Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 05, 2011

Power at Brookens Center Restored

Just hours to go before polls close, the Brookens Center in Urbana lost power, but power has now been restored.

On his Twitter page, Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten said all election operations after 7 PM will occur at Brokens as planned. For a short time, Hulten had said the outage may affect the release of unofficial results, but that doesn't appear to be the case anymore.

Ameren has not yet released a cause for the outage.

Polls close at 7 PM.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 05, 2011

Caterpillar CEO: No Plans to Leave Illinois

The head of Caterpillar says the company intends to stay in Illinois while working with the governor to improve the state's business climate.

CEO Doug Oberhelman met with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn today to discuss a letter he recently sent Quinn. It warned that other states were trying to lure his company away because Illinois increased its income tax rate on corporations and individuals.

The Peoria-based company has more than 23,000 employees in Illinois.

Quinn says he understands Illinois must do more to improve its economy and image. He is seeking to overhaul the workers' compensation system and encourage the greater export of Illinois goods.

Oberhelman has agreed to serve on a council that will try to strengthen the export business.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 04, 2011

Blagojevich Seeks Obama Interview Notes From FBI

Rod Blagojevich asked a judge Monday to order prosecutors to hand over written summaries of any FBI interviews with President Barack Obama about the ousted Illinois governor's corruption case.

That raises the prospect that Blagojevich could try to make the president a prominent feature of his defense at his upcoming retrial.

Judges are traditionally averse to drawing sitting presidents into trials, however. And Judge James Zagel, who will preside over Blagojevich's retrial starting later this month, has repeatedly said Obama has no direct bearing on the allegations, which include that Blagojevich sought to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.

Obama has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case by anyone, including the defense. But Blagojevich's attorneys have argued before that Obama could help demonstrate that their client never did anything criminal but merely engaged in legal, political wheeling and dealing.

"I haven't seen any argument Obama has anything to bring to the table in this trial," said David Morrison, a deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform who has followed the case closely. "I think Blagojevich has been desperate to drag Obama into this for years now, and this motion is just the latest gambit."

Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 charges, including allegations that he tried to exchange an appointment to Obama's seat for a top job or campaign cash. Jurors at his first trial deadlocked on all but one count, convicting him on a lone count of lying to the FBI.

Monday's request came in a motion filed with the U.S. District Court in Chicago, saying written accounts of any Obama interviews could "go directly to the heart of testimony of several government witnesses," particularly union leader and Obama ally Tom Balanoff.

U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Randall Samborn declined any comment on the motion.

Zagel had rejected a similar motion before Blagojevich's first trial. Unlike the motion last year, Monday's filing does not ask for permission to call Obama as a witness - an idea Zagel also shot down.

The new motion zeros in on Balanoff, a key government witness. He testified at the first trial that Obama called him on the eve of the 2008 election, telling Balanoff he preferred that family friend Valerie Jarrett work in the White House but that she wanted to be senator.

"I thanked him and I said I was going to reach out to Gov. Blagojevich and speak on Valerie's behalf," Balanoff testified.

Defense attorneys claim Balanoff's testimony about the call appeared to contradict some other accounts and that notes of any FBI interviews with Obama could clarify the issue.

Balanoff's testimony is potentially damaging to Blagojevich. On the witness stand last year, Balanoff also told jurors he was startled when, in discussing Jarrett's interest in the seat with Blagojevich, the then-governor broached the possibility of becoming secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration.

He took Blagojevich's reference as an offer to trade one for the other.

"I understood him to be offering that, `Hey, if I got this appointment (as a Cabinet secretary), then I could see my way to appoint Valerie Jarrett,'" Balanoff said.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky, Balanoff conceded that Blagojevich never said explicitly he wanted to trade the appointment to the seat for a top job.

Zagel has repeatedly denied defense moves that could put a spotlight on Obama. In a sidebar last year, for example, Sorosky told Zagel he wanted to ask Balanoff if the FBI focused its questions on Obama rather than Blagojevich when agents interviewed Balanoff.

"I think we have a right to bring that out," Sorosky told the judge.

"No, you don't," Zagel shot back.

That sidebar conversation last year was out of earshot of the jury, spectators and journalists in court, but official trial transcripts released later included it.

Monday's motion leaves open the option of the defense again asking for permission to subpoena Obama. Some legal observers say judges are reluctant to put presidents on the stand, in part, because the spectacle could throw proceedings into disarray.

"It would be a circus," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago-based attorney who frequently represents clients in federal court. "The whole focus of the trial would switch."

(AP Photo/James A. Finley, File)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 04, 2011

Tip of Champaign Co. Courthouse Hanging From its Base

The decorative tip of the Champaign County Courthouse is hanging by a cable from the ornate tower.

Sometime either Sunday or Monday, a four-foot piece of the spire disconnected from its base atop the courthouse clock tower, which was completed just two years ago as part of a $1.2 million restoration project.

Sheriff Dan Walsh says one lane of Urbana's Main Street as well as the adjoining sidewalk and closed for safety reasons -- and as a preparation for repair work tomorrow (Tues).

"There's supposed to be a crane in here if things go well, and people will be looking at it including engineers, so we'll have a better idea about what's going to happen and how quick and all that," Walsh said. "But until they actually look at it, anything that could happen would be a guess."

Walsh says the copper piece of spire is attached by a 1-inch thick cable to the rest of the tower.

Categories: Community, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 01, 2011

Senator Kirk Says US Should Provide Weapons to Rebels in Libya

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says Libyan rebels should be given weapons to help them quickly overthrow Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

The Illinois Republican says furnishing weapons will help end the Libyan war and limit costs for the United States and its allies.

Kirk told reporters Friday that conflicts should be rough and violent if that's what it takes to achieve a quick victory.

"When you're in a conflict, make it rough make it violent, so that it is over quickly," said the Senator. "If we win this war as fast as possible it will cost less. It will create less turmoil in the Arab world and it will calm international economies."

NATO and some nations say an arms embargo rules out providing weapons to the Libyan rebels. But President Barack Obama's administration suggests arming them might be an option.

Kirk also says the United States should recognize the rebels as the legitimate representatives of Libya's people, as France has done.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 01, 2011

Monthly Indicator of State’s Economy Shows Gradual Improvement

A quick look at the state's overall economy shows improvement from the recession, but at a painstakingly slow pace.

The author of the monthly University of Illinois Flash Index says March marked the 11th consecutive month of improvement at 96.3, up two-tenths of a point from a month earlier. Anything below 100 still indicates a decline.

U of I economist Fred Giertz cites a January unemployment rate, both statewide and nationally - of 8.9 percent, as well as job growth in the private sector. But Giertz says Illinois is still a long way from where it wants to be, noting the difference between the current recession and those of recent years.

"It was also accompanied by a financial panic," he said. "A lot of people have noted those kind of situations, which occur very rarely, are also much more difficult to recover from. So we're not going to bounce back the way we did in 2001 or 1990."

The flash index is made up of individual and corporate tax receipts through the end of the month. Giertz says the tax hike passed by the legislature in January presented a challenge for him. He says those numbers had to be adjusted to reflect the overall economy, and not solely the higher rates. "So the fact is once you do that, the growth is a whole lot slower than you might think by just looking at the numbers themselves." said Giertz.

Because corporations file tax returns at different times, Giertz says it will take some time before the impact of the tax increase is fully realized.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 01, 2011

Quinn to Propose Changes to Workers’ Comp in Illinois

Gov. Pat Quinn is getting ready to propose changes to the workers' compensation system in Illinois.

The Chicago Democrat on Friday said both the law and the Workers' Compensation Commission must be revamped. He says changes to the law would make the system more affordable for businesses while remaining fair to workers.

Quinn's comments come amid a federal investigation into possible workers' compensation abuses at state agencies and in the actions of arbitrators. The Associated Press has obtained five subpoenas looking for claims data.

Quinn says he's talking to lawmakers and wants Republicans and Democrats to work together on an overhaul.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 31, 2011

Little Support for Gov. Pat Quinn’s School Consolidation Plan

Since shocking educators and parents last month by calling for a complete overhaul of Illinois school districts' sizes and boundaries, Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to provide detailed proposal, draft legislation or build support in the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, a State Board of Education report on school consolidation raises questions about Quinn's approach, and key lawmakers reject the idea that the Chicago Democrat even has a plan they should consider.

"The word 'plan' is really being kind," said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville. "It's a concept, I think, at this point."

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Wednesday he doesn't plan legislative action on the consolidation proposal, but declined to say why.

Quinn has assigned the issue to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, whose office says the proposal is simply a starting point for discussions.

Quinn's plan includes cutting Illinois' 868 school districts to about 300, redrawing boundaries so that each district -- aside from Chicago -- contains about 30,000 people and cutting administrative jobs. Quinn estimates that would save at least $100 million. But that figure has been disputed by critics who say it's based on the state's 300 highest-paid superintendents even though many merged districts would be downstate, where salaries are typically lower and current law allows teacher salaries to rise when districts merge.

A Board of Education report compiled last fall cautions that cutting jobs could be difficult if new merged districts are too large. It also noted that a state panel in 2002 said high schools should have enrollments of at least 250 and elementary districts at least 625 students. Using that guideline would mean eliminating 359 districts, not the 568 that Quinn has suggested.

The report found no clear correlation between district size and student performance. Small districts did better than large ones by some measures and did worse by others.

Education officials and legislators said the state should encourage districts to merge rather than requiring it.

Illinois has provided $155.6 million in merger incentives since 1986, eliminating 139 districts, the Board of Education said. That means the state paid, on average, $1.1 million for each district it cut.

Quinn's critics say the relatively small number of districts accepting the state incentives means there must be strong local reasons not to merge.

"If it was smart for them to do this, people would already be doing this," said Brent Clark, executive director of Illinois Association of School Administrators.

Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman, said incentives have not spurred enough consolidation. She said Quinn's proposal is the best way to realize significant savings.

Critics contend that meeting Quinn's goal of 30,000 people would produce some huge downstate districts sprawling across six counties. And despite Quinn's claim that he wants to merge districts but not schools, many people said the real benefit would come from closing school buildings.

Richard Towers, superintendent in Christopher, said his district wants to merge with nearby the Zeigler-Royalton district, saving about $220,000 in administrative costs. But the way to help students, he said, would be building a single new high school.

"Keeping the status quo with two small high schools, I just don't know if the curriculum could be expanded to the extent that it would need to be," Towers said.

Critics note Quinn proposed a $95 million cut to school transportation, one year after slashing $140 million from the same program. Experts said schools that cut administrative costs would simply end up spending the money on buses.

Legislators and education advocates see little chance of Quinn's proposal being approved. They say Quinn sprang it on them without any preparation and has done little since then to build support or even share basic information.

"I have two lines in his budget address," Ben Schwarm, associate executive director for Illinois Association of School Boards, said of his knowledge about Quinn's plan.

Quinn said his proposal would focus resources on education instead of administration but remained careful to note that he is not advocating for schools to close.

"We don't need as many folks at the top level," Quinn told reporters earlier this month. "We need folks on the front line in the teaching, imparting knowledge."

Kathryn Phillips, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor, said Quinn's proposal is a "starting point and is one of many different ideas that we've hear. It's too early to tell which proposals are best or to assign any values to the proposals."

She said Simon, who declined to speak with The Associated Press, is discussing consolidation with legislators, school administrators, teachers and more.

Illinois has the third-most school districts in the nation, behind Texas and California, which have much larger populations. Nearly 250 superintendents are paid more than Quinn, who earns $177,400 annually. Phillips said about one-quarter of districts consist of one school that could be merged with larger districts.

Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House education committee, said local concerns about school pride and community would be difficult to overcome in a state-mandated consolidation plan.

"We have to cross a huge hurdle called local control," said Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora. "In the sand is drawn, 'This is our local control. Don't come out and bother us.' So I think we need to get a new idea.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 31, 2011

Comptroller-Treasurer Merger Advances in Ill. Senate

Illinois' treasurer invests the state's money. The Comptroller pays the bills. A measure approved by the Senate today would merge the two constitutional offices.

Supporters say it makes "sense" - literally and metaphorically. According to projections, the consolidation would result in a savings of $12 million.

Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, supports it, as does Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

"If government can be more efficient by having less officers and less departments and so forth than government should do that," Rutherford said.

He says the current setup stems from a half century old scandal. Former state auditor Orville Hodge embezzled $1.5 million from taxpayers.

"There was some cooking of the books and some money lost," Rutherford said. "The 1970 constitution envisioned the fact of having two officers so you have the check for one person investing the money and the balance for the other person writing the checks."

But Rutherford says that concern for checks and balances is outdated because now the offices' books are audited, and there's electronic accounting.

"Back in the days of Orville Hodge you were still using typewriters, pieces of paper and pencils," Rutherford said.

Rutherford and Topinka wouldn't be out of a job anytime soon - if it happens, the positions would stay separate until 2014.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 31, 2011

Illinois House Formally Enters Redistricting Game

The Illinois House has formed its own redistricting committee, a few days after its state Senate counterpart got started with public hearings. The committees are tasked with taking public input, and then drafting new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts based on the recently released Census data.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, will chair the panel. The other Democratic members include Reps. Frank Mautino of Spring Valley, Lou Lang of Skokie, Karen Yarbrough of Maywood, Marlow Colvin of Chicago and Edward Acevedo of Chicago. Mautino is the only Democrat on the committee who lives outside the Chicago area. The Republican members have not yet been announced.

Currie, who chaired a similar panel during the redistricting process ten years ago, said that 15 committee hearings are scheduled, with more likely to be added. The first three will take place on April 16th in Champaign, Cicero and McHenry.

At the meeting this week of the Senate's redistricting committee, several speakers argued there should be time allotted for public comment before the General Assembly signs off on a map proposal. They want a week delay between whenever the draft map is made public, and when lawmakers vote.

"That would be dandy if we have time to do that," Currie said. "A lot of people kind of work up to deadlines."

The deadline in this case is May 31, the last day Democrats will be able to pass new legislative and congressional maps without Republican votes. The vote threshold moves from a majority to a super-majority when June begins.

The House committee, like the Senate one, has set up a website for Illinoisans to check out the census data.

Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago chairs the Senate redistricting committee. That panel next meets on April 6 in Springfield.

Categories: Government, Politics

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