Illinois Public Media News
No resolution appeared imminent Monday to the stalemate over union rights in Wisconsin, leaving Senate Republicans resigned to forge ahead with less-controversial business such as tax breaks for dairy farmers and commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl.
As the standoff entered its second week, none of the major players offered any signs of backing down in a high-stakes game of political chicken that has riveted the nation and led to ongoing public protests that drew a high of 68,000 people on Saturday. Thousands more braved cold winds and temperatures in the 20s to march again on Monday, waving signs that said "Stop the attack on Wisconsin families" and "solidarity."
The 14 Senate Democrats who skipped town Thursday to indefinitely delay a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill stripping most collective bargaining rights from nearly all public employees remained missing in action for a fifth day.
"You have shut down the people's government, and that is not acceptable," Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said during a brief meeting Monday setting the agenda for Tuesday's Senate session.
Two of the missing Democrats participated by phone from an undisclosed location.
"You're not in negotiations. There is no negotiation," Fitzgerald said, cutting off one of the Democrats on the phone. "You need to get back to the floor of the Senate and offer any ideas you may have on final passage. That's where we're at. There is no negotiation."
Both the Senate and Assembly planned to be in session on Tuesday to take up the bill, but at least one of the missing Democrats needed to show up for a vote to be taken in the Senate. Assembly Democrats planned to offer dozens of amendments that could push a vote into Wednesday or later.
Although Tuesday's list of items, including the resolution honoring the Packers, is largely bipartisan, Fitzgerald hinted that he might try to push some more controversial ones later, even if the Democrats aren't back. Among the possibilities is a vote on the question of whether voters should be required to show identification at the polls.
The Democratic senators taking part in the scheduling meeting urged Republicans to accept the offer made by the unions under which they would accept paying more for benefits as Walker wants but still retain their collective bargaining rights.
Another compromise offered by Republican Sen. Dale Schultz would remove collective bargaining rights just for two years
"It's time for all of us to move forward," said Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay over the phone to the Republicans.
Walker has rejected both offers, saying local governments and school districts can't be hamstrung by the often lengthy collective bargaining process and need to have more flexibility to deal with up to $1 billion in cuts he will propose in his budget next week and into the future.
"It will never get to me because other than that one state senator, all the rest of the Republicans are firmly behind our proposal," Walker said in an MSNBC interview on Monday, calling it an unacceptable short-term fix.
The emergency plan he wants the Legislature to pass would address this year's $137 million shortfall and start dealing with the $3.6 billion hole expected by mid-2013. The benefits concessions would amount to $30 million this year, but the largest savings Walker proposed comes from refinancing debt to save $165 million.
That portion must be done by Friday for bonds to be refinanced in time to realize the savings by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.
Walker said not passing the bill by Friday would make even deeper cuts necessary and possibly result in laying off 1,500 workers over the next four months.
Thousands of those affected and their supporters marched on the Capitol for a seventh straight day. Hundreds of them have been sleeping in the rotunda every night and several districts have had to close after so many teachers called in sick. The Madison School District was closed Wednesday through Monday but was expected to reopen Tuesday.
Districts in central Wisconsin were also closed Monday, but that was because of 10 to 12 inches of snow. Milwaukee schools were shut down for a pre-scheduled midsemester break. Those closures, on top of Monday being a previously scheduled furlough day for state workers, resulted in another large crowd Monday but an official estimate was not yet released.
At noon, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine took to a stage on the Capitol steps to fire up the crowd. He said he flew in from California to lend his voice to the protest.
"The future of workers' rights will be decided in Madison, Wisconsin," he said. "You're making history here."
He joked that he could hardly play the guitar because his fingers were numb. He sang a song with the refrain, "For the union men and women standing up and standing strong!" Each time he repeated that lyric, the crowd roared.
Walker's plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum. Unions would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.
The plan would also require many public employees to cut their take home pay by about 8 percent by contributing more of their salaries toward their health insurance and retirement benefits, concessions the unions have said they're willing to accept.
But Walker and Republicans are showing no willingness to budge while the Senate Democrats say they are prepared to stay away for weeks if that's what it will take.
The head of one of Central Illinois library system says the merger for all state library groups planned for July 1 leaves mostly unanswered questions at this point.
Beverly Obert is Executive Director of the Decatur-based Rolling Prairie Library System, which covers all or part of 12 counties just to the west of the Champaign-based Lincoln Trail system. Obert said the only thing for certain is many jobs will be lost when nine Illinois library systems combine into just two, and her office is no exception.
"Because as we consolidate we will not need four directors, four fiscal agents, four whatever, whatever," Obert said. "There will be some reductions in staff. That is going to be difficult, because some people will lose their jobs. We do not know yet who those people will be. We are hoping to have a better idea of that so we can tell staff exactly what's going to happen by April 1st."
Obert said asking all staff to re-apply for jobs will be the only fair way to handle the merger, and said said it is also unclear whether her office will close. But Obert said she expects no break in services to member libraries in July.
"They will still have their automated catologues where they can borrow from, and there will still be delivery systems that will move materials between libraries," she said. "Those were the two key things that most of the libraries really depend upon. Those will be in place July 1. What we may not have in place and available for them are things like continuing education and consulting."
Meanwhile, the director of one of the smaller libraries in the Lincoln Trail Libraries System says the merger could serve as an advantage. Tolono Library Director Janet Cler said having a smaller staff will enable the two library systems to better coordinate their services.
There's another delay in litigation over O'Hare International Airport expansion that pits United and American airlines against the city of Chicago.
A statement Friday from United Airlines and American says a new five-day delay will give the parties more time to resolve their differences over the financing and timing of construction of new runways and other improvements at O'Hare.
It says the latest delay comes at the request of U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency has been trying to mediate an agreement.
On Thursday, the sides asked a judge to lift a one-week delay on hearing the airlines' lawsuit that opposes the issuing of bonds for the expansion.
Mayor Richard Daley has accused the airlines of reneging on their promise in 2001 to help see through the overhaul of O'Hare.
(With additional reporting from NPR, Illinois Public Radio, The Associated Press)
Fourteen Democratic state lawmakers from Wisconsin are hiding in Illinois to avoid a vote on a controversial bill that would strip some public workers in their state of collective bargaining rights.
Democrats who fled Wisconsin to block a vote on the sweeping anti-union bill could stay in hiding for days or even weeks. The bill has drawn thousands of protesters to the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve - $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years.
Republicans hold 19 Senate seats but are one vote short of the 20 votes necessary to conduct business. The anti-union measure needs 17 votes to pass.
State Sen. Jon Erpenback (D-Middleton), who was among those who fled, said Friday that the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would like the standoff to end as soon as possible.
"This was an extreme action, but the legislation, we feel, was much more extreme," Erpenbach said.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton praised his fellow Democrats from north of the border for delaying the vote, which would almost certainly pass the state's heavily-Republican legislature. Meanwhile, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn had a warm welcome for the political refugees.
"We want to assure the people of Wisconsin that we're their friends," Quinn said. "We're always available here in Illinois if they'd like to visit and stay a while until (Gov. Walker) comes to his senses."
Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker said the Democrats should return to Madison and face the vote.
"The state senators who are hiding out down in Illinois should show up for work, have their say, have their vote, add their amendments," Walker told CBS' The Early Show on Friday. "But in the end, we've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit we've got to balance."
Although Walker called the Democrats' flight a stunt, many protesters at the Capitol saw it differently. School guidance counselor Saunnie Yelton-Stanley called their disappearance "brilliant."
"The fact that the Democrats have walked out, it shows they're listening to us," said Neil Graupner, a 19-year-old technical college student from Madison, as he prepared to spend the night at the Capitol on Thursday.
Erpenbach said he is meeting with the other refugee Democrats to decide what to do next - though he's not sure how long they will remain on the lam.
I mean I wish I was home tonight in my own bed," he said. "It's Friday night in Wisconsin that's fish fry night. You now, I really wish I was back home. So hopefully we'll get back home soon, but in the mean time, this is up to the governor.
Amid the highs and lows of Illinois' uncertain economy, a new report says Champaign County has followed a decade-long trend of increased childhood poverty.
The "Great at Eight" report, released by Voices for Illinois Children, focused on the resources children up until the age of eight need to succeed. The report's authors say at this age "children should be ready to shift from learning to read to reading to learn."
The study finds from 1999-2000, the childhood poverty rate in Champaign County was 14.3 percent, slightly below the statewide average of 14.8 percent. In 2008-2009, the county's child poverty rate went up to 18.9 percent, compared with 17.8 percent statewide.
Meanwhile, math and reading scores for 3rd graders on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in Urbana and Champaign Schools last year were below the state average.
The authors of the report say the state fiscal crisis threatens an array of services, including early childhood education, mental health care, and family support. Beverley Baker, the director of Community Impact with the United Way of Champaign County, said she agrees that programs critical to a child's development are at risk, which is why she said state funding is making it more difficult to rely on Illinois for support.
"Each local community is going to have to look inward," she said. "There's no way we can replace what the state government does, but I think we're going to have to be creative, and we're going to have to pool our local resources to see what we can do."
The report acknowledges that there will likely be more spending cuts, as the recent income tax increase is not enough to close Illinois' budget gap.
In the last year, low-income students represented more than half of the enrollment at Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana School District 116. Unit 4 School board member Sue Gray said the school district is looking to trim up to $2 million from its $100 million budget, a task she said will not be taken lightly.
The School Board plans to hold a public meeting Tuesday, February 22 at 6pm at the Mellon Building in Champaign to seek community input on how to make those cuts.
(Graphic courtesy of Voices for Illinois Children)
Getting more revenue for the state was the main goal of Governor Pat Quinn's previous budget addresses. But this year, with a new income tax hike in effect, Quinn on Wednesday made no such pitch. The Governor mentioned a few new initiatives ... such as efforts to attract start-up companies to Illinois, and to double the state's exports. But the governor says the main focus of his proposed spending plan is exercising spending restraint. As Illinois Public Radio's Amanda Vinicky reports ... for some, the cuts Quinn has proposed don't go far enough. Others call them devastating.
(Photo courtesy of Chris Eaves)
Gov. Pat Quinn presented lawmakers with a budget proposal Wednesday that would increase state spending overall while skimping on human services and borrowing billions of dollars to pay old bills.
Among the spending cuts -- just a month after Quinn approved a major income tax increase -- are programs helping the elderly buy medicine, payments for medical services to the poor and money to hire new state troopers.
The Chicago Democrat described his plan as a frugal, even painful, step toward getting Illinois out of its cavernous budget hole.
"Our commitment to taxpayers is simple: We will only use tax dollars to provide necessary services. All unnecessary state spending will be eliminated," Quinn said in a speech to the General Assembly.
Republicans immediately said Quinn wasn't living up to that promise. They noted the key measure of state spending would increase by $1.7 billion, to about $35.4 billion.
"We got into this mess because we spent money we didn't have and it's just a continuation. It's the same old song," said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego.
Even Quinn's fellow Democrats questioned his budget math, suggesting that he proposes paying some upcoming expenses with money that isn't available or should be used to pay bills that are past due.
His plan also came under fire from groups that count on state money to provide services to the poor and sick.
Hospital and nursing home groups criticized Quinn's proposal to cut Medicaid rates by $552 million, or about 5 percent. Bob Hedges, president of the Illinois Health Care Association, called it "a terrible blow to our seniors, employees, families and communities."
Quinn spared education from dramatic cuts, but Voices for Illinois Children said his plan appears to slash after-school and mental health programs that keep children out of trouble.
"When the school bell rings, kids still have needs," said the group's policy director, Sean Noble.
The tax increase Quinn approved should generate about $6.8 billion in the budget year that begins July 1, but that's not nearly enough to put state government back in the black.
Quinn's aides say the increased spending in his proposal is a result of using the new income tax to cover the rising cost of services or pay for items neglected in past budgets. They said the spending plan includes more than $1 billion in cuts.
Even with the tax increase, Illinois has $9 billion or $10 billion in overdue bills that must be paid, Quinn's budget director David Vaught said. The governor's plan to pay those bills could be the most contentious part of budget negotiations.
Quinn and Democratic legislative leaders want to borrow $8.7 billion to pay off overdue bills. Instead of informally borrowing money simply by not paying its bills, the state would sell bonds and pay the debt over 14 years.
The governor maintains that this step, which technically would take place in the current budget year, would be fair to the state's vendors and good for the economy.
"We have the opportunity to jump-start our economy by paying our vendors today -- an immediate injection of billions into our economy," Quinn said in his 27-minute speech, during which he wore a sash known as a kente cloth to mark Black History Month.
Republicans called for more spending cuts before any borrowing.
"I don't think the public understands after the single biggest tax increase that we've had in the state of Illinois, that now you want to go borrow over $8 billion," Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said. "We have to clean up our act and get the budget into compliance first."
Democrats also questioned parts of Quinn's proposal. House Speaker Michael Madigan said the proposal appears to include $720 million from two technical tax changes that have not been approved, violating new policies meant to control spending.
"I'm confident that we will work our way through these differences, but my commitment in Illinois budget-making this year is to live within those spending controls," Madigan, D-Chicago, said in an interview with the public television show "Illinois Lawmakers."
And Senate President John Cullerton said Quinn seems to be using borrowed money to pay for upcoming expenses, instead of devoting it solely to overdue bills.
Still, Cullerton, D-Chicago, saved his sharpest remarks for the GOP officials who oppose borrowing to pay what Illinois owes to businesses, community groups and charities.
"If Republicans are willing to have a conversation that doesn't start with 'No,' I'm ready to listen," Cullerton said in a statement.
Quinn also called for consolidating some of the state's 868 school districts and said he wants a commission to study the always-contentious issue. He predicted taxpayers could save $100 million by merging small districts.
He proposed a major cut in state support for local schools' bus costs and he called for eliminating regional offices of education for a savings of $14 million.
The announced closure of the Border's store in Normal could change the approach of a locally owned bookstore. Sarah Lindenbaum manages Babbitt's books, located near Illinois State University.
She says her store, which sells solely used books, has been anticipating the Border's closing. Lindenbaum said her store buys a lot of trade paperbacks that customers have bought at Border's.
"Are people going to be bringing as many?," she said. "But again, there are still bookstores in Peoria, there's still Barnes and Noble in Bloomington. And another thing we've discussed as far as what would happen if Border's closes, and maybe even Barnes and Noble, is would we start to stock new books and try to capitalize on that."
Lindenbaum said if her store did sell new books, it would take more than a year before those sales could take place. She said Babbitt's took a dip with the recession, but has rebounded lately, and has retained all of its regular customers. And Lindenbaum said she thinks there will continue to be a market for modern first editions and collectable books.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to increase public school spending slightly in the coming year. But he would save state money by consolidating schools and cutting spending on regional offices of education.
The Democrat outlined his budget proposal for the coming year Wednesday.
Elementary and secondary education spending would be up about 3 percent.
But the governor is proposing mergers to reduce the 868 school districts across the state - an emotional issue that has failed in the past.
Quinn also wants to cut $14 million the state spends on 45 regional education offices. He says the State Board of Education can take up their tasks.
And he would reduce state spending on bus transportation for students by $95 million. He says local school districts should shoulder that cost.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a slight increase in education spending Wednesday but wants to save state money by pushing school consolidation and eliminating regional education offices, two ideas that have gone down in flames over the years.
Quinn resurrected the idea of consolidation, which has caused ll feelings since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, but didn't say how much might be saved.
His chief of staff, Jack Lavin, said he number of districts in Illinois -now 868 - "should be down significantly."
The Democratic governor also proposed cutting a $14 million subsidy to 45 regional offices of education, which conduct training and special schools, and reducing by $95 million the amount the state pays to bus students to the classroom.
Overall state support for elementary and secondary education would climb 3.2 percent to $7.2 billion, still 1 percent lower than in 2009-2010 school year.
Higher education would see just a slight increase in money, 1.2 percent to $2.15 billion.
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