The leader of the boycotting Indiana House Democrats returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday for what he called a "very positive" meeting with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma.
Mr. Bosma met with House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer (D., South Bend) behind closed doors after the two attended another meeting with Senate leaders. Messrs. Bosma and Bauer both characterized the talk as positive. Though it didn't immediately end the month-long standoff, Mr. Bosma said it seemed like a step forward.
"It's possibly the beginning of the end," Mr. Bosma said. "It's a positive step that he returned to the Statehouse. I think that's great."
Mr. Bauer described the discussion as a positive exchange of ideas over bills, mainly one changing the regulations covering wages and other matters for workers on government construction projects.
"We've had a pretty good talk with each other," Mr. Bauer said before driving back to Illinois, where most Democrats are staying during the boycott.
Mr. Bosma (R., Indianapolis) said he would talk to the author of the government projects bill Thursday about ideas Mr. Bauer suggested. Mr. Bauer said he would talk to his caucus after hearing back from Mr. Bosma on that bill.
Mr. Bauer said it was likely impractical for Democrats to return to the House floor on Thursday because of the lateness of the meeting and the need to discuss the issues with other House members.
Before Messrs. Bauer and Bosma talked privately, they met with Senate leaders Republican David Long and Democrat Vi Simpson on a separate legal issue. Ms. Simpson described the meeting as cordial and said there was no hostility among the leaders.
"It's always a good sign when people talk," Ms. Simpson said.
The House Democrats left for Urbana, Ill., on Feb. 22 in protest of Republican-backed education and labor bills. Among them is the government projects bill. That measure, as currently written, would increase the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law from $150,000 to $1 million and remove school districts and state universities from its requirements.
After the bill became the focus of Democrats' objections, its sponsor offered to lower that level-first to $500,000 and now to $350,000-and delete the school and university exemptions.
Mr. Bauer declined to say whether Democrats asked for the level to be lowered even further and did not outline other specific changes he wanted made to the bill.
Mr. Bosma said Democrats are "looking for as much moderation in that bill as can be tolerated."
Mr. Bauer's unannounced Statehouse trip Wednesday was a stark contrast from a visit earlier this month when photographers greeted Mr. Bauer in the parking lot. Reporters gathered inside for that meeting and watched from the doorways of Mr. Bosma's office as he and Mr. Bauer and six other lawmakers talked about proposals. Those discussions did not resolve the standoff.
When asked why he took a more secretive approach to Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Bauer said: "We're trying to bring peace.
The Dewitt County Board meets Thursday night at 7 PM to consider public reaction over a measure by the Peoria Disposal Company to store a chemical substance in the Clinton Landfill known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The Clinton Landfill is owned by Area Disposal of Peoria, and in 2007 the landfill applied for permits with the Illinois and United States Environmental Protection Agency to store the toxins. The state branch of the EPA has already granted the landfill a permit, and U.S. EPA issued a draft permit.
While the U.S. EPA considers granting an official permit, the agency will hear comments on April 13 at Clinton High School about the public's response to putting toxins in the landfill. A report commissioned by the Dewitt County Board finds storing PCBs would present "a significant long-term threat" to groundwater resources in DeWitt County.
The county board may vote to present that information to the EPA during the public hearing next month. But Board Chair Melonie Tilley says that may not happen because of an agreement with Peoria Disposal stating that the board would not take a stance to "oppose or support" issuing a federal permit to the landfill.
That doesn't sit well with DeWitt resident George Wissmiller, who heads the environmental group, WATCH. Wissmiller says he does not want to see toxins stored in the landfill.
"It's going to be separated from the Mahomet Aquifer by three sheets of plastic, three feet of clay, and then an unknown number of feet of soil of unknown composition," Wissmiller explained. "All the studies I've ever seen have said that that protection will eventually fail."
Wissmiller said the DeWitt County Board has stayed neutral on the landfill PCB issue, and that sending the report to the federal EPA hearing would be a notable step for them.
The EPA banned most uses of PCBs in 1979, but they are extraordinarily persistent and can remain in the environment for a long time.
A fire in the 600 block of East Green Street in Champaign has heavily damaged at least one building and affected a half-block of buildings in the heart of the Campustown area.
The fire led to a partial collapse of the roof above Zorba's restaurant. Structures affected most by the fire include an office for the U of I's department Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Pitaya clothing store, Mia Za's Cafe, and Zorba's restaurant.The fire brought out more than a dozen emergency vehicles from both Champaign and Urbana, as thick smoke could be seen around the twin cities. Smoke damage also affected the adjacent Freestar Bank branch and nearby apartments.
Matt Mortenson has worked at Zorba's for nearly 30 years and owns the business. Mortenson spotted smoke coming out of the apartment above Pitaya at around 7:35 this morning. He said he noticed flames shooting 20 to 30 feet in the air, but he doesn't know badly his business was damaged.
"You don't know whether to laugh or cry about it," Mortenson said. "If it wasn't burned, there's a lot of water damage I'm sure."
Urbana Fire Chief Mike Dilley said a fire in a concealed space at the top of the building burned "fairly undetectably" for some time. He said that in the space housing Zorba's, the roof and sections of the floor had collapsed into the first floor, but that the first floor was still intact.
Dan Davis is a web developer for Illinois Public Media, and he lives right next to the building that burned Wednesday morning. Davis said he was asleep as the fire broke out next door.
"I heard a few minutes before a commotion outside, which I ignored like I often do," Davis said. "The next thing I know, there was a firefighter kicking my bed, telling me that it's not a drill and I got to get out immediately"
Davis said he was able to grab some computer equipment before he got out of the building, which he says had already partially filled with smoke. He noted that he was the only occupant inside his building - everyone else was either on spring break or at work.
Champaign Fire Department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher said both departments did a terrific job containing the blaze to one building.
"When we got on the scene, there was smoke crossing Green Street," she said. "That doesn't happen very often."
Schuamacher said the city will follow the recommendation of a structural engineer, who said that part of the building was too unsafe after sustaining heavy fire, water, and smoke damage. The area of the building to be removed consists of a dining area for Mia Za's Cafe, and a small unoccupied apartment. Schmachuer said removing that floor could happen Thursday.
The 600 block of East Green Street remains closed to traffic overnight.
Tuition is going up again at the University of Illinois. New students will pay more starting in the fall.
The U of I's Board of Trustees approved a 6.9 percent tuition hike for the next school year, but President Michael Hogan prefers to look at it over a four year span. He says with a state law that locks in the tuition rate over that time, incoming students will actually pay 2.7 percent annually which is closer to the rate of inflation. Hogan says the tuition hike was necessary.
"Without a tuition increase we would be short another $22 million," Hogan said. "It would be very hard to staff our classes and keep class sizes the way they are."
But others, like Trustee Tim Koritz, voiced concerns about the increasing cost of higher education.
"We have to keep in mind every time we raise tuition," Koritz said. "We may be pricing certain potential students out of the ability to attend our university."
Board chairman Chris Kennedy said he doesn't want to see the U of I be just for elite families. University leaders point out half of all students don't pay any tuition because of financial aid. The U of I is still owed about $450 million from the state government, and officials expect state funding to be reduced again in the next year.
Hogan said cost cutting will continue. Trustees raised the possibility of more consolidation within the U of I system, including academic programs. Hogan said he wants to see the first pay raise for employees in three years, but offered no specifics.
Based on the tuition increase, new students at the Urbana-Champaign campus will pay $11,104 next fall; Chicago students will pay $9,764; Springfield students will pay $8,670. Those figures don't include fees or room and board, all of which will also go up in the fall.
A proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in Indiana is on its way to the state Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the amendment on a 7-3 party line vote Wednesday, with Republican senators rejecting arguments that language prohibiting civil unions could threaten the ability of employers to offer domestic partner benefits.
Amendment sponsor Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn says the measure isn't meant to affect any benefits offered by companies and he doesn't believe that it would.
Current state law bans gay marriage.
The Republican-led House approved the amendment last month before the Democratic boycott began. If the measure passes the Legislature this year, it must pass again in 2013 or 2014 to go before voters on the 2014 ballot.
The congressman representing east-central Illinois is vehemently against any US involvement in the deepening conflict in Libya.
Even before the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over the country, 15th district Republican Tim Johnson had voiced opposition to sending American troops there. Now, he says Congress should try to defund the effort after voting to ease the nation's budget deficit.
"Now we face the very clear reality of eliminating all those cuts with the additional amount of money we're going to expend on an incursion into a part of the world that doesn't threaten America -- that is number one -- number two is clearly an unconstitutional action, and number three is very unwise public policy,"Johnson said.
Johnson said Congress has been in recess, so it hasn't come up with any response to President Obama's decision to send warplanes over Libya. In fact, Johnson accuses Obama of deliberately waiting until the recess to take action.
The congressman said American troops should not be anywhere that does not affect US interests, including Iraq or Afghanistan.
As the U.S. electric car market gears up this year, utility company Ameren is showing off one of the models.
Company spokesman Leigh Morris says its 17-day test drive of Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is intended to show that the utility is prepared to handle charging for either all-electric cars as well as hybrids. He says the utility will provide free electric upgrades needed to charge the vehicle, like a new transformer in the home.
The I-MiEV is aimed at the European market, but a similar model is expected to arrive in the U.S. this fall, and has a maximum driving range of about 85 miles. Morris says Ameren is also showing off the car to give the consumer some options:
"This type of a vehicle is probalby ideally suited for somebody who does a lot of urban-type driving," he said. "Because you're not going to get in it and drive to St. Louis. It has that limitation of the 85 miles. The fact of the matter is, an all-electric car is not going to be suited for everybody."
Morris said Ameren Illinois plans to purchase four plug-in hybrid bucket trucks of its own soon.
"We're also going to be test-driving the (Chevy) Volt as well as the Nissan Leaf," he said. "And I would not be surprised if down the road as become vehicles become available, if we don't try those out as well. This is all a learning curve for everybody. I think we're really at the birth of the electric car."
The I-Miev charges with a 120-volt outlet for about 12 hours, but consumers can purchase higher-voltage charging stations. Ameren is taking the electric car to 16 cities in its market over the next couple of weeks, including Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Decatur, and the St. Louis area.
The leader of Indiana's House Democrats says their boycott will continue Wednesday.
House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer issued a statement Tuesday from the Democrats' hotel in Illinois saying his caucus remains resolved to fight the Republican agenda they consider an attack on the middle class.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma had said Tuesday that he was optimistic that Democrats might return soon. Bauer said Democrats wouldn't return Wednesday and would review the situation day by day after that.
Bosma told reporters he was hopeful Democrats would return so the House would have the quorum needed to conduct business. But Bosma also said he predicted Purdue's basketball team would go to the Final Four, and they have already been eliminated from the NCAA tournament. He described himself as an "eternal optimist.
The number of broadband Internet connections in Illinois has exceeded the number of phone landlines for the first time, a sign that the use of traditional phone service continues to decline.
The number of high-speed Internet connections in the state rose to 6.4 million last year, while the number of phone landlines dropped 31 percent to 6.2 million, The State Journal-Register of Springfield reported. But both numbers are dwarfed by the number of Illinois wireless subscribers: about 11.6 million last year.
Federal and state regulators released the figures Monday.
Illinois legislators rewrote the state's telecommunications law last year to include three landline options with cheap rates that can't be increased.
AT&T and other communications companies supported the bill, which lifted many state regulations on landlines. Supporters of the overhaul said it would bring new jobs and allow companies to focus on developing broadband and other technologies.
Jim Zolnierek, the Illinois Commerce Commission's director of telecommunications, told the Journal-Register that he expected "to see these same trends continue going forward."
The next phase of construction on a high-speed rail route between Chicago and St. Louis will begin next month, a high-stakes transportation project similar to those that other states have rebuffed, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced Tuesday.
"Illinois has always been a strong railroad state and we always will be," Quinn said at an Amtrak rail yard near downtown Chicago.
Quinn and Durbin took swipes at other states for turning back money for high-speed rail, including Florida, which rejected $2.4 billion that had been earmarked for rail projects in that state because new Republican Gov. Rick Scott was worried taxpayers could get socked with the bill for any overruns and operating subsidies. Illinois has said it will try to get a part any money that other states return.
"The governors of these other states that have given up their money can stand by and wave at our trains when they go by. We're going to move people, we're going to freight, we're going to set a standard for America. It starts right here in Chicago," Durbin said.
But not everybody in Illinois is gung-ho about fast trains. Freshman Congressman Joe Walsh said the government can't afford to spend the money and he doubted their cost effectiveness because Americans love their cars. He said governors like Scott in Florida had the right idea by giving up federal money for rail projects.
"I respect the governors who have done that, that clearly is not what Pat Quinn is about," Walsh, whose district is in northern Illinois.
Illinois' other senator, Republican U.S. Mark Kirk, supports high speed rail including federal funding and believes it should be a private-public partnership so that trains move with the speed and reliability to serve consumers who would otherwise would fly, Kirk spokesman Lance Trover said.
When high-speed trains are eventually traveling up to 110 mph, the trip between St. Louis and Chicago could be cut by 90minutes to less than four hours.
Illinois has been awarded $1.2 billion in federal money to expand passenger rail and the state has promised to kick in another $42 million. Last year, Quinn and Durbin debuted the first $98 million in upgrades to a 90-mile stretch of track from Alton, just northeast of St. Louis, to Lincoln for the high-speed route.
The latest $685 million section of the construction project is scheduled to start April 5 and includes building new rail track using concrete ties between Dwight and Lincoln and between Alton and the Mississippi River. A modernized signal system will also be installed between Dwight and Alton, Quinn's office said. Officials estimate the work would create more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, such as construction and manufacturing work. Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said job numbers are typically devised using formulas based on the amount of money being spent on a project.
Trains traveling at 110 mph on the 284-mile Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor could debut between Dwight and Pontiac as early as next year, Quinn's office said. Upgrades to the Dwight-Alton portion of the corridor are expected to be finished by 2014.