Illinois Public Media News
Illinois' two U.S. senators are behind clashing proposals about privatizing transportation assets.
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk said a plan he unveiled Monday would open up another $100 billion in private money for airports, railroads and highways. Illinois' junior senator also said the measure would ease federal restrictions, making it easier for local governments to sell transportation assets, such as Illinois' 54 rest-stops and airports, to private bidders.
"You'll see London, Paris, Rome, Berlin [are] all partnership airports now," he said. "They have found that this is a way to tremendously enhance their ... services and infrastructure."
Kirk's plan comes just a few days after Sen. Dick Durbin, his chamber's No. 2 Democrat, put forth a bill that would likely make privatization a lot harder. Durbin's proposal would make municipalities pay back any federal grants they received for big transportation projects if they're planning to privatize. It would also give the federal government a "seat at the table" when municipalities are considering privatization, Durbin said.
But Kirk said Durbin's proposal likely won't fly in the Capitol, especially given the GOP majority in the House. In a statement, Durbin spokeswoman Christina Mulka said Democrat has found a "good amount of support" for his plan. While Durbin's bill deals exclusively with existing public transportation infrastructure, Kirk's would deal with new projects, Mulka said, adding that Durbin sees "a lot of common ground between the two bills."
The debate over privatization is especially poignant for Chicagoans, who have seen their fair share of controversial privatization deals. The city sold its parking meter system to a private company in 2008 for $1.15 billion, only to have a scathing report by the city's inspector general declare that Richard M. Daley's administration could have gotten more money out of the deal.
A plan to privatize Midway Airport fell through in 2009 due to the economic downturn. That plan has been in a holding pattern since, with with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration in no rush to revive it.
Planned Parenthood of Indiana says it will stop seeing Medicaid patients if a federal judge doesn't rule Monday on its attempt to block the state's new abortion funding law.
The group said it will stop seeing those patients unless they can pay or use other resources if the judge doesn't rule by the close of business Monday on its request for a preliminary injunction blocking the law.
The law signed May 10 by Gov. Mitch Daniels bars Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid payments for general health services such as cancer screens.
Planned Parenthood has been relying on private donations to fund care for Medicaid clients. It has previously said it would run out of donations after Monday to cover the costs of caring for existing Medicaid patients.
Small-time growers and cooks who sell food at farmers market may soon be able to expand their offerings. Advocates for locally made food and health department officials are attempting to find some middle ground.
Nearly all the food at farmers market is regulated, some more than others. Basically, if it's in a jar or prepared in any way it must be done in a certified kitchen. But making the upgrade to one of those kitchens can be costly for someone trying to sell baked goods or preserves.
A measure that passed the state legislature recently would allow people to sell certain kinds of food made in a home kitchen. They would be able to do so without making costly upgrades or receiving the stamp of approval from a health department. Dairy products prone to food borne illness wouldn't be allowed. Only baked goods, dried herbs, teas and canned preserves could be sold.
Wes King is a policy coordinator with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. He said some health code regulations keep culinary entrepreneurs from branching out. He points to the growth in the number of farmers markets throughout the state.
"We thought that you know, creating a more risk and scale appropriate regulations that would allow some of these start up businesses to take place in their homes or farms that are already selling at the farmers market to add a little bit and diversify their product line," King said.
But health department officials were initially concerned. They wanted to make sure consumers knew the food they were buying came from a facility that hasn't been thoroughly inspected. All food made in a home kitchen will need to be labeled as such if Governor Pat Quinn signs the exemptions into law.
"Because this is an evolving industry there were some challenges on the part of the regulatory environment in terms of where can we be flexible but yet still assure a reasonable consumer protection," Peoria health administrator Greg Chance said.
Chance said he support the measure because it only allows the sale of food not usually prone to food borne illness.
Civil rights groups claim a new Indiana law set to take effect July 1 gives police sweeping arrest powers against immigrants who haven't committed any crime. The state attorney general's office argues such fears are exaggerated and based on misunderstanding of the law.
U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson is set to hear arguments from both sides Monday as she considers a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and the National Immigration Law Center, which are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the law from taking effect next month.
The groups aren't fighting all provisions of the wide-ranging law, which also takes away certain tax credits from employers who hire illegal immigrants. The main bone of contention is arrest powers.
The new law allows police to arrest immigrants under certain conditions, including if they face a removal order issued by an immigration court. The lawsuit filed last month, however, says some of the conditions are too broad, can apply widely to thousands of immigrants and violate the constitutional requirement of probable cause.
For example, the civil rights groups contend the law's wording would allow the arrest of anyone who has had a notice of action filed by immigration authorities, a formal paperwork step that affects virtually anyone applying to be in the U.S. for any reason.
"The statute authorizes Indiana police to arrest persons despite the fact that there is no probable cause that such persons have committed crimes," the groups argued in a brief filed this month.
The Indiana law also makes it illegal for immigrants to present ID cards issued by foreign consulates as proof of identification anywhere in the state outside of the consulate, such as for buying alcohol or applying for a bank account.
The lawsuit claims the state is trying to step into immigration issues that clearly are the province of the federal government. The suit, which seeks class-action status, was filed on behalf of two Mexicans and one Nigerian who live in the Indianapolis area.
ACLU attorney Ken Falk said Thursday that four countries - Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador and Guatemala - plan to file briefs in the case. The move would not be unusual, Mexico and 10 other countries recently joined civil rights groups' legal fight against a tough new immigration law in Georgia and there have been similar filings in other states.
State attorneys argue claims about the law are speculative and based on an "irrational" and "absurd" interpretation. They note Indiana's law doesn't go as far as the Arizona measure, struck down on appeal, that included provisions to compel police to check the citizenship status of anyone who they had "reasonable suspicion" to believe is in the country illegally.
"Indiana's statute merely gives Indiana officers the discretion to assist federal enforcement of immigration laws. Indiana's statute does not purport to give Indiana any ability to participate in federal removal or deportation proceedings, nor does it allow Indiana to pass judgment concerning the removability of an individual," the state said in its brief filed Wednesday.
In a response filed Friday, the ACLU dismissed state arguments that the law would be used only in cases where people otherwise faced arrest, repeating its claim that the statute authorized arrest for offenses that aren't crimes in violation of the Fourth Amendment and impinged on federal immigration authority.
"Immigration is not a state concern," the brief flatly stated.
State immigration enforcement laws have not recently fared well in federal courts.
Arizona passed its law in 2010, but parts of were put on hold by a district court judge before it went into effect. That ruling was upheld in April by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and last month Gov. Jan Brewer said she plans to appeal the rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last month, a Utah law giving police the authority to arrest anyone who cannot prove their citizenship was put on hold by a federal judge 14 hours after it went into effect. The next hearing is there scheduled in July.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
The U.S. Justice Department is coming to the defense of Planned Parenthood of Indiana. The state's governor recently signed a law blocking federal money from going to the agency.
Late Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department jumped into the the ongoing legal dispute between Planned Parenthood and the State of Indiana. Planned Parenthood sued Indiana after Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a law last month blocking government funding.
The law is the first of its kind in the country and prevents federal money from going to agencies that perform abortions. That means Planned Parenthood of Indiana won't be getting $3 million.
In the Justice Department's court document, it writes that federal interests are at stake and the judge overseeing the case should block the law. An attorney for Planned Parenthood told The Associated Press that the filing caught him by surprise.
The judge has already said she plans to make her decision by July 1.
Illinois' Democratic U.S. senator is breaking with the White House on whether Congress must sign off on military action in Libya.
Senator Dick Durbin, usually a staunch supporter of the White House, said Friday that he isn't buying the argument that President Obama can launch military air strikes in Libya without congressional approval.
"Congress alone has the constitutional authority and responsibility to declare war," Durbin told reporters.
His comments come after the White House this week released a report to Congress arguing that the Obama administration does not need lawmakers' stamp of approval in order to continue air strikes with U.S. warplanes and unmanned drones in Libya. The battle between the branches has been brewing since March, when Mr. Obama authorized the attacks to weaken the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and prevent civilian casualties during an uprising in Libya.
On Wednesday, Republican Congressman Tim Johnson of Urbana joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in filing a lawsuit against President Barack Obama for taking military action in Libya without Congressional approval. In the report released the same day, the White House maintained that U.S. forces are not facing the same "hostilities" as they would in a conventional war. The U.S. is now launching air strikes in a supporting role in the NATO-led mission in Libya, the report says.
But Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he disagreed with the White House's reading of the War Powers Act.
"The fact that we haven't had any Americans killed - no planes shot down - is not, from my point of view, what should determine the constitutional question," Durbin said, adding that he would vote to authorize U.S. action in Libya if it comes before Congress.
The White House is facing incredulity from some GOP lawmakers, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and House Speaker John Boehner, who say the Obama administration's arguments don't reconcile with the reality of U.S. warplanes flying combat missions in a foreign nation. Boehner has even threatened to try and limit funding for Libyan operations in the House.
The state of Illinois has announced that the deadline to register for group health insurance has been extended to Monday.
Most state and university employees could choose to stay on with their existing health care plans for the next three months. State officials announced Thursday that all HMOs and open access plans will stay in place for 90 days, with Humana being the only holdout. That means most current employees and retirees can stay with their current provider until October, with no further paperwork.
Meanwhile, Human Resources staff at the University of Illinois say the number of calls from employees about the application process has slowed considerably since the contract extensions were announced. U of I Associate Director of Human Resources Administration, Katie Ross, says the questions now are fairly simple, usually asking for primary care physician numbers and codes for an employee's preferred health plan.
And Ross says the Benefit Choice application web site got a boost of additional memory prior to the last time employees registered for health plans.
"It then underwent more testing and we're very confident in that performance," said Ross. "But this is a very unique situation that we're in where so many hits are going to be at the very last minute. We're watching carefully, and we have extra staff assigned."
In total, she says just over half the employees on the Urbana campus opted for a different health plan in the last few weeks. She says her office processed about 3,000 transactions Wednesday.
Things are also slowing down for Human Resources staff at Illinois State University. Khris Clevenger, the Assistant Vice President for Human Resources, says the school in Normal only recently implemented a web-based application process. She says 1,000 of 3,500 employees used the site Thursday with no problems logging on.
Health Alliance Receives 90-Day Extension
Most state and university employees could choose to stay on with their existing health care plans for the next three months.
Illinois legislators are meeting with Governor Pat Quinn Thursday in hopes of winning his support for a gambling expansion bill.
Quinn has spoken out against the legislation -- approved last month-- which would add slot machines and five new casinos, including one in Danville.
Rather than give Quinn the chance to veto or change the package, either of which would likely kill it, legislators used a technical maneuver to keep it from going to the governor's desk.
Senate sponsor Terry Link (D-30th) said the hold gives him time to assuage the governor's concerns.
"Yeah, we will increase in size but you know we're not up there being another Las Vegas by any means," he said.
Link said he is open to talking with Quinn if the governor has any suggestions on how to downsize the measure. But said the casino set to go in his district near Waukegan would have to remain.
House sponsor Lou Lang (D-16th) will also be in on talks with Quinn.
"To the extent that I can accommodate the governor, I'm willing to listen to him. Willing to hear what he wants to do. But I'm not willing to state upfront that I'm prepared to shrink the bill down," Lang said.
However, Lang said he won't accept substantial changes.
The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana says the new Hoosier law that bars funds going to Planned Parenthood may actually lead to more unwanted pregnancies.
Ken Falk submitted the ACLU's final written arguments this week in its case to get $1.2 million in federal funding restored to its client, Planned Parenthood of Indiana.
"If everyone agrees that abortion is not a good thing, then doesn't it make sense to make it easy and to encourage women to get family planning services?" Falk said. "At some point, this is extremely counter-productive, that it is being done here to strip these thousands of woman of their provider of choice."
Falk is also trying to use Indiana's own legal opinions against itself. Prior to the law's passage this spring, Indiana lawmakers received word from the Indiana Legislative Services Agency that the legislation would violate federal guidelines. Federal policy allows eligible Medicaid participants to obtain medical services from providers of their choice.
The head of the federal government's Medicaid program sent a letter along those lines to Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration. The letter stated that Indiana's law is illegal and the state could face penalties if it did not restore Planned Parenthood's funding.
Some 22,000 low-income Hoosier women depend on Medicaid for general and family-planning care. They are affected by Indiana's new law, which bans Medicaid and other funding to any agency that performs abortions. The law also bars abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
Falk said the measure is misguided, because federal law already bans Medicaid money being spent on abortions. Planned Parenthood uses Medicaid money to provide family planning and other health services that are not related to abortion.
The Indiana Attorney General's office is defending the law before U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, who presides in Indianapolis. The state of Indiana contends the court fight should be between the federal government and the state, and should not involve Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. Pratt is expected to rule on the ACLU's injunction request by July 1st.
Falk said if funding isn't restored soon, Planned Parenthood may lay off employees. So far, the organization has stayed afloat because private donors around the country have contributed more than $100,000.
Indiana Gov. Mich Daniels said he supports the law since most Hoosiers oppose abortion.
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