Illinois Public Media News
Opponents and supporters of a plan to move up to 100 alleged terrorists to Illinois from Guantanamo Bay are preparing to address the first state legislative hearing on the issue.
Around 50 people are scheduled to testify at Tuesday's hearing before the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
They include labor union officials who say selling the Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government to house detainees will create hundreds of jobs.
Opponents scheduled to speak include conservative activist Beverly Perlson. She says U.S. Naval detention center in Cuba has worked well and that there's no good reason to bring prisoners to the small northwestern Illinois community.
The hearing is at a high school auditorium in Sterling, which is southeast of Thomson.
An Illinois lawmaker has set his sights on a tuition waiver program for children of state university employees as a potential target for elimination.
A bill filed last week by Representative Dave Winters of the Rockford area would remove language that makes children of an employee eligible for a 50 percent waiver on undergraduate tuition at any state institution.
That prospect concerns Winters' fellow Republican representative Chapin Rose of Mahomet. But he also says he was under the impression that universities should make up their own minds on whether to offer the benefit.
"I guess the way I'd look at it is that's a choice that each university has just like any business in terms of their overall compensation package," Rose said. "If they want to give their faculty a raise rather than a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business. If they'd rather do a flat salary and a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business."
University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy says the U of I hasn't taken a stand on the bill yet, saying administrators will want to talk with Winters.
Rose says it would make more sense for the state to get rid of the program that lets General Assembly members offer scholarships to the students of their choice. Winters has not returned a call seeking comment.
Vermilion County's Board of Health is considering different scenarios for the future of its health department, ranging from maintaining the status quo to closing its doors.
While state funding remains shaky, Department Administrator Steve Laker says a downsizing remains the most likely scenario. He says the department has received about 200-thousand dollars from the state the last two weeks, providing some relief. But the department is still relying on the county to fund areas like payroll, and can't pay back a loan from the county for 300-thousand.
Laker says the county may have to borrow from a bank to cover a revenue shortfall, but he says one other amusing possibility surfaced recently.
"I got a phone call last week from the state treasurer's office wanting to know if we were interested in special loan funds they had," Laker said. "Are we going to borrow money from the state to counter state funding shortages? It's a possibility. They've got some low-interest loan programs. I referred them to the county board chairman."
The state still owes the department about 600-thousand dollars.
Laker says the health department needs to finalize a presentation for the Vermilion County Board by the end of this week. Its meeting on December 29th will decide the structure of the health department for the immediate future.
All options for downsizing include termination of state grant contracts, and cutting some jobs. Laker says programs that could be on the bubble include maternal and child health programs and nursing home screening for senior citizens.
The director of the Illinois State Fair wants to take her experience to work in another circus environment - the political circus of the state Senate.
Amy Bliefnick is running in the central Illinois district held for 26 years by Republican Frank Watson, who was senate minority leader until a stroke forced him to resign this year. Democrats see his replacement, Kyle McCarter, as vulnerable - and Bliefnick says she's begun to see herself as an apt candidate as the February primary approaches. "I declined the offer because I never really pictured myself as a politican," says Bliefnick. "But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my background, my experience and leadership, is a perfect fit for state government."
Bliefnick faces competition from Macon County Board member Tim Dudley, who also says he'd bring an outsider's perspective to the Senate, taking a modest swipe at Bliefnick's government role. "I've not been involved in anybody's administration or anything like that," says Dudley. "I think I'm just the right person at the right time - a good new fresh face. And that's what seperates me from anybody else." Both Bliefnick and Dudley are from Decatur, which is now the population center of a thin, oblong 51st district that snakes from Moultrie County southeast to the Metro East area.
Illinois' financial woes could force Vermilion County's Health Department to shut down. Administrator Steve Laker says the state owes the department about $800,000, and the department couldn't pay back a loan from the county for $300,000. Those funds became necessary to meet overall budget and payroll that are largely dependent on grants funded by the state.
At this Tuesday's Vermilion County Board meeting, members are to vote on scheduling a special meeting for December 15th to either terminate or restructure the health department. Laker says his hands are tied. "It just seems to be beyond anybody's control," says Laker. "It's certainly well beyond my control. And the only control that the county board may be able to exercise to stop this bleeding is to eliminate the health department. Now that's a pretty drastic action."
Laker says he'll give a memo to county officials to show what a downsized health department would look like. He says even that will be difficult. "Restructure means - is there some action in between status quo and dissillution? It probably means consideration the elimination of some grant-funded programs just to mitigate the deficit." Cutting the department would mean the end of successful areas like immunization clinics, family case management, and the Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC program and its 3,400 clients. And 75 jobs would be cut.
Danville State Representative Bill Black says he's sent a letter to Governor Pat Quinn's Chief of Staff to alert him of the situation. Black says Quinn's legislative council replied, and hoped to find a solution. The Republican says he's afraid the state would likely have to seek out borrowing money to bail out the health department and similar agencies.
The state of Illinois' backlog of payments is starting to worry University of Illinois leaders.
Interim president designate Stan Ikenberry says the U of I is still waiting on more than $388 million in state funding that would normally be in their hands by now. But Ikenberry says the university has essentially been unpaid since the start of the fiscal year in July.
Southern Illinois University has warned that continued cash shortages could result in missed payrolls. But Ikenberry says the U of I has not faced that problem yet because of revenue from outside enterprises and research grants.
"The longer it goes on, the tougher the challenge," Ikenberry said. "In all fairness, the University of Illinois is probably in the strongest position of any university in the state, but even for us it's certainly an increasing challenge."
Ikenberry says the state needs to work sooner rather than later on a plan to resolve the budget situation through a combination of revenue increases and belt-tightening.
Things could be turning around for an Urbana domestic violence shelter recently forced into layoffs and reduced services.
A Woman's Place has received more than $120,000 in back payments owed by the state. Executive Director Tami Tunnell expects the shelter to remain on an expedited payment schedule for the next six months.
The agency hadn't expected to receive any payments until mid-December. Tunnell says the news came as shock, but she'll take a conservative approach when looking at the months ahead:
"So we're got going to jump and bring everybody back right aw, " Tunnell said. "Hopefully one of these days soon we'll be back to some semblance of normal, but what we'll be looking at is how much we need to set aside in the bank account in case this happens again and the state gets backed up."
A Woman's Place was forced to lay off 10 employees last month, reducing its staff to six. Tunnell says some may be brought back for part-time work around the holidays, but won't do any more hiring until early next year. A Woman's Place had also stopped taking new admissions. It's now serving about 18 families, some staying at the shelter, and others who have found other places to live with the agency's help.
Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for Illinois comptroller Dan Hynes, says her office is getting flooded with requests each day from various social service agencies. She says the letters from A Woman's Place showed the most urgent need for funding. The state currently has a backlog of $4.4 billion in unpaid bills.
The author of the University of Illinois' Flash Economic Index says any noticeable recovery in unemployment may happen well after the statistics point to economic recovery.
In November the index measured 91, sell below the threshold for economic growth, but it's improved one whole percentage point in the last two months.
But U of I economist Fred Giertz says the state may not have seen its highest unemployment rate in the current recession just yet. Giertz says unemployment often lags behind economic improvement.
Unemployment has crept upward in Illinois' metropolitan areas, including Champaign-Urbana, Danville and Decatur. The state department of employment services says the October jobless rate in Champaign-Urbana and vicinity hit 8.6 percent, three tenths of a point higher than September and more than two and a half percent higher than October of last year. The rate for the Danville area rose to 12.1 percent, with Decatur checking in at 12.7 percent, third highest behind Rockford and Kankakee. The state says Champaign-Urbana lost about 18 hundred jobs when compared to this time last year.
Rallies were held on all three University of Illinois campuses Thursday as talks of a strike loomed among graduate workers in Urbana. Some of the chanting was aimed at administrators as more than 300 members and supporters of the Graduate Employees Organization made their way across the campus quad. The rally was held a few hours after two busloads of union members rallied in Springfield, where U of I Trustees were meeting, while 50 with the GEO rallied in Chicago.
Its membership approved a strike authorization vote last week over a living wage and guaranteed tuition waivers. The union says the U of I has agreed to a new negotiating session slated for Saturday afternoon. Co-President Caroline Nappo says it's the result of the membership meeting a week ago when more than 90% of voting members favored a strike. "When we put serious pressure on the university related to a possible work action they are more responsive," says Nappo. "We've been negotiating for almost seven months now and from April until just a few weeks ago, the university hadn't made any kind of offer that gave us anything." Nappo says there's been some movement on the areas of health care coverage and parental leave, and the administration agreed to drop some language about discrimination-based grievances.
GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says adding the Saturday session is encouraging, but its strike committee has been meeting regularly and can call for a work stoppage at any time. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says she's hopeful the best possible contract can be reached within the university's financial constraints.
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