Illinois Public Media News
Indiana authorities say six people have been killed by tornadoes that ripped through the southern portion of the state.
Spokesman Jet Quillen of the state Joint Information Center says three people died in Jefferson County and three were killed in Scott County as storms battered the state Friday.
Jefferson County Sheriff's Department dispatcher Shelly Jones says houses are missing near the unincorporated town of Chelsea, about 30 miles north of Louisville, Ky.
National Weather Service coordinator Bill Whitlock reports "extreme damage'' in Henryville, a town of about 1,000 people just north of the Kentucky border. Destruction can be seen for miles, and a school district spokeswoman says heavy damage has been reported at Henryville High School.
Clark County Sheriff's Department Maj. Chuck Adams says the nearby town of Marysville is "completely gone."
Meanwhile, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels says he'll travel to southern Indiana on Saturday to assess the damage.
Daniels said that "Mother Nature has dealt harshly with Indiana" in a statement Friday. He says humans "are no match for Mother Nature at her worst'' despite advances in disaster preparedness, warning systems and responder communications.
He says he hopes officials already knew the full extent of the damage but that wouldn't be certain until Saturday.
The governor's office said Daniels wouldn't travel to the area Friday night because he didn't want to interrupt the rescue efforts.
Gov. Mitch Daniels says he's prepared to accept a weakened smoking ban if that's what it takes to get something approved before he leaves office.
Daniels said Friday he still prefers a version passed by House lawmakers that would exempt Indiana's gambling industry, private clubs and tobacco and cigar stores from the ban. But Senate lawmakers greatly weakened the measure this week by cutting bars out of the proposed ban and expanding the exemptions approved by the House.
House and Senate negotiators are scheduled to meet Monday to hash out a compromise. The Senate approved a statewide smoking ban for the first time this week after years of House lawmakers approving bans only to see them die in the Senate.
Daniels included the smoking ban in his 2012 legislative agenda.
Cook Co. Judge Rules Against Eavesdropping Law
A Cook County judge says Illinois' law against eavesdropping is unconstitutional.
With Illinois' pension debt climbing, the President of Eastern Illinois University suggests his school could handle those costs for retiring employees, if phased in gradually.
Governor Pat Quinn has floated the idea that pensions normally covered by the state could be shifted to universities and school districts.
The proposal was made as William Perry appeared before a Senate Committee in Springfield Wednesday. In EIU's case, that amounts to about $20-million. Perry says it would take at least five years, likely ten, for the university to phase in the state's contribution for pensions.
And he says that period would vary for other universities and their budgets, but each of them would have to hold open debates with state officials.
"The trust between the state goverment, the universities, and the university employees - that triangle of trust has to be strong," Perry said. "I think right now people are feeling like with change coming along, the trust they've put in the system for so long is at risk, so we have to be really careful on the trust side."
Perry says if the employer contribution to pensions was to change, the next logical step is finding a stable base of funding.
"If you kept your general revenue funding equal or even increased it a bit, if you're having to take money from other places in the university or from the general revenue appropriation to use to take care of employer contribution, it's still going to be a cut on your budget and a strain on your budget," Perry said. "We know that we can't just pass this off on the students in tuition."
For the long term - Perry says a sustainable model for pension could be achieved through a hybrid - a defined benefit and contribution - a model suggested by two University of Illinois faculty members.
Perry says an overhaul of the State Universities Retirement System, making it more like the private sector holds merit.
The model was recently proposed by Robert Rich and Jeffrey Brown with the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
The Illinois Department of Revenue says it's prepared to move swiftly on decisions about which not-for-profit hospitals deserve tax breaks.
Those hospitals waiting for a decision include Carle and Provena Hospitals in Urbana, and Decatur Memorial Hospital.
The state had held off making any decisions since fall while it, hospitals, and consumer health advocates negotiated how much charity do not for profit hospitals have to provide in order to get out of paying property taxes.
But they failed to reach an agreement by Governor Pat Quinn's March First deadline.
So the department is going to resume issuing rulings. Revenue spokeswoman Sue Hofer says a backlog of up to 18 cases has built up in the interim. She says that will decrease, as decisions are made by the end of this month.
"We look forward to doing our job and making decisions, so that both the entities that we're determining about, and the local governments will have closure on how much money they can expect to gain in taxes, or how much money they may have to pay in taxes," Hofer said.
Hofer says the constitution and court precedence establish what hospitals have to do to qualify. But the state hospital association's Danny Chun says the standards aren't clear, even though big money's at stake.
"In some cases it could be millions of dollars a year, it just depends on the property that's being looked at," said Chun.
He says money spent paying a local tax bill is money that's not going to health care.
After taking a dip in January, the Flash Index of the Illinois economy continued to show improvement in February. The monthly index from the University of Illinois showed a reading of 99.2 in February --- its best showing since November of 2008. The index is a weighted average of growth in Illinois income and sales taxes.
U of I economist Fred Giertz says the Flash Index will have to rise back to 100 to show economic growth. He's expecting continued to improvement, but says the economy in Illinois is hampered by a state unemployment rate that's been higher than the national rate for some time.
'It's a recovery and things are going in the right direction", says Giertz. "And it's unlikely we're going to have a double-dip (recession). But we're not really back to what more people consider a normal healthy kind of situation, of 5 or 6 percent unemployment."
New unemployment figures for Illinois show the jobless rate falling .3% during January, to 9.4%. The national unemployment rate is 8.3%. The Illinois Department of Employment Security says the state saw a net increase of 3800 jobs. The strongest gains were in Professional and Business Services, and the Leisure and Hospitality industry.
Illinois lawmakers are considering whether to end a benefit that lets university employees send their kids to state colleges for half-price. The Illinois House Executive Committee sent a measure (HB5531) to the House floor on Wednesday, on a 9-2 vote.
State Representative Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) is the bill's sponsor. He says the waivers contribute to the high cost of higher education.
"Tuition rates in our universities keep going up because we are paying for children ... to educate children of other state employees", says Arroyo.
Arroyo says the tuition waivers cost $387 million dollars in 2011.
But a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education says the cost was actually much smaller: about $8 million.
Dave Steelman lobbies for Western Illinois University. He says at that school, the majority of employees using tuition waivers are relatively low-paid workers, like clerks.
They have to work in the university system for seven years before they're eligible.
And Steelman says when employee tuition waivers are compared to similar programs, they don't cost very much.
"At Western last year, our employee dependent waivers totaled about $240,000", says Steelman. "Veterans' waivers for the same year totaled $2.2 million."
State Representative Mike Tryon (R-Crystal Lake) serves on the House Executive Committee, and supported the bill on Wednesday.
"It's almost like saying if I work at the building department, I get my building permit for half price", says Tryon. "I don't know of any other part of government where employees get to pay less for something than the taxpayers or the general public."
Those who want to end the perk say they would consider a compromise, like a salary cap that limits the benefit to lower-wage employees.
Illinois and new football coach Tim Beckman will close all but a couple of spring practices to fans and news media. The school has asked reporters not to provide updates via social media when they are allowed access.
Sports information director Kent Brown said Wednesday that the school might further restrict access for all media if a reporter doesn't comply but "hope it doesn't come to that.''
Spring practices start March 7. The spring game is April 14. Only two of the 14 practices and scrimmages are open to news media and fans.
Beckman has said he would restrict access to try to maintain some degree of secrecy about the schemes his team will run.
Beckman was hired in December to replace the fired Ron Zook.
The two Democrats running for Congress in Illinois' new 13th District announced new endorsements on Wednesday.
Dr. David Gill of Bloomington is being endorsed by the political action committee of the National Organization for Women. At a news conference in Champaign, the emergency room physician said that NOW recognized his strong pro-choice stance --- and support of contraception coverage under the federal health care law. Gill accused his Democratic primary rival, Matt Goetten of Carrollton, of being silent on such issues as access to contraception, women's health screenings and women's access to legal abortions.
"We need a Democratic candidate in this race who will forcefully address Tim Johnson," said Gill. "Who will turn to him and say, 'Mr. Johnson, get out of our bedrooms and keep your hands off of our bodies?' I intend to be that candidate."
Goetten spokesman Vlad Gutman said that while the Greene County State's Attorney is focusing on the economy in his campaign, he has stated publicly that he is "a pro-choice Catholic who has always chosen life." Gutman said Goetten backs the Obama administration's compromise move to use insurance companies to cover contraception for employees of Catholic institutions. He said Goetten believes medical decisions should be made by patients and their doctors, not by members of Congress.
Meanwhile, Goetten has picked up the backing of the political action committee for VoteVets.org, a progressive veterans group that focuses on supporting veterans for public office. Goetten serves in the Illinois National Guard, and he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as a judge advocate general.
A Goetten news release quotes VoteVets.org PAC Chairman John Stoltz endorsing him as "just the kind of person we need in Washington. He served, and he knows veterans issues well. He also has the experience needed to make a real difference."
Goetten and Gill are competing to run against Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana), who himself faces challenges from Metro East residents Michael Firsching and Frank Metzger in the GOP primary in the new 13th District.
A Champaign man faces an obstruction of justice charge following the death of a LeRoy woman in north Champaign early Wednesday morning.
The Champaign County Coroner's office identified her as 23-year old Hannah Prospal, who was pronounced dead at 7 a.m.
Her body was discovered in a trailer in the parking lot of Carpet Master Carpet One on West Bloomington Road.
A man who reported being with Prospal when she became unresponsive, 34-year old Steven Killam, was questioned and later arrested.
Police say the trailer is Killiam's home. Champaign detectives say he had removed evidence from the scene which may have helped identify how Prospal died. Results of an autopsy are pending.
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