After criticism over his last choice to head the Illinois State Police, Governor Pat Quinn has selected a law enforcement veteran to run the agency.
Quinn has tabbed Hiram Grau for the position. Grau spent 27 years with the Chicago Police Department. His resume includes his rise from beat cop to deputy Superintendent for the Bureau of Investigative Services for the Cook County State's Attorney. Grau's name had surfaced as a temporary fill in for Chicago's Police Superintendent Jody Weis when he stepped down this month.
Grau's appointment for the state job must still be confirmed by the Illinois Senate. Quinn's previous choice to be State Police Director never got a hearing. Jonathon Monken's lack of police experience sunk his nomination and it was later pulled. Monken has since been confirmed as head of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
Quinn also announced the appointment of Joe Costigan to be Labor Department Director. He currently holds a position with the Service Employees International union.
People who are fighting hunger in east-central Illinois now have some more specific numbers to make their case.
The Eastern Illinois Foodbank has long known that 15.5% of people in the 14-county region are "food insecure" - in other words, they're at risk of not finding enough healthy food. But the new "Map the Meal Gap" study breaks that number down into individual counties. Vermilion, Coles and Champaign counties have slightly higher food-insecurity rates than the average.
Cheryl Precious is a foodbank spokeswoman. She says the report points out a need for education, even if chronically-needy people usually know how to get assistance. "But a family that has had stable employment and has never really struggled, or maybe was right on the edge and had a job loss in the family and was pushed over the edge into food insecurity -- they may not be adequately equipped to make use of those resources," said Precious. "So part of it is education and awareness of the resources that are out there."
But Precious says the survey also demonstrates a need for more assistance, particularly for people who are ineligible for food stamps because they make just above the poverty requirement. She says it's a call to relax those requirements as well as to bolster food pantries and other emergency programs.
Some of the walls of a burned out building in Campustown will begin to come down on Friday, according to the Champaign Fire Department.
Wednesday's fire damaged a building housing Mia Za's Cafe, Zorba's restaurant, Petaya clothing boutique, and an unoccupied apartment.
The Fire Department says the city has accepted a bid from Dig It of Champaign, Inc. to tear down parts of the parapet and walls. It hopes to reopen the 600 block of Green Street by Monday, once the building and street are considered safe.
The front wall of the building on Green St. will be removed down to the limestone ribbon. On the back side of the building, the masonry down to the second floor ceiling will be taken down.
"It's in the best interest of our community, the University, and Campustown businesses to move forward," Craig Rost, Champaign Assistant City Manager, said in a statement.
Illinois tax collectors have a message for residents who skirt sales taxes online and out of state: Start paying up.
The cash-strapped state will step up enforcement this year of the decades-old "use tax," which applies to many items bought online or in another state. Officials have added reminders on this year's paper and online tax forms about the tax.
The state has made a recent push to collect sales taxes from retailers like Amazon.com Inc. and Overstock.com Inc., approving a law this month that led both companies to drop affiliates in the state.
But Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, says auditors will target "big ticket" purchases, like boats sold in Florida, over smaller purchases online.
"If you go online and buy a book on Amazon, it's your conscience that you have to live with," Hofer said.
The tax applies to any purchases made with a sales tax rate lower than Illinois' 6.25 percent, to protect in-state retailers that charge the tax.
For shoppers who didn't keep their receipts, the state has published a list of suggested "use tax" amounts based on income: $15 for people who made $20,000 last year, $27 for people making $50,000, and $52 for people making $100,000.
That's not including taxes on major purchases like boats or cars.
Residents can also pay back taxes on purchases as far back as 2004, thanks to state law passed last year.
The revenue department estimates that Internet shopping could have generated $153 million last year if online retailers were taxed at the state rate. Illinois lawmakers have tried to collect from Amazon and others, which say they shouldn't pay taxes in the state because they don't have offices there.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill this month that charges sales taxes on online purchases made through Illinois affiliates of online companies. That led to Amazon announcing it would end its relationships with state affiliates.
Hofer acknowledged the difficulty revenue auditors face with online shopping.
"How would I or one of our enforcers know if you went home every night and spent five hours shopping on Amazon?" she said.
The state won't have statistics on how many residents will pay until the end of tax season, Hofer said. But interviews with accountants suggest most people either haven't made untaxed purchases or aren't reporting them.
"I've had one client out of 300 volunteer to pay it," said Julie Herwitt, a Chicago accountant. She said she believes most of her clients don't know the tax exists.
At the Bird Armour LLC accounting firm in Springfield, fewer than 5 percent of the 350 returns finished so far have made "use tax" payments, managing member Michael K. Armour said.
"I must admit that I am surprised at the number of people that have come forward," he said.
Last year, the state collected an estimated $4 million to $6 million from the tax. The department hopes that will double this year, Hofer said.
"We expect that people will pay what they owe, recognizing this is part of their responsibility as a citizen," she said.
The five candidates running for four seats on the Champaign School Board took part in a forum sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They are board school members Susan Grey, Greg Novak and Kristine Chalifoux, and newcomers Jamar Brown and Lynn Stuckey. The candidates evaluate the current curriculum and efforts to improve graduation rates, and they suggest changes to the No Child Left Behind law.
The leader of the boycotting Indiana House Democrats returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday for what he called a "very positive" meeting with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma.
Mr. Bosma met with House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer (D., South Bend) behind closed doors after the two attended another meeting with Senate leaders. Messrs. Bosma and Bauer both characterized the talk as positive. Though it didn't immediately end the month-long standoff, Mr. Bosma said it seemed like a step forward.
"It's possibly the beginning of the end," Mr. Bosma said. "It's a positive step that he returned to the Statehouse. I think that's great."
Mr. Bauer described the discussion as a positive exchange of ideas over bills, mainly one changing the regulations covering wages and other matters for workers on government construction projects.
"We've had a pretty good talk with each other," Mr. Bauer said before driving back to Illinois, where most Democrats are staying during the boycott.
Mr. Bosma (R., Indianapolis) said he would talk to the author of the government projects bill Thursday about ideas Mr. Bauer suggested. Mr. Bauer said he would talk to his caucus after hearing back from Mr. Bosma on that bill.
Mr. Bauer said it was likely impractical for Democrats to return to the House floor on Thursday because of the lateness of the meeting and the need to discuss the issues with other House members.
Before Messrs. Bauer and Bosma talked privately, they met with Senate leaders Republican David Long and Democrat Vi Simpson on a separate legal issue. Ms. Simpson described the meeting as cordial and said there was no hostility among the leaders.
"It's always a good sign when people talk," Ms. Simpson said.
The House Democrats left for Urbana, Ill., on Feb. 22 in protest of Republican-backed education and labor bills. Among them is the government projects bill. That measure, as currently written, would increase the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law from $150,000 to $1 million and remove school districts and state universities from its requirements.
After the bill became the focus of Democrats' objections, its sponsor offered to lower that level-first to $500,000 and now to $350,000-and delete the school and university exemptions.
Mr. Bauer declined to say whether Democrats asked for the level to be lowered even further and did not outline other specific changes he wanted made to the bill.
Mr. Bosma said Democrats are "looking for as much moderation in that bill as can be tolerated."
Mr. Bauer's unannounced Statehouse trip Wednesday was a stark contrast from a visit earlier this month when photographers greeted Mr. Bauer in the parking lot. Reporters gathered inside for that meeting and watched from the doorways of Mr. Bosma's office as he and Mr. Bauer and six other lawmakers talked about proposals. Those discussions did not resolve the standoff.
When asked why he took a more secretive approach to Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Bauer said: "We're trying to bring peace.
A fire in the 600 block of East Green Street in Champaign has heavily damaged at least one building and affected a half-block of buildings in the heart of the Campustown area.
The fire led to a partial collapse of the roof above Zorba's restaurant. Structures affected most by the fire include an office for the U of I's department Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Pitaya clothing store, Mia Za's Cafe, and Zorba's restaurant.The fire brought out more than a dozen emergency vehicles from both Champaign and Urbana, as thick smoke could be seen around the twin cities. Smoke damage also affected the adjacent Freestar Bank branch and nearby apartments.
Matt Mortenson has worked at Zorba's for nearly 30 years and owns the business. Mortenson spotted smoke coming out of the apartment above Pitaya at around 7:35 this morning. He said he noticed flames shooting 20 to 30 feet in the air, but he doesn't know badly his business was damaged.
"You don't know whether to laugh or cry about it," Mortenson said. "If it wasn't burned, there's a lot of water damage I'm sure."
Urbana Fire Chief Mike Dilley said a fire in a concealed space at the top of the building burned "fairly undetectably" for some time. He said that in the space housing Zorba's, the roof and sections of the floor had collapsed into the first floor, but that the first floor was still intact.
Dan Davis is a web developer for Illinois Public Media, and he lives right next to the building that burned Wednesday morning. Davis said he was asleep as the fire broke out next door.
"I heard a few minutes before a commotion outside, which I ignored like I often do," Davis said. "The next thing I know, there was a firefighter kicking my bed, telling me that it's not a drill and I got to get out immediately"
Davis said he was able to grab some computer equipment before he got out of the building, which he says had already partially filled with smoke. He noted that he was the only occupant inside his building - everyone else was either on spring break or at work.
Champaign Fire Department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher said both departments did a terrific job containing the blaze to one building.
"When we got on the scene, there was smoke crossing Green Street," she said. "That doesn't happen very often."
Schuamacher said the city will follow the recommendation of a structural engineer, who said that part of the building was too unsafe after sustaining heavy fire, water, and smoke damage. The area of the building to be removed consists of a dining area for Mia Za's Cafe, and a small unoccupied apartment. Schmachuer said removing that floor could happen Thursday.
The 600 block of East Green Street remains closed to traffic overnight.
A proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in Indiana is on its way to the state Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the amendment on a 7-3 party line vote Wednesday, with Republican senators rejecting arguments that language prohibiting civil unions could threaten the ability of employers to offer domestic partner benefits.
Amendment sponsor Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn says the measure isn't meant to affect any benefits offered by companies and he doesn't believe that it would.
Current state law bans gay marriage.
The Republican-led House approved the amendment last month before the Democratic boycott began. If the measure passes the Legislature this year, it must pass again in 2013 or 2014 to go before voters on the 2014 ballot.
The congressman representing east-central Illinois is vehemently against any US involvement in the deepening conflict in Libya.
Even before the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over the country, 15th district Republican Tim Johnson had voiced opposition to sending American troops there. Now, he says Congress should try to defund the effort after voting to ease the nation's budget deficit.
"Now we face the very clear reality of eliminating all those cuts with the additional amount of money we're going to expend on an incursion into a part of the world that doesn't threaten America -- that is number one -- number two is clearly an unconstitutional action, and number three is very unwise public policy,"Johnson said.
Johnson said Congress has been in recess, so it hasn't come up with any response to President Obama's decision to send warplanes over Libya. In fact, Johnson accuses Obama of deliberately waiting until the recess to take action.
The congressman said American troops should not be anywhere that does not affect US interests, including Iraq or Afghanistan.