Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - November 29, 2011

Lawmakers Return to Springfield to Consider Tax Break Bill

State lawmakers are back in Springfield on Tuesday to try to pass legislation that will keep a pair of major corporations happy enough to stay in Illinois while also doing something for smaller businesses and everyday taxpayers.

A scaled-back tax package is before the General Assembly after it became clear earlier this month during the regularly scheduled veto session that there wasn't enough support for a larger and more expensive version. However, there is still no telling if the new plan will succeed.

What's now the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group cites its namesake city as its birthplace when in 1848 the world's first futures exchange was created.

Sears came to the city not long after in 1887. The company is now in suburban Hoffman Estates.

Despite their long histories in Illinois, both fixtures are threatening to leave. They are being lured by other states with bids of tax breaks and incentives.

Illinois legislators fearful of losing all of those jobs are back at the capitol crafting a counter offer.

Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion), who chairs the House Revenue Committee, has pushed a plan that creates, extends and increases a smattering of other taxes to the benefit of other businesses, and to individuals.

Bradley's proposal has an annual price tag of $250 million, which is $850 million less compared to an earlier proposal. It would include $85 million in relief for Chicago-based financial exchanges that are threatening to leave the state. It also includes $15 million in tax credits for Hoffman-Estates based Sears, which says it may also move.

"We're trying to create fairness, we're trying to create balance, we're trying to spend the money we have as wisely as possible and we're trying to do it in a sustainable manner," Bradley said. "I wish we had more, I wish we could do more. But the reality is that we need to pay bills, we need to keep these companies in Illinois, we need to provide as much relief as we can small businesses and working men and women."

At about $600 million less than the earlier package, Bradley said the plan he is sponsoring is what Illinois can afford.

Businesses groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures Association say they are pleased with the proposal. They like that it no longer retroactively reverses a tax break that lets companies delay paying taxes on big machinery purchases. They also like that it extends a research and development tax credit, that it partially reverses a suspension of the net operating loss deduction, and it provides relief on the estate tax.

The GOP's negotiator, Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights), said the plan is designed to benefit small and medium businesses.

"The objective is to key in, for business proposes, to show that it's not just the big guess, but small and medium businesses that we want to help as well," Harris said.

There's even a live theater production tax credit, after Broadway in Chicago has continually testified it will help bring acts to the city.

That wide range is why House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) gets miffed.

"I think there are serious questions about the top heavy nature about this proposition," Currie said. "I think there are serious questions about the issue of whether we ought to just jump when some other state says 'we're going to steal your businesses away from you.'"

Currie suggests the General Assembly consider narrow measures targeted solely at the Mercantile Exchange and Sears. The package has blossomed because legislators will be attracted to the various components. Especially when they are hearing protests like that of Toby Chow, with the Make Wall Street Pay Illinois coalition.

"Let me tell you what fairness really means," Chow said. "It means saying no to further budget cuts, which will pile misery upon misery for the 99 percent, and it means saying no to tax breaks which will pile idle wealth upon idle wealth for those in the 1 percent. It means standing up to their extortion and blackmail and threats to leave Chicago."

In the spirit of appeasing some of those concerns, the package breaks not just for businesses but also to individual taxpayers. It increases the earned income tax credit, to the benefit of the working poor. But the credit's significantly smaller in this new, scaled back version of the package.

Gov. Pat Quinn's budget director David Vaught said the administration wants more.

"That makes a huge difference to that single mother, and it also makes a huge difference to our economy," Vaught said. "So, it makes a huge difference out there for those folks who are not happy with government."

That's not to mention critics who argue the package does nothing for the middle class. The standard tax exemption gets a one-time raise, but going forward it will not be tied to inflation as originally proposed.

House sponsor John Bradley said there is pressure to add here, subtract there, but he said he will continue negotiating in an attempt to get enough votes. But at some point, he said, it will be time to move forward.

If getting a package through the General Assembly is being done to please the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, time is nearly up. Its chairman was upset earlier this month because the legislature couldn't get it done during its regularly scheduled veto session. That's why lawmakers hurried back.

To the consternation of some legislators, nobody from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange present at the committee was wiling to testify how long it'll wait.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 29, 2011

Quinn Announces Plan to Save Facilities Marked for Closure

Gov. Pat Quinn says he's reached a deal to keep seven state facilities he'd planned to close open through the fiscal year.

Quinn's office announced the deal Monday. State budget director David Vaught tells The Associated Press that the estimated $200 million cost of keeping the seven centers open through the current fiscal year, which ends in June, will be covered by moving funds from other parts of the budget.

Vaught says Quinn's veto of $376 million from the $33.2 billion budget passed by the legislature this year made the deal possible.

Earlier this year, Quinn said the state needed to close seven centers, including a prison and centers for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. The closures would have resulted in nearly 2,000 layoffs.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 27, 2011

Zook Reflects, Athletic Director Thomas Begins Search For New Coach

Ron Zook's first time addressing the media as the University of Illinois' former football coach was not about what went wrong this season or the future of his career. Instead, he recognized some of the people who backed him over his seven-year stint at the U of I.

In a Sunday afternoon press conference in the U of I football squad room, Zook didn't take questions. Rather, he simply said thank you to many, including former athletic director Ron Guenther for giving him a chance, current AD Mike Thomas, and U of I President Michael Hogan. Zook says sometimes, their jobs include making difficult decisions, and he respects that.

But the now-former coach says there's a lot to look forward to in the football program's future.

"I see our facilities - team - the foundation in place - two terrific bowl trips, and hopefully a third this year," said Zook. "If it falls right, our fifth year seniors will get their third bowl trip. And our players can become the first at our school with two bowl victories. I think our program is very close, I really do. We just didn't quite finish a few games here and there, and I'm proud of how close we are."

If the Illini are selected for a bowl game, it would mark their first back to back bowl appearances since 1991 and 92. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will serve as interim coach.

Zook got a bit emotional, pausing when thanking his players, some of them who were in the press conference, calling the team a family. Zook says he wants to make sure the players are ok, and "for that reason, it's not the time to entertain questions, after I've had some time to digest and reflect, I think will be a better time for that, I hope you all understand. Thank you."

With that, Zook left the podium following a 2 and a half minute statement.

U of I Athletic Director Mike Thomas says the search for a new football coach begins immediately. But he wouldn't name specific candidates, or give a timeline for that search. And Thomas says he wouldn't rule out someone without head coaching experience, noting that academics and recruiting are also important.

He says another key factor for coaching at Illinois is success within the Big Ten conference, where the winning percentage was about 30-percent under Zook.

"So I think when you look at us first of all in a conference, are we competitive in a very good football conference?," said Thomas. "But when you're competing at the highest level, as you see with the other teams that are doing that right, that's when your name is in the national picture, they're talking about you for BCS Bowl games, and you're traditionally thought of a Top 25 team."

Thomas says he made the decision to dismiss Zook after Saturday's 27-to-7 defeat at Minnesota. He says it's easy to use the economy as an excuse for lighter attendance at Illini games, but he notes other schools are finding ways to fill the stadium. Thomas says that comes down to the quality of play on the field.

"This program - you need to feel like there's hope around it, and that people are getting excited, and that people are selling tickets," he said. "And when an Ohio State or a Wisconsin shows up, that the stadium is being sold. As a matter of fact, demand exceeds the capacity, and that's not really where we're at right now, but the hope is that someday we get there."

Zook is 34-51 at Illinois. He took the 2007 team to the Rose Bowl and lost to USC. Last season's squad beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl.

Ron Zook talks to the media on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 hours after being fired as the University of Illinois' football coach

Categories: Economics, Education, Sports

AP - Illinois Public Media News - November 23, 2011

Tax Incentive Bill May Have Something for Everyone

A bill with tax incentives for big companies and working families is expected to come before the Illinois legislature next week. It's been dubbed a "Christmas Tree" bill because it's got a little something for everyone.

The bill started out as tax incentive to persuade corporations like Sears and CME to stay in Illinois. But Democrats want to add tax incentives for individuals and working class families. Republicans want to add tax incentives for small businesses. Meantime, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn wants to make sure it all passes.

"You know it has to be a reasonable bill - it can't be overloaded. So we'll sit down over the next few days and hopefully come up with a good proposal to get some majority support," Quinn said in a news conference on Tuesday.

Sears has threatened to leave the state if a new tax package isn't passed soon. If the legislature can't pass a bill next week, it'll have to wait until lawmakers return in January.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 23, 2011

Champaign Church Distributes Food to More Than 500 Families

A Champaign ministry will feed more than 500 families this Thanksgiving.

The Glory Center's annual Meet the Need Thanksgiving Giveaway relies on donations from more than 400 people.

It partnered with the Champaign Mayor's Office and Champaign County NAACP this year, some of them volunteering as families waited in line for grocery items like rice, beans, canned vegetables, and soup, and each of them got a Thanksgiving turkey.

Glory Center Associate Pastor Matthew Nesbitt says a large spectrum of people waited in line for over two hours to collect food Tuesday.

"(We're helping) people who may not have anything to eat, and then, at other end of the spectrum, it may be individuals who have just fallen on hard times that really just have that need at this time of the year," he said.

The city of Champaign often plays a role in the event, but Mayor Don Gerard says he was helping more as an individual yesterday, handing out the turkeys and other groceries.

It's estimated that one in four children in Champaign County struggles with hunger.



WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 22, 2011

UI Trustees Tuition Vote Will Come in January

University of Illinois Trustees are expected to approve tuition rates in January.

Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr told a Trustees committee Monday that passing it earlier gives families time to plan financially. Just as last year, he says amount of any tuition increase is pegged to keep up with inflation.

In prior years, the state's fiscal crisis has forced the U of I to wait as late as June before setting rates. U of I President Michael Hogan says there are other advantages to passing them earlier.

"We can't really get our financial aid packages together, and it's costing us real opportunities to recruit students," he said. "They're waiting so long, they're taking other offers and so on, so I'm very happy about being able to move that up."

Knorr says the state still owes the U of I a total of $357-million, including $139-million from fiscal 2011. But he says the trend of the state being 6 to 7 months in payments behind is stabilizing.

Meanwhile, Hogan says he hopes to see the university set aside more tuition for financial aid. He says most Big Ten universities reserve close to 17-percent for that use, and wants to do a study of where the U of I falls in with other peer institutions. But Hogan wouldn't commit to a specific figure.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 21, 2011

Congressional Super Committee Fails to Reach Agreement

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

Congressional leaders of the deficit super committee says they have failed to hammer out an agreement that would reduce the deficit by more than a trillion dollars over the next decade.

Failure to do so would trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts -- starting in 2013 - over the next decade. Speaking before the announcement that committee failed to achieve its task, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that should the committee fail to act, it would confirm Congress's inability to solve the nation's big problems.

"If the super committee fails, it will just confirm the suspicions that most people have had, that congress is incapable of taking on big issues and coming to any positive resolution," said Durbin. "It's happened too many times, over and over again. Threats of shutting down the government. Threats of even shutting down the economy in the course of this year. So this is further disappointment, and it won't help the image of Congress."

The super committee was created with 12 members of congress - six Democrats and six Republicans. Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) said the idea behind the panel was a bad one from the start.

"I think it was doomed from the beginning," Johnson said. "You appoint 12 people who are intentionally partisan and expect to come up with a bipartisan solution. That's unrealistic. I would have liked to have seen a more fair, transparent, and open process, but that didn't happen."

The committee has been divided from the beginning over taxes and cuts to popular government benefit programs like Medicare. It has until Wednesday to vote on a plan.

Categories: Economics, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - November 18, 2011

Labor Charge Against U of I Prompted by VAP’s Not Getting Raise

An unfair labor practice charge has been filed against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Association of Academic Professionals.

A few months ago, the university began offering a 3 percent raise to its employees, which included about 3,000 academic professionals. The Association of Academic Professionals said the U of I withheld those raises from about 300 visiting academic professionals (VAP), who are in the middle of contract negotiations. Association spokesman Alan Bilansky said that was a violation of an existing agreement that the two sides already hashed out.

Bilansky said the most recent VAP contract doesn't expire until a new contract is in place, and he said the previous agreement allows those employees to participate in the campus salary program.

"Everyone is getting an across the board raise, and the VAPs should be sharing in that," Bilansky said. "We're trying to not let resentment get in the way of negotiating a fair deal, and we are making progress....but there are grumblings from every VAP that I talk to."

Officials representing the university and the visiting academic professionals have been in talks over a new contract for the last several months.

U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the previous contract for visiting academic professionals had no pay schedule for annual step increases. She also noted that the university did not guarantee that the recent 3 percent pay increase would apply to all employees.

"Pay rates differ among employees in different departments," Kaler said. "Pay adjustments are decided at the department level and may vary.

Categories: Economics, Education, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - November 18, 2011

NCLB Waiver Leads States to Toughen Teacher Evaluations

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

Teachers and principals' own report cards are getting a lot more attention.

The way educators are evaluated is changing across the country, with a switch from routine "satisfactory" ratings to actual proof that students are learning.

President Barack Obama's recent use of executive authority to revise the No Child Left Behind education law is one of several factors driving a trend toward using student test scores, classroom observation and potentially even input from students, among other measures, to determine the effectiveness of educators. A growing number of states are using these evaluations to decide critical issues such as pay, tenure, firings and the awarding of teaching licenses.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard recently unveiled a new report card and incentive pay program aimed at boosting the performance of school principals. And next year, Chicago Public School teachers evaluations will include criteria tied directly to student achievement. The specific metrics and achievement tests included in those evaluations must be agreeed upon by the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union, which will be renegotiating its contract next year. CPS expects half of its schools will be using the new form by next fall, before rolling it out to the rest of the district by 2013.

Two years ago, only four states used student achievement as a predominant influence in how teacher performance is assessed. Today, the number is 13, according to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. Ten other states count student achievement in a lesser but still significant way in teacher evaluations. In 19 states and the District of Columbia, teachers can be fired based on the results, the report said.

Even more changes are anticipated in coming months.

Obama said in September that states wanting relief from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law could apply for a waiver from the law's tough-to-meet requirements for student achievement in reading and math. To get a waiver, one thing states must do is come up with ways to use teacher and principal evaluations to make personnel decisions.

This week, 11 states applied for waivers, and an additional 28 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico say they will be seeking waivers, too.

In addition to Obama's waivers, a major driver has been the administration's high-profile "Race to the Top" competition, which had states competing for billions in prize dollars if they adopted stronger evaluation systems. Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said another factor is a growing body of research showing that teachers matter in how much students learn and an influential 2009 report by the New Teacher Project revealing that fewer than 1 percent of teachers surveyed receive unsatisfactory ratings - even in failing schools.

Historically, states have considered teacher evaluations to be untouchable, in part because of teachers unions.

"Once states started to see from other states that you could move this, the ball has continued to roll," Jacobs said.

States are using a combination of measures to evaluate educators. For example, in Minnesota, evaluation systems under development for teachers and principals will include feedback from superiors, fellow educators and parents. Thirty-five percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on student test scores, but teachers will also be able to present a portfolio showing professional growth that includes student work and classroom video.

Some states, such as Georgia and Massachusetts, are testing or considering the limited use of student input. A study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found the average student can tell who is an effective teacher. It said students' feedback is more specific and useful to teachers than scores or tests alone.

Those opposed to linking test scores to evaluations say standardized tests are limited and don't necessarily reflect what's taught in the classroom. They say student performance can be affected by variables outside a teacher's control like a child coming from an abusive home, transferring midyear or being behind because a previous teacher didn't teach properly.

In recent years, however, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association unions have warmed to the idea of teacher evaluations based on student performance, with some caveats. In July, delegates to the NEA's national convention voted in support of a policy statement that called for a comprehensive overhaul of teacher evaluations. The AFT has worked for two years with dozens of districts to help develop such systems, said AFT president Randi Weingarten.

But the unions want evaluations developed at the local level with input from teachers and little reliance on test scores. In too many places, Weingarten said, systems are being rolled out too fast with serious implications for educators.

She said that has happened in the District of Columbia and Tennessee, though advocates of tougher evaluation systems have held both up for praise.

This year, Tennessee implemented a new system that has teachers rated every year and observed multiple times a year. Thirty-five percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on student growth on the state standardized test over time. Weingarten said the system has put the focus on test scores instead of learning and that there have been too many bureaucratic hurdles.

"Teachers are not nervous about taking responsibility," Weingarten said. "What they are nervous about is that all of this is being done to them, without them ... in so many places (not) having any voice in it whatsoever, and it's about thwarting and firing as opposed to about helping to improve instruction."

In the District of Columbia, controversial former Chancellor Michelle Rhee adopted a teacher evaluation system in part based on student performance, and teachers were among hundreds of school employees laid off under the new evaluation system. Some teachers like the recognition and pay increases in the system, but her policies played a role in the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty for re-election.

As states develop new methods of rating teachers, challenges include training school districts to use the new systems and finding ways to evaluate teachers of subjects that don't have standardized tests, said Janice Poda of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

To ease growing pains, some states like New Jersey, which asked the Obama administration this week for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, have opted to try evaluation systems in only a limited number of school districts before going statewide. Among the 11 states that asked for waivers this week, much of what was included on teacher and principal evaluations was preliminary but already in the works. As other states submit applications, more changes in evaluations are expected.

"I absolutely think it's important for teachers to get feedback about their practice," said Poda, the council's strategic initiative director for the education workforce.

"I think all teachers should be on some kind of a continuous growth plan so that they can always be learning new things and improving their practice, and I think that's true for leaders as well," Poda said.


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