Illinois Public Media News
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is demanding that Mattoon officials decide by the end of the week whether they want to be part of the revised FutureGen clean-coal project.
Durbin made the demand Monday in a letter to Angela Griffin. She leads the Coles Together economic development group in Coles County. "We need to make sure that we understand exactly what FutureGen 2.0 represents," said Griffin. "We need to make sure that we've considered everthing - that we haven't eliminated something from consideration that's important. We need to consider the immediate impact, and we need to consider the long-term impact. This project as presented has several faces to it, and we need to consider what DOE's (The Department of Energy's) long-term plans are for a carbon storage system in Mattoon." But Griffin says she holds no ill will towards Senator Durbin, who she notes worked for this project and the Mattoon community for years, at a time when many others in Washington turned their backs on it.
Until last week FutureGen included a power plant to be built in Mattoon with carbon dioxide from its coal stored underground. The Department of Energy now wants to retrofit a plant across the state in Meredosia. Mattoon would store carbon dioxide from that plant. The department has said it needs to finalize revisions by Sept. 30 to use $1.1 billion in stimulus funds. Durbin says the Department of Energy needs to find a new carbon storage site if Mattoon isn't interested. Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says his request to meet with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the changes has been turned down.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's plan to tax gasoline for road improvements will be brought to a vote next week.
She calls the 2-cent a gallon motor fuel tax 'a modest proposal' - contending it's more expensive to not maintain streets than to maintain them. The ordinance also calls for an automatic escalator of point-4 cents per gallon each July for three years, unless the city council suspends it. The idea passed on a 4 to 3 vote by the Urbana City Council Monday night - so a formal vote can be held next Monday. One of three 'no' votes came from Alderman Brandon Bowersox, who says he likes the idea... just not the timing of it.
"I still feel like the economy has people in such a hard place just keeping their families afloat." said Bowersox. "It's a really hard time to implement a new tax. And I guess if it were up to me alone, I'd say let's wait 6 to 12 months, and look at this as part of next year's budget."
The four tenths of a cent escalator was also a concern for Alderwoman Diane Marlin, who says the tax should be limited to road repair. Mayor Prussing says the funds may be targeted for future road projects, like traffic roundabouts.
Alderman and supporter Charlie Smyth says city leaders would identify exactly what projects the tax would be used for. He says starting out slowly, but working up to a tax of 3-point-2 cents after three years... is a good amount of money to start making an impact.
"After that, it just should simply be part of the way we do the rest of our business." said Smyth. "..which is an annual review of all of our fees and permits."
Mayor Prussing says the local fund was necessary since the state motor fuel tax has been constant for 20 years, while the cost of road repairs has more than doubled. She also contends that cities like Danville haven't driven away motorists after enacting the tax. Besides Smyth, others backing the proposal were Robert Lewis, Dennis Roberts, and David Gehrig. Bowersox, Marlin, and Heather Stevenson opposed the plan.
The Champaign School Board has unanimously approved a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff. This comes six months after negotiations began between the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union and the school district, and more than a month after the old contract expired.
The contract includes a 65 cent pay raise for teaching assistants after one year, and a 50 cent increase each year for the following two years. Board President Dave Tomlinson says teacher assistants in Champaign have traditionally made less money compared to aides in nearby school districts.
"We tried to bring them up to a comparable area over the three year period," he said, adding that teacher's aides are with students as much as teachers are during a seven hour day.
The contract also covers other positions, including custodians, maintenance personnel, and food service workers. They will see their annual salaries go up by around two-point-two percent.
Union President Mary Logsdon was congratulated by members of the school board, including Tomlinson and Superintendent Arthur Culver. Logsdon described the new contract as a victory for the union given the state's financial crisis, but she added that many of its members were not completely satisfied with the final outcome.
"You know, there are still people out there who are going to have to work two or three jobs in order to pay their bills," she said. "We're only going to get so much."
Tomlinson said he anticipates the school board cutting about two million dollars from the budget next year. Students are scheduled to return to class on August 19th.
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he's 'more than upset' with the Obama administration for what he calls an absolute betrayal of what has been promised for FutureGen.
The Republican says the revamped agreement to make Mattoon a repository for underground storage of carbon emissions, rather than the home to a clean-coal burning plant, shows 'a lack of credibility' from colleagues who had support the original project the last few years. Johnson says he's hoping to set up a meeting with US Energy Secretary Steven Chu next week, with hopes he'll reconsider. "We don't know exactly what the cost is going to be, but it's definable enough that we can go ahead with the project as promised," said Johnson. "As a matter of fact, we just got a letter within the last day or two from I-EPA indicating that they were going full speed with the project. So this came as a complete suprise to us, and it came as a complete surprise to everybody in the delegation apparently with the exception of Senator (Dick) Durbin."
Johnson says the Illinois US Senator had plenty of time to take credit for FutureGen's original plan... but has now become someone he can't count on. The Congressman says Republican colleagues Mark Kirk and John Shimkus are also upset with the revamped plan. Meanwhile, the chairman of the consortium of energy companies supporting the FutureGen project said it was ready to go ahead with the revised plans. Steven Winberg of the FutureGen Alliance says they look forward to "moving the project to the new phase", and working with the Energy Department and officials in Coles County to better understand the new plan's "details and merits".
Union members have ratified a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff in the Champaign School District --- and the school board will take its vote Monday night.
The three-year contract was ratified by members of the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union Thursday night. Union President Mary Logsdon says many members weren't happy with the agreement. But she says it's the best that could be done, considering the economy and the state's fiscal crisis.
"I mean it's a hard time to negotiate right now", says Logdson. "I feel like what we were able to do, I'm pleased with. You always want more, but like I say, with the times the way they are, I felt like we did pretty well by our membership."
Logsdon declined to give firm details prior to the school board's vote. But she said there was at least one bright spot --- pay for teaching assistants.
"We were concerned about our teaching assistants, with their pay parity with other districts, and we were able to improve upon that", says Logdson.
The contract also covers custodians, food service worker, bus drivers and other non-teaching jobs in the Champaign Unit Four District. The old contract expired June 30th.
Illinois' back-to-school sales tax holiday started Friday Through August 15th, shoppers can buy clothing, shoes and school supplies --- priced up to $100 --- without having to pay the state's 5%sales tax.
Susan Hofer of the Illinois Department of Revenue says the chief reason for the tax holiday is to help families during a tight economy.
"Governor Quinn and the General Assembly felt that this year above all, we wanted to do what we could to give parents struggling financially a break on what they have to spend", says Hofer.
The sales tax holiday is also welcomed by retailers, many of which are promoting the temporary tax break in their advertising. But Mark Robyn of the Washington D-C based Tax Foundation says the savings to consumers are modest, in part because some merchants use the tax holidays to mask their own price increases. Robyn says retailers don't gain either, because shoppers just shift their buying to the tax holiday period, instead of buying more. He calls tax holidays a gimmick.
"If a state needs to offer a holiday from their sales tax", said Robyn during a news conference, "it may be a good indication that there are bigger problems with their sales tax."
Robyn's arguments are disputed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which lobbied for the bill creating the sales tax holiday. The group's president, David Vite, says competition will push merchants to cut prices even more.
"I'm aware of some who are going to be having 15-20% additional-off sales", says Vite. "This 5% is the icing. It's the gravy on the very good meal. It's what makes this an important economic stimulus package. It's what makes a great economic package. And retailers are going to take advantage of it by increased sales, not by increased prices."
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association lobbied for the tax holiday. Illinois joins 16 other states with tax holidays, including Missouri and Iowa. Their tax holidays also started Friday, but only run for the weekend, while the Illinois tax holiday runs through August 15th.
Danville is going to look a little brighter by the end of the week. Artists from around the world are gathering in the city to paint a collection of murals on downtown buildings that capture the community's history from its famous natives to old businesses. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers recently had a chance to get acquainted with the group of artists known simply as The Walldogs.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden is urging voters to act with integrity after discovering nearly 150 people in the county voted illegally in the fall 2008.
He says there is no good way of checking as to whether some of these voters moved within Champaign County and should have filled out a federal-only ballot, or if they left the county entirely. Shelden's office discovered more than 600 pieces of mail sent to voters in 2008 that were returned as undeliverable.
After some research, it was determined that 146 of them provided a different address when registering than the one they lived at on November 2nd. Shelden contends a lot of these people probably didn't think much about listing the wrong address - but adds that kind of thing could affect an outcome of a race.
"When one group of people plays by the rules and doesn't get to vote on the school sales tax referendum and another group of people doesn't play by the rules and gets to vote on things they shouldn't be able to vote on - that's wrong." said Shelden. "In our society, we know virtually everyone is a law breaker in some fashion... they jaywalk, or they speed a little bit... everyone's got their own level of what they consider a law that they're not willing to violate versus laws that they're willing to violate."
Champaign County's sales tax referendum passed last year. But the totals were close when the item failed in 2008. Shelden says while illegal votes probably aren't a high priority for law enforcement, he has turned information on those 146 residents over to the FBI.
Shelden has written about his office's research in his blog, linked to below.
The FutureGen project has taken a completely new turn -- and the bottom line is that Mattoon will not be hosting a power plant.
Instead, Senator Dick Durbin says the Department of Energy's new plan for the project is to retrofit an existing coal-fired power plant in western Illinois with a process called oxy-combustion. That process is designed to reduce CO2 emissions from the plant - what DOES get emitted would be sent by a brand new pipeline to Mattoon, where it would be stored in the underground facility that was already proposed for that site.
Durbin says Mattoon will still host a major portion of the FutureGen project - just not a freestanding power plant.
"It really made no sense to say we're going to build a power plant to prove what's already being tested in three of four different commercial facilities. That happens when you wait six years," Durbin told reporters Thursday afternoon. "So we tried to pick a technology that had a future, for retrofitting power plants and creating a pipeline that would be of value."
Durbin says the change will reduce the price tag to $1.2 billion, some of it contributed by the alliance of power and coal companies in FutureGen. He says plant retrofitting and pipeline work could begin next spring - the underground pipeline would use existing easements, some of them already containing pipelines.
Senator Durbin also says instead of the plant, Mattoon site would hold a training facility for experts to retrofit many other coal-fired plants across the country over time. But he says funding for that facility has not yet been lined up.
Radical Vietnam War protester William Ayers is retiring after more than 20 years as an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Education Dean Vicki Chou says Ayers' retirement will become official later this month.
Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-war group held responsible for a series of bombings, including nonfatal explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.
Ayers' past became a political issue during the 2008 presidential campaign because President Barack Obama served with Ayers on the board of a Chicago charity. There's no evidence they were ever close friends.
Chou said Ayers' retirement had nothing to do the controversy surrounding him, adding he was a "good colleague'' and hundreds of students cherish they were taught by him.
A spokesman for the university said Thursday that Ayers would not be available for comment.
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