Illinois Public Media News
Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon wants schools to know she isn't gunning for them.
Simon was recently appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn to lead a commission tasked with finding ways to cut school district administration costs and redirect funding back to students.
The commission begins its work with an eye on the high number of districts in the state. Officials say Illinois has about 870 districts. That's the third-highest number in the country behind California and Texas.
Quinn raised some hackles when he talked about school consolidation in this year's budget address. But Simon insists her effort isn't about cutting schools or reducing districts just for numbers' sake.
She says her goals for the Classrooms First Commission are to make districts more efficient and schools better equipped to educate students.
The University of Illinois plans to ask the state for about five percent more money in the coming fiscal year.
The school plans for its budget to top $5 billion.
A university trustees' committee on Wednesday reviewed plans for a budget just over $5 billion for the 2012 fiscal year. The News-Gazette in Champaign reports that would be 5.2 percent more than the 2011 budget. The proposed budget must be cleared by trustees before it's considered by the governor, General Assembly and Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The state is now $313 million behind on money it owes the university from past appropriations. The state government is unable to keep up with money it has promised universities and other institutions because of a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.
A University of Illinois panel looking for ways to save money in the school's administration says it's nearly halfway toward its goal of saving $60 million over the next three years.
A report on the savings was provided to The Associated Press on Tuesday, one day before it's presented to the Board of Trustees. The administrative working group says the university has achieved $26 million in recurring savings stemming from changes in procurement, information technology and off-campus leasing, among other areas.
More than half of the $26 million comes from centralizing how the university buys supplies, from copy paper to computers.
The university says the savings program was launched in late 2009 as the school's three campuses and hospitals struggle with less money and slow payments from the state.
A physician from McLean County says his career away from politics should serve as an advantage as he pursues a seat in the Illinois Senate.
Republican Tom Pliura of Le Roy is running in the re-drawn 51st district, consisting of mostly rural towns in ten east central Illinois counties. He will face current state representative Chapin Rose in the primary.
Pluira said having real world experience as both an emergency room doctor and a lawyer will help hold elected officials accountable. He said his campaign won't be about personal attacks, but it will upset the status quo.
"I am going to challenge some long-standing, long held, positions by both sides, and inevitably, that will probably invoke a defensive posture on both sides of the aisle," Pluira said. "I'm not afraid to do that."
A doctor for 25 years, Pliura says he's seen many patients lately carrying cards for both Blue Cross-Blue Shield as well as Medicaid, but only the latter is billed. He says that's putting an unfair burden on the Medicaid rolls.
"There's no ability for the state to check that," said Pliura. "To see if that individual who now qualifies for Medicaid because the state has loosened up and basically tripled the rolls. The state's now paying a bill when in fact Blue Cross Blue Shield got the premium for that insurance policy. We're going to stop that."
Pluira said Illinois needs to rein in spending rather than raise taxes to solve the budget crisis. The emergency room physician also says he'll push to make the state friendlier to small businesses, as well as for term limits in the legislature. Pliura has never run for public office, but if elected, he said he will serve no more than two terms.
Approval of the first state takeover of troubled public schools in Indiana is set for a vote by the State Board of Education.
The board is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposal by the state schools chief that the state assume control of four troubled high schools and a middle school that have seen years of low test scores.
State school superintendent Tony Bennett announced last week that would recommend state takeover of Arlington, Howe and Manual high schools and a middle school in Indianapolis and Roosevelt High School in Gary. School management companies would evaluate the schools for a year and run them starting with the 2012-13 academic year.
Indianapolis Public Schools officials have threatened to sue to stop the takeovers of Arlington and Howe high schools.
Plans for a wind farm in Champaign County drew mostly spectators in the first of what could be several hearings before the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.
About 60 people came to hear from Chicago-based developer Invenergy discuss its project. Champaign County's portion of the large farm would mean 30 turbines north of Royal, producing 48 megawatts of power. More than 100 turbines will be located in Vermilion County, where a building permit was approved last spring.
The majority of those who spoke supported Invenergy's plans to erect 30 wind turbines in the northeast part of the county, north of Royal. But some had concerns about the wind farm's impact on property values. And others had questions about the road agreements that Invenergy has yet to reach with township governments. Deanne Simms of Penfield called the prospect of being surrounded by turbines 'disturbing,' and she questioned the impact on property values, and Invenergy's road agreement at the end of the wind farm's life span.
"So my question is whatever standard they come down to when they leave, who's going to pay to fix the roads?" she said. "Whose taxes are going up to pay for that?"
But Philo resident Michael Herbert said Invenergy has been an economic boon for his electrical workers' union, providing jobs with more than 350 turbines in the counties served by its members.
"This project and Invenergy, having worked with them before, they built quality projects," he said. "And having driven out on on the roads after these projects are done, the roads are as good or better when completed."
The company's business development manager, Greg Leutchman, said the first hearing presented a chance for area residents to form their own opinion. But before the project can move forward, he said the road agreement must be finalized, as well as ones for decommissioning the turbines, and land reclamation.
"With those agreements, we just want to make sure that we're taking the right information into account, that we're talking to the right people," Leutchman said. "Getting the agreements done to make sure they work for the county and the townships as well as creating a successful project."
Four more ZBA wind farm hearings are scheduled through next month. But County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said it is better the meetings stretch into October than disturb what he calls a 'delicate negotiation' that's gone on over two years, with still nothing in writing with landowners. Invenergy still has to settle road agreements, as well as decommissioning and reclamation plans.
The next SBA hearing on the wind farm proposal is set for Sept. 1.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
A utility watchdog group believes it can gather enough opposition to turn Ameren's request for a rate hike into a rate cut.
The Citizens Utility Board is urging the public to submit comments against the utility's call for a 90-million dollar increase in delivery charges. Next week, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducts its only hearing on the request. It's scheduled for Tuesday in Springfield.
In Champaign Thursday, CUB Executive Director David Kolata noted that Ameren earned 650-million dollars in profits last year, and that they're up over 60-percent in Illinois alone.
"I think they have a hard time justifying a rate increase when our experts the Illinois Attorney General's office hired looked at this, they found that they couldn't justify it." he said. "Ameren has very clear that they're going to come in every year for five, six, seven, years in a row and try to raise rates. That's their business strategy."
Regulators reduced Ameren's original rate hike request from $111-million to $90-million.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris contends the rate hike request is needed for safe, reliable power delivery, and for higher operating costs. And he says delivery costs have skyrocketed, and that's solely what this rate hike is for.
"It's designed to allow us to recover our cost of providing safe and reliable service.." said Morris, "...and to earn a reasonable rate of return, which is necessary for any for-profit company, which Ameren is."
Morris says Illinois' corporate income tax increase has cost Ameren an additional $41-million dollars. Both CUB and the ICC are taking comments on the proposed rate hike.
CUB also used the Champaign news conference to oppose a measure that passed the legislature last spring that would allow for 'smart grid' investments for utilities. But Kolata says it would also make it easier for utilities to pass off rate increases. Speaking in Chicago Thursday, Governor Pat Quinn vowed to veto that measure, and for legislators make improvements to the bill this fall.
Two downstate state Senators are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to improve staffing levels at state prisons.
Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John O. Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say staff-to-inmate levels are at disturbing levels. For instance, they say the first shift inmate-to-guard ratio at the medium security Decatur state prison is around 12 to 1.
Jones said that might be acceptable, but not the 18-to-1 First Shift ratios at the Big Muddy River state prison. The figures come from the state Department of Corrections through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Senator Cultra said matters will only get worse, as nearly a thousand guards become eligible for retirement next year --- with no plans announced for new cadet training. The Onarga Republican said that is why they are trying to put pressure on Governor Quinn.
"Maybe it will move the administration to take some action," Cultra said. "We would like to work with the administration to help alleviate this. And we think by making it aware publically, that maybe it might push (him) into some action."
Cultra said he is worried about a high number of prison guards nearing retirement age --- when there might not be enough new guards to take their place.
"There's no cadet classes scheduled," he said. "This fiscal year, they have a potential of having 1,000 guards retire. There's nobody to replace these people. So the numbers that you're looking at now are terrible --- it's going to be much worse when these retirements come about."
Cultra and Jones say the state could afford more prison guards if they make cuts in less essential state programs, and sell off non-essential state properties. They also suggest the state institute reforms in the Department of Corrections, like time-keeping hardware.
But the Department of Corrections said the numbers cited by the two senators are inaccurate. According to the department, around 800 newly trained guards have been hired over the past fiscal year --- and that plans are in the works to hold more guard training sessions in the current fiscal year.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
A Sangamon County judge says he will announce his decision on Friday in the salary dispute between Gov. Pat Quinn and regional school superintendents who aren't getting paid.
The state's 44 regional superintendents kept working this summer, even after Gov. Quinn vetoed their salaries out of the state budget. Quinn has said the state can't afford to continue paying them, but the superintendents are suing to force the state to pay up.
"We don't dispute that the constitution gives the governor the authority to engage in item vetoes, but we're saying its without consequence in this case," said Charles Schmadeke, the superintendents' attorney.
Schmadeke argues Quinn's budget veto isn't the end all be all it normally would be, because there is a state law explicitly creating superintendent's positions and their salaries.
"The General Assembly has the ability to create offices and it also has the ability to eliminate offices," Schmadeke said. "Our point of view is that is a legislative function, not one of the executive. And especially when the General Assembly has been so specifically clear about what people should do and how they should be paid."
The state contends the salaries cannot be paid without an appropriation in the budget.
Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt said he is "aghast" at the state's position the veto isn't creating hardship. But he nonetheless is wary of how far the judiciary can interfere with the executive branch.
Regional superintendents perform a variety of duties, from inspecting school buildings to running GED programs.
Illinois drivers may soon see tollway fares nearly double, as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board could vote on the increase at a meeting Thursday.
The proposal would bump tolls for I-PASS users from 40 cents up to 75 cents - a nearly 86 percent increase. Drivers paying with cash would still have to shell out double the I-PASS amound, or $1.50.
The Illinois Tollway says all those extra quarters would add up to $12 billion to fund a massive, 15-year construction program. The plan calls for widening a long stretch of I-90, from near O'Hare Airport to Rockford. It would also finally allow for an interchange at the Tri-State Tollway and I-57 - two roads that cross each other, but don't connect.
For commuters, tollway officials say that would ultimately mean less time stuck in traffic. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who gets to appoint tollway board members, has said he supports the increase. Supporters of the plan say it would also create much-needed construction jobs. But critics have reportedly said the toll hike is larger than what's needed to fund the road projects.
The tollway board meeting Thursday comes after several public hearings around the state. If the capital plan is approved, the hike would go into effect on the first of the year.
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