Illinois Public Media News
The leader of the boycotting Indiana House Democrats returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday for what he called a "very positive" meeting with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma.
Mr. Bosma met with House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer (D., South Bend) behind closed doors after the two attended another meeting with Senate leaders. Messrs. Bosma and Bauer both characterized the talk as positive. Though it didn't immediately end the month-long standoff, Mr. Bosma said it seemed like a step forward.
"It's possibly the beginning of the end," Mr. Bosma said. "It's a positive step that he returned to the Statehouse. I think that's great."
Mr. Bauer described the discussion as a positive exchange of ideas over bills, mainly one changing the regulations covering wages and other matters for workers on government construction projects.
"We've had a pretty good talk with each other," Mr. Bauer said before driving back to Illinois, where most Democrats are staying during the boycott.
Mr. Bosma (R., Indianapolis) said he would talk to the author of the government projects bill Thursday about ideas Mr. Bauer suggested. Mr. Bauer said he would talk to his caucus after hearing back from Mr. Bosma on that bill.
Mr. Bauer said it was likely impractical for Democrats to return to the House floor on Thursday because of the lateness of the meeting and the need to discuss the issues with other House members.
Before Messrs. Bauer and Bosma talked privately, they met with Senate leaders Republican David Long and Democrat Vi Simpson on a separate legal issue. Ms. Simpson described the meeting as cordial and said there was no hostility among the leaders.
"It's always a good sign when people talk," Ms. Simpson said.
The House Democrats left for Urbana, Ill., on Feb. 22 in protest of Republican-backed education and labor bills. Among them is the government projects bill. That measure, as currently written, would increase the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law from $150,000 to $1 million and remove school districts and state universities from its requirements.
After the bill became the focus of Democrats' objections, its sponsor offered to lower that level-first to $500,000 and now to $350,000-and delete the school and university exemptions.
Mr. Bauer declined to say whether Democrats asked for the level to be lowered even further and did not outline other specific changes he wanted made to the bill.
Mr. Bosma said Democrats are "looking for as much moderation in that bill as can be tolerated."
Mr. Bauer's unannounced Statehouse trip Wednesday was a stark contrast from a visit earlier this month when photographers greeted Mr. Bauer in the parking lot. Reporters gathered inside for that meeting and watched from the doorways of Mr. Bosma's office as he and Mr. Bauer and six other lawmakers talked about proposals. Those discussions did not resolve the standoff.
When asked why he took a more secretive approach to Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Bauer said: "We're trying to bring peace.
Tuition is going up again at the University of Illinois. New students will pay more starting in the fall.
The U of I's Board of Trustees approved a 6.9 percent tuition hike for the next school year, but President Michael Hogan prefers to look at it over a four year span. He says with a state law that locks in the tuition rate over that time, incoming students will actually pay 2.7 percent annually which is closer to the rate of inflation. Hogan says the tuition hike was necessary.
"Without a tuition increase we would be short another $22 million," Hogan said. "It would be very hard to staff our classes and keep class sizes the way they are."
But others, like Trustee Tim Koritz, voiced concerns about the increasing cost of higher education.
"We have to keep in mind every time we raise tuition," Koritz said. "We may be pricing certain potential students out of the ability to attend our university."
Board chairman Chris Kennedy said he doesn't want to see the U of I be just for elite families. University leaders point out half of all students don't pay any tuition because of financial aid. The U of I is still owed about $450 million from the state government, and officials expect state funding to be reduced again in the next year.
Hogan said cost cutting will continue. Trustees raised the possibility of more consolidation within the U of I system, including academic programs. Hogan said he wants to see the first pay raise for employees in three years, but offered no specifics.
Based on the tuition increase, new students at the Urbana-Champaign campus will pay $11,104 next fall; Chicago students will pay $9,764; Springfield students will pay $8,670. Those figures don't include fees or room and board, all of which will also go up in the fall.
The next phase of construction on a high-speed rail route between Chicago and St. Louis will begin next month, a high-stakes transportation project similar to those that other states have rebuffed, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced Tuesday.
"Illinois has always been a strong railroad state and we always will be," Quinn said at an Amtrak rail yard near downtown Chicago.
Quinn and Durbin took swipes at other states for turning back money for high-speed rail, including Florida, which rejected $2.4 billion that had been earmarked for rail projects in that state because new Republican Gov. Rick Scott was worried taxpayers could get socked with the bill for any overruns and operating subsidies. Illinois has said it will try to get a part any money that other states return.
"The governors of these other states that have given up their money can stand by and wave at our trains when they go by. We're going to move people, we're going to freight, we're going to set a standard for America. It starts right here in Chicago," Durbin said.
But not everybody in Illinois is gung-ho about fast trains. Freshman Congressman Joe Walsh said the government can't afford to spend the money and he doubted their cost effectiveness because Americans love their cars. He said governors like Scott in Florida had the right idea by giving up federal money for rail projects.
"I respect the governors who have done that, that clearly is not what Pat Quinn is about," Walsh, whose district is in northern Illinois.
Illinois' other senator, Republican U.S. Mark Kirk, supports high speed rail including federal funding and believes it should be a private-public partnership so that trains move with the speed and reliability to serve consumers who would otherwise would fly, Kirk spokesman Lance Trover said.
When high-speed trains are eventually traveling up to 110 mph, the trip between St. Louis and Chicago could be cut by 90minutes to less than four hours.
Illinois has been awarded $1.2 billion in federal money to expand passenger rail and the state has promised to kick in another $42 million. Last year, Quinn and Durbin debuted the first $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton, just northeast of St. Louis, to Lincoln for the high-speed route.
The latest $685 million section of the construction project is scheduled to start April 5 and includes building new rail track using concrete ties between Dwight and Lincoln and between Alton and the Mississippi River. A modernized signal system will also be installed between Dwight and Alton, Quinn's office said. Officials estimate the work would create more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, such as construction and manufacturing work. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said job numbers are typically devised using formulas based on the amount of money being spent on a project.
Trains traveling at 110 mph on the 284-mile Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor could debut between Dwight and Pontiac as early as next year, Quinn's office said. Upgrades to the Dwight-Alton portion of the corridor are expected to be finished by 2014.
The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on raising tuition by 6.9 percent during its meeting Wednesday in Springfield.
Board members approved a measure in January to tie tuition increases with the rate of inflation. If trustees approve the tuition hike, students who come to the University next fall would pay 2.7 percent more a year, a figure U of I spokesman Tom Hardy says is near the rate of inflation. Those figures don't include fees, room and board.
"I would call it a conservative proposal," Hardy said. "That reflects concerns about affordability, reflects the need to be able to protect the university's purchasing power by adjusting for inflation."
Under the proposal, new students at the university's Urbana-Champaign campus would pay $11,104 a year in tuition. Students at the Chicago campus would pay $9,764, while students in Springfield would pay $8,670.
Hardy said the increased tuition is smaller than what has been introduced in the last decade. He said with the U of I waiting on about $440 million in state payments, the University hopes to generate about $35 million in additional revenue. About 17 percent of that revenue would be used for need-based grants.
Ramped-up regulations proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission are supposed to help prevent another financial meltdown, but government agencies in Illinois are fighting one proposal they allege would do more harm than good.
The measure would require volunteers on state and local boards that make financial decisions to register as "municipal advisors." The idea is to increase SEC oversight on people with a say over taxpayer dollars. The SEC says appointed board members should register because they are not directly beholden to voters.
Protesting cities from Illinois include Champaign and Peoria, as well as state universities like Western, Northern, Illinois State and the University of Illinois. The Illinois Finance Authority is also against the change. That agency's Bill Brandt said unpaid board members already get oversight - from Illinois' governor, Attorney General, and annual audits.
"Now you have the federal government trying to someone how intervene in that, which is a real constitutional question," Brandt said. "I'm all for federal regulation of the markets. But I'm not sure neither the governor nor the legislature of Illinois are really anxious to have all of their decisions reviewed by a federal agency that otherwise has no bearing on what Illinois does to bring jobs into the state."
Brandt also said the SEC's proposal would drive away qualified people with investment expertise, who are volunteering out of a commitment to public service. He said many won't participate if they have to pay to register, take ongoing classes, disclose their personal finances and be exposed to increased liability.
The junior U.S. senator from Illinois says federal funding for National Public Radio might not take a complete cut. But Republican Sen. Mark Kirk says the Senate is looking to make broad cuts in all areas of funding.
"If you want to step back and look at the Congress from a 100,000 feet, expect a 10 to 20 percent reduction across the board, including NPR," he said.
The U.S. House voted last week to completely end federal funding to NPR. The measure prohibits local public stations from using federal money to pay NPR dues and buy programming.
But support for the plan in the Senate seems slim. The White House opposes the bill, saying funding cuts could force some stations to go dark.
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.
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