Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign City Council has reversed course on plans for a four-percent tax on package liquor.
The plan to raise revenue was unanimously rejected after hearing from a number of business owners.
A few weeks after approving it in a six-to-three vote, the city council shot down the plan during Tuesday night's study session nine-to-nothing. The proposal was seen as a way to restore funding for three positions at the police department, and overnight hours at the front desk.
But liquor store owners say it is unfair to single out one industry to save those jobs. Sun Singer Wines owner Mark Yarbrough said it is not a question of whether he would lose business to neighboring Savoy, but how much of it. He said the tax would take a lot of work to implement.
"There's a lot of unseen and mitigating circumstances that say this is a hasty rush to judgment to pass this tax without thoroughly studying it," Yarbrough said. "And I believe it would take many study sessions in order for you to have a comprehensive understanding what is actually going on here."
Council member Karen Foster suggested the tax last month, but she said she did not anticipate the opposition. Mayor Don Gerard said he was simply looking for something to fulfill a campaign pledge to fund the police jobs, but the vote Tuesday was simply about the tax.
"As I've said all along, I don't like taxes. I don't want to do a tax. My point is retaining the services to the public," Gerard said. "And I was very heartened with the fact that most of the responses agreed and concurred that they, too would like to see the police station overnight. They just don't want to be taxed on their liquor."
Gerard said city may have to transfer existing funds, but will continue to look at new revenue sources. Council members expect to discuss those revenue sources by next month, after voting on a budget plan next Tuesday.
State Senator Mike Frerichs (D- Champaign) says he has decided against a run for the re-drawn 13th Congressional District against incumbent Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana).
Frerichs said it would interfere too much on time with his young daughter. But he does say his party has a good chance of picking up the Congressional seat, where Johnson has been lumped into a largely unfamiliar territory near St. Louis.
"I think the 13th Congressional District is largely unrepresented by an incumbent," Frerichs said. "I think it will be a good year for Democrats to run. In my meetings with folks in Washington, DC, I think they could answer all my questions except how one can serve as a good congressman and spend enough time with their family."
Frerichs said he is proud of reforms made to areas like education and worker's compensation, but he said many challenges await him, such as current changes to group health insurance for state workers.
His current 52nd Senate District did not change much in the redistricting map approved by Governor Pat Quinn, but Frerichs said it should be less confusing to constituents now that it covers nearly all of Champaign.
Meanwhile, the first Republican candidate has announced a run for Frerichs' seat.
Political Activist John Bambenek said a lot of incumbent state lawmakers are not leading with courage on issues like the budget and worker's compensation. Bambenek added that he is worried about their impact on future generations.
"And this issue is what major businesses like Caterpillar, Boeing, and manufacturing and industrial industries say is the biggest issue for them of the business climate in Illinois that needs (to be) addressed," Bambenek explained. "This is the biggest thing driving businesses out of the state."
Bambanek says he's spoken with two other possible Republican candidates for the office: Al Reynolds, who lost to Frerichs last year, and Champaign County Board member Al Nudo. "They have to make their decision about whether they're moving forward," said Bambanek. "They have their stories to tell, I think mine is more compelling."
He said this time around, any successful candidate will have to spend about $1.5 million in order to compete, but believes the resources will be available. Bambenek unsuccessfully ran for the Champaign Unit 4 School Board in 2007.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
A Sangamon County judge's ruling last week threw health insurance enrollment for state and university employees and retirees into chaos, but people concerned about their health care options may see some reprieve.
A bipartisan legislative panel on Tuesday authorized the use of 90-day emergency health plans, which could include current insurers. That means those with Health Alliance, Humana and various Open Access Plans should be able to remain with those providers temporarily.
Still undecided, however, is which health care providers will be available for that period. That decision is up to Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos. She said all current providers will be welcome to the negotiations, which she said will start immediately and be finalized before Friday's open enrollment deadline.
That is the deadline for individuals to pick new medical insurance coverage. Janice Bonneville is in charge state employees' medical benefits. She said given the time crunch, she needs to be able to tell workers what to do.
"If we can make some additional adjustments and send information out to members through the group insurance representatives, through our website, through their unions to tell them that additional options are available we will do that," Bonneville said. "But right now the glass is half empty. I'm trying to get it half full."
It is unclear what happens when the three-month emergency health plans expire. They could be extended while the courts work through the issue, but there is no guarantee. Officials are considering an additional benefit enrollment period later this fall.
State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) sits on the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which gave the green light for the 90-day contracts. Frerichs said the vote is a good solution for now, but he said he would like to see Governor Pat Quinn sign legislation that he sponsored to continue existing coverage for the next couple of years.
"I think this is a good short-term solution to a problem that was kind of created by the courts," Frerichs said. "Going forward, I'd like to see my bill signed, but I think it's been made fairly clear that the governor does not intend to sign that."
Frerichs urges state employees who are concerned about their health insurance to pick a plan by Friday, but to wait first to find out which providers will be available.
Health Alliance released a statement Tuesday, saying it will be an option for state employees as early as Wednesday:
"However, as of this writing, CMS has not agreed to any extension of the Benefit Choice Period. Therefore, if you want to stay with Health Alliance but you made another selection, you will have to act quickly. As soon as Health Alliance is available as an option, you'll have to make a switch back to Health Alliance. And that switch will have to be made before the June 17 deadline."
To get updated information about benefit choice options leading up to Friday's open enrollment deadline, visit benefitschoice.IL.gov
State Representative Chad Hays is running for re-election in the 104th House District.
The Catlin Republican made the announcement Monday morning during a stop at the Champaign County Farm Bureau. He said he will continue pushing for improved funding for the state's colleges and universities, and more incentives to keep businesses in Illinois
"We're a little bit outnumbered north of I-80, and those that we send to Springfield have to have a passion and a conviction for standing up for east central Illinois," Hays told a crowd. "I believe I have that passion and conviction."
Hays was elected to the Illinois House last year, replacing long-time Republican state legislator, Bill Black, who retired after nearly 25 years in office.
Hays previously served as vice-president of development for Provena United Samaritans Medical Center, and two terms as mayor of Catlin in the 1990s.
New lines for legislative districts show the 104th district now includes Savoy, southwest Champaign County, and Vermilion County. No other candidates have jumped into that race.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
A state legislative commission could vote Tuesday afternoon on a proposal to allow emergency contracts to be drawn up to provide short-term health care plans for state employees.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability will meet in Chicago, and the short-term contracts are on the agenda. The measure would authorize the use of 90-day health plan contracts based on current programs that expire June 30th.
A Sangamon County judge's order on Friday, June 10, put a stay on two open access plans on the menu of new health insurance plans for state workers. The state Department of Healthcare and Family Services is appealing the stay, which continues while a judge considers lawsuits filed by Health Alliance and Humana.
Without the Open Access Plans plans --- or any emergency replacements --- state workers will have to choose between the state's more expensive Quality Care health plan, and two HMO plans that serve just 38 counties: Boone, Christian, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Fulton, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, Logan, Macoupin, Madison, Marshall, McHenry, Menard, Monroe, Morgan, Ogle, Peoria, Randolph, Saint Clair, Sangamon, Tazewell, Will, Winnebago and Woodford.
Spokesperson Alka Nayyar of the state Department of Central Management Services said state workers have until the end of the business day on Friday, June 17 to choose new health plans. But because of the judge's stay, the options are limited.
"So currently, until such time as the trial court's order is reversed or superseded --- or emergency contracts can be completed, the only enrollment options for members are HMO Illinois, Blue Advantage HMO, or the Quality Care health plan, which is done through CIGNA," Nayyar said.
CoGFA member and State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the contracts on the commission agenda could create more temporary health contract options.
"This anticipated vote --- at this point we don't know exactly what's going to happen --- but this anticipated vote would give the department the flexibility to go out and negotiate 90-day emergency healthcare contracts, and it would mostly likely be with current health care providers," Frerichs said.
But State Senator Jeff Schoenberg (D-Chicago), who is the commission's co-chairman, said the panel may not be a necessary gatekeeper for that decision either.
"The director has the authority to issue emergency 90-day contracts," Schoenberg said.
That would be Director of Healthcare and Familiy Services Julie Hamos, who will be at the meeting to present those options and elicit input from commission members.
If nothing changes in the next few days, state employees and retirees can expect far fewer choices when picking out a new health plan.
Whatever the options, the University of Illinois is telling its employees to choose a health care plan by Friday, June 17th. The U of I says employees could still choose one of the open access plans --- in the hopes that new court action will make them available before the week is over. However, if the plans remain unavailable, the university says those employees would automatically be put under the Quality Care Plan.
State officials say workers should check the CMS Benefits Choice website frequently for updates, under "State Employee Insurance and Benefit Programs.
(UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect new info from the University of Illinois, the Department of Central Management Services and the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability).
State employees in Illinois are left with uncertain choices for their health insurance plan.
A judge's order on Friday put a stay on two open access plans on the menu of new health insurance plans for state workers. The state Department of Healthcare and Family Services is appealing the stay, which was sought by Health Alliance and Humana, two health care companies whose plans were rejected. But in the meantime, Alka Nayyar of the state Department of Central Management Services says employees have until the end of business this Friday to choose among the plans that remain.
"Currently, until such time as the trial court's order is reversed or superseded --- or emergency contracts can be completed --- the only enrollment options for members are HMO Illinois, Blue Advantage HMO, or the Quality Care health plan, which is done through CIGNA," Nayyar said.
The two HMO plans are only available in 38 Illinois counties. According to Nayyar, those counties are: Boone, Christian, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Fulton, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, Lake, Logan, Macoupin, Madison, Marshall, McHenry, Menard, Monroe, Morgan, Ogle, Peoria, Randolph, Saint Clair, Sangamon, Tazewell, Will, Winnebago and Woodford.
This list is substantially different from one released by CMS a few weeks ago. For instance, Macon and DeWitt Counties, which were previously listed as being covered by the two new HMO plans, are not on the latest list.
The other plan, Quality Care is more expensive--it's the one workers get automatically if they don't make a choice this week.
A notice sent out by the University of Illinois says employees may still choose the PersonalCare or HealthLink open access plans, if they live in a county where the plans are available. But the U of I's Human Resources office says they will only receive the coverage if a change is made by the state to un-block those plans. Otherwise, those employees will automatically be placed in the Quality Care plan.
An emergency contract could be another option. If such a plan is confirmed, it would be a short-term health care plan--perhaps for 90 days--that would be added to the health plan menu this week. The legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability will discuss emergency health insurance contracts at its meeting Tuesday at 12 PM in Chicago.
But whatever the options, the University of Illinois is telling its employees to choose a health care plan by Friday, June 17th.
State officials says workers should check the CMS Benefits Choice website frequently for updates, under "State Employee Insurance and Benefit Programs.
Education reform that makes it harder for teachers to go on strike, easier for educators to be fired and could lengthen the school day for students in Chicago is now law.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the landmark legislation Monday at an elementary school in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. He says it was done collaboratively, unlike in other states where lawmakers and union members have fought.
Unions, reform groups and legislators have largely supported the reform. But the Chicago Teachers Union has objected to the measure's final language on strikes.
The bill includes tougher standards for teacher strikes over contract disputes. It would require several additional steps, including earlier intervention by mediators and publicizing each side's last, best offer in contract negotiations, before a strike.
The law takes effect immediately.
Jurors are set to continue deliberating on Monday in the retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
They have about six weeks of testimony to go through.
For much of the trial jurors were studiously taking notes, and now they may want to thoroughly review those notes before making any decision. Prosecutors and defense attorneys also asked jurors to go through the dozens of secretly recorded phone calls in chronological order.
Prosecutor Carrie Hamilton told jurors to focus on the most damning calls to hear that Blagojevich wanted to get personal benefits for himself in exchange for state action. Hamilton said they can see Blagojevich's M.O. in those calls and then apply that mindset to other charged schemes where the evidence isn't so clear.
Blagojevich's attorneys say jurors should look at the weak charges and see that Blagojevich has no criminal intent, and then apply that mindset to charges where he appears to be trading state action for personal benefit.
(Last Updated at Monday, June 13 at 9:43 AM)
A Sangamon County Judge has stalled the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services' attempt to switch thousands of HMO plans in Central Illinois.
In response to a push by the state to drop Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana as options for public and university employees, Judge Brian Otwell issued a temporary stay in any further action in awarding or signing the self-insurance, or Open Access Plan contracts.
State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year. Governor Pat Quinn's administration has argued these so-called "open access plans" are cheaper, because the state's the ultimate insurer.
The ruling means that employees can continue enrolling in HMO plans, just not the popular downstate plans provided by Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana.
The companies filed a lawsuit in protest.
"It will be up to HFS to decide on the actions to take based on the judge's ruling," Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum said in a statement. "We are relieved the judge has stopped the process while the issues are examined by the court."
Judge Otwell's ruling comes just a week before the annual open enrollment period expires, a time when workers can pick new plans. The ruling throws that process into havoc as employees have few choices beyond an HMO option. Otwell calls the timing of his decision, "highly regrettable" but unavoidable.
Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said the state intends to appeal Friday's ruling. He claims nothing in the ruling, "calls into question the fairness of the procurement process."
"Today's decision has created uncertainty for state employees and other members of the state group insurance program who are currently in the process of making decisions on their health care plan for the new fiscal year that starts July 1," Claffey said. "We want group insurance plan members to know that we will act promptly and explore all the options to ensure that they have managed care coverage."
Meanwhile, another state agency, the Department of Central Management Services, released a statement on its website Sunday saying that for now, state employees can only choose from the two Blue Cross HMO plans --- covering only 38 counties, and the state's more expensive Quality Care plan. CMS said that could change if emergency healthcare contracts can be signed, or if Judge Otwell takes further action in the case.
For updates, workers are instructed to check the website benefitschoice.il.gov
(Reported by Dan Petrella and Jay Lee of CU-CitizenAccess)
Champaign County's immigration-service agencies may have to bear some of the burden for the state's burgeoning debt - and they aren't happy about it.
With the state's deficit projected to hit $15 billion by the end of the year, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed large-scale budget cuts for the next two fiscal years, and last week the state Legislature approved a 2012 budget that makes even deeper cuts. This includes drastic cuts to funding for grants to agencies that assist immigrants and refugees.
"These cuts are more than just substantial - they're devastating," said Deborah Hlavna, the director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, 302 S. Birch St., Urbana.
And on top of the cuts to services for immigrants and refugees, the 2012 budget, which awaits the governor's signature, would cut overall funding for the Department of Human Services by nearly $670 million, about 17 percent of its total budget.
"The ripple effect will be enormous," Hlavna said before the Legislature passed its budget. "We're all waiting nervously to see what's going to happen, but it's not looking too good right now."
The final impact of the budget cuts remains unclear. Senate Democrats attempted to restore some of the money for human services by adding it to a bill to fund capital improvement projects. But the House did not vote on the measure before the spring legislative session adjourned. Quinn has suggested he may call lawmakers back to vote on the package during the summer.
The governor originally recommended cutting funds for immigrants and refugees when he presented his budget plan to lawmakers in February.
His proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1, would have seen a $1.7 billion increase overall from this year despite widespread cuts at several areas, including human services, education, public safety and health care coverage. But the budget legislators approved calls for spending $2 billion less than the he proposed.
"These proposed cuts are a horrendous mistake," Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said, referring to Quinn's proposed cuts to immigration services. "We're not happy, to say the least."
Hoyt said that the coalition predicts that at least 15 agencies that serve immigrants will have to close if the proposed cut in funding takes effect. The Asian and Latino communities in Illinois will be hurt the most, he said.
In Champaign County, the Latino population has more than doubled in the last decade, while the Asian population has grown by 55 percent, according to 2010 census data.
This reflects a growing trend in the entire state. The Asian community in Illinois grew by 38 percent in the last 10 years, and the Latino population increased by 33 percent.
The refugee center's Hlavna said that agencies in central Illinois will feel the impact the most because of limited fundraising capabilities in the midst of a growing immigrant community.
"We're lucky in that we only rely partially on state funding," she said. "That won't be true for a lot of others in the area."
Immigration advocacy groups and agencies like Hoyt's have voiced their displeasure over the cuts, pointing to how immigration services make up slightly more than 1 percent of the state's budget.
"We should be giving more funding to help immigrants and refugees, not less," Hoyt said. "This is an issue that isn't going away, and is going - and this cut in funding would be a mistake."
Esther Wong, executive director of the Illinois-based Chinese American Service League, said she has seen immigration agencies face funding problems ever since she began working with Chinese-American communities in Illinois in 1978 - but nothing like what Quinn proposed.
"We have not faced any drastic cuts like this ever before," Wong said. "I didn't believe it at first."
The Latino Partnership of Champaign County will also receive less state funding with the proposed cuts, but David Adcock, the group's treasurer, said he had mixed reactions to Quinn's proposal.
"I can't say I was surprised because I knew everything was going to be on the table. Something needs to be done with the state's financial situation," Adcock said. "Did I think the cuts would be so drastic? No. But it is what it is."
The cuts in funding for immigration and refugee services would lessen financial support for grant-receiving agencies such as the refugee center, but the wider cuts to the Illinois Department of Human Services would compound the pain.
"The weakening of the (Department of Human Services) will hurt the most for all the smaller groups in Illinois," Hlavna said. "We work alongside them all the time and when we can't meet our clients' needs, we will direct them and go with them to the DHS."
The refugee center has adapted to the state's history of slow payments, but the cuts to the Department of Humans Services throws the agency a new curveball, she said.
"We've been waiting on our check for a long time," Hlavna said with a laugh. "We've been smart enough not to depend on their money. But we need their help and their services."
Sarah Baumer, an administrator at the Department of Human Services' Champaign County office, declined to comment on the looming budget cuts, but conceded that they will curb the resources the office can provide.
"Adjustments will be made," Baumer said.
Anh Ha Ho, co-director of the refugee center with Hlavna, said that the major needs of immigrants in Champaign County pertain to issues such as food, money, health care and housing - all of which fall into the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services.
Local immigration-service organizations such as the refugee center don't provide many direct services, Ho said, rather relying on government agencies like Department of Human Services. A great deal of Ho's time is spent helping clients with paperwork and applications for the services through the department.
"We take advantage of the services in place because that's really all immigrants need," Ho said. "We're here to make sure that they get the help they need."
And in a county in which nearly one out of every 10 residents is an immigrant, the budget cuts to human services will especially affect a Champaign County population that has limited access to non-English-speaking resources.
"We have the immigration population of a big metropolitan city without the big city resources," Hlavna said. "We have to rely on each other and we really have to rely on the DHS."
Adcock, of the Latino Partnership, said that a drop in available assistance by the human-services agency may alter the approach of immigration-services organizations
"It'll be harder for people to get the help they need, so we may have to look into different options available," Adcock said. "We may have to look more towards private resources, whether that's local churches or donors or whatever it is."
Funding was a major concern for Champaign County immigration-service agencies even before the proposed cuts, Adcock said, but they will not have to focus their efforts on tightening budget and fundraising.
"Everyone's been on the bubble and funding will always be a concern," Adcock said with a smile. "But we're still here.
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