Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Six-term Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) plans to announce he is leaving Congress at the end of his current term.
Johnson, 65, will make a formal announcement on Thursday. He recently won his party's nomination in the re-drawn 13th Congressional District, defeating two challengers.
Johnson's office issued a press release, stating only that an announcement is scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at the Urbana City Council Chambers.
The re-drawn Congressional district contains Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur and Springfield, and trades away Republican strongholds in the northern part of the old 15th district in exchange for Democratically-leaning Madison county and Metro East area of St. Louis. The re-drawn district includes a large rural constituency and University communities.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said there is now a strong possibility a Democrat could take his seat.
"It really will depend on the eventual candidates, and then it will depend on national money," Redfield said. "That was a complex question to begin with, and it just got more complex."
Pat Brady is chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. He says the timing of Johnson's announcement wasn't unexpected, thanking Johnson for his six terms in office.
"He's been one of the hardest working public servants I've ever known, and I hope he enjoys he does whatever he does next," Brady said. "We're going to go a fair, open, and transparent process and pick the best candidate to win that district, and the Democrats have done us a big favor by nominating the most liberal Democrat they could find in the state."
Brady was referring to Bloomington physician David Gill, who appears to have won the Democratic nomination over Matt Goetten in the March 20 primary. However, that result will not be certified by the State Board of Elections until April 20. Goetten has challenged the results. So, more than two weeks after the primary, it is possible that neither party has a clear nominee.
"Open seats are usually the best opportunity to win a Congressional race," Gill spokesman Michael Richards said in a statement. "In this D+1 seat that President Obama won by double digits (11 points), David is ready to take on whatever corporate-backed politician Republican party bosses handpick to replace Johnson."
Brady named State Representative Dan Brady, former state GOP executive director Rodney Davis, and former Johnson Chief of Staff Jerry Clarke as possible candidates to replace Johnson. Brady says he's meeting with lawyers Thursday, and says the process for naming a nominee will be slow and methodical.
One of Johnson's two Metro-East opponents in the March primary, Michael Firsching, says the Congressman didn't seem as involved as in prior campaigns.
"It's a little bit disappointing to have someone who ran in the race who really wasn't intending to follow through to the seat," he said. "Again, maybe he was and this was a recent change for him. But I didn't have the impression that he had been engaged as he had been in the past."
Firsching says he'd be interested in pursuing the Republican nomination, and hopes the party considers him before endorsing any other names. But Firsching says the GOP can't be overconfident, or it's possible a Democrat is elected to the 13th District this fall.
A replacement candidate would be chosen by county officials from the congressional district, according to Habeeb Habeeb, interim chairman of Champaign County's Republican Party.
Johnson has sometimes taken positions at odds with most members of his party. He called last year for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and last month endorsed Ron Paul for president.
Johnson is a lawyer and University of Illinois graduate. He was first elected to Congress in 2000, after serving in the Illinois General Assembly since 1976. Before that he was a member of the Urbana City Council. Leaving now, he will have never lost an election.
While it is unknown at this point what Johnson would do after he leaves politics, he did hint at one possible career a few months ago. In January, he held a press conference describing a bill he planned to introduce that would allow members of Congress to work jobs outside of public office.
"I don't think those of you who know me think that I'm probably going to vegetate," Johnson said. "I'm not going to sit home and watch All My Children - soap operas all day. I probably want to do something else, and yes, if this bill passes, I would very much consider going back to the law practice. And that might be something I would do at some point in the future anyway."
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Five Illinois hospitals, including Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, have withdrawn their applications for tax exemptions, leaving it up to county governments whether to assess taxes on the properties.
Illinois Department of Revenue spokeswoman Susan Hofer says hospitals in Murphysboro, Moline, Monmouth and Hillsboro have also withdrawn applications in the past week. That clears county authorities to evaluate the properties and collect taxes.
The development comes as Illinois leaders grapple with a 2010 Illinois Supreme Court ruling. The court found that one hospital wasn't doing enough charity care to qualify for an exemption. That ruling called into question other hospitals' tax exemptions.
Gov. Pat Quinn authorized more rulings on hospital tax exemptions earlier this month when efforts to find a legislative compromise failed.
The revenue department is continuing to review pending applications from other hospitals.
Federal money continues to flow out to local transportation projects, thanks to a 90-day funding measure approved by Congress and signed by President Obama last week. It is the latest in a series of just-in-time extensions that have kept transportation agencies and projects going in east-central Illinois.
Among area mass-transit agencies, Decatur Public Transit would have been hardest hit if Congress had failed to pass a short-term extension. Transit Administrator Paul McChancy said without it, they would face severe downsizing within a couple of months. McChancy said he tries not to wonder about what might happen if Congress deadlocks on the next round of surface transportation funding.
"I don't get into those speculations," McChancy said. "You know, we just have faith that Congress is going to act to support public transportation, because it is so essential to so many people. And we continue along as if full funding is expected."
Richard Brazda of Danville Mass Transit said they could survive a temporary cutoff in federal funds by using money saved up for a new downtown transfer facility. Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit uses federal funds for capital project only --- so day-to-day operations would not be affected.
Congress has until June 30 to finally agree on a long-delayed long-term surface transportation bill --- or pass another stopgap extension. The last long-term surface transportation funding measure expired in 2009. That measure had been passed by a Republican Congress under President George W. Bush. This year, a more divided Congress is struggling to agree on a new long-term bill.
The Illinois Supreme Court is deferring Cook County's request to allow cameras in its courtrooms.
Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor says the delay comes while the court waits for more results from pilot programs already under way in the state.
The court announced in January that it would allow a test of cameras in Illinois courts. Currently, 11 counties and four circuits around the state are participating in the pilot program.
Tybor tells the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald (http://bit.ly/Hlwv2z ) that the high court will evaluate how the pilot programs proceed in those counties before expanding. He says there's no immediate timetable for that evaluation.
Congressman John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) is running for re-election in the re-drawn 15th Congressional District, which includes parts of Champaign County, and all of Vermilion, Douglas, Edgar, Coles and Moultrie Counties.
Last week, Shimkus sat in on the U.S. Supreme Court's final day of hearings about the federal health care law. He told Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers that there are parts of the law he supports, but he said requiring people to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty goes a step too far.
He also discussed a bill he has introduced that would protect retailers, engine manufacturers, and fuel producers from lawsuits related to E15, a new fuel combination that is made up of 15-percent ethanol. And Shimkus looks ahead to the November general election.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Newly-released health rankings offer a mixed bag for east central Illinois counties.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin, has released County Health Rankings for the state of Illinois, which rank the 102 Illinois counties according to a variety of health factors and outcomes.
Champaign County ranked relatively high on the list, at 26th in the state; but Vermilion County fared much lower, at 95th.
Vermilion County Health Department Public Health Administrator Shirley Hicks suggests leaders and the public should use the information in the rankings to "build a healthier community."
Douglas County received the 7th highest ranking in the state, by far the best among East Central Illinois counties.
A wide range of measurements determine the rankings - they include access to medical care, graduation rates, unemployment, crime rates, air quality, and access to healthy foods, among many other factors.
This is the third year these rankings have been released.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's effort to ban Illegal synthetic drugs has included collecting more than $50,000 in drugs on Tuesday from Champaign stores.
Madigan's office targeted Champaign and Bloomington-Normal as part of 'Operation Smoked Out.' Illinois is among the states that have banned the bath salts and synthetic marijuana. By far the largest amount - more than 1,800 packs, were seized from the Smoke Shack at 208 E. Green Street. The drugs have a street value of about $44,000. Meanwhile, more drugs valued at $13,000 were taken from Global Tobacco at 202 E. Green.
"With these businesses sitting in the heart of our campus community, keeping our teens and students safe is a priority for our department," said Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb. "The Champaign Police Department thanks the Attorney General's office and associated agencies for a proactive approach to removing synthetic drugs from our city streets."
The synthetic drugs are known to contain chemical compounds that mimic the effects of cocaine or methamphetamine.
In the Normal area, about $50,000 in synthetic drugs were surrendered by six tobacco and convenience stores.
"Bloomington, Normal, and Champaign have significant numbers of college students who have been enticed to purchase and use these illegal and dangerous products," said Attorney General Madigan. "Retailers in these college towns should be aware that law enforcement will soon be walking through their front door to ensure that these dangerous, illegal drugs are not for sale."
Madigan's office has proposed legislation to target the retail sale of synthetic drugs.
(Photo courtesy of the Illinois Attorney General's office)
A photograph of an African-American Civil-War veteran is the first of its kind to be included in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.
Nathan Hughes was a farmer and Union soldier, and like Abraham Lincoln he was born in Kentucky and moved to Illinois.
Kathryn Harris is with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. She said the donated photo shows Hughes and his second wife. She said it is likely they were wealthy since they were able to afford having a photograph taken and their clothes suggest a certain level of affluence.
Harris said it is important to add a photo of an identifiable African-American to the collection.
"A lot of people are not aware of the number of African Americans who served in the Union Army and the Union Navy and that there were over 1,500 from just Illinois who served in various regiments," Harris said.
Hughes was a member of the only African-American Union regiment created in Illinois. The photograph and other materials, including his obituary, will soon be on display.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) has introduced a bill in Congress to prevent lawsuits related to problems with E15, a fuel that increases the use of ethanol to 15 percent.
The new gasoline combination represents a major contrast to a majority of the ethanol fuel currently sold in the United States for passenger cars and pickups, which are comprised of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gas. The federal government is determining whether to make the fuel available to consumers.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that E15 be used for vehicles manufactured as early as 2001, but critics worry people may mistakenly use it in older models.
The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers has challenged the government's efforts to offer E15. In a statement, the group's President Charles Drevna said with a lawsuit pending, the EPA should not rush to force E15 to the marketplace.
"EPA's hasty attempts to speed introduction of E15 before necessary testing is complete could endanger the safety of American consumers, threatening their vehicles and gasoline-powered equipment with possibly severe damage," Drevna said. "This action is more about political science than real science because it is designed to protect the ethanol industry rather than the American people."
Shimkus' bill is known as the Domestic Fuels Act of 2012 (HR 4345). It has gained support from Republicans and Democrats in the House, and there is a similar measure that has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
Shimkus touts the proposal, saying that by protecting retailers, engine manufacturers, and fuel producers from E15 related lawsuits, he hopes to see E15 and other alternative fuels available at gas pumps.
"One way in which we help decrease our reliance on imported crude oil is the success of ethanol," Shimkus said. "As we move forward, our ability to use that at retail locations is directly proportional to their ability of whether they're going to get sued or not."
The Renewable Fuels Association's President and CEO, Bob Dinneen, has come out in support of Shimkus' legislation. He calls it a thoughtful approach to help speed the country's transition to E15 and higher ethanol blends.
"The bill would avoid unnecessary infrastructure investments by providing gasoline marketers with a commonsense certification pathway for existing equipment that assures safety while accelerating consumer access to these new fuels," Dinneen said. "The Domestic Fuels Act could help deliver price relief at the gas pump for consumers while increasingly liberating this country from its unhealthy, unsafe dependence upon foreign oil."
But the environmental organization, Friends of the Earth opposes the measure, saying E15 could harm people by damaging vehicles and gasoline-powered equipment. Michal Rosenoer, who is an environmental policy advocate with the group, said oil companies should be held liable if something goes wrong.
"The engine damage they're going to incur is going to cost lots of money," Rosenoer said. "Big oil, first and foremost, should not be protected from the liability, but what we need is a more comprehensive liability policy in total."
Before it can be available to consumers, E15 must pass a series of federal tests and become a registered fuel in individual states. At this point, 20 ethanol makers have already registered to sell the fuel, including the Archer Daniels Midland Company in Decatur.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's approval of ADM's E-15 registration is a step toward bringing this homegrown fuel to American drivers," said Matt Bruns, vice president of Corn Processing for ADM. "E15 offers American drivers a cleaner, renewable alternative to traditional gasoline while positively contributing to our country's energy security, rural economic development and environmental improvement."
The Obama administration is looking to assist gas station owners in installing 10,000 blender pumps over the next several years. The federal government also has provided grants, loans and loan guarantees to push the use of bio-fuels.
(AP Photo/Mike Groll, file)
Former Blagojevich Aide Given 2 Year Prison Sentence
A federal judge on Tuesday handed a two-year prison sentence to a close friend and aide of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
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