Illinois Public Media News
State Farm Insurance Cos. will stop providing supplemental medical coverage for its Medicare-eligible retirees next year in a cost-cutting move.
The Bloomington-based company says it will instead help them find supplemental Medicare coverage and provide them with $200 a month to help. It wasn't immediately clear how many of the company's 28,700 retirees the move will affect.
State Farm also will make changes in the availability of retirement health care for current and future employees. People hired after this year, for instance, will have to pay for all of their own retirement medical insurance.
State Farm spokesman Phil Supple told The Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington that growing medical claims have driven up the company's health care costs.
Many companies have announced similar changes in recent years.
The achievements of two Champaign-Urbana residents have won them the state of Illinois' highest honor.
The Order of Lincoln honor is bestowed on Illinoisans who have served their communities - since it originated in 1964, it's gone to people ranging from Ronald Reagan to Gwendolyn Brooks to Walter Payton.
In April, Governor Pat Quinn will give the award to Shahid Khan, the president of the Urbana auto component company Flex-n-Gate, and to Tim Nugent, who worked for decades to make the University of Illinois and the rest of the world more accessible to people with disabilities.
Other honorees at the Krannert Center ceremony will be Chicago arts philanthropists Richard and Mary Lackritz Gray, Northwestern university law professor and former state senator Dawn Clark Netsch, and Illinois Arts Council chair Shirley Madigan.
Linda Cross is the newest member of the Champaign City Council.
The former Champaign County Board member and township official was appointed Tuesday night to fill the District 5 seat on an interim basis, until after the election in April. And Cross got her feet wet right away, as the council heard varying opinions on the city's groundwater ordinance. It's an issue she calls 'mind-boggling'.
"I've certainly kept up somewhat today with the issue, but I haven't been presented with that kind of information before," Cross said. "So I'm definitely very concerned. I didn't want to make that decision tonight. I really would like to have more information."
Cross did vote to recommend repealing the ordinance on a case by case basis, which the council approved 8-1. She said her experience with budgets suits her well for the council's difficult financial decisions in the next couple months.
Cross is filling the vacancy left by Gordy Hulten, when he was made Champaign County Clerk. Steve Meid was also vying for the interim appointment, as were Paul Faraci, Jim McGuire, and Cathy Emanuel. Those last three names will run write-in campaigns to replace Cross in April.
Champaign's City Council has recommended that it consider repealing the city's groundwater ordinance - but on a case by case basis.
A capacity crowd attended Tuesday night's 4-hour meeting and study session, urging the council to force the Illinois EPA and Ameren to conduct a full remediation of the former manufactured gas plant site at 5th and Hill streets, that includes neighboring properties.
Resident Lillian Driver operates a day care out of her home, where evidence of 6 different chemicals was revealed in a recent test.
"Imagine these are your children that I will be watching," Driver said. "You wouldn't allow them to be in this situation. You would take them out. Now that this has been exposed, more than likely, these children I'm attending to, these parents are going to remove these children."
City staff and an EPA official still contend that levels of chemicals like benzene don't pose a health risk. But two environmental experts hired by Champaign County Health Care Consumers say samples taken this week from a Boneyard Creek pipeline prove Ameren hasn't done nearly enough to remediate the gas plant site.
Council member Will Kyles said Ameren appears to have done a good job with its cleanup efforts, but he said tests for chemicals like benzene continually prove otherwise.
"All I know is that as we continue to look into these issues, and continue to dive in and do more tests, we do find more stuff," he said. "Every time we go into meetings, we have homework assignments. And so that creates doubt. And that shows doubt there's doubt in our minds that this clean up is effective."
The City Council is also recommending that staff prepare a statement for the Illinois Pollution Control Board on vapor intrusion standards. Mayor Jerry Schweighart said it will likely require another study session before the groundwater ordinance repeal receives a formal vote.
But the Council's recommendation was not enough to stop a potential lawsuit against the city regarding the discharge of contaminants in Boneyard Creek. Claudia Lennhoff with Champaign County Health Care Consumers has given the city 60 days to treat pollutants flowing from a drainpipe into the creek, or the citizen lawsuit will proceed.
Lennhoff said the city is violating the Clean Water Act by allowing contaminated groundwater from the Ameren gas plant site to seep into that pipe. And said says it may contain coal tar, like another section of pipe she found in Boneyard Creek.
"And any time that water washes over that, it's spreading some of the contamination from the coal tar," Lennhoff said. "It's very important for the city tor respond to this issue, but the city can thank Ameren for this pipe, or the predecessor company, but it is on city property and so the responsiblity is up to the city to get it cleaned up."
But Lennhoff commends the city council's recommendation to consider groundwater ordinance repeals on a case by case basis, saying it will provide more transparency for residents. She said if the ordinance still exists citywide, it will allow the owners of gas stations, dry cleaners, and other businesses to try and avoid cleaning up groundwater contamination.
An effort to build a wind turbine on the University of Illinois campus will appear on the Board of Trustees' agenda during its March 23 meeting in Springfield.
The plan calls for a single wind turbine on the university's South Farms site. It was estimated to cost $4.5 million, but last week the university increased that value by $700,000. University spokesman Tom Hardy said a challenge confronting the U of I is finding a way to close that budget gap.
"Still a lot of work to do on this project, not the least of which is how to close a nearly $700,000 funding gap," Hardy said. "In the meantime, the turbine project will be presented for consideration by the full board."
Suhail Barot, the Committee Chair with the Student Sustainability Committee, said he met Tuesday afternoon with U of I President Michael Hogan. Barot said Hogan told him the energy project would move forward.
"He did ask us to look into finding whatever we can do to help cover the budget shortfalls," Barot said. "We will help with it, but we don't know to what degree."
Students at the University of Illinois have been talking about setting up a wind turbine on campus for the last several years. It was originally introduced in 2003 by Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS), who initiated a student fee to support clean energy. By 2008, then-Chancellor Richard Herman canceled the project because of budget concerns.
A $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation supporting the project needs to be used before it expires at the end of May 2011.
At its meeting next month, the Board of Trustees is expected to vote on a contract with an energy company hired to build the turbine.
Champaign County residents have raised concerns about the project's cost, shadows produced by the turbine throughout the day, and the amount of noise pollution that would be generated.
Senators from both parties are frustrated by a lack of budget information from Gov. Pat Quinn's office.
They pressed for details about Quinn's budget plans during a committee hearing Tuesday. The Democratic governor is scheduled to release his budget proposal next week.
The senators wanted some idea of how much spending would be cut from human services or how Quinn concludes he has cut $3 billion in past years. They were also disappointed that Quinn budget director David Vaught didn't testify at the hearing.
Vaught chief of staff Malcolm Weems said his boss was busy. He also told senators that the governor hasn't finalized his budget proposal.
Despite a major tax increase, Illinois officials probably will have to cut in many areas to stay within new spending caps.
Mattoon, Ill. is getting a boost from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said his department is giving the Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative in Mattoon a $740,000 loan and a $100,000 grant to provide financing that will be used to renovate and modernize the Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center.
"Strengthening the hospital will make it easier for economic development officials in Illinois to be able to attract business and industry to that area because they know that workers who may get injured or family members who need hospital care will be able to get hospital care," Vilsack said.
Vilsack said it is important to prevent residents from having to travel long distances to get the care they need. He added that the Mattoon project will create 17 new jobs and retain more than 1,600 by preventing hospital closure.
Vilsack said a nationwide package supporting sixteen rural development projects in ten states will leverage 15 private dollars for every public dollar spent.
The income tax increase that took effect at the start of 2011 will give state legislators some buffer.
With a new General Assembly getting to work on Tuesday, the budget will be front and center. Democrats still hold a sizable majority, but Republicans gained enough seats that there must be at least some GOP support in both chambers for borrowing and other measures to pass.
The new makeup of the legislature could put a wrinkle in Democrats' efforts to erase the state's backlog of bills. Illinois' budget was so thin, the state has held off paying social service organizations, schools, and businesses with state contracts.
Democrats want to leverage the incoming revenue from the tax hike to borrow more than $8 billion to immediately make those vendors whole, but first they will have to convince Republicans ... who say they are withholding support until there are spending cuts and other changes.
Besides borrowing, a revamp of the workers' compensation system and reductions in current state employees' pension plans could be major topics this year at the capitol.
Employers posted fewer job openings in December, the second straight month of declines. That's a sign hiring is still weak even as the economy is gaining strength.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that employers advertised nearly 3.1 million jobs that month, a drop of almost 140,000 from November. That's the lowest total since September.
Openings have risen by more than 700,000 since they bottomed out in July 2009, one month after the recession ended. That's an increase of 31 percent.
But they are still far below the 4.4 million available jobs that were advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.
The figures follow a mixed jobs report released last week, which showed the unemployment rate fell sharply to 9 percent in January from 9.4 percent the previous month. But it also found that employers added a net total of only 36,000 jobs, far below what's needed to consistently reduce unemployment.
There are far more unemployed people than there are job openings. Nearly 14.5 million people were out of work in December. As a result, on average there were 4.7 people competing for each available job. That's below the ratio of 6.3, reached in November 2009, the highest since the department began tracking job openings in 2000.
But in a healthy economy, the ratio would fall to roughly 2, economists say.
The department's report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, or JOLTS, counts number of jobs advertised on the last business day of the month. The figures are for December, but economists say the report provides an indication of future hiring patterns because it can take several months to fill many jobs.
Job openings dropped sharply in professional and business services, a category that includes temporary help agencies. They also fell in construction, manufacturing, and in education and health services.
Job openings rose in trade, transportation and utilities, and in retail.
Republican lawmakers in Indiana are determined not to fail this time around in pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.
On Monday, a Republican-controlled House committee approved the amendment requirement by a 8-4 vote along party lines. It now moves to the full Indiana House and then the Senate, both of which are controlled by Republicans.
But Republicans were not the amendment's only supporters.
Democratic backers include state Rep. David Cheatham, who hails from the 69th district in southeast Indiana. He co-sponsored the measure.
"Since we have a state law already, why do we need to have this part of the constitution?" Cheatham, of North Vernon, asked. "My view on that is this: We have laws that deal with situations. We have a constitution that deals with foundation issues; fundamental issues. This is a foundation, fundamental issue. Marriage between one man and one woman."
The House committee also heard from critics who provided emotional testimony. They included Jessica Wilch, president of Indiana Equality of Indianapolis.
"There's a force in this state that is determined to undermine the rights of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Those rights affect domestic-partner benefits to hospital visitation," Wilch said. "And now there seems to be a significant effort to change the constitution of this state to question whether the LGBT community should even reside here."
This is the second time Republicans have taken on such an amendment.
In 2005, as now, the Indiana House and Senate were controlled by Republicans. The party got a similar amendment through both chambers, but under Indiana law, amendments must pass through the legislature twice. By 2006, Democrats took control of the legislature, and the amendment stalled once Republicans were out of power.
If the GOP prevails in back-to-back legislative cycles this time around, the measure would still face hurdles. For one, it would have to win support in a state-wide referendum. Most constitutional amendments in Indiana take years to pass.
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