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.
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.
A fire in the 600 block of East Green Street in Champaign has heavily damaged at least one building and affected a half-block of buildings in the heart of the Campustown area.
The fire led to a partial collapse of the roof above Zorba's restaurant. Structures affected most by the fire include an office for the U of I's department Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Pitaya clothing store, Mia Za's Cafe, and Zorba's restaurant.The fire brought out more than a dozen emergency vehicles from both Champaign and Urbana, as thick smoke could be seen around the twin cities. Smoke damage also affected the adjacent Freestar Bank branch and nearby apartments.
Matt Mortenson has worked at Zorba's for nearly 30 years and owns the business. Mortenson spotted smoke coming out of the apartment above Pitaya at around 7:35 this morning. He said he noticed flames shooting 20 to 30 feet in the air, but he doesn't know badly his business was damaged.
"You don't know whether to laugh or cry about it," Mortenson said. "If it wasn't burned, there's a lot of water damage I'm sure."
Urbana Fire Chief Mike Dilley said a fire in a concealed space at the top of the building burned "fairly undetectably" for some time. He said that in the space housing Zorba's, the roof and sections of the floor had collapsed into the first floor, but that the first floor was still intact.
Dan Davis is a web developer for Illinois Public Media, and he lives right next to the building that burned Wednesday morning. Davis said he was asleep as the fire broke out next door.
"I heard a few minutes before a commotion outside, which I ignored like I often do," Davis said. "The next thing I know, there was a firefighter kicking my bed, telling me that it's not a drill and I got to get out immediately"
Davis said he was able to grab some computer equipment before he got out of the building, which he says had already partially filled with smoke. He noted that he was the only occupant inside his building - everyone else was either on spring break or at work.
Champaign Fire Department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher said both departments did a terrific job containing the blaze to one building.
"When we got on the scene, there was smoke crossing Green Street," she said. "That doesn't happen very often."
Schuamacher said the city will follow the recommendation of a structural engineer, who said that part of the building was too unsafe after sustaining heavy fire, water, and smoke damage. The area of the building to be removed consists of a dining area for Mia Za's Cafe, and a small unoccupied apartment. Schmachuer said removing that floor could happen Thursday.
The 600 block of East Green Street remains closed to traffic overnight.
A proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in Indiana is on its way to the state Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the amendment on a 7-3 party line vote Wednesday, with Republican senators rejecting arguments that language prohibiting civil unions could threaten the ability of employers to offer domestic partner benefits.
Amendment sponsor Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn says the measure isn't meant to affect any benefits offered by companies and he doesn't believe that it would.
Current state law bans gay marriage.
The Republican-led House approved the amendment last month before the Democratic boycott began. If the measure passes the Legislature this year, it must pass again in 2013 or 2014 to go before voters on the 2014 ballot.
The congressman representing east-central Illinois is vehemently against any US involvement in the deepening conflict in Libya.
Even before the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over the country, 15th district Republican Tim Johnson had voiced opposition to sending American troops there. Now, he says Congress should try to defund the effort after voting to ease the nation's budget deficit.
"Now we face the very clear reality of eliminating all those cuts with the additional amount of money we're going to expend on an incursion into a part of the world that doesn't threaten America -- that is number one -- number two is clearly an unconstitutional action, and number three is very unwise public policy,"Johnson said.
Johnson said Congress has been in recess, so it hasn't come up with any response to President Obama's decision to send warplanes over Libya. In fact, Johnson accuses Obama of deliberately waiting until the recess to take action.
The congressman said American troops should not be anywhere that does not affect US interests, including Iraq or Afghanistan.
The leader of Indiana's House Democrats says their boycott will continue Wednesday.
House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer issued a statement Tuesday from the Democrats' hotel in Illinois saying his caucus remains resolved to fight the Republican agenda they consider an attack on the middle class.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma had said Tuesday that he was optimistic that Democrats might return soon. Bauer said Democrats wouldn't return Wednesday and would review the situation day by day after that.
Bosma told reporters he was hopeful Democrats would return so the House would have the quorum needed to conduct business. But Bosma also said he predicted Purdue's basketball team would go to the Final Four, and they have already been eliminated from the NCAA tournament. He described himself as an "eternal optimist.
The next phase of construction on a high-speed rail route between Chicago and St. Louis will begin next month, a high-stakes transportation project similar to those that other states have rebuffed, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced Tuesday.
"Illinois has always been a strong railroad state and we always will be," Quinn said at an Amtrak rail yard near downtown Chicago.
Quinn and Durbin took swipes at other states for turning back money for high-speed rail, including Florida, which rejected $2.4 billion that had been earmarked for rail projects in that state because new Republican Gov. Rick Scott was worried taxpayers could get socked with the bill for any overruns and operating subsidies. Illinois has said it will try to get a part any money that other states return.
"The governors of these other states that have given up their money can stand by and wave at our trains when they go by. We're going to move people, we're going to freight, we're going to set a standard for America. It starts right here in Chicago," Durbin said.
But not everybody in Illinois is gung-ho about fast trains. Freshman Congressman Joe Walsh said the government can't afford to spend the money and he doubted their cost effectiveness because Americans love their cars. He said governors like Scott in Florida had the right idea by giving up federal money for rail projects.
"I respect the governors who have done that, that clearly is not what Pat Quinn is about," Walsh, whose district is in northern Illinois.
Illinois' other senator, Republican U.S. Mark Kirk, supports high speed rail including federal funding and believes it should be a private-public partnership so that trains move with the speed and reliability to serve consumers who would otherwise would fly, Kirk spokesman Lance Trover said.
When high-speed trains are eventually traveling up to 110 mph, the trip between St. Louis and Chicago could be cut by 90minutes to less than four hours.
Illinois has been awarded $1.2 billion in federal money to expand passenger rail and the state has promised to kick in another $42 million. Last year, Quinn and Durbin debuted the first $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton, just northeast of St. Louis, to Lincoln for the high-speed route.
The latest $685 million section of the construction project is scheduled to start April 5 and includes building new rail track using concrete ties between Dwight and Lincoln and between Alton and the Mississippi River. A modernized signal system will also be installed between Dwight and Alton, Quinn's office said. Officials estimate the work would create more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, such as construction and manufacturing work. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said job numbers are typically devised using formulas based on the amount of money being spent on a project.
Trains traveling at 110 mph on the 284-mile Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor could debut between Dwight and Pontiac as early as next year, Quinn's office said. Upgrades to the Dwight-Alton portion of the corridor are expected to be finished by 2014.
The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on raising tuition by 6.9 percent during its meeting Wednesday in Springfield.
Board members approved a measure in January to tie tuition increases with the rate of inflation. If trustees approve the tuition hike, students who come to the University next fall would pay 2.7 percent more a year, a figure U of I spokesman Tom Hardy says is near the rate of inflation. Those figures don't include fees, room and board.
"I would call it a conservative proposal," Hardy said. "That reflects concerns about affordability, reflects the need to be able to protect the university's purchasing power by adjusting for inflation."
Under the proposal, new students at the university's Urbana-Champaign campus would pay $11,104 a year in tuition. Students at the Chicago campus would pay $9,764, while students in Springfield would pay $8,670.
Hardy said the increased tuition is smaller than what has been introduced in the last decade. He said with the U of I waiting on about $440 million in state payments, the University hopes to generate about $35 million in additional revenue. About 17 percent of that revenue would be used for need-based grants.
Illinois' two U.S. Senators want to know more about the safety of the state's nuclear reactors.
Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk plan a hearing to get more details on the nuclear industry in Illinois. The move comes in the wake of radiation fears in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.
Durbin said with Illinois' eleven nuclear reactors, questions should be asked.
"When you consider that half the power in Illinois comes from nuclear power, we are concerned about this and should be," he said. "I have no reason to believe they are dangerous at all but I do believe this is a wake up call."
Durbin said the state's residents deserve to hear what is being done to prepare for a possible disaster. He added that he remains a supporter of nuclear energy although safety at the sites and the disposal of nuclear waste are issues that demand scrutiny.
Illinois has 11 nuclear reactors, and six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton.
VIDEO EXTRA: James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, says about a third of the country's nuclear reactors are similar to the ones affected by the devastation in Japan. He asses the stability of U.S. reactors against natural disasters. To hear more from an interview he did with WILL's David Inge, click here: http://tinyurl.com/5tcpl2e
Ramped-up regulations proposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission are supposed to help prevent another financial meltdown, but government agencies in Illinois are fighting one proposal they allege would do more harm than good.
The measure would require volunteers on state and local boards that make financial decisions to register as "municipal advisors." The idea is to increase SEC oversight on people with a say over taxpayer dollars. The SEC says appointed board members should register because they are not directly beholden to voters.
Protesting cities from Illinois include Champaign and Peoria, as well as state universities like Western, Northern, Illinois State and the University of Illinois. The Illinois Finance Authority is also against the change. That agency's Bill Brandt said unpaid board members already get oversight - from Illinois' governor, Attorney General, and annual audits.
"Now you have the federal government trying to someone how intervene in that, which is a real constitutional question," Brandt said. "I'm all for federal regulation of the markets. But I'm not sure neither the governor nor the legislature of Illinois are really anxious to have all of their decisions reviewed by a federal agency that otherwise has no bearing on what Illinois does to bring jobs into the state."
Brandt also said the SEC's proposal would drive away qualified people with investment expertise, who are volunteering out of a commitment to public service. He said many won't participate if they have to pay to register, take ongoing classes, disclose their personal finances and be exposed to increased liability.