Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Legislation to raise electric rates to help pay to modernize Illinois' power grid is on its way to the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, despite his repeated pledges to veto it.
The energy bill would raise electric rates as part of a $3 billion, 10-year plan to give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren money for basic infrastructure and a modern Smart Grid.
The bill would allow a 2.5 percent annual rate increases for the first three years. ComEd bills are projected to climb about $36 a year, while Ameren customers would pay about $34 more by the project's 10th year.
It's estimated consumers might save $7 to $10 per month by using smart meters.
Com Ed claims the Smart Grid technology will allow consumers to monitor and reduce energy usage - and will help the company respond more effectively to power outages. Com Ed serves approximately 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois.
Com Ed calls the measure "the most comprehensive electric utility-based job creation and capital investment program in generations," though Quinn claims it places too big of a burden on consumers. However, critics say the legislation guarantees ComEd and Ameren higher profits on the backs of consumers.
Quinn's "anti" stance caused supporters to put the measure on a type of legislative hold. The hope was they could use the extra time to win over the governor and other critics, including the AARP and the Citizens Utility Board.
The proposal's House sponsor, State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park), said that it didn't work. But he said the storms that knocked out power for days in suburban Chicago early this summer prove why the power grid needs to get "smart."
"There's a chance that some of these things, through redirecting the power source and just the knowledge of where it's at and how many people are affected by each individual one, that we could have used that information in order to get some of these people back on line quicker," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said even though there is still opposition, he wanted the measure to get to the governor's desk so Quinn would have to act on it before October's veto session.
Earlier this year, Quinn and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a joint statement urging the Illinois Senate to reject the measure before it became law.
"While Commonwealth Edison and Ameren talk about investment in Smart Grid, Senate Bill 1652 is clearly not just about investing in this technology," wrote Quinn and Madigan at the time. "This legislation locks in guaranteed, significant annual profits for the utility companies without real oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC)."
According to the Governor's office, ComEd rates would increase by approximately $180 million - or 9 percent -- every year for 10 years.
ComEd continued Monday to call on Quinn to sign the bill.
"Since its introduction last winter, the bill has undergone significant revisions to address concerns raised by the governor and multiple stakeholders. It is clear that the benefits provided by the bill greatly exceed its costs and allow Illinois the opportunity to invest in much-needed infrastructure improvements," the company said in a statement.
The measure's sponsors predicted they could find enough votes to override Quinn if he follows through with his threat to veto the measure. McCarthy said if it is needed, he will introduce a follow-up measure to appease those concerns. He said that could include requiring the utilities to set aside money to help low-income customers afford their electric bills, or a lower return on equity.
Chicago-area ComEd crews are lending a hand to their counterparts in Philadelphia in the wake of Hurricane Irene, while the Illinois National Guard is sending 160 of its own to New York.
Thirty ComEd crews departed Monday morning to join the 100 crews already deployed to the area. Martha Swaney, a ComEd spokeswoman, said it is common for the company to help its affiliates after periods of extreme weather.
"The crews that left last week were prepared to work more than one thousand hours on storm response efforts, and again those efforts will focus on repairs due to wind damage, downed trees, downed wires, downed branches, just to ensure that those facilities are restored," Swaney said.
As of Monday afternoon, 168,000 PECO customers were without power. Weather in Chicago looks clear this week, and ComEd said it isn't worried about the loss of manpower.
"I will note that the mutual assistance that we've offered to PECO and provided is not unlike the assistance that ComEd received after the massive storm that struck northern Illinois on July 11," said Swaney, noting that the crews for that storm had to be brought in from further away because neighboring areas were focused on their own damage. "PECO was actually among 400 personnel from 14 other states that supported ComEd's storm restoration efforts following the July 11th storm, and we're glad to return the favor."
Illinois National Guard troops are heading to nearby New York to help clean up after Hurricane Irene. The 160 troops are deploying to the East Coast indefinitely, while 1,000 who were on stand-by have now been told their services are no longer needed.
Mike Chrisman, a Public Affairs representative with the Illinois National Guard, said Illinois treated this as a "training mission."
"This is something typical that we've done many many other times; the snow storms February, the floods in May and June, and just recently this as well, so this is part of our job as the National Guard, to be ready and respond in case we're needed," Chrisman said.
Chrisman said the troops were sent to New York by the federal government, who looks at each state's resources, and determines how best they can assist, and that state funds are not being used. The governor's office says New York has agreed to reimburse Illinois for expenses related to the deployment.
A physician from McLean County says his career away from politics should serve as an advantage as he pursues a seat in the Illinois Senate.
Republican Tom Pliura of Le Roy is running in the re-drawn 51st district, consisting of mostly rural towns in ten east central Illinois counties. He will face current state representative Chapin Rose in the primary.
Pluira said having real world experience as both an emergency room doctor and a lawyer will help hold elected officials accountable. He said his campaign won't be about personal attacks, but it will upset the status quo.
"I am going to challenge some long-standing, long held, positions by both sides, and inevitably, that will probably invoke a defensive posture on both sides of the aisle," Pluira said. "I'm not afraid to do that."
A doctor for 25 years, Pliura says he's seen many patients lately carrying cards for both Blue Cross-Blue Shield as well as Medicaid, but only the latter is billed. He says that's putting an unfair burden on the Medicaid rolls.
"There's no ability for the state to check that," said Pliura. "To see if that individual who now qualifies for Medicaid because the state has loosened up and basically tripled the rolls. The state's now paying a bill when in fact Blue Cross Blue Shield got the premium for that insurance policy. We're going to stop that."
Pluira said Illinois needs to rein in spending rather than raise taxes to solve the budget crisis. The emergency room physician also says he'll push to make the state friendlier to small businesses, as well as for term limits in the legislature. Pliura has never run for public office, but if elected, he said he will serve no more than two terms.
(With additional reporting from Brandon Smith of Indiana Public Broadcasting and Michael Puente of Illinois Public Radio)
The Indiana State Board of Education has unanimously approved a plan to takeover five poor-performing public schools that are in their sixth year of academic probation.
The board endorsed the Indiana Department of Education's recommendations that New York-based Edison Learning Inc. take over Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy in Gary and that Indianapolis-based charter school operator EdPower take over Arlington High School. It also approved Florida-based Charter Schools USA as the "turnaround school operator'' of three other Indianapolis schools, Howe and Manual high schools and Donnan Middle School.
The management companies will spend this current school year assessing and evaluating the schools, and then develop a plan of action before taking full control during the next school year.
In additional to school management, many teachers could be replaced by the state beginning next year. Teachers union contracts would be nullified as well.
Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White, who attended Monday's meeting in Indianapolis, said some of the information about IPS that the board discussed is blatantly untrue.
"I really resent the fact that people can sit there and pretend that we've done nothing to make an effort," White said. "We've made tremendous efforts and respectively, I want those particular efforts recognized."
State superintendent Tony Bennett said the time for such complaints has long been over.
"Well, very bluntly, Dr. White's had two years to talk about fair shakes and share transparent information," Bennett said. "So to come to the board today and say, 'I'm not getting a fair shake,' is disingenuous."
For the last couple of years, the Indiana State Department of Education has looked at taking over roughly two dozen poor-performing schools. Such action is allowed under a state law passed in 1999.
Indianapolis Public Schools officials have threatened to sue the state over what they consider unfair evaluations of Arlington and Howe high schools.
Eight members of the Sept. 11 commission will take part in an Indiana University program on the 2001 terrorist attack just days after its 10th anniversary next month.
University officials say those expected to take part in the program on Sept. 15 include commission chairman and former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and its vice chairman, former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton. The school says the members will be together for the first time since the commission's report was released in 2004.
Hamilton says the commission's report shaped the country's response to the attacks in many ways and that the gathering in Bloomington will allow commission members to assess efforts to make the country more secure.
All but two members of the commission are expected to attend the two-hour public discussion.
Approval of the first state takeover of troubled public schools in Indiana is set for a vote by the State Board of Education.
The board is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposal by the state schools chief that the state assume control of four troubled high schools and a middle school that have seen years of low test scores.
State school superintendent Tony Bennett announced last week that would recommend state takeover of Arlington, Howe and Manual high schools and a middle school in Indianapolis and Roosevelt High School in Gary. School management companies would evaluate the schools for a year and run them starting with the 2012-13 academic year.
Indianapolis Public Schools officials have threatened to sue to stop the takeovers of Arlington and Howe high schools.
Gov. Pat Quinn has signed legislation that allows the state more time to respond to Freedom of Information Act from so-called "recurrent requesters."
Quinn's office says the Illinois governor signed the measure into law Friday and it takes effect immediately. The law also allows government entities to charge for the actual costs of retrieving information.
The move brought criticism from some civic groups, who say the new law discourages open government and is anti-democratic.
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says the new law will be "a disincentive to local governments to make information available online, without charging citizens.''
The Citizen Advocacy Center says the legislation decreases government accountability, transparency and accountability.
Both groups say the new law erodes steps Quinn took toward open information in 2009.
The University of Illinois' College of Engineering expects to break ground late this fall on a building that's been in the works for about 40 years.
The 230,000 square foot, four-story building will combine much of the research now spread between different facilities at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Nearly $50 million in state capital funds and $35 million in private donations are already committed to a project that Professor Phil Krein said was next in line to the Lincoln Hall renovations in terms of priority. It will be located just south of the Beckman Institute.
He said 2,000 students at ECE, the largest department on the Urbana campus, now split up their work in six different buildings. Krein said this will effectively house the department in one area. ECE is often mentioned on par with the same department at schools like MIT and UC Berkeley. Krein said this new building can put the U of I's department on top.
"With special emphasis these days on the electric power grid and some other basic infrastructure things, air traffic control, and so forth, the building actually can become kind of a living laboratory for power grid advances in the future as well as communications infrastructure and many other related things," he said.
Department head Andreas Cangellaris credits U of I President Hogan and Governor Pat Quinn for freeing up the capital funds for it. He said this building will allow many of the school's 2,000 students to study various innovations in the same space instead of all the buildings currently used.
"We have students who learn from things having to do with electronics and integrated circuits all the way to alternative energy, cyberphysical systems, and bio-related education that requires very special laboratories," Cangellaris said.
The U of I expects to seek out bids for construction by mid-October, with groundbreaking in November. Construction is expected to take about two and a-half years.
Health Alliance Agrees on Contract Extension
Health Alliance has approved nine-month contract extensions for state workers and employees.
The director of the Illinois Department of Corrections disputes charges from two state senators that many state prisons fall short of proper staffing levels.
State Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say that numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the ratio of inmates to security staff is reaching dangerous levels at some prisons. But state Corrections Director Tony Godinez said the numbers lack the context of the different conditions at each facility --- based on security level, building design, inmate population and the quality of training given the security staff.
"We will have enough staff, no matter what, because we have established what our minimal staffing patterns should be. We will not go below that," Godinez said. "In addition to that, my comfort level is more so with the fact that our staff is the best and they're the best trained."
Senators Cultra and Jones had also expressed concerns about whether enough new guards were being trained to replace those who would soon be eligible for retirement.
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, roughly 800 recently trained guards have been hired in the past year, and new cadet training sessions will be scheduled later in fiscal year 2012.
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