Illinois Public Media News
The sponsor of a bill to eliminate the 50 percent tuition waivers available for children of state university employees says it's a sacrifice the state needs to make.
Dave Winters of the Rockford area submitted the bill (HB4706) last week and acknowledges that he's received some unhappy phone calls from state-employed parents since he did so. But Republican state representative says public employees shouldn't be seen as having a special privilege not available to others.
"We have to realize that it's a fiscal crisis", says Winters. "The state can shut down the universities. If we go another year or two in the current spending habits without making some tough decisions, I think we're facing disaster this year with so many of our social service agencies on the verge of closing or having already closed."
Winters also says he'll probably amend the bill to allow students already using the tuition waivers to continue to do so. And he says he would add a controversial scholarship program for state lawmakers to the chopping block.
Winters also says universities could be given the option of continuing the tuition waivers, but he says they'd have to compete with many other programs and services for a shrinking pool of state funding. He expects more lawmakers to sign onto his bill when the legislature reconvenes next month.
February's primary in Champaign County will proceed with no changes in how the votes are tabulated.
County Clerk Mark Shelden had sought a temporary restraining order against Illinois' undervote notification law, saying it infringes on voter privacy. The measure means tabulating machines make a beeping noise when voters fail to vote for a candidate in one of the statewide races. County Judge Michael Jones denied Shelden's motion Thursday. Jones said while voters have a fundamental right to a secret ballot, he said the law didn't require those machines to be used. Illinois Attorney General Spokeswoman Natalie Bauer says they're pleased with the ruling.
Shelden says it's unfortunate that Champaign County doesn't have another choice, and has to proceed with this equipment. But he believes he'll have an even stronger case after the primary. "People are going to be highly offended at the machines and what they're going to do, getting these error messages," says Shelden. "And a lot of people aren't even going to deal with it. A lot of the people are going just to walk out of the booth and say that somebody else deals with it."
Shelden says he'll also present complaints about the primary voting process from other counties, noting that optical scan machines are the only available tabulating machines in the state. He's hoping to have the undervote law declared unconstitutional. And Shelden is facing criticism from County Auditor Tony Fabri for spending more than $5,000 to hire a private attorney for the case. Shelden says he would have preferred the Champaign County State's Attorney take up the case, but it found no legal basis on which to proceed. He says his office spends tens of thousands of dollars to ensure that a fair election is conducted, and won't apologize for it.
An Illinois lawmaker has set his sights on a tuition waiver program for children of state university employees as a potential target for elimination.
A bill filed last week by Representative Dave Winters of the Rockford area would remove language that makes children of an employee eligible for a 50 percent waiver on undergraduate tuition at any state institution.
That prospect concerns Winters' fellow Republican representative Chapin Rose of Mahomet. But he also says he was under the impression that universities should make up their own minds on whether to offer the benefit.
"I guess the way I'd look at it is that's a choice that each university has just like any business in terms of their overall compensation package," Rose said. "If they want to give their faculty a raise rather than a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business. If they'd rather do a flat salary and a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business."
University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy says the U of I hasn't taken a stand on the bill yet, saying administrators will want to talk with Winters.
Rose says it would make more sense for the state to get rid of the program that lets General Assembly members offer scholarships to the students of their choice. Winters has not returned a call seeking comment.
Governor Pat Quinn admits to knowing about a Department of Corrections program that released violent criminals who'd spent little time in prison. But he says he's ordered a "top to bottom" review to ensure public safety.
Quinn suspended the program over the weekend after reading an Associated Press article. It detailed how about 850 inmates ... some repeat drunk drivers, others serving sentences for weapons or battery violations ... were released after serving only weeks behind bars.
They got out for earning good behavior credits. Their speedy release was made possible because the Corrections Department had dropped a standing policy that required all inmates serve at least 61 days.
Quinn says he knew about Corrections Director Michael Randle's plan. He says so did others. Quinn says it wasn't a secret.
"Now, the execution, implementation of the plan, I've suspended the plan, because I want to review it and make sure it's working the way it should work for public safety", said Quinn.
Quinn wouldn't say if he knew violent offenders would be included.
Illinois' prison system began releasing prisoners early to save money. Quinn says the system is expensive, and there has to be a balance between safety, and saving money.
The governor says he'll talk more about the issue "very soon." His Democratic challenger for the governor's seat, Comptroller Dan Hynes, says the whole affair demonstrates Quinn's poor leadership.
Vermilion County's Board of Health is considering different scenarios for the future of its health department, ranging from maintaining the status quo to closing its doors.
While state funding remains shaky, Department Administrator Steve Laker says a downsizing remains the most likely scenario. He says the department has received about 200-thousand dollars from the state the last two weeks, providing some relief. But the department is still relying on the county to fund areas like payroll, and can't pay back a loan from the county for 300-thousand.
Laker says the county may have to borrow from a bank to cover a revenue shortfall, but he says one other amusing possibility surfaced recently.
"I got a phone call last week from the state treasurer's office wanting to know if we were interested in special loan funds they had," Laker said. "Are we going to borrow money from the state to counter state funding shortages? It's a possibility. They've got some low-interest loan programs. I referred them to the county board chairman."
The state still owes the department about 600-thousand dollars.
Laker says the health department needs to finalize a presentation for the Vermilion County Board by the end of this week. Its meeting on December 29th will decide the structure of the health department for the immediate future.
All options for downsizing include termination of state grant contracts, and cutting some jobs. Laker says programs that could be on the bubble include maternal and child health programs and nursing home screening for senior citizens.
The special agent in charge of the Springfield office of the FBI says its investigation into the October fatal police shooting in Champaign could take several weeks - and then it will take more time for federal officials to deliberate over it.
The FBI is looking into the shooting death of Kiwane Carrington at the request of Champaign police. Supervisory special agent Marshall Stone says the scope of their investigation will be different than the state police-led probe that led to no criminal charges against the officers involved.
"In these types of situations, whether we're talking about police-action shootings or color-of-law cases such as excessive use of force based upon the authority we have as law enforcement officers, those tend to fall under the civil rights statutes," said Stone.
Stone says the final decision on any wrongdoing will be left to the Department of Justice in Washington, which will receive the investigation once the FBI office is finished. He says that investigation may involve their own interviews or it could rely on the state police report.
Carrington was shot while police responded to a reported break-in at a Vine Street house. His family has filed a civil suit against police and officer Daniel Norbits, who fired the fatal shot.
Two new laws taking effect in January will ban the practice of texting while driving in Illinois. A backer of the measures calls them an important first step, but not enough. Gloria Wilhelm's son Matt died in Urbana in 2006. The bicyclist was struck by a motorist who later admitted to downloading a ring tone while behind the wheel.
And Wilhelm suspects it's the cause of more accidents than is being reported. "There's a lot of fatalities out there that haven't really been attributed to this, but there's some unknown causes," says Wilhelm. "So something is causing people to go into another lane and hit someone head on. I think this is a very good start. I really think it's more dangerous than drunk driving because it's more pervasive. More people are talking and texting than driving drunk." The distracted driving laws will also ban instant messaging, personal digital assistants, and portable computers, as well as all cell phone use while driving through a highway construction zone or school zone.
Wilhelm questions why driving everywhere else is so much safer, but says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could one day seek legislation that bans cell phone use while driving outright. Wilhelm also notes that more employers are banning cell phone use while driving on business to avoid a possible lawsuit.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn would not say if he knew beforehand his administration was releasing inmates after they served just weeks in prison. Quinn suspended the program over the weekend after a report by The Associated Press some inmates served less than three weeks behind bars. Quinn said Monday that Corrections Department Director Michael Randle has broad discretion to run his department. He added if there are questions about how something is being done it's the governor's job to review it. After he learned about everything in the AP report, Quinn said he decided a closer look was needed. The suspended program gave inmates good conduct credit in advance. Corrections officials say the department was saving money in a budget crisis by not transferring the inmates to other prisons for short terms.
The director of the Illinois State Fair wants to take her experience to work in another circus environment - the political circus of the state Senate.
Amy Bliefnick is running in the central Illinois district held for 26 years by Republican Frank Watson, who was senate minority leader until a stroke forced him to resign this year. Democrats see his replacement, Kyle McCarter, as vulnerable - and Bliefnick says she's begun to see herself as an apt candidate as the February primary approaches. "I declined the offer because I never really pictured myself as a politican," says Bliefnick. "But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my background, my experience and leadership, is a perfect fit for state government."
Bliefnick faces competition from Macon County Board member Tim Dudley, who also says he'd bring an outsider's perspective to the Senate, taking a modest swipe at Bliefnick's government role. "I've not been involved in anybody's administration or anything like that," says Dudley. "I think I'm just the right person at the right time - a good new fresh face. And that's what seperates me from anybody else." Both Bliefnick and Dudley are from Decatur, which is now the population center of a thin, oblong 51st district that snakes from Moultrie County southeast to the Metro East area.
Illinois health officials have expanded H1N1 flu shot eligibility to anyone seeking one, starting on Tuesday.
And area health departments have responded by scheduling vaccination clinics in Champaign and Danville next week. Champaign-Urbana's public health district holds four days of free clinics that begin Tuesday. That's when anyone over age 64 can receive the shot. Administrator Julie Pryde says supply has been good enough to offer vaccine for walk-ins during the week, along with helping providers like Carle and Christie Clinic. Meanwhile, Vermilion County's Health Department conducts its own clinics on Wednesday and Thursday. Administrator Steve Laker says it's unlikely his department would conduct any more clinics before Christmas, but that could change with the emergence of additional cases of flu-like illness.
"We would immediately gear up and scale our program back up," says Laker. "And we wouldn't have any trouble going back out to remote sites to do that. We've had excellent cooperation from local schools and other organziations that hosted sites, so we wouldn't have any problem. The only thing that might potentially affect that is what resources we have left after December 29th." The Vermilion County Board has scheduled a special meeting for that date, in which it could decide to downsize or dissolve the county's health department because of slow state payments. It's currently owed about $800,000. Laker says if the board did choose to shut down his department, there's no telling how much advance warning his offices would have or how services like vaccinations would continue.
The clinics in Danville are from 10 to 6 on Wednesday and 7 am to 12 pm on Thursday. Vaccinations at Champaign-Urbana's Public Health District run from 9 to 6 Tuesday thru Thursday, and 9 to 1 next Friday at its offices on West Kenyon Road.
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