Illinois Public Media News
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.
Peoria-based Caterpillar has joined the growing list of supporters of the FutureGen coal-burning power plant planned for Mattoon.
And the heavy equipment maker is the first member of the FutureGen Alliance not tied directly with energy production. The alliance now has 11 members committed to providing financial resources to get FutureGen off the ground, they include Chicago-based utility giant Exelon, and St. Louis-based coal company Peabody Energy. Monday's announcement drew praise from officials like Governor Pat Quinn and Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson. Coles Together Vice President Anthony Pleasant admits Caterpillar's backing may appear a bit unusual at the outset. "The rest are power generation companies, and clearly that's not what Cat does." says Pleasant. "But Cat's always been environmentally friendly. Just days ago, their headquarters in Peoria was LEED certified. They reduced energy by 40%, and water usage by 50%. So it's something they clearly invest in." In a release from the company, a Caterpillar official says the company has long been committed to technologies and policies that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of Greenhouse gas emissions.
Pleasant notes that Caterpillar also makes mining equipment. He says this move is a good sign that other companies not related to energy production will support FutureGen, and calm federal officials' concerns over cost. The price tag of the facility now stands at about 1-point-8 billion dollars, with the Department of Energy expected to handle just over a billion of that. Two years ago, the Bush Administration pulled the plug on the project due to cost overruns. A DOE announcement on whether FutureGen will be built could come later this month.
The Democratic nominee for Illinois lieutenant governor Scott Lee Cohen says he is dropping out of the race.
This follows reports of Cohen's troubled past, including steroid abuse and allegations of domestic violence.
Since Cohen's surprise victory last Tuesday, he's faced near constant pressure from the media and Democratic bigwigs.
On Friday he met with House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Sunday night Cohen called it quits.
His spot on the ballot will now be filled by the Democratic State Central Committee, led by Speaker Madigan.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown says the committee could meet in the middle of next month, as originally planned, or earlier. "We'll look at all the alternatives, and find the best candidate that can help Democrats win from top-to-bottom comes November," Brown said.
The speaker previously supported the candidacy of state Representative Art Turner of Chicago.
But the four other Democrats who ran for lieutenant governor - State Representative Mike Boland, union electrician Thomas Castillo, and Senators Rickey Hendon and Terry Link -- all insist they'd be the strongest candidate for the party come November.
State Sen. Bill Brady says the delay in knowing for sure whether he's won the Republican nomination for Illinois governor hurts but isn't devastating.
Brady said Friday at a news conference in Chicago that he'd rather be in "full campaign mode'' than waiting for final results in the close race. Brady says he's not calling on his opponent, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, to concede and he understands what Dillard is going through.
Brady says he'll prevail when all the absentee and provisional votes are tallied. Brady was asked whether both candidates could agree to rule out a re-count once the final vote is certified. He said he didn't know.
Dillard said earlier Friday the primary isn't over until every vote is counted and it's still too early to declare a winner.
The union that represents a small group of University of Illinois employees is filing an unfair labor practice complaint over the university's furlough policy.
The chief negotiator for the Visiting Academic Professionals accuses administrators of ignoring the contract with the 300 employees when they began requiring many workers to take four unpaid days off this semester.
Alan Bilansky says the union is asking the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board to force the U of I to reverse the change it made to employee appointments - that change allows the furloughs to take place. But Bilansky says the state board likely won't act on the complaint any time soon, so VAPs will likely have to take unpaid days off this spring.
"We have to tell people, 'yes, you have to take your furlough days if your manager tells you too'", says Bilansky. "But yes, we are hoping to make everyone whole, once this is all resolved."
Bilansky says negotiators for the VAP and the U of I discussed the possibility of furloughs in ongoing contract talks, but nothing was agreed to.
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the university is able to require furloughs from VAPs because the current labor contract does not specifically address the issue.
Plans for extending Olympian Drive through Urbana to U-S Route 45 could take on more solid form this spring --- with the signing of an intergovernmental agreement.
The agreement would commit Champaign County and the cities of Champaign and Urbana to working together on the multi-year project. Plans call for extending Olympian Drive over the Canadian National tracks, and through the north end of Urbana to U-S Route 45.
Champaign County Board members heard details of the project Thursday night from County Engineer Jeff Blue. He says state funding for the project has been secured.
"A majority of that money is (for building) the overpass of the railroad", says Blue. " We have five million dollars from the Capital Bill. And no, the money can't be used to build Monticello Road or or any other road. has to be used on the Olympian Drive project."
Much of the cost would be paid for with money from the federal government ---- money which local officials are still lobbying for. But Blue said Champaign County won't have money for the project until about 2013, because its available motor fuel tax dollars are currently funding other projects.
Thursday night's county board discussion did not require any action. But board members heard plenty of opinions.
Critics of the Olympian Drive extension told the board that the project would pave over valuable farmland, encourage urban sprawl --- or may be under-utilized because it's not really needed. Champaign County Board member Stan James noted that last argument. He said past projections of urban growth in Champaign County may have been over optimistic.
"We're looking at this road, and if it was desperately needed and the growth was for certain, that's something that should be taken into account" says James. "But we are seeing buildings, factories, the scope of our industrial, auto plants and everything changing. What type of growth we're talking about, I don't know."
But Olympian Drive's supporters told the county board that extending the road would meet a growing need for an east-west artery between I-57 and U-S Route 45. County Board member Steve Beckett said the county agreed to the project years ago in its Fringe Road Agreement with Champaign and Urbana.
"Why don't we do what we gave our word that we're going to do", said Beckett. "Just because Urbana stalled, doesn't mean that we should stall. We enetered into an agreement as a body politic. We ought to continue with our agreement. We ought to fund this project, in the way that Jeff has directed us to. And we ought to move forward."
Beckett referred to the city of Urbana's decision ten years ago to back out of the Olympian Drive project , while Champaign went ahead with its portion of the road. Now Urbana is back on board, and Mayor Laurel Prussing spoke in the project's favor at Thursday night's county board meeting.
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