Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 13, 2011

Ill. House OKs Deep Cuts in Preliminary Budget

Schools, college scholarships and health care for the poor would face sharp cuts under a budget approved Friday by the Illinois House in a rare show of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

Meanwhile, partisan battles continued at full force in the Senate.

Democrats approved budget measures without giving Republicans a chance to review them. Republicans complained loudly and accused Democrats of spending more than Illinois can afford.

"What you offer is an increase in spending," said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. "It guarantees that we will borrow yet again to pay our bills."

Although both the House and Senate passed new state budgets, there are major differences between the two versions. Gov. Pat Quinn has his own proposal, too.

Reaching a deal that can pass both legislative chambers and get the governor's signature could still prove challenging.

"I don't expect that this budget will be the final spending plan," Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said shortly after House members voted for painful cuts to state services. "We're not sending any ultimatums by the adoption of this budget today."

The House plan would spend about $25.2 billion from the state's general account for the budget year that begins July 1. That's about $600 million, or 2.4 percent, below the current budget.

It would achieve that reduction mostly by cutting education and human services.

State support for schools would fall by about $169 million, or 2.4 percent. The Monetary Award Program would lose $17 million for college scholarships, a 4.2 percent cut. In human services, Medicaid bills would be paid more slowly, many would be trimmed 1 percent and administrative spending would drop $181 million.

"There was a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of tears" in the appropriations committee that set those amounts, said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago. "We can go home to our communities and say, 'We done our job, we cut the budget.'"

Some legislators felt the cuts went too far.

The House version of the budget is about $1 billion smaller than the version approved by the Senate on Friday and $2 billion below Quinn's proposal.

A key difference between the House and Senate plans is in revenue projections. Senate Democrats are counting on state government taking in about $1 billion more than the House estimates it will. That additional money allows the Senate to avoid deep human service cuts.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 13, 2011

Ind. Planned Parenthood Extends Imperiled Services

Planned Parenthood of Indiana says it will cover the health care costs of current Medicaid patients for at least another week after losing much of its public funding under a new state law.

The reproductive health care organization said Friday donations will allow it to extend care at least through May 21. Spokeswoman Kate Shepherd says it's received donations from at least 36 states since April 26, the day before the Legislature passed a law to withhold the Medicaid funding.

A federal judge refused this week to temporarily block the law while Planned Parenthood fights it.

Planned Parenthood says it serves about 9,300 Medicaid patients at its 28 Indiana clinics. It's not accepting new Medicaid patients while the court battle continues and some services are being put off until later.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 13, 2011

Education Overhaul Sent to Quinn’s Desk

In a year when Wisconsin lawmakers have clamped down on union members' bargaining rights, Illinois legislators passed a measure that makes it harder for teachers unions to go on strike.

But in Illinois, that happened with the unions' consent.

The unions, as well as education advocates, school boards and administrators all signed on to the carefully negotiated measure that was passed by the house Thursday and is now on its way to the governor's desk.

Representative Jehan Gordon, a Peoria Democrat, said it's a first step toward ensuring Illinois children receive the best education.

"Many of the things that we are seeing around the country right now, you find it very difficult for governmental bodies and labor to come together, at the table, and have some of these hard, difficult conversations and find a collective compromise," Gordon said.

Schools will be able to more easily dump poor-performing teachers, even if they have seniority. Teachers will have to earn ratings of "proficient" and "excellent" in order to earn tenure. And the package allows Chicago Public Schools to lengthen the school day and requires teachers and districts make their contract negotiations public during bargaining disputes.

The bill took months to negotiate. Advance Illinois, an education policy group made up of business and civic leaders, was pushing for many of the changes governing seniority and tenure, as was the out-of-state group Stand for Children.

Robin Steans, Advance Illinois' executive director, said the legislation is significant nationally both for what it mandates and for the fact that it was worked out with the support of teachers unions.

"I'm getting calls from my colleagues all around the country about this," said Steans, who was in Springfield for the vote. "They want to see the language. They want to know how we got at this....[Illinois is] part of a bigger national conversation. I think it's fair to say we just jumped to the head of the pack. We got really good, hard stuff done but we got it done without a lot of drama and a lot of noise and a lot of fighting."

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis helped write the bill, but she says unions essentially had a gun to their head. If they hadn't come to the table, things could have been much worse, Lewis said.

"There's Wisconsin, there's Indiana, there's Pennsylvania, Ohio," Lewis said. "This is going nationwide. We're trying to ameliorate some of the worst parts of what that bill had."

The state's two largest unions lauded the negotiated legislation as "good for kids, fair to adults" when it was first unveiled in mid-April. The state senate passed it then 59-0.

But after initially agreeing to support the law, the more strident Chicago Teachers Union now is balking over what some call technicalities but what Lewis says are attacks on collective bargaining rights.

"We want to be a part of what helps kids," Lewis said. "But the attack on our collective bargaining does not help kids. Anyone who says it does is not being honest."

Lewis is upset about a provision that could impact a lawsuit the union has against Chicago Public Schools over massive teacher layoffs last summer. She's also fighting over how many CTU members would be needed to authorize a strike. Negotiations to resolve those issues are continuing.

Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel praised the legislation, as did U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Governor Pat Quinn has said he would sign the historic legislation.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 12, 2011

Abortion Debate Rages in Indiana

Indiana is the nation's first state to bar federal Medicaid funding for abortion providers, and Planned Parenthood was squarely in legislators' sights. A federal judge this week denied an injunction to keep the law from taking affect. The law has stirred up emotions in the abortion debate. Illinois Public Radio's Michael Puente went to hear from both sides in the declining industrial city of Gary in Northwest Indiana.

(Photo by Michael Puente/IPR)

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Categories: Government, Health, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 12, 2011

Audit: Some State Employees Overpaid by $25K, More

Four Illinois state employees whose work was split among agencies were overpaid by $77,000 the last two years, an audit released Thursday shows.

One employee working for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation got $36,151 more than specified. Another received and additional $25,662.

Auditor General William Holland's office examined seven cases where department employees did work for other agencies. In four of them, the employees wound up being paid too much. The audit did not indicate how many such" interagency agreements" the agency had.

In three cases, the other agency involved was the governor's budget office.

The case of the $36,000 overpayment happened under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. She couldn't immediately say whether money had been recovered.

The other overpayments occurred when payroll for the agency was being centralized and confusion over the new system might have played a role, she said.

Holland's report also found in several cases that the agency lacked documentation showing an employee did any work for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and other cases where there was no explanation of how payment among the participating agencies was determined.

In its response to the audit, the department said it will be more diligent in recognizing possible overpayments and adjusting pay in such cases. Officials said they would try to develop a way to determine how much each agency should pay.

The report also declared that the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation couldn't find $240,000 worth of equipment - mostly computers - the last two years.

The agency told Holland it didn't know whether the computers contained any confidential information.

Hofer said some computers were stolen during a break-in at an agency office, but she couldn't immediately say why that wasn't mentioned in the audit.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 12, 2011

Blagojevich Attorneys Cross-Examine Ex-Aide

Defense attorneys at Rod Blagojevich's corruption retrial tried to chip away at the testimony of a former aide to the ousted governor Thursday, hinting that Blagojevich never intended to personally benefit from his ability to name a replacement for President Barack Obama in the Senate.

Robert Greenlee, who served as deputy governor under Blagojevich, looked flustered at times as defense attorney Aaron Goldstein peppered him with questions including, "Have you ever lied to the governor?"

Blagojevich sat forward on his defense-table chair listening intently, sometimes shaking his head at Greenlee's answers. At least once, he leaned across the table and appeared to suggest a question Goldstein should ask Greenlee.

Judge James Zagel warned the defense lawyer that his inquiry about whether Greenlee had ever lied to Blagojevich was too broad and could cover Greenlee lying to the governor about whether he liked his tie, for example.

Greenlee is a key prosecution witness on several charges, including that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade Obama's old Senate seat and that he squeezed a Children's Memorial Hospital CEO for campaign cash.

The defense pressed Greenlee about his testimony that Blagojevich ordered him - by using the circuitous words, 'Good to know' - to hold up a pediatric care reimbursement until the hospital executive came up with a large campaign donation.

"You understood 'good to know' meant stop the rate increase?" Goldstein asked. "Did you ask for clarification?"

"I didn't believe I needed clarification," Greenlee said.

Mocking Greenlee's claim that he took Blagojevich's words as an order, Goldstein prompted an objection by asking, "Mr. Greenlee, you speak English, is that correct?"

Greenlee testified that Blagojevich discussed appointing Obama's preferred candidate to the Senate seat, Valerie Jarrett, in exchange for a high-paying, high-powered government or private-sector job.

Once Jarrett took a job in the White House instead, Greenlee said Blagojevich and his aides turned to other possible candidates - and considered what they could do for the governor.

The defense repeatedly asked Greenlee about Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and whether Blagojevich had actually wanted to forge a legal political deal involving her.

But Zagel agreed to prosecutors' objections whenever Goldstein mentioned Madigan, telling Blagojevich's attorney the questions were "out of bounds." He suggested the defense could broach the topic if and when they put on their own case.

The defense has argued that in the weeks before his December 2008 arrest, Blagojevich pursued a legal deal to name Madigan to the seat in exchange for her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, agreeing to push a legislative package favored by the then-governor.

Prosecutors say such talk by Blagojevich was merely a red herring and was never seriously considered.

Blagojevich denies any wrongdoing. His first trial ended with jurors deadlocked on all but one charge. He was convicted of lying to the FBI. This time, he faces 20 charges in all.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 12, 2011

Mayor Daley’s Optional $1.1 Million Retirement Fund

Outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has more than a million dollars in his campaign account.

When he retires, he can take all of it with him for personal use. The mayor is not saying if he will, but it would be perfectly legal if he does. Many other Illinois politicians have exercised that right.

Daley last month reported more than $1.1 million in his campaign account. Under Illinois law, he can close it out whenever he wants, and take all that cash with him into retirement. But when asked last week if he plans to do that, Daley had no interest in answering.

"I don't know yet," Daley said.

The mayor may not know yet, but it's not like this possibility has crept up on him. In fact, prior to a 1998 state law, all politicians in Illinois could use their political accounts as personal ATMs.

"It was the Wild West before this ethical change in Illinois campaign spending," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale. "One could convert their campaign fund for personal use if they...income tax [on it]."

Dillard sponsored the 1998 law along with then-state Sen. Barack Obama.

"We came along with a major, major piece of legislation. But one of the sticking points was the personal use exemption of campaign funds," Dillard said.

Dillard said he had hoped to ban all personal use of campaign cash. But some powerful members of the General Assembly, Dillard said, had no interest in giving up what they'd assumed would be a retirement account. So a compromise was needed - a loophole, if you will.

"When they passed this legislation, they grand-fathered all of the candidates in, so that the money that they had as of June 30th, [19]98, could be converted for personal use," explained Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections.

And that is why Mayor Daley is allowed to take that million-plus dollars.

"If he wants to, he can," Borgsmiller said.

And quite a few politicians have written themselves checks from their campaign accounts. They aren't too interested in talking about it, though, whether they took $10,000 like state representative-turned lobbyist Vince Persico, or close to $600,000, like former Rep. Ralph Capparelli.

Former state Sen. Walter Dudycz took more than $130,000. He refused to comment for this story because, he said, he's just trying to enjoy his retirement. Many other former politicians just didn't return my calls.

"I'm shocked. Frankly, I'm shocked," Cindi Canary said sarcastically, after laughing.

Canary heads the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an activist group that tries to track political spending. Canary noted that it is hard to get a good idea of the total amount withdrawn by politicians for personal use, because there's no uniform way they are required to report such expenses to the state election board.

A search on the board's website does find more than $2 million in personal draws, but there's no question the real total is much higher than that.

Some politicians - current and retired - keep their political accounts open, and use them to pay for cell phone bills, airplane tickets and dinner meetings. Canary said the somewhat blurry distinction between political and personal expenses actually came up during the 1998 General Assembly debate over these rules.

"One of the legislators said, 'Well, what if I buy a red, white and blue shirt to march in the Fourth of July parade, that would be for a political purpose,'" Canary recalled, paraphrasing an issue brought up by Persico on the House floor. "'But then I get home, and it's hot and I drink a beer but I forget to take off my red, white and blue shirt, then it's personal use.'"

For her part, Canary does not think politicians should take the money for personal use, whether they're entitled to or not.

"I believe that people have given candidates campaign contributions to further their political careers, their ideas, their philosophies, and not necessarily to buy a retirement condo," Canary said.

Mayor Daley probably does not need the $1.1 million from his campaign account to buy a retirement condo. He's earned a healthy salary over the years, and will soon start getting a pension of about $180,000 a year. Add to that the income he may collect for giving speeches, and Daley can likely afford to put his campaign cash to other uses.

"I could very well see the mayor dedicating money to a bike path," Canary said.

The mayor could also keep his campaign account open for as long as he wants, and continue to dole it out to candidates he supports: an easy way for a retired politician to make sure current politicians return his calls.

(Photo courtesy of Kate Gardiner)

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 11, 2011

Judge Allows Ind. to Cut Planned Parenthood Funds

Indiana won a key victory in its fight to cut off public funding for Planned Parenthood Wednesday when a federal judge refused to block a tough new abortion law from taking effect.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt denied Planned Parenthood of Indiana's request for a temporary restraining order despite arguments that the law jeopardizes health care for thousands of women.

Planned Parenthood wanted to keep funds flowing while it challenges the law signed this week by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. The judge's decision allows the cuts to take effect immediately.

Pratt said the state has not had enough time to respond to Planned Parenthood's complaint and that the group did not show it would suffer irreparable harm without a temporary restraining order.

The funding cuts are part of a new law that also bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health.

The law could improve Daniels' image with social conservatives as he considers a 2012 run for president. Advocates are touting Indiana as the one of the most "pro-life states in the nation" and praising Daniels for signing the law.

The bill was originally intended to cut all public funding, but Planned Parenthood of Indiana spokeswoman Kate Shepard said the state conceded in court Tuesday that some family planning funds would not be affected. The total amount of funding at issue now is about $1.4 million, Shepard said.

The law also puts Indiana at risk of losing $4 million a year in separate federal family planning grants. It also bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy unless there is a substantial threat to the woman's life or health. That's four weeks less than previously allowed.

The abortion provisions would take effect July 1.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 11, 2011

At Retrial, Jurors Hear Blagojevich Curse Obama on Tape

Prosecutors are landing some crushing blows in quick succession in their retrial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

At 3:35 p.m. Tuesday, David Keahl took the stand. He oversees ethics training for state employees. Keahl said every year Blagojevich took the training which makes clear that it's illegal to even try to trade state action for personal benefits. That goes to one of Blagojevich's defenses that he didn't know he was committing any crimes because he was relying on his advisors, many of whom have law degrees, to keep him from doing anything illegal.

At 3:58, prosecutors played a tape of Blagojevich talking to advisors on a conference call. Blagojevich is cursing President-elect Obama because he won't give Blagojevich anything to appoint his preferred candidate to the Senate. "You guys are telling me I gotta just suck it up for two years and do nothing, give this motherf***** his Senator. F*** him. For nothing? F*** him!" said Blagojevich.

Blagojevich says the whole world is passing him by and he's, "stuck in this f***ing job as governor now." He goes on to complain that he needs to make money. "Amy's going to college in six years and we can't afford it. I can't afford college for my daughter," says Blagojevich.

At 4:07, before jurors could feel too sorry for the embattled former governor, prosecutors brought an IRS agent to the stand. She said the Blagojeviches brought in $300,000 a year but were in debt because they spent $400,000 on clothes during his time in office.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 11, 2011

Champaign’s Mayor Seeks Details on Unrestricted Funds

Champaign's Mayor wants to know more about nearly $50-million in unrestricted funds in the city's budget plan before signing off on one for the next fiscal year.

Don Gerard said the budget line item of $47-million is earmarked for specific public works projects, as well as the city's parking and vehicle funds. But in a year where emergency services are among the possible cuts, Gerard said he wants specifics.

"I heard a lot of people say 'I'm not comfortable with borrowing money, or 'I'm not comfortable with refinancing our pension bonds," he said. "Well, I'm not comfortable with having 47-million dollars unaccounted for and us cutting urban renewal programs. Nor am I comfortable as a taxpayer, as a man with children, in cutting any services relating to our first responders, including the front desk at the police station and browning out a fire station."

Gerard said he expects to have the information on what the funds are allocated for by next Tuesday's full council meeting on May 17th.

The Reverend Eugene Barnes was among members of the public concerned about the city's proposal to transfer $250,000 in reserves from Champaign's urban renewal fund. He said that would impact redevelopment in the Bristol Park neighborhood. Urban renewal makes up part of $2.75 million in one-time transfers from reserve funds in the budget proposal.

The lengthy budget presentation at Tuesday night's study session also included more than $600,000 in reductions, brought on largely through city employees taking a voluntary separation package. City Manager Steve Carter said impacted departments include public works and building safety.

A few city council members also suggest implementing a package liquor tax to bring in some revenue. Council member Karen Foster suggests the city needs the revenue from a liquor tax, saying it would 'equal out the playing field' with the local food and beverage tax. Council member Tom Bruno agrees it is worth a look.

"If we can gauge what the impact of it would be," he said. "And also if we can take into consideration whether or not we will be particularly causing harm to Champaign businesses because of the possibility - and maybe it's only a possibility - that consumers will change their buying habits."

City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the idea would mean a lot of work for his department, but his staff already collects Champaign's food and beverage, and hotel-motel taxes. The city council expects to sign off on a budget plan by June 21st.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

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