Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

On 2nd Try, Gambling Bill Gets House Committee OK

A huge expansion of legalized gambling in Illinois is headed to the House floor.

The proposal would create licenses for five new riverboat gambling casinos. It would include a gambling boat or land-based casino in Chicago. It also would expand horse racing and add slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie was approved 8-3 Friday by the Executive Committee. It failed in the same committee Wednesday with only five votes.

Gov. Pat Quinn said earlier Friday he opposes "top-heavy'' gambling expansion and frowned on gambling at the fairgrounds.

Lobbyists for existing riverboat casinos oppose the measure because they say the market is saturated and state revenues would drop at current boats.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

Bill to Block New State Employee Healthcare Plans Heads to Ill. House

A measure that would scrap the new, controversial group health insurance plans for state employees, and restart the process under a different state agency --- with more legislative oversight - passed the Illinois Senate Friday evening by a 37-12 vote.

State Senator Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) is sponsoring an amendment to Senate Bill #178, with downstate Republicans Dale Righter, Shane Cultra, Larry Bomke and Bill Brady signed up as co-sponsors. The measure cleared the Senate Local Government and Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday. Co-sponsor Righter said one problem with the new health insurance plans, is that they require many state employees now using HMO plans from Health Alliance and Humana to switch to Open Access Plans --- plans which the state self-insures.

"So the state's potential liability is going to go way up," Righter said. "Now again, that can save you money over the long term, as long as you run a tight, efficient program. That's really the question, I think, out there for lawmakers is --- is this administration in the habit of doing that, or is this administration even capable of doing that?"

The bill would go back to the present mix of group insurance plans, current set to expire at the end of June. The procurement process for new plans would start over --- but under the Department of Central Management Services --- not the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which is presently in charge.

And Frerichs, the bill's lead sponsor, said the measure would give the General Assembly more oversight of the process for selecting insurance plans, through its Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

"I think it's a good idea to have more eyes overseeing the process", said Frerichs, whose Senate District includes thousands of University of Illinois employees, many of whom receive healthcare through Urbana-based Health Alliance. "No one is perfect. People make mistakes. And that's why I've also focused on making sure that the General Assembly is involved in this as well."

Currently, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services is ignoring a vote by the Forecasting and Accountability Commission to block the new insurance plans.

The bill must now pass the House to beat the legislature's May 31st adjournment deadline.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

Ex-Ill. Gov. Blagojevich takes stand for 2nd Day

Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has taken the witness stand for a second day at his corruption retrial.

The presiding judge has said there will only be a half day of testimony on Friday before he lets jurors head home for the Memorial Day holiday.

Blagojevich's testimony is likely to spill into next week.

As he stepped onto the witness stand Friday, he still hadn't addressed many of the allegations against him, including the charge that he attempted to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat President Barack Obama vacated after winning the 2008 election.

An often animated and emotional Blagojevich spent much of his time on the stand Thursday reciting his life story to jurors.

Prosecutors will get their chance to ask Blagojevich questions after his own lawyers finish.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 27, 2011

New Illinois Congressional Map Released

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Illinois Democrats have released a much-anticipated map of new congressional districts.

The new map shows the state with 18 U.S. House districts after it lost one of its seats because of slowing population growth in the latest census.

The congressional map is a chance for Democrats to try to neutralize Republicans who captured a number of U.S. House seats in the last election.

The proposed map squeezes districts into new shapes and some Republicans will find themselves drawn into districts with other incumbents. A political science professor at the University of Illinois said the map could force Republican incumbents to face off in a primary or campaign elsewhere.

Brian Gaines said it appears as if Democrats deliberately chose new districts that could make life hard for some GOP incumbents. The map places much of Champaign-Urbana in a new 13th congressional district that also includes parts of Madison County, home to Republican John Shimkus. Meanwhile, Urbana Republican Tim Johnson's 15th district would draw all or parts of 33 counties in Southeast Illinois. Gaines said some changes had to be made because Illinois lost a Congressional seat due to population shifts, but he said some could have been intentional.

"It does look very much like they picked their shapes given where there were population losses, where you had to draw the line," Gaines said. "They went out of their way to make sure Republican incumbents would be paired up and would have this difficult choice of running against each other in the primary, or trying to relocate and run in a district that doesn't have very many voters who have ever voted for them before."

In a statement, Congressman Johnson called the map 'a slap in the face' to the notion of representative government, dividing communities for blatant partisan gain.' The one portion of Champaign-Urbana that remains in Johnson's district is his home in the Beringer Commons subdivision.

The Congressman said he will embrace new territories with all his energy, but spokesman Phil Bloomer said there will likely be a legal challenge to the new map since it only contains one Hispanic district in the Chicago area. But he says the map should be rejected on principle alone for splitting up communities like Champaign-Urbana, and adding all the counties to the south.

"That's a long way from tom to bottom," said Bloomer. "And a lot of new territory, and a lot of new people to get to know. It hurts because you build up these relationships with people and institutions in all these areas in the last 10 years Tim has been in office. And it's hard to give all that up."

Gaines said 11th District Republican Adam Kinzinger may have worst position of all incumbents in the new map, because his district has been stretched out to a suburban Chicago area served by Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr.

The proposed congressional map was the last piece of the redistricting puzzle for Illinois Democrats. They have already released proposed new state House and Senate districts. Democrats are in charge of the process because they control the state Legislature and the governor's office.

Here's a look at some of the key changes:

+Judy Biggert, 13th CD: Placed at the suburban end of a new 5th district that stretches to Chicago and the territory of Democrat Mike Quigley.

+Robert Dold, 10th CD: Would share a new 9th district with popular Democratic incumbent Jan Schakowsky.

+Randy Hultgren, 14th CD: House lies just yards inside the boundaries of new 14th, which would also be home to Joe Walsh

+Adam Kinzinger, 11th CD: Put into the rural, less-populated end of a new 2nd with long-time incumbent Jesse Jackson Jr.

+Bobby Schilling, 17th CD: New 17th loses rural, Republican territory and picks up Democratic-leaning areas, including Peoria.

+Joe Walsh, 8th CD: Lumped with Hultgren into the new 14th.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Plan to Cut HMO’s From State Contract Means More Calls by U of I Employees

A state agency's plans to proceed with new health insurance contracts means a number of calls have come in to the University of Illinois' Payroll and Benefits office.

On Wednesday, Illinois' Department of Healthcare and Family Services opted to proceed with a contract that leaves out Health Alliance and Humana HMO's.

Executive Director of U of I Payroll and Benefits Jim Davito says his office is taking questions from state workers in areas with no HMO coverage now asked to choose between Personal Care and HealthLink Open Access Plans, and the state's own Quality Care Health Plan. DaVito says concerns have ranged from higher cost to changing doctors.

He encourages state employees and retirees to thoroughly research their plans, and not have one chosen for them if they miss the June 17th deadline.

"We would much rather see each of our employees choose the new plan that they're going to have starting July 1, rather than having a default option defined by CMS (the State Department of Central Management Services) determine what coverage you're going to have for the next year," said Davito, who says the pending changes for state workers should prompt them to thoroughly review their benefits package. He says the same for some who have been on HealthLink the past few years.

"Many people have chosen it, but a lot of people have never looked at it," said Davito. "And so it's a new concept, and I would encourage people to look at the literature, and call HealthLink, and call Personal Care OAP, and talk about the questions that you have."

Davito says the Open Access Plans are unusual in that they're composed of three tiers, with the lowest tier being similar to an HMO. The state agency is moving forward with the state insurance contract despite a vote against it Wednesday by the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

The U of I plans to hold more Benefits Choice informational sessions on campus soon.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Blagojevich Recounts His Biography in Meandering Testimony

Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told jurors Thursday about his life and blue collar roots while testifying at his corruption retrial in Chicago.

Introducing himself to jurors, he said, "I used to be your governor" and "I'm here today to tell you the truth."

The testimony has been mostly autobiographical, though at times Blagojevich has made obvious attempts to link this background to the federal charges he now faces.

He proceeded to talk about his upbringing in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Blagojevich spoke in a low voice and remembered his first hit in little league baseball. Jurors watched him intently.

Blagojevich described his first jobs as a shoeshine boy and then working in a packing company. He talked about his father leaving home to work on the Alaskan pipeline. Blagojevich said he also worked on the pipeline, washing pots and pans.

Blagojevich's voice broke when he spoke about his deceased parents. He later choked up when he began to tell the story of how he met his wife, Patti. That prompted Judge James Zagel to send the jury out of the room, and call for a lunch break.

Earlier, Blagojevich addressed his days as an undergrad at Northwestern University. He told jurors that he often felt inferior compared to other students. But he said he got good grades, and was a history buff.

"I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton," Blagojevich said.

In talking about Winston Churchill and how leaders made decisions, the ex-governor offered a preview of his defense to the corruption charges he faces, some of which are based off secretly taped phone calls with his aides.

Blagojevich said, like Churchill, he believes in "full discussion," that leaders "should be free" to bounce ideas off advisers, to "end up in the right place."

Later, talking about law school, Blagojevich said he applied to a number of top schools, including Harvard University. The rejection letter, he said, "came back pretty quick." Blagojevich eventually went to Pepperdine University in California. His first year, he said, was "almost catastrophic," because he wanted to read history books instead of law books.

Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked him about his friendship with Lon Monk. Monk is a former Blagojevich aide who testified against him in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.

Blagojevich said he met Monk while studying abroad in England during law school, and it developed into "a lifelong, very close friendship."

He talked about how different his upbringing and family were Monk's, whose father was a successful California obstetrician and gynecologist. Blagojevich said he "became very close" with Monk's family. He said they had a "beautiful house...with peacocks in the back yard."

"I love Lon Monk," Blagojevich said of his once-close friend. Asked if he trusted him, the ex-governor said, "Absolutely. Infinitely."

The ex-governor talked about how he worked as a paralegal for Ed Vrdolyak, at the time a lawyer and Chicago alderman.

"I didn't do a lot of law," Blagojevich said, noting that his job consisted of doing campaign work for, among others, then-Mayor Jane Byrne, and picking up cheesecakes for the alderman's driver.

Blagojevich said Vrdolyak later reneged on a promise to hire him, and again on a promise to get him a job with the Cook County State's Attorney's office. He was hired anyway, working in the office while Richard M. Daley was state's attorney.

"While he was my boss, I never saw him," said Blagojevich. He talked about his work in the traffic division, and later on domestic violence cases.

No doubt in an effort to make sure the jury knew he was not professionally familiar with the laws he is accused of breaking, Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked the ex-governor a series of questions about his struggles to pass the bar exam, and his experience in private practice. Blagojevich testified that he never worked on any federal case, nonetheless one involving the fraud or extortion statutes.

Blagojevich's attorney cited his tendency for profanity. Blagojevich then apologized directly to jurors. He said when you hear the curses and swear words, "it makes you wince." Blagojevich called himself a jerk for swearing.

Once his own attorneys are done questioning him, Blagojevich is sure to face blistering cross-examination from the government. Prosecutors are likely to replay FBI wiretaps that captured his blunt talk.

Blagojevich's testimony comes on the heels of a terrible day in court for the defense Wednesday.

They called Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the stand. He testified for only four minutes. They also called Jesse Jackson Jr. who said he never offered Blagojevich money in return for being appointed to Barack Obama's old senate seat.

But under cross examination by prosecutors, Jackson offered up a whole new allegation of extortion. He says Blagojevich asked for a $25,000 dollar campaign contribution, but Jackson didn't pay. Later, Jackson's wife, Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, applied for, but was denied a job in the Blagojevich administration. At a subsequent meeting Jackson says the governor referred to the job, then snapped his fingers and pointed in an Elvis-like way and said, "You should have given me that $25,000."

Jurors wouldn't have heard this story if Blagojevich's lawyers hadn't called Jackson to the stand. The anecdote is like an additional criminal count against the former governor, compliments of his own defense team.

Blagojevich's attorneys didn't call any witnesses during his first trial last year. That jury deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts, including allegations that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Gambling Expansion Blocked by House Panel

One state lawmaker is taking a gamble on a big expansion to the state's gaming industry, and so far it isn't paying out.

The latest plan to grow the number of casinos has hit a snag.

Skokie House Democrat Lou Lang says a short drive across the Illinois border shows just how much money the state is losing out on.

"If you go to gaming enterprises in other states and never get out of your car and just drive through the parking lot around the states that surround Illinois, you'd see nothing but Illinois license plates," Lang said.

Five new casinos, slot machines at race tracks and video gaming are all packed into Lang's proposal. That was enough for a House panel to give it a thumbs down. Opponents call it overreaching and a monumental expansion. Existing riverboat casinos railed against it, saying the gambling market is already saturated. Tom Swoik, who represents those casinos, says revenues have dropped by nearly a third and building more won't generate new dollars.

"That's like saying that a third of the houses available are vacant but let's help the economy by building more houses," Swoik said.

Governor Quinn has indicated his willingness to discuss a Chicago casino. Lang could scale back what he's asking for, but he won't have much time to change it before the legislature is set to adjourn next week.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 26, 2011

Illinois Dems Closing in on Budget Deal

Democratic leaders in Springfield say they're getting closer to reaching a deal on a state budget.

The state House has already passed a bipartisan spending plan. But it would appropriate $1 billion less than the version approved by Senate Democrats. Now, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, says he's willing to go along with the House's $32 billion proposal.

"I think we're going to have a very positive experience here. I know we're going to have a balanced budget," Cullerton said Thursday. "Each chamber has passed a balanced budget. So this is just a matter of how much more we can save and pay down of our existing debt."

Cullerton said he's beginning to negotiate with House Speaker Michael Madigan to reconcile their two budget proposals.

Meanwhile, an Illinois Senate committee is advancing a plan to pay down state debt by borrowing $6 billion. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants to borrow more than $8 billion to pay down a backlog of overdue bills. But many Republicans oppose the idea.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Il. Commission Votes to Suspend Open Access Plans for State Employees

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)

The state agency in charge of health insurance for public employees says it is going forward with a plan to drop Health Alliance HMO and Humana as options for state and university employees' medical insurance.

Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana have protested the move.

The state's decision comes in spite of a vote Wednesday morning by the bipartisan Commission on Governmental Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) to end self-insured/Open Access Plans for state employees, which is what the state planned to move employees to in areas where the HMO/Blue Cross Blue Shield plan isn't available. The vote potentially sets up a constitutional clash over the fate of health insurance for about 100,000 state and university workers.

Moving many employees to this sort of plan is how Governor Pat Quinn's administration had been planning to save up to $100 million a year.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a ruling last week stating that legislators don't have the power to interfere with specific contracts. However, despite Madigan's ruling, State Senator and CGFA member Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the commission has the authority to weigh in on policy changes. He also noted that the commission's vote reflects a major policy shift in self-insurance at the state level.

"And that's something we have consent power over," Frerichs said. "We don't have the ability to consent to individual contracts, but this big policy shift we do. We rejected that, and I think that will necessitate rebidding of the whole package."

State Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) also sits on the commission. He said the vote by CGFA was done as an attempt to get all parties back to the bargaining table.

"My hope is that everybody involved in this process, rather than rush into court and having lawsuits, can all sit down together and try and perhaps try and rebid it, come up with a different plan," Murphy said.

It is unclear if the commission's vote is binding, and could send matters into a tailspin. The Department of Healthcare and Family Services is going forward as if that vote was insignificant.

"We followed the letter of the law," DHFS spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. "Everything was done fairly, it was done ethically, so why would we reopen the bidding?"

Downstate legislators have been highly critical of the decision to drop Health Alliance. They have shown no signs of letting down.

Meanwhile, many of the employees and retirees with Health Alliance as medical insurance say they don't want a new provider because they fear they will be forced to switch doctors. They are also concerned they will pay more out of pocket on doctor's visits.

As it stands now, state employees have until June 17 to decide what provider they want for medical coverage. The state is also considering opening another enrollment period this fall.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 25, 2011

Report Looks at Substance Use Among Illinois Teens

A study out, known as the Illinois Youth Survey, shows fewer Illinois teens are smoking cigarettes and drinking large amounts of alcohol at once, but the survey says marijuana use appears to be steady.

Beth Welbes with the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois said nationally, marijuana use is going up. She said the state findings show more teens are downplaying the risks associated with smoking marijuana.

"The state rates and the state estimates are really valuable, especially for state policy makers because they can take a look and they can see where do we need to direct our resources in terms of substance abuse prevention and other health areas," Welbes said.

The survey also reported a drop in DUIs among high school seniors, and a decrease in the use of illicit drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine.


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