Illinois Public Media News
The Illinois House wants to lift the ban on smoking at riverboat casinos that border states where smoking is allowed.
The bill passed 62-52 Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate.
Rep. Daniel Burke said he sponsored the measure because Illinois is losing business to states that allow smoking at casinos. The Chicago Democrat claims casinos have lost $800 million since 2008 because gamblers go to Iowa, Indiana or Missouri casinos.
Burke says casinos have improved air filtration systems, reducing the health concerns from smoking.
Supporters of the smoking ban say it's unfair to subject gamblers and casino employees to second-hand smoke.
Indiana House Democrats are back at work after a five-week boycott to protest a Republican agenda they consider an assault on labor unions and public education, but whether their efforts will ultimately change the outcome of the legislation they opposed is unclear.
Republicans agreed to rejigger - but not completely overhaul - their plans as lawmakers resume work in the House. The Senate had already started working around the Democrats by holding separate hearings on bills stalled in the walkout. Still, Democrats insist concessions they've received on several issues, including school vouchers and labor legislation, made their boycott worthwhile.
"We're coming back after softening the radical agenda," said House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, whose Statehouse return Monday was greeted by cheering union workers. "We won a battle, but we recognize the war goes on."
The victories Democrats claim are likely more than they would have gained had they not boycotted, but they won't stop the agenda pushed by Republicans who won sweeping control of the House in last year's elections. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said bills aimed at improving education and keeping spending low are mainstream Hoosier ideas.
"The only thing 'radical' about this session has been the decision by one caucus to walk off the job for five weeks," Daniels said.
Republicans had vowed throughout the standoff that they wouldn't remove items from their agenda - and by and large they won't have to. The only bill killed by the boycott was a "right-to-work" proposal that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment.
GOP legislators agreed to some changes on several other bills. For example, they will cap for two years the number of students who could participate in a voucher program using taxpayer money to attend private schools, but it would still be among the nation's most expansive use of vouchers when the limits expire. Another bill that would exempt certain government projects from the state's prevailing construction wage law was changed so that fewer projects would be exempt.
The Democrats' most significant achievement may be that people across the state are talking about these issues. Bauer said the public needed a "timeout" to learn about the agenda being pushed by Republicans.
Thousands of people attended Statehouse rallies during the walkout, and hundreds attended local town hall meetings. Many teachers said they didn't realize Republicans supported vouchers and other measures they think will erode public education, and some union members said they wished they had voted.
Tom Case, a union worker from Fort Wayne who was at the Statehouse protesting Monday, said he was glad Democrats staged the boycott.
"Republicans are going way out of bounds with what they're doing right now," he said.
In one sense, Democrats "punched above their weight," said Robert Dion, who teaches politics at the University of Evansville.
"They got the attention of the state, and they were able to finagle some meaningful concessions that I don't think were necessarily offered all that willingly," Dion said.
On the other hand, Dion said, Democrats have a bit of a black eye because the walkout lasted so long.
House Democrats had fled to Illinois on Feb. 22 to protest 11 pieces of legislation, denying the House the two-thirds of members present needed to do business as required by the state constitution. The move had the potential to force a special session or even a government shutdown if a new budget wasn't adopted before July 1.
Indiana's boycott began a week after Wisconsin's Democratic senators left for Illinois in their three-week boycott against a law barring most public employees from collective bargaining. Wisconsin Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to pass the law without them, and the matter is now headed to court.
The Indiana standoff became one of the longest legislative walkouts in recent U.S. history. The impasse got a bit nasty at times - with name-calling, scathing political ads, rowdy rallies and fines totaling more than $3,000 for most absent Democrats. But Republicans and Democrats seemed to tone down the rhetoric last week as they discussed possible changes to bills.
Lawmakers began making up for five weeks of lost time Monday. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma gaveled in the chamber early Monday evening, and lawmakers began working on bills in earnest. Lawmakers worked their way through a large chunk of the House calendar, which was the same as the day Democrats left.
Bosma predicted lawmakers would have plenty of late nights as they work toward the scheduled end of the regular legislative session April 29.
"It's long past time to get to the people's business," Bosma said. "Hopefully we can make this work in five short weeks."
(AP Photo/AJ Mast)
The leaders of a Champaign group committed to improving police and community relations say they need more participation, and input, from all corners of the population.
About 50 people Monday night attended the first community forum hosted by the Champaign Community and Police Partnership, or C-CAP. The group's goal is finding solutions to policing issues raised by the African-American community. C-CAP member Patricia Avery heads the Champaign-Urbana area project, which works with juvenile delinquency prevention. She says Champaign Police are doing what they can to divert youth from the juvenile justice system.
"We have to work on providing more alternatives for the officers so when they are picking up (youths), they can't just turn them loose on the street," Avery said. "If they come into contact, they have to have somewhere for them to go. So our job as a community is to help them find solutions, find alternatives, for those kids that they do come in contact with."
One such option suggested by Avery is community conferencing - allowing police to place troubled youths before a panel made up of victims, offenders, and supporters to resolve the case among themselves.
Durl Kruse with C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice brought up the 2009 Champaign police fatal shooting of 15-year old Kiwane Carrington. He also cited 2010 statistics in Champaign County, showing a disproportionate number of black youths involved in felony and misdemeanor convictions.
Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney says the numbers are debatable, but says they were brought up in an attempt to discredit initiatives like the Champaign Youth Police Academy, and other ideas started by C-CAP.
"And to ignore what C-CAP has been doing for over a decade, by just throwing out some statistics from the State's Attorney's office compiled last year, is just not correct," Finney said. "C-CAP understands exactly what's going on in the neighborhoods with our kids. And we have to work on that."
Kruse says C-CAP's partnership will only work when it's allowing everyone, including the police department's worst critics, to be part of the discussion.
Champaign City Council member Will Kyles, who's also on the C-CAP committee, says future forums will need a change of behavior between different cultures. C-CAP will hold quarterly forums throughout the year. The next has a focus on youth. It's scheduled for June 27th at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
Illinois state senators are hearing from Chicago area residents who want a say in redistricting, the once-a-decade, highly contentious and political process that determines boundaries for legislative districts. It is about power and influence, and on Monday afternoon dozens of people showed up to tell senators how they want the boundaries drawn.
Kyle Hillman lives in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, and said the community is a poor fit for its current district.
"There's a high crime rate and it has one of the largest food kitchens in the metro area, and yet it is included in a district that is mostly consisting of lakefront homes in Evanston in New Trier," Hillman told the Senate Redistricting Committee.
Others complained their neighborhoods span several districts, watering down the community's influence.
"The greater Chinatown community area is a vibrant and cohesive community. Its interests are not served by being split into multiple districts, as it is currently," said Bernie Wong of the Chinese American Service League.
C. Betty Magness with the group IVI-IPO urged the senators to ignore politicians' addresses when they draft the boundaries.
"Districts should not be drawn to favor or discriminate against incumbents, candidates or parties," Magness said.
Another issue that came up Monday has to do with the addresses of prisoners. Right now, they are counted as residents where they are incarcerated, which is most often downstate.
"Prisoners should be counted where they originate from, instead of where they're currently housed," testified Lawrence Hill with the Cook County Bar Association.
The Illinois House could actually vote to make that change as early as Tuesday, according to the bill's sponsor, state Rep. LaShawn Ford. But the Chicago Democrat said it would not take effect until the next redistricting - ten years from now.
Monday's hearing was the first of at least five public forums for the Senate committee. Lawmakers have until the end of June to approve a new legislative map, or the process will be put in the hands of a special commission.
Traffic is moving again along Green Street between Wright and 6th Streets in Champaign's Campustown after crews tore down the 2nd floor and attic of a building damaged by a fire.
The building houses Mia Za's Cafe, Zorba's restaurant, and Pitaya clothing boutique. Officials say the fire started above the ceiling of Mia Za's. At the height of the blaze, fire personnel from Urbana and Champaign used 11 fire engines, four ladder trucks and two squads to fight the blaze.
Champaign city planner T.J. Blakeman says owners of affected businesses surveyed the damage over the weekend, and he says it could be a while before they figure out what they will do next.
"I really hope that they're able to find a space and re-open in campus," Blakeman said. "The students really want that."
Blakeman says nearby businesses did not suffer major damage since the fire was contained to the one building. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
The leader of Indiana's House Democrats says their lengthy boycott that ended Monday was worth it to try to stop what he called a radical Republican agenda that tried to dismantle labor unions and public education.
House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer says the Democrats' walkout gave the public time to learn about the GOP agenda, and allowed lawmakers to negotiate concessions on some of the bills they opposed. Bauer says Democrats won a battle but that they recognize 'the war goes on'' as Republicans continue what he calls an attack on the middle class.
Most absent Democrats face fines of more than $3,000 for the boycott.
Bauer and the boycotting Democrats planned to return to the Statehouse Monday evening to get back to work. The party stayed in Urbana for 34 nights. Kristen Self, the Finance Director for the Indiana House Democratic Caucus, estimates the party's hotel bill was over $100,000. Legislators paid for food and other expenses out of their own pockets.
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Indiana Democrats are ending their legislative boycott after staying in Urbana for nearly six weeks, and were planning to return to the statehouse in Indianapolis by Monday afternoon.
The more than 30 members of the state's House of Representatives have stayed at the city's Comfort Suites since the evening of February 22nd. But they could be seen busily packing their cars just before noon.
"There's really not a lot of agreement so far, but there's been a lot of headway made," said Democrat Linda Lawson of Hammond. "So we feel very comfortable about going back. We're going to continue the fight. We have a lot of issues and concerns about labor. There's still 40 of us (Democrats) and 60 of them (Republicans), so we have made some great headway."
Other legislators declined to speak to reporters, indicating that House Minority Leader Pat Bauer would address the media later in the afternoon.
The legislative stalemate started over legislation impacting education and labor, but Lawson said there are other areas to address, including the state budget, women's reproductive rights, and gay marriage.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
Illinois' junior U.S. Senator is worried about the state's business climate after state lawmakers approved increases in both corporate and income taxes.
In a visit to Champaign Friday, Mark Kirk touted his Small Business Bill of Rights. He says the legislation would help reverse the trend of other Governors trying to lure business away from Illinois.
The Senator says one portion of the measure would exempt small employers from federal taxes for 10 years if they commit to investing in vacant commercial property.
"Because nothing was happening there (vacant properties) anyway," Kirk said. "And we want to make central towns and cities exciting to invest in. Or for new innovators, a fast lane at the patent office. Because we know that small innovates 8-times faster per capita than big business."
The portion of Kirk's bill that expedites the federal patent approval process passed the Senate earlier this month. That provision assists business owners with patent filing issues.
Other parts of the legislation seek to lower business health care costs by allowing interstate competition for insurers, and to cut energy costs by promoting the use of hybrid vehicles and more efficient practices.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says the size of the evacuation zones around the six nuclear power plants in Illinois should be reviewed.
Kirk and fellow U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin held a forum Friday with a panel of four nuclear experts that resembled a congressional hearing to talk about safety in Illinois in the wake of the disaster in Japan.
Four of Illinois' 11 reactors are almost identical to those involved in Japan's nuclear crisis. Exelon Corp. owns the plants and says they're safe.
Officials sought to assure the senators that Illinois plants are safe and have multiple layers of safeguards.
Kirk and Durbin also were interested in making sure the state's stockpile of potassium iodide pills for people in evacuation zones is consistent with new 2010 census numbers.
Meanwhile, officials in Iowa were questioning just how safe are nuke power plants in and near Iowa?
Nuclear power plants in and around Iowa generally are operating safely, but there have been violations in the past as more safety questions arise because of the nuclear crisis in Japan and as Iowa lawmakers consider legislation making it easier to build another plant in Iowa, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission records.
Illinois has a nuclear plant in Cordova, located on the Mississippi River across from Davenport. Iowa has one nuclear power plant, the Duane Arnold Energy Center near Cedar Rapids. Nebraska has two plants on the Missouri River - The Fort Calhoun Station north of Omaha and Cooper Station near Brownville.
The Des Moines Register on Friday reported the plants have had no fines in the past five years, but have been cited by federal regulators.
The newspaper, which reviewed Nuclear Regulatory Commission records, reported that Nebraska's Fort Calhoun Station is one of three plants in the United States facing the highest level of regulatory scrutiny. That's because the plant's safety systems were found last year to be in danger of flooding, according to records.
Inspectors found the plant didn't have enough sand to fill bags that operators planned to place on a flood wall to protect buildings and equipment.
"We're going through all our procedures in fairly quick order not only for NRC, but also because of events in Japan," said Fort Calhoun spokesman Jeff Hanson.
There's an adequate stockpile of sand in place now, but the plant will continue to be inspected frequently because the violation was consider a "substantial" safety risk.
The other plants in or near Iowa were cited for less serious problems, records show.
In the past five years, the Iowa plant received notification of four violations that occurred between 2003 and 2009, said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy Resources, which owns 70 percent of the plant.
No fines were issued. The violations involved a diesel generator problem, a deficiency in drills and planning, failure to complete a checklist before moving fuel bundles and failing to properly notify health personnel.
"Protecting the health and safety of the public through safe power operations is always our top priority. We take any and all feedback from the NRC very seriously," said Renee Nelson, spokeswoman for NextEra Energy's plant in Iowa.
Nelson said two of the findings occurred and were resolved to the satisfaction of the NRC more than two years ago. Both represented "low safety significance," she said.
The other findings were related to events in 2003 and 2004, and were specifically related to proper procedure use, not plant safety, Nelson said.
The NRC determined that the plant "operated in a manner that preserved public health and safety and met all cornerstone objectives," according to the agency's latest assessment released March 4.
Last week, NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said U.S. nuclear plants "are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena. ... We believe we have a very sold and strong regulatory structure in place right now."
But the Union of Concerned Scientist, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit that focuses on environmental and safety issues, said U.S. plants have "the same key vulnerability" that led to the crisis in Japan.
"The basic problem is that the Japanese reactors lost both their normal and back-up power supplies, which are used to cool fuel rods and the reactor core," the organization said in a statement.
Victor Dricks, a NRC spokesman in Dallas, whose regional includes the Nebraska plants, told the Register that redundant safety systems, backup power supplies and several methods for shutting down reactors at U.S. plants make disasters such as the one in Japan extremely unlikely.
Most plants get their electricity from two or three high-power lines. If those should fail, there are two sets of backup diesel generators that come on automatically and are housed in buildings designed to withstand tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, Dricks said.
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.
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