Illinois Public Media News
Furlough days could be just the beginning of the changes ahead at the University of Illinois. Two top university leaders say the next few years could see a host of changes, as the U of I adjusts to diminishing state funding.
Interim Urbana campus chancellor Robert Easter says the state's budget crisis has forced U of I administrators to start looking at how they can maintain the integrity of the institution in the long-term, considering the financial problems they're facing. He says university officials are starting to hold conversations they haven't had for some time.
"Those conversations are around what are we really about, what are our key programs that we want to have as a part of our future. What do we want to look like in 20 years?" Easter said. "And how do we decide those things that we no longer do? They may have been important at some time in the past, they may still be important. But what are our priorities?"
Easter says he'll be meeting with deans and vice-chancellors on the Urbana campus this Friday to start work on designing the framework for those conversations. While their outcome is unknown, U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry says he envisions a U of I five years from now with the same number of faculty or more, but with fewer non-teaching and administrative staff.
Ikenberry and Easter made their comments Monday night during a live interview on WILL Radio and TV.
About 11-thousand University of Illinois employees will have to take four unpaid days off work between now and the middle of May.
U of I administrators say furlough days have become unavoidable as the university faces a 440 million dollar shortfall in state funding. Administrators say the state has given the U of I only seven percent of the support it expected from this year's budget.
Interim president Stanley Ikenberry says no layoffs have been ordered, but departments are being asked to consider them because of a grim immediate future.
"Next year is not any more comforting," Ikenberry said. "So I think until we see the state leadership -- the governor, the leaders and members of the General Assembly, and frankly the citizens of the state -- rallying around a long term solution, I think we're going to be dealing with a mounting financial crisis."
Ikenberry believes the state will need to cut state spending and increase taxes to dig itself out of its budget deficit.
Chief financial officer Walter Knorr says the U of I has borrowed millions of dollars from its own funds - he says money from tuition, federal support and private giving have also kept the university going. "And indeed it's these other areas of the university that are giving us the liquidity that we require to be able to cope with the shortfall in funding from the state," Knorr said.
The four-day furloughs announced today do not affect civil service employees, but Knorr says their bargaining groups will be asked to put similar actions into their contracts. About 100 top administrators will take ten furlough days over the next five months.
December was another month of slow economic improvement for Illinois --- according to the University of Illinois Flash Index.
The Flash Index increased by a fifth of a point, to 91.2 in December, from November's 90.0. U of I Economist Fred Giertz says the Index has been gradually going up since hitting a low of 90 in September.
"There has been now three months of small increases", says Giertz. "So it's good news in a very limited sense --- good news in the sense that things aren't getting worse, but it doesn't necessarily mean there's a lot of improvement."
Giertz says he thinks slow economic growth will continue in Illinois, provided there are no unforeseen reversals, but says it will take a couple of years for the Flash Index to reach 100, which would indicate the start of actual economic growth.
"I think the evidence suggests that we are on the path to recovery", says Giertz. "But the recovery's going to be pretty slow. But there's not guarantee about that. There could be some unforeseen circumstance or some reversal. We've certainly seen that in the last couple of years."
Giertz says the best-case scenario would be a healthier financial sector combining with renewed public confidence in the economy to create a snowball effect. But he thinks gradual sluggish improvements are more likely.
The Flash Index is based on corporate, personal income and sales tax receipts in Illinois. Despite the recent improvement, all three categories are down from a year ago.
A spokeswoman for the Chicago-based agency that helps run the waterways into Lake Michigan says it's unfortunate that Michigan's attorney general is going to the U.S. Supreme Court over Asian carp.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox today sued the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the state of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The lawsuit seeks closure of shipping locks near Chicago to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes and endangering the $7 billion fishing industry.
Water district spokeswoman Jill Horist calls the lawsuit unfortunate and says it won't bring a solution any sooner.
A spokeswoman says Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is reviewing the lawsuit and has no comment for now.
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.
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