Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
An Illinois House committee has approved a new, smaller gambling plan that backers hope can survive a threatened veto by Gov. Pat Quinn.
It passed 8-2. Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said the measure could be changed even more before a vote by the full House. Lawmakers approved a major gambling expansion during the spring legislative session. But they never bothered sending the bill to Quinn out of fear that he would veto it.
The Democratic governor has a number of concerns, particularly the idea of allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks. After the governor panned it, Lang pushed for the smaller proposal. The new proposal would still allow slots at racetracks but not at Chicago airports. It also lowers the amount of growth allowed for existing casinos.
"I'm sure even the governor would say we have made a good faith effort to match up some of the governor would agree good faith effort to match up some of our ideas with some of his ideas," Lang said.
However, despite the changes Lang said he still expects the governor will oppose it.
The lure of additional gambling in Illinois has some communities on opposite sides of the issue.
When riverboat gambling was legalized more than 20 years ago, it was sold as a way to boost tourism and the sagging economies in certain towns. Now communities like Rockford, Danville, even Chicago want in on the action. The idea of a quaint trip gambling down the river is long gone. It is all about money and jobs.
"We fit in that original description of an economically depressed community," Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said. "I'm not happy to say that but what i am happy to do is to stand here and fight for an opportunity to bring jobs to our community."
The city is one of five that would be allowed to add gambling under a package being considered at the capitol. An earlier effort met resistance from Gov. Quinn and mayors whose towns already have casinos. Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain said his town has used proceeds from gaming on projects.
"We built a police station, we built a recreation center, and those days will be rapidly disappearing for us," Kaptain said.
Kaptain also raised concerns about slot machines at horse tracks, which he says would take money from existing casinos.
Illinois lawmakers head to Springfield on Tuesday for the last week of the fall session.
Several big items have been pushed to the back burner, including a bill that would overhaul Illinois' pension systems. It's proving to be one of the most radioactive issues in the legislature this year. And that's why lawmakers might put it off -- again.
Putting it off, however, won't make the state's financial picture better. Gov. Pat Quinn in September announced he needed to close seven prisons and homes for the disabled because there is no money to keep them operating. If his decision stands, it will mean a major reshuffling of the mentally ill, some of whom were sent to institutions because they're dangerous. It could mean relocating adults and children who have severe physical disabilities.
There are many examples of the budget crunch. The state is so far behind paying its bills, it had to stop a program that helped fund burials of poor people whose families couldn't afford to bury them.
"We're broke, as everyone knows," said Ty Fahner, a former Illinois attorney general and president of the Civic Committee, which focuses on economic growth.
His group has been pushing legislation that would make state workers, teachers and others pay more toward their retirements. Because the state is so far behind paying its share to their retirement accounts, there is little money left over. The debt grows each year, taking a bigger share of the state budget.
State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) is chairman of the House pensions committee.
"I don't think there's any member of the General Assembly who doesn't realize this is a problem we have to do something about," he said.
But lawmakers seem to be gearing up for their final week of session without addressing the single biggest budget pressure facing taxpayers.
"This all comes from basic cowardice, and I mean that word sincerely," said Fahner who believes lawmakers are more focused on their re-eletion campaigns than on the state's budget crisis. Goups that oppose the bill are powerful. Unionized teachers and state workers are hounding lawmakers with phone calls and e-mail. And union leaders are determined to run candidates against incumbents who support the idea of making their members pay more.
The unions say the reason the state is in this mess is the state's fault, not theirs.
Even legislators will admit they used the pension system as a credit card. When there wasn't enough money for schools or health care for the poor, they made a smaller payment into the retirement accounts of workers, thinking eventually they would catch up.
But it didn't stop there.
They also made pension benefits more expensive over the years. They made retirement ages younger for certain groups. They made retirement income go up each year, higher than the cost of living, through a compounded 3 percent adjustment. And they added more workers.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego is sponsoring a bill to overhaul the pension system, and he is ready for a vote on it this week.
"We could sit here and point fingers, but I think this is the issue of the day, and if we don't address pensions, it will consume us like we've never seen before," he said.
Lawmakers meet for three days. So far, it looks like they'll be asked to vote on a tax cut package for businesses and maybe a casino bill.
But the state' s biggest money crisis - pensions - just might get kicked to the spring.
Close to 4,000 students have received scholarships from the state to attend private schools under Indiana's broad new school voucher law.
State Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett said Thursday the months-old program is already succeeding at providing new opportunities for low and moderate income families.
Indianapolis Public Schools lost the most students under the new program, sending close to 650 students to private schools. The South Bend and Fort Wayne school corporations lost the second and third highest number of students to private schools under the program.
Opponents including the state's teachers unions say the program amounts to a wealth transfer from public to private schools. The Indiana State Teacher's Association is backing a legal challenge to the voucher law.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton says he expects a vote on gambling expansion when lawmakers return to Springfield next week for the fall session.
The Chicago Democrat says he expects a gambling expansion vote when lawmakers return to the Illinois Capitol Nov. 8 for a second week of work. He acknowledged disagreement remains over slots at race tracks.
Gov. Pat Quinn has threatened to veto legislation lawmakers passed in May that would add five casinos, including one in Danville and another in Chicago, and put slots at tracks. Quinn has said he's willing to support the new casinos but opposes slots at tracks. Some lawmakers say a gambling measure can't pass without including slots at tracks.
Cullerton says lawmakers have gotten input from Quinn but he can't say they have an agreement on legislation.
The University of Illinois printing department will be downsized and reorganized, but will remain open.
The university said in May 2010 that it would close its printing services department. The school blamed a $1 million budget deficit and said the unit couldn't get enough business to cover its expenses. But The News-Gazette reports Wednesday the department will be renamed Document Services and will keep operating.
The department has taken cost-cutting steps. It has reduced its workforce from 39 to 19 and sold printing equipment. In recent years the department's annual expenses were as much as $4.5 million. School officials estimate that figure will be less than $2.5 million for the fiscal year ending in June 2012. The unit's deficit is down to about $730,000.
UPDATE: Tenure and tenure-track faculty at SIUC announced a strike late Wednesday night, after contract talks broke down. Meanwhile, three other unions on the Carbondale campus have reached tentative agreements.
A top administrator of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale says she's still hopeful negotiators can reach an agreement on a contract proposal that would avert a looming strike by the school's educators.
Rita Cheng said though the threat of a walkout is real, she remains confident that only a small percentage of faculty and staff will strike, and she said university operations will go on as usual.
"A far majority of our administration, who have been faculty for years, will step into the classroom and teach," Cheng said. "Other faculty across the campus, and retired faculty in the community, have already called and volunteered to cover for classes."
Members of four different bargaining units say they've been negotiating for more than a year for a new contract, and it's time to deal or walk out.
Several issues remain outstanding, involving money, tenure, distance education and job security.
SIU President Glenn Poshard said calls to tie faculty pay to increases in the university budget are not fair to those who pay for the hikes.
"If we're going to say, well let's talk about increases because of student tuition increases, and put aside the fact that the state has cut us drastically, then I guess we put the whole financial position of the university in the hands of the students from now on," Poshard said. "That's not what we want to do, and I don't believe that the faculty want to do this, either."
Poshard said administrators have worked hard to avoid financial exigency, as well as staff cuts and layoffs.
"We've done everything under the worst financial conditions of the state and of the university to avoid doing anything like that, and we haven't," he said.
With the threat of a strike looming on Thursday, the recently formed group known as Faculty for Sensible Negotiations began a signature drive on Monday.
The group wants to determine the faculty interest in retaining or replacing the Faculty Association as their exclusive bargaining unit.
FSN leader and SIU-C Zoology associate professor Mike Eichholz said he has been fed up with how faculty contracts are negotiated since he arrived at SIU-C in 2002.
Eichholz said the signature drive is meant to gauge whether faculty want to continue with the Faculty Association, replace it as a bargaining unit or decertify and negotiate contracts individually.
"You know, we'd like to see an approach where we'd try to work hand-in-hand with the administration to make the university better, instead of an approach where it seems it's an 'us-or-them' approach," Eichholz said. "You know, some of the demands, to me, just don't seem to be appropriate."
He said the group would prefer all the cards be returned by Friday, but will accept any turned in after that date. He also said he thinks there must be an alternative to the current contract negotiation structure.
"It seems like every time there's a contract negotiation, we end up to the point where there are threats of a strike, a tremendous amount of negative publicity for the university," Eichholz said. "It seems like this time, at first the rhetoric wasn't quite as bad but over the last couple of months it's clearly gotten worse to the point where there's likely going to be a strike - which I think is extremely unfortunate."
Cheng said while it's still unclear what effect the labor strife will have, there will be repercussions for the university.
"This is not where we'd like to be at this time," she said. "We'd like to have positive press, we'd like to be moving forward with our positive messages for our prospective students, and we're getting, instead, this type of coverage on the news.
The University of Illinois' Flash Index went up a full point in September, only to drop back down by half a point in October. But economist Fred Giertz says the new reading of 98.3 isn't all bad news --- because the index to the state economy is still higher than it has been all summer.
"Last month's increase was probably a little bit overly optimistic, but it didn't fall back down to the old level," Giertz said. "So over the two-month period, it shows a very modest gain, which is good news, compared to what many people were fearing, which was a double dip recession back a month or two ago."
A hundred is the dividing line between economic growth and contraction in the Flash Index. And it is now a full three years since the Index last showed growth in the Illinois economy. The Index hit a low point of 90.0 in Sept. 2009, and there have been fears that levels might fall again, indicating a double-dip recession. But Giertz said the overall improvement in the Flash Index, along with other indicators, make a double-dip recession more and more unlikely.
"These things are always a question of what the probabilities are," Giertz said. "But some people were talking about a one in three or one in four chance of a double-dip, maybe six weeks ago. Now that probably is down to one in ten. But that one in ten is still there. So it's always a chance that might happen, but less likely than it was before."
Giertz said modest improvements in the national economy also argue against a double-dip recession.
The Flash Index is based on analysis of Illinois tax receipts --- and Giertz said only sales tax receipts showed any real improvement last month.
Starting Monday, Oct. 31, the Champaign County Housing authority will begin accepting applications from people who want to be included on a waiting list for its Section 8 housing voucher program.
Housing authority executive director Edward Bland said the last time people could apply to be on the list was in 2007. The agency has received about $10 million from the federal government to support existing vouchers. He said there's no time line for when the next batch of vouchers will be available.
"The purpose of opening up the waiting list is to have future applicants available, so as vouchers become available in the future we will have a pool of qualified applicants to issue those vouchers to," Bland explained. "Those vouchers could be new vouchers that we may receive or they could be existing vouchers from a family (that) no longer needs that voucher."
Bland said participants will be considered for a voucher based on a number of factors, including their income level and criminal history. He said if more than 400 people sign up to make it on the list, then participants will be selected through a lottery system. The enrollment period to apply ends Nov. 14, 2011.
Applications for the voucher program can be picked up at the following locations:
Champaign County Regional Planning Commission - 1776 E. Washington, Urbana
Housing Authority of Champaign County - 205 W. Park Avenue, Champaign
Illinois Work Net Center - 1307 N. Mattis Avenue, Champaign
Oscar Street Place - 1202 E. Harding Street, Urbana
Rantoul Community Center - 520 E. Wabash, Rantoul
Refugee Center - 302 S. Birch Street, Urbana
Restoration Urbana Ministries - 1213 Parkland Court, Champaign
Salvation Army - 2212 N. Market, Champaign
Skelton Place - 302 S. Second Street, Champaign
The Times Center - 70 E. Washington, Champaign
Washington Square - 108 W. Washington, Champaign
The opportunity to get on the Section 8 waiting list comes less than week after the release of preliminary results from a homeless survey by the group C-U at Home. The organization interviewed around 300 homeless people in Champaign, Urbana, and Rantoul, and identified about a third of them as being vulnerable to dying on the street. Each person's situation was based on the Vulnerability Index, a tool developed by researchers at Boston's Healthcare for the Homeless.
John Smith was one of about 80 volunteers who interviewed the homeless, asking questions about physical and mental health, history of substance abuse, and time living on the street.
"It was amazing that the empathy that the volunteers felt from talking with the homeless doing the surveys, and the reverse," Smith said. "We saw the homeless appreciative that somebody would listen to their story."
The study was part of a national effort to find housing for 100,000 vulnerable people across the county within the next couple of years. Melany Jackson, the project coordinator for C-U at Home, said she plans to take the information collected from the survey in Champaign County, and find housing for a half a dozen people by the end of next year.
"There aren't nearly enough beds," Jackson said. "There aren't nearly enough support services for folks who are in desperate need. Many of them are falling through the cracks. They're falling through the cracks of the system that does exist."
According to the United Way of Champaign County, homelessness is on the rise with an estimated 418 individuals in Champaign County without a stable place to live at any given time. Jackson said her organization will work with churches and other faith-based groups to connect people with a place to live.
(Reported by Azra Halilovic)
The solidarity group Occupy Champaign-Urbana organized a demonstration Saturday afternoon in downtown Champaign. More than a dozen people met at the corner of Neil and Main to protest corporate policies and political inequality.
That's compared to the 300 people who attended the march and rally in West Side Park a couple weeks ago. Saturday's event was part of a series of smaller demonstrations the group is organizing in Champaign County. The demonstrators held signs and handed out fliers with details about their group and ways to get involved. The group is in solidarity with the anti-Wall Street movements that have erupted across the nation and globe.
The demonstrators included students, working class citizens, and retirees. While they have personal motives for participating in the demonstration, they are all seeking economic reform and greater political representation.
Pat Dewal of Champaign is a retired resident who became involved with the Occupy movement about three weeks ago. Dewal said she would like to see less corporate involvement in politics.
"I just have a lot of concerns about what's happening in our country and how much things have been in decline," she said. "I think it's time for citizens to speak up and do something."
Dewalt added that most people who organize and attend the events are on the political left, but that the group welcomes people of all political ideologies.
"Only a few Libertarians have been involved," she said. "It would be nice to hear more conservative voices. They would be enthusiastically welcome."
As cars stopped at streetlights, Eric Burton of Champaign approached them to hand out the group's fliers. He was there with his wife and child, and said he would like to see the government do a better a job representing families.
"I'm a working class citizen of this country," he said. "We can barely afford health insurance. I work about 70 hours a week between jobs and we just get by. And so that's my own personal impetus to be involved. I think it's more about a perception of what's right and wrong."
Other people at the demonstration expressed frustration with the role of lobbyists and the influence of money in politics. They hope to have a better and more diverse turnout at their future events. Organizers plan to hold a similar demonstration Tuesday at noon at the University of Illinois ' Urbana campus.
(Photo by Azra Halilovic)
If legislation to use local funds for the salaries of Illinois' regional school superintendents can pass it two weeks, one of those officials says it should be enough.
Jane Quinlan is the superintendent for Champaign and Ford Counties. She says it's a little hard to tell what the overall amount in personal property replacement tax will be, but Quinlan says anticipated Department of Revenue figures for Fiscal 2012 appear to be slightly better than last year, and would cover areas vetoed by Governor Pat Quinn. The bill failed Thursday by four votes, but is expected to come up for another vote in two weeks.
Quinlan says she holds out hope for this measure.
"We do have funding to pay for the staff that provides the services and programs that we have," she said. "I think the question is out there about 'how do those services (function) without the regional superintendent, who has the authority to execute those?"
If the bill doesn't pass when lawmakers return to Springfield November 8th, Quinlan says each regional superintendent and their assistant will have to take a hard look at their options, which may include retirement. She says it's unrealistic for these officials to work a few months more without pay.
Quinn eliminated the money for the superintendents and their assistants in July because he says the state can't afford the $11 million.
State Senator Shane Cultra says the bill that failed Thursday is likely the only one that will be considered on this issue when legislators return to Springfield. The Onarga Republican says he's all for restoring these salaries, but not with the personal property replacement tax. The measure needed 71 votes to pass, but failed 59-to-55 in the House.
Cultra says this issue lies in the hands of Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, who isn't directly impacted, since Cook County has no regional superintendents.
"He's basically letting us fight over how we're going to pay them, and who we're going to take the money from" said Cultra. "Somebody's going to get hurt. Is it the superintendents, or is it going to be local units of government? So I don't like that discussion. I don't think it should be that way. But unfortunately, that's what we're stuck with."
Cultra says lawmakers should have been allowed to override Governor Pat Quinn's veto of those salaries, and take the funds out of general state revenue. The bill that failed was put on 'postponed consideration', meaning the sponsor can drum up support before bringing it up for another vote. The fall veto session continues November 8th.
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