by man or governments," David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said Monday. "It is an institution created by God. Governments merely recognize its nature and importance
Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders also vigorously fought passage of the law. The measure doesn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, but critics fear it will lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.
(With additional reporting from the Associated Press)
Post offices across the country are facing cuts to make up for an $8.5 billion loss in revenue, and Champaign is no exception.
The U.S. Postal Service has experienced a 20 percent decline in mail volume since 2007, which it attributes to an uptick in e-mails and online payments. It plans to start a three-month review, known as an Area Mail Processing (AMP) study, looking at operations at the Champaign Processing and Distribution Facility on North Mattis Avenue. Postal Service spokesman José Aguilar said a decision will be made in a few months on whether to move the facility's stamp cancellation services to Springfield and Bloomington.
"Right now we're looking at every operation we can to save on fuel, save on work hours, set ourselves up, so that the machinery is running at its optimal capacity," Aguilar said.
The post office employs 205 people, and Aguilar said there is a possibility that a portion of those employees could be re-located or lose their jobs. However, he noted that there are several vacant positions at the Champaign facility, and he said there could be opportunities for displaced workers to fill those jobs. After the review is complete, the U.S. Postal Service will gather input from employees and customers before making a decision.
Every two years during the last week of January, communities across the country try to answer a difficult question: How many people are living without permanent shelter? This point in time survey is the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's effort to determine the number of homeless people nationwide and understand more about their characteristics. CU-CitizenAccess reporter Dan Petrella went along on this year's count in Champaign-Urbana.
(Photo by Acton Gorton/CU-CitizenAccess)
A union representing 800 University of Illinois service employees voted with overwhelming support Thursday to give its members the right to walk off the job.
Contract negotiations between the Service Employees International Union Local 73 and the U of I have gone on for six months. The union is asking for new contracts that include better pay and employee benefits for campus building and food service workers.
Union organizer Ricky Baldwin said the U of I has proposed salary cuts and pay freezes for the workers, which the union has rejected. The university is currently waiting on more than $400 million in state payments. Baldwin said he understand that the U of I is going through some tough economic challenges, but he said union workers are still entitled to better pay and employee benefits.
"We understand that the economy is not good, the budget is not good, but we also know the university has a lot of money," Baldwin said.
Baldwin cites a 37.5 percent salary increase for U of I President Michael Hogan over what former university President B. Joseph White was earning. He also points to the university paying outside consultants $1.7 million to train administrators to 'Plan to Plan', and Board of Trustees giving the green light to raising the U of I's overall operating budget by 3.9 percent.
"They're giving top administrators raises," Baldwin said. "They can afford to give us 30-to-40 cents an hour. It won't break the bank."
Baldwin said workers could walk off the job within a few months if a deal is not reached.
Meanwhile, U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said any discussion of a strike is premature and counterproductive.
"The University remains confident that the parties will be able to reach an agreement through good faith negotiations," Kaler said.
The two sides will return to the bargaining table Friday at 9 a.m. at the Florida Avenue Residence Halls. An hour before the meeting, union workers will be picketing.
Unemployment rates dropped in December in every county in Illinois for the first time since data collection by the Illinois Department of Employment Security began in 1974.
The department reported Thursday there were 46,300 more jobs in Illinois last month than there were in December 2009. It was the fourth consecutive monthly year-over-year increase.
According to employment security, the Illinois metropolitan areas recording the largest declines in unemployment were Rockford, down 3.3 points to 13 percent; Peoria, down 2.5 points to 8.8 percent, and Decatur, down 2.2 points to 10.4 percent.
The Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan area saw its unemployment rate drop 2 points to 8.6 percent. Overall Illinois unemployment in December was 8.8 percent.
Employment Security director Maureen O'Donnell says despite the weak economy, the long-term trend has Illinois gaining jobs.
A legal dispute between the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (C-U MTD) and the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District (CSWMTD) is a step closer to heading to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The C-U MTD board voted unanimously Wednesday to appeal a ruling by the Fourth District Appellate Court stating that the two transit districts can share boundaries.
The CSWMTD was approved by voters in 2006 as a response to the C-U MTD annexing property in Southwest Champaign. Voters wanted to prevent C-U MTD service from coming into certain neighborhoods. Some people who live where the two transit districts overlap pay property taxes for both services, even though the CSWMTD provides no transit service.
"We don't think that Illinois law permits double taxation for identical services," C-U MTD attorney Marc Ansel said. "There have been cases in Illinois involving identical local governments seeking to tax and service the same territory, and the supreme court of Illinois we believe has said that can't be done in the state of Illinois."
Ansel said he hopes the Illinois Supreme Court will decide to hear the case within a couple of months. He said if that happens, oral arguments could begin later this year.
Meanwhile, the CSWMTD board voted to appeal the appellate court's ruling earlier this month also stating that residents should not have to pay higher taxes for two transit services. If there is a final court decision, CSWMTD Chairman Ed Vaughan acknowledges that his group may have to come to a decision about whether to actually provide bus service.
"We've been recognizing that we've got that coming for quite some time, and every one of us pondering exactly what we think we ought to do," Vaughan said. "And we will have that discussion.
At a time when Champaign's city council is considering cuts to the police and fire departments, a candidate for mayor suggests cutting in other areas of city staff.
Don Gerard unveiled his own proposed budget at last night's city council meeting. He suggests $380,000 could come from reducing positions in the finance and the city manager's office.
"They are working for us," Gerard said. "I propose cuts in legal, I propose cuts in information technology, I think those are completely reasonable. If we're going to cut firemen, why we can't cut another lawyer, and we did our homework on these types of things.
Gerard also wants 13 of the highest paid employees to take a 10-percent salary cut, exempting the police and fire departments. He said those include the city manager, finance director, city attorney, and the director of the Champaign Public Library. His plan also suggests that the city refinance its more than $40-million pension debt, paying it off at a lower interest rate in 20 years instead of 10.
Gerard contends the pension plan will produce savings of about $11-million in three years. He is running against longtime mayor Jerry Schweighart in April.
(Photo courtesy of Don Gerard)
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