Illinois Public Media News
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.
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.
Reducing the size of the Chicago City Council has come up in conversations with voters and aldermen, but a spokesman for Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel said he hasn't proposed it.
Emanuel transition spokesman Ben LaBolt responded Friday to a Chicago Sun-Times story that said Emanuel had broached the subject of cutting the 50-member City Council in half to save money.
The former White House chief of staff is working feverishly to put together an administration so he's ready to take office next month. Emanuel is replacing retiring Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
Emanuel is under pressure to deal with the city's budget crisis.
The Sun-Times said it costs Chicago taxpayers spend $19.5 million a year for the 50 aldermen and another $4.7 million for their 19 standing committees.
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.
(Photo courtesy of Rob Lee/Flickr)
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.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
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.
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