Illinois Public Media News
A federal commission made up of members of Congress and former lawmakers is trying to reduce the nation's federal deficit by $4 trillion dollars by 2020 with changes to government programs, including Medicare and Social Security services.
Based in Washington, DC, the 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is led by former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Both leaders are backing a plan to make cuts to Medicare funding that would limit federal spending on Medicare recipients to one percent above the economy's gross domestic product. Anne Gargano Ahmed, who is with Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said under that plan, the cost for care would then be pushed onto Medicare beneficiaries with higher premiums.
"Medicare beneficiaries would then have to choose to pay higher premiums for traditional Medicare, or buying a private plan from a Medicare exchange of private insurance companies that would offer a plan as an alternative to Medicare," Ahmed explained. "These plans might have lower premiums, but they'd probably offer less coverage like many private insurance plans do now."
Illinois has two legislatures sitting on the panel: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The healthcare advocacy group backs a proposal by Schakowsky calling for the creation of a Medicare-administered drug plan to compete with private plans. She also wants Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate for lower drug prices, a move that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will save the country $14 billion by 2015.
The financial commission is also considering a plan to increase the retirement age for full Social Security benefits to 69 by 2075. According to the non-partisan group Social Security Works, boosting the retirement age by that amount would lead to a 21-percent cut in benefits from the current retirement age of 66.
Claudia Lennhoff, executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said trimming any part of social security is the last thing the federal government should do to help cut the deficit. Lennhoff said because social security is supported by payroll deductions and not federal dollars, it does not add to the deficit.
"Social security does not contribute to the budget deficit," Lennhoff said. "So it's like trying to find an answer that wasn't part of the problem, and at great consequence to the American people, at great harm to the American people. It's simply not fair."
However, Lennhoff admitted that one area her group agrees with the commission's leaders on is raising the wage cap on the amount of money going to support Social Security. The cap is currently set at $106,800.00, and Lennhoff said increasing it would require people making more than that amount to pay more to support social security benefits.
The commission has until December 1st to finalize and vote on a plan. It must capture 14 of 18 votes among its members to adopt a budget recommendation, and send it onto Congress for consideration.
Union workers in Champaign's fire and police departments are hoping to compromise with city leaders rather than lose staff, services, or both.
Public works employees could also be among as many as 15 positions cut, as the city looks to trim nearly $2-million from the budget in the current fiscal year, and a total of $4-point-3 million in 18 months. Champaign Police Officer Joe Johnston, 21, chairs the labor committee with the local Fraternal Order of Police. He said reducing front desk staff and the records division means he's a less effective officer.
"Can I do their job? Yes. Can I do it as well or as efficient as them? Absolutely not," Johnston said. "But I guess what I'm trying to say - the point I'm trying to make with that is by taking me or one of the other officers off the street, we have now diminished the services to the citizens of Champaign."
About 20 members from AFSCME and other unions were on hand last night to oppose the job cuts, but Council member Tom Bruno said they need to do better.
"It's not helpful to have various units of city employees come to us and say 'not us.' Anybody else but not us," Bruno said. "I don't find that particularly helpful as a problem-solving technique."
Current proposals also include reducing staff at Fire Station 4 on John Street. Carrol Whitehouse, a Campaign firefighter and union vice president, said that could mean lost response time, particularly if one of its units is already out on a fire or medical call. Whitehouse said the union wants to work out a way to avoid cutting core services, but would not say if that included taking a pay cut since his union is involved in negotiations.
"All of the funding problems are going to be generated by increases in employee compensation," Whitehouse said. "And we're willing to find ways to deal with that that will zero-out the impact of the city, but not impact the core jobs that we do."
The budget strategy endorsed by the city council in Tuesday night's study session also includes enacting a furlough program for AFSCME union workers and a voluntary separation program. Both will be discussed more in January. Champaign City Manager Steve Carter said this is the most difficult financial situation he ha seen in 40 years of working in local government. The city has already enacted $9-million in budget adjustments over the past few years.
A total of six candidates are running for mayor of Danville, including current mayor Scott Eisenhauer.
Barbara Dreher, who is the executive director of the Danville Election Commission, said because of the large number of mayoral hopefuls, there will be a February primary to narrow the list down to two candidates who will run in the April election.
"There has been a lot of talk around town," Dreher explained. "People are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the city. Some people aren't. The ones that are dissatisfied are taking their chance."
Eisenhauer is up against the largest number of challengers since he was first elected eight years ago. He attributed the high turnout to voter cynicism towards incumbents coupled with the response to unpopular decisions he has made during the recession, like raising the city's sales tax by one percent.
"Why wouldn't you want to be mayor now?" Eisenhauer said. "You're coming in at a time where the city's fiscally solvent. You're coming in at a time where the tough decisions have been made. Yes, there have been some tax increases over the course of the last eight years, but it's been at an effort to decrease the property tax. And so those things have been accomplished."
But Danville alderman and mayoral hopeful Rickey Williams Jr. said Eisenhauer would not have had to make those tough decisions if he did a better job managing the city's finances. Williams explained that financial discipline must go back to a "zero-based budget focusing on needs first."
Williams added that if elected, he would look at raising taxes as a last resort to treating the city's budget problems. He also said he would be open to eliminating middle-management jobs created during Eisenhauer's time in office that are dragging down the economy.
"I'm willing to do what's right, and the decisions I've made have been in the best interest of the people," Williams said.
Other candidates who have tossed their hats into the race include Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon, business owner David Quick, and residents Donald Nord and Rose Marie Carlton-Darby.
At the conclusion of a GOP caucus meeting in Bloomington on Saturday, State Representative Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) said there would be a unanimous ballot for Champaign County Republican Party leader Jason Barickman to take his seat in the 105th House District once he is appointed to the Senate.
Barickman said he is not taking anything for granted, but he noted that there appears to be a lot of support for him.
"I don't want to put the cart before the horse," Barickman said. "I think that we saw in the process for the senate seat, it is a political process and one which I respect."
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Cultra reaffirmed his support for Barickman. However, he dismissed any speculation about a deal made for his appointment to the Senate, and Barickman's possible appointment to the House.
"To make a deal, you have to have some leverage, and really I didn't have any leverage," Cultra said. "He could take my seat through caucus really on this own, and so there really was no deal."
Cultra won re-election earlier this month to the 105 House District. He will begin filling Rutherford's remaining two years in the Senate starting January 9th, the day before Ruterford is sworn in as Illinois' next Treasurer. Rutherford said Cultra's the right choice for the job.
"Shane is going to do an outstanding job," Rutherford said. "He will make an outstanding state senator, and I will do all I can to be of support to him in part because he's going to be my senator.
A researcher and former professor at the University of Illinois is expected to serve the next few months on the Urbana city council, and run for the seat next spring.
City Chief of Staff Mike Monson said it is 'highly likely' that Mayor Laurel Prussing will appoint Eric Jakobsson to the seat formerly occupied by David Gehrig in Ward 2 at the council's December 6th meeting. The professor emeritus and husband of Democratic state representative Naomi Jakobsson taught courses in areas like physics and computational biology.
Jakobsson said he thinks a lot about politics and public policy, and only filed petitions just before Monday's deadline to run for re-election next year. The other person pursuing the vacant seat in the election is Brian Dolinar from CU Citizens for Peace and Justice and the Independent Media Center. Both are Democrats, which means there will be a primary in February.
Residents and businesses in Urbana who found themselves without phone service last week should have it restored by now.
A spokeswoman for AT&T said crews finished repairs on an underground cable over the weekend. Brooke Vane said they were sending tech personnel around to each phone and telecom customer to re-start their service. An employee at the Urbana School District confirmed that their phone service was restored around midday Monday.
Vane stated that they received around 300 complaints about the disruption caused when a construction crew accidentally cut the cable at the U of I campus, but she did not know the full number of customers who were affected. She said anyone still experiencing problems should call the AT&T customer service and repair number --- 1-888-611-4466.
Champaign County's Republican chair said he hopes he would be an attractive candidate to serve in Illinois' 105th House district.
But Jason Barickman said any suggestion that the seat is locked up already is 'putting the cart before the horse.' Current 105th District Representative Shane Cultra was appointed to replace Treasurer-elect Dan Rutherford in the Illinois Senate over the weekend. After that caucus meeting in Bloomington, Cultra suggested the six county GOP chairs making up the House district would cast a unanimous ballot for Barickman. Barickman said there appears to be a lot of support for him, but is not sure how that process will move forward.
"I think the chairmen need to convene again, given that it's many of the same individuals who were in the room for the Senate seat," Barickman said. "I expect that it will happen very quickly, but at this point, I'm like everyone else, waiting to see what the process is and when it unfolds."
McLean County GOP Chair John Parrott also said he would back Barickman for the House seat. Barickman was considered a front runner to succeed Rutherford when Cultra was named to the Senate Seat on Saturday. Barickman said he would expect to know more about the process for replacing Cultra soon. The four-term legislator from Onarga was re-elected earlier this month, defeating Green Party Candidate Vince LaMie.
The war in Afghanistan is nearing its 10-year anniversary, and Republican Congressman Tim Johnson of Urbana has signed a letter with three House Republicans and 57 House Democrats calling for an end to U.S. military operations in the country. The letter follows statements by the Obama administration setting 2014 as the key date when Afghan security forces should be ready to take control of defense operations.
At this weekend's NATO summit in Portugal, President Obama said he's confident the U.S. will be able to go ahead with its troop pullout plan from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. Johnson told Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers that the war in unwinnable and dragging down the nation's debt.
(Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army/flickr)
Republican State Representative Shane Cultra is moving from the Illinois House to the Senate.
Cultra was named as a replacement for Treasurer-elect Dan Rutherford at the end of Saturday's day-long caucus meeting in Bloomington featuring GOP chairs from nine counties. The House lawmaker from Onarga will move into the Senate's 53rd District sometime in January, just before Rutherford is sworn into his new role.
McLean County GOP Chair John Parrott said Cultra's eight years of legislative experience won out.
"In these difficult times that are going on down in Springfield right now, a number of people felt on the committee that Shane has served the District well. He is knowledgeable of all the issues. He is a very strong conservative, and we feel that he will do an excellent job."
Cultra's home county of Iroquois made up just 11-percent of Saturday's weighted vote, which is the smallest of any of the counties making up the Senate's 53rd District. Cultra said it is 'humbling' to have been selected from an outstanding list of candidates.
"The slate of candidates was outstanding," Cultra said. "I really went in thinking that I wouldn't get passed the first round. So, I'm just very fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity to serve the people of the 53rd Senate District."
Six others sought the Senate seat, including U of I Security Consultant John Bambanek, Tazewell County Board Chair David Zimmerman, and Champaign County GOP chair Jason Barickman.
Barickman will apparently be promoted to the legislature anyway. Cultra said the six county Republican chairs making up his 105th House District will soon cast a unanimous vote for Barickman, but it is not clear when that vote will happen.
An East Central Illinois lawmaker says he will seek to derail a University of Illinois plan to shut down a center for police training.
University officials announced earlier this week they intend to close the 55-year-old Police Training Institute as part of a broader plan to cut costs. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) has suggested a plan to help subsidize the institute through a surcharge on people convicted of crimes.
"It's a concept that I've utilized in the past," Rose said. "We did the same thing on drug crimes to subsidize drug addiction task forces, and they're a pretty popular concept to taxpayers. Because why should the taxpayers be paying a cost when we could have the criminals themselves foot the bill for law enforcement training?"
Interim Chancellor Robert Easter said he wants to talk to Rose about the idea. Rose explained that his idea was actually suggested some time ago, but no administrators have responded to it until now.
"Parkland College inquired about opportunities to perhaps take it over, again keeping that economic development local here in Champaign County," he said. "But they (U of I administrators) didn't call them back either. I just wonder - how many $200,000 executives does it take to return a phone call at the U of I?"
Rose said he is insisting on a December 7th meeting with not only U of I leaders, but Democratic State House member Naomi Jakobsson and Senator Mike Frerichs, as well as a member of Illinois' Law Enforcement Training and Standards board. Rose said the Police Training Institute fits well with the U of I's mission.
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