Illinois Public Media News
The University of Illinois will spent the next several months researching the feasibility of a high-speed passenger rail line between Chicago and Champaign.
Governor Pat Quinn on Thursday announced the $1.25 million study for 220-mph trains. Such a line could also include cities like St. Louis and Indianapolis, and is meant to compliment an already planned 110-mph network connecting Chicago to other Midwest cities.
U of I President Michael Hogan says such a train can have a huge impact on regional economic development throughout the Chicago area. Hogan says this is also an area where the U of I can make a huge difference in the world of freight and passenger rail.
"The possibility of a high-speed rail link, bringing our two campuses closer together, facilitating that kind of big science and collaboration, and not just in engineering and hard sciences, but in the medical sciences as well," said Hogan. "The impact that could have in tranforming an already great university into a super power university."
The U of I, Illinois Department of Transportation, and a special advisory group will provide input throughout the course of the study. The Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, Rick Harnish, sits on the panel.
"Turkey is already running bullet trains," said Harnish. "There's 4,000 miles in Europe. There's 4,000 miles in Asia. And there's been bullet trains in Japan since 1964. All of those countries are enjoying faster, lower cost, and more reliable travel than we are today. This is what keeps U of I on the global map."
The study will involve the U of I's Rail Transportation and Engineering Center and the Department of Economics on the Urbana campus, and the Department of Urban Planning on the university's Chicago campus. The results from the study are expected late next year.
School lunches and breakfasts are sometimes a lifeline for children whose families face problems affording healthy food. School officials understand that and are extending school meal programs into the summer.
Starting Monday, Champaign Unit 4 food service crews will bring breakfasts and lunches to four community centers - they'll be available free to children under age 18.
Unit 4 food service director Mary Davis says the federally-funded program is there to fill the gap when school lets out and children on free or reduced-price lunches still need food.
"Especially now where jobs are hard to find and so money isn't coming into a household like it was, this is going to help all those households," Davis said. "It'll take a worry off their mind because it's both breakfast and lunch. So it does help."
Davis said people at the sites won't ask for proof of need. She said she expects the nine sites across the Champaign area will give out about a thousand breakfasts and up to two thousand school lunches every weekday through the end of July.
Six of those sites are open to anyone - the sites at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club (201 E. Park Ave.), First Presbyterian Church (302 W. Church), Douglass Community Center (512 E. Grove) and Jericho Church (1601 W. Bloomington Rd.)open Monday. Sites at Carrie Busey and Stratton schools open June 13th.
On Friday, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is expected to visit another school meal program funded by the Department of Agriculture. Decatur's Boys and Girls Club is one of several sites in that city where the Summer Food Service Program is also taking place.
State Representative Jason Barickman says he is running for the State Senate in the newly redrawn 53rd Senate District --- and for the seat held by his processor in the House --- Onarga Republican Shane Cultra.
During a tour of towns within the new 53rd district borders, Barickman, a Champaign attorney and chair of the Champaign County GOP, said he wants to straighten out Illinois' business climate, which he calls a national laughing-stock.
"Our business policies in the state are a disaster for small and mid-sized business owners," he said. "This state needs a different approach to how it governs and how it attracts businesses to come here rather than to leave."
If Barickman wins the 2012 senate race, it would be a first for him. He was appointed to his statehouse seat last fall following Cultra's move to the senate. Cultra had replaced Dan Rutherford, who is now state Treasurer.
Cultra said he will make his own campaign plans known later. He said pending legal challenges to the proposed redistricted maps could change their ultimate design. But Barickman said he believes that the maps passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature will go into effect without changes, noting that House Republican Chapin Rose of Mahomet has already indicated he'll run in the re-drawn 51st Senate District that includes all or part of 10 counties. Meanwhile, Republican House member Dan Brady of Bloomington said he will run for re-election in the newly redrawn 105th House District, which makes up half of the new 53rd Senate District.
The proposed 53rd district includes parts of McLean, Livingston, Ford, Woodford, Iroquois and Vermillion counties. Barickman's family has farmed in Livingston County since the 1830s. Barickman would have to move into the district from Champaign County if elected, and he said he plans to relocate somewhere between Normal and Pontiac.
"I have long talked about my interest in coming back towards McLean County, Livingston County where we farmed, and that is certainly on the horizon," said Barickman. "That's long been our intention, and we look forward to fulfilling that."
(Photo courtesy of Jason Barickman)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the new head of the Chicago Public Schools plan to save $75 million by trimming administrative and non-classroom spending from the district's budget.
Emanuel and schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced the cuts Thursday.
The mayor's office says $16 million in savings will come from limited layoffs, eliminating some open positions and other reductions at the district's Central Office. Another $44 million in planned savings would come from minimizing debt servicing costs.
Emanuel says he's trying to cut bureaucracy so the schools can focus resources on supporting students and teachers.
Brizard says he wants to make the system more efficient so he can spend every dollar he can in the classroom.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
For much of his time on the stand in his corruption retrial, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been engaging, articulate, funny and most importantly, believable, but that's changing, and on Wednesday he was struggling to explain his own words to jurors.
His attorney, Aaron Goldstein, started leading him through some of the more damning evidence related to appointing a senator to replace Barack Obama. Even with his lawyer's softball questions, Blagojevich was flustered.
On one tape, Blagojevich talks about Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to Obama. Blagojevich says Jarrett knows that he's willing to appoint her to the Senate. He wonders how much she wants the position and how hard she'll push to get Blagojevich an appointment to Obama's cabinet.
Blagojevich insists the two weren't connected. Goldstein asked what Blagojevich meant when he talked about this. Instead of answering, Blagojevich reread the transcript while mumbling and finally said "I don't know what I'm saying here," and then asked his attorney to help him.
The ousted Illinois governor is expected to testify further Thursday about the allegation that he sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
The 54-year-old faces 20 criminal counts, including attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit bribery. He denies all wrongdoing.
The Quinn administration's decision to line up new health insurance providers for state employees is now facing a challenge from organized labor.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has filed a grievance against the state over the decision to drop two longstanding insurance providers.
AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall says the providers who won the state contracts over Health Alliance and Humana don't cover many of the doctors that state employees have used for years.
"Our grievance seeks a remedy that the current contracts would be extended so -- at a minimum -- that all of those providers could be signed up on similar plans with the new networks, and if they can't be, that Health Alliance would continue to be a contractor for the coming fiscal year," Lindall said.
The state has given employees until June 17 to sign up with a new insurer - AFSCME is advising its 55,000 members to hold off making their benefit choice until right before the deadline.
Lindall charges that the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services hasn't given any evidence that workers will get the same coverage at the same cost as the current plans. He calls that a violation of AFSCME's contract.
The union is also exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos predicts they won't see much success.
"Losing bidders don't typically do that well in the courts. It's a procurement process. And we followed the law we followed it to a T," said Hamos. "That has now been affirmed. So, anybody can sue, there are a lot of lawyers in Illinois."
Heallth Alliance is exploring legal action of its own. Spokeswoman Jane Hayes the company is examining all options and trying to keep members in mind and what's best for them.
State lawmakers approved a bill that would restore Health Alliance's contract for two more years - but it's possible that governor Pat Quinn could veto the measure. State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year.
Tax revenue keeps going up in Illinois, and that means a continued rise in an indicator of how well the state's economy is doing.
The monthly University of Illinois Flash Index rose.2 in May to 96.8. For the past two years it's been creeping ever closer to 100, the break-even point between economic growth and contraction. The Flash Index uses tax revenue from sales and income to measure the overall economy.
U of I economist Fred Giertz authored the index. He says a small portion of that increasing tax revenue may have come from rising prices on food and fuel. "Some tax revenues are stimulated by inflation, actually -- for example, the sales tax on gasoline," Giertz pointed out. "So it's not directly about that; certainly over the long run it would be related, but not over the short run. The more direct link would be something that came out (Tuesday) about consumer confidence."
Last month's confidence index dropped sharply - Giertz says that's a more significant result of higher food and gas prices.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn kept up his criticism Wednesday of the budget lawmakers sent him, and heaped scorn on a massive gambling plan despite the Chicago mayor's support for it.
The General Assembly forwarded to Quinn a spending blueprint of about $2 billion less than what he proposed, including a cut of nearly $300 million for schools and universities. The Democrat said lawmakers "didn't get the job done" but would not say what he would do with the plan.
"They kicked bills into the next fiscal year. That's not cutting the budget," Quinn said at a news conference. "You've got to invest in things that count, that matter for jobs, that matter for families."
With some of the strongest veto powers of any governor in the country, Quinn could strike out parts of the budget or reduce spending amounts. But he may not add money. Quinn would not say whether he would call legislators into special session in an attempt to persuade them to kick in more for schools and other of his priorities.
Quinn continued to lambaste the huge gambling plan that calls for five new casinos and slot machines at horseracing tracks, Chicago's airports and even the state fairgrounds.
"Most people in Illinois, when they take a look at the size of this, would say it's excessive, it's top-heavy, it's too much," Quinn said.
He said he would listen to constituents before deciding what to do with the gambling legislation, which supporters say would bring in $1.6 billion in upfront fees and $500 million or more annually.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied hard for the bill because it includes the first-ever gambling house for Chicago. Quinn risks alienating the new, popular mayor by saying "no" to the legislation.
"I'm beholden to the people of Illinois," Quinn said, "not to legislators, not to mayors."
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
An angry judge chastised ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday for "smuggling" testimony into his political corruption retrial that the judge had previously ruled inadmissible.
Judge James Zagel said Blagojevich has insisted on mentioning issues or opinions that the judge has ruled shouldn't be cited in front of the jury. He warned him sharply not to do it again.
"This is a deliberate effort by this witness to raise something that he can't raise," Zagel said. "This is not fair, this is a repeated example of a defendant who wants to say something by smuggling (it) in."
Zagel, who sent the jury out of the room before admonishing Blagojevich, implied that the former governor's motives were less than pure.
"I make a ruling, and then the ruling is disregarded, and then I have to say, 'Don't do it,'" Zagel said. "And when you do that more than once or twice, it is inevitable that I'm going to believe that there is some purpose other than the pursuit of truth."
The judge had said earlier that Blagojevich wasn't allowed to tell jurors that he thought his plans to seek a top job in exchange for appointing someone to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat were legal.
At a hearing without jurors present, Blagojevich told Zagel that he wanted to testify that he believed he wasn't crossing any lines by asking Obama to appoint him to an ambassadorship or Cabinet post in exchange for appointing the president-elect's choice for the seat.
But Zagel was largely unswayed, ruling that jurors won't be allowed to hear any opinions about legality.
"The fact that he thinks it is legal is not relevant here," Zagel said.
Prosecutors had fought to keep Blagojevich from talking about the legal issue, and it's unclear how radically it will affect Blagojevich's testimony going forward or his defense strategy.
Jurors finally began hearing from Blagojevich about the Senate seat Tuesday after three days of testimony in which he had focused on accusations that he attempted to shake down executives for campaign cash. He began delving into the Senate seat charge toward the end of that day.
Blagojevich told jurors he wasn't enticed by an alleged pay-to-play proposal from fundraisers close to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to raise millions of dollars in campaign cash if Blagojevich named Jackson to the seat.
"That's illegal," Blagojevich said. "I was opposed to the offer of fundraising in exchange for the Senate seat."
Blagojevich also echoed a long-held defense argument that all the FBI wiretaps that capture him talking on the telephone about how he might benefit from naming someone to seat was just that - talk.
Asked by his attorney, Aaron Goldstein, if he spoke frequently about the seat in the weeks before his arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, Blagojevich did not miss a beat.
"Absolutely, yes. Incessantly," said Blagojevich.
He explained that his method for arriving at a decision on the seat was to talk with as many confidants and as often as possible.
"I wanted to be very careful to invite a full discussion of ideas ... good ones, bad ones, stupid ones," he said. He added, "There was a method to the madness."
The twice-elected governor briefly mentioned that he got word in November 2008 that Obama appeared to be interested in seeing family friend and fellow Chicago Democrat Valerie Jarrett named as his replacement.
Prosecutors played a recording during their three-week case where Blagojevich asks one aide about appointing Jarrett, "We could get something for that couldn't we?" He mentions the possibility of a Cabinet post.
Blagojevich told jurors he had in mind what he described as legal, political horse-trading.
At the end of those proceedings, prosecutors complained that Blagojevich seemed to be resorting to arguments that Zagel explicitly ruled he could not make, including that he was merely engaging in the kind of wheeling and dealing all politicians engage in.
Zagel agreed, warning defense attorneys then that he would likely instruct jurors before they began deliberating that any defense based on the theory that everybody does it isn't valid.
"There's legal horse-trading and there's also illegal horse-trading," Zagel said.
Blagojevich, 54, denies all wrongdoing. He faces 20 criminal counts, including attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. In his first trial last year, a hung jury agreed on just one count - convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
A retired state legislator from Danville says Governor Pat Quinn would send a strange message if he approved a casino for Chicago and nowhere else.
During a Wednesday morning press conference, the governor described the gambling legislation passed by lawmakers as 'top heavy', but that he planned to listen to the people before deciding whether to sign or veto the bill. Quinn says he could envision a casino in Chicago if it's properly done.
Former Republican House member and current Danville Alderman Bill Black says he understands all the moral arguments against gaming, but favors a riverboat casino after seeing the economic benefit for cities like Metropolis and Joliet.
And Black says it's unrealistic to believe his city should focus solely on industry and agriculture.
"You can't just sit back and say 'I only want to attract a certain kind of job," said Black, "And I'm not going to lift a finger to bring in any other kind of job. So I realize it's controversial, I realize there's a downside, I realize that some people unfortunately will get themselves in trouble by gambling, but they do that now."
Black says he can't turn his back on a plan to bring in $300-million in private investment, along with construction jobs and 800 permanent positions when a casino is up and running. Black says he's written Governor Quinn, urging him to support it.
"I just said 'take a long look at it governor, because this is something that might pump enough money into Danville where we can help finance some of our own infrastructure projects," said Black. 'I know it's not a panacea, and I know it will not solve all our problems for the next 20 years."
The former legislator says he warmed the idea of a Danville casino in his later years in the legislature, citing improved security measures at riverboat casinos as well as better infrastructure for the facilities.
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