Illinois Public Media News
The Mayor of Decatur said he has received his share of questions from residents about bringing FutureGen's carbon emissions storage facility to the city.
Mike McElroy said once the Department of Energy canceled the original plan for a power plant in Mattoon and that city rejected the revamped plan, he placed a call to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin's office expressing interest in the so-called clean coal project.
McElroy said he expects to receive more details soon about FutureGen 2.0. He said any answers not given by the energy department could be provided by one of the city's major employers - noting Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is developing a carbon capture facility.
"Once the Department of Energy sends its stuff, we can give them the answers," said McElroy. "I feel very secure of the fact that we can call out to ADM and talk to the people that are running that.and they will give us the answers that we're looking for."
McElroy says he does not know where the FutureGen facility could be located in his city.
Meanwhile, a small southeastern Illinois community that was in the running for the original FutureGen power plant is doing what it can to recruit the carbon dioxide storage facility. Marshall Mayor Ken Smith said he has let his interests about the project known with Senator Durbin's office and the Department of Energy.
Marshall housed the chemical plant, Velsicol, for more than 40 years in a 400 acre site, and Smith said the city has the deep wells that would accommodate the carbon emissions site the DOE now wants to build as part of FutureGen 2.0. If Marshall can lure in FutureGen's storage facility, Smith said the facilities could stimulate more jobs in the community.
"It might also spark some interest of a power plant here in the future if they know they can already sequester here," said Smith. "The property owner that has this land also owns about 8,000 acres in Clark County, and he's also in the power plant business, he owns Indeck Energy. So he's very receptive to it being here if it works out."
Marshall is also the county seat in Clark County, where Smith noted the unemployment rate exceeds 12-percent. He says the DOE should be sending his community a packet on facility requirements soon. One of about 25 cities is looking to store carbon dioxide emissions after being piped from a retrofitted power plant in the Western Illinois city of Meredosia.
US Senator Dick Durbin said cost overruns in the original plan for FutureGen led to the decision to reconfigure the project.
Illinois' Senior Senator said for months, the price tag was going up faster than the FutureGen Alliance could generate private money to pay for it. Durbin said he was on a one-man crusade to find new companies to join the Alliance.
He added that once the Energy Department would not pay more than $1.1 billion, plans for a power plant in Mattoon were scrapped. Durbin said he only knew of FutureGen 2.0 six days before it was publicly announced, and he was told to keep silent then, while federal officials sought support from companies like Ameren. Durbin says he couldn't even tell companies with the FutureGen Alliance.
"The Alliance members knew that we were in trouble,' says Durbin. "Because they knew it was costing too much money. They were soliciting new members into the Alliance to try to keep up with the increased cost of the construction - we just couldn't keep up with it. They knew that we had an economic problem. The thing I didn't know was that the original concept of FutureGen that was announced and was solicited was now in production in four different places in the United States, so it was no longer a unique research undertaking."
Durbin said a plant of the same type in Mississippi was even larger than the proposed FutureGen plant for Mattoon.
The Senator says he knows a lot of residents there are upset, but added he did not sell out on them.
"At the end, Illinois ends up with $1.1 billion in clean-coal technology," he said. "It means that we're going to be leading the nation in terms of reducing emissions from coal-fired plants. We're going to use our own geology to be able to protect those emissions from causing environmental harm."
The companies making up the Alliance put their support Tuesday behind the new plan, which includes retrofitting a power plant in Western Illinois, and finding another community for storing carbon emissions.
Durbin admitted a lot of elements of the plan have to be spelled out by the Energy Department, but said the private sector buy-in will allow the project to succeed. Durban said twenty five other Illinois communities, including Marshall and Taylorville, have inquired about the new emissions facility. Durbin said Coles County and an area within 100 miles of it has the capacity to hold the emissions of 50 coal-fired power plants for 50 years.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin said he believes far too much of a college student's debt after four years comes from textbooks.
Durbin said the average student now spends nearly $900 a year on textbooks. Durbin said legislation that passed in July will make a few simple changes to let the student and professor know what that cost will be. In a stop at the University of Illinois Wednesday, Illinois' Senior Senator promoted the College Textbook Affordability Act. He says it's shocking that many professors actually don't know the retail price of a book. The measure requires publishers to provide that price in writing, and for faculty to keep students apprised of those costs. Durbin says another goal of the legislation is to create a market economy for students. "The good news is, for students, textbooks are more affordable," said Durbin, speaking in front of the Illini Union Bookstore. "The textbook publishers.. their prices have to be more competitive. For professors, be sensitive to the cost of textbooks for students and give these a chance to go shopping on line to find a bargain."
Graduate Student Josh Sulkin co-founded Illini Book Exchange, a free web site that allows students to exchange books without having to go through any book stores.
"The great thing this bill provides is information," said Sulkin. "Some of the other bookstores actually hide the ISBN numbers from you, so you can't know ahead of time unless you see the book physically what book you really need for the class. So you might buy a book on line based on the title, but it's the wrong book for the class and then you can't return it because it's on line, and then you just wasted even more money."
Durbin said a third part of the legislation will keep students from having to buy CD-ROM's and other supplemental equipment - those materials will now be bundled separately. Durbin said he introduced a second bill that will allow students to use 'open textbooks' on line.
Sheila Simon says improving education will bring more jobs to Illinois.
During a campaign stop on the University of Illinois campus, the democratic nominee for lieutenant governor said improving access to education will be a top priority if she and Pat Quinn win the general election in November.
She criticized GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady for calling on a 10 percent budget cut across the board to different state programs, saying public education cannot afford to sustain cuts that steep. However, during a campaign stop in Champaign earlier in the day, Brady acknowledged that some programs may see more drastic cuts than others.
Simon also praised her running mate, Pat Quinn, for supporting the $26 billion jobs bill passed by Congress last month. Quinn has said the money will save about six thousand jobs for Illinois teachers, while Brady said he would rather use that federal money to help the state's budget.
"State Senator Brady said, 'No, it's irresponsible.' I think we have a different definition of irresponsible," she said. "I think it's irresponsible not to support education in the state."
Sheila Simon also commended the Quinn administration for raising more awareness about the problems facing the Monetary Award Program. The MAP program gives grants to needy college students attending public and private schools, but has been turning more students away. Simon said it is critical to find a better way to support the program.
During her campaign stop, Simon also described her interest in working with community organizations to curb the level of domestic violence in the state.
Simon is the daughter of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon. She was appointed to run on the democratic ticket earlier this year after Independent gubernatorial candidate Scott Lee Cohen was forced to drop out because of his personal life. Cohen is now running as an Independent for governor, along with the Green Party's Rich Whitney.
Illinois' Republican candidate for governor says his plan for jobs would ultimately mean property tax relief for local school districts.
Bloomington Senator Bill Brady visited a machining facility in Champaign Tuesday to tout those plans. He says by introducing $3,750 dollars in tax credits for businesses over a 2-year period - and repealing the estate tax and gasoline sales taxes - that would bring 700,000 jobs back to Illinois.
Brady said 10-percent of revenue growth from those jobs will be placed into a property tax relief fund for school districts. He also refuted claims by his opponent, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn - that his more immediate plans for cutting education would actually raise property taxes.
"Ten percent of state funding on average to the school system is less than 2-and a-half percent reduction in overall spending," said Brady. "Now, there are many raises that are out there and contracts that might be negotiated to forgo for one year to meet these difficult times without pink-slipping or raising property taxes."
Brady also insists that school districts, universities, and social service providers would not experience the same problems they are now if they knew how much state money to count on in the first place. Brady says struggles at institutions like the University of Illinois are a result of state leaders "over promising and under-delivering."
The Senator has long pushed for 10-percent across the board cuts in state spending to balance the budget. But Brady said Tuesday that if elected, he will have experts audit the state's budget.
"Every dollar will be examined," said Brady. "Some programs likely will go by the wayside. Some will be examined. Some will be reduced. But we need someone to scrutinize every dollar of state spending so that we're utilizing the precious resources the taxpayers give us in a balanced way to focus on our highest priorities."
Brady said it is a mathematical equation that the state has to cut at least a dime in every dollar of spending, but wants to prioritize the remaining 90 cents.
Champaign department heads and employee unions are being asked to develop contingency plans should rising costs and the poor economy force further cuts in services.
City finance director Richard Schnuer said the first $1 to $2 million in suggested cuts should be prepared by November, but he said departments could be asked to seek out an additional $4 million in cost reductions early next year. If the city has to act, Schnuer would not speculate on what areas could be cut, but he said that it is unlikely any department would go untouched. Schnuer added that employee compensation has become one of the key areas that could force these decisions.
"We had hoped that we would be able to have an agreement with the bargaining units to have a short-term contract that would have no increases to help us get us through this year, and hopefully, with the economy beginning to grow we'd have some more money for increases at at later time," said Schnuer. "But we have been bargaining for several months now, and unfortunately, that has been unsuccessful. We see that we will be paying some kind of increases."
Schnuer also noted that under Illinois law, police and fire unions can bring an arbitrator if they do not reach an agreement in negotiations. He said a number of parties at the state level want to reduce the share of income tax that goes to local governments.
"That would cut us close to $2 million based on proposals that have been made," said Schnuer. "We would like to think the state would balance its budget without reducing revenues to our city, but certainly, that may not be the case."
Schnuer also said the city is not counting on revenue growth in the current year. Schuner said there have already been more than $8 million in cuts in the last three years, primarily coming from city administration and public works. Proposals will be posted for city council consideration by November, but Schnuer said information will be available for the public review through the city's website as the process moves forward.
Governor Pat Quinn has renewed talk of an income tax hike for education.
The Illinois democrat said getting a 33% increase in income taxes past lawmakers would mean asking school districts to cut property taxes in return. If elected, he said his tax hike will pass the legislature by the end of this year.
During an appearance at the University of Illinois on Friday, Quinn noted how opponent, State Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) wants to cut education by $1.26 billion, leading to an increase in property taxes. The governor said investing in education means local units of government should abate part of their property taxes.
"This university is a classic example of getting good jobs by having smart people," said Quinn. "So if my opponent - Senator Brady - wants to go around Illinois cutting and slashing education at every level - less scholarships, less early childhood education, less money for K thru 12 - he's on the wrong track."
The governor called the November 2nd election a "referendum for education." He said the difference between electing him and Brady will mean investments versus cuts.
Quinn called Brady a 'false prophet' by simply shifting the tax burden, but he would not say he had assurances from House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton that a vote on his 33% income tax proposal would take place.
Quinn also touted his efforts to start up a $31 billion capital plan for road construction, safer bridges, high speed rail, and sustainability initiatives like solar and wind power that will result in matching federal dollars. He was at the U of I Friday to address the 2010 Sustainable University Symposium. The university has signed the Sustainability Compact, which encourages institutions to use 'green' practices in their campus operations as well as academic and research programs.
The administrator of the Vermilion County Health Department said she hopes finances will allow her staff to return to a 5-day a week schedule in just over month.
Shirley Hicks said the Friday furlough days that started in June haven't reduced the volume of work. A lack of state funds forced the department to become a minimum certified facility that month, offering a handful of services, including immunizations, emergency planning, and the Women, Infants, and Children or WIC program. But Hicks said the department still has the same clients in those areas, noting the work has not been furloughed.
"High-risk restaurants - they need inspection three times a year," said Hicks. "Can you do all of those kinds of things? And what are doing on complaint calls? How effectively can you go out and respond to issues of communicable disease if you're not available three of seven days?"
At issue is continued budget problems caused by cash flow from the state. Hicks said in addition to that backlog of about $400,000, her department still owes Vermilion County for roughly half of a $300,000 loan made last year. County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said the county will help the department if it keeps the 4-day schedule, but not with a 5-day a week plan. McMahon said the funds that have come back from the state have led Hicks to believe that the health department can resume a normal work week in about six weeks.
"I don't share the same confidence, but at the same time, you have to let managers be managers," said McMahon. "So if you make that decision and go back to five days, basically what you're saying is you no longer would need the county board's help. So if you're saying that, you're back to five days - everybody's happy."
McMahon said if county decided to stick with the 4-day a week schedule, the county will provide 'whatever means necessary' to maintain a minimum certified health department to maintain services like immunizations and restaurant inspections.
The Republican candidates for Illinois Treasurer and Comptroller say they're confident that consolidating the two offices will not only save the state money, but be done in a system with checks and balances.
Former Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka and Pontiac Senator Dan Rutherford say merging the positions will save the state 12-million dollars by trimming jobs, office space, and saving communication time when investing money. Campaigning in Urbana Tuesday, Topinka says it used to be that way, when Illinois simply had a state auditor. A person in the office in the 1950's... Orville Hodge... was convicted and sentenced to prison for embezzlement. Topinka says the two offices were created for oversight, but adds that's what the office of auditor general is for now. "He (William Holland) serves in that function of oversight. Second of all, becase of the high-tech computerization, we have the same numbers."
If they're elected, Topinka and Rutherford say they'll actively campaign for the change before lawmakers next year. If lawmakers approve the change, it would require voter approval in November 2012. If the question passes, the single financial officer would be on the ballot two years later. And during their time in office, "Communication will be key," said Rutherford. "Because of our relationship, we will talk about when she's gonna disperse and when I can make funds available. But the thing is, someday Judy and Dan aren't gonna be there, there will be a different personality, and we want to have this thing fixed for the future."
Illinois' Democratic candidates for Treasurer and Comptroller, Robin Kelly and David Miller, have also gone on record supporting the idea. Kelly contends she first proposed merging the offices, but the GOP candidates say press reports indicate she was only exploring such a plan until recently.
Teachers in the Mahomet Seymour schools will be back in their classrooms on Monday as a two-day strike ends with a tentative contract agreement.
The chief negotiator for the Mahomet Seymour Education Association, Linda Meachum, said school board negotiators offered a compromise Friday afternoon that led to the breakthrough. Meachum said teachers will receive 2.6% pay raise this school year. She said support staff and teacher's aides will get 3.5%.
But the two sides will have to negotiate again next year because the tentative contract is only for one year. Meachum said she believes that's important for both the district and the union.
"At least this way we know what we can live with for one year, and the board can begin to strategically plan for the future," Meachum said shortly after negotiations wrapped up. "We know that some (federal) stimulus money is coming in to the district, and we'll have a better idea of what our fund balance is going to be." Meachum also noted that the state's now-delayed payment schedule to schools might be clearer in a year.
Terry Greene, the president of the Mahomet Seymour school board, says the district had lobbied against a two-year contract but let go of that requirement as union bargainers compromised.
"They agreed to a one-year deal that we thought was responsible and fiscally fair," Greene said. "We want our kids back in school. Usually if you make a deal in which both sides are are a little unhappy it's probably the right deal, and that's just about what happened." But Greene still contends that the deal could have been sealed much earlier in the bargaining process.
Meachum said a ratification vote for the union's 260 members is set for Monday afternoon, after the first day back in class. The school board will cast its vote later that evening.
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