Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Sen. Durbin: Preserve Funding for Amtrak Service

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says federal support for Amtrak service should be preserved.

Speaking Monday afternoon at the Illinois Terminal Building in Champaign, Durbin said an appropriations bill introduced by House Republican would slash Amtrak funding by 60 percent, and eliminate 1,800 jobs in the state. Durbin urged lawmakers in Washington to maintain Amtrak funding, saying it is critical to the state's economy.

"We are not going to cut everything at the federal government level," Durbin said. "There are some things that we're going to even increase. I think when it comes to transportation infrastructure that's the last place we ought to cut."

Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper said with ridership up over the last decade, now is not the time to cut funding for passenger rails.

Meanwhile, Durbin said the Republican spending bill would also force Amtrak to eliminate a route that passes through Champaign from Chicago to Carbondale. With many UIUC students originally from the Chicago area and many other faculty members who travel to Chicago for meetings, U of I President Michael Hogan said Amtrak is a necessary service for the university community.

"Taking the train into Union Station and back here at the Illinois Terminal is much more than just a convenience," Hogan said. "It also means hundreds if not thousands of fewer cars parked around our campus. "

The University of Illinois is researching the feasibility of a high-speed passenger rail line for 220-mph trains between Chicago and Champaign. The spending bill introduced by House Republicans would provide no money for high-speed and intercity rail projects.

"Faster trains could hold the power to bring a new twenty-first century wave of prosperity, and to address concerns about fossil fuels and the environment, highway congestion, and the security related inconveniences of air travel," Hogan said.

Sen. Durbin has pushed an amendment to restore $100 million for high speed and intercity rail, which he said wouldn't require additional revenue.

Durbin also talked about President Obama's $447 billion jobs plan. Last month, the president announced the measure, which would be supported by tax increases on the wealthy. Senate Republicans blocked efforts to pass the full version of that legislation.

Still, Durbin said one aspect of the bill that could still have a chance at making it through Congress seeks to modernize the nation's schools, with about $1.1 billion going to Illinois and supporting as many as 14,500 jobs in the state. He said that would help schools - like the John Hills Magnet School in Decatur - that are struggling to make necessary upgrades.

"It has an old heating system. It has no air conditions to speak of. It has asepsis issues. The list goes on and on," he explained. "The president pays for this by increases taxes on those making over a million dollars a year by one half of one percent, and unfortunately we can't get a single Republican to vote for it."

A bipartisan group of 12 members of Congress has until Nov. 23 to find at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings. Critics have expressed doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Past Lt. Gov. Candidate Running for Congress

An unsuccessful Republican candidate for Illinois lieutenant governor is running for Congress.

Businessman Jason Plummer's campaign announced Monday he's running in Illinois' 12th Congressional District in southern Illinois. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello is retiring.

The seat would be a prize for Republicans. A Democrat-drawn redistricting map attempts to strip them of their gains in Congress.

Plummer was the running mate last year of state Sen. Bill Brady, who lost the Illinois governor's race to Democrat Pat Quinn. Plummer works in his family's lumber company.

His campaign says he's focused on reining in government spending and reforming the country's tax and regulatory systems so the government gets out of the way of small businesses.

Other Republicans also want Costello's seat, including former Belleville Mayor Roger Cook.

Categories: Biography, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Quinn Appoints Illinois Transportation Secretary

Gov. Pat Quinn has appointed a new leader for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Quinn on Monday named Ann Schneider to be secretary of the state transportation department. Schneider has been acting secretary since July and previously was chief of operations for the department. Schneider also was chief fiscal officer for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and in the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.

The governor also named John Holton as director of the Illinois Department on Aging.

Quinn also made other appointments, including Jim Larkin as acting director of the Department of Agriculture, Andrew Stolfi as acting director of the Illinois Department of Insurance and John Kim as interim director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Indianapolis Schools Chief Demands Charter Investigation

The Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent wants the state to investigate charter schools that he claims break federal and state laws by turning away homeless and disabled students.

IPS Superintendent Eugene White wrote Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett Monday requesting the investigation into enrollment practices at all charter schools operating within its district boundaries and at 10 schools in particular. He says six schools have threatened to expel students only to give parents the option of withdrawing students to avoid expulsion.

White says 72 students have returned to IPS since the September count date that determines state funding while 27 students have left IPS for charter schools.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron says the state will carefully review documents on the charter schools' enrollment practices provided by IPS.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Lawmakers Return to Springfield for Fall Veto Session

From pension reform to pregnant prisoners, lawmakers returning to Springfield face a packed agenda. Since adjourning in the spring, state legislators have been on standby while Gov. Pat Quinn took his turn.

Quinn used his veto power to alter, cut and outright dismiss measures ranging from the state budget to college scholarships. Now the focus is back on the General Assembly, which returns to the capitol on Tuesday for the fall veto session.

Legislators say they expect to vote on a gambling expansion bill, again, after Gov. Pat Quinn rejected several pillars of the plan they sent him in May. Quinn said he can accept new casinos in Danville, Chicago, two suburban towns, and Rockford. But he is drawing the line at allowing slot machines at racetracks, airports and other locations.

"We have no interest in becoming the Las Vegas of the Midwest," Quinn said during a press conference last week. "We have to maintain our culture (and) our character."

That opposition may jeopardize the entire package. Quinn is betting there will be a lot of negotiations and variations of gambling proposals during the veto session.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he hopes lawmakers and the governor can find common ground. Otherwise, a casino for Chicago, which the mayor wants to help ease budget constraints, could be placed on the back burner after finally getting through both chambers for the first time in more than a decade.

The day before he was sworn into office, Gov. Quinn wiped out state money that funds the salaries of regional superintendent. Quinn says regional superintendents are not the state's responsibility, but fall in the hands of local governments.

It will be up to legislators to decide if they will let Quinn's vetoes stand, or if they want to overrule the governor. Those in the offices who continue to work are responsible for things like inspecting school buildings, and certifying teachers and bus drivers, tasks that could have prevented schools from opening if they weren't done.

County regional school superintendents hope to get paid. Thomas Campbell considers himself a patient person. But after going without pay nearly four months, Campbell turned in his letter of resignation as Christian and Montgomery County's Regional Superintendent. He hasn't got a paycheck since he began the job July 1.

"We are elected just like the governor's an elected official, and to suddenly without discussion without sitting down across the table without any type of democratic approach to resolving any issues, we just got lined out of the budget and put out there in no man's land," Campbell said. "I just think it did show a great deal of disrespect. I think it has brought on a lot of disillusionment and disenchantment with what i call common sense governance."

Quinn eliminated their salaries from the budget in May, but support has emerged for a plan to pay them out of local tax dollars.

State support for school transportation was also reduced by Quinn. He also wants to delay how much hospitals get for taking care of Medicaid patients.

While some legislators want to keep overall spending down, others say it's clear the budget legislators approved in the spring doesn't provide enough funds.

Quinn wants to save money by closing a handful of state facilities, including a juvenile prison in Murphysboro, a medium security prison in Lincoln, mental health centers in Chester, Tinley Park and Rockford. Developmental centers in Jacksonville and Dixon would also be affected, and 1,900 state workers could be laid off. Unions and the communities that host those facilities are fighting the proposed shutdowns.

A legislative commission will continue holding hearings this week, and it will begin issuing advisory opinions about the future of these facilities.

Also set for a committee hearing is a bill to prohibit the Department of Corrections from shackling prisoners while they are giving birth. The bill arose after national news stories highlighted that restraints were being used on women during labor.

Look out for another controversial measure too, which pits the governor and consumer advocates against literal powerhouses ComEd and Ameren. Lawmakers narrowly passed a plan that would allow the utilities to raise monthly bills to pay for a modernized power grid. Quinn vetoed it. ComEd CEO Anne Prammagiore argues it's needed.

"A modern grid, while requiring an investment on the front end, would deliver multiple layers of economic benefits over the long run," Prammagiore said. "These benefits are real, and they've been enhanced."

But the Paul Gainer with the Attorney General's office said it's bad for electric customers' wallets.

"ComEd and Ameren have set the bar so low on the performance metrics that they know they will have absolutely no problem meeting those metrics, and getting exactly what they want - certainty, rate hikes, double digit profits," Gainer said.

It's unknown if the utilities have the clout to win over enough legislators to get their plan into law.

Also unclear is the fate of a legislative scholarship program the governor wants abolished. Many legislators want to keep their ability to hand out tuition waivers to students in their districts. But the program has been a magnet for scandal through the years, after some officials awarded the scholarships to campaign contributors' children.

Finally, public employees are on guard. They are concerned about the possible resurgence of a plan to reduce their future retirement benefits. Several bills are expected to move through committees that would eliminate a loophole in pensions for leaders of organized labor, along with revamping the pension boards that oversee systems for city of Chicago and Cook County employees. It is likely legislators will respond to stories about Chicago union leaders receiving both city and union pensions, a practice known as double dipping.

The veto session will run for six days, split over several weeks.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Urbana Man Found Dead in Local Motel

Authorities are investigating the death of an Urbana man whose body was discovered Sunday night at a local motel.

Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup says body of 61-year old Terry Masar was found at the Super 8 Motel on Killarney Street. He was pronounced dead at 6:30 p.m.

Urbana Police Lieutenant Bryant Saraphin says Masar was reported missing by his family early Saturday morning. An autopsy will be performed Monday.

Seraphin said there were no obvious signs of foul play.

Masar is a former University of Illinois football player, a punter who was the team's most valuable player in 1971. He played U of I football from 1969-71, and held the record for the most punts in a season with 85. Masar also operated several restaurants in Champaign-Urbana.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 22, 2011

Epstein Formally Takes Cubs Job

Theo Epstein is joining the Chicago Cubs as president of baseball operations.

The 37-year-old Epstein resigned from the Boston Red Sox on Friday night with a year remaining on his contract as general manager to run a team that has gone 103 years without a World Series championship.

With Epstein at the helm, the Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series championship drought in 2004 and won the title again in 2007.

Cubs fans can only hope he will do the same thing on the North Side. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts fired GM Jim Hendry in July after another disappointing season.

The Cubs will decide compensation for the Red Sox at a later date. The Cubs are expected to name Padres assistant GM Jed Hoyer to be the GM under Epstein.

The Red Sox are expected to announce assistant GM Ben Cherington as Epstein's replacement.

Categories: Sports
Tags: sports

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 21, 2011

Closing Arguments Soon in Cellini Trial

Defense attorneys for William Cellini are trying to show jurors that their politically connected client deserved the contracts he got with the state of Illinois.

Prosecutors have put on evidence to show how Cellini used his political connections with the Teacher's Retirement System to get business for his real estate company. They rested their case on Thursday.

On Friday, the defense called Mike Bartletti to the stand. He was an employee of the Teacher's Retirement System, and he described a rigorous vetting process for the companies with which they worked. It was an attempt to show that Cellini couldn't have simply clouted business to himself.

Bartletti also reviewed financial information showing that Cellini's company made high returns on investments for teachers, 13.4 percent over a 5 year period.

Defense attorneys say Cellini didn't need to use illegal means to keep his business with the state because he did such a good job. The defense called three witnesses, and told the judge that Cellini will not testify.

Closing arguments are expected on Tuesday.

Categories: Criminal Justice, Politics
Tags: crime, politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 21, 2011

Indiana, Planned Parenthood Back in Court

The state of Indiana is trying to reinstate its controversial law banning Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood of Indiana and other health agencies that provide abortions.

The state's lawyers Thursday went before a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago. Last June, a federal judge in Indianapolis approved a preliminary injunction reinstating Medicaid funds to Planned Parenthood that had been cut off after Indiana passed its anti-abortion law. That legislation is now being mimicked by other conservative-leaning states.

"I think it's going to have some significant impact. Certainly, if our arguments don't prevail, that may put a damper on what other states want to do," said Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher. "But if we prevail, it could have some national significance."

At issue is whether Indiana has a right to alter qualifications concerning which health care providers can or can't receive Medicaid, funding that is used to provide health care to low-income people.

In the spring, the Indiana General Assembly approved a measure to prevent Medicaid funds going to any health provider that also performs abortions. The law was drafted broadly, but is seen to be directly aimed at Planned Parenthood of Indiana.

Indiana's own Legislative Services Agency warned lawmakers that the rule change may violate federal law, a position that's also taken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Fisher says Indiana is still in the right.

"Under the Medicaid Act, the states have the authority to set the qualifications for Medicaid providers. The argument from Planned Parenthood has been that we are not allowed to reduce patient choices," Fisher said. "We think the law is on our side that - just because one provider (Planned Parenthood) may not continue being a Medicaid provider - that itself is not a fatal reduction in patient choice. There are over 800 other providers where Planned Parenthood has clinics. That still leaves plenty of choice for patients."

Indiana Civil Liberties Union attorney Ken Falk is defending Planned Parenthood. He disagrees with the state's stance.

"This has been couched, I believe, as an abortion issue. But really it's an issue of the state asserting a right that it simply doesn't have to determine provider qualification," Falk said. "The state next year could decide what else can be made a provider qualification. The point is that the state can regulate matters which have some impact on Medicaid. This is not that type of qualification."

Judge Diane Sykes asked Falk if Planned Parenthood would be willing to separate the organization, basically dividing its health services from its abortion services, as the state of Indiana has suggested.

"It's not clear if that can occur under the current statute in Indiana," Falk said. "Freedom of choice belongs to the recipient of Medicaid."

Fisher said the whole issue is really up to Planned Parenthood.

"Planned Parenthood can make the choice itself on whether it wants to be a Medicaid provider or an abortion provider. It's not exactly the case that the statute itself commands any provider to go out of business," Fisher said. "Planned Parenthood makes that choice. The law is on our side. Reducing the range of choices by one? That doesn't mean the law is invalid."

A temporary injunction has barred Indiana from fully implementing its ban on Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood.

The state faces another complication, in that it must also appear before an administrative law judge with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That hearing will address some of the same issues taken up by the federal courts. That hearing takes place Dec. 15 in Chicago.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 21, 2011

Champaign County ZBA Votes Against Wind Farm Request

The Champaign County Board will begin discussion of a permit for the Invenergy wind farm at committee meeting next month, but the county's Zoning Board of Appeals says the permit request should be denied.

On Thursday night, the ZBA voted 5-to-2 last night against the Invenergy project, citing concerns about noise pollution, and disagreement over how to handle the cost of decommissioning the turbines when they're no longer useful.

The Champaign County Board will have to reverse the decision of the Zoning Board of Appeals if it wants to locate a wind farm in the northeast part of the county. Board members cited concerns with the Chicago company's standards for noise pollution impacting the yard of a rural resident. County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said the company's standards for noise don't comply with those of the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

"This is regarding whether the noise standard applies just at the line of the dwelling, or in the yard outside of the dwelling," Hall said. "It's that simple. Why would have a residential noise standard that only applies inside the dwelling? "

If the permit were approved, and Invenergy went bankrupt in 10 years, Hall said he is afraid no financial lien holder would step in at that point, meaning Champaign County may have to find more money to decommission the wind farm.

Marvin Johnson, who is the highway commissioner of Champaign County's Compromise Township, said he supports the plan. According to Johnson, the township's road agreement with Invenergy would bring substantial upgrades to a 14-mile stretch of road.

"Tremendous benefits to the road district," Johnson said. "Upgrading of roads, financial assistance, things that in our small district, we've probably never be able to come up with. That's why I'm in favor of it."

Despite the ZBA's vote, the Champaign County Board has the final say. Board Democrat Alan Kurtz said the county can't afford not to come to a compromise with Invenergy.

"Our county needs the revenue," he said. "Our county needs clean, renewable energy. Our county needs safe wind farm turbines. This is my opinion, but I personally feel that we need to follow the ordinance. But I think that there are ways that we can always work around any considerable problems."

Kurtz said Invenergy has 'bent over backwards' to comply with what he calls one of the most stringent county wind ordinances in the state.

The Champaign County Board will first take up the proposal at the Nov. 1 Committee of the Whole meeting.

Invenergy was expected to start initial work on 100 turbines in Vermilion County this week. Champaign County's portion of the project would involve 39 turbines.

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