Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign County Board has gone on record backing high-speed rail in the Midwest.
The board supported the non-binding resolution on a 15-to-8 vote Thursday night. Republicans Jonathan Schroder and Brad Jones joined all the board's Democrats in supporting the concept. Most Republicans argued that the U.S. is hardly in a financial position to pay for the rail system, saying what funds we do have should be used to keep up current infrastructure.
Aaron Esry said the state and the U.S. don't have any money for such a project, and won't for some time.
"I don't see how we can sit here and ask potentially more taxpayer money to be spent on another program at this point and time," he said. "Get our fiscal houses -- both the state and federal -- in shape, and we can look at this. At this point and time, I'm not going to vote for it."
But Democrat Tom Betz said this country should take the lead seen in places overseas, where high-speed rail networks present a real economic advantage.
"I personally don't expect to see it happen in my lifetime in this country, and in this area," he said. "I think there are places on the East Coast where it might be more effective. But the idea of abandoning this idea strikes me as not a very open, progressive thing to do."
Meanwhile, Democrat Michael Richards cited a feasibility study underway at the University of Illinois, and the ability for private investors to help support high-speed rail. The U of I is heading up the $1.2 million study to study financing options. The results are expected by the end of 2012.
The Champaign County Board's vote came a few hours after the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association spoke in Champaign, discussing the potential for a high-speed line to Chicago. Rick Harnish said the 220-mile an hour trains would mean reaching downtown in 45 minutes, and O'Hare International Airport in just over an hour, connecting the University of Illinois to the international world.
"It becomes easier to attract the kind of staff that really keeps the U of I on the map," he said in an afternoon press conference. "It becomes easier to keep the young people that are coming here to the university - to keep them here, so that when they come up with a great idea at U of I, they can stay here and develop that."
Harnish's group calls for the 'bullet' trains, along with modernized 90-mile an hour Amtrak trains linking areas in the Midwest.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says lawmakers may want to reconsider a new law that paves the way to exempt the Amish from having pictures on identification cards.
White tells the Lee Springfield Bureau he doesn't understand how the cards can be used as identification if there are no pictures. White's office issues state identification cards and drivers' licenses.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law this week. It gives the Illinois Secretary of State the option to make rules to implement no photographs on IDs.
State Rep. Adam Brown supported the legislation. The Decatur Republican says Amish leaders requested the exemption, citing religious beliefs about having their pictures taken. Brown has suggested other methods to verify identities, such as an internal state system or using fingerprints.
Illinois Democrats who've been fighting for federal immigration reform are praising the Obama administration's decision to allow many illegal immigrants facing deportation the chance to stay.
Homeland Security officials announced Thursday that authorities will review the cases of about 300,000 illegal immigrants facing possible deportation. Those without criminal records get to stay indefinitely and a chance to apply for a work permit.
Sen. Dick Durbin has supported DREAM Act legislation for illegal immigrant students for years. He says the policy is fair to young people who were brought into the country illegally by their parents.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez says it's the type of policy that immigrant rights advocates have been wanting from Obama.
Not all support it. Texas GOP Congressman Michael McCaul says Obama is implementing reforms against Congress' will.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sales of existing homes in Illinois were up 18.4 percent in July compared to a year ago, while the statewide median price went down 3.8 percent.
Figures released Thursday by the Illinois Association of Realtors show the state's home sales continuing to recover, but not the selling prices.
That's also the case in Champaign County, where July home sales were up sharply from a year ago, while the median selling price had fallen 11 percent.
Champaign County Association of Realtors President Max Mitchell said that's been the case for some time, as the country recovers from the collapse of the housing bubble.
"When our market was very active, sellers would put their house on the market, and sell in a reasonable time as long as they were priced properly," Mitchell said. "What we've seen in the past two years, is that sellers have been selling their homes for significantly less."
The Regional Economics Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois analyzes housing sales data for the Illinois Association of Realtors. REAL director, Dr. Georffrey Hewings, said the fall in home prices has been largely due to the the number of foreclosed properties on the market. But he said he thinks that trend is slowing down.
"Over the next three months, we anticipate that prices will continue to move down, but at much, much slower rates than this time last year," Hewings said. "So, I think there's some general sense we have, that the market, if it isn't at the bottom, it's pretty close to it."
Hewings said home sales are recovering, after taking a fall last summer, when a federal tax credit for home buyers expired. Hewings said he believes the total number of Illinois home sales should continue to grow during the next three months.
The total number of homes sold in July in Champaign County was 195, up 43.4 percent from a year ago, and 105 homes sold in Macon County, for a 50 percent improvement. The 35 homes sold last month in Vermilion County represent a nearly 14.6 percent decline, although year-to-date home sales are up 16 percent from 2010.
A central Illinois judge has ruled that Catholic Charities does not have a right to state contracts for adoptions and foster care placements and Illinois officials may cut them off.
The state Department of Children and Family Services ended $30 million in contracts with Catholic Charities in July because the not-for-profit won't work with unmarried couples in placing children in adoptive and foster homes. Illinois authorities say that violates the state's civil union law.
Catholic Charities sued. But Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled Thursday that the not-for-profit is not entitled to the contracts because it doesn't have to accept them.
Schmidt did not address the question of whether the charity discriminates against gays and lesbians and other people in civil unions.
State officials say unemployment in Illinois inched up to 9.5 percent in July, the third consecutive month it has increased.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security says there were 24,900 fewer jobs reported last month.
Unemployment for Illinois was 9.1 percent in June. But the rate one year ago in July was 10.1 percent.
The numbers were released Thursday and are based on data from the state agency and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The director of the employment security department is Jay Rowell. He says the July increase, which follows 15 months of declines, reflects uncertainty in consumer confidence and the volatility in the national economy.
He says long term data is a better indicator.
Indiana's decision to essentially police itself as it investigates a fatal stage collapse at the state fair is raising questions about how objective the probe will be.
Workplace safety agencies, state police and fair officials are looking into Saturday's collapse that killed five people and injured dozens more. All are under the jurisdiction of the state, which also put on the fair. The lone outside agency brought in so far is an engineering firm hired by the Indiana State Fair Commission, raising questions about its independence.
Other states in similar positions have formed special commissions with outside experts to handle investigations, including of a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels so far hasn't mentioned the idea, and instead has repeatedly referred to the wind gust that toppled the stage but spared other nearby structures as a freak occurrence that couldn't have been anticipated.
"The fair has an interest in protecting itself," attorney Jerry Miniard of Erlanger, Ky., who is representing an injured girl, said Thursday. "Why in the world would you let someone who may be responsible investigate themselves?"
Miniard said he is a friend of the father of 10-year-old Jade Walcott, whose skull was crushed by the falling stage. He questioned how thorough the probe will be given that it's nearly all being done in-house.
"The state of Indiana is basically investigating itself," he said.
Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., who is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that could be a mistake.
"There's this sort of automatic default to say, we have people here internally who can take a look at this ... but for something so closely affiliated with the state, it would be wise to call upon someone who doesn't have any even perceived conflict of interest," Nadler said. She suggested bringing in someone from outside the state, perhaps even an outside regulator.
"I think it really is such a significant event ... it requires a level of independence to fully discern the facts and to fully convey to the public that this was a fair and thorough and impartial and nonpolitical look at what happened," she said.
State fair officials did announce this week that they had hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to review the stage's design and construction, but Miniard questioned how far-ranging that probe might be since the state will determine the scope of the investigation.
"The state of Indiana is in complete control over the investigation," Miniard said. "And the state's interests are possibly different than those people who were injured or killed."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies conducting their own investigations will all report to the fair commission. "I am quite sure that everybody is going to be satisfied with the thoroughness of this investigation," he said. "And nobody wants the answers more than us."
Attention also has centered on how fair officials reacted to worsening weather conditions, telling the audience minutes before a 60 to 70 mph wind gust brought the stage down onto the crowd that the show would likely go on - without mentioning that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. But it isn't clear which, if any, agency was investigating that aspect of the crisis.
"I don't know who that falls under, but absolutely, that's going to be part of it," said Klotz.
In other states and even in Indiana, officials sometimes have avoided any appearance of conflict of interest by bringing in outside investigators. After a 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people at Texas A&M University, school officials appointed a five-person commission whose members had no direct ties to the university to investigate the tragedy. The University of Notre Dame conducted its own investigation into the death of a student killed last year when the hydraulic lift he was on fell over in high winds as he filmed football practice. But it hired Peter Likins, an engineer and the former president of the University of Arizona, to provide an independent review of its investigation.
Others have gone even further. After an explosion killed 29 men last year in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., the state's governor asked a former top federal mine regulator to investigate the accident. And Colorado's governor appointed an independent commission to investigate the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
A spokeswoman for Daniels didn't immediately return phone calls about whether he had considered such an option.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there was ultimately no way to avoid outside investigations of an accident like the state fair stage collapse because there were bound to be lawsuits by victims and their families.
"In a sense, the lawsuit is the outside investigation," Stern said.
Miniard said he was sending a letter to Daniels asking him to issue an executive order securing the stage so that the victims can conduct their own investigations into the accident, though he said it was too early to gauge the likelihood of a lawsuit without a better understanding of what happened.
In other cases, he said, families have had to seek restraining orders to compel officials to preserve evidence. Miniard said he had called and written to state police, the state fire marshal and fair officials with his request and received no response.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
A Republican congressman who sits on a caucus of Midwest high-speed rail advocates says now is not the time to find federal money for such a project.
U.S. Representative Aaron Schock of Peoria said if high-speed rail lines become a reality in Illinois, there is a place for such a line connecting Chicago with Champaign-Urbana. But Schock said the political reality is that federal funding won't be easy to get.
"We're running a $1.6 trillion deficit," he said. "We have a highway bill that's been expired for two years. We aren't building roads and bridges and infrastructure because the motor fuel tax is down. So I think we need to take care of the infrastructure, the roads, the bridges, the airports that we have now."
Schock has supported funding for infrastructure on high-speed rail in the past. But he said neither side of the aisle in Congress has funded the idea - the only money has come from President Obama's last stimulus bill.
Schock made his comments at a political fundraiser in Champaign on Wednesday, one day before Champaign County board members scheduled to vote on a statement of support for high-speed rail.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
A first-term state representative will have to adjust his next campaign to a new district that brings him into east-central Illinois for the first time.
But Republican Adam Brown of Decatur said he is confident he can win over voters in the heavily conservative district, even with two other candidates saying they will take part in next March's primary.
Under the new map, Brown's 102nd House district now stretches east into Vermilion, Champaign and Edgar counties, far from his family's Macon County farm. But Brown said his rural connection will help him.
"I feel I can adapt to folks in a rural setting fairly well," he said. "As you mentioned, the real challenge there is getting around mile-wise. I drove the district this morning, and going from the Western portion to the eastern portion takes you about two hours by car."
Congressman Aaron Schock attended a fundraiser for Brown in Champaign on Wednesday night.
Brown is trying to line up support as he faces two township supervisors, Rob Roman of Edgar County and Matt Forcum of Shelby County, in the GOP primary. Brown narrowly defeated incumbent Bob Flider (D-Mt. Zion) last November.
A federal program that involves state and local police agencies in immigration enforcement is stirring up controversy. The program helps federal authorities see if criminal suspects have permission to be in the United States. Immigrant advocates say the program snares too many people who haven't committed crimes.
This spring, Gov. Pat Quinn made Illinois the first of three states to withdraw from the program. But now the feds are saying states have to participate, whether they want to or not. A big question is whether Quinn will mount a legal challenge. At a hearing Wednesday night in Chicago over the program, a crowd turned raucous and 10 people were arrested, according to the Chicago Police Department.
In a word, the program has meant fingerprints. State and local police forces routinely get them from suspects as part of booking. Most jurisdictions send the fingerprints to the FBI for a national criminal background check. The Secure Communities program makes it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to use the fingerprints. President Obama's administration has said the goal is to focus immigration-enforcement resources on deporting criminals like murderers, rapists and others who threaten public safety.
ICE reports that Secure Communities has helped lead to the deportation of more than 650 convicted criminal aliens in Illinois alone. But, the program has also led to hundreds of deportations of people without criminal records. Opponents of the program say it also erodes public trust in local cops, which presents another set of public-safety threats. Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn pulled the state out of the program in May. New York and Massachusetts quickly followed suit. This month, the feds told states they have no choice; that all law enforcement jurisdictions nationwide must participate by 2013.
Some attorneys at immigrant advocacy groups say they're trying working on a legal strategy for Illinois to cut ties to the program. They say they have the ear of the Quinn administration. A spokesman for Quinn says the governor's office is looking at the situation carefully but that it's too soon to discuss legal options.
At the same time, the federal Department of Homeland Security has formed a task force to help find ways to improve the Secure Communities program to keep it from damaging local law enforcement, though some immigrant advocates are calling it PR.
The task force is holding at least four hearings around the country. The third one was Wednesday night in in a downtown Chicago union hall. About 300 people packed in. The mic was open and most of the speakers said they opposed Secure Communities. Carolina is a Mexican-born mother whose kids are U.S. citizens. She asked us not to broadcast her last name because she's undocumented. So is her husband. She said Chicago police arrested him after a mixup over some broken car windows that landed him in deportation proceedings. He's got a one-way flight to Mexico out of O'Hare this morning.
"He's being deported," she said. "Do you really think that this program is working? How many more families have to suffer? Do you have children? Think of them? How would they feel if they were separated from you?"
A few minutes later most of the crowd at the hearing suddenly started yelling. It was an orchestrated protest. They stood up and followed some young undocumented activists out the door. Some of them then blocked an intersection and got arrested.
Back inside, a retired teacher said he was a brother of the victim in a hit-and-run collision that got some press coverage a couple months ago.
"I am here to report that my brother Dennis was killed by an illegal alien in the Logan Square neighborhood on June 6, 2011," said Brian McCann. "The offender hit him and then stepped on the gas, rolling over his body, and dragged him several blocks. The offender had recently completed two years' probation for another aggravated felony DUI."
McCann said he didn't know enough about the Secure Communities program to take a stand on it. But he said, at minimum, he wants immigration violators who are felons to be deported.
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