Education reform that makes it harder for teachers to go on strike, easier for educators to be fired and could lengthen the school day for students in Chicago is now law.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the landmark legislation Monday at an elementary school in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. He says it was done collaboratively, unlike in other states where lawmakers and union members have fought.
Unions, reform groups and legislators have largely supported the reform. But the Chicago Teachers Union has objected to the measure's final language on strikes.
The bill includes tougher standards for teacher strikes over contract disputes. It would require several additional steps, including earlier intervention by mediators and publicizing each side's last, best offer in contract negotiations, before a strike.
Jurors are set to continue deliberating on Monday in the retrial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
They have about six weeks of testimony to go through.
For much of the trial jurors were studiously taking notes, and now they may want to thoroughly review those notes before making any decision. Prosecutors and defense attorneys also asked jurors to go through the dozens of secretly recorded phone calls in chronological order.
Prosecutor Carrie Hamilton told jurors to focus on the most damning calls to hear that Blagojevich wanted to get personal benefits for himself in exchange for state action. Hamilton said they can see Blagojevich's M.O. in those calls and then apply that mindset to other charged schemes where the evidence isn't so clear.
Blagojevich's attorneys say jurors should look at the weak charges and see that Blagojevich has no criminal intent, and then apply that mindset to charges where he appears to be trading state action for personal benefit.
A Sangamon County Judge has stalled the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services' attempt to switch thousands of HMO plans in Central Illinois.
In response to a push by the state to drop Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana as options for public and university employees, Judge Brian Otwell issued a temporary stay in any further action in awarding or signing the self-insurance, or Open Access Plan contracts.
State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year. Governor Pat Quinn's administration has argued these so-called "open access plans" are cheaper, because the state's the ultimate insurer.
The ruling means that employees can continue enrolling in HMO plans, just not the popular downstate plans provided by Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana.
The companies filed a lawsuit in protest.
"It will be up to HFS to decide on the actions to take based on the judge's ruling," Health Alliance CEO Jeff Ingrum said in a statement. "We are relieved the judge has stopped the process while the issues are examined by the court."
Judge Otwell's ruling comes just a week before the annual open enrollment period expires, a time when workers can pick new plans. The ruling throws that process into havoc as employees have few choices beyond an HMO option. Otwell calls the timing of his decision, "highly regrettable" but unavoidable.
Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said the state intends to appeal Friday's ruling. He claims nothing in the ruling, "calls into question the fairness of the procurement process."
"Today's decision has created uncertainty for state employees and other members of the state group insurance program who are currently in the process of making decisions on their health care plan for the new fiscal year that starts July 1," Claffey said. "We want group insurance plan members to know that we will act promptly and explore all the options to ensure that they have managed care coverage."
Meanwhile, another state agency, the Department of Central Management Services, released a statement on its website Sunday saying that for now, state employees can only choose from the two Blue Cross HMO plans --- covering only 38 counties, and the state's more expensive Quality Care plan. CMS said that could change if emergency healthcare contracts can be signed, or if Judge Otwell takes further action in the case.
LIFE ON ROUTE 150: Racing Tradition Kept Alive in Farmer City
Traveling along Route 150, you've got to obey the rules of the road, but at one popular hangout in Farmer City, those same rules don't apply. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers took a trip there for the wild and fast world of dirt late model racing as part of the series "Life on Route 150."
Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR's "On the Media," is out with a media manifesto in comic book form where she plays the lead character. The book is titled "The Influencing Machine." In it, Gladstone attempts to educate people on how to become smarter consumers and shapers of the media. She spoke with Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers.
(Reported by Dan Petrella and Jay Lee of CU-CitizenAccess)
Champaign County's immigration-service agencies may have to bear some of the burden for the state's burgeoning debt - and they aren't happy about it.
With the state's deficit projected to hit $15 billion by the end of the year, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed large-scale budget cuts for the next two fiscal years, and last week the state Legislature approved a 2012 budget that makes even deeper cuts. This includes drastic cuts to funding for grants to agencies that assist immigrants and refugees.
"These cuts are more than just substantial - they're devastating," said Deborah Hlavna, the director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, 302 S. Birch St., Urbana.
And on top of the cuts to services for immigrants and refugees, the 2012 budget, which awaits the governor's signature, would cut overall funding for the Department of Human Services by nearly $670 million, about 17 percent of its total budget.
"The ripple effect will be enormous," Hlavna said before the Legislature passed its budget. "We're all waiting nervously to see what's going to happen, but it's not looking too good right now."
The final impact of the budget cuts remains unclear. Senate Democrats attempted to restore some of the money for human services by adding it to a bill to fund capital improvement projects. But the House did not vote on the measure before the spring legislative session adjourned. Quinn has suggested he may call lawmakers back to vote on the package during the summer.
The governor originally recommended cutting funds for immigrants and refugees when he presented his budget plan to lawmakers in February.
His proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1, would have seen a $1.7 billion increase overall from this year despite widespread cuts at several areas, including human services, education, public safety and health care coverage. But the budget legislators approved calls for spending $2 billion less than the he proposed.
"These proposed cuts are a horrendous mistake," Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said, referring to Quinn's proposed cuts to immigration services. "We're not happy, to say the least."
Hoyt said that the coalition predicts that at least 15 agencies that serve immigrants will have to close if the proposed cut in funding takes effect. The Asian and Latino communities in Illinois will be hurt the most, he said.
In Champaign County, the Latino population has more than doubled in the last decade, while the Asian population has grown by 55 percent, according to 2010 census data.
This reflects a growing trend in the entire state. The Asian community in Illinois grew by 38 percent in the last 10 years, and the Latino population increased by 33 percent.
The refugee center's Hlavna said that agencies in central Illinois will feel the impact the most because of limited fundraising capabilities in the midst of a growing immigrant community.
"We're lucky in that we only rely partially on state funding," she said. "That won't be true for a lot of others in the area."
Immigration advocacy groups and agencies like Hoyt's have voiced their displeasure over the cuts, pointing to how immigration services make up slightly more than 1 percent of the state's budget.
"We should be giving more funding to help immigrants and refugees, not less," Hoyt said. "This is an issue that isn't going away, and is going - and this cut in funding would be a mistake."
Esther Wong, executive director of the Illinois-based Chinese American Service League, said she has seen immigration agencies face funding problems ever since she began working with Chinese-American communities in Illinois in 1978 - but nothing like what Quinn proposed.
"We have not faced any drastic cuts like this ever before," Wong said. "I didn't believe it at first."
The Latino Partnership of Champaign County will also receive less state funding with the proposed cuts, but David Adcock, the group's treasurer, said he had mixed reactions to Quinn's proposal.
"I can't say I was surprised because I knew everything was going to be on the table. Something needs to be done with the state's financial situation," Adcock said. "Did I think the cuts would be so drastic? No. But it is what it is."
The cuts in funding for immigration and refugee services would lessen financial support for grant-receiving agencies such as the refugee center, but the wider cuts to the Illinois Department of Human Services would compound the pain.
"The weakening of the (Department of Human Services) will hurt the most for all the smaller groups in Illinois," Hlavna said. "We work alongside them all the time and when we can't meet our clients' needs, we will direct them and go with them to the DHS."
The refugee center has adapted to the state's history of slow payments, but the cuts to the Department of Humans Services throws the agency a new curveball, she said.
"We've been waiting on our check for a long time," Hlavna said with a laugh. "We've been smart enough not to depend on their money. But we need their help and their services."
Sarah Baumer, an administrator at the Department of Human Services' Champaign County office, declined to comment on the looming budget cuts, but conceded that they will curb the resources the office can provide.
"Adjustments will be made," Baumer said.
Anh Ha Ho, co-director of the refugee center with Hlavna, said that the major needs of immigrants in Champaign County pertain to issues such as food, money, health care and housing - all of which fall into the jurisdiction of the Department of Human Services.
Local immigration-service organizations such as the refugee center don't provide many direct services, Ho said, rather relying on government agencies like Department of Human Services. A great deal of Ho's time is spent helping clients with paperwork and applications for the services through the department.
"We take advantage of the services in place because that's really all immigrants need," Ho said. "We're here to make sure that they get the help they need."
And in a county in which nearly one out of every 10 residents is an immigrant, the budget cuts to human services will especially affect a Champaign County population that has limited access to non-English-speaking resources.
"We have the immigration population of a big metropolitan city without the big city resources," Hlavna said. "We have to rely on each other and we really have to rely on the DHS."
Adcock, of the Latino Partnership, said that a drop in available assistance by the human-services agency may alter the approach of immigration-services organizations
"It'll be harder for people to get the help they need, so we may have to look into different options available," Adcock said. "We may have to look more towards private resources, whether that's local churches or donors or whatever it is."
Funding was a major concern for Champaign County immigration-service agencies even before the proposed cuts, Adcock said, but they will not have to focus their efforts on tightening budget and fundraising.
"Everyone's been on the bubble and funding will always be a concern," Adcock said with a smile. "But we're still here.
Jurors at the retrial of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich have begun deliberating.
Judge James Zagel told lawyers during a hearing on Friday that he was giving jurors copies of jury instructions so they could start. Closing arguments wrapped up Thursday.
The judge also told attorneys he couldn't guess how long the jury might take to reach a decision.
At the first trial, jurors took two weeks and then deadlocked on all but one charge.
There are 20 counts against the former governor at the second trial.
Even before jurors can get into the nitty-gritty of the charges, they have other business to finish. That would include electing a foreman and organizing the hundreds of notebooks they likely filled during six weeks of testimony.
Nearly 1,000 firefighters from small and rural departments will spend the weekend sharpening their skills.
The University of Illinois' 87th Annual Fire College, the oldest continuing series of lessons and demonstrations, runs through Sunday.
Fire Service Institute Program Director Brad Bone says while many of the tactics stay the same - putting out a fire safely and affectively - there are changes in how building codes will affect how a fire spreads. Meanwhile, fire pumps with electronic or digital controls, or changes in how a breathing apparatus operates are part of a developing curriculum.
And Bone says the various lessons pay off when the firefighter returns home.
"We might get contacted by somebody a year from now, and say 'hey, I took your single family dwelling class, and three or six months later we had a fire, and it really helped me," said Bone. "We'll get news clippings from former students about events they had at home and how it helped them."
About half the 100 instructors aren't from the Institute. They include Eddie Enright, a retired Chicago firefighter. While all the exercises are important, he says there's leadership required, and the college has brought in 3 military officers to teach courses.
"There's a strong reality of the miiltary in fire service," said Enright. "The leadership, the structure. The tradition, the duty, the pride. And we get that correlation and try to get people the reality - you know, the importance of leadership. And how do you get people in the military - how do you get them to cross the perimeter, and follow you, and get that trust in fate. Same in the fire service."
Instructors say they're still hoping to add structures for demonstrations in code enforcement. And the U of I is securing new land so it can conduct drills with flammable liquid burns, in an where they won't disturb nearby residents and businesses. Bone says while local budgets have really impacted hiring in local fire departments, he says state finances haven't hurt the fire institute.
A free open house and demonstration runs from 7-30 to 9 Friday night at the Institute, located at 11 Gerty Drive in Champaign.
Excavation work continues at the site that once housed a manufactured gas plant in Champaign.
Ameren Illinois is working on the corner of 5th and Hill Streets to clear soil that is suspected of having traces of the pollutant coal tar. Most of the work to remove the soil has taken place underneath a large protective tent, but on Thursday workers dug about three feet of dirt outside of the tent.
That sparked concerns from the health care advocacy group, Champaign County Health Care Consumers. The group said a monitoring device that checks for dangerous chemicals went off, raising the possibility that nearby communities might be at risk.
"The vapors and the dust that comes up from this type of excavation are highly toxic and this is a highly irresponsible activity to do," the group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said.
But Ameren spokesperson Leigh Morris dismissed that claim, saying no air monitoring equipment recorded anything that would have raised health or safety concerns. Morris said both Ameren and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency were checking the excavation area Thursday with air monitoring equipment, which did not identify any red flags.
"There was never any type of a health concern," Morris explained. "There was some dust. The dust was caused from gravel. We did receive one complaint about that, and we watered the gravel down to end the dust problem."
The excavation happened on the edge of a gate, near two buildings used by the Center for Women in Transition. Site supervisor Jacob Blanton said there was no way the tent could have been moved with nearby power lines and a narrow alley in the way.
Morris said some additional digging outside of the protective tent will likely be performed in July.
Back in April, Champaign agreed to plug a pipe suspected of having dangerous chemicals near the Boneyard Creek, which extends to the site where the gas plant once stood. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has said there is no evidence to suggest coal tar has made its way from the plant into the pipeline.
The political corruption case against ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is now in the hands of jurors again.
For the second time, a jury will try to reach a verdict on corruption charges. They include allegations that Blagojevich sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat and tried to shake down executives by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses.
Jurors heard the prosecution describe Blagojevich as an audacious schemer who lied to their faces on the witness stand. The defense countered that the government only showed that Blagojevich talks a lot.
"He didn't get a dime, a nickel, a penny . . . nothing," defense attorney Aaron Goldstein shouted just feet from the jury box. Turning to point at Blagojevich, Goldstein added that the trial "isn't about anything but nothing."
At one point during Goldstein's more than two-hour closing, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, began to sob on a courtroom bench, wiping tears from her cheek.
Pacing the crowded courtroom and sometimes pounding his fist on a lectern, Goldstein echoed what Blagojevich said during seven days on the stand - that his conversations captured on FBI wiretap recordings were mere brainstorming.
"You heard a man thinking out loud, on and on and on," he said. "He likes to talk, and he does talk, and that's him. And that's all you heard."
"They want you to believe his talk is a crime - it's not," Goldstein added, casting a look at three prosecutors sitting nearby.
Lead prosecutor Reid Schar balked at that argument, telling jurors in his rebuttal - the last word to jurors - that Blagojevich went way beyond talk.
"He made decisions over and over, and took actions over and over," he said.
He also mocked Blagojevich for testifying that he didn't mean his apparent comments on wiretaps about pressuring businessmen for cash or other favors.
"There's one person, this guy," Schar said, indicating Blagojevich, "whose words don't mean what they mean."
Blagojevich, 54, is accused of seeking to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat and trying to shake down executives by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses.
Blagojevich did not take the stand in his first trial last year, which ended with a hung jury. That panel agreed on just a single count - that he lied to the FBI about how involved he was in fundraising as governor.
Goldstein also took issue with prosecutors likening Blagojevich to a corrupt traffic cop tapping on drivers' windows to demand bribes to rip up speeding tickets.
"The hypothetical makes no sense," he said. A police officer can't ever ask for cash, but "a politician has a right to ask for campaign contributions."
Jurors sat rapt as Goldstein whispered, yelled and moved around the room, but appeared to take fewer notes compared to when the prosecutor spoke.
Blagojevich appeared glum as a prosecutor spoke, picking constantly at his fingernails. He perked up and nodded in agreement at his own attorney.
As he entered the courthouse earlier, a fan shouted at him, "I love you." Blagojevich beamed and walked over to give her a kiss on the cheek. He joked with an aspiring attorney nearby, "I'm going to hire you for my next case."
Goldstein applauded Blagojevich for testifying, saying "it took courage to walk up there" to the witness stand.
"A man charged does not have to prove a thing," Goldstein said. "That man did not have to go up there, did not have to testify."
In contrast, he said many of the government witnesses had agreed to testify under the threat of prosecution or longer prison sentences.
For her part, prosecutor Carrie Hamilton tried to assume the role of professor and jurors' best friend - speaking in simple terms as she went through each charge and clicking on a mouse to display explanatory charts, complete with bullet points and arrows.
Hamilton said that despite Blagojevich's denials, the evidence - including the FBI recordings - proves he used his power as governor to benefit himself.
"What he is saying to you now is not borne out anywhere on the recordings that you have," Hamilton said, urging jurors to listen to the wiretaps.
"There's one person in the middle of it - the defendant," she said, pointing at Blagojevich. "What you hear is a sophisticated man ... trying to get things for himself."
Hamilton told jurors Blagojevich could remember intricate details of his life but not whether he did or didn't do something related to an alleged scheme.
"He suddenly has amnesia on things that hurt him," she said.
After jurors at the first trial said prosecutors' case was too hard to follow, they sharply streamlined it. Prosecutors called about 15 witnesses this time - about half the number from last time. They also asked them fewer questions and rarely strayed onto topics not directly related to the charges.