Illinois Public Media News
The Urbana city council has given preliminary approval for two tax increases to help boost the salaries of union employees.
The 1 percent sales tax on package liquor, and hiking the city's hotel-motel tax from 5-to 6-percent are both on next Monday's agenda. They would pay for raises through AFSCME and the Fraternal Order of Police, as well as an additional officer.
Alderman Dennis Roberts cast the only no vote in Monday night's committee of the whole meeting, but only because he felt residents needed time to weigh in on the measure.
"We're not in a crushing situation," Roberts said. "The need to jump ahead a month to acquire one month's revenue doesn't seem to serve the city, citizens as well as I would like to see it."
The council will also vote next week on Mayor Laurel Prussing's plan to veto Urbana's $72,000 for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors' Bureau. Prussing wants to use the funds for two police positions.
The CVB's Jayne DeLuce spoke out against the plan Monday night, as did Raymond Ceresa of Eastland Suites, who credits the bureau for $70,000 in room revenue in the past year.
Alderman Charlie Smyth said he is looking for new revenue sources if Prussing's plan is approved.
One possible source - the city has received $19,000 for a year's worth of property tax money from Provena Covenant Medical Center.
Urbana's city council will resume its discussion later this month on a proposed panhandling ordinance.
More than half of Monday night's four-hour committee of the whole meeting consisted of public comments with all but one person against the idea. The ordinance was suggested by Mayor Laurel Prussing on behalf of residents of Southeast Urbana. It doesn't ban panhandling per se. Tough, it does create restrictions on where it can happen. For example, it would be prohibited in Philo Road's Business District, on private property, and other designated locations, like near an ATM or bus stop.
The measure would also impact what is called 'aggressive' panhandling. Alderwoman Diane Marlin has heard of a number of recent panhandling cases, most of them involving seniors.
"A woman called me to tell me that she was driving to the gym on Colorado Avenue," she said. "And at 5:45 in the morning, her car was stopped in the middle of the street. A person was standing in the middle of the street, stopped her car, and demanded money. This woman felt threatened."
Esther Patt told council members in Monday night's committee of the whole meeting that protecting people in some areas, like near an ATM is fine, but the city should not infringe on a panhandler's speech.
"To make unlawful the utterance of words is reprehensible," Patt said. "It's un-American. And it's not necessary to accomplish your purpose."
The one backer of the ordinance among the public was Theresa Michaelson, who said seniors are afraid in the Philo Road Business District, where they're essentially trapped if approached by a panhandler in a fast food drive-thru.
Marlin said the ordinance as written strikes a balance between an individual's right to panhandle, protected under the First Amendment, and the public's right to be free of harassment. However, she said there is nothing to keep the city council from tweaking the measure when members take it up again July 25th.
Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly said officers have received more than 80 such complaints since last year.
Opponents question how police will interpret which panhandlers are violating the ordinance, as well as $165 fines against violators who probably don't have the money. Connolly said police would likely issue warnings on a first offense, but violators could also be sentenced to community service.
Talk on the proposal resumes July 25th.
A member of a panel looking at issues related to hunger says while state funding remains a concern, some are not aware of federally-funded programs literally in their own backyard.
Kate Maehr co-chairs the Illinois Commission to End Hunger. She was among those taking testimony Sunday from migrant farm workers in Rantoul at the first of eight meetings statewide to discuss access to food in rural areas. Maeher said the key now is connecting people to the federally-funded SNAP program, or summer meal programs in schools. She cited what she calls 'poignant' testimony from one of the migrant workers, who discussed visiting a local food pantry.
"He said you (operators of pantries) should ask questions," Maeher said. "When people come in for a bag of food, ask them if they're getting a paycheck. Ask them if they have other things they need. I think that's a really important reminder for all of us. Sometimes we get caught in our silos, whether it's to get a bag of food or some other service, it's really incumbent upon us to extend ourselves to find out if there are other things that individual may need."
Maehr said only 15-percent of those eligible for the school-based summer meal programs are taking advantage of them.
Donna Camp with the Wesley Evening Food Pantry in Urbana said her facility often tries to deliver bags of food to migrant farm workers, since they'll be working after the pantry closes at 7:30. Camp said the testimony from the event in Rantoul didn't surprise her, but she did not know how much state funding had been cut to the Illinois Migrant Council, which does outreach for the SNAP program. Camp said many resources exist within communities if they learn to share with one another.
"How can the employers work with community organizations, government or non-profit, to have food ready when workers arrive in town?" she said. "How can school districts get involved? The children of these workers are being educated. This year, the Urbana school district has the contract to do that in our area."
Camp said while SNAP benefits are important, there are a number of undocumented workers who are not eligible for the program. She said her food pantry will keep tabs on the state commission and its recommendations, with hopes it responds better to the needs of migrant workers.
(Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann)
A week after the University of Illinois announced plans to push for a 3 percent pay raise for its employees, the U of I is budgeting for the salary increases to continue next year.
On Monday, university officials released a preliminary operating budget for fiscal year 2013 during a meeting of the U of I's budget and audit committee. In it, about $33 million would support the merit-based salary hikes across all three campus.
Despite a $312 million backlog in payments from the state, U of I President Michael Hogan said he is confident in the university's ability to move forward with the raises.
"I think we're in very good, very reasonable position on our debt - short and long-term both actually," Hogan said. "Our biggest worry of course remains whether or not we're going to get that overdue funding from the state, 46 percent of our budget."
The raises are slated to start in August, but the University of Illinois' Board of Trustees still has to approve the payments.
The board meets again July 20-21 in Chicago.
Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn is defending the state's civil union law in a dispute with a Catholic adoption agency. State officials say they won't renew foster care or adoption contracts with Catholic Charities. The organization has received state money in the past, but Catholic Charities has said it would not comply with the new civil unions law signed by Quinn.
Quinn said the law granting gay couples many of the same rights as married couples is staying put.
"We're not going back," Quinn said. "Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won't participate voluntarily in a program, that's their choice."
Quinn said another agency is helping coordinate more adoption services. There are four Catholic Charities offices around Illinois.
State workers plan to picket at government buildings across Illinois to protest Gov. Pat Quinn's attempt to cancel their raises.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees says it will hold informational pickets at more than 75 places Tuesday.
Quinn said recently that he's canceling raises for nearly 30,000 employees, even though they're required by contract. He says lawmakers didn't give him enough money to increase pay and still keep state agencies running.
The union is suing and taking the issue to an arbitrator.
The union accuses Quinn of breaking his word. Workers struck a deal with him last year to delay raises but not cancel them.
The Decatur Public School District is getting nearly $3.5 million over the next three years to beef up student achievement at one of its high schools.
Eisenhower High School is one of 13 low-performing high schools in the state to receive money through the Student Improvement Grant (SIG), which was awarded by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Bobbi Williams is the director of special programs with the Decatur Public Schools. She said the requirements to keep the grant are similar to the federally-funded "Race to the Top" program. She said Eisenhower needs to show a decline in disciplinary referrals, an increase in attendance, and improved test scores.
"So, it's just a closely knit, lots of layers to this grant where when they're all working together, there should be proof in the pudding with our data," she said.
With the grant, Williams said the school district will purchase software for online courses, update classroom technology, and hire professional development coordinators to work with students and teachers.
"What we know about improving student achievement is it starts with the teacher, and it begins with the leadership," Williams said. "Those are really the two key focuses of this grant because that's based on research, and that's also based on the experiences of successful turnaround schools."
High Schools in Chicago, Springfield, and Peoria also received the grant.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has set new standards for power plants that could affect Illinois residents' wallets. The new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is an attempt by the EPA to improve air quality by requiring plants to install or upgrade pollution control equipment.
Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said the new rules will come with a cost.
"Well, it's gonna have a negative impact on consumers, I mean this pollution control equipment is not cheap -- and I don't think EPA recognizes that when they impose these rules," Gonet said. "I mean, consumers are gonna pay higher costs of electricity."
But Dave Kolata, who heads the Citizens Utility Board, disagrees. He said Illinois residents will not see a rate hike in the short term. If anything, he said residents might see an increase further down the road, but only if other energy saving policies aren't put into place.
The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is a replacement of the 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered EPA to revise the CAIR in 2008. The EPA estimates the new standards will cost $800 million annually after 2014, in addition to the $1.6 billion per year in capital investments from CAIR.
The new standards will be implemented in 28 states by 2012. The EPA estimates that these changes will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent and nitrogen dioxide emissions by 54 percent from 2005 levels.
Over the last year, Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers has visited a third grade class at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign. Just about all of these students are native Spanish speakers, and they are learning English as a second language through self expression. Shortly before they left for the summer, Sean checked out their final class project.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
Illinois' Supreme Court has ruled that a statewide construction program is constitutional. This reverses an appellate court ruling that threw the $31 billion plan into doubt.
The case involves a plan lawmakers approved in 2009. They decided to pay for the construction by raising taxes on liquor and candy, as well as legalizing video gambling at bars and truck stops.
The projects have created construction jobs across Illinois.
In the much anticipated final ruling on the legislation, all seven justices sided with Gov. Pat Quinn and the bipartisan leadership in the legislature, which endorsed the plan.
Justice Anne Burke wrote that "capital projects" - including those for roads, schools and bridges - is a "legitimate single subject." Burke added that the rest of the bill - including new taxes and expanded video gambling to pay for the projects - have a "natural and logical connection to that subject."
Governor Pat Quinn expressed his gratitude for the ruling.
"It was enacted by the legislature, signed by the Governor - the executive branch, upheld by the judicial branch," Quinn said. "Now we have a law now that's a model for building in our state, and in every other state."
Union officials, like AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, say Illinois workers should welcome a court ruling.
Carrigan said the court's decision protects a program that puts Illinois "solidly at the forefront'' in job creation by keeping construction workers, manufacturers, and suppliers doing the kind of work that moves a community forward.
"When you sit down with the various communities, the regions, their economic development arm, practically every one of those councils as part of what they need for their community to go forward is some kind of infrastructure improvement," Carrigan said. "Whether it's widening two lanes to four lanes, whether it's a bypass, a bridge."
James Sweeney of the International Union of Operating Engineers said the ruling removes "a black cloud'' hanging over jobs that support hundreds of thousands of people.
The lawsuit was brought by Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who also owns a liquor distributorship. He argued the law was unconstitutional that it increased the tax on liquor by more than $4 a gallon while the new tax on beer went up less than five cents. Wirtz's attorneys also alleged the package violated a requirement that laws stick to a single subject.
The Illinois Supreme Court's decision may have an impact on how legislators draft future bills, according to University of Illinois political science professor Jim Nowlan.
The court unanimously decided that the package of different tax increases and gambling expansion to pay for the program did not violate a rule that bills only cover one subject, but Nowlan said the argument over just what constitutes a single subject is not over.
"The revenue increases, which were of various types, were all necessary and pertinent to support the capital construction," Nowlan said. "I think the single subject requirement of the constitution will be revisited in the future as suggested by this trail of litigation."
Nowlan said the courts are still refining the definition of a "single subject," and legislators may try again to wrap future topics together under one overarching objective like capital construction.
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