Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 15, 2011

Blagojevich Returns to Court to Hear Bond Details

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told a federal judge Friday that he understands he could lose his home if he violates the conditions of his bond.

Lawyers for Blagojevich say the former governor and his wife are trying to sell their home on Chicago's North Side. News of the home sale came during the hearing where Judge James Zagel increased Blagojevich's bond to $450,000.

The former governor is considered a greater flight risk now that he is facing substantial prison time.

The Blagojevich's are using their home and a condo to secure the bond, but Blagojevich's attorneys hoped to exclude the house to make it easier to sell. Judge Zagel said both properties have to be put up.

"Patti and I were here to comply as we always try to do, with all the different rules and we signed all the necessary papers to comply with the bond requirements," Blagojevich said after the hearing.

The Blagojevich's say between their home and condo, they have about $600,000 in equity.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 15, 2011

Champaign Unveils Transformed Houses

There is a bit less blight in some north Champaign neighborhoods as the results of a federally-funded program.

On Friday, Champaign city officials took people on a tour of three houses that were either built or rehabbed under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Sheila Dodd of Champaign's Neighborhood Services Department said the city had won $1.9 million in federal stimulus money to do the work.

"It allows us to buy vacant, abandoned, blighted or foreclosed properties, and then with that we fix them up or demolish them," Dodd said. "Our reuse of the projects can be rental, homeowner rehab, those type of things."

Dodd said the Neighborhood Stabilization Program has not solved the entire problem of blight -- but it's made a difference in the Douglass Park area, where there's already been a lot of new construction.

"There's going to be six new homes built in a two block area over in that neighborhood, so it's just going to further our neighborhood wellness goals over there," she said. "It also helped with some homes that were in really poor shape - we were able to demolish them and we'll rebuild with new construction, which helps the properties around them maintain their value or even increase in value."

Habitat for Humanity is using some of the lots to build houses for low-income home buyers. Other properties will be offered by the Center for Women in Transition to clients escaping abusive households and needing rental housing.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 15, 2011

Chicago Mayor Laying Off Up to 625 Workers

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Friday he is laying off up to 625 city workers, after labor leaders blew a Friday deadline to come up with a list of cost-saving measures in order to avoid pink slips.

"I took the steps because I cannot wish away this budget shortfall," Emanuel said.

The layoffs will hit the city's water department call center, city custodians, and the office that manages health benefits for city workers. His plan will also lead to a 75 percent force reduction of the seasonal workforce at the Department of Transportation, which would mean fewer street and sidewalk improvements this year.

Layoff notices will begin going out next week, said a mayoral spokeswoman.

The mayor also used his remarks to slam union leaders for not agreeing to a menu of of compensation and work rule changes he said would have precluded pink slips. His proposal, outlined to the public in its entirety for the first time Friday, would eliminate sick pay for city trade workers, lengthen the work week, and reduce pay for overtime, among other changes.

The mayor said his administration would meet with labor leaders on Monday, but he would not say whether he would cancel the layoffs if union workers agree to the work rule changes he had pushed.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez responded to the mayor's decision on Friday afternoon. Ramirez said he was unaware of the deadline and that he and other leaders would continue to work on their own cost-saving plan. He said the CFL has hired an outside consultant to help come up with a proposal.

Ramirez said the unions were left in the dark about Emanuel's proposed work rule changes.

"They have never been formerly presented with anything, they haven't been asked to sit down in a formal way, and this is something shouldn't have caught the city by surprise," Ramirez said. "We told them there was a process from the very first meeting that we had. We suggested to them that they engage it if they intend to do anything like that, and they just chose not to."

Emanuel's administration inherited the labor dispute from former Mayor Richard Daley. The Daley administration balanced its 2011 budget, in part, by squeezing concessions and furlough days from unions. But that labor agreement expired last month, leaving the Emanuel administration to come up with about $31 million in savings to close out the budget year.

Emanuel has said he is against imposing more furlough days on city workers and he previously ordered a partial hiring freeze. He also said seven city-run health clinics will turn over primary care services to federally funded clinics. Emanuel said the measures would save $20 million.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Rare Flower Expected to Bloom at UI

It is just a matter of time before a rare tropical plant housed at University of Illinois' Plant Biology Building starts to bloom.

The plant is a titan arum, but it is commonly known as a "corpse flower" because of its pungent odor. Greenhouse Manager Debbie Black said the scent, which smells like raw meat, will travel once the plant blooms, so that it can attract beetles, flesh flies, and other pollinators.

"They have to move out to bring that pollinator in because you're not going to find a field of titan arum's anywhere," Black said. "They're not real prevalent, and so this odor really has to move quite a long distance."

To improve its chances of pollination, the corpse flower heats up to near human body temperature by burning stored carbohydrates. Black said the flower will only be open for two days, and it well then go dormant for up to six months.

The plant was grown from a seed given to the U of I by a botanist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who cultivated "Big Bucky," the first titan arum to bloom in Wisconsin. After that plant flowered in 2001 in Wisconsin, the seed was harvested and shared with Illinois and several other institutions.

Less than 100 plants of its kind have bloomed in cultivation in the U.S. since the first titan arum unfurled at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1937.

The greenhouses and plant collections at 1201 S. Dorner Drive, Urbana are open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The hours may be extended and may include 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, depending on when the flower blooms.

Categories: Education, Environment

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Indiana Ends Budget Year with $1.2B Surplus

Indiana closed its budget books Thursday with $1.2 billion in extra cash, built on a series of deep cuts to education and healthcare services and improved tax collections.

State Auditor Tim Berry called the state workers who bore most of those budget cuts via greater workloads, "heroes."

"The surplus was built on the backs of state employees," said Berry, after he thanked them for tightening their belts.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has already said he plans to keep that money in savings rather than restore cuts made in recent years.

The Daniels administration set a target of cutting $597 million from the budget last July, just before state tax collections improved. Although tax collections improved dramatically over the last year, the administration cut deeper as the year went on, ultimately cutting roughly $460 million more than what they planned for last July.

"More money in Hoosiers' incomes and a terrific job of cost control by state employees working together combined to produce an even stronger result than we expected at budget time," Daniels said in a statement Thursday. He planned a Friday morning press conference to discuss the budget.

But talk of the massive state surplus glossed over how the administration achieved it, largely through cuts to education and children's healthcare, House Minority Leader Pat Bauer said Thursday.

"This is a gimmicky report; which has not been unusual for this administration," said Bauer, D-South Bend.

The state school system bore much of the brunt over the last year, returning $325 million from the $6.9 billion that it was allotted in the previous budget. The cuts were more pronounced for state agencies with smaller budgets such as the Department of Child Services, which had its budget slashed by $104 million.

The other half of the state's budget equation, tax collections, improved significantly over the last year, and the state collected $204 million more than it had projected. Most of that money, $195 million, came from income taxes.

The budget surplus should help the state replenish its emergency spending fund, the Rainy Day Fund, which is monitored closely by bond-rating agencies as they set interest rates for the state on its outstanding debt.

The $1.2 billion also fell just short of the amount needed to trigger automatic tax refunds for Hoosiers. The automatic tax refunds kick in when the state has a surplus equal to 10 percent or more of general spending. The $1.2 billion figure amounted to 9.1 percent of spending.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Parkland College Secures Remaining Funding for Expansion

Parkland College in Champaign now has the funding it needs to move forward with a large expansion.

About $31 billion in construction funds were released earlier this week by the state, and $24.6 million of that money will support construction of the Student Services Center and Applied Technology Building at Parkland.

Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Simon, who was at Parkland Thursday morning as part of a statewide tour of community colleges, said the construction program will improve access to education in an already crowded school.

"They're filled to the gills here," Simon said. "Their offices, their classrooms, are totally loaded with students. We heard about students going out to their cars to study in between classes. So, to have more space to do their good work here is going to be a big improvement for everyone."

Parkland College President Tom Ramage estimates that once construction of the two buildings wraps up, the college will be able to accept up to 5,000 additional students over the next 20 years.

"We've experienced huge enrollment growth over the last four or five years," Ramage said. "When we're out of classroom space and out of office space, it limits the sort of offerings we can put out for our students."

Parkland has already raised an additional $67 million for its so-called "Master Plan," which includes the two buildings, the addition of a Fine and Applied Arts Center, and remodeling on campus.

State officials say these projects are expected to employ hundreds of construction workers.

(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

U of Trustees Will Vote to Close Aviation Next Week

University of Illinois Interim Chancellor Robert Easter confirms the university's Board of Trustees will vote next week during a meeting in Chicago to close its Institute of Aviation.

A panel of administrators and faculty made the recommendation in February as part of a series of cost-cutting measures known as "Stewarding Excellence." But members of the Institute's Alumni Advisory Board say the trustees are ignoring a vote by the U of I's Faculty Senate to keep the facility open. Even though the proposal to close the Institute failed by three votes, Easter calls that tally 'essentially a tie".

"We have other bodies, the Stewarding Excellence process, the Faculty Committee on courses and curriculum, they have supported the decision," he said. "We had to arrive at some decision, so we decided to move it forward."

Easter notes that the Institute's degree program was only established in the late 90's, while the U of I has been teaching people to fly since the 1940's. Easter said the U of I still wants to find a way to offer pilot training, and it is working with a local community college to provide those courses. He would not say whether that school is Parkland College. Easter also said the closure date for Aviation would be 'several years' away.

"We have a very real obligation and commitment to continue to operate the educational program until the students have had a reasonable opportunity to complete their degrees." he said.

Karen Koenig with the Institute's alumni panel said there has been an effort to merge the Institute with another unnamed college. But Easter said any progress at a meeting between the two parties scheduled for Wednesday will likely be too late to change the outcome of the Board of Trustees vote next week.

Koenig said the powers that be are ignoring the actions of others, and not giving Aviation enough time to respond, since the Institute's alumni panel only learned of administrators' plans on Tuesday.

"The original proposal made by (Easter) to close the institute is the one being sent to the trustees, and that totally circumnavigates the votes that were made by the University Senate, the Student Senate, the Faculty-Student Senate, and the Educational Policy Committee," Koenig said. "Those are not being considered."

Dana Dann-Messier is President of Koening's advisory group. He says the university's efforts to shut down aviation started in 2005, when instructor and director positions started becoming vacant and weren't refilled. Dann-Messier says those actions are hurting the business.

"It's apocolyptic," he said. "Those are the words the industry is using for the pilot shortage on the horizon. And for the administration to be engaging in these kinds of games when the future of air transportation is at stake, and we can be a leader in that future, it's mind boggling. That's all I can say."

Staff and alumni from the Institute of Aviation plan to rally Thursday morning before the Board of Trustees meeting.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Prosecutors: Blagojevich Not Fulfilling Bond Terms

Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich have asked a judge for permission to speak with the jurors who recently convicted the impeached Illinois governor on multiple corruption charges.

A filing with U.S. District Court on Thursday seeks access to jurors as the defense prepares post-trial motions. It doesn't specify the motions, but it's widely expected Blagojevich will appeal his convictions.

Defense attorneys often interview jurors about how they reached a verdict in a search for fodder that could bolster their appeal.

Jurors found the 54-year-old Blagojevich guilty on 17 of 20 counts, including attempted extortion for trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.

Several jurors told reporters after the retrial they liked Blagojevich and hoped to acquit him. But they said they believed the evidence was overwhelming.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 13, 2011

Study Shows Race a Factor in Illinois Traffic Stops

A new study shows race could play a role in traffic stops across Illinois.

An Illinois Department of Transportation and University of Illinois at Chicago study of traffic stops in 2010 found that minorities are more likely to be cited or to be asked for a consent search than white drivers. The research is part of a state rule that requires police to record the details of traffic stops and report them to the DOT. For the last few years, the research has revealed similar results.

Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the ACLU wants state police to get rid of consent searches entirely. A consent search is when an officer asks the driver if he or she can search the vehicle. Unlike other searches done by police, a vehicle search can be done without a warrant. All the officer needs is consent from the driver.

"Given the danger of conscious or unconscious bias being in play, we think that consent searches always will yield a disparate impact against minority motorists. It simply is too subjective a technique to apply," Schwartz said.

In June of this year, the ACLU of Illinois filed a complaint to the United States Department of Justice. According to Schwartz, the ACLU wants there to be a federal investigation into Illinois State Police practices, and for the US DOJ to issue a ban on the use of consent searches.

Schwartz said the new study confirms the need for such action.

"We think that it's a technique that can't be cured or reformed," he said.

Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police Department, said they are in the process of reviewing the raw data and expect an internal review to be completed within the coming weeks. She said that no decision had been made to cease consent searches.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 13, 2011

U of I Files Appeal in Case Concerning Student Records

The University of Illinois has formally appealed a federal judge's ruling that student and family records be disclosed.

The brief filed Wednesday stems from a lawsuit filed last year by the Chicago Tribune. The U of I denied Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the paper seeking the names and addresses of parents of Urbana campus applicants who were enrolled over more qualified ones.

The University contends those records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. U of I attorney Sam Skinner said information like test scores are protected due to privacy issues, similar to what is seen in health care.

Skinner said it is clear the measure should apply to both admitted students, and those who apply and are rejected.

"What they're really looking for in this particular case is students who were admitted, and what the information is on their students, including information about the families, where they live, and also there's a request pending that deals with actual ACT scores and other information," Skinner said. "We think that's clearly covered by FERPA."

The U of I complied with prior FOIA requests from the Tribune, submitting nearly 6,000 documents, including e-mails, but the Tribune filed suit over redacted names in those e-mails. The investigation of the so-called Category I list resulted in the resignation of former U of I President Joseph White, and the resignations of six of nine U of I Trustees. The university said failure to comply with FERPA could mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for financial aid and academic grants.

The Champaign News-Gazette is not a party to this lawsuit, but also filed many FOIA requests. Publisher John Foreman said scholarship recipients should be public information, or the system should be abolished altogether.

"It's our belief, and I think it's been demonstrated a number of times over the years, that many of these scholarships are political rewards to family members, friends, and campaign workers," he said. "Who knows who else?"

Oral arguments are expected in the fall, but Skinner said he does not expect a resolution until late this year at the earliest. He said the court will have a chance to respond, then the U of I will have a chance to file some additional briefing. In granting the University's stay the order pending appeal, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall welcomed an appeal so protections afforded by federal law could be clarified.

Categories: Education, Politics

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