Illinois Public Media News
The Illinois Senate discussed the state's horrible budget problems but did it in a closed-door session that was off limits to the public.
Illinois lawmakers are defending their decision to bar observers from Wednesday's meeting, where national researchers presented details on how state budgets are suffering in the recession.
Senate President John Cullerton's spokeswoman says both Democrats and Republicans agreed to close the session to encourage "bipartisan dialogue.''
The Constitution requires "sessions'' of the General Assembly and its committees and commissions to be open. Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon says the Senate was not in session and senators did not comprise a committee or commission.
Public-access lawyer Don Craven doesn't believe the meeting was legal. He says it's unlikely there was anything discussed that couldn't have been said publicly.
A national ranking of counties based on the health of their residents puts Vermilion County near the bottom in Illinois.
Champaign County ranked 31st, Vermilion 96th in the survey put out by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors wanted to put public health in a new light to motivate people to discuss those issues in their communities.
Champaign Urbana Public Health Department administrator Julie Pryde thinks the study will do that, though counties already have a regular four-year process to assess health issues and act on them.
"In Illinois we do something called the I-Plan, which is a local assessment of need, and we're getting ready to do that again," Pryde said. "So I think (the report is) very timely and it will be more data and more information that will help stimulate discussion when we get in these groups."
The study used factors ranging from access to medical care and healthy food to smoking and obesity rates. Vermilion County health administrator Steve Laker says some of his county's low rankings are in areas that use patient interviews rather than raw numbers.
"Self-assessment, self-reported data is always a little suspect," Laker said. "But what they're saying here is true. If they're using the same data everywhere and it's just as suspect everywhere, then it may be relative."
Laker says Vermilion County's blue-collar history has a lot to do with its low public-health ranking. He says community stakeholders are already meeting this afternoon (Wed) to talk about the survey.
The city of Champaign has turned down 33-thousand dollars to help pay for enforcing underage drinking laws among college students for three years. It's part of a federal grant obtained by the Mental Health Center of Champaign County to study ways of fighting underage drinking in college towns. But the Champaign City County voted 5 to 4 Tuesday night to drop out of the program.
Councilwoman Deb Feinen said the grant - which she supported -- would have helped pay for law enforcement efforts to curb underage drinking that the city would likely do anyway.
But Councilman Tom Bruno argued that it would only contribute to efforts that drive student drinking to private apartments and away from bars, where he says there's at least some supervision. He said that drinking at private parties during events such as Unofficial St. Patrick's Day is "probably an even greater problem than if it occurs in a bar."
Bruno then challenged council members who had opposed other federal or state grants on principal to oppose this one, too, because he agreed with Bruno. "At this time", said Schweighart, "when money is very tight --- state's broke, cities are broke, federal government's broke, that we should be careful in accepting this grant in a small amount, or large grants in the amount of 30 million dollars that's coming down the pike".
Schweighart referred to the Big Broadband grant that's been sought for Champaign-Urbana, which he opposes. The mayor says he doesn't believe refusing the grant money will hurt Champaign's own efforts at controlling underage drinking.
After the meeting, Feinen defended her vote in favor of the grant.
"All of us have budget problems", said Feinen. "I recognize it's all tax dollars. But we had an opportunity to pay for something that we're going to be probably doing anyway, from another source."
The federal Juvenile Justice grant also involves the city of Urbana and the Univesity of Illinois. Champaign Police Sergeant Scott Friedlein says it will be up to the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, which oversaw the grant proposal, to decide if the program can continue without Champaign taking part.
The deadline for local elections officials to finalize their primary results is now passed. But the outcome of the Republican race for governor remains unsettled, and it may be another week before there's a clear winner.
By now, elections authorities should have all of their absentee and provisional ballots counted. With those totals factored in, Hinsdale Senator Kirk Dillard could clear the 400 vote difference by which he's trailing Bloomington Senator Bill Brady. Dillard admits his chances aren't good. But he says he'll wait until all local tallies are submitted to the state elections board on February 23rd.
"I'd rather be in Senator Brady's position than myself," Dillard said. "But you need to make sure that all the local election authorities, there's 110 of them, have double checked their mathematics. One small error and the race flip flops."
Dillard says the limbo is torture. Brady, meanwhile, says he's confident he'll hold on to victory. "Our experts have told us that you can rest assured that that will hold, in the era of electronic balloting," Brady said. "It's not chad ballot voting anymore."
But Brady says he understands Dillard's desire not to concede given the slim margins.
Dillard says it's too early to consider if he'd request a recount.
Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday for former Champaign County auditor and Democratic Party Chair Gerrie Parr --- who died last week at age 63.
Parr was elected Champaign County Auditor in 1992. She had worked in the auditor's office under her predecessor, Laurel PrussingAs auditor, Parr was frequently at odds with the Champaign County Board's Republican majority --- perhaps all the more so because she had also become the county's Democratic Party Chair. Al Klein holds the post today, and says Parr was a great leader of the party..
"She came on in 1994", Klein says of Parr's chairmanship, "when we were at the nadir of our experience, down to the minimum on the county board, and helped bring the party back until, by 2000, we had taken the county board for the first time in county history."
Klein says Parr was industrious, energetic, and bore no ill will towards anyone during her ten years as auditor and Democratic party chair. He credits her success as party leader to hard work, and an attitude of "get things doneand do what you can and keep on going".
After stepping down as auditor and party chair, Parr held other Democratic party positions, but she also battled cancer. Her death came late Friday at her sister's home in Waukegan, where she was receiving hospice care.
A memorial service for Gerrie Parr will be held Thursday at 1 PM at St. Pat's New Church in Wadsworth, located near Waukegan. Klein says the family plans to hold another memorial service in Champaign-Urbana, possibly in March.
With a 95-million dollar deficit to deal with, the Chicago Transit Authority has sought a cutback in mandatory free rides for seniors. But it's a less urgent matter for two transit agencies in east central Illinois.
Danville Mass Transit allowed seniors to ride for half-price until 2008, when the state required all mass transit agencies in Illinois to let everyone over 65 ride for free.
DMT Director Richard Brazda says they adjusted to the 100 percent discount, thanks to an increase in state funding.
"So at the time that was added, there was also an increase in funding that was provided for the various downstate operators", says Brazda. "So I guess it was felt that there wasn't an issue there, because they were getting additional funding, and therefore the loss of revenue was not significant."
The Illinois House Mass Transit Committee voted 20 to 4 on Thursday to approve a measure (HB 4654) limiting the free-ride mandate to low-income seniors enrolled in the state's Circuit-Breaker program. Brazda says if the measure becomes law, it's up to the Danville City Council to decide if Danville Mass Transit should follow suit.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District says he expects their free-ride policy to remain, no matter what lawmakers do. Tom Costello says the CU-MTD started granting free rides for all seniors and people with disabilities about 7 years ago, before the state mandate took effect.
"We certainly had our plan in place before the state made this move" says Costello, "and we see no reason to change the plan subsequent to the state deciding what they're going to do. Our plan was in effect without regard to what the state plan was."
Costello says they've budgeted for the free rides --- which serve as an alternative to more expensive point-to-point service, which the CU-MTD also provides to seniors and people with disabilities.
Illinois Democrats say Gov. Pat Quinn should have more time to assemble a state budget and the public should have a bigger say in how it's put together.
The Senate adopted a plan that delays Quinn's budget address three weeks ... to March 10.
But the Democrat must post on a website details of what revenues he expects and what spending obligations the state has in the budget year that begins July 1. The public then may comment and make suggestions.
The Senate vote was 31-21. Among East-Central Illinois senators, Democrat Mike Frerichs voted for the measure, and Republican Dan Rutherford of Pontiac voted against it. Republican Dale Righter of Mattoon did not vote. The legislation moves to the House.
Republicans complained that delaying a budget address with a deficit of $11 billion or more will shorten time available to fill it.
The bill number is HB2240.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is heading to court to answer revised charges that he schemed to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and swap official favors for campaign money.
Marshals have warned they will not tolerate the kind of swirling crowd at Blagojevich's arraignment Wednesday that swallowed the former governor last time he was in court.
Curiosity about Blagojevich is guaranteed to bring out a heavy media contingent, but defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky says the arraignment is likely to be routine - a simple not guilty plea.
While the indictment against Blagojevich has been revised, the allegations of misconduct on his part are no different that the ones in the old version.
The Vermilion County Health Department will continue operations for at least another three months. The Vermilion County Board voted 22 to 1 Tuesday night to extend a loan to the health department, in lieu of overdue state funding.
County Board Chairman Jim McMahon says the extension will let the Vermilion County Health Department continue until May --- but with fewer services. That's because county board members also voted 22-1 to formalize more than 400-thousand dollars in budget cuts, eliminating three state grant-funded programs, and cutting 12 jobs. McMahon says a proposal to cut the remaining grant-funded programs from the budget did not come up last night. But he says if the state of Illinois hasn't paid up some of the money it owes the health department by spring, it will be harder to get the county board to continue the loan without cutting even more from the health department's budget..
"It's a very strong possibility, that if the state of Illinois doesn't start paying the bills of this fiscal year", says McMahon, that 53 employees will be let go in an Aprikl or May decision".
McMahon says that would leave about 20 employees to run basic health services --- restaurant inspections, disease control, and water safety. He says he would never allow the Vermilion County Health Department to be eliminated entirely.
McMahon says the the only solution he can see is for the state to borrow money so it can start paying out the grant money it agreed to.
"It's not fair for producers of programs from the state to have to basically borrow money to continue going", says McMahon. He says Governor Pat Quinn should borrow the money "to cover the expense that the state of Illinois has already approved.
Leaders of Illinois' public universities are making a unified appeal for the money the state government owes them.
Illinois has been trying to deal with a deep budget deficit by putting off payments to creditors - including nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to higher education.
University of Illinois interim president Stan Ikenberry says his institution is 431 million dollars in debt because of the lack of payments, and leaders owe it to the people of Illinois to find a solution. He says that solution will include painful budget cuts.
"And it's going to require revenue increases. Very unpleasant, very difficult for any public leader lawmakers to think about," Ikenberry said. "But I think both cuts in expenditure and revenue increases will be essential before any solution can be brought about. The third essential element will be some strong leadership and bipartisan cooperation."
Ikenberry says the financial crisis is not a total surprise because the state's fiscal situation has been in decline for nearly eight years, but he's surprised that's it's gotten as bad as it has.
Several other university leaders joined Ikenberry at a Chicago press conference to call for the state money to be released.
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