Illinois Public Media News
Months after a federal government U-turn in the long-running FutureGen clean-coal project, six Illinois locations have expressed interest in hosting a carbon dioxide storage site that could mean more than 1,000 short-term jobs and a few dozen permanent ones.
The bidders behind one of those locations, though, said Tuesday that their interest is laced with a heavy dose of skepticism after watching what appeared to be politics almost derail the project and then make radical changes in it.
The six locations that submitted bids before Monday's deadline are the city of Quincy; Christian County; the city of Tuscola along with Douglas County; Morgan County; Pike County; and the city of Vandalia along with Fayette County, FutureGen Alliance spokesman Lawrence Pacheco told the Associated Press on Tuesday. The alliance is made up of coal companies and other firms working with the federal government on the project.
"Our team of scientific and engineering experts has already begun review of those proposals, and we look forward to making an announcement on the final site in early 2011,'' FutureGen CEO Ken Humphreys said.
Until earlier this year the plan called for building a new power plant in Mattoon, Ill. and storing the carbon dioxide it produced just outside town. But the Department of Energy decided instead to use $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funding to refit an existing coal-burning Ameren plant in Meredosia, Ill., with different technology and pipe the carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, to another location for underground storage. That site would also become home to an education center to train people to build carbon dioxide pipelines.
The department said that, with delays in the FutureGen project, other projects had already bypassed the technology it had hoped to use in Mattoon.
The project had already been shelved once by the administration of President George W. Bush, only to be revived under President Barack Obama.
Many people in Mattoon tired of what they saw as politics holding up and changing the project, and the town withdrew.
Tuscola was among the four finalists, along with Mattoon, for the original project, and already had in hand much of the environmental and geological testing needed to bid to store the project's carbon dioxide, said Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc. The area is interested, he said, but needs to know more from the Department of Energy about its plans.
"There's definitely a level of cynicism that we all have,'' he said. "It's obvious with the project, once it's gotten out of the site selection process and has been in the political realm, that's where it's had some problems."
"While we're generally supportive of the concept, we still need to know a lot more,'' Moody said. "In order to do that, we need to keep our name in the game."
Looking at the potential jobs, officials in Vandalia aren't nearly as skeptical, Mayor Rick Gottman said.
Unemployment in the area was 10.2 percent in September, the most recent month for which the Illinois Department of Employment Security has data.
Over the past few years, one major employer, Orgill Inc., moved a distribution center and about 140 jobs out of state, Gottman said. Another, Graham Packaging, has reduced its work force from about 800 to roughly 200.
"We're in a high unemployment area right now,'' he said. "We're looking at ways to create jobs.
The Interim Dean of the University of Illinois' College of Media said the next several months will tell a lot about the department's structure.
The latest in a series of Urbana campus reviews looked at Media and three other colleges with fewer than 40 faculty members for cost savings. While the 'Stewarding Excellence' report endorsed no specific restructuring plan, the project team said the College of Media must evaluate its internal structure for long-term viability. College Interim Dean Jean Slater said some shared services were underway when the study started, in areas like information technology and human resources, but she said it is too early to see what the cost savings might be.
"At some point we have to assume the cost somehow, but if two colleges are sharing one HR person, or the HR function, then the efficiencies go up and the cost would be reduced individually," Slater said. "But I think it's hard to put a number to that right now."
Interim Dean Jan Slater said the challenge now is finding how large a structure it can support, since the college is solely dependent on tuition, but she said nothing is off limits.
"We do have somebody from outside looking at our information technology structure within the college, how we work things with WILL," Slater said. "Should we be doing more of that? And so we're looking at those kinds of things. We're going to be doing a space study after the first of the year after the construction with Greg Hall is done."
The project team reviewing the college says its biggest challenges include the Department of Advertising's request to transfer out of the college, and adapting the Journalism Department to the changing nature of the profession.
Slater was named Interim Dean of the College of Media in July. When her term is up in July 2012, she said questions about the College's size and mission need to be answered. WILL and Illinois Public Media are part of the College of Media. The same campus project team also reviewed the Schools of Social Work, Labor and Employee Relations, and the Graduate School of Library Information and Sciences.
The race for state treasurer ended with State Senator Dan Rutherford (R-Pontiac) clinching a win over his Democratic opponent Robin Kelly. However, now the race for Rutherford's senate seat is heating up.
The front-running candidates are State Representative Keith Sommer (R-Morton) and Champaign County GOP Chair Jason Barickman.
They have given stump speeches to McLean County Republicans in which they have painted themselves as conservative voices.
Barickman took aim at the current proposal in Springfield to increase gaming as a way to ease the state budget crisis.
"Isn't the thing that frustrates us the most that this state government continues to find ways or to dream of ways to get its hands on more dollars?" Barickman asked. "If they can find a way, they'll take it."
Barickman said he also opposes gambling expansion on moral grounds.
Meanwhile, Sommer described himself as a social as well as fiscal conservative, which he said reflects his eight years in the General Assembly.
"I am pro-life," he said. "My voting record says so. I am a strong supporter of the second amendment. My voting record says so. And additionally, I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman and my voting record says so."
Both candidates have substantial support among the nine GOP County Chairs who will take a weighted vote Saturday. The deciding voice will likely be McLean County's John Parrott who said only that he is leaning strongly toward one candidate.
At least three other candidates have also asked for consideration. Champaign County Precinct Committeeman John Bambenek said he does not have enough support to succeed Rutherford. However, he made a presentation to McLean County Republicans anyway. Bambenek said he is a stickler for constitutions, which he explained are intended to limit governmental power.
"We have a balanced budget clause in our state constitution," said Bambanek. "You cannot spend more than you have revenues - very simple. The last two years, we didn't even pretend to cook the books, We just said 'eh - we're ignoring that."
Former Saunemin Mayor Mike Stoecklin and former Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy have expressed interest in the seat.
Nonprofit groups in Central Illinois can start applying for low-interest loans of up to $15,000.
The loans are being distributed by the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, which received a $100,000 grant from the Marajen Stevick Foundation to run the program.
Joan Dixon, executive director of the Community Foundation, said the state's economic woes have had a ripple effect on many businesses, resulting in staff cuts and program reductions. Dixon said after reviewing more than 120 nonprofit groups, she found that the most pressing concern among struggling organizations was the state's five to six billion dollar backlog of unpaid bills. She said the loan is not meant to be a temporary solution.
"This would be a way - we hope - for a not-for-profit to bridge the gap between their situations right now, and when they get their state promised checks," she said. "If the situation is very dire, and $15,000 is just going to buy you another month, that might not be the right approach to take, but we would help them try to figure those kinds of things out."
Groups that apply for the loan would be charged a $25 dollar registration fee and required to show detailed financial records. The loans, which would carry a one to two percent interest rate, would have to be repaid within 12 months.
Dixon said she hopes the program can continue revolving in this way, so that many nonprofit groups can benefit from the loan.
The two party leaders are in place as the Champaign County Board organizes for another year.
Democrats on the board chose to re-elect current board chair Pius Weibel at a caucus last night, with Tom Betz as Vice-Chair. Weibel had faced competition from fellow board member Al Kurtz. Meanwhile, Republicans voted for Alan Nudo to succeed Greg Knott as its party's caucus chairman. Knott has decided to run for the Parkland College Board of Trustees. John Schroeder will serve as the Republicans' vice chair.
Democrats will retain a 15-12 advantage in the county board when it reconvenes next month. At that meeting the entire new board will choose its chair and vice-chair.
The race to replace Chicago's longtime mayor took better shape Sunday as two more candidates joined a crowded field that also includes former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and state Sen. James Meeks, the pastor of a Chicago megachurch, both formally announced their campaigns during a busy weekend in the race to take over for Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley, who has led the country's third largest city for more than two decades, surprised many by announcing in September that he would not seek a seventh term.
The two Democrats and Emanuel, who made his official campaign announcement Saturday, pushed the field of declared candidates to five, and another well-known politician is expected to announce soon.
"We need a leader who will bring people out of this division and this turmoil to a place called unity and peace," Meeks told a roaring crowd of more than 400 supporters at a rally Sunday night at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Meeks, who got the backing of the former head of the Illinois Republican Party at the rally, focused heavily on his plans to improve the quality of Chicago public schools. It's a cause he has championed as a state legislator in his call for better school funding, which now relies on property taxes and can mean disparities between rich and poor areas in the state.
Earlier in the day, Davis also pledged to be a unifying force in the city who would represent the interests of all the city's residents.
"I will be the mayor for every racial and ethnic group, reaching out to all will be the benchmark of a Danny Davis administration," Davis told more than 100 supporters at a downtown Chicago hotel.
Davis, who has been in Congress since 1997, was tapped earlier this month by a coalition of black leaders as their preferred candidate over other finalists, including Meeks and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
Braun, the country's first black woman senator, has already opened a campaign office and plans an official announcement soon.
The coalition, which included elected officials, business owners and activists, had hoped to avoid splitting the black vote by uniting behind one candidate. Members said they chose Davis, who previously served on the Cook County Board and the Chicago City Council, because of his broad government experience.
Davis didn't offer specific policies at his Sunday announcement and admitted he didn't have the answers to all the city's problems, including its financial woes.
"All of us know that there are no simple solutions to very complex problems, and I don't pretend at the moment to have an answer to all our financial problems and the financial difficulties which face our city ... no one does," he said.
But Davis said he has never run from a problem and promised to work to create jobs and economic opportunities. He also said he would do everything in his power to save children from drug use, abuse, incarceration and poverty.
Davis was re-elected Nov. 2 with about 80 percent of the vote to another term representing a congressional district that spans economically and racially diverse areas from Chicago to the western suburbs.
The mayoral race also includes City Clerk Miguel del Valle and former Chicago school board president Gery Chico, who have already declared.
A new study on state university teaching programs is being called 'questionable' by the head of the teacher certification unit at the University of Illinois.
The Washington-D.C. based National Council on Teacher Quality gave the U of I high marks this week for its undergraduate elementary and graduate secondary programs. However, it reported that Illinois State University has failed designs in elementary and special education, while Eastern Illinois University earned a 'fair' rating.
The council reviewed on-line course guides and syllabi at 53 schools, a total of 111 undergraduate and graduate programs. The executive director of the U of I's Council on Teacher Education, Chris Roegge, said without site visits and a real dialogue, the report commissioned by Advance Illinois is somewhat superficial.
Roegge added that even the U of I received a low rating in one area, before he rectified the situation. One component was not covered in the coursework the NCTQ researched on line, so Roegge sent the council syllabi for three additional required courses that covered those areas.
"I received a reply that said 'well, those courses aren't part of our analysis - which makes no sense," Roegge said. "We got that rectified. I said 'regardless if it's part of your anaylsis or not, these are courses that are required in the program. You're looking for this particular element in the program. Here's where it is. So there were a lot of things of that type that we came across."
Roegge said what is lost is that recent graduates are just getting started in the field.
"All of the great lengths that we go to to prepare them, and all of the assessments that we give them, and all of the hoops that they jump through," Roegge said. "When they receive their bachelor's degree, and in some cases, a master's degree, and they're initially certified by the state, they are still novice teachers. And the development of their skills and abilities as a teacher is just beginning."
Organizations that include all 53 teaching programs issued a response to the report, calling it 'faulty' and 'narrow in focus.' Groups like the Illinois Association of Teacher Educators also point out that the Council on Teacher Quality hasn't been accredited by the federal government, or any state board of education.
The annual ceremony in Urbana recognizing the efforts of those who enlist in the U.S. armed forces was also a call to help local veterans in need.
About 40 people attended Veterans Day ceremonies at the Champaign County Courthouse Memorial on Thursday. Mark Friedman, the Superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Champaign County, spoke at the event.
Friedman's organization exists in about half of Illinois' counties. Groups like the VFW and American Legion has requested their county governments to form such a group, in which tax dollars help indigent veterans with areas like utility bills and assistance paying their rent or mortgage. Friedman said his organization has only been in the talking phase for the last 10 years, but its mission is starting to take shape.
"The VAC will be liasoning with groups like the (Champaign County) Regional Planning Commission for low-income energy assistance and programs like that," Friedman said. "We're basically going to be a clearinghouse to help route people who don't know where else to go. We're still looking at what we're going to describe as to what our complete mission is going to be."
Illinois' Military Assistance Act, passed in 1992, allows veterans organizations to form such groups. In other counties, the assistance groups also provide transportation for some veterans.
Meanwhile, veterans' groups say there is a new appreciation for what men and women in uniform do when serving in the armed services. Lieutenant Clifford White of Lincoln's Challenge Academy said only veterans know what it is like to stand guard all night while others sleep, and believes he is instilling those same values into the young cadets in Rantoul.
"It's not just a one-day event, it's an every day event," White said. "Our country is having turmoil everywhere, and they need to understand that if it wasn't for the men and women, both young and old, if it wasn't for that we wouldn't have the freedom to be able to do what we need to do and what we can do in our country."
White said since the Gulf War, Americans have learned to appreciate the role of the military.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
A Champaign County Judge has been asked to provide local taxing bodies with some clarity over whether they are free to use property tax funds paid out by Provena Covenant Medical Center.
Champaign County Treasurer Dan Welch wants to know what years between 2002 and 2009 will not remain part of a legal battle over the hospital's tax-exempt status.
"Tell us which ones are in jeopardy, and which ones are not," Welch said. "Just let Provena make their case to the judge about what legal authority they believe they have to tie up any of that money. If they can't, then I assume Urbana will be able to release whatever they want, but leave it up to the judge, let them make their legal argument."
Welch said Provena is appealing its 2006 property taxes. More than $8 million of the remaining funds, or 99 percent, is earmarked for a Tax Increment Financing District in Urbana. Welch said the city is not required to give it to anyone else, but Urbana opted to release some to other local governments. Champaign County's share of tax dollars for that stretch is about $600,000.
"Urbana wants to give this money to the taxing districts, and all taxing districts are in need of some money," Welch said. "So it makes some sense if we can clarify it once and for all. Yet some money is not in jeopardy of not having to be refunded again, and some money may be. Whatever the answer is, we just want to know what that answer is."
Welch said it could be several years before the county finds out what a judge's ruling will be for 2006. While his office still is not holding any of this money, it is still up to the Treasurer to keep track of tax dollars that have been paid or refunded. Welch said it has been difficult keeping track of the tax liability for each of the taxing districts.
Illinois Congressman John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) has joined the list of Republicans seeking to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee next year.
News reports have listed Michigan Republican Fred Upton as a front-runner for the position. He has more seniority than Shimkus, but some conservative groups say he's too moderate. Shimkus stated that he will leave that question to the House Republican Steering Committee, when decisions on leadership posts are made next month.
"The steering committee has to decide, kind of what position do you want to lead from?" Shimkus said. "I'm viewed as more conservative; Fred's viewed as a little more moderate. They may want that. I don't know. I just want to have the opportunity to make my pitch."
Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) and former Energy Committee Chairman Joe Barton of (R-Texas) are also seeking the chairmanship. Shimkus said he would step aside if Barton receives a waiver that would allow him to be chairman again.
Shimkus said a top priority as Energy and Commerce chairman would be to have a vote on repealing the federal health reform law. A repeal is unlikely to make it through the Senate, but Shimkus said the sooner the House takes action, the faster it can focus on oversight and making revisions to the law. He said there may even be changes where both Republicans and the Obama administration can reach agreement.
"Hopefully there will be some that the administration helps identify as problems that we fix, that will not be controversial," Shimkus said. "Obviously there'll be things that they'll want to keep, and we're just going to have to have those fights."
Shimkus said one such change could be the repeal of a requirement in the health care law that companies issue 1099 tax forms whenever they buy more than $600 in goods or services in a given year. Shimkus said the millions of new tax documents that result would be a burden on small businesses.
Shimkus is a 14-year member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He is currently the ranking minority member of its Health Subcommittee.
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