Illinois Public Media News
Indiana Republicans have turned to the web to decry a month-long boycott by Democratic House members.
An Indiana Republican party spokesman says the new website highlights the fact that the more than 30 Democrats aren't just staying at an Urbana hotel. Pete Seat says the site is meant to emphasize how the legislators are spending their time.
"They have been sneaking across the border, coming back to Indiana on weekends or throughout the week," he said. "Some of them are campaigning for other elected offices - three of them are running for mayor in different cities around the state. Others are coming back for personal reasons. But none of them are going back to the statehouse to do the job they were elected to do."
Those mayoral candidates and Democratic House members are Ryan Dvorak of South Bend, Craig Fry of Mishawaka, and Dennis Tyler of Muncie.
The tracking website includes links to press reports about the Democrats, and Seat says Indiana residents have also reported to his party when seeing the absent lawmakers out in public. The boycotting Democrats contend they're away from the capitol to hold up legislation that would unfairly impact education and labor, including a controversial school voucher bill that would fund private education with public tax dollars.
Meanwhile, the National Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has started a new TV ad running in the Indianapolis area attacking Gov. Mitch Daniels and fellow Republicans.
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk has three words for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald: Stay in Chicago. Fitzgerald's name has surfaced among potential nominees to replace outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose nonrenewable term ends in September.
Kirk said Monday he doesn't wish Fitzgerald any ill will in his career but "gosh, we need him here.'' Kirk said he would miss Fitzgerald "greatly'' if he was promoted to the FBI. Under Fitzgerald, the office has prosecuted two former Illinois governors, including the upcoming retrial of ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges.
But Fitzgerald is a potential nominee who could have trouble with congressional confirmation. Some Republicans think he overreached in his prosecution of I. Lewis "Scooter'' Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, in the Valerie Plame affair.
The Vermilion County Board has scheduled an emergency meeting for Tuesday night, to make sure the renovation of a Danville middle school gets started without delay.
For the work on South View Middle School to proceed, a building permit must be authorized by the local regional school superintendent. But the post became vacant last week, with the sudden resignation of lame-duck Superintendent Mike Metzen --- three months before the end of his term.
Because of that, Cheryl Reifsteck --- who was elected last November to succeed Metzen --- has already moved from assistant superintendent in the Vermilion County office to acting superintendent. But without county board action, she said she does not have the authority to approve the South View renovation work.
"I sought some legal assistance through the Illinois State Board of Education, to advise me that because Mr. Metzen had vacated his office, he could no longer sign that building permit," Reifsteck said. "And because I was not official(ly) appointed, I would have to be appointed before I could sign that as well."
Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said the board will meet Tuesday night for the sole purpose of appointing Reifsteck as Vermilion County regional school superintendent. He said this will allow the Danville school district to get the construction work at South View started as soon as possible.
"The architect for District 118 will be in the audience," McMahon said. "So after she (Reifsteck) is sworn in, he'll ask her to sign the permit immediately. So I can tell you, that's how critical this is."
Vermilion County Republican leaders recommended Reifsteck to fill out the remainder of Metzen's term. She will be sworn in again for her full term in July.
Metzen resigned from the regional superintendent's post last week, to avoid having a scheduled salary reduction affect his pension.
The emergency meeting of the Vermilion County Board is scheduled for Tuesday, March 22nd at 6 PM, in the Courthouse Annex in downtown Danville.
Despite a tongue-lashing from a federal judge in Chicago on Monday, lawyers for Rod Blagojevich say they'll forge ahead with a request to cancel the ex-Illinois governor's retrial and sentence him immediately on the sole conviction against him.
The motion to sentence Blagojevich on his sole perjury conviction and toss out the other 20 counts against him was a long-shot. Federal Judge James Zagel refused to dignify it with a ruling Monday, saying Blagojevich's defense lawyers didn't file their paperwork properly.
When lead Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky pressed Zagel to "indulge" him and issue a ruling anyway, the judge suggested it was more a publicity stunt than a legal request, and adding that if he ignored it, the request would "vanish into thin air."
But Sorosky, undeterred, pressed further, at which point the Judge reorted by lecturing him on the role of the three branches of government, saying that it was the executive branch Department of Justice that enjoys the power to drop criminal charges - not a judicial branch federal judge.
"To borrow something from legislative procedure," Zagel said, "this particular motion is going to die for want of a second. So we're done with it."
But afterward, Sorosky still seemed optimistic.
"Oh, one never knows," Sorosky said when asked about Zagel's comments. "Look at the March Madness tournaments - the No. 1 team lost! Pittsburgh!"
The five-page filing says Blagojevich isn't conceding any guilt, including on the conviction of lying to the FBI. That's the only count jurors agreed on at his 2010 trial. Blagojevich's lawyers argue that a second trial would be an "imprudent" use of taxpayer dollars. The government's supposed to foot the legal bills for the broke ex-governor.
Blagojevich faces a maximum five-year prison term for the lying conviction. Several of the 20 charges he'd be retried on carry a 20-year sentence.
Blagojevich's retrial is due to start in a month.
(Photo by Sam Hudzik/IPR)
Tuesday will mark a month since Indiana House Democrats arrived in Urbana as part of a legislative boycott.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma claimed last week that negotiations with the more than 30 House members were over, but Democrats like Charlie Brown of Gary remain optimistic that things are improving daily between the two sides.
He and a number of colleagues were back in their home districts for a while on Friday, gauging the public's thoughts on the Democrats' walkout. Brown said the public has not been fully informed about the labor and education bills for which they're seeking amendments, particularly a controversial school voucher measure. He said allowing any student to attend private school with public tax dollars can hurt a public school's ability to maintain its core curriculum.
"If you're going to have a diminishing enrollment in those buildings, you still have all of those fixed costs to deal with," he said. "So they're going to be losing the per pupil amount that would be be distributed, and yet still having the same kind of fixed cost that they had in the past."
Democrat Dale Grubb of Covington also said more people in his district were supportive once explaining the bills that prompted the boycott.
"Many people had sent messages of distaste about what's transpiring," Grubb said. "But once they learned a particular issue or two, and the consquences of having passed those, changed their mind and understand that there were some amendments necessary and needed for some of these bills."
He contends the two sides are close to agreements, calling the next stage of negotiations with Republican leaders 'the last 50 yards of a 1-mile run.'
Grubb said there is too much invested to turn back at this point.
The month-long saga over Gov. Scott Walker's plan to drastically curb collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin took a turn Friday that could force a dramatic rebooting of the entire legislative process.
A judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect, raising the possibility that the Legislature may have to vote again to pass the bill that attracted protests as large as 85,000 people, motivated Senate Democrats to escape to Illinois for three weeks and made Wisconsin the focus of the national fight over union rights.
But Walker's spokesman and Republican legislative leaders indicated they would press on with the court battle rather than consider passing the bill again.
"We fully expect an appeals court will find that the Legislature followed the law perfectly and likely find that today's ruling was a significant overreach," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said in a joint statement. "We highly doubt a Dane County judge has the authority to tell the Legislature how to carry out its constitutional duty."
Dane County District Judge Maryann Sumi granted the temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by the local Democratic district attorney, alleging that Republican lawmakers violated the state's open meetings law by hastily convening a special committee before the Senate passed the bill.
Sumi said her ruling would not prevent the Legislature from reconvening the committee with proper notice and passing the bill again.
In addition to restricting the bargaining rights, the law would require most public workers in the state to contribute more to their pension and health care costs, changes that will amount on average to an 8 percent pay cut. Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie was confident the bill would become law in the near future.
"This legislation is still working through the legal process," Werwie said.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the decision will be appealed because the Legislature and the governor, not a judge, are responsible for enacting laws and can't be blocked in a dispute over the procedures under which a law is passed. His spokesman Bill Cosh said an appeal would be filed Monday.
Even if the Legislature is forced to come back and take up the bill again, at least one Senate Democrat will be there. Sen. Tim Cullen said he would not leave the state again.
"I think that does great damage to the institution," Cullen said. "I have no regrets about doing it once, but that was in extraordinary times to try to slow the bill down."
The Senate couldn't pass the bill in its original form without at least one Democrat to meet a 20-member quorum requirement for measures that spend money. With the Democrats in Illinois and refusing to return after three weeks away, Republicans convened a special committee last Wednesday to remove the spending items. The bill then passed with no Democrats present.
That move is being challenged in another lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who argues that the bill as passed still should have required the 20-member quorum. A hearing on that was set for April 12.
Opponents of the law were hopeful the judge's ruling temporarily blocking enactment of the law would lead to concessions.
"I would hope the Republicans would take this as an opportunity to sit down with Democrats and negotiate a proposal we could all get behind," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
The head of the state's largest teachers union said the Legislature should use this as a chance to listen to opponents of the measure, not vote to pass the same bill again.
"Wisconsin's educators call upon the Legislature to take this as a clear signal that Wisconsinites will not tolerate backroom deals and political power plays when it comes to our public schools and other valued services," said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Marty Beil, director of the state's largest public employee union, said in a statement, "We are gratified to see some of our so-called `leaders' finally held accountable for their illegal actions."
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed the lawsuit this week alleging the open meetings law was violated because 24 hours' notice wasn't given for a meeting of the special legislative committee convened to amend the bill.
Justice Department attorneys argued that notice on a bulletin board posted about two hours before the committee meeting was to start last Wednesday was sufficient under rules of the Senate.
The judge said DOJ couldn't show the committee was exempt from the 24-hour notice requirement. She said Ozanne could ultimately win the case and ordered Secretary of State Doug La Follette to hold off on publishing the law - the last step before it can take effect. La Follette had planned to publish the law on March 25.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha said the ruling was a move in the right direction.
"I'm very pleased," Barca said. "As you know, I felt from the moment they called this that this would be a violation of open meetings law. This is an important first step in this regard."
The bill was part of Walker's solution for plugging a $137 million state budget shortfall. A part of the measure would require state workers to increase their health insurance and pension contributions to save the state $30 million by July 1. Other parts of Walker's original proposal to address the budget shortfall were removed before the bill passed last week. The Legislature planned to take those up later.
Any day now, Champaign County officials will learn if a new chemical processing plant will set up shop in the community.
Few details are being released about the facility. John Dimit, the chief executive officer of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said officials from the company are reviewing seven sites in addition to Champaign County to host the plant.
"It's actually a type of facility that takes industrial waste - steel mill waste in particular - and recaptures the waste, concentrates it and re-sells it," Dimit explained.
Dimit said the chemical plant would employee around 200 people, and be located north of the community in an area ready for development. He said the company behind the project intends to invest $250 million to have it completed by 2013.
The Champaign County Board has ended its long-running debate on Olympian Drive.
On a 19-to-7 vote, board members settled on a plan to connect the dead-end road north of Champaign with Lincoln Avenue in Urbana, where it connects with Interstate-74. Two weeks after rejecting a 'green' option, the Board approved a 'purple' configuration of North Lincoln expected to have less of an impact on residents, cutting diagonally through property owned by Squire Farms.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing praised the board's diligence after backing the Olympian project herself for years.
"This has thoroughly discussed," she said. "There's people around the world that want democracy. I don't know if they realize how exhausting it is, but certainly it's a better system that people have ever come up with. And I think the county board really took this seriously. And they studied it, and I think they've come to a conclusion."
Thirteen Democrats and six Republicans supported the project. Five of the seven 'no' votes came from rural Republicans, as well as Champaign Democrats Pattsi Petrie and Alan Kurtz.
The plan was approved with an amendment offered by Urbana Democrat James Quisenberry, who wanted to ensure the design didn't move any further south and east, where it could impact other residents.
"The property owners that the road goes right next to are the ones that are going to be most affected," Quisenberry said. "And they didn't really want the road there in the first place, but now that it's going there, we have to make sure they're protected as much as we can."
Prussing said the city will still work with individual landowners to alleviate any concerns as the project moves forward. She said anyone losing land will be paid for it by Champaign County or the city of Urbana, but those that do not agree would require govermment use of eminent domain for property.
The Olympian Drive portion of the project is expected to be built in 2013, with the stretch of Lincoln Avenue to be finished in 2015. The entire project is estimated at nearly $20-million, paid for through Illinois Jobs Now funding, the state motor fuel tax, and federal funds.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says it's "sad but necessary'' for the Republican leader of the Indiana House to end negotiations with boycotting Democrats.
Daniels says the more than 30 Democrats staying in an Urbana hotel have forfeited their right to participate in the legislative session. They've been staying in Illinois since Feb. 22.
The Governor says Republican Speaker Brian Bosma has bent over "double backward'' to meet unreasonable demands from Democrats on education- and labor-related bills. But Daniels still hopes the lawmakers will return from Illinois.
"I still hope they'll do their duty and come back." he said. "They're welcome if they do, but we can't wait forever."
Bosma says the time for negotiating is over.
"Time has expired," he said. "We're now in our fourth very expensive week of an unprecendented walkout. Approaching an American record, not just an Indiana record."
Bosma and Indiana Senate Pro Tem David Long says the Senate would start hearing next week on the state budget plan that has stalled in the House during the four-week walkout. The Senate will also work on advancing other proposals without waiting for House Democrats to return. Long says the Senate has tried to stay out of the dispute, but that it's 'disingenious' for the boycotting Democrats to claim they're negotiating.
Democratic House member Win Moses of Fort Wayne said there have been good communications on those issues and that ending talks would be an arbitrary and harsh choice by Bosma. The legislative session is scheduled to end by late April, but Daniels said he was prepared to call a special session if necessary.
A health care advocates group says the findings of environmental experts from a Boneyard Creek pipeline confirm their fears about contaminants.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers brought in the researchers to investigate the old pipe that extends from the site of a former manufactured gas plant at Champaign's 5th and Hill Streets owned by Ameren. Grant Antoline, an activist with the group, said lab results confirmed there was coal tar in the pipe, and it contained organic compounds like benzene, and hydrocarbons that exceed safety standards.
"We've always been concerned that there's been some sort of dumping into the Boneyard Creek from 3 years ago when we started this campaign," Antoline said. "It's just common practice for these plants to be set up next to a waterway. But to see results of one million, 300-thousand percent higher than they should be is outrageous, and there's no excuse for not investing in the pipe when it's this serious."
Residents in the 5th and Hill neighborhood have long complained over odors in their basements, and nagging health problems. The consumer group's 60-day notice of intent to sue the city of Champaign over cleaning up the pipe will expire April 11th. Its executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, says they simply want the line capped off.
"Their part of the action should be fairly simple and straightforward in terms of the notice of intent to sue," Lennhoff said. "All that we require of them under the Clean Water Act and that notice of intent to sue is to block off the discharge into the Boneyard."
Lennhoff said the city should make Ameren pay for sealing up the pipeline. EPA Spokeswoman Maggie Carson said it is testing results from the Boneyard site have yet to be released, and Champaign city attorney Fred Stavins says the city is waiting on those results, and to find who's responsible for cleaning up the pipe.
In February, the Champaign city council recommended repealing its groundwater ordinance on a case-by-case basis. Stavins said the issue will re-surface by mid-April at the earliest.
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