Illinois Public Media News
Tuscola lost out on its bid Tuesday to host a steam locomotive that would have traveled through a dozen communities in Illinois and Iowa.
Online voting for the contest through Union Pacific Railroad ended Monday night. In addition to Tuscola, other cities in the running included Little Rock, Ark., Boise, Idaho, and Baton Rouge, La.
Little Rock came out on top in the contest with 76,217 votes, narrowly defeating Tuscola by a little more than 3,000 votes. That means the steam engine will follow a route that starts in Kansas City, Mo., traveling east to Boonville, Jefferson City, Chamois and St. Louis before heading south to Cape Girardeau, Dexter and Poplar Bluff. It will continue through Bald Knob, Ark., before concluding in Little Rock.
According to Union Pacific Railroad, the engine is the last steam locomotive built for the rail company. It was placed in freight service in Nebraska from 1957 to 1959, then was saved from being scrapped in 1960.
Brian Moody, the executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc., admitted he was surprised Tuscola, with a population of around 4,500 people, got as far as it did in the competition.
"For our small community to even be competing with these much larger communities," Moody said. "It's kind of a big David and Goliath. We came up a little bit short, and that's ok."
Tuscola is a central point for three different railroads, including CSX, Canadian National, and Union Pacific. Moody said thanks to the national publicity from the contest, Tuscola city officials have been contacted in recent weeks by people who are interested in railroads, and he thinks some of those "railroad enthusiasts" might be encouraged to visit Tuscola.
"We knew there were railroad enthusiasts who had a lot of interest in Tuscola because of the unique characteristics in our rails," he said. "This kind of gave us the opportunity to demonstrate to them that we were as enthusiastic about those things as they were."
Moody said moving forward, Tuscola will focus on how it can take advantage of its rail services to boost tourism. He also noted that the city will keep an eye out on other similar competitions.
(Photo courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad)
Before his death last year, Urbana chocolate-maker Daniel Schreiber proposed a community kitchen that could be shared by small-scale local food producers like him. Now, an organization is seeking community input as they try to make Schreiber's dream a reality.
Lawrence Mate is one of the organizers of the Flatlander Fund --- named after Schreiber's own brand of chocolate. He said they hope to open a commercial-grade kitchen that could be rented by local entrepreneurs --- including Mate himself. Mate operates This Little Piggy, a small producer of meat products such as bacon and sausage. Mate said because he works out of his home kitchen, his operation remains a non-profit private club.
"I've had any number of places in town where they have a deli counter, who have said they would love to carry the stuff I'm making," Mate said. "But in order for them to retail it, it's got to be coming out of a kitchen certified by the Public Health District."
Mate cites the dilemma in 2009 of some local bakers who sold goods at the Urbana Farmers Market, only to discover that their home-baked goods violated public health regulations requiring a commercial kitchen. He said a shared-use community kitchen could provide a certified facility for small food-related businesses.
Laura Huth, another volunteer with the Flatlander Fund, said a community kitchen could also serve a wider public, with classes on food preparation, nutrition and related topics.
"So in addition to providing a spark for artists - food artists, really - in our community to do what they love to do, there's the educational component, the hands-on demonstrations and the business development classes," Huth said.
The Flatlander Fund launched an online survey Monday night to measure public interest in a community kitchen. Huth said that as of mid-afternoon Tuesday, they had received about 70 responses. The survey is open until February 13 on the Flatlander Fund's website.
Shared-use kitchens exist in other communities. In Danville, the Cook's Workshop opened late last year, offering kitchen and dining room space for rent, as well as cooking workshops and demonstrations.
The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has approved a budget proposal for next year that it will send to lawmakers in Springfield.
After the General Assembly passed a massive 67-percent income tax hike, it is uncertain how Governor Pat Quinn and the legislature will respond to the request. The ISBE is asking for $709.4 million in additional state support for Fiscal Year 2012. Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said she is "cautiously optimistic" that the funding request will be approved.
Fergus explained that in formulating the proposal, the ISBE considered feedback from the public and the state's Education Funding Advisory Board, which pushed for a much larger $4 billion increase in education funding.
"We know the economic reality is not going to support that," she said.
State support for education has plunged in the last couple of years by about $450 million.
A bulk of the money requested by the ISBE would support General State Aid and mandated categoricals that have seen cuts, like transportation funding. Also included in the budget request is a $3.5 million increase for bilingual education, a $2.3 million increase to improve teacher training programs, and a $900,000 increase in the amount of funding for feasibility studies as school districts consider consolidations.
"We're not really talking about expanding a lot of programs," Fergus said. "Some of this increase will go toward a little bit of expansion, but really this is about restoring funds."
The Illinois State Board of Education will include its budget recommendation as part of the overall Fiscal Year 2012 state budget.
An Illinois law requiring a daily moment of silence in public schools is back in effect after a 2-year hiatus.
The Chicago Tribune reports that the Illinois State Board of Education notified schools Friday that the law is back.
A federal injunction barring the moment of silence has been in place for two years.
Illinois legislators approved the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act in October 2007. The law was challenged in court by Rob Sherman, an outspoken atheist, and his daughter Dawn, a student at Buffalo Grove High School in suburban Chicago.
U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman overturned the law in 2009, but a federal appeals court ruled the law is constitutional because it doesn't specify prayer.
Gettleman reportedly lifted the injunction Thursday.
Decatur Republican Adam Brown unseated Democratic incumbent Bob Flider in the November election for the 101st Illinois House District seat. But Brown said that didn't stop Flider from voting for the state income tax hike in the lame duck session, the day before the new General Assembly --- including Brown --- was sworn in.
"He as a lame duck voted for this tax increase, this $7 billion increase on our district, when we have the fourth highest unemployment in the entire state of Illinois," Brown said. "He campaigned that he wouldn't vote for another tax increase, and these lame ducks really turned their back of the people of Illinois."
Now, Brown and three other central Illinois Republicans have filed a bill in the Illinois House that would do away with controversial lame duck legislation --- by doing away with the lame duck session.
The measure would amend the Illinois constitution to have the new General Assembly sworn in on Dec. 1, instead of in January, creating a shorter window for the old legislature to hold a lame duck session. Lawmakers could only convene such sessions to consider emergency legislation responding to natural disaster, terrorist acts, or other imminent threats to public safety and security.
The other Republicans backing the measure are Chapin Rose of Mahomet, Jason Barickman of Champaign and Bill Mitchell of Forsyth. They say their proposal would stop the passage of bills by lame duck lawmakers who do not have to answer to voters. Because their measure would change the state constitution, it would also require approval by voters.
The four Republican lawmakers note that 12 lame duck Democrats voted in favor of the income tax hike in the House, where the measure passed with no votes to spare. But Mitchell said their move to end lame duck sessions isn't just a jab at Democrats. He said it would prevent either party from passing bills that might fail once new lawmakers take their seats.
"No political party has a monopoly on integrity," Mitchell said, noting the convictions of two former governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich.
"What we as four members wanted to do is preclude future legislatures, whether they be Republican or Democrat, to go through the shenanigans that we went through this week," he said.
Mitchell thinks their proposal will win the support of most Republicans. But none of the four sponsors would predict its chances with Democrats. However, they say that the measure could be helped by a voter backlash against the income tax increase. They noted those Democrats that voted against the income tax hike, including ten in the Illinois House.
Because it would change the Illinois constitution, the anti-lame duck measure would ultimately need to go before the voters as a referendum. It was filed on Thursday as HJRCA 4.
Offices on at least four different floors of the Illinois Capitol building have suffered damage from a broken water pipe.
The four-inch pipe broke Thursday night and gushed water for about 40 minutes. A spokesman for the state's Capital Development Board says it's not clear what caused the problem, although construction work is taking place in that section of the historic building.
Crews were assessing the situation Friday morning.
At a minimum, the water has damaged floors, ceilings, carpet and some computers.
Damaged areas include offices for legislators, the state treasurer and reporters.
Fluctuating temperatures mean more potholes in city streets.
Champaign's public works department says about 950 of them have turned up in just the last two weeks, since lower temperatures and moisture have preceded freezing conditions. Administrative Services Manager Stacy Rachel said warmer air then creates air pockets within pavement, forming potholes.
Rachel added that public works is keeping up with the higher number of potholes well, responding within two business days of public complaints. Rachel said crews use a different material for filling in potholes this time of year, a 'cold mix' that works well in frigid temperatures, but she said there is another limitation this time of year.
"The problem with this time of year as well is these are the same people and the same equipment that are needed when we have a snow event," Rachel said. "They have to stop repairing potholes and also go out and assist with snowplowing activities."
Rachel said the increase in potholes this season has a lot to do with unusually cold weather and heavy snowfall. Anyone discovering a pothole in Champaign is encouraged to call the city's operations division at 403-4770. That number is staffed from 7 a.m. to 3-30 p.m. weekdays.
U.S. Senator Mark Kirk held a town hall meeting last night in Champaign. The Illinois Republican narrowly defeated former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in the November election, and now has President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers spoke with Kirk in a packed room on the Parkland College campus.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Urbana's Common Ground Food Co-op has done away with single-use plastic shopping bags at its registers.
Common Ground's General Manager Jacqueline Hannah predicts that the company's decision to go "bagless" will prevent thousands of plastic bags from ending up in landfills. She encourages customers to start using their own reusable bags, and relying less on plastic grocery store bags that are tossed away immediately.
"You can see the trend happening nationally," Hannah said. "It's actually not really a difficult change to make that can make a big impact. It's simply a change in consciousness."
Back in April, the company asked its customers if they would support not having plastic bags at the registers, and it found that most people backed the plan.
"We knew that we were looking at something people were ready for," Hannah said.
Hannah points out that Common Ground is not giving up on shopping bags completely. In fact, the organic grocery store is selling them to people with the profits going to charity. Customers can pay $0.10 for a paper bag, or $0.99 for a reusable bag. There is also a section in the store where people can donate bags for other customers to use.
There are grocery stores across the country in states like Oregon, Colorado, and New York that have instituted similar policies. California came close last year to becoming the first state to ban plastic shopping bags, but lawmakers rejected the measure.
A University of Illinois economist doesn't predict a long line of businesses leaving the state because of higher income taxes, but he said Illinois remains an uncertain place for commerce and industry.
Daniel Merriman of the Illinois Institute of government and Public Affairs said neighboring states had already begun to lure away employers concerned about Illinois' uncertain deficit situation even before lawmakers passed a 67 percent hike in personal income taxes this week. Governor Pat Quinn signed the increase into law Thursday afternoon.
Merriman said the tax increase will be one more drawback, but it still won't be enough to address all the red ink in Springfield.
"A combination of tax increases, expenditure reductions and growth is necessary to eliminate it," Merriman said. "The taxes actually do help reduce the deficit. It's just that it hasn't done enough to fully eliminate it, and they're still going to have to have expenditure reductions along the way."
Merriman said lawmakers still haven't addressed structural problems either, like fixing the underfunded pension system or revamping Medicaid and workers' compensation laws. But he said employers are not as mobile as some would believe - noting that most firms are rooted in the state and serve mainly Illinois customers.
Then there is the question of the region's overall economic health. Merriman said the pressure facing manufacturers in Illinois would face them wherever they relocate.
"A lot of the concern that people have had with the kind of business loss in Illinois has been with manufacturing establishments that have been leaving the entire Midwest, and to some extent they're just leaving the country as a whole," he said. "So it's not clear that Illinois is going to be losing that much to neighboring states. It's that manufacturing just isn't as strong as it used to be.
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