Illinois Public Media News
More talks between the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Indiana House might be inching the two sides closer to resolving the now three-week-long boycott by Democratic legislators.
The lack of any firm breakthrough, however, meant most Democratic members skipped Monday's floor session, continuing to leave the House with too few members to conduct business and the Democratic leader saying the boycott would continue Tuesday.
Republican Speaker Brian Bosma and Democratic leader Patrick Bauer said Monday they spoke by phone several times over the weekend. Bauer called them "fairly good talks," while Bosma said "perhaps" progress was made.
A Republican-backed proposal to allow state vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools has been among the sticking points of education- and labor-related bills that Democrats say they found objectionable and prompted them to leave for Illinois on Feb. 22.
Bauer told reporters Monday that he believed an agreement could be close on amending the voucher bill to further limit its scope, but he didn't provide details.
"I just haven't gotten that all nailed down yet completely," Bauer said. "I think they're amenable to cut out some of the huge fiscal hit on that."
The Republican sponsor of the bill has proposed capping the number of vouchers to 7,500 during the program's first year and 15,000 during the second year.
Bauer said Democrats still had unresolved concerns about a bill on government construction project wages, which includes provisions ending requirements that nonunion companies sign onto agreements involving union rules.
Bill sponsor Rep. Bill Davis, R-Portland, said he would support modifying the bill so that the state's prevailing construction wage law, which now applies to government projects of $150,000 or more, would start at $500,000 rather than the proposed $1 million level. He said he also would agree to delete a proposed complete exemption for public school and state university projects.
Bosma didn't seem certain that the amendments to those bills would be enough to bring back the boycotting Democrats.
"Every time we get there, there seems to be one more thing," Bosma said. "I'm just not exactly sure what they need at this point."
Rep. Terry Goodin of Austin, one of two Democrats representing his party on the House floor Monday, said he thought Bosma would have resolved the impasse by now.
Gov. Pat Quinn dealt a major blow to plans for two coal gasification plants Monday, using his veto pen to strike down legislation that would have locked in rates for the facilities.
In a veto message, Quinn said plans to build the synthetic natural gas facilities in southwest Jefferson County and in Chicago's south suburbs would result in higher utility bills for Illinoisans.
"Our investments in clean coal must not come at the expense of consumers," Quinn noted. "As we lead the way out of this historic recession, we must always be mindful of the effect our policies will have on the people of Illinois."
Both plants were touted as potential new users of Illinois coal, as well as major job creators. The Illinois Coal Association earlier estimated the facility near Waltonville to be built by Aurora-based Power Holdings LLC could use as much as 2 million tons of coal annually and employ hundreds of people.
The company was planning to use coal mined in nearby Washington County.
"It's a shame the governor chose to do this," said Sen. John Jones, R-Mount Vernon, who co-sponsored the legislation. "Governor Quinn has proved once again he's running jobs out of the state of Illinois."
A number of southern Illinois groups supported the plant, including Southern Illinois University, local chambers of commerce, state and federal lawmakers and mayors of towns from Mount Vernon to Marion.
The legislation would have allowed the company to enter into long-term contracts to sell the gas the plant would produce. Ameren and other gas suppliers would have had to purchase the synthetic gas for the next 10 years, even if cheaper natural gas was available elsewhere.
Quinn signaled he was committed to boosting clean-coal technology, but said the two measures would allow the companies to lock in unusually high rates.
The measures, which were approved in the lame duck legislative session in January, were opposed by the Citizens Utility Board and Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office.
The chair of the University of Illinois' Board of Trustees, Christopher Kennedy, said he does not have any plans to run for political office.
Kennedy is a son of the late U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy. During a visit Monday to the Urbana campus, Kennedy talked about the importance of using Illinois' connections at the federal level to lobby for more research grants. When asked about his desire to run for office, he said he doesn't envision a future in politics
"I'd say the University is political enough for me," he said. "I have no aspirations beyond the university."
Kennedy currently runs Merchandise Mart Properties in Chicago. He was one of six trustees appointed in September 2009 by Governor Pat Quinn following a university admissions scandal.
The Board of Trustees is slated to meet Wednesday, March 23 in Springfield. The Board bumped up tuition last year by 9.5%, a figure that didn't sit well for some students and parents. While the agenda for that meeting has not been set, Kennedy shed some light on how the board may act if it is confronted with another tuition hike.
"I'd say the board has made it clear that we have no intention of raising tuition beyond inflation," Kennedy said. "Tuition at the University of Illinois will remain constant in real dollars, and we just have to figure out what the inflation rate is."
The board of trustees adopted a policy earlier this year linking tuition increases to other factors, including inflation. The state currently owes the U of I nearly $440 million in unpaid bills.
Kennedy said the university should better position itself to seek out federal research grants that will help retain jobs within the state, and improve Illinois' economy.
Children of longtime public university employees do not have to pay full tuition if they attend a state school.
As long as a parent has put in at least seven years of service, the children pay half price, but Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno wants to do away with the perk. Radogno said during difficult financial times, it cannot be justified. She said it is unfair that a nurse working at a university hospital gets the benefit when a nurse at a private hospital does not.
"Even within the university community, it's not even universally applied," Radogno said. "It's applied based on your family status, which generally we try to stay away from that. So, if you happen to have children, you get extra pay."
Radogno said that does not make sense, and she doesn't buy university claims that it is an important recruiting tool.
Schools say that lawmakers have continually looked to higher education to help fill the state's budget hole, and that has already meant reduced benefits for university employees. Illinois State University spokesman Jay Groves said Illinois exports a lot of its high school graduates to neighboring states. He said the perk helps entice employees' children, their partial tuition and fees to stay in Illinois.
"You know she might be assuming that if students did not have that benefit, that they would go to public universities anyway, and that is not a given," Groves said. "So that is money taken away from the public universities if the student decided to go out of state or to a private institution."
If it gains traction in the legislature, Radogno's proposal would only apply to future hires. Current university workers would be grandfathered in and have the chance to keep the tuition break.
Radogno also has legislation that would eliminate full tuition waivers known as General Assembly scholarships. Lawmakers can award them at their discretion, and there have been cases of abuse. Governor Pat Quinn also supports ending that program.
State Rep. Annazette Collins has been picked to fill an Illinois Senate vacancy created by the resignation of a west Chicago lawmaker.
Collins has served in the House since 2000 and chairs the Public Utilities Committee.
Local Democratic leaders picked her Monday for the seat previously held by Rickey Hendon.
Hendon held the seat for 18 years but resigned suddenly last month.
Another applicant for the vacancy was Scott Lee Cohen, the former candidate for governor and lieutenant governor. His political hopes were dashed by the revelation that he had been accused of domestic violence and steroid abuse.
University of Illinois board of trustees chair Christopher Kennedy addresses the U of I community in the Beckman auditorium to discuss the importance of research at the university to the economic development of Illinois and the nation. He explains why advancing efforts to secure new research opportunities will have a positive effect on the economy.
Wisconsin's public workers no longer have collective bargaining rights. Lawmakers stripped them away Thursday, and the move's causing a firestorm in pro-labor circles. But Illinois' neighbor to the north isn't the only one seeing an epic battle over workers rights.
Thousands of union members flooded streets outside the Indiana Statehouse Thursday. The demonstrators hoped to stop measures they fear are worse than those in Wisconsin.
It's usually a two hour drive from the Northwest Indiana city of Portage to Indianapolis. Yesterday morning, I-65 was covered in snow, so the trip was more like a slick, three-hour Odyssey. This is did not dampen the spirits of a busload of steelworkers when they arrived at the Indiana Statehouse.
The vice president of Local 6787, Pete Trinidad, said he came down to lend his voice. "We disagree with what our politicians are doing down here. And if we don't come down and have our voice heard then they are going to say, 'Well, you didn't say anything so we just went ahead and did it.' We didn't want that to happen."
In some ways - the stakes are higher for organized labor in Indiana than they are in Wisconsin. You see, the issue of public workers' collective bargaining rights is old-hat in the Hoosier state. Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, stripped state workers of such rights back in 2005.
GOP legislators took control of both chambers this year - and they took their own swipe at organized labor. The first bill Republicans introduced this session would strip public school teachers of most collective bargaining rights. Another bill would make Indiana a so-called right to work state. Basically, companies would no longer require union membership as a condition of employment.
Republicans say this would make Indiana more economically competitive. Union member Pete Trinidad doesn't don't by it, so he took part in yesterday's demonstration, one of the largest in Indiana's history. Trinidad says the GOP's first bill targeted teachers - but it won't stop there. "They try to choose on spot and start a crack and the crack goes all the way across. We can't do that. We're all together in this."
Dozens of speakers addressed the crowd that lined up near the Indiana Statehouse. And despite the chilly temps, chanting continued for hours.
But inside the Capitol - things were quiet. One reason is that House Democrats have boycotted the past three weeks of this session. They don't have enough votes to stop the GOP's agenda, but without Democrats, the House can't do its work because there's no quorum.
But a Senate Democrat from was there - eager to take jabs at Republicans.
"What happened in Wisconsin yesterday was terrible," said Lonnie Randolph, a veteran Democratic state senator from East Chicago. "Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio. That's not by chance all this is happening. If they weaken labor, they weaken the biggest contributor and supporter of the Democratic party."
Randolph saw the crowd outside. He says Republicans are overreaching.
"They've waken up a sleeping giant in my opinion," Randolph continued. "The people that came down here today 20,000-plus, these are just average, everyday people with families. They're just barely making it from pay check to pay check. And what you're doing you're hitting them in the pocket. This is going to go on until the people get some relief."
It turns out the pro-union demonstrators were preaching to the converted Thursday, because Republican leaders weren't in the Indiana Capitol, either. They called the day off. Not because of the demonstration - but because the Big Ten basketball tournament is in town and they didn't want to deal with a congested downtown Indy.
Maybe it's a fitting demonstration of their confidence they'll prevail. Brian Bosma, the House Majority's Republican leader, said as much in recent days. "There's always room for compromise. I'm not going to concede to a list of demands. I'm not conceding to that. I'm never going to concede to that particularly when it's only 37 people telling the remaining 63 what to do."
Bosma said pro-union Democrats are missing something: Republicans have power - and they ought to. They got the most votes in this historically Republican-leaning state.
So, Bosma feels the GOP can wait things out, long after the union noise dies down.
Though ... that could take a while - unions plan more demonstrations for next week..
(Photo by Michael Puente/IPR)
Pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen is interested in an Illinois Senate seat after losing an independent bid for governor.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says a group of Chicago ward committeemen will meet Monday to choose between Cohen and other candidates who want to replace former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, who resigned last month.
White says the candidates include Cohen, Democratic Rep. Annazette Collins and former Chicago Alderman Ed Smith.
The Senate seat is Cohen's latest attempt to get into politics. He lost a bid for governor after giving up the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor when revelations about his personal life became public.
White says the committeemen want to pick a replacement who can win a full term in next year's election.
A Champaign group committed to fair and reasonably priced health care has filed a complaint against its own insurance carrier.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers says premiums for its five staff members have gone up about 25-percent on average over the last 4 years. Executive Director Claudia Lenhoff said the group's complaint before the Illinois Department of Insurance against PersonalCare also contends the provider is discriminating based on age and gender. Lenhoff said when contacting the company, she's told that the higher premiums are based on usage.
"You see the higher charges for females compared to males, and they usually say that that's because women are going to have more medical expenses, if they're going to have babies and so on," Lenhoff said. "All the women on staff have never had any children. That doesn't effect our usage. And so, we think that these are pricing schemes that PersonalCare has been able to get away with."
Lenhoff said the higher rates have put her organization in financial jeopardy. The group's Allison Jones says her employer is now paying more than $520 month for her coverage.
"I really feel like they're destabilizing my job," she said. "They're putting my job at risk. I see the numbers and I know how much the salary is for someone who works in a non-profit. I feel really greatly that 100% of my insurance premium is paid for. But I know that's just a ticking time bomb. It's not going to last forever."
Meawhile, Lenhoff said her staff is getting a number of calls from others in the community also using PersonalCare whose rates have gone up considerably. She says this and other complaints will prompt the Department of Insurance to contact insurance companies, and let them know they're monitoring their rate increases. And a bill going before an Illinois House committee next week would give that department review authority over rates. Urbana Democrat Naomi Jakobsson is a co-sponsor.
Two officials from Urbana's sister city in the African country of Malawi were scheduled to wind up their trip here Thursday night with a reception at the home of University of Illinois President Michael Hogan. It was the last major event in what's been a busy week for Charles Kalemba and Mussa Mwale of Zomba. Kalemba is Zomba's chief executive officer --- similar to a city manager --- and Mwale is his administrative director.
Kalemba said he hopes the meetings he's had this week in Urbana can lead to constructive projects between the two cities --- and between the University of Illinois and Zomba's Chancellor College campus of the University of Malawi. He also said he welcomes the personal contacts he's made.
"Let me say that we've also found out the friendliness of the people," Kalemba said. "We actually, from day one till now, been meeting people, friendly people, discussions, interested to know what Zomba is all about, what Malawi's all about, what Africa's all about."
During their visit to Urbana, Kalemba and Mwale have received the key to the city from Mayor Laurel Prussing, and presented gifts to city council members. They attended a Rotary Club meeting, a concert at the Krannert Center, toured local schools, and met the public during a Wednesday night "Malwai Mixer" at the Urbana Civic Center on Wednesday that attracted several dozen residents.
It was at the Malawi Mixer especially that Kalemba says he met many potential visitors to his city.
"A lot of people now are I think, aware of the (sister city) relationship," Kalemba said. "And a lot of people are now saying, what can we do to go? So I think Dennis and Scott are the ones who are going to coordinate here to see how best we start this. Because I think there's a lot of response, these few days we've been here."
Scott Dossett and Urbana Alderman Dennis Roberts serve on the Urbana Sister Cities committee, and have both visited Zomba --- several times, in Roberts' case. They say they hope to organize another trip of Urbana residents to Zomba later this year.
The Zomba-Urbana sister city relationship comes under the auspices of the group Sister Cities International. Officials from the two cities attended the group's national conference in Arlington, Virginia last weekend.
Zomba has more than twice the population of Urbana, but about the same land area. Besides being home to Chancellor College, Zomba is the capitol of Zomba District, and the former national capital of Malawi. Urbana residents are already working with people in Zomba on water and sanitation projects funded by a grant from Sister Cities International.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Dossett)
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