Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The Illinois Statehouse was crowded with people Wednesday, speaking out against proposed budget cuts.
Union members in purple T-shirts are angry about possible cuts to home health care and pension benefits. Mayors in gray suits and power ties oppose any move to reduce their share of income tax money.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said his city has already cut 72 positions, and reduced its budget by millions, the proposed income tax reductions would mean an additional 11-to-18 jobs lost. He says that means across the board reductions in areas like public works, safety, and local development.
"Services that will impact the quality of life that our citizens currently enjoy," Eisenhauer said. "And more importantly, services that, by their reduction or cut, will really make it even more difficult for us to go and attract new business, new industry, or new families coming into our community."
Meanwhile. nursing home employees and residents delivered petitions to Governor Pat Quinn's office Wednesday. All those groups and more say their funds are too important to cut. But they're not offering any suggestions on how state officials could avoid cuts and still balance the budget. Three different Illinois budget plans are being considered. All of them would include service cuts, but the amounts vary.
Illinois may be the new host of a maximum security federal prison.
Since late 2009, the state and federal government have been in negotiations and while there has been no official confirmation, legislators have confirmed terms of transferring the Thomson Correctional Center to the feds. President Barack Obama's original plan was to send Guantanamo Bay's terror suspects to Thomson. A backlash killed that plan.
Still the administration insisted it wanted to take the state-of-the-art prison off Illinois' hands, as it has barely been used. State legislators from northwestern Illinois, including Republican Representative Richard Morthland, say they were notified by Governor Pat Quinn of a deal.
Morthland said it was to be kept quiet because there are unfinished details. However, it appears the state will get $165 million for Thomson. That's lower than its $220 million appraised value. But Morthland said it will create needed high-quality jobs.
"They'll need places to live, there're going to need places to shop, and they're going to be providing a lot of services," Morthland said. "The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a preference to working with local producers, so the farmers in the area and other people will be able to do business with the prison. And so it's really going to be a great shot in the arm for northwestern Illinois."
Given crowding in Illinois correctional facilities, the state could surely use it to house its own criminals. But Illinois doesn't have the money to open the prison. Congress would still need to approve the purchase, but no further action is necessary at the state level.
Members of the Champaign City Council expect further discussion in the coming weeks on a proposed four percent tax on packaged liquor.
The suggestion has been raised as a way to avoid cutting three jobs at the city's police station, and closing the front desk during overnight hours. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the tax would raise about $700,000 a year. Council members tentatively backed the tax on a six-to-three vote in Tuesday night's study session. But one opposed to the idea, Deb Frank Feinen, said those favoring the tax haven't gauged the full impact on the local economy.
"We have local small business owners who have package liquor stores or sell alcohol," she said. "And I want to be very careful and cautious before imposing a tax that may impact their business because it's more important ultimately that we keep those businesses running."
Feinen said the tax could also change spending habits at liquor stores, or drive people to neighboring communities to purchase liquor. Council member Karen Foster brushes off those suggestions. She proposed the tax in last week's meeting. Foster said local bars and restaurants that serve alcohol are already subject to a food and beverage tax, and this would level the playing field.
"Any liquor drink is taxed already," she said. "And I've heard from campus bar owners and they feel that this is a fair tax to have the package liquor stores also have a tax."
Feinen suggests the city look at hiking the local hotel-motel tax, or consider making cuts elsewhere. But she said the council should also have a broader discussion about the police department, and consider a portion of the cuts there.
It's unclear when the council will conduct a final vote on the proposal, but a final budget approval is expected on June 21st.
Academic professional workers at the University of Illinois crowded into a State Universities Civil Service Merit Board meeting in Urbana on Wednesday morning.
These workers are exempt from state Civil Service rules --- and they were concerned about a bill in Springfield that would take exemption powers away from state universities. (Academic Professionals at the U of I Urbana campus include many Illinois Public Media employees, including the news staff.)
Rick Atterberry of the Council of Academic Professionals told Merit Board members that Civil Service rules are a bad fit for certain specialized university jobs. Atterberry pointed to the practice of "bumping" --- when a Civil Service worker whose own job is eliminated can take over the job of someone with less seniority.
"Bumping severely and irreparably disrupts operations resulting in the loss of key employees with the requisite skills and specialized institutional knowledge critical for the continuation of successful operations," Atterberry said.
But Universities Civil Service Advisory Committee Chair Barney Bryson told the Merit board that real problem lies with universities that grant improper Civil Service exemptions.
"We can only look to Chicago to see how far out of line this has been --- oh I don't want to use that word --- we can see how far this has been misused," Bryson said.
Service Employees International Union Local #73 Vice President Phil Martini also brought up the UIC case. He said audits by the State Universities Civil Service System found that a majority of recent Civil Service exemptions at the Chicago campus were inappropriate. But he said that exemptions for most positions related to teaching and research were legitimate --- and questioned whether the Academic Professionals attending Tuesday's Merit Board meeting had anything to worry about.
"I'll bet 90 percent of the people in this room are not affected by this change," Martini said. "We're talking (in the UIC cases) about people at the lowest level of wages in the university, now being replaced by people that are making wages much higher than the equivalent job."
U of I Associate Vice President of Human Resources Maureen Parks acknowledged the problems with improper Civil Service exemptions at the Chicago campus, which she says are being fixed. But she argued state universities need the ability to quickly identify those jobs which don't fit Civil Service guidelines.
"Many of our schools have groundbreaking research grants and contracts which were awarded from federal agencies," Parks said. "These external requirements, deadlines and deliverables require specific capabilities, background experience and skills."
The Civil Service Merit Board had no action to take on the Civil Service exemption bill, although they heard discussion on the measure at three points during the Thursday meeting --- during the Public Comment session, in reports from Advisory Committees, and a discussion of the U of I Chicago case.
Universities Civil Service executive director Tom Morelock said he doesn't think the Civil Service exemption bill will make it out of the General Assembly this spring.
The measure (Senate Bill 1150) passed the Illinois Senate last month, and is now awaiting action by the House Executive Committee.
Meanwhile, Morelock said he is working on his own rule changes, aimed at achieving the same goals as the bill. He says the new rules could move through the state regulatory review process in the next eight-to-12 months. But Sizemore cautioned that input from all involved parties could result in a watering-down of his proposal.
Carle Foundation Hospital has begun construction on a building that will focus primarily on heart and vascular care.
The nine-story Carle Heart and Vascular Institute, located on the hospital's campus, will include eight catheterization labs and upgrades to technology. The facility will also house intensive care beds that are currently located in buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.
"We have a real need here to improve our facilities," Carle CEO James Leonard said. "We have fantastic technical capabilities. We have great people, but we're really out of space. The demand continues to increase for all cardiovascular care, both around heart attacks as well as strokes."
During a dedication ceremony Wednesday, the Institute's medical director, Matt Gibb, emphasized the center's role in treating health conditions that can worsen over time, such as a stroke, diabetes, or a heart attack.
"The tower will be a true environment for healing," Gibb said. "It will be a place where we can help patients prevent and beat heart disease, and also return to normal life following an event like a heart attack."
Hospital officials estimate the center will have a $100 million impact on the local economy, and create up to 150 jobs during the two years it takes to construct the building.
The $220 million project, which was approved by the state in 2010, will be financed with cash and the sale of bonds.
It is scheduled to be completed in 2013.
(Design courtesy of Carle Foundation Hospital)
A jury has been seated in the terrorism trial of a Chicago man.
The twelve jurors and 6 alternates chosen will be hearing the case against Tahawwur Rana who's accused of planning the Mumbai terror attack that killed 160 people.
Ten of the jurors are women and eight are African American. Rana's defense attorneys say there were a lot of minorities in the overall pool of jurors, and that's why there are so many on the panel. Charlie Swift says it's a good jury for them.
"The idea here was to get a jury of Mr. Rana's peers and I believe that we got a jury of Mr. Rana's peers. People who can understand Mr. Rana's position as an immigrant. People who can understand Mr. Rana's position as a minority in his community, Mr. Rana's position as a businessman and as a family member," Swift said.
Opening statements in the case are scheduled to begin Monday.
The judge at the corruption retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says he expects the prosecution to rest its case on Thursday.
Prosecutors told Judge James Zagel they'll be able to get through their four remaining witnesses within just a few hours on Thursday.
Zagel said Wednesday that defense attorneys would have their chance to start calling witnesses Monday. And he said he thought closing arguments would happen at the very end of May.
Prosecutors have called only a dozen witnesses over 2 1/2 weeks in a drastically streamlined case. Some 30 witnesses testified over six weeks at the first trial.
Blagojevich faces 20 charges including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. He denies any wrongdoing.
Twenty University of Illinois students say the recent tornado damage in the south illustrates the need for building solar homes.
The wood frame of the Re_home is now on the Urbana campus, where a team will do the rest of the construction before September's Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC. The team's project manager, Beth Newman, said the idea is constructing something to run on solar power within days of a natural disaster.
"They could be up and running within a couple of days since the solar panels will already be installed on the roof before shipment," Newman said. "It's sort of a quick, easily assembly home that could be used without having to connect an electical grid."
Newman said her team was inspired to address disaster relief after storms that hit parts of Central Illinois last summer, including the cities of Streator and Dwight. She said the home could help in either a small or large-scale disaster.
"I guess what we're sort of focusing on is maybe some disasters that don't receive FEMA funding," Newman said. "Some of these towns that are hit by tornadoes, it's just really random, there might be only a few homes destroyed. And FEMA funding may not support them, so this is sort our alternate solution to that situation."
The re-home will remain on display on campus until the competition in September. It's located south of the Urbana quad, and west of the Pennsylvania Avenue greenhouses.
The Illinois Senate is sending Gov. Pat Quinn legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from giving school scholarships to relatives.
The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale makes relatives -- including those related by marriage -- ineligible for legislative scholarships to pay for college from Senate or House members.
Legislators may hand out tuition waivers each year. The process has been criticized for decades because tuition waivers in some cases have gone to family members or political supporters.
But efforts to abolish the system have failed. A proposal to change the process last year drew a veto from Quinn because he prefers to do away with it entirely.
A proposal to provide college scholarships to the children of immigrants, even illegal immigrants, is forcing Illinois lawmakers to consider whether it's appropriate to lend a helping hand to people who are in the country improperly.
Many legislators express the need to make a bad situation better. Illegal immigrants are a fact of life, they say, and giving them a shot at an education through privately funded scholarships will be better for Illinois in the long run.
Some Republicans are taking heat for supporting the pending Illinois Dream Act, partly because constituents confuse it with federal legislation by the same name that would have given some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Other constituents simply believe the Illinois scholarship program is misguided and might deepen the lure of Illinois as a safe haven for illegal immigrants.
Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, said he's getting angry phone calls and emails.
"The facts are that there are immigrants here. And the facts are that it would be better if the immigrants here are properly educated," said Duffy, who supports the legislation.
Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel supports the bill, saying that that it would be consistent with Illinois values. He attended a rally Friday to support the Illinois Dream Act and said it would be fitting for Illinois to pass the legislation because Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin has worked to pass federal legislation of the same name. The federal proposal is different because it would give some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
The Illinois Dream Act creates a panel to raise private money for scholarships to students with at least one immigrant parent, legal or illegal. The students themselves also could be in the country illegally.
To qualify for the money, students must already be enrolled in or planning to attend college, and they must have a federal taxpayer identification number proving they work and pay federal taxes.
The legislation, which is in the Illinois House after passing 45-11 in the Senate, also lets children of immigrants join state-run college savings programs. Only legal Illinois citizens may currently draw from the savings program. It also requires high school counselors to make students aware of the scholarship fund and savings program.
It has no impact on a person's immigration status.
William Gheen, president of American Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, believes illegal immigrants should not receive any sort of help getting into college.
Gheen noted federal law prohibits employing illegal immigrants but the Illinois measure would provide scholarships only if they have jobs. In other words, he said, the proposal is based on the idea of illegal activity.
Some, such as Sen. Sue Rezin, also argue students in the country might end up taking college spots that otherwise would go to citizens. She said that would mean spending tax dollars through public universities on illegal immigrants.
"A lot of legislation starts and just opens the door and becomes a state funded issue," the Morris Republican said.
Although the scholarship money would be raised from private sources, a government panel would oversee it -- which troubles critics who think the government should do nothing that might encourage illegal immigration.
Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, agreed Illinois is something of a haven for people in the country illegally. Many have lived here for years, following state laws, working hard, paying taxes and attending state schools.
"There is not going to be a scenario where those people are going to end up being deported," Syverson said. "So how do you address all those?"
He said the country needs immigration reform at the federal level and that immigrant communities must help authorities crack down on people who commit serious crimes. In the meantime, Syverson said, Illinois should help students save for college and get scholarships no matter what their immigration status.
This isn't the first time Illinois lawmakers have debated how far the state should go in accommodating people who are here illegally. In 2003 and again in 2007, they considered providing drivers licenses or an equivalent to people in the country illegally. The idea failed both times.
Several years ago, Illinois became one of the first states to offer in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. And Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn recently removed Illinois from the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program, which is supposed to target serious criminals but has been used to deport people for misdemeanor offenses. Quinn's spokeswoman said he supports the legislation.
An advocacy group estimates the scholarship bill would aid 95,000 Illinois students. Some probably have stories similar to Cindy, a 22-year-old in her last semester at University of Chicago who did not want to use her last name for fear of deportation.
Her family left Mexico for Chicago when she was 3. Cindy's parents told her from the beginning to work hard, get scholarships and go to college.
Even with a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Cindy's illegal status limits her job options. Still, she believes providing scholarships regardless of immigration status will help everyone.
"This will create a population that deserves to be here and wants to give back to a country that we consider our home," Cindy said.
The 2010 U.S. Census found Illinois' white and black populations were basically flat while the Latino and Asian population jumped by 33 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
The sponsor of the Dream Act, Sen. Iris Martinez, said Illinois would be smart to make sure all those people have a chance to learn and succeed, no matter what their immigration status.
"I'm really sad that the other side doesn't understand that these children are brought here by no fault of their own," said Martinez, D-Chicago. "How can we not put aside that difference and be able to say that child should at least be able to go to college?
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